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Thursday, December 30, 2010

God of War 3 (9.9/10)

I’ve always been into Greek mythology. The stories of the Olympian gods always stuck with me because, while immortal and powerful, they were still so tragically... human. These tales served a purpose; to explain the unexplainable. The squabbling and bickering of the immortals on Olympus provided an excuse for all the bad things that happened to normal people in the real world. But there were always some who challenged the gods; who flaunted their ultimate authority and power. Kratos, the infamous anti-hero of the God of War series, epitomizes that insolence. His blood soaked march through the halls of Mt. Olympus seeking revenge against those who wronged him is the definition of epic. God of War 3 brings the legend of Kratos to a close in grand fashion, providing one of the most satisfying culminations to any series I have ever played.

God of War 3 takes up where predecessor left off; Kratos riding on the back of the titan Gaia as she ascends to the summit of Mt. Olympus to confront Zeus. There is mythology within a mythology here, sort of an alternate timeline if you will. The battle between the titans and the gods has been raging since time immemorial, and Kratos finds himself caught smack in the middle. Poor Kratos has always been blinded by his own arrogance, and has as a result been betrayed by everyone and is beholden to no one. So what is Kratos to do? Why, kill them all of course!

As the Ghost of Sparta once again winds up in Hades (he should have his hand stamped), we learn from Athena's spirit (gods have spirits, who knew?) that in order to kill his father Zeus, king of all Olympus, Kratos must once again use Pandora's Box. Within it rests the power to kill a god. Of course, that's easier said than done, as the Box is held within the Flame of Olympus which burns so bright and hot that neither man nor god can touch it. To get his revenge, Kratos must get to Pandora's Box. To get to the Box he must get through the Flame... but to get through the Flame he'll need some help. I'm not going to tell you anymore, but needless to say Kratos' patricidal quest for vengeance takes him from the depths of the Underworld to the halls of Mt. Olympus itself, battling gods and titans both, romping and stomping his way through a veritable "Who's Who" of Greek mythology. You can always tell where Kratos has been by the destruction and carnage he leaves in his wake, not to mention the dead deities littering up the place.

Kratos' rampage is brought to life by the best graphics of any game I've played to date. Visually, it is a tour de force, one without equal. Just look at Kratos' face on the main title screen... the attention to detail is phenomenal! Apart from being able to see the pores on his nose, everything from the environments to the enemies looks beyond fantastic. From the dank pits of Tartarus, to battling on, around and in a gigantic Titan, to Aphrodite's silky bed chamber, to the shining halls of Mt. Olympus itself, it's all wonderfully detailed and rich. The gorgons are another great example. While the infamous serpent-haired offspring of Medusa look amazing, the snake skin on their lower half looks real! I mean, really real. The way the light shimmers across them... it's astonishing, like something on the Discovery Channel. That's just one example of many; this entire game shows an incredible attention to detail that should be commended. It illustrates how far we have come in just the last couple of years, and provides a glimpse of what the future may hold for this medium.

If the game looks that good, what about the the legendary God of War cut scenes that we were all so blown away by in the first couple of games? At the time they set a graphical standard. As good as the graphics are in GoW 3, trying to make even better looking cut scenes would have been an exercise in futility. So instead, they smartly went in a completely different route. Cut scenes are done in an anime style reminiscent of the ending of the movie 300. At first I wasn’t sure what to think of this, but ultimately it works and works well, providing a stylized counter balance to the amazing in-game graphics.

Because of the incredible graphical fidelity in GoW 3, the infamous brutality the series is known for gets an obvious bump in realism. This is not a game for the squeamish or the faint of heart. It's realistic violence borders on being too realistic, if you see what I mean. When Kratos eviscerates a centaur (which never gets old by the way) it looks real... or as real as an eviscerated mythological creature can look, I suppose. But when this is most noticeable is during each major boss encounter. Each god dies in a way that is arguably more brutal and graphic than the last, especially those seen through the eyes of the victim. I can only imagine they way he would have killed Aphrodite, but as it is you have other things to do to her;^) Oh, and if you thought killing a god was intense, try offing a titan!

The brilliant graphics are complimented by the sound work. I’d say it deserves near perfect scores as well. The score captures the atmosphere brilliantly. The sound effects are excellent. The dialogue, while stilted and loaded with cliches, is well performed. Kratos usually does a poor impersonation of The Hulk, but as the story unfolds he shows his human side is still there, albeit buried deep down inside.

From a purely gameplay standpoint, GoW 3 is just about perfect in my opinion. Of course, it can quickly devolve into button mashing if you’re not careful. It's worth taking the time to learn the nuances of the controls. Once you've mastered them, I’ve never played a game that makes you feel more like a god, as indestructible and immortal, as GoW 3. I’d say that’s mildly ironic, considering... but when the excellent controls are a huge part of what defines the series, why mess with what works? There are some cool new weapons to play with, although they are really just similar versions of the Blades of Chaos. The main exception is the Cestus, which are basically giant brass knuckles. Those are fun;^), especially in the hands of Kratos. Adding in the ability to switch weapons mid-combo is clever, even though I didn’t use it too much. Controlling the giant monsters is another smart move. I had fun holding on to a giant Cyclops' eyelid and having him run rampant over a bunch of minions. If anything it was probably underutilized...

This series is also known for clever puzzles and platforming sections, and I'm happy to report that Sony Santa Monica took some of the most cleverly designed games in recent memory and pulled out all the stops for the finale. GoW 3 has some of the best pacing ever. There are always little sections tossed in to keep the combat from getting too repetitive. The 'Quicktime' events, a hallmark of the series, have been slightly tweaked to have the prompts on the periphery. Since the face buttons are located on the cardinal directions, it is actually quite instinctive to find the corroborating button without drawing your attention too drastically from the bloody action in the middle of the screen. Not everyone likes QTE, but that small change makes them much more tolerable.

My only complaint, and seriously this is really the only one, is that with sometimes the path to follow in the platforming sections isn't always obvious. Some of the prompts, like where the camera pans through the level, are a little confusing. It can result in some cheap deaths, like jumping off the wrong point just to see if that was the right way to go. Fortunately there are a lot of autosaves, so you tend not to get set back too far. Oh yeah, and I wasn't a huge fan of the flying sections... it was cool the first time, as in once.

