Sunday, 25 August 2013

Game Review - State of Decay (XBox Live Arcade)

"Don't drop that match!" *BOOM*

Not again. Not ANOTHER zombie game.

Once there were Mascot Platformers, desperately imitating Sonic as they ran to the right across our screens by the hundreds. Years later Tomb Raider's wake left the entire video game industry cramming in as many attractive females as possible into the limelight. Then in lieu of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare's ludicrous popularity the...modern warfare aesthetic has dominated gaming for years. The zombie horror sub-genre in gaming has been shambling along, implacable and unfettered for nearly two decades now, after the surprise hit of Capcom's Resident Evil, and it's long-term popularity in the homes of gamers is probably partly responsible for the way zombies have become ubiquitous in practically every other medium over the last ten years. You can't swing a cricket bat these days without hitting a film, book, comic or tv series that involves the walking dead, or The Walking Dead for that matter.

Some trends refuse to lay down and die.

So on XBox Live Arcade, a veritable cesspit of popularly-themed shovelware, yet ANOTHER zombie-themed game has emerged. What could possibly make State of Decay worth your time, even if you're as burned out on the entire concept of zombies as I am? Thankfully, quite a lot as it turns out.

State of Decay is an open world survival game set shortly after the cadavers rise and society collapses. Beginning in a holiday camp somewhere in North America, you soon journey about the modestly sized map in your quest to survive the post-societal world. In many ways it's very reminiscent of Capcom's Dead Rising games in the way that you make your way about the wide open environment, raiding shops and rescuing survivors from various plights so that you might earn their trust. The main draw with SoD is that you have to recruit, manage and protect your own cadre of survivors, with many events in the game world occurring on a semi-random, procedural basis, so that different playthroughs can turn out very differently.

A rare encounter with the legendary Dire Gazebo.

Hefty promises have been made of this system throughout the game's development, and it's impressive that the game's small development studio have managed to deliver on many of them. The game starts slow with only two playable characters, and gently wiens you into the mechanics of killing zombies, exploring areas and foraging for resources, and only after around half an hour of play do you get given the responsibility of guiding your own tribe from a comfortably appointed little base. From here things open up: the survivors you have need the bare essentials to survive, so you have to explore the surrounding area for food, medicine and equipment to keep everyone alive, then carry them back home. While the roles of the survivors are automatically delegated, you still need to tell them what they should build in the finite predesignated areas of the base with your finite construction materials. Will you set up a triage tent to help fight off disease and heal up the player characters who you've managed to get maimed, or a green house to set up a steady food supply? It's light on strategy, but your choices are simple to instigate and have understandable effects on the way your campaign plays out, so it's very approachable for the players who might shy away from the likes of XCOM.

Not only that, but you’ll also have survivors getting into arguments, having tantrums and raising a kerfuffle at your Home base if their personalities clash with each other, so either you’ll have to seek out a recruit with the randomly occurring “counsellor” trait, or intervene to keep people from leaving for good. It can feel at times like you're babysitting a group of adults, but such are the chains of commanding.

Social drama? With my zombies?!

In fact the system of running an organisation in such a way has been showing up in quite a few games lately, notably Assassin’s Creed and Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker, but SoD has a few aspects which enhance the feeling that you’re part of a greater group. For example there is a fatigue system that means if you use a single character for a long period of time, they will start to suffer from exhaustion. While you can temporarily buff a character's stamina with caffeine or narcotics to stay awake, it means you eventually have to put them to bed and defer to another playable character. The game also has a system of Permanent Death in place, where any character whose health drops to zero in decisively dead for the rest of the playthrough. It can be legitimately heart-wrenching when you get careless and have a high level character you've played as for over ten hours get messily ripped to shreds, and knowing that you'll have to soldier on without them. This leads you to become more protective of your characters, and means no single character is favoured to perform superhuman feats of skill and insomnia for days on end like Ezio or Big Boss, and feels reminiscent of older games of this ilk, like Midwinter on the Amiga.

Now I get to feel really old.

While there are main campaign quests to deal with and some more detailed interactions with other factions to instigate, the game also has simple missions pop up almost constantly: Hunting for special undead, rescuing beleaguered survivors in various ways, or finding specific items to help your construction projects, these kinds of errands are thrown up for you to deal with every in game day or so. While in time they can be a bit repetitive, the general game mechanics are gratifying enough that you’ll glean much glee from making the dying world a better place, one shattered skull at a time.

The combat is simple but effective. Melee weapons are swung, instant killing blows can be made on prone or unaware enemies, and the dodge button is very generous with letting you slip past hungry mouths and grasping hands. The main point where it mechanically differs from Dead Rising and feels a little like Dark Souls is in it’s Stamina system, seeing as every strenuous exertion will bring your character closer to outright exhaustion and complete helplessness. While you might want to go in swinging your sledge hammer like a feather duster into a large horde right out of a dead sprint, it probably won’t end well for you unless you’ve taken the precaution of getting dosed up on amphetamines first. On the flip side, the only way to level up your stamina stats is to exert yourself, so sprinting yourself to exhaustion despite how vulnerable it makes you becomes a risk/reward mechanic in and of itself. In the same way, ammo might be precious, but the only way you’re going to improve a character’s abilities as a marksmen is by shooting zombies, so the choice to horde your bullets and remain untalented with firearms or expend your ammo to become more proficient is yours to make.

