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Saturday, January 29, 2011

Gears of War (9.3/10)

Here's a trailer for Gears of War. I normally don't put links like this in my reviews, but this one is just too awesome. Please to enjoy...

Gears of War was the reason I purchased an Xbox 360. It delivered brilliant graphics the likes of which we hadn't really seen at that point, but addictive gameplay, along with an intriguing blockbuster story meant Gears of War was the complete package. Oh yeah, the machine guns have chainsaws on them...

Gears of War takes place on the planet Sera. But one fateful day, known as "Emergence Day" to those who survived, a race of hostile, subterranean creatures erupt from underneath the ground. The Locust, a fitting moniker if I may say so, commence a brutal and decisive offensive against humanity. Caught completely unawares, the humans suffer massive casualties and soon resort to sub-space aerial bombardments, decimating their own cities in the process. Naturally the Locust simply disappeared back underground. Now the last remnants of humanity face a desperate fight for survival against the encroaching Locust hordes...

You play as Marcus Fenix, a steely veteran who is currently rotting away in a military prison due do his propensity for ignoring orders. But as things go from bad to worse in the ongoing war against the Locust, his friend Dominic Santiago shows up to rescue him. The two head off to join up with Delta Squad. Under the overall command of General Hoffman, who incidentally is not in the Marcus Fenix fan club, Delta is tasked with finding Alpha Squad. They were placed in charge of the 'Resonator,' basically a sonar-bomb that would map the underground Locust tunnels. The intel would be invaluable, but now Alpha has gone dark.

Now, I don't want to spoil to much, but they do find Alpha Squad... what's left of them. After the leader of Delta Squad, Lieutenant Kim, is brutally killed by the heinous General Raam, the leader of the Locust attack forces, Marcus takes over the squad. Marcus and Dom join with Cole (a former thrash-ball superstar and all around badass) and Baird (a wise-cracking, sarcastic, slightly annoying soldier), reforming Delta Squad to continue the mission. The story ain't bad, but it ain't great either... definitely summer blockbuster type stuff.

The over-the-shoulder third person gunplay is excellent with the emphasis being on unloading a crapload of lead into the Locust. Apparently they have an annoying physiology that allows them to act like bullet sponges. It takes a fair number of even the most well placed shots with your standard 'Lancer' (that's the one with the chainsaw;^) to bring them down. Soldiers with heavy trigger fingers will find themselves running out of ammo if they aren't careful!

But what makes Gears of War so addictive and fun is it's brilliant cover system. A quick press of the 'A' button and Marcus will slide into cover. From there you can blindfire around or over that cover, or by aiming, target specific enemies. Release the aim button and you go back into relative safety. You can also move while in cover, say along a wall, to give yourself a better angle. Then, if you want to move to a piece of cover nearby, from one pillar to another for example, the game will prompt you. And if you want to move up and get out of cover, it's just another press of the 'A' button and you're off!

I have to say this... I honestly find it astonishing that more games out there haven't stolen the cover mechanic from Gears of War as it is easily the best, not to mention the most functional, version available. Popping in and out of cover is smooth. You don't get "glued" to cover (at least not very often), a complaint all too common in other games.

The 'Lancer' is your standard weapon, and that means the now famous chainsaw bayonet. As you might surmise, this adds a new dimension to melee combat. By holding down 'B,' Marcus and company can "rev up" their chainsaws. Get close to your victim and then let the chainsaw do what chainsaws do:^) Fair warning, increased graphical fidelity doesn't pull any punches... so you get to see the results of a good chainsawing in all its bloody HD glory. But caution is necessary when attempting this maneuver because if you are spotted and shot, the chainsaw will fall silent and need to be revved up again. It takes a mere moment to get it ready, but by that time it may be too late. Of course, to some players (*raises hand*), the reward far outweighs the risk. Chainsawing a Locust to pieces is one of the great joys of modern gaming as far as I am concerned. I'm smiling sadistically just writing about it. What? Don't look at me like that?!?

Then there is the 'Active Reload,' another novel idea that is unique to the Gears franchise. By pressing the 'Right Button' above the trigger you start a slide meter. Let the meter go all the way to the end, and Marcus will take his time reloading. But there is a small section where, if you time a second click of RB, he will reload much more quickly. But there is risk involved: mistime that reload and the gun will jam, leaving you stuck for a moment as Marcus curses futilely!

For me, the real joys of Gears of War come from sharing the fight with a friend. Co-op, either local or online, is definitely the way to go. Plus, in local co-op Epic chose to split the screen horizontally, giving you top and bottom screens instead of left and right. This allows for more peripheral vision. I swear, I'll never understand why other games split the screen vertically, this way is obviously superior. Sorry had to get that out! Plus, co-oping expands the experience. Whenever you encounter a split path in the game you can choose one path while your partner takes the other. Now you'll be able to cover each other. It's clever level design. And, should your character be wounded you can slowly crawl through the surrounding chaos towards your teammates. If they can get to you in time you can be healed and get back into the fight!

As I said initially, Gears of War boasts excellent graphics. At the time of it's release they were second to none. It was one of the first popular examples of what was possible with the new generation of consoles... and it wowed everyone. The Unreal Engine 3, also developed by Epic, allowed stunning lighting and water effects, not to mention bucket loads of blood. Hell, I still think they look good!

Gears of War has decent sound to boot, but don't be surprised if you find yourself caught halfway between wincing and chuckling at some of the hammy, hyper-cliched dialogue these walking steroid poster-boys spout. But then there are the Locust... can you honestly tell me you won't remember the howl of the Wretches or the hiss of a Theron Guard? I thought not.

While Gears of War is an excellent shooter, and a loads of fun to play with a friend, it's not without some problems. The enemy AI can be a bit perplexing at times. Sure, they make good use of the cover mechanic but will still leave bits of themselves exposed. The 'Boss' battles, which I won't spoil for you, while cleverly designed, can be frustrating. Oh, and the vehicle section was rubbish and really should have been left out entirely.

I never played Gears online multiplayer because I don't have an XBLA. If I do ever get one I hope there are still people playing Gears online. As fun and addictive as the campaign can be I can only imagine how cool the online chaos is... I'd really love to be able to chainsaw someone else, or curb stomp them while laughing into a Bluetooth.

For many years my best friend would come into town during summer and Christmas breaks and we would play Gears of War over and over (how many times have I beaten this game? 7 or 8 at least...). Good times... Some of the innovations Epic made with this title laid the framework for not only this franchise, but for the genre as well. It's must play title for Xbox 360 owners, and I'm not hesitant to suggest that it's a good reason to purchase the system in the first place. It really is that good, and that fun. Gears of War is truly an epic title from Epic games.


Score = 9.3 / 10

Little Big Planet: GOTY Edition (9.3/10)

Little Big Planet takes a simple idea: create a fun yet complex and challenging platformer, and expands it to stratospheric proportions. By giving the public at large the tools to create their own game levels, LBP has opened the door to an untapped resource. I doubt they expected such and overwhelming response. As cute as the main game is, the breadth and depth of the user-created content is mind boggling... over 3.5 million levels have been created by the avid LBP community.