I find myself facing one of those moments when I'm struggling for criticism. But sometimes you just have to accept that trying to find fault for the sake of finding fault is moronic. God of War 3 is a wonderful example of how a game can be greater than the sum it's parts, no matter how good those parts might be on their own. Kratos' tale is an experience... and it's final chapter should not be missed lest you risk the wrath of the Ghost of Sparta yourself.


Score = 9.9 / 10

Monday, December 27, 2010

BioShock 2 (9.3/10)


(Secrets exposed from the original BioShock, play that first then read this! You've been warned...)

If you’ve read my review of BioShock you can probably guess how excited I was for BioShock 2. If you haven’t read my review of BioShock, here's the link. I’ll wait…

Well? Wasn’t that both enlightening and well written? Did you already email the link to all of your friends? Just kidding...

Anyhoo, it's time to go back under the sea! Back to the horror! Back to... Rapture...

Your return to Rapture begins as you wake up… in the shoes of a Big Daddy! Oh ho, the irony! But you aren’t just any Big Daddy, you are the Big Daddy: known only as Delta, you are one of the original trials and the first that was successfully bonded to a Little Sister. And not just any Little Sister, but the Little Sister: Eleanor Lamb, daughter of Sophia Lamb, the de facto leader of Rapture since Andrew Ryan’s untimely demise. Eleanor appears before you, a slightly out of focus vision of an adolescent girl, asking for your help in setting her free. Ha! As if you had a choice; after all you are a Big Daddy! So you venture forth in search of your ward...

Rapture is just as you remember it… an unadulterated mess. Ahhhhh, memories:^). Ten years have passed, and that’s another decade’s worth of neglect and corrosion by sea water. This time around you get to visit some new locales in the crumbling undersea metropolis like an amusement park dedicated to Andrew Ryan himeslf or the slums of Pauper’s Drop. As with the original (boy, I can tell I’m going to be using that phrase a lot!) the graphics and sound are instrumental in creating that foreboding atmosphere that gives Rapture such personality. Rapture is still Rapture and it hasn't lost any of its luster (that’s figurative luster, not literal luster… Rapture ran out of literal luster ages ago…).

Along the same theme, the gameplay is almost identical to BioShock with a couple of noticeable changes. You still have all the basic plasmids and weapons (along with a new drill attachment, just like a Bouncer Big Daddy!) and they all work pretty much the same way. But since you play as a Big Daddy, well, there are certain responsibilities you need to take on... like protecting the Little Sisters of Rapture, for example.

In BioShock, the relationship between the Big Daddies and Little Sisters was well explored (especially if you took the time to find all the audio diaries) and the trials at the end where you had to escort the Little Sister was harrowing to say the least. In BioShock 2 they took that basic premise and made it the basis of the sequel.

As Delta, you can adopt Little Sisters after offing their previous guardians. Those are the familiar Bouncers and Rosies along with a new Big Daddy called the Rumbler who sports a rocket pack. He’s an annoying bastard, just so you know. It’s quite poignant to hear a Little Sister moaning the loss her Mr. Bubbles until you waddle up. Her eyes actually light up as she asks, "Are you gonna take care of me now?" Seeing as these infected little princesses actually have glowing eyes, it’s not much of a stretch, but it does evoke some emotion. You really do feel a protective responsibility (at least I did).

After adopting a Little Sister you can find corpses for them to harvest. Of course, this serves as ringing the dinner bell as it were for the splicers. So before you have your happy helper get out her needle, you'll need to be prepared. You still have trap bolts for use with your crossbow, but now you have even more options for mining the hell out of the surrounding area. Trap rivets can be laid across any flat surface. Put them at alternating heights down a corridor or a flight of stairs and the splicers will get nailed as they charge in. The cyclone trap plasmid is back, but now you can upgrade it so it is capable of being charged by an elemental plasmid. The English version is you can create mini stationary tornadoes that are on fire. Fun! Once you’ve set your traps and mines, prompt your Little Sister to start harvesting, and keep and eye out for any that get through!

For the most part I really enjoyed this aspect of BioShock 2. It was a clever idea in the first game, and they fleshed it out well. That said, it can get a little tedious after you’ve done it for the tenth time. For a while it's fun, effectively mining a whole area with multiple access points. But that's time consuming, and afterwards you have to go around and collect all your unused ordinance. Not a major gripe, but it does wear a bit towards the end.

Once you have saved (or harvested) a couple of Little Sisters you will find you have something of a problem… namely that some of the Little Sisters from the first game have grown up, and it turns out they are just as protective of the younger generation as the Big Daddies, if not more so! "Big Sister doesn’t want you to play with me!" is not a good thing to hear. You know you’re in for a tough fight. While the Big Daddies are hulking brutes, Big Sisters are fast, agile, and capable of using your same arsenal of plasmids against you. They also have an oversized syringe attached to their arm that they will try and stab you with. Unpleasant, to say the least. You’ll hear them screaming as they approach, giving you scant time to set up a defensive perimeter… then they are there! To be honest I can’t really describe any of the battles because they happen so quickly, but they are certainly challanging and chaotic!

As you quest to aid Eleanor, battling your way through Big Daddies and Big Sisters alike, you’ll end up following the instructions of one Augustus Sinclair. He helps you along much as Atlas did in the original, speaking in your ear suggesting where to go and what to do. But after the Atlas debacle how can you possibly trust Sinclair? As the story progresses you learn about Sinclair and his motivations for helping you. Are they pure? Is he genuine? Well, I’m not going to tell you, so there. There are some startling revelations that come to light as it progresses and it draws you in, making you want to know more. While it doesn’t pack the punch of the original BioShock, it’s narrative is a fitting continuation to the saga of Rapture. But the reason I bring it up is that BioShock 2 introduces several unique situations where you get to choose the fate of a character central to the plot. These naturally effect the outcome (and the ending you’ll see) so it’s not just down to whether or not you choose to harvest or save the Little Sisters this time around.

