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.