Where to begin... LBP is really just a platformer at heart. You control a 'Sack-person,' a cuddly little thing (guy or girl, you can dress them up however you want) who runs and jumps through increasingly difficult and complex levels. The story is pretty odd, revolving around an evil "Collector" who is stealing the creations of others and keeping them for himself. Seeing as sharing your creations with others is kinda the whole point of LBP, this is obviously a problem. Sackboy embarks on a quest through jungles and temples, canyons and castles. It's cute, if more than a little bizarre, but that's not really the point, now is it? This is one of those situations where 'Concept' trumps 'Story' in my opinion.

The platforming is robust and clever. Not just 2D but not quite 3D, most of the action involves classic side-scrolling platforming that we have been playing since we were kids. But Sackboy can also move from the foreground to the middle to the background, giving it some depth. That depth creates more options for level design and gameplay. Personally I don't think that it controls particularly well on this plane, but it does allow for more possibilities. 

The other major component is the Sackboy's ability to grab stuff. Certain materials are grippable, and Sackboy can maneuver them to make new areas accessible. Perhaps a block of spongy material is strung up over a chasm? Jump, then grip and use your momentum to swing across the gap. You'll notice though, that the momentum is realistic. Let go too soon and you won't have a high enough arc. Let go too late and you'll go straight up, then straight back down to your death. The physics involved in this are truly impressive... seriously.

This realistic physics engine gives objects, including Sackboy, real weight. It's ingenious and very effective, you can feel the instant you've mistimed something... you know it won't end well! It makes the game almost frustratingly difficult in places, even if you are marveling at the physics through gritted teeth. That said, when you get it right, it's exhilarating. My girlfriend and I were constantly high-fiving each other after we'd get through a particularly difficult stretch. There is a real sense of accomplishment, especially towards the latter part of the game.

As you play LBP you collect 'Bubbles' that score you points. However, some bigger 'Bubbles' have objects inside (and are worth more points). These collectibles encompass everything from costumes and accessories for your Sackperson (some of which are down-right hilarious) to stickers you can use to decorate your levels. But some of them are functional; materials for use in your creations. The thing is, and I actually quite like this although I've heard some people complain about it, is that to build really cool levels you need to have played through the game to get all the necessary tools and materials to even have the ability to begin to make your dreams a digital reality.

Collectibles are all over the place in LBP, with some that are devilishly well hidden. God only knows how long it would take to get them all... we certainly didn't. That's mostly because just about every level has some form of multiplayer component. In other words, there are sections where you need multiple Sack-people to access it. This might mean that one person moves a switch that will move a platform to the other side of a chasm where there is loot for the taking. One player hops on the platform, the other operates the switch. That's a very simplified version of the puzzles in the game, but you get the idea.... cooperation is necessary.

But what is soooooo cool about LBP is that it puts the tools to create playable levels in the hands of the gamers themselves. There is a whole slew of tutorials to walk you through the creation process... and then off you go! You are only limited by your own imagination and creativity. But the truth is to really make a good level takes a lot of time, not to mention trial and error. It's a fairly complex interface, that takes more than a little practice to get proficient with it. We messed around with it a bit, but I'll be the first to admit I don't have the imagination, patience, or creativity to create a really good level.

That said, get online and check out some of the stuff others have created. Some of them are truly astonishing (we played a Dead Space tribute level that was actually scary... how cool is that?!). These strangers have put and insane amount of time and energy into these efforts, purely for the joy of creating something to share with everyone. And for that I am grateful, because it essentially makes LBP infinitely re-playable. Again, over 3.5 million levels have been created... that's a LOT of work. And while not all of them are gems, it's worth wading through the rubbish just to see what is possible, if only you put your mind to it!

I'll quickly mention the technical stuff beyond the cool gameplay physics. For what LBP is, the graphics are pretty good. I'm particularly taken with the textures... the cloth that makes the Sackboy looks real. The backgrounds and level design look good as well, as relatively simple or detailed as you want them to be. Of course, the good people at Media Molecule have outdone themselves setting the bar very high, making each level almost overwhelmingly colorful and vibrant!

Most platformers are from an older era, but we know their jingles by heart. Even if you aren't a gamer, you probably know some of them in all their 8-bit glory! LBP is no exception. Some of the soundtrack is quite cute, complimenting the cute graphics and cute characters making some sort of disgusting, yet irresistible, cuteness sandwich. Of course, just like the classic tunes, these get a little old as well. 

There isn't really much in the way of voice work (Sackpeople sadly don't talk much, but if they did, oh the stories they'd tell!) with one major and notable exception... the wonderful Steven Fry is the voice of the narrator, who not only tells the tale of LBP but also explains how all the tools work when you are creating levels. All done in a glorious, refined, hoighty-toighty British accent! He's brilliant...

Little Big Planet is a truly impressive accomplishment. Media Molecule should be commended for not just creating a fun and clever game, but for introducing the tools to allow the gaming community to create for themselves. While I never really did more than dabble in the level creator, I can't tell you the inordinate amount of time we spend simply dressing up our Sack-people. It's fun to just make quirky costumes! But I'd say the response they have received speaks for itself. I'll admit I'm a mere leech to the brilliant efforts of others, but I've enjoyed not only the game on it's own but the creations of the community at large as well. It means there will always be something new to try. So to Media Molecule I say thank you, but I also thank all the people who have put their own time and effort into their creations, because we have enjoyed them at our house!


Score = 9.3 / 10

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Call of Duty: World at War (8.3/10)

I seem to be working my way backwards with my Call of Duty reviews. This time it's Call of Duty: World at War, which returns the franchise to its WWII roots after the ground breaking success of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. While CoD:WaW isn't as good as that instant classic, it is a great WWII shooter and a lot of fun to play with a friend.

The story follows two main plotlines and switches back and forth between them. The first is that of one Private Miller, a marine who is fighting in the Pacific theater towards the end of the war. The Japanese are dug in all over the islands of the South Pacific, and the Marines have been sent to root them out. As the game begins you take control of a captured and beaten Private Miller. From his perspective you watch as another prisoner is brutally murdered. But then Corporal Roebuck (well voiced by Keifer Sutherland) rescues you. Fighting along side Jack Bauer... I mean Cpl. Roebuck, you escape to battle another day.

Unfortunately, that next fight is the pivotal Battle of Peleliu. Facing endless banzai charges, spider holes, and tunnels full of Japanese troops is intense and nerve-wracking! In reality, the fierce battle for that small speck of land lasted nearly two months and cost 6500 Americans soldiers their lives, and twice as many Japanese. It's widely regarded as one of the toughest and most bitterly fought battles in the whole of WWII.

Along a similar vein, the second story to CoD:WaW, follows another Private, this time in the Russian army. His name is Petrenko, and he is fighting tooth and nail against the Nazis during the horrendous Battle for Stalingrad. Our young soldier joins up with Viktor Reznov (voiced by the incomparable Gary Oldman) to attempt an assassination of a German general (the games obligatory CoD sniper mission). Several years down the road, an unlikely reunion of Petrenko and Reznov occurs and together you push the Germans back all the way to Berlin, eventually assualting the Reichstag itself.

Like the real life Battle of Peleliu, the defense of Stalingrad and the subsequent march into Germany was a terrible time. Treyarch have done well in capturing the hopeless desperation of these defining moments of WWII, but they don't pull any punches. Be forewarned, this is a graphic, violent game... that is driven home all the more forcefully by the fact that it is based on real events.