Personally, I felt that these moments were a bit hollow. I won’t spoil too much, but a couple of the main NPC’s are so incorrigible it’s not really possible to let them live unless you are playing as a complete bastard. That said, if you’re murdering a bunch of little girls for drugs, you might well feel right at home with them.

Ultimately, BioShock 2 feels like an old pair of slippers, comfortable and reliable… but old slippers none the less. The same core gameplay is back. It’s fun to play and cleverly designed. Rapture once again becomes a character in of its self, taking center stage. It’s the definition of decay, both literally and figuratively. This undersea dysfunctional utopia hosts another clever story, one filled with moral pitfalls and relentless action. Ultimately though, BioShock 2 falls short as many sequels do, simply because you can’t get the brilliance of the original out of your head. As a result, it was pretty much preordained to disappoint (at least disappoint me). Don’t let this dissuade you from playing it though. BioShock 2 is great game in it’s own right, and a worthy sequel. I mean, hello?!? It’s freakin' Rapture for God’s sake! It’s awesome!


Score = 9.3 / 10

P.S. Want some new slippers? Go watch the teaser trailer and ten minute gameplay segment from BioShock Infinite, set to come out in 2012… oh… my…God, I’m not sure I can wait that long!

Halo: Reach (8.9/10)

I have a confession to make… I never played the first two Halo games. I didn't pick up the series until Halo 3 on Xbox 360. I really enjoyed it even though I had no earthly idea what the hell was going on. It’s action packed sequences were everything I had read they would be. Then I made a mistake. Like a lot of other people I went out and got Halo: ODST as soon as it came out… and was, like those other poor saps, supremely disappointed.

While ODST sucked, I had faith that Bungie would come good with Halo: Reach. They had said that this was their last go for the franchise, and I knew they wouldn’t disappoint. I mean, come on, this was their baby! They started the whole thing, and ultimately changed the landscape of modern gaming... and by finishing their work on the series with a prequel Bungie has come full circle. Reach serves to set in motion everything that follows...

At it's core, Halo: Reach is a soldier's story about comrades facing insurmountable odds, and the shared knowledge that an impending and inevitable death is nigh. You play as Noble Six, the most recent addition to the Spartan Noble team on the planet Reach as it is being overrun by the evil Covenant. The war has taken its toll, and Reach is one of the last bastions of humanity in outer space. Losing here could turn the tide in favor of the alien onslaught. Your new team of iconic super soldiers must go on a series of missions to not only thwart the invading hordes of hostile aliens, but also protect and evacuate the populace. From various locales on Reach to space above it, Noble team struggles to staunch the incoming Covenant flood.

As you battle for survival you'll come to learn more about your teammates. Being a Spartan, the quintessential "space marine," means that one must act selflessly in the face of such adversity. Sometimes soldiers are called upon to make the ultimate sacrifice and they accept this as part of the job. As the game hurtles towards it’s inevitable conclusion, you might find yourself getting a bit emotional (at least I did), because if you know the Halo canon, you know what will ultimately happen on Reach... and the fate of Noble Team.

As confusing as the overall plotline of the series can be, Bungie obviously put a lot of effort into the narrative of Reach. While the cast and voice work is pretty good, your Spartan team is hindered by generic character templates such as the big burly gunner with the heart of gold. Poor, cliched 'war' dialogue doesn't help either. These guys (and girl) are obviously not the iconic Master Chief, but rather his distant cousins. Chief wasn’t exactly the most eloquent chap, but sometimes that 'silence' is more effective than using recycled platitudes and predictable plot twists. That said, in the end it proved to be much harder to witness the fall of Reach. I won't spoil the twist towards the end, but I will say I actually enjoyed the story despite the fact that you knew from the get go that it wasn’t going to have a happy ending. That horrid sense of impending doom creates such a powerful, charged atmosphere... I found it pretty evocative.

But let's be honest, Halo's main draw has never been its story, happy ending or not. Halo is, and always has been, defined by it's stellar gameplay. I'm happy to say it's alive and well in Reach. For some reason I’ve always struggled a bit with Halo controls, probably just because the grenade is on the left trigger, that seems to throw me… far too often I sneak up on some hapless grunt ready to knife them in the back when I instead chuck a grenade at them. Effective? Most definitely. Stealthy? Not so much. If you've played any of the other games in the franchise you know it takes and inordinate amount of shots to bring down the baddies. It does take some getting used to especially compared to other shooters. Seems like every time I play a Halo game the first 45 minutes or so are punctuated by a lot of swearing and "Why won’t you DIE!" moments. But, once you get a bit of practice under your belt you’ll be kicking ass and taking Covenant names.

While there aren't any major departures from the stock Halo gameplay, the addition of reusable upgrades can change the style of play. Armor lock is cool (although I can never pull it off the way they do on those awesome online highlight reels, I just get run over). The active camo is good as well, sending out a hologram to draw fire while you flank the confused Covenant. Oh yeah, jet packs are awesome! Flying up over cover to headshot a grunt is extremely satisfying... you can almost see their eyes open in surprise! 

Reach also boasts more variety in level construction. You'll be traveling all over the planet, from urban to rural to underground environments. These essentially corridor based FPS sections open into wide vistas where you'll once again need to rely on vehicles to get around. But this time the Spartans aren't limited to Warthogs or commandeered Banshees, you'll be piloting Falcon attack helicopters and even space fighters fending off Covenant warships! These flying sections are ace, but last a bit too long and the controls can be wonky at first... 

Halo: Reach has good graphics and sound... good, but not great. There is plenty to catch the eye and the action looks amazing. The sound track of familiar haunting Halo music returns, as well as the effects for the weapons and vehicles. But ultimately I couldn’t escape the feeling that I was watching a slightly more polished Halo 3.

I had few issues with Halo: Reach beyond that it's just more of the same ol' Halo. My biggest problem is the same one I had with Halo 3, namely the crappy checkpoint system. Firstly, they are few and far between, meaning if you die, more often than not you'll end up playing the same section through again in entirety. Then there are times when you will get respawned with no health and have to reload, surrounded by Covenant forces. Cheap deaths abound... it brings forth more than a few "WTF! Come on!" moments. I had one such issue at the very end of the game. I really didn't want to restart the level, but by this time it was getting close to 3 AM... I was getting severely annoyed.