There’s a very impressive range of weapons, tools and items to acquire throughout the game, even if they only differ slightly from eachother. It’s quite possible to make your way through the campaign entirely and never acquire a scoped rifle, katana, thermite grenade or plentiful other goodies that are tucked away in obscure locations and random loot drops, but you won’t feel too bad as you’ll probably score your fair share of rotary grenade launchers and cavalry sabres before endgame.

Exploration of the world isn't only incentivised by acquiring rare loot or resource stockpiles; the map has some surprisingly nice details and obscure areas to explore. Among the desolation you'll occasionally find ruined plane fuselages, unique furniture or possessions in certain houses, and the occasional brief text document that will raise a smirk or a grimace. The gamesis never by any means a graphical powerhouse, but it's clear that the developers wanted to make the world feel like more than a typical post-apocalyptic backdrop.

One really criminal part of the combat gameplay and equipment system is how throwing weapons are handled. When equipped, a press of the Use button sends one flying toward the centre of the screen, with no arc indicator or ability to cook grenades. As you can imagine, this feels incredibly awkward, Especially seeing as molotovs are easily the most effective tool for dealing with most of the threats the game throws at you. It doesn’t seem like an intentional design conceit, and instead just appears to be an feature they didn’t fully iron out. That said, it’s very pleasing to lure a horde into a bottleneck and incinerating them all at once with well placed incendiary.

“I name you Bernie.”

Plot events trigger gradually as your community thrives, with your resident Woman With A Radio chiming in with messages she’s intercepted from other survivors and factions that wish to make themselves known, and many of their requests are actually skippable. Winning favour with other factions or otherwise endeavouring to keep them around does have it’s benefits however, seeing as they offer unique services that you can call in later at your discretion. You might not like one particular group of NPCs, but forsake them and you might have to go without being able to call in an armed swat team for backup or request an artillery strike for the rest of the game.

On the other hand, you can't do anything to directly antagonize other human factions, and neither can they do so to you. There is no competition over resources or aggressive antagonism with the other groups, and this seems more than a bit incongruous when characters allude to bandits robbing people, and an entire faction is committed to protecting people from this threat that simply does not exist in the game world.

The main thrust of the story however lies in your community, and one of the most important events in the game comes when you have to choose a new location to call Home. It presents probably the most interesting choice in the game, as there dozens of different locales to choose from, each with their own distinct advantages and disadvantages. It’s a shame then that the brevity of the game means this choice only really has to be made once, but subsequent play throughs and experimentation with Home sites are actually fun and add significantly to the game’s longevity.

Another important feature is how transport functions. There is no quick travel, and while cars are initially plentiful there is only a limited amount in the game world, and when they’re gone they’re gone. They can only be repaired if you build a Workshop, and even then the repair process is incredibly slow. So while every car has unlimited fuel you have to treat them with a great deal more care than you would in any other open world game if you don’t want to end up walking everywhere.

The universal currency of the game is "Influence", a numbered value that allows you to order special actions, prompt new construction projects or take equipment from stockpiles. It decreases as you perform said actions and increases as you accomplish missions, and while it's an interesting approach to how a money equivalent could work based on social standing after the economy collapses, it's still a little strange. Influence isn't owned by individual characters, and instead shared around the community via their omniscient hive mind conciousness, i.e. You. You can accomplish three missions in a row as Marcus, have him get some much deserved sleep, then have Elliot spend his sleeping friend's Influence to set up an Outpost. Your Influence works among communities you've never visited before and have no realistic way of knowing who you are or why they should let you help yourself to their Ibuprofen hoard.

Also, Influence is accrued more quickly by characters with a Leadership talent, and seeing as the first character you portray has this skill, it can lead to the player getting a massive amount of Influence early on in the game, and never particularly feeling the pinch from having less Influence than they need at any given time.

Characters have different personality descriptions and traits based on their lives and careers prior to the zombie outbreak, and these confer various effects upon the characters. Characters who have a profile that mentions they did physical activities recreationally will have better stamina for example, or might level up their fighting abilities more quickly than a librarian. Some might even have natural disadvantages, such as having a bum knee that makes it impossible for them to regenerate stamina while crouching. It's a nice idea that borrows from the Feats and Backgrounds mechanics you can find in many tabletop role playing games, but most of the differences are passive in nature, and are unlikely to hugely influence your playstyle.

Every playstyle leads to excessive violence.