The gameplay is standard FPS, although you might find yourself struggling early on on with the period specific weapons. They don't hold nearly as many rounds as we have become used to in modern military shooters. Don't worry, I dive for the nearest sub-machine gun too! The controls are as tight and responsive as we have come to expect from the CoD series.

As for the game design, your typical CoD standby's like sniper missions and a brief piloting section are all present and accounted for. They don't compare to the high water mark set by CoD4:MW, and as a result feel tacked on. As for the "regular" levels, they are also pretty standard fare: overwhelming odds and lots and lots of dead bodies. The levels are designed to have a lot more open spaces, so you can try different routes. But it seems like for everything CoD:WaW does right, it still suffers for the same maladies that plague it's cousins. Poor missions objectives have you killing most of the Nazis in Germany before you finally realize that you need to be standing ten feet to your left to keep them from continually respawning.

The sections where you play as the marine against the Japanese are particularly frustrating in this regard. It seems like you never get the chance to strategically move up the battlefield before the next charge comes. As a result you end up charging blindly ahead, hoping to survive long enough that if you die in a hail of bullets you'll at least start further up the hill. It can get very frustrating, especially on the harder difficulty levels.

The graphics in CoD:WaW are pretty good, as the environments and animations are well done. I did suffer some lag issues, even in the single player campaign. The sound is good as well, with the aforementioned big Hollywood names providing the voices being the main highlight, but the sound effects and period specific weapons make it all the more real and intense.

But probably my favorite part of of CoD:WaW is the infamous 'Nazis Zombies' level that you unlock after finishing the campaign. Shamelessly piggy-backing on the Zombie renaissance that has gripped gamers and movie goers alike in the last 10 years or so, you find yourself in a dilapidated house armed with only a pistol. Slowly materializing out of the mists come the walking dead (that hasn't been copyrighted has it?), slowly shambling up to the windows, they tear at the slats to get inside. But they aren't just your normal run of the mill zombies, these are Nazi zombies... which is somehow worse! Shoot them quickly, and constantly move to check the other windows! When you complete a 'Level/Round' you have a brief respite to rebuild the fortifications or buy new weapons from the points you have accrued. Each weapon is crudely stenciled on the wall, you can take your pick. You can also spend your points to unlock new portions of the house, which will also open up more weapon choices.

But here's the rub: as the next round begins, you'll notice that the zombies are shambling just a bit faster this time. Take care of those brain-eaters and the next round they will again be faster, and the one after that faster still. And they will keep coming, breaking through walls and climbing through windows... and then it dawns on you, the awful truth: there is no escape, no way to win! The goal is to simply survive as long as you can, but the unfortunate end is unavoidable.

I have to tell you, this mode is an absolute blast, especially if you can share the horror with a friend. I've spent many late night drunken hours shouting at the TV with a friend beside me on the couch. I'm sure my neighbors have heard us: "Check that window!" or "Crap, they've broken through!" or the classic "HELP! I'm cornered!" As you get through the rounds and the zombies come faster and faster it gets very intense. I think that the highest we got was level 12 or so, and by that point the undead bastards were practically sprinting at us. I want to play this online where you can have up to four players defending the house at once! 

It can be said that if you've played one WWII shooter, you've played them all. While I've certainly killed enough imaginary Nazis over the years, I've never played a WWII game that is as gritty and intense as Call of Duty: World at War. From the endless waves of Japanese banzai charges that the marines faced in the South Pacific to the hell on earth that was the siege of Stalingrad and subsequent push back into Germany by the Russian army, everything in CoD:WaW is all so shockingly... real. Well, real-ish... but that doesn't change the fact that the horrors of WWII have never been captured so vividly.


Score = 8.3 / 10

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed Ultimate Sith Edition (7.7/10)

An Imperial Star Destroyer floats through space over an unnamed planet, it's menacing facade a testament to the might of the Empire. But then, inexplicably, it shudders... and begins to sink towards the world below. As is comes crashing down you see that a long figure is responsible. As the massive cruiser grinds to a halt in front of him, you hear the trademark snap-hiss and a red lightsaber glows... there is another Sith, Darth Vader's secret apprentice. 

Such was the initial teaser trailer for Star Wars: The Force Unleashed. It gave me goosebumps. The Force Unleashed gives the player access to the Force in a way we haven't yet experienced, but have always wanted to... you even get to re-create that scene described above. Bringing down a Star Destroyer from orbit... um, yes please! But sadly, like most of The Force Unleashed, as cool as it sounds it just doesn't work well in practice. 

The Force Unleashed bridges the gap between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope during that dark time when Darth Vader is hunting down the last of the Jedi Knights. Vader follows a lead to the Wookie planet of Kashyyyk where, after cutting through waves of unfortunate Wookies, he kills the fugitive Jedi. But then he makes a surprising discovery... the Jedi had a son! This boy has an astonishing affinity to the Force. Vader takes the child to train in secret to be his apprentice, hidden even from his master, the Emperor. The boy grows to be a young man known as Starkiller. He possesses remarkable abilities and makes a formidable assassin as he hunts the galaxy for the remaining Jedi.

I don't want to give too much of the story away, because I think it's actually quite good, and fits cleverly into the over all canon of Star Wars. The events of The Force Unleashed set in motion everything that follows. Personally, I found the writing impressive, they were able to add to the mythology in a meaningful way. It takes some unexpected twists and turns, but ultimately it comes down to good versus evil as Starkiller struggles with the Dark Side. As you would expect, in the end you must make a choice for one side or the other. Again, I don't want to spoil anything, but one ending lets the story continue as we know it, while the other changes it drastically... leading to the advent of the 'Star Wars Infinities' which is essentially an altered timeline, "What would have happened if..." scenario. It's a clever idea that opens up all sorts of interesting possibilities, but for the sake of The Force Unleashed it ties directly into the DLC (which I will mention at the very end of the review as it does contain some SPOILERS). Oh, and I liked your robot pal PROXY, even if he is just a cheap rip-off of HK-47 from Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic.

The third-person action gameplay is difficult to define. On the one hand, it gives you access to the full power of the Force in a way that would give most Star Wars nerds wet dreams. But on the other lies the dark side of terrible cameras, unresponsive controls, a completely useless and broken targeting mechanic, and some truly confusing design choices that make you wonder how Lucas Arts could have thought these were good ideas in the first place.

Wielding a lightsaber is a blast. Starkiller becomes a whirling dervish of Jedi awesomeness. Your combos are fairly limited, but they still look cool as hell. His Force powers, while over-exaggerated to the point it's almost comical, are where the fun really comes in. Starkiller is so powerful you wonder how he doesn't just take over the universe on his own. Force Push sends enemies flying for miles... literally. Force Repulse can destroy an entire room as he releases an expanding bubble of Force energy. Grabbing a stormtrooper with the Force and flinging him into his squadmates is a thing of beauty, and a far more violent act than we saw in any of the movies. Taking the time to master the controls is worth the effort. Starkiller effortlessly slices his way through stormtroopers, zapping some with lightning before picking up the last survivor and casually impaling him with a lightsaber toss... well, I found it difficult to keep from grinning.