One clever addition to Reach was the ability to customize your very own Noble Six. This is mostly to differentiate between stock Spartans for online play, but I love this kind of stuff. Sadly, I can't take full advantage of some of the cooler things because I don't play online. To amass that many experience points I'd have to beat the single player campaign like 87 times... Still, it gives me reason to go back to Reach, beyond the futile struggle to save the planet.

Before I get inundated with hate mail about how I can't possibly review Halo: Reach if I don't play online multiplayer, I'm gonna cut you off by saying I completely agree. Multiplayer is, probably more than the campaign or canon, why the Halo games are so popular. If it's worth playing for the campaign alone, which I believe it is, then the multiplayer is all gravy if you are so inclined.

Halo, while not as rich or detailed (yet) as say Star Wars, has still managed to create its own identity in the public consciousness. It is now a known quantity, and ultimately Reach is par for the course. I don't think it's anything particularly special, but that's perfectly okay. I'm happy with more Halo to enjoy! Bungie should be commended to for creating one of the most beloved, and fiercely defended, franchises and in modern gaming. As it stands Halo: Reach, while telling the story of what happened in the beginning, serves as a fitting end.


Score = 8.9 / 10

P.S. Stick around after the credits. The epilogue was clever and arguably my favorite part!

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Left 4 Dead (9.3/10)

"It’s the zombie apocalypse. Bring friends..."

This was the original marketing campaign for Left 4 Dead. As the epidemic spreads four strangers; Francis, Bill, Louis, and Zoey, find themselves in the awkward position of having to trust each other and work together in order to survive. You'll play as one of them against the nightmare hordes that await. From legendary developer Valve, Left 4 Dead is probably the most fun I’ve had with any game in the last several years...

At it's heart, Left 4 Dead is really a spoof on every crappy, B-grade zombie movie ever made, right down to the cheesy posters (which are hilarious by the way). It doesn’t really have a ‘story’ per se. Instead there are four different levels or maps, each lasting about an hour. All follow the same basic zombie movie cliche: survive at all costs until you can be rescued. Each level is treated like its own movie. While they don't have a cohesive story in any traditional sense, it’s perfectly okay. Like most bad zombie movies, we’re not here for the plot, we're here for the zombies.

Standing between you and rescue are, of course, the walking undead. Lots and lots of zombies. These are not the zombies from Night of the Living Dead. They are not slow shamblers risen from graves. No, these are the fast buggers from such movies as Dawn of the Dead and 28 Days Later. Sprinters who attack in veritable hordes once they have noticed you! But it turns out you have more to face during the zombie apocalypse than just your standard run of the mill "Braaaaaaaaains!" zombies, no matter how fast they are. They've evolved...

There are different classes of 'Super' zombies to contend with in Left 4 Dead. One is the Hunter, who has an annoying habit of can pouncing on his victims from distance and ravaging them before help arrives. The Boomer is a huge fat bastard who waddles around before puking all over you. Sound nasty? It is... but there is a bigger problem. If you get covered in the vile bile it draws zombies towards you like bees to honey, or perhaps more appropriately, to rotting meat. If you hear the gurgling of a nearby boomer, be on your guard. The Smoker has a super long tongue it can use to grab you and draw you away from the group. As you struggle helplessly any nearby zombies can have a snack at their leisure. It’s only when you hear someone cry "Help, I’m being dragged away!" do you realize what’s happened. Actually, it's more like "Sh*t!" followed by either "Smoker's got me!" or "Hunter's on me!" or "Boomer got me!" or the worst call of all.... "TAAAAAAAAAANK!!!!!!!!!"

There are the two ‘Boss’ classes. These appear less frequently, but are always major battles. The first is the Tank. His appearance is proceeded by a foreboding musical jingle, then a roar! It’s brown trousers time, and then, there... he... is! He’s big, he’s fast and he’s tough. One can hit can knock you across the street. You’ll need the whole team working together to survive. He will usually focus on one target, and while that poor soul is getting pummeled, the others need to be ready to pour insane amounts of lead into him to bring the behemoth down!

Then there is the Witch. You'll hear her, moaning and weeping to herself. In a clever twist, Valve designed it so that Witches are avoidable. If you hear one, turn off your flashlights (light will draw her attention) and proceed cautiously. Once you spot her you may be able to skirt around her and avoid confrontation. But if you draw her ire she’ll come at you, skin and bones, glowing eyes, and huge, lethal nails like talons, screeching like a Nazgul from the Lord of the Rings. One hit from her and you are down. Like the Tank, the Witch takes teamwork and strategy to survive, especially if stealth is not an option.

To combat these menaces you are armed with your choice of either an assault rifle, shotgun, or hunting rifle. But I feel I need to impress upon you, gentle reader, just how many bloody zombies can come at you at once. You will find yourself running out of ammo, there are simply too many. Fortunately, Valve gives you a pistol with unlimited ammo, so you'll always have something to fall back on.

I doubt Left 4 Dead would have been nearly as successful were it not for the excellent controls. They need to be since the zombies are so quick and attack en masse. Right trigger fires your weapon, left is melee to get the buggers off if they get too close. Um, 'B' is reload. That's pretty much it. Okay, there are more controls, but they are easy to learn. Despite being a hectic and frantic battle for survival, it's surprisingly accessible. Pick it up and go play. Oh, and bring some friends...

... because teamwork is the name of the game in Left 4 Dead. You might think that with it being the zombie apocalypse and all that the rules no longer apply. For the most part this is true, but there is one thing you need to remember to survive: stick together! If you leave the safety of the group, consider yourself a zombie entree. This game was designed specifically to be played as a group with people communicating as they fight for survival. But if you're stuck playing with computer controlled survivors, I'm happy to say the ally AI is pretty good if lacking some initiative that you'd find with, you know, real people.