It's more than possible to go through the entire game without even touching on the character customization system. While earning levels in Fighting might give you the ability to unlock a counter attack or unique kick for laying out zombies, the game doesn't intrusively prompt you to make a choice, and because of the game's surprisingly forgiving mechanics you might find yourself never needing to do so. If you do however, there are builds to be developed that allow characters to search buildings quickly without making a sound, or cleave through multiple hordes of foes without taking a single hit. It's gratifying, but without the missions increasing in difficulty to compensate for a high level character's prowess, it can cheapen the overall experience.

This is probably the biggest flaw the game has: Lack of difficulty. While due to the procedural nature of how the game world develops through your playthrough you might encounter erratic shifts in difficulty from play session to play session, on the whole the experience won't push you too far. Zombie hordes will never exceed ten at a time, very few missions will force you to marathon tasks for long periods without the chance to resupply, and only the very hardiest of the Special Zombies will put up a substantial fight. Most criminal of all is the game's lack of variable difficulty settings (Another element that makes the game similar to Assassin's Creed and Peace Walker); the game is begging for a mode where a single zombie bite is lethal or infectious, or where wounds take days to heal instead of seconds, but sadly only the standard level of challenge is available to you. If State of Decay had the same sense of scarcity, urgency and appallingly unfair random cruelty as Tokyo Jungle, it'd be practically perfect.

Say what you will about The Last of Us, it does have multiple difficulty settings.

It's also got some downright comical glitches, even months after it's release. Characters, cars and creatures clip through walls and scenery with worrying frequency. The vehicle physics sometimes cause bizarre gravitational phenomena if you take a jump at a funny angle.Sometimes a house might be impossible to clear until you realise that a zombie spawned in the floor, and his head is roaming the corridors seeking toes to nibble.

Yet in the end, State of Decay is still a great game. Taken on it's own merits without expectations, there's a cheap indie game here which does right what plenty of full priced games fail to do; it gives the player a sense of atmosphere, as if they were living in the game world and taking real agency in controlling the fates of it's characters. Unlike so many ambitious projects that collapse in development hell or crash and burn on release, SoD delivers an entertaining experience that players of any skill level can glean enjoyment from, and even return to months after completion for a new campaign and a lot of fun. Plus if the PC version is found to be easily moddable, this game is begging for a Dead Rising style Overtime Mode.

Undead Labs are a development team to keep an eye on. If you were cheated by Infestation: Survivor Stories, felt that The Last of Us was too linear or you’re starting to sour on zombies all together, State of Decay might just be the medicine you need. At £15 it’s a steal.

Cheaper Options: Dead Rising (1&2), Tokyo Jungle

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Neverdead (PS3) - Quick Game Review

Elation Through Mutilation

Though savagely panned by critics and players alike, I feel that Neverdead has been underserved by the gaming public. Though it has it's flaws, it's brevity, decent graphics and darkly hilarious script make it an ideal rental for any player looking for a more classical shoot'em up with a few modern creature comforts. It's the sort of game that rental services are ideal for.

Don't let it's sombre, realistic style mislead you. 

Neverdead's core mechanic is the protagonist's indestructibility, as Bryce Boltzmann can be dismembered but can reassemble his body by rolling his head into lost limbs ala Katamari Damachi. It's a refreshing take on the rebounding health systems which we're all used to, and though it might be frustrating at times it underpins Bryce's painful existence as a reluctant immortal. Thankfully the dodging system is fairly solid, so if you are vigilant you can go quite awhile without loss of life and limb.

Just try not to mislay your torso.

The gameplay is evocative of the Midway action series The Suffering, but with an additional emphasis on sword as well as gunplay. There is also an impressive amount of scenery deformation, and the game even encourages you to destroy architecture to bring it down on enemies. It also demonstrates Bryce's personality as a gameplay dynamic, showing his casual disregard for property as his long life has desensitized him.

There is an RPG system in place with a wide gamut of skills to choose from, and gives the player a chance to find their own method of play that suits them. Yet the moment-to-moment gameplay may surprise you with it's intricacies too; my favourite trick is to pull off my arm and throw it at explosive barrels, luring hungry monsters to them before opening fire and destroying the whole horde with ease.

Yes, that demon has cherub statues embedded in it's arm.

The other appeal of Neverdead lies in it's script. While the plot is intentionally cliche and full of elements familiar to any fan of Devil May Cry or God Hand, the wry banter between protagonists and Bryce's hobo-with-superpowers mentality is a real treat. There's even some genuine pathos to be found in Bryce's backstory and the secret to his immortality, though it's all played up for cheese as much as possible. The game's developers at Rebellion are the guys who make 2000AD's games and it shows. If you have a taste for ultraviolence, bawdy humour and farce, I dare say you'll get a kick out of Neverdead.

Naturally the game has it's flaws. The game's mechanics are often more frustrating than challenging, the mutilation system might grate for some people, and I've heard that some people can't get comfortable with the aiming system. Naturally describing gameplay nuances is one the hardest things someone can do with our limited lexicons, but with respect I think that most people won't find it hard to get to grips with.