When it comes to the design of The Force Unleashed, the results are a mixed bag. Some of the levels are cleverly set up. This is spoiled when, in the second half of the game, you revisit each location and basically play the level all over again. It seemed quite lazy to me... a cop out, like they ran out of ideas and enemies. Oh, and speaking of enemies, I'd have been happier just killing thousands upon thousands of standard stormtroopers rather than some of the 'special' enemies they came up with. While these were cool ideas, they ended up just being frustrating pattern-oriented baddies that I was sick of after the second time I faced them.

Another issue is the 'Quicktime' events. In some games they work, but in The Force Unleashed they fail pretty handily. It almost always ends up being an exercise in trial and error until you get the pattern down. What kills me though is that these sequences are an integral part of every boss battle... after spending ages figuring out the 'Boss pattern' and whittling down their health, you are prompted to "Finish him!" with a psuedo-interactive QTE sequence. Despite being frustrating, I'd actually like to watch those kick-ass Jedi battle scenes, not straining to pay attention to the next button I'm supposed to press.

I also wasn't a fan of the platforming, which was annoying because most levels require some sort of platforming element. Even these seemingly simply and straightforward "Hop from this platform to that one..." are exercises in frustration. Because of the awful camera and it's propensity to move without warning you, poor Starkiller often leaps to his death. The double jump mechanic, while fine, doesn't give you a good idea of where you are, so even judging distance to a particular point is difficult. I found myself rolling my eyes constantly, resigned to the fact I had to do it again and again...

Oh, and then there is the Star Destroyer sequence from the trailer that I mentioned at the beginning. It's completely broken; a frustrating waste of time. I can't tell you how astonished I am that something like this could actually make it into the final build of a game, least of all a Star Wars game. I mean, come on Lucas Arts! What the hell?!?

Apart from the design issues, from a technical standpoint The Force Unleashed isn't too bad. The graphics are pretty decent. While the environments look great, the characters models and animations aren't nearly on par. In game they are okay, Starkiller looks a proper badass as he cuts his way through waves of stormtroopers. But in the in-game cutscenes he looks quite blocky. The facial animations, especially the eyes, leave a lot to be desired. It's obvious they were going for expressive, but it comes off as either constantly surprised or mentally handicapped. The other weird thing is about the way they walk... all of the characters seem to have the same pre-set walking animation. No matter who it is, they all stalk about the place in the same way, like they have a pole stuck somewhere rather uncomfortable... it doesn't look even remotely natural.

The soundtrack is, as we would expect, awesome. It's John Williams for Pete's sake, what more do you need to know? All of the classic sound effects are present as well, and the game is better for that attention to detail. The voice work is pretty good too, although it does suffer from some pretty poor writing and a lot of "struggling Jedi" cliches we've come to know and love thanks to Hayden Christensen. But the guy who does Vader, Matt Sloan of Chad Vader fame (if you don't know what I'm talking about look it up on, is scary good.

Scattered throughout the game are Jedi Holocrons for you to find. I wouldn't normally mention these but they do actually have in-game payoff, the most noticeable being lightsaber crystals. You can change the color and characteristics of your lightsaber, something that I think every Star Wars nerd has dreamed of... I'll admit, I've thought about what color mine would be... but one thing I never considered was a black one! And let me tell you, it looks freakin' awesome! Once you go black... well, you never go back!

I'm a full fledged Star Wars nerd and I have the tattoos to prove it! Pretty much anything with the Star Wars moniker is an easy sell for me. My first instinct about The Force Unleashed is to wonder if it was actually finished when it was released. It's as if it was rushed out the door to capitalize on the brand-name. On the whole it's a perfectly decent game, but as a Star Wars fanatic, I can attest to the fact that "decent" doesn't cut it for us anymore. I think the simple fact is I expected too much from my favorite franchise, and as a result was hugely disappointed. Seems odd that the maestro himself George Lucas would give his stamp of approval to such a shoddy product.... but then I remembered the prequels. Ah, what could have been...


Score = 7.7 / 10


The first DLC is actually a cut level from the original game, where Starkiller goes into the Jedi Temple. It's fairly short and generic, I wasn't terribly impressed. The real fun comes when you play out the alternate timelines from the end of the game...

If you decided to play as the "Dark Side" character and kill Vader at the end, Starkiller takes his place as the Emperor's apprentice and assassin. Wearing the terrifying Darth Stalker armor, Starkiller is the new Darth Vader. His first test is to go to Tatoonine, hunting for the Death Star plans. You get to visit Jabba's palace, fight all the classic characters therein, including a confrontation with Boba Fett. After offing the legendary bountry hunter in a surprisingly dull battle, Starkiller then races to Mos Eisley to prevent Luke and the gang from leaving. Obi Wan Kenobi stays behind for face Starkiller, sacrificing himself to allow the others the chance to escape.

The third DLC surrounds the events on Hoth during The Emprire Strikes Back, as Starkiller has finally caught up with Luke Skywalker. You slice and dice your way through the defense of the Hoth base, killing wampas and Rebels alike, before battling Skywalker at the end. I won't give it away, but the ending to this one is actually quite clever. Again, it's fun to think about "What would have happened if..." scenarios. I'm curious if we will see more from the 'Star Wars Infinities' alternate timelines in the future.

All in all, I wasn't that impressed with any of the DLC selections. They are smallish levels that force you to endure more of the same frustrations that plagued the regular game. With the exception of the Hoth mission, there isn't really much in the way of a story, this is simply and excuse to mess up more baddies with the Force. While that wouldn't normally be such a bad thing, the bad camera, annoying QTE's, and repetitive boss battles aren't worth putting up with in my opinion.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Uncharted: Drake's Fortune (9.3/10)

Uncharted: Drake's Fortune is one of those rare games, maybe even once in a generation (of consoles) that comes along, seemingly out of left field, and changes things for the better. Not only has Nathan Drake, the main protagonist, become a veritable gaming icon, but the game design has obviously influenced other titles that have come out since. The fast-paced, clever plot is made all the more realistic and believable by the incredible voice acting and top notch graphics. One of the first games to truly harness the power of the PS3, Uncharted set itself up as one of the marquis exclusive franchises for the system.

Nathan Drake's tale begins, as all good stories often do, at the bottom of the ocean. He has finally discovered the location of the tomb of Sir Francis Drake, his supposed descendant. Back on board his small boat he chats up the journalist Elena Fisher who is shooting a documentary about treasure hunters which is funding Drake's exhibition. But as they banter back and forth they are quite rudely interrupted by some rather unpleasant pirates who seem to think that Drake owes them money. This is, apparently, not that much of a surprise as it happens quite often. After Drake fights his way free (and you are introduced to the controls in the process) he examines the diary that was taken from the empty tomb of his forebear. Back on land, Drake and Sully, his older and perhaps less fool-hardy partner, learn that the diary reveals the location of the legendary El Dorado, the infamous city of gold described by the Conquistadors. While poor Elena is off on a phone call, the scoundrels abscond with the diary to hunt for the hypothetical city, leaving her to scream threats and curses from the dock.