Left 4 Dead has pretty decent graphics, but they aren't anything special. Then again, they don't have to be. This is one of those quantity over quality situations. They are effective enough to scare you, and that's all that matters. The action is so hectic in this game you can't really tell what is going on half the time anyway. That's okay though, that frantic atmosphere is what makes it so great! This is enhanced by the sound work. The survivors banter back and forth with each other when there isn't an immediate threat, but will call out if they hear any of the aural cues from the super zombies. The howls of the hordes, the scream of the Hunter, the roar of the Tank keep you on edge the entire time. Still freaks me out, especially after a few drinks, when the tension is at its most fervent. Left 4 Dead captures the horror better than most zombie movies!

If you do survive one these "movies" you are treated to end credits which go over all the stats from that game. It's fun to see who had the most zombie kills, who used the most health packs, or my personal favorite: friendly fire. I win that one every time (I just shoot at anything that moves, even my teammates...)! There is even an "In Memoriam" for those that didn't make it! It ends with the total number of "zombies harmed in the making of this film." Priceless...

In fact, there’s not much to complain about with Left 4 Dead. The fact that there are only two sets of weapons, the second being a slight upgrade is a bit disappointing. It would have been nice to have more options. Same with the levels themselves. The four that are available are great, don't get me wrong, but after you've played them dozens of times you hanker for something more. Sometimes it feels a bit recycled but that's no big deal. Fortunately, Left 4 Dead 2 addresses these minor grievances.

While the lack of variety in both missions and weapons may handicap Left 4 Dead a bit, it's more than made up for by the variable spawn system Valve has created. It’s ingenious. Since it’s a fairly small game they have set it up so that every time you play it through, it’s different. The zombies respawn in different areas. Where there was a tank that bashed the snot out you last time, this time there might not be one. Weapon stashes might be in different places. I played a level recently where there were five tanks and three witches! We kept looking at each other saying, "What the hell? Did we accidentally change the difficulty level?" But the next time we played that level it was completely different, and it will be different the next time as well. That's the beauty of this system, it makes the game infinitely replayable (or close to it).

If you’ve read any of my other reviews you know I don’t play games online very often. This is a huge handicap for me, especially in this case. Of all the games that I wish I had time to play online, Left 4 Dead tops the list. More than Halo? More than Call of Duty? Yes, without a doubt. Why? Because if you get online in Left 4 Dead you can play as the zombies! Um, yes please. From everything I have read this eight player online versus mode sounds like a riot!

At the time of posting, 26897 zombies had been harmed playing of this game by yours truly. Now assume I kill an average of four hundred or so each time I play a level. Do the math. I've played Left 4 Dead that many times. And I will continue to do so, it's that much fun. My girlfriend is awesome for many reasons, but one thing I love is if she's had a rough week and I ask her what she wants to do, she’ll say "Let’s play Left 4 Dead! I need to kill some zombies!" It turns out that the zombie apocalypse has a silver lining after all!


Score = 9.3 / 10

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

FIFA 11 (9.0/10)

There’s something you should know about me… I’m a soccer fanatic. My parents were born and raised in England. I may be first generation American, but my blood is British and so is my love of football! So it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that I buy the newest FIFA game on release day each year. This is my Madden

At first glance it would seem that the changes to FIFA 11 were pretty superficial, but in truth the way the game plays has been dramatically changed. It’s far and away the most realistic soccer simulation ever created. Not only does the ball have real weight, so do the players. Gone are the days of running through your opponents with the ball attached to your feet by a magic string. If you have a smallish forward trying to run through a big burly defender, he will bounce off. Literally. Sure, that same forward can dance around the big guy, but that’s much harder to accomplish. Just like in real life. Since the ball is it’s own entity it’s easy to lose control, especially when jostling with opponents.

This sort of physicality makes the game play much slower overall. One touch passing is more realistic because it depends on the positioning of your player as he receives the ball, as well as where his target is. As a result, ‘ping-pong’ passing is harder to pull off. Again, just like real life. You’ll find play getting bogged down in the midfield as you try and string together passes long enough to work your way up field. If you do manage to break through the defense, the goalkeepers have also been upgraded, making it much more difficult to put the ball in the back of the net. Scoring from outside the box takes real skill, and I’m convinced more than a little luck... wait for it... just like in real life! And since I like to be the one on the field…

I love playing modern sports games because you have the ability to create your own player, an avatar in the game. In the past I’ve been a wide receiver for the Colts, a shortstop for the Red Sox, and a shooting guard for the Pacers. It’s great; I can even have hair! But every year my most important transformation is into a poaching forward in the wide world of European football. The FIFA series has created a ‘Virtual Pro’ hub which you can develop across all game modes. You create the look, position and playing style of your virtual... you. It’s almost like a RPG! The game will even recognize a whole slew of names, so you can assign a commentary name! It’s awesome to hear the announcers shout, "Simon scores!" Makes Simon happy… except for some reason they also call me Simone somtimes (think French pronunciation) which is not so amusing...

I love guiding my 'Simon' through multiple seasons, building up his skills and turning him into a force on the pitch. Once again FIFA 11 uses ‘Accomplishments’ to level your virtual pro. You have to complete tasks on the field to gain points towards certain stats. For example, if you complete 75% of your passes over 10 games, you get +3 points to your passing skill. Score from outside the box, and you get +2 to you shot power skill… and so on and so forth. I still don't like this. It feels far too limiting because it’s not based on your performance during the game, but rather arbitrary actions that you have to commit. Doing something incredible on the field, like scoring from thirty yards out, only upgrades you once no matter how often you do it. I feel like this actually inhibits your play. You might start thinking, "Okay, I need to take more shots from outside the box so if I score I'll get those points for my shooting skill" even if it’s not practical taking shots from range all the time.

To actually max out your character, which I would contend is the point of treating him like an RPG character in the first place, you have to do an insane amount of stuff. There are over four hundred different ‘Accomplishments’. To get the biggest payoffs though you’ll need to play on ‘World Class’ difficulty. Normally I’m not one to complain about difficulty, but since the core of the FIFA 11 experience is enhanced realism, playing on the harder levels can be down right infuriating. I’ve found that ‘World Class’ difficulty straddles the line between being awesome and just plain frustrating. Is it more realistic and true to the game? Yes, definitely. Is it more fun? I’m gonna say probably not. The ball gets bogged down in midfield, just about every run ends up getting tackled away. Spectacular goals are few and far between.