The biggest problem is a lack of gameplay diversity; it can take hours for new enemies to be introduced, and other than a few stand out set pieces, most scenarios are simply a matter of finding the enemy spawn point and thrashing it with your sword until it goes away. The boss fights tend to be fairly typical affairs, apart from one which makes good use of the arm-ripping mechanic and another which is quite a fun homage to a boss from Metal Gear Solid 2. It even dares to have a few simple puzzles in it, which is stunning for a modern game in a market which has all but abandoned the concept of a good brain-teaser.

Or dunker.

And then of course there's the game length. The game is almost comically short, and can easily be polished off in less than seven hours, and other than some higher difficulty settings and new powers to unlock there's not much incentive to replay. While there is a multiplayer suite, it's entirely abandoned, which seems tragic but to be expected from an obscure title like this.

But this brevity just makes Neverdead a more solid rental. By all means don't buy Neverdead unless it really tickles you, but I think that if you approach the game with the right attitude it'll leave you smiling. I certainly enjoyed it more than the higher profile releases this year, such as Max Payne 3 or Resident Evil 6.

You want to know the really sad thing? This is probably the closest thing to a great Highlander game we'll ever see.

Cheaper, better options: Dead Space, The Suffering (Free on PC!)

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Resident Evil 6 Public Demo (360) First Impressions

Needs a feather duster.

As a long standing fan of the Resident Evil franchise I am of course a glutton for punishment. Shinji Mikami's medium-shifting franchise has not been one to except change gracefully, a fact easily seen by the period between the first game in '96 and Resident Evil '04 showing almost no experimentation or improvement with the existing formula. Granted the Outbreak multiplayer spin off was the exception, and pioneered a lot of the concepts that would be later improved upon by Valve's Left 4 Dead games. However, Capcom has a business acumen which thrives on finding anything of worth and cloning it endlessly until it has nothing left to give, so it took the diametric shift in style and gameplay Shinji marshalled in RE4 to give life back to the ailing series.

Sweet candy.

RE4 informed a new paradigm in game design, integrating RPG style mechanics with skill based gameplay which reinvented the Survival Horror genre. Although it did that by turning it into the Third Person Action game genre, forcing fans of gaming horror to take solace in the ailing Silent Hill franchise, and otherwise scuttle off to find sustenance in the Indie scene. Like I did, but I'm not bitter.

By the time that RE5 came out four years later, it was into a market that had already changed in the wake of it's predecessor. Visceral's Dead Space had taken the features RE4 innovated and made it's own action/horror identity, and hell, even lousy imitations and shovel-ware had clogged up the market, like Cold Fear. RE5 desperately needed something to make it stand out and compete with not only it's predecessor but also the upstarts clinging to its coat tails. Instead it shilled in co-operative multiplayer in a misinformed attempt to compete with other Triple-A games and doused the experience with plenty of uncomfortable and not at all intentional (honest) racism.

The Cannibal Holocaust game we never knew we wanted.

So RE6 has to pull off a hat trick:
  1. It needs to re-establish good faith with old fans.
  2. It needs to endear itself to "mainstream gamers" to compete with the likes of Gears of War and Call of Duty.
  3. It needs to infatuate new fans with the franchise to assure it's future.
And now we have a PUBLIC demo to gean whether or not Capcom can pull it off. Really, it's labelled PUBLIC demo. It's like they didn't even look at the file name before sticking it on XBLA.

This demo was actually available to people who bought Dragon's Dogma at retail early this year. Supposedly anyway, because the promotion code I got with the game didn't goddamned work, but as a consolation Dragon's Dogma was a much more entertaining game than RE5, for all it's flaws.

It's like Dark Souls without a broken controller!

Back on track though, the demo is trifurcated into episodes for each of the three plot threads running through the main campaign. Each are co-op based, the first with Leon and Helena, then Chris and Piers, and lastly Jake and Sherry.

6 feels mechanically different from 5. It's new melee system allows fist fighting to be initiated without first shooting an adversary, and has a surprisingly natural feel as one move flows into the next. Unfortunately it does place an emphasis on physically brawling with enemies, which might make sense when fighting mutant mercenaries but is more than a little incongruous when trying to survive an attack by a horse-sized skinless abomination. It's one thing to establish the player character as a badass, it's quite another to have them head lock a wretched monster covered in acidic sputum and knee it repeatedly in it's fanged maw.

Behold the new butch Leon!

The new emphasis on gun wielding enemies is not a comfortable one. The cover mechanics are amateur and uncomfortable, putting your character's head in the line of fire more often than not. Blessedly enemy gunfire tends to do no more than knock you over into the downed state, where you can scoot about on your buttocks or return fire quite comfortably. One bizarre omission is that there is no grenade warning system; in Chris's chapter many of the mercenaries chuck grenades, and no indicator comes up to warn you of their proximity. Thankfully though the problems with gun wielders is mitigated by the presence of J'avo mutations; when struck on certain parts of their bodies, random enemies will undergo a mutation that transforms them in creative and disgusting ways. Quickly battles that in other cover-based shooters would be run of the mill devolve into chaotic affairs, as enemies randomly mutate powers and new forms that force you from a comfortable firing position and drive you to adapt. As long as there are plenty more of these in the full game, and they require new strategies to combat, some of the battles should prove to be quite memorable.

