Sunday, April 18, 2010

Red Faction: Guerilla - Review

Red Faction: Guerilla gives players few options: drive around, shoot guys, destroy stuff. Though this sounds limiting, it executes its core concepts well and gives player tools to do the job, and generally leaves the details up to us.

The game has you destroying bases and completing missions around the surface of Mars in order to increase your faction influence over an area. Blow up buildings, save hostages, drop a progress bar or two, and suddenly you've unlocked the next plot point. You can choose to play these progression missions, or continue to wreak havoc on the poor, unfortunante, totalitarian, well armed, persistent Earth Defense Force at your leisure.

Thankfully, you're not always alone.

Unfortunately, these AI controlled helpers can sometimes do more harm than good. Certain missions assign you a few these NPC's who ride along with you and help you through combat. When these helpers don't work is when they appear as generic "reinforcements" in the game world, apart from specific objectives. These allies "help", but also crowd the player incessantly, often ending up under your bumper, and never mount up alongside you.

The missions themselves give you plenty of choice in your courses of action, failure can cause some frustration. Usually starting some distance away, you spend plenty of time driving, repeatedly if you have to re-try. If you forget to reinitialize the mission after failing, you can waste time going towards objectives you've forgotten to re-start. Additionally, the unobtrusive health bar sometimes leaves you more drained than you realize after firefights, and it's not hard to die suddenly from a stray bridge collapsing on your head. The lack of consistent mid-mission checkpoints is another annoyance, you're not always sure how far back you'll be set, and I don't recall checkpoints at all outside of the major "story" missions, though those are also inconsistent in their spacing.

Complaints aside, the core of the gameplay is well implemented, despite it's overall lack of variation in objectives. Though a "shooter", driving makes up a large chunk of content, though getting past the Martian, slightly floaty learning curve isn't much trouble. Weapons are variants on "exploding" and "shooting", topped off with a good heap of sledge to the face. There's enough weapon variety to let you suit combat to your preferences (I enjoyed a mid range nano-rifle + rocket launcher combo). A highlight is the demolition physics engine, hammering away beams to bring a warehouse collapsing down on top of enemies exemplifies how the improvisational game play shines.

The story is fairly straightforward, just enough to point you at the next installation to raze, and the environments are all variants on "rocky, industrial" landscapes, but the open world and solid mayhem gel nicely, despite the occasional frustration. Red Faction Guerilla is a good example of a game whose novel and well implemented design principles elevate it away from being just another unremarkable action title, ending up with a fairly memorable, personalized, and explosive, gameplay experience.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Brütal Legend - Review

The demo sold me on this game. The quality of presentation was through the roof and the gameplay seemed like solid brawling and driving fun. When reviews came out it became apparent that most of the core of this game has more to do with a real time strategy title than an open world adventure. A far cry to be sure from the singular focus the demo had on learning a few simple combos and bashing your way through waves of enemies, then careening through destroyed landscapes in a demonic hot rod. The complete shift in expectations was jarring, and the demo could've shed more light on gameplay ahead.

Despite this surprising turn, Brütal Legend managed to be one awesome gaming experience. Tim Schafer and his crew at Double Fine have created a world here that owes itself to many aspects of heavy metal culture, yet always comes across as a faithful homage rather than baseless parody. It makes no apologies for it's influences, and this shines through in the extensive metal soundtrack, and artwork which wouldn't feel out of place on a Hammerfall album cover, or as a setting in a Heavy Metal film. This world would likely work just as well in an animated series or film.

The game world is large, and has to be to fit in all the army building and warring you'll be doing. The scope of the game increases steadily, from playing campaigns that amount to club shows in scale all the way up to full sized jam packed arena venues. This metaphor comes from the game itself, using concert stages and merch booths in place of town halls and gold mines.

All of this would seem like a good bit of utter nonsense, if the characters and world that the developers created here didn't satisfy, underneath it all. The small cast is fairly diverse in character, and leading man Jack Black lends great humour and a touch of humility to the role of Eddie Riggs, the player character. The storyline offers a few twists and turns throughout, and cuts a few deep glimpses into the fairly rich mythology of this expansive setting. Most flaws in the gameplay are balanced out by the simple pleasures the game offers, whether driving around listening to music while searching for hidden items and power-ups throughout the larger than life landscapes, or calling upon increasingly insane power-up guitar solos to help in the larger battles.