Some would say "That's just soccer..." and I'd agree, to a point. If you want to play like Ronaldo you need to practice! But getting to that level will take a major commitment that most people are simply not willing to do, be it born of frustration or simply that there aren’t enough hours in the day. They have maybe hamstrung themselves a bit in this regard. After all, we are playing a game here. If I wanted to really play soccer, I'd go outside!

Fortunately, EA Sports has kept the same tight controls, otherwise this might have been a disaster. They still don’t always do what you want though. There are a few peccadilloes; namely wonky passing mechanics and some idiotic AI still rear their ugly heads. You could chalk this up to human error, but I play this game a lot, and there are still times that I’ll yell (literally) "NO! I passed to him, not him, ya flippin idiot! ARRRGGH!" But if you can put it all together, especially playing on the harder difficulty levels, it’s a special feeling. I’m struggling to think of another sports game I’ve played where I felt such a sense of accomplishment.

All of your standard game modes are present: Exhibition, Tournament, Manager, and ‘Be a Pro’. I pretty much stick to the ‘Be a Pro’ mode, it’s my favorite. You play as just one player, usually your created character, and not the rest of the squad. I actually like relying on the computer to play as the rest of the team. It adds a certain amount of realism. When a computer controlled player watches the ball run out of bounds or passes to the wrong player or misses a sitter after an inch perfect pass, I shout at my TV exactly the same way I would if I were watching a real match! My only major complaint is that for some stupid reason when playing a 'Be a Pro' game you can't request a sub for your player... my 'Simon' is tired, give him a rest!

New to FIFA 11 is the 'Be a Goalkeeper’ mode. Now you can have full 11 vs. 11 matches online. Playing as a goalkeeper is a novel idea, but honestly it’s pretty boring. I’ve played in goal many times in real life and trust me, it’s ninety minutes of boredom with about thirty seconds of sheer terror. The goalkeeper controls are okay, but they don’t work too well, almost like this mode was tacked on. Hopefully, it will be honed in future versions.

I’ve yet to mention the graphics, but they are the best to date for the franchise. The stadiums (most of which are real) look phenomenal. The on-field animations are excellent, more fluid and realistic in the way the players move and react. They’ve really gone into a lot of detail with the major names in the sport. If you follow international soccer much, as I do, then you will be impressed with the recognition factor. Sadly though, that doesn’t translate into the less well known, or the ‘Virtual Pro’ creator. I know I ain't pretty, but I don’t look quite that bad!

The sound work is excellent as well. Andy Gray and Martin Tyler are back, reprising their roles as the commentary team. They have created quite a library of quotes over the years, and keep adding more. As a result, there is tremendous variation during the game. For the most part it is spot on as well, although there are still instances when they will say something completely out of place. The soundtrack is great every year, that’s no surprise, and the new stadium chants are fantastic. I love hearing "You’ll Never Walk Alone" belted out at Anfield after a goal… 

FIFA 11 is a much improved soccer simulation but ultimately it may be a step back for the series. It reflects what really happens on the field more realistically than ever before... but it may be too realistic for its own good. The added difficulty leads to a much slower paced game. If you appreciate the intricacies of the sport then you will play through this, but I feel like it may alienate some of the more casual fans (and casual gamers). But if you invest the time to get good at FIFA 11, it’s probably the most rewarding sports game I have ever played. Students of the beautiful game will appreciate it. When you place that inch perfect cross for a headed goal, or when you really catch a hold of one and score a cracker, man… it’s awesome! When that ball hits the back of net… well, I’m up off the couch like a shot, startling my girlfriend and scaring the crap out of the cat! It takes something special to elicit that kind of response, and FIFA 11 definitely delivers.


Score = 9.0 / 10

Friday, December 10, 2010

Borderlands (8.3/10)

I remember when I first read about Borderlands; it sounded cool, if not a little ambitious. Over one million guns?! Sign me up! A massive shooter/RPG? That’s right up my alley! And what’s more, apparently it was best played with others. While I don’t play games online too often, I had been looking for a game to co-op with my girlfriend. Borderlands fit the bill and without further ado we set off to Pandora…

... a cracked desert wasteland shimmers in the background. From behind a broken billboard creeps a Skag. It looks like a cross between a lizard and a dog, until it's muzzle splits vertically and it emits a roar... Fortunately it gets squished as a bus hurtles down the faded pavement. Catchy music plays in the background as it's carcass bounces on the bumper. Sound bizarre? It is. But it’s pretty cool, I'll say that. On board, four strangers prepare to set out on a quest that will determine the fate of this world...

You play as one of these unlikely cohorts, a Vault Hunter. There are four characters on the bus that you can choose from, each with his (or her) own unique skill tree and specialty. Mordecai the Hunter's special skill is his pet bird thingie named Bloodwing that you can sick on enemies. He likes pistols and sniper rifles. Lilith the Siren can travel to an alternate dimension and sneak up on enemies invisibly with super speed. She then reenters our dimension with a flash that does damage. She’s good with elemental weapons. Roland the Soldier has a deployable turret, which can do everything from shoot enemies to drop extra ammunition. He's partial to assault rifles and shotguns. Lastly there is Brick: a huge, hulking brute whose "fists are as powerful as any gun." He specializes in using his mitts, and explosives (in case his mitts aren’t enough). You’ve heard the colloquialism "built like a brick sh*thouse?" He personifies it.

After you select your character, you are dropped off at the bustling metropolis known as Fyrestone. No sooner do you step off the bus when a vision, blurry and indistinct, appears before you. A feminine voice tells you that you must trust her. Somewhere on the wasted planet of Pandora there exists a 'Vault.' This Vault can only be accessed every two hundred years, and only with a special key. Legend says that the treasures found therein are beyond compare: alien technology, weapons, and wealth. You must get to the Vault first, and she will guide you on your quest. As instructed by your new ‘Guardian Angel’, you quickly befriend a Claptrap who unlocks the gate to Fyrestone.