Tremble before Big Man With Arm Thingy!

Other than the mutations though there are very few new mechanics to speak of. The new inventory system feels even more fiddly than the one in 5, perhaps to discourage dicking about with it in combat, but it's still counterintuitive and lacks that OCD-inducing charm of the grid-based one found in RE4. There are no puzzles to be found in the proceedings, which does not bode well for the final product, which has promised at least a few diversionary brain-teasers to keep the gameplay fresh. The soundtrack does seem to have regressed in quality from 5, with several of the themes seeming closer in composition to tracks found in the Playstation 1 games, and not the best ones either. Some of the Quick Time Events can seem excessive and out of place, whereas others which allow for more precise player interaction can be a lot more fun. The new medical system uses a segment system reminiscent of that found in Far Cry 2, where each character has multiple health cubes and if one is only partially drained it can be healed over time. To recover lost ones the player must pop one pill each, which looks just as derpy as it did in Max Payne 3. When downed altogether the player can defend themselves with whatever weapon in hand and get revived by a team mate as long as an enemy doesn't one-shot them while they're vulnerable, but thankfully that's unlikely to happen often.

Leon's stages are sculpted for maximum manipulative nostalgia.

On that subject though the demo is very easy, with health items already abundant in each character's inventory and the characters can shrug off injuries with ease, to say nothing of standing directly in the line of fire without being downed for minutes on end. Furthermore some of the characters, particularly Jake, are grotesquely overarmed for scenarios that can be survived with little more than a pistol and some ingenuity. It robs the demo af any sense of drama or urgency, and makes it feel even less like a tense action/horror and more like a puerile shooting gallery.

There are plent of flaws on display in this demo, and yet a few delicate wisps of decent ideas can be found glimmering in the mire. As long as the difficulty is a little more balanced and the cover system has a few tweaks, we might have a decent third person shooter here. We probably won't have a great Resident Evil game though.

Oh, and what do you want to bet that this never happens in RE6:

RE6 Trailer 

...just like this never happened in Resident Evil: Revelations on the 3DS:

RE:R Trailer

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes First Impressions

The Facts

The Speech

  • At PAX Prime 02/09/12, Hideo Kojima personally appeared to publicly discuss the Metal Gear series, both past games and the two upcoming titles Metal Gear Revengance and Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes.
  • Kojima surreptitiously stated that Raiden's lack of popularity was due to problems with the MGS2 project rather than the fault of the public.
  • Kojima described where the title Revengance came from. He stated that it was due to the aborted first attempt to make the game, the "Re-" prefix referring to Platinum retrying to make the game. He went on to state in his usual oddball idiom that it meant the team was taking REvenge on the previous project for failing, and that the game allows the player to take REvenge on the world by hacking it up with a katana.
  • Kojima's translator committed a bit of a faux-pas by stating that Hideo had made Okami, which was actually a product of Clover Studios and had nothing to do with him.
  • Kojima stated that he would like to make a main instalment in the Metal Gear franchise where the player can be The Boss (From Metal Gear Solid 3).
  • Kojima stated that if a Metal Gear film could be made, he favours Hugh Jackman and Tom Hardy for starring roles.
The Demo

  • Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes is made with the Fox Engine, an in-house developed game software that Kojima claims is adaptable enough to be used in other game genres, such as First Person Shooters, Third Person Shooters, On Rail and Open World games.
  • The GZ footage shown features 5 minutes of gameplay after a ten minute introduction cinematic, all in engine. The build is functional as there are two versions found online at the moment; one which has Big Boss discovered moments after taking control, and another where he infiltrates closer to the base before leaving by helicopter.
  • The plot depicted Big Boss, wearing the Fox Unit insignia, infiltrating an American base in Cuba to rescue the characters Chico (Who was implicitly revealed on camera) and Paz. Both are characters established in Metal Gear Solid Portable Ops 2.
  • The plot implies that the original Fox Unit has divided, and a splinter group called XOF now operates separately from the original unit.
  • The officer in authority at the base is a ghoulish man who uses a light emitting device to erase the XOF insignia from a helicopter and has his men remove their own markings with the insignia as they leave the base.
  • The cinematic makes use of the song Here's To You by Joan Baez, a pro-anarchist anthem. A cover of the song was the ending theme of MGS4.
  • The game will not have a team based co-operative system such as was found in the Portable Ops games, although Big Boss will be able to call in air support with coloured smoke grenades. The player can even choose what music the transport chopper will play when it arrives, defaulting to Wagner's Ride of The Valkyries.
  • Big Boss makes use of a holographic device to view the site map of the base he is infiltrating.
  • The game allows the player to hijack vehicles, a concept Kojima had alluded to in the 2003 E3 MGS3 Trailer.
Check 8.00 onward, but it's a great trailer in and of itself.