I do think you'd need a certain appreciation for the music and artistic influences present here to really get into this game, as well as a willingness to power through some fairly rough gameplay sections, as no single play mechanic would win any awards without the rest of the package to prop it up. Somehow it all comes together into such an inspired and unique work that I couldn't help but love every minute of it, though the strategy focused gameplay in the multiplayer mode didn't have me quite as hooked as the main adventure.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Prince of Persia

Decision making is an integral part of any gaming experience. In a game of chess, I could choose to advance every piece into the center of the board carelessly, and be readily checkmated by most foes. Or I could take great care in each move I make, plan ahead, and with skill and patience, prevail. Even the worst chess opponent could defeat a Grandmaster if he chose to make careless moves. Most videogames are designed to be won by players, yet every gamer is intimately familiar with the Game Over screen. Prince of Persia seems to leave this all behind.

The game is presented as a semi open world, with handfuls of areas to traverse in whatever order we want. Branching as these paths may seem, even they only offer the illusion of choice. All levels must be played eventually, to complete the game, in the end it doesn't really matter how you do it.

This system has flattened the usual difficulty curve a game presents to a player, and this creates little tension over time. There is no need to wait until you've gained enough experience to tackle a harder level, or no forging ahead through the tough stuff early for a more difficult and rewarding experience. Though some seemingly arbitrary pathways are blocked until certain points in the story, it's only a matter of time before it is all accessible. The story moves along independently of your actions as you progress, and your route becomes largely irrelevant.

More apparent is the fact that there simply is no way to lose. Any series of levels could make for a fun experience, but when even the option of failure is removed entirely, the gameplay is no longer an incentive to the player. No matter what mistakes you make, Elika magically saves you almost instantly, with only mild setbacks. If you are nearly run through by a boss, she props you back up. If you jump repeatedly headlong into chasms, she repeatedly pulls you to solid ground. Even if she is immobilized by an enemy, your failure can be her key to salvation, as she flies free to once again remove you from harms way. You never see that Game Over screen, and you are never placed in checkmate. It's as if every move you attempt the computer reminds you 'Hey, I can capture that piece and win, you need to do something else here.' You're barely playing a game at this point.

Though all of this, it is still possible to enjoy yourself with Prince of Persia. The story is unwoven slowly as we take in complex and breathtaking environments. Elika and "the Prince" are presented building a relationship to an extent rarely attempted in video games, and the script is passable amongst contemporaries. Though varied in its overall successes as a work of fiction, it's excision of such vital gameplay components often leaves it feeling more like an animated film that just really needs your attention.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

World of Goo

It's hard to gauge how much my adoration of the prototype game Tower of Goo influenced my opinion of this title. I spent quite a while with Tower, though it offered few challenges it was quite exceptional. Not just the base mechanic of sticking Goo Balls together to create structures, which remains unchanged but expanded on in World, but the style and whimsical presentation of that game stuck with me. I was afraid in its elaboration, World of Goo would lose part of what made Tower so fresh.

World takes such a simple premise and pushes it towards greatness. The manipulation of the Goo Balls to create, experiment, and ultimately reach a goal is always a rewarding experience. Stacking Goo vertically up a chasm in an ever-climbing series of trusses to reach a pipe becomes more fun than you might expect.

The subtle physics of the world create a chaotic and ever changing playfield, where best laid plans are often met with tumbling disaster. You're often sent back to the drawing board to re-imagine your devices, and work out a new solution. The game sets completionist "OCD" goals for each stage, which are optional and oh so devious to accomplish. There is also great variety in the challenges which keeps the game interesting from start to end.

As fun as the gameplay mechanics of World of Goo are, part of the reward for playing this game comes from the World itself. What could easily have been constructed as an entirely abstract and flavorless puzzle exercise has been greatly fleshed out in every direction, which sort of sounds gross. The music is melodramatic and engaging, a metronome to keep your hand moving and your mind thinking towards a solution. Each Goo ball makes a satisfyingly sticky squeak to confirm your placements, or a horrifying squish if you drop a Goo ball into a death trap. Climbing and stretching across windswept countrysides, deep ravines, or even fields of bones, these Goo Balls become your heroes on this journey. Readable signs throughout the journey offer hints and humourous narrative feedback as you progress through the story of the World of Goo Corporation, the entity which is the driving force behind story and cutscenes. The world itself goes through many changes from stage to stage, and the monumental conclusion, however you read into it, is a moment to relish. The game is quite epic for a puzzle title.