However, after following his ancestors instructions and finding some ancient ruins, Drake makes a startling discovery... El Dorado isn't a city, but rather a giant golden statue, revered and feared by those that worshiped it. After searching the ruins, it becomes apparent that the statue has been moved, or rather forcibly dragged from it's place of honor. Following the trail, our intrepid duo stumble upon, of all things, a derelict Nazi U-boat that was beached halfway up the Amazon! Seems a strange place to find a sub from WWII. But while Drake is exploring the rusted hulk, Sully is taken prisoner by Gabriel Roman, a fellow treasure hunter of less moral scruples. He has been trailing our heroes, letting them do all the work only to steal the glory at the end. But when Drake refuses to cooperate, Roman shoots Sully. Drake manages to make a desperate escape, right into the arms of the woman scorned Elena, who is less than pleased to see him after being left behind, and even more annoyed that they are getting shot at! But they have bigger problems... Sully had the diary! They have only a vague idea of where to go next, and Roman has a head start!

I've hopefully whetted your appetite enough with the early plot, but I don't want to give away too much! There are a lot of twists and turns and jaw dropping moments as Drake pursues the legendary El Dorado. It has everything: action, terror, betrayal, romance, all flavored by a hefty helping of comedy to keep it light. While the end had me rolling my eyes a bit, all in all it's a good story, with a wonderful cast brought together by awesome graphics and brilliant voice work.

Speaking of the graphics and sound, that's where Uncharted truly shines. At the time of it's release. Uncharted boasted some of the best graphics anyone had ever seen. The environments are beautiful, and very detailed. The animations are smooth as silk, both in the game and in the cutscenes. The facial animations in particular are exceptional, with only a few titles to date that can compare. You'll be impressed by how the artists have created a level of expression that makes the characters all the more believable and emotive.

One of the reasons that Nathan Drake has become such an icon in the gaming community is due in no small part to the brilliant voice acting of Nolan North. I rarely mention the actors who play these roles by name, but North deserves the recognition. His sense of humor, particularly his timing, is fantastic. When combined with the stellar graphics and facial animations, Drake becomes not only more realistic, and more importantly, relatable. That is truly rare for a gaming character. Oh, and the rest of the cast does a great job as well!

But we're not just here to watch an animated movie... Uncharted offers a good variety of gameplay, but at first it seems to be a bit of a mixed bag. The gunplay is excellent. Essentially it's a third person shooter that relies heavily on one of the better cover mechanics available. You can carry a pistol and a rifle, which is reasonably realistic... and always keep an eye on your ammo. Be careful, or you'll run out. As you might imagine, Drake is adept at using all different sorts of weapons, so make use of what your enemies drop! That said, the grenades didn't work for me. To angle them you had to rely on the 'Six-axis' technology of the PS3 controller. Tilting the controller in the middle of a heated gun battle to lob a grenade takes you out of the action, to say the least. It's not remotely natural...

While the gunplay is fun,  the 'Quicktime' events left me frustrated. In the end, you'll probably end up dying repeatedly until you get the timing and pattern just so... frankly I'd rather be watching these cool scenes with the awesome graphics instead of trying to pay attention to whatever button I'm supposed to push next! Also on the down side are the vehicle sections. They are nice diversions and keep the action from getting too repetitive, but they went on too long for my taste, especially the jet ski bit...

Oh, and I should mention the melee... Drake's a pretty bad-ass gent, and if the baddies get to close he has no problem resorting to fisticuffs. As you might expect, Drake knows how to brawl. I mean come on, what treasure hunter doesn't? Beating the ever-loving snot out of someone has never looked quite so cool. But that said, I could never really get the timing down to pull off the full combos. That's just me though, operator error. I'm no good at Mortal Kombat either...

Outside of all the action, Uncharted shines through as a platformer as well. On top of being an incredible shot and a great hand-to-hand fighter, our hero is also a parkour master who could compete, and probably win, Ninja Warrior (if you don't know, it's a Japanese obstacle course challenge TV show. It's just as cool as it sounds!). Drake has some of the strongest fingers around! He is capable of almost super human feats as he traverses the traps and pit falls of ancient ruins and jungles alike. These sections are a well designed break from all of the shooting and fighting that's going on, not to mention they are usually a visual treat.

And where would a treasure hunter be without puzzles to solve? Some are environmentally related. These are usually fairly straightforward, requiring Drake's uncanny platforming skills to solve. Others are more cerebral and can be quite challenging. I'll leave them for you to unravel...

It's nice when a new title comes along and you instantly know that it will end up being a series you eagerly look forward to... and Naughty Dog nailed it with Uncharted: Drake's Fortune. Nathan Drake's saga and legend grow with each game (review of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves coming soon!). With his smooth sarcasm, dashing good lucks, astonishing feats of athleticism, questionable morality and uncontested bravery, Nathan Drake is a re-imagining of Indiana Jones. And like that charismatic character, Drake remains in our hearts... for mostly the wrong reasons, but some of the right ones as well!


Score = 9.3 / 10

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Final Fantasy XIII (8.8/10)

The Final Fantasy franchise is known the world over as the quintessential Japanese role playing game. Over the last few incarnations, legendary developer Square Enix has taken some risks with their marquee franchise... some that were embraced by it's rabid fan base, and others that were almost violently opposed. With Final Fantasy XIII, they've leapt even further from their tried and tested methods, again trying to reinvent the genre that they have defined for 30 years.

For me, what truly makes the RPG experience is the story. The narrative of FFXIII, much like previous titles in the series, is a convoluted mess that somehow manages to come together brilliantly in the end. Upon (or inside depending on your point of view) the moon of Cocoon the government has ordered a purge of undesirables. Anyone who may have had direct contact with beings from Pulse, the cursed planet below, must be deported. Our bad tempered heroine, with the equally bad moniker of Lightning, has set out to save her sister Serah as the purges begin. Poor Serah has become a l'Cie after coming into contact with a fal'Cie from Pulse.

Um... huh? Howzat? A l'Cie? Yeah, I like to make up words too. For the first portion of the game terms like these are tossed around like you have some frame of reference. But I'll endeavor to explain... fal'Cie are giant demigods that were created by the Maker, and have an unknown connection to both Cocoon and Gran Pulse. They are huge in stature; powerful in magic. They also have the ability to enthrall humans to serve them. Those unfortunate buggers are known as l'Cie and have been 'branded' with a mark to show that they serve the will of the fal'Cie. L'Cie are given a 'Focus,' or task they must complete for their fal'Cie masters. If, however, they fail to complete their Focus, the victim will turn into a monstrous, mindless husk called a Cie'th. But if they do achieve their Focus they transform into crystal, an eternal tribute to their success. In either case though, they are not long for this world. So let's recap: Fal'Cie (demigods) control l'Cie (slaves) who must do their bidding lest they turn into Cie'th (monsters). Savvy?

Anyhoo, once you've got the terms down and how they relate to one another, then the story makes a lot more sense. Serah has received the Mark of the l'Cie, so Lightning, along with Serah's fiance Snow, set out to help her complete her Focus so she doesn't turn into a terrible monster. As the story progresses Lightning adds to her crew, sometimes by accident, sometimes by fate. Sazh is on the train when Lightning first begins her rescue mission. Hope joins the party after his mother dies trying to help Snow's revolutionaries. Vanille and Fang, whose past is a mystery, stumble onto the team as well.