My Impressions

Ground Zeroes shouldn't come as a surprise at this point, as Kojima has claimed his last four or so games were his final projects before retirement only to turn around and announce a new one months later.

It's now clear why Portable Ops 2 has been rereleased as part of the HD Collection and XBLA; Kojima wants to expand the user base of fans who are familiar with those titles before Ground Zeroes arrives.

With most players unfamiliar with Portable Ops 2, the idea of a whole game taking place at that point of the canon, with it's wildly anachronistic technology on display in the mid seventies and apparently a whole narrative spun around two characters only native to that series, fans and newcomers alike may feel alienated.

The vehicular hijacking, air support system and apparently more open environments seem reminiscent of games like Mercenaries or Just Cause. Hopefully the spirit of the series as stealth games can be carried on in this manner, seeing as MGS4 essentially devolved into a Third Person Shooter at many points due to the design choices the developers took there.

The rain soaked environment was reminiscent of MGS2 and the cliffside infiltration was akin to Metal Gear 2. Nice nods to old work as always from Kojima.

The Fox Engine looks gorgeous, but of course the real test will be whether or not the impressive quality of animation will improve gameplay rather than simply being ephemeral eye candy.

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Red Faction Armageddon (PS3) Review

The tragic disintegrating protagonist pandemic claims another victim.

Red Faction Armageddon Review

Red Faction is a D List scifi action game franchise with two important facets: Scenery deformation and disappointment. The original game was a First Person Shooter that was effectively a launch title for the Playstation 2 and featured the unique gameplay element of deformable scenery, allowing players to blast natural formations of rock (But no man made structures) with explosives and see real time damage. However, its story of Martian miners seeking freedom from an autocratic mega corporation was a hackneyed and laughably acted pastiche of Total Recall, to say nothing of its clunky and awkward gameplay. The sequel abandoned the Martian aesthetic and became an even more trite exercise, dropping even the scenery destruction and ending up as a totally run of the mill Halo would-be. The third game, Guerilla, was where things took a strong turn in the right direction. Abandoning much of the pre-existing concept, the team at Volition made a third-person, Sandbox based game which shifted the emphasis over to the destruction of buildings as its unique quality. As a freedom fighter battling the dictatorial rule of the Earth military on the red planet, players were charged with destroying enemy real estate with an impressively realised physics engine and some very fun toys. It still had flaws, but Guerilla definitely remains Volition’s strongest offering in their fifteen year history, next to the hilariously silly Saints Row 2.

Armageddon returns to the series roots by providing a linear path through mostly underground areas and makes use of the same engine as Guerilla. It focuses on Darius Mason, the grandson of Guerilla’s protagonist, as he battles the machinations of a moustache-twirlingly evil doomsday cult and the alien menace they unleash on Mars. As a result the game abandons all pretences of its anti-authoritarian roots and thus most of what made its plot unique, leaving it a much poorer experience as a result. It’s just as well that in exchange for all these lost elements, there’s some fairly solid gameplay here.

Luckily Darius is also Cole Macgrath, Starkiller and every other third person action protagonist.

Mostly players will pilot Darius through repetitive tunnels made diverse only by slight shifts in ambient colour schemes. The main time sinks are murdering bone-stupid aliens and murdering bone-stupid human enemies, mostly the former. Thankfully the aliens are fairly agile, so they can be relied upon to surround you consistently, but their lack of real variety in attack methods makes them largely forgettable. At the very least the stealthy enemy variant has some nice sound design. Vehicular combat sections offer a pleasing change of pace as you plow through buildings in some nicely designed power armour and other futuristic motors, but the tactical diversity these stages put you up against amount to nothing more than, “See enemy. Shoot. Circle strafe.” Ad infinitum, while on foot things are at least a little interesting.

Yes, the game truly glimmers when the player is making the most of its more creative weapons, primarily the delightfully fun Magnet Gun, that allows you to creatively maim enemies with the physics engine. Anything struck with the first shot from this weapon will be pulled to wherever the second shot is placed, and with a modicum of creativity this simple concept can be employed to enact pleasingly violent effects on Darius’s enemies. It actually manages to be significantly more enjoyable to use than practically any weapon in the game, and given that it is found fairly early on, has infinite ammo and adapts to almost any combat situation, it does overshadow the rest of his arsenal. This says alot, seeing as they are mostly fun and less constraining when compared to Guerilla, which could be downright abusive with how little ammo you could carry. The brother mechanic to the Magnet Gun is the Nanoforge Gauntlet, Darius’s main utility weapon. Aside from most of the game’s RPG-style unlocked abilities revolving around it, it allows players to reassemble destroyed buildings by simply standing nearby and pointing it at them. It’s a natural extension to the demolition engine, and can be very gratifying to use, even if it’s not utilised to it’s full potential in terms of set pieces or possible puzzles. It’s unique, empowering and fun to use, and really that’s enough

Tragically the main attraction from Guerilla’s engine, Demolition, is underplayed by design. While still present, fun and a large part of the game, the prevalence of underground environments means that there is a distinct lack of massive buildings to destroy in the single player campaign, which were easily the most gratifying highlight the previous game had to offer. Also, while Guerilla had a good plot reason for destroying buildings, Armageddon has to shoe-horn in the element by implying that the aliens breed by Corrupting buildings. It’s another silly plot thread in a greater tapestry of narrative goofiness.