The cohesiveness of the gameplay and the fantastic stylings of World of Goo all contribute to a very highly recommended play experience which far surpasses, yet honors, the simple Tower of Goo it succeeds. The Wii version offers multiplayer which can lead to fun brainstorming, or arguing over solutions. Both the PC and Wii version have a few interface issues, but nothing to consider game breaking in either case, though the PC offers up a better presentation of worldwide high scores in the tower building meta-game and slightly sharper visuals, the Wii displaying it's resolute shortcomings.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Force Unleashed - Review

It somehow always feels like a long time since we've had a good Star Wars game, though looking back always seems to tell me otherwise. I have fond memories of plenty of titles, from Shadows of the Empire to Rogue Squadron to Dark Forces, and way back to Empire Strikes Back on the Atari. The Star Wars series has never slacked off, yet each entry seems to hold the promise of being "the" definitive great Star Wars game. And most are, for their time.

This game is the story of Darth Vader's secret apprentice. You complete missions for the Dark Lord, and take part in the history of the rebellion against the empire. The story is pure Star Wars, from characters to locations it has the feel of the classic trilogy, standing out against much of the nonsense that passes as Star Wars of late. As a Star Wars fan there is much to love.

The Force is a powerful ally to any up and coming Dark Lord and is brought to the forefront in this game, though the real star of this show is the environment itself. Many objects react realistically, metal bends and twists to your characters dark will, TIE's are plucked out of the air mid flight and destroyed, characters desperately grab at railings and each other before getting sucked into vacuum as you blast the contents of a room through a window. Though it may bind us all together, here The Force can wondrously tear everything apart.

What holds this title back is when the developers forget about the interesting systems they've put into place to make this game so special. The thrilling opening levels make way for a fairly run of the mill selection later on. One disappointing boss fight takes place in a pit with giant, sharp looking bones and debris lying all around. You can't manipulate any of these items and many of your moves don't hurt the boss at all. The whole fight plays out counter-intuitively to what you may have come to expect, and later environments in general feel lacking in the interactive elements that sell this game so well at the outset.

Basic enemies continually gain new armor and weapons that counter your specific powers, effectively negating your progress against them. The more skills you learn, the less you can use against any given foe. Combat reduces to button mashing a series of vaguely similar combos, avoiding relentless enemy fire that can get you stuck in the occasional fall-down loop, resulting in awkward player deaths. These gameplay inconsistencies and recurring bugs and control issues are glaring against the detailed production value and technology behind the rest of the game.

I don't recall Luke Skywalker ever having to fight force-resistant-armor wearing laser sniper stormtroopers, and it shows a lack of imagination in the later encounters by simply stacking the deck against the player in every way possible. It often closes you out where you should feel the game opening up.

Through its problems The Force Unleashed does occasionally deliver on its premise and should still be worth a look for series fans and less discerning action gamers, it's proud early moments of conceptual originality and overall artistic polish manage to keep this game from being a complete missed opportunity.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Bioshock - Review

The music and sound is really the first thing that hit me while starting up Bioshock. Old record players scratch out vintage tunes, and every creak and groan of the underwater city of Rapture is heard, be they from the leaky pipes or unstable inhabitants. You could enjoy this game blindfolded, the whole game unravelling like a radio drama. The banter between the violent Splicers, the found dialog recordings, and the voices of Andrew Ryan and your guide, Atlas, leading you through this underwater aural paradise.

Exploring Rapture is like a sick dream come to life, and is thankfully kept from becominga nightmare to play.