The plot takes some come clever twists and turns, but does take an age to get going. It's full of heavily cliched dialogue, and some classic "Final Fantasy" moments. I don't think it's as good as FFX or FFVII or even Lost Odyssey, but if you can stick with it through the slow and confusing beginning, you'll be handsomely rewarded with a classic "Final Fantasy" tear-jerker ending.

Gone are the days of turn-based combat (and I'll be honest here, I miss those days!). Success in FF games has always been defined by figuring out the best strategy to use against a given foe... to expose their weaknesses and emphasize your strengths. The core gameplay in FFXIII revolves around switching back and forth between 'Paradigms' to best take our your enemies. Paradigms are essentially varying formations of the roles you can assign to your party members. There are six different roles, with some characters being more adept at certain roles than others.

For example, Lightning makes an excellent Commando and Ravager (dealing physical and magic attacks respectively) but is also a decent Medic (white mage healer). That said, she's rubbish as a Synergist (buffs such as Shell or Haste) or Saboteur (offensive buffs, like Slow of Poison). Other characters are better suited for these tactics. Then there is the Sentinel, who basically serves as your Tank/Sponge, soaking up all the enemy attacks. Sentinels aren't important early on, but the last third of the game is pretty much impossible without employing good use of your Sentinels. The skill comes in when figuring out how to comprise your team so that you can make use of all the roles without sacrificing too much, and learning when to switch between these strategies as the need arises.

The Paradigm 'Relentless Assualt' is made up of two Ravagers and a Commando. Obviously this is highly offensive, attack fast and early. Switch to 'Diversity' by sacrificing one of the Ravagers to become a Medic (giving you a Medic, Commando and Ravager) when you start taking damage. If you fall too far behind, you can then go with 'Combat Clinic' which is a Sentinel who soaks up all the enemy attacks while the other two characters healing as Medics. But as the game progresses and becomes much more difficult you need to make use of some other tactics. Towards the end I started every battle with 'Evened Odds' which employed Saboteur to Slow the enemy and hopefully lower their defense, a Synergist to buff our party, and a Medic to keep them alive long enough for them to do it! And that's just a few examples, there are plenty of others!

Then there are the famous Final Fantasy "Summons" where your character calls forth, in a flashing display of graphical superiority, a massive creature or god to deal a devastating blow to your foes. In FFXIII they are known as Eidolons, with one unique to each character. They must first be bested before they will battle along side you. To be honest, I only ever used my Eidolons in case of dire emergency, or if I was bored and wanted to watch the cool graphics. Personally, I didn't think they were anywhere near as effective as they have been in the past, although they look frickin' amazing!

Speaking of graphics, Final Fantasy games are known for their amazing graphics, specifically the cutscenes. In FFXIII everything looks simply fantastic. The environments are stunning. The animations, while repetitive, are also brilliant. It runs smoothly the whole time. As for the pre-rendered cutscenes, there are only a few titles than can compare... they are amazing, but almost too hectic. The super-fast anime style makes it hard to appreciate the brilliance of the animation!

The soundtrack is also great. The dialogue and voice acting isn't bad either, although it is written with the classic FF template... you'll be rolling your eyes a lot at the cheesiness these people spout! The score is quite well done, and still very obviously "Final Fantasy." But I have to say that, just like every other FF game, the battle music does get a little old.

So where does FFXIII fall short? Probably the most commonly heard complaint is how surprisingly linear the game is... there really isn't much to do in the way of exploring. Each level has a pretty straightforward path to follow, without much deviation. You can tell just by looking at the map! It's not until about 20 hours into the story that you finally reach an area that is truly open world. This was surprising, considering that the FF franchise is synonymous with wide open areas full of secrets. It's weird, but I think the biggest reason this upset so many ardent followers is because it's just so obvious.

Personally, my biggest complaint was the structure and accessibility of the 'Hunt Missions.' I loved this stuff in FFXII! These optional "super-monsters" are scattered throughout the game, and offer some real challenge. But in FFXIII almost all of these missions are only available after the credits role! What... the... hell!?! Once you have beaten the game you can go back to the last save point before the final battle and warp back into the main world to pursue these other missions. Um, seriously? I'll pour countless hours into a game like this, but when I am done with the final, penultimate battle... I'm spent! I'm not going to go back do more! The irony is that I could have spent another 20 hours hunting rare and dangerous monsters before the final encounter but afterward I can't be bothered!

Another annoyance is the fact that stores aren't located in villages anymore. In fact, there aren't really any villages to speak of... everything is accessed from the Save Stations. Um, really? That's pretty lame... I miss the joy of finding that oasis of tranquility, free of monsters, where you take a break from your questing, kick off your shoes and put your feet up. I always loved perusing the wares in a new store, comparing what was on offer to what I currently had and selling off the spoils from my conquests. It was an integral part of the RPG experience, and it's noticeably missing... which is a shame.

I've also heard people complain about the upgrading system, which has been revamped as well. When you gain experience in FFXIII you can 'spend' those points in the new 'Crystarium.' Basically each role has it's own branch of a crystal to unlock everything from hit points and magic to new accessory slots and spells, all the while opening new nodes. It works pretty well, even if it's really just a visualization of menus we've been using for ages now. Oh, and it's actually quite beautiful if I may say so...

Along a similar vein, the process of upgrading your weapons has been augmented. Weapons and accessories are upgraded by using 'Components.' These are either purchased in stores or taken from fallen enemies. Each character has their own specific 'type' of weapon (although accessories are interchangeable). Lightning has a gunblade, Sazh carries dual pistols, and Hope has a... um, boomerang (psssht! *snicker*).

The trick lies in finding what components will yield the most experience versus which ones have the greatest multiplying effect. It's an overly-complicated mathematical nightmare, one that would have made my high school algebra teacher blush. I'm not even going to endeavor to explain, other than to say "Thank god" for guidebooks! Short of that, Google it... I'm sure someone has gone to the trouble or providing all the specifics. While it's a clever idea, it's far too time consuming and confusing. I would have been much happier with classical looting and a bunch of different kinds of weapons... 

Final Fantasy XIII isn't a bad game by any stretch of the imagination... but it is different, a noticeable and sizable departure from what we have come to expect from this venerated franchise. If anything Square Enix went too far outside their comfort zone. But I sincerely hope that when Square Enix are hard at work on the next installment (and you know they are;^) they listen to their fans about what worked and, more importantly, what didn't. Sadly, if they had stuck with just a few more of the hallmarks that endeared the series to so many, FFXIII might have been better received... and not left so many of us disappointed this time out...


Score = 8.8 / 10

Thursday, January 13, 2011

LEGO Star Wars: The Complete Saga (8.5/10)

I may be jumping the gun a bit with this one... my girlfriend and I are working our way through LEGO Star Wars: The Complete Saga. We are currently at about 49% completion and have been playing for over 20 hours already. But I've played the other two games (LEGO Star Wars: The Video Game and LEGO Star Wars: The Original Series) to 100% completion. Since The Complete Saga is just a combination of the two, I'm comfortable saying I know what's gonna happen, lol! Plus I've seen the movies like 100 times each (that's no exaggeration either). I have no issue writing a review of it;^) By the time we get all the way through this one I expect it'll be in the neighborhood of 60 to 70 hours to achieve total success. For a 'kids' game, it's stunningly deep and can be quite challenging!