A quick aside here… Claptraps are essentially a cross between Number 5 from Short Circuit and R2-D2 from Star Wars with dash of WALL-E thrown in. If I may be permitted another Star Wars reference, they are the Jar Jar Binks of the robot collective. While they would occasionally elicit a chuckle, I quickly grew tired of their pseudo-robot voices repeating the same stupid phrases ad nauseum. Fortunately, after the initial section they are much sparser, just popping up from time to time to open doors and, apparently, annoy me some more...

Anyway, once you set foot in Fyrestone the shooting starts… and doesn’t stop for about 25 hours. Boasting over 1.7 million different weapons, Borderlands should have been sponsored by the NRA. You have the standard loadout of assault rifles, SMG’s, pistols, shotguns, rocket launchers, and sniper rifles. Different manufactures build variations on the same setup. One company might make elemental weapons that deal electrical or fire damage (or blast damage or corrosive damage, again the possibilities are astronomical) while others might cause more damage at the cost of accuracy or a larger clip size. Want a shotgun with a sniper scope that shoots acid? Or an incendiary automatic with a 90 round clip? They exist; you’ve just got to find them!

But what makes Borderlands fun is not just this vast array of armaments, but the fact that the controls make using them a joy! While it's standard FPS fare, the gunplay is smooth and responsive. It’s been done to death, but it’s nice to find one that works so well! Oh, and I didn’t mention this yet, but the vehicles control pretty well too, although they are quite sensitive. Pandora is a big place, gotta get around somehow...

So now you have this virtually unlimited supply of awesomeness and excellent controls to play with you'll need targets! Fortunately, Pandora isn't lacking in willing cannon fodder. Those intent on stopping you in your quest for the Vault are various gangs of roving misfits under the leadership of loveable cretins like Nine-Toes (He has 3 Balls! Or so the game would have believe...). Mostly your standard ‘bandit’ stereotype, they come in different sizes and strengths. Aside from regular, gun-toting goons there are others. Bruisers are big, ugly brutes with automatic weapons. Psychos charge you banzai style. Midgets are… midgets, although some have shotguns.

Apart from the post-apocalyptic Mad Max style marauders, there is plenty of indigenous wildlife to make Pandora even more miserable. Skags are the main nuisance early on. Some of them spit, others are elemental, and some are ‘Badass,’ which is pretty much what the name implies: much harder to kill. As you travel to more areas of Pandora you’ll have to deal with other pests. They all follow the same basic progression (as do your human enemies): normal, then bigger, then elemental, then ‘Badass,’ then ‘Badass’ elemental, etc. Simply sight, shoot, and repeat...

The nonstop gunplay and large world to play in makes Borderlands a fun game, especially with friends. The cel-shaded anime graphical style works well, it's certainly effective. Gearbox deserves credit for their imagination and implementation of the extensive armory. But despite good times spent mowing down endless hordes of bad guys with a veritable smorgasbord of firepower, there were a number of technical issues and design decisions that held it back for me.

The abundance of weapons can be overwhelming, you'll spend a great deal of time ‘in menu’ comparing what you have collected and trying to figure out what to stick with… or in my case arguing with my girlfriend over who got the new shotgun or shield upgrade. This leads me to another quick aside… or rather, b*tch session. No, this is not about my girlfriend getting the good gun. It’s the menu situation in local co-op. The menu you use to access your inventory, maps, quests, etc is fine, unless you are playing splitscreen. For some reason it was decided to split the screen vertically for local co-op. As a result, the window to view the menu has been cut in half… so you can only see half the menu. What... the... hell!? You actually have to move the menu back and forth to see where you are going on the map or to compare weapons stats because it won’t fit on your half of the screen. You get used to it but that doesn’t make the initial idea any less moronic.

Another issue with the staggering number of weapons is that occasionally you'll can get lucky and find a particularly effective weapon that will give you an advantage. I literally used one shotgun for the final half of the game because, despite finding literally hundreds of other options, none could compare to what I already had. I was constantly disappointed every time we found a weapons crate. I couldn’t find anything better to use, just more and more stuff to sell. Both my girlfriend and I ended the game with millions in the bank because there wasn’t even anything worth buying in the vending machines… didn’t I mention that the vending machines sell guns on Pandora? Couldn’t get a nice cold beer to save my life though...

Sadly, a beer would have made the story go down easier. The plot is pretty much non-existent after it’s promising initial premise. Borderlands does a great job of splitting its attention between being a shooter and a role-playing game. There are a ton of side quests to do from various NPC’s and bounty boards (these are generally either boring collection or fetch quests, but they are still pretty entertaining). But for me, a big part of any RPG experience has to be the story. Borderlands falls short in this regard. There is so much random running around between plot points that you forget what you were doing in the first place. When the response is "Go find another piece of the Vault key," you think to yourself "Oh yeah, we’re trying to get to the Vault. Okay, I’ll go get another piece… maybe there will be something interesting to do on the way…"

I also had some technical issues with Borderlands. There are texture loading issues (at least on the PS3 version), and towards the end there was some lagging. However, my main gripe is about allowing the game enough time to save. There is a symbol that pops up in the corner whenever you are near a save point. You’ve already heard me bitch about the poor splitscreen menus. Well, you need to make sure that the icon appears on BOTH screens (it won’t do it at the same time, in fact it saves the second player first). If you’re not paying attention and you turn off the system then you can get a corrupted save file that will not load. This is severely annoying to say the least. 

Borderlands has been a pain in the ass to review… because despite its annoyances there is a lot to like on Pandora. The graphics are effective; a clever choice. The sound effects are great on the weapons and the opening and closing soundtracks are awesome! The breadth of weaponry is a dream, almost too much so! The gunplay is fast and frantic, but the great controls make it a blast! While I have had a lot of gripes about Borderlands as a whole, it really is a fun game. And, if you have the option of playing the game with others (either online or locally, despite the crap menu debacle), that’s the way to go. There are definitely some good times to be found hunting for the Vault if you are playing with friends!