The handy map and pointer system assures you that no matter how far you go off your path, it's always easy to get back on, so you're free to explore every nook and cranny to your hearts content. You'll never get frustrated in that regard, and you're usually rewarded for unearthing each little pocket of secrets, from audio diaries to disturbing scenes, bodies frozen in a meat locker. It's hard not to take a bit of interest, the way it all unfolds little by little. If someone were to ask you "what is this game about" early on, all you could say would be "I have no idea...but it looks like we missed one hell of a party". That feeling of action just past is ever prevalent throughout the game, you're exploring a world that up until very recently still had a thriving population. You still encounter a few of the lost souls deep within it all, but there is a certain sadness to it all, Andrew Ryans fantasy become reality become hell on earth, below the waves. And you buy into every second of it, so long as you awknowledge the games limits and play to it's stengths.

The basic shooter gameplay feels slightly repetitive at times, due to a lack of variation in enemy types. The various ammo types and plasmids help make up for this lack of variety by giving you plenty of options for enemy disposal. Using the Rapture security systems to your advantage is another option which I excercised often, and found gratifying. Having a horde of splicers chased down by sentry bots acting on your side can turn the tables for the better, while also just being alot of fun to see play out. The Big Daddy fights which make up a major portion of the plot and moral center of the game with their Litte Sister dynamic are tougher, but even then you have plenty of options. You can even turn these lumbering behemoths against your enemies as well, given the right power up options and depending on how you want to play the game. The interactions that happen as a room full of adversary all turn in your favor, or are all destroyed with your elemental wrath as you make your way to the narratively satisfying endgame make for an altogether interesting trip through Rapture.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Army of Two - Review

When characters aren't insulting each other in Army of Two, the game is insulting the player with it’s dialog. The plot is predictable, from the tired twists to the entirely obvious final level encounters. The game takes few narrative chances though seems to consider itself “edgy” for dealing in real world scenarios. In this game world 9/11 actually happened, and in between insults and non sequitur the game tables topics of foreign relations and military privatization, though fails to come off as relevant or insightful.

Unless you're seriously into the idea of gun porn and "pimping" out weapons with gold and diamonds and fratboy humour you’ll gloss right over the presentation and focus on the gameplay. Taking many cues from Gears of War, Army of Two includes a mostly excellent and automated cover system. The headlining “Aggro” feature of this two man experience is somewhat engaging as long as both players pay attention to and utilize it. When fully Aggro’d you can go into a momentary damage dealing slow moving enemy attention grabbing rage while your partner enters a total stealth state. Shades of these two extremes present themselves while “Aggro” and attention hovers between characters. Having one player go guns blazing while the other sneaks around with a silenced pistol allows this system to present itself to its fullest.

Utilization of Aggro is forced on the players by a few unfortunate gameplay elements. Enemies can target you from behind total cover. Without your partner drawing Aggro away you’re always a target. Camera issues become a problem in close combat. There is a melee attack option which allows for some close quarters kills, though this is somewhat broken since it uses your primary fire button. If you aren’t precisely close enough or facing the wrong way you’ll end up firing past the head of your enemy while they enact their own melee attack and likely incapacitate you.

The other co-op features aside from the Aggro system include dragging downed teammates to cover to perform medic duties, parachuting into missions strapped together, boosting each other up walls, a 360 degree “back to back” shooting gallery mode which occurs automatically at sometimes awkward locations each mission, and a useless system of high fives and head smacks for character building. The healing/dragging mechanic being is a highlight which incentivizes cooperation and forces players to consider each other while making decisions, lest you both die and restart from a checkpoint.

I can recommend this game to shooter fans, with a few reservations. The weapon and powerup system has a bit of depth and should provide some nice options and replay. It’s best to pay little attention to the story while you enjoy some of the better action set pieces, though the campaign is short. While this game works best with a friend, the partner AI is competent and the game can be enjoyed alone. There is also an online versus mode which requires an EA account, and was therefore completely ignored.

Still Not Perfect*

I'm retooling P* (again) starting today. The plan is as such: game and likely movie reviews and impressions, 500 words or so each. Trying to keep it short to avoid rants, overly technical discussion, history etcetera if I can help it (not likely). Just how it is and whyI dis/like it.

It'll probably take a few posts for me to get into things and fiddle with the look of this site/work out hosting issues. Good luck with all this.

I just noticed the "Edit Post" window for the blog tool is a fixed size. Maybe instead of looking for 500 words I'll just try and keep each post from filling up the text entry box. Easier than writing and editing in an outside program and copypasting anyways.