So let's get the easy stuff out of the way... it's a LEGO game. The graphics are pretty straightforward... they're LEGOs... duh! Of course, they aren't particularly flashy or anything, just functional. As for the soundtrack, um it's Star Wars... again, duh! It's John Williams legendary score! The story is a retelling of each film in short, silent, simple scenes that capture the 'flavor' of iconic Star Wars moments. Personally, I think they're hilarious. Plus you can play with a friend, who can join the fun or drop right back out at any point!

The gameplay is quite simplistic as well. You can jump, attack (swing lightsaber or fire your blaster), or use the 'action' button. The 'action' button allows you to use your Force powers if you are playing as a Jedi, or 'build' a LEGO construction to open new paths and help you on your way. Different characters have different abilities. That's pretty much it, this game was designed for children after all! But once you get through the 'Story Mode' you unlock 'Free Play,' and that is where the fun and challenge really begins...

When you first play through a level you will see doors you can't unlock or areas you can't access because the characters you are playing with don't have the necessary abilities or equipment. But when you go back to replay a level the second time in 'Free Play' you get an entire team to tackle the challenge. What's really clever though is that, while you can only pick one player, the computer will put together the rest of your team so that you will have a group of characters that can access everything you need to explore every nook and cranny. The tools are at your disposal, if you miss something it's on you! And some of these levels are massive, with a lot of hidden areas. You really need to be on point to discover everything they have to offer. The environments are all wonderfully realized from the Star Wars movies, and cleverly transformed into LEGO form. There are even piloting levels (what would Star Wars be without being able to pilot an X-Wing down the trenches on the Death Star!), and while I don't like them nearly as much as the platforming areas, they are still good fun!

The famous Mos Eisley Cantina, complete with iconic music, serves as your central hub. It breaks down like this. Each movie has it's own area, and once there you can access each section (each film has 6 levels, totaling 36 overall). To get 100% completion you need to collect Gold Bricks. There are 160 of them (3 per level, plus some others). You get one for completing the story mode. One for collecting a certain number of studs, or coins, from each level to achieve 'True Jedi' status. All those coins you collect can then be used to purchase new characters for use in 'Free Play' mode.

Finally, you get one for collecting all 10 Lego canisters that are hidden throughout each level. Some of them are deviously hidden, you'll need to scour every corner! Each canister opens a piece of a 'minikit,' and when put together they create a LEGO model of an iconic Star Wars vehicle (X-Wing, TIE fighter, AT-AT etc). But you're not done there either! You can play the level though again in 'Challenge Mode,' to find blue minikit canisters (which are located in different areas to the regular white ones). The kicker here is that you only have a certain amount of time to do it which makes it that much more challenging!

Then there are the 'Red Bricks'. Each level has a hidden red brick, that will appear when you do something specific, say turn on all the lights in a hallway using the Force. Some of these are very cleverly hidden, I've actually had to look them up online. This is usually followed by an "Ohhhhhhh... I see" moment. The red bricks are then used to unlock special powers from the 'Extras' menu. They are things like 'Fast Build' or 'Super lightsabers,' but also have random effects like "Disguises' (where all the characters, including the ships, wear fake glasses and mustaches) or 'Daisy Chains' (where the grappling hook like is made a flowers). Necessary? No, definitely not. Funny? I'd say so, I was giggling constantly...

With all these options to replay every level you might think it would get old... but it's surprisingly addictive, more so than you might imagine. You want to go back and find everything. That said, it can be quite frustrating in places as well. When you come up just short of getting enough coins for 'True Jedi' and you know you're going to have to go back and do it all again... well, I find my patience wearing thin sometimes. I just can't play too much of it without getting frustrated... but then again, this is one of those games that can sit on the shelf for months and months, and we can pick it right back up again.

While it will take us quite a while of chipping away at LEGO Star Wars: The Complete Saga to get the illusive 100% completion, I still don't think I'll sell it. That's saying something... that even after there is nothing left to accomplish, we'll hang onto it because it's something different and simple and fun that's still good for a laugh occasionally;^)


Score = 8.5 / 10

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Dead Space (9.6/10)

“In space, no one can hear you scream.” That's the infamous marketing slogan from the Ridley Scott film Alien, one of my all time favorite movies. Dead Space was obviously influenced heavily by sci fi horror movies like Alien and The Thing. And like those classics, Dead Space scared the hell out of me. Seriously, I got this game on release day, rushed home, turned off all the lights and popped it in. An hour later, all the lights were on. Seriously, I only lasted an hour...

The game begins with our silent protagonist Issac Clarke warping into the system in search of the USG Ishiumra which has stopped transmitting. The massive mining ship is known as a 'planet cracker;' it cracks open the planet and removes a massive chunk for processing. Clarke is a simple engineer, part of a repair crew aboard the Kellion, there to check out what's wrong. But Clarke has another motivation... his girlfriend Nicole works as a medical officer on board the Ishimura, and her last message sounded frantic. After a bumpy landing you quickly learn than things are more than just wrong, they are in fact royally buggered on board the doomed vessel.

Shortly after arriving, you are attacked by a hideously mutated, yet vaguely human, monster. It tears apart most of the team in short order. Only two others manage to escape: Zach Hammond, a security officer, and Kendra Daniels, another member of the repair team. Naturally you are separated, and with their help you have to get the ship in something resembling working order... and find out just what the hell is going on and what that thing was!

It becomes quickly apparent that the ship is failing, you know, cuz everyone are now horribly mutated monsters and all! Under Hammond's direction Issac must get it going with a quickness or none of the rest matters. But as you go about fixing the vital system, you soon learn of a bigger plot. Finding audio and text logs reminiscent of Bioshock, you discover that when the Ishimura cracked the planet, they made a monumental discovery... a Marker. As the plot unravels, you learn more about the horror that the Marker brings: mass hallucinations and extreme, unexplainable violence. I don't want to spoil the plot, so I'll leave it there. While it starts a little slowly, it certainly builds momentum to a harrowing and unexpected conclusion.

The wicked monsters are called Necromorphs, and they make brilliant enemies. By their nature they can take any number of forms, each more twisted and disgusting than the last. I was thinking I'd try to describe some of them, but in the end I decided against it simply because they are so shocking. Every time you encounter a new version you'll hear yourself mutter "What the hell is THAT?" They're disturbing to say the least, I mean someone thought this sh*t up! I'm a bit worried about the nice people at EA who came up with this stuff...

The gameplay in Dead Space is brilliant. Once you escape the initial onslaught you'll find a plasma cutter, which is really no more than a simply mining tool. Scrawled in blood over a ravaged corpse is the phrase "Cut off their limbs..." Turns out that's good advice. Taking out the Necromorphs requires you to take careful aim and... dismember them. Headshots don't always kill the monsters... but take off their legs so they can't charge, then whittle them down. It's ingenious gameplay design... and phenomenally gory!