I’ll leave you with this… one of the funnier things that happens in Borderlands is the loot drops. When you finish an enemy off they fall in a shower of dropped goodies be it ammo or guns, or occasionally, health. For some bizarre reason when a health pack is dropped it looks suspiciously like a rubber phallus. There is something magical about your girlfriend shouting "Dildo here!" or me inquiring if she’s in need of "the dildo at my feet." It’s good to know that things aren’t all bad in Pandora…


Score = 8.3 / 10

BioShock (9.8/10)

BioShock is anexperience. I think that’s the best term to use. I mulled this over for quite a while, and all I can really say is that you’ll understand if you play it. It is, without a doubt, my favorite game of this generation, and probably my favorite game of all time.

BioShock starts as the 1950's give way to the 60's. You are riding in a plane over the ocean when it goes down… you break surface, gasping for breath as the wreckage sinks around you and fire spreads over the water. As you are floundering amidst the flames you see a lighthouse on a small outcropping. Seems a bit odd considering, but what choice do you have? You climb the steps, soaked from head to toe, and enter… a different world. A small submarine lies at the bottom of a set of stairs. Overhead ominously looms a giant statue holding a banner reading "No gods or kings. Only man." With no other options you take a submersible down into the deep. As you crest a rise on the seabed the shining city is revealed and it’s a sight to behold: Rapture. One man’s utopian vision… and it’s falling apart, decaying. Something has gone terribly wrong in Rapture, and it has more to do with you than you might imagine…

From that auspicious introduction, BioShock draws you in and will not let go. Creeping along the corroding corridors of the sunken city brought to life with some pretty good graphics and great sound work, creates a foreboding atmosphere that is second to none. You pause to peer around every corner… and what you’ll see is shocking. An entire city of the best and brightest minds on the planet, brought down to the lowest common denominator by their shared addiction to a drug called ADAM. Mutated and twisted in both mind and body, they are ruthless, reckless, and completely off their rockers. These splicers (for they are spliced up on ADAM… see?) have the run of the place. And boy, have they let it go!

Their pushers, for all addicts have pushers, are… little girls?!? WTF? Angelic little girls with pretty glowing eyes and ratty dresses (something is most definitely rotten in Denmark, er… Rapture. Apologies to any Danes in the audience…), who, upon finding corpses, fall to their grubby little knees and gleefully stab, stab, STAB away with massive syringes harvesting the precious ADAM. These are the Little Sisters, all the while they are watched over by their silent (mostly) bodyguards, the lumbering Big Daddies. You can imagine how this dynamic plays out, especially if you want the ADAM. A Big Daddy will not relinquish his ward without a fight! I won't spoil it for you, but each of these encounters is harrowing and challenging to say the least. As soon as you hear one stomping around, you'll instantly be on your guard. However, there is a moral conundrum waiting you when you have finally defeated their guardians. You can save the Little Sister from her fate and return her to being a normal pretty, pretty princess, or harvest her for more ADAM…

And you do want the ADAM, because that’s the currency you need to purchase your plasmids. "Plasmids? What are they?" I hear you inquire. The short hand is plasmids are the ‘magic’ of Rapture. Take this shiny syringe and inject liquid lightning into your fingertips! See those splicers over there in that puddle (after all, we are under the bloody ocean, and Rapture is coming apart at the seams!)? Give it a zap and watch them all go down! And it doesn’t stop there! With a snap of your fingers you can set fire to, well, pretty much anything. Want to grab that oil barrel and drop it on those unsuspecting splicers there? Use telekinesis. That annoying baddie that is chasing you around, screaming gibberish? Zap him with lightning, then as he stands stunned, bash him in the noggin with your wrench! The ol’ one-two!

And it works brilliantly because one side of your controller’s shoulder buttons is for your normal weapons (guns, wrench, etc) and the other is for plasmids. Switching back and forth is quick and easy. Hitting the right or left shoulder buttons (not the triggers) will bring up a "weapon wheel" which you can then use to switch armaments as the situation dictates. The action pauses when you do this, so you don’t get clobbered while trying to change your equipment. With a little practice and you will be dicing splicers in no time.

However, splicers are just the foot soldiers of Rapture and really not much more than cannon fodder. There are much bigger, more nefarious, fish in this pond. The narrative of BioShock is a clever piece of fiction. A colorful cast of lunatics is brought to life by some excellent voice work and writing. Rapture is full of secrets in the form of audio diaries that have been left by its populace, at least those that are still with it enough to leave anything coherent. These are by no means necessary for the completion of the game, but they do an incredible job of fleshing out the story. The motivations of the cast and little eccentricities of the story are better explained. The characters themselves are more than memorable (not to mention messed up! Sander Cohen makes me smile:^) and plot will keep you guessing until… about two thirds of the way though, there is the biggest and best plot twist of any game I’ve ever played. I won't give any more specifics, for fear of spoiling the surprise. It is brilliantly done, and worth the price of admission on it’s own.

I feel like I’ve been doing nothing here but lauding BioShock but it's not quite perfect. The targeting can be a bit twitchy. There is a slight learning curve with the controls. Some mini games, like hacking terminals or sentry bots, can get a bit tedious towards the end. The clunky menu makes it difficult to look up plot points, and the map is not exactly intuitive.

The biggest complaint is that Vita-Chambers make the game too easy. Let me explain… Vita-Chambers are magical machines where you respawn after you die. You can run right back into the fight and your enemies will retain the damage you caused. Basically this means you can run up and bash a Big Daddy in the head with a wrench at which point he will most likely squish you. You then respawn at the Vita-Chamber and can run right back and bash him again. You can do this over and over again with no penalty, slowly whittling away his health. Generally I don’t complain about things being too easy, but it’s difficult not to notice when the design negates any challenge. Of course, most people won’t play the game that way but there you have it.

I love this game... I beat the game the first time in two days. Two days of straight playing through the horror that was Rapture… but let me tell you more. My best friend was home for Christmas that year and he hung out in my condo, drank all my beer, and played BioShock. I actually took a day off of work to make sure I was there for the main plot twist just so I could see the look on his face. And you know what? It was totally worth it. As I said in the beginning, BioShock is an experience. Would you kindly just trust me on this… play it and see.


Score = 9.8 / 10