In fact I’m tempted to label the entire game as a playable SyFy Original movie, because that’s certainly what Volition wants me to call it. They proudly wear the badge of working with SyFy, and a prequel movie was produced by the channel to accompany the game. This should display the average calibre of intelligence to expect in this game, as it is easily the most stupid iteration of the series with a bar already set low. At least there is some Joss Whedon-esque snarky dialogue to keep your brain trickling out of your ears. Just don’t be surprised if the plot resolution leaves you in a bit of a manic fury. Or that could be just me.

Who wouldn't want to be part of this rich cinematic lineage?

In terms of multiplayer there’s a distinct absence of Deathmatch, other directly competitive modes or co-operative campaign modes. Instead Volition has included a fairly basic version of the old Horde mode concept introduced by Gears of War 2, and a very welcome return by the competitive demolition multiplayer introduced in Guerilla. The take on Horde mode, called Infestation, has a group of players fend of waves of monsters in large maps and occasionally protecting objectives from them, but offers nothing in the way of unique weapons or set pieces that aren’t found in the single player campaign, and without the promise of unlockable content hanging over the mode it’s unlikely players will be interested in it for long.

Guerilla had a functional if uninteresting competitive death match mode that is absent here, but the real draw was Wrecking Crew. Wrecking Crew was a competitive hotseat style multiplayer mode where players took it in turns to use specific equipment to destroy a layout of buildings in a limited period of time. Both casual and competitive players could get into the fun, and many a match was ended as players watch the last precarious remnants of a destroyed building teetering on the edge of collapse, seeing whose favour the match would end in. It was a simple and ingenius idea which encouraged play at parties and made the game a group event that anyone could enjoy. It was a brilliant way of promoting the game among friends, and is still the most enduring thing about Guerilla.

Except perhaps this video.

The new version of Wrecking Crew in Armageddon is Demolition, and tragically it is code-locked as Downloadable Content, although the price for unlocking it is quite reasonable now. The thought occurs that Infestation mode should have been locked out and Demolition should have been playable out of the box, to help the game get promoted between groups of friends. Or it would be, if Demolition wasn't a single player only, stripped down shadow of Wrecking Crew's greatness, where the player can only take on a linear succession of levels and demolish as much as possible within a time limit. The customization options and competitive gameplay is gone, replaced with so much nothing. It’s yet another sign of some of the really poor choices that went into making Armageddon and kept it from greatness.

Because that is what Armageddon could have been. It had some well executed ideas hidden away within it, but alas it stumbles. Even so, it didn’t deserve the brutal lashing it got from the critics, and now it’s pre-owned price has become quite reasonable it’s not too hard to recommend. Fun weapons, solid physics and a few good ideas mean that this is a game you can enjoy. Just leave your brain at the door.

Cheaper, better options: Red Faction: Guerilla, Dead Space.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Infamous 2 (PS3) Review

Colour filters: Serious Business

Sony is severely lacking in terms of character recognition nowadays. Microsoft has Master Chief and Marcus Fenix, Nintendo has Mario and Link, and Sony has…Nathan Drake? Maybe? In the nineties this wasn’t the case, when exclusivity rights to the likes of Crash Bandicoot and Lara Croft were theirs alone for myriad reasons. To rekindle some of that brand recognition Sony has been very keen to shill any pseudo recognizable character at the public and see what sticks. Thankfully 2008’s Infamous has had better luck than the likes of Killzone when it comes to providing a distinct visual motif and at least one decent game. It’s sequel is here and will be the test of whether or not Sucker Punch’s little bald baby can make it as a big league player in the world of major video game franchises.

Infamous 2 is a sandbox style game where players assume the role of Cole Macgrath, a bike courier turned electrical super power recipient, and choose between being a mawkish vigilante and a homicidal prick. This is just as dichotomous as it appears, for this is no Bioware game; the game rewards the player for remaining entirely committed to one moral path throughout the proceedings, and no problem will present a complex quandary to you until the game’s final act.

Infamous 2 kicks off directly from the previous game’s ending, with start up bonuses if you happened to have completed its predecessor. It’s a pity that it essentially forces new players to spoil the final events of the first game, but those who liked Cole may get a kick out of the new plot. The prologue does however cheat a fair bit by rebooting Cole’s existing powers down to zero ala Metroid, when most of the thrill in the original game was found in Cole’s gradual yet meteoric rise in power. Instead this sequel is largely a retread of the same abilities from the first game albeit with very slight permutations. Although a scant few new abilities are introduced such as the Kinetic Pulse, which allows Cole to pick up objects around him and hurl them at enemies, they don’t necessarily fulfil the urge to attain unprecedented levels of superpower that one might hope to reach. Some of their mechanics aren’t even particularly strong, sometimes failing to work or obstructing the camera at inconvenient moments.

No one said superpowers had to be useful.

The environment that encompasses most of the game is the city of New Marais. Whereas the location of the first game, Empire City, was something of a broad pastiche for every major American city, New Marais is very deliberate in evoking post-Katrina New Orleans. It goes a little too far in portraying the entire city as an anarchic den of inequity inhabited by inbred yokels and religious right-wing extremists, and pushes the boundaries of good taste a bit hard. The main problem with New Marais is that as a city that is forty percent flooded and surrounded by bayou, many missions emphasize on fighting around deep water, which is Cole’s kryptonite. One prat fall due to the floaty platforming engine or wayward grenade can land the player with a frustrating instant death. This problem is alleviated by generous checkpoints which rarely set the player back more than five minutes, but to constantly fall victim to this problem through no real fault of your own breaks the power fantasy which the game strives to create.

One of the game’s main problems is the power selection system. When the permutations on every one of Cole’s abilities start to be unlocked, a quick menu become available to allow you to change the ability set you are using on the fly. However, when activated the menu freezes the game and mutes the soundtrack, making it highly intrusive and counterintuitive, especially as it relies on a linear sequence of repeated button presses to switch out powers rather than a radial menu. For example the original game’s main rival, Prototype, utilised just such a radial menu for changing powers on the fly, which slowed time down in game to force players to make quick decisions while under fire. In its currently executed form, the power selection menu in this game is awkward and inelegant; a big disappointment for such a high profile title.

The problems with moment-to-moment game play don’t end there however. One of the original game’s best features lay in its parkour/urban exploration based game play, second only to Assassins Creed. Bizarrely, this element seems to have taken a step back in the sequel; Cole’s movements feel comparatively loose. Dropping from high ledges to lower ones more often than not see you plummeting past your intended target, and Cole’s ability to slide his hands against smooth surfaces as he falls past them to slow his descent has been nerfed for some reason. Even the ability to heal and recharge while sliding on power cables has been removed. On the plus side fall damage has been removed entirely, which once could lead Cole to sudden deaths if knocked off a rooftop by an explosion. Also New Marais has power cables at the foot of buildings which can be used to propel you up to the building’s apex a bit faster, making travel slightly more convenient. All these points imply that the game engine has been tweaked rather than overhauled in these last three years, so if as a fan you are hoping for more of the same without too many improvements and a full price tag, you might walk away happy.

Cling to lamp posts for bonus XPs!

The enemies which the game sets Cole up against are also a mixed bag. The original only had gun-toting street punks and a few minor permutations for team leaders and kamikaze enemies. These enemies could barely keep up with Cole and were easily outmanoeuvred rather than outclassed in a straight fight. Infamous 2 adds a little variance with two new enemy factions which are capable of not only trouncing Cole in terms of raw power but also pursuing him across rooftops. However, these enemies are uncannily reminiscent of the special foes encountered in Prototype, from their visual aesthetic to their abilities. The similarities are blatant enough to go right beyond homage, and point directly to a worrying dearth of creativity. That’s not to say you won’t have fun with them though, they generally provide a decent challenge, and their AI might sometimes surprise you, but in the end you'll spend most of your time slapping around inept white trash clowns, hardly foes worthy of the electrubermensch.

As with the first game, there is little in the way of replay value. Even with two distinct moral paths to take through the game, they drive Cole down incredibly similar plot rail roads, and the powers unique to each stance don’t alter gameplay significantly. If one were to enjoy the plot and characters enough a second play through can be justified, but if you are like me you might find Cole’s inconsistent characterisation and the pseudo-dark flatness of the world to be disinteresting.

The big promise Sucker Punch has loaded into the game is that of User Generated Content. Infamous 2 has launched with an impressive amount of levels created by the development team and early adopters, and mostly they display a degree of challenge and creativity absent in the game proper. Unfortunately the UGC system is not quite user friendly, providing only text based tutorials to explain its fairly deep and complicated system. However with a little perseverance a player can produce all kinds of missions. 

Infamous 2 is a disappointingly average game from a veteran studio with and interesting IP. Permissive players and committed fans will find it an experience to be enjoyed briefly and forgotten, while older hands will see the broad potential it has squandered. The ending is fairly strong and offers more moral complexity than the rest of the series put together, but it's arrived at all too soon. A solid rental, little more.

With luck Sucker Punch will now spend more time making Sly Racoon games. It's a bright future.

Oh, and the box design looks kind of like Mortal Kombat 2011 at a glance. Just saying.


Cheaper and Better Options: Infamous, Prototype, Hulk: Ultimate Destruction, Red Faction: Guerilla.