To battle these nightmare hordes on board the doomed Ishimura, Issac must utilize jury-rigged mining equipment for his arsenal. In a pinch they can be used to dismember the monstrosities that roam the ship. Your main weapon, the aforementioned plasma cutter, is your 'pistol.' It has 3 beams of light that are projected when you aim, giving you a 'line' of fire. What's clever though is has the ability to shift 90 degrees for more strategic shots. There are quite a few different weapon types; some of them are good ideas, others fall short. A good one is the Ripper, essentially an industrial saw on a leash. You can imagine the possibilities. Then there is the Force Gun. It releases a rapidly expanding bubble of energy that is devastating, but only effective at short range. There are other weapons, like the Line Gun (my favorite) that work better. It's definitely worth experimenting with them all, and seeing what works in different situations. But I have to say, they have really been quite clever about their weapon design. I thought the fact that you can't use the flamethrower in a vacuum because there is no oxygen for the fire is, while obvious, very cool.  

Also, I'll mention that you need to keep an eye on your ammo, you can run out if you're not careful! Ammo can be purchased in stores, but you'll mainly get it as drops from fallen enemies. Every shot counts, and as the game progresses the Necromorphs become faster and more powerful, so you'll need careful, yet quick, aiming! Indiscriminate, trigger-happy players will not survive...

Dead Space has bloody good graphics (sorry, I couldn't resist;^). This game is easily one of the goriest on the market, keep that in mind... it ain't for the faint of heart. I can't tell you the number of times my girlfriend said "That's so gross... THAT'S so gross." But it's fairly realistic, or as realistic as one might expect. In zero gravity, droplets of blood float by, past their formerly dismembered limbs, rotating lazily. But the incredible amount of gore aside, the graphics really are quite good, if occasionally a little pixelated. Issac's animations are excellent, as are that of the monstrous Necromorphs. Sure, they may get a bit repetitive, but are no less scary for it. Oh, and it’s worth letting yourself die just to see the death animations. Ouch...

The dark corridors and environments are reminiscent of the Nostromo, another infamous mining ship from Alien (again, the similarities are pretty blatant, but I don't think anyone really minds;^). The lighting also reminds me of that movie, with strobes constantly flashing. Another thing I really liked are the holographic menus... it's a very cool effect. But be wary, bringing up the menu doesn't pause the action so make sure there aren't any Necros in the area!

But what really gets me, and what makes the Ishimura rival Bioshock's Rapture as my favorite environment in video games, is the brilliant sound work. While the screams of the Necromorphs are terrifying in their own right, what sets Dead Space apart is it's phenomenal use of silence. In concert with the terrifying monstrosities and the scary, gory graphics, it creates an unbelievable atmosphere. Something is always falling down or clattering about or scuttling around in the background. The tension this creates is astonishing, you'll find yourself whirling around, gun drawn, to confront... nothing. And then you turn back around and a Necro is almost on top of you!

Dead Space isn't perfect though, with some minor decisions holding it back from being truly brilliant. The story, while clever, does get caught up under it's own feet. Most of the missions are essentially glorified fetch quests. There is some mild puzzle solving in Dead Space, which serves nicely to break up the tension. To be honest though, most of them simply make you wonder who in their right mind would design a ship that way?! They aren't particularly challenging, but their solutions are also not always obvious which lead to some frustrating "Okay, what am I supposed to do now?" moments. There are also Zero-G sections which are incredible, if a little limited. It's very disorienting, although I imagine it would be in real life as well. Then there are the turret sections, which were annoying in my opinion and entirely unnecessary. 

Another interesting design choice is that when you click down the right analog stick Issac will activate a beacon that shows him where he needs to go, leading him to the next objective. While I appreciate this, it almost makes it a bit too easy. I think it would have been even scarier if you could get lost. Of course, it's up to the player to make of use of this or not, so it's really up to you.

One thing I want to mention is that you can't do everything and upgrade all of your weaponry in one playthough. There is even an extra armor level if you play the New Game +. That said, it's kind of a fail. I found it very odd that if you want to play it through again with all the stuff you had left over, you can't change the difficulty. As a result, that second go on the Ishimura is pretty easy compared to the first... but the terror remains.

I'm actually surprised there isn't a notice on the Dead Space box that reads "WARNING: People with heart conditions or epilepsy, or women who may be pregnant should not play this game." Seriously, my palms got sweaty. My heart was racing at some points, and during others I jumped clean out of my seat. I love horror movies, but Dead Space elicited a more visceral reaction than anything since I first saw Alien at the tender age of ten. My parents were out of town and it was on TV. I didn't sleep for days after that. While I'm older and maybe a bit wiser these days, I'll be the first to admit that Dead Space kept me up at night. I can't stress enough how utterly nerve-wracking Dead Space can be. It will stay with you...  especially when the lights go out!


Score = 9.6 / 10

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Call of Duty: Black Ops (8.6/10)

Well folks, it's that time of year again. Every November the rest of the gaming industry goes on vacation, having accepted the fact that all the kids pocket money will go into the coffers at Activision. It's Call of Duty time, this year christened Black Ops. Treyarch is back holding the reins after Call of Duty: World at War and I'm happy to report that their latest foray with the world's most popular franchise is my favorite since the original Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. 

Let's get the obvious stuff out of the way first. Black Ops is another Call of Duty game. If you've played any of the previous incarnations you know what this means. The gameplay is stellar, probably the best in the FPS genre. The action is fast and incredibly chaotic. Some new period specific and period theoretical weapons make welcome appearances, but for the most part you will see the same standard weapons and loadouts that you have used in the past. The graphics and sound are very good, although I don't think that have improved appreciably since the first Modern Warfare which was, at the time, incredible. Now, sadly, they are simply standard. Because of the popularity and cash-cow that these games have become, the developers can afford an excellent cast. This time around Sam Worthington, Ed Harris, and Gary Oldman have lent their considerable talents, which is nice...  

The story follows the exploits of one Alex Mason during the Cold War in the mid to late 1960's. It begins as Mason awakes, strapped to a chair and heavily drugged. A blur is demanding to know "the source of the numbers!" Mason is under interrogation to learn the source of a signal, one that can trigger an international incident. At this point in history, for those of you who are either too young to remember or don't pay attention in class, that meant nuclear war and global annihilation. But in Black Ops, it turns out there is a chemical threat in the form of the Nova-6 weapon, a horror of Nazi scientists, that is just as bad, if not worse. Told mostly as flashbacks spanning all the way back to the end of WWII, Mason's story spans decades. As they probe the depths of his mind, he "relives" his previous covert missions hunting the threat. This is where you take over... you'll find yourself globetrotting from Cuba, to Russia, to being smack dab in the middle of the Vietnam War as your memories are plumbed to learn the secret location. The story branches out in several directions as you take control of more characters involved in the plot.

It's not until a bit into the game that you realize that Black Ops is actually a sequel to CoD: WaW. Our old friend Viktor Reznov returns; the mad Russian himself! I liked how this linked the two games together. Infinity Ward had Lt. Price to bridge the gap between the Modern Warfare games, and Treyarch has their own talisman with Reznov. It doesn't hurt that Gary Oldman reprises his role as the voice the vengeful Russian, he's just awesome and one of my favorite actors!

I liked that Black Ops had a much more cohesive story that drove the action rather than simply provided segways between over-the-top action sequences. The cutscenes are longer and more detailed, as are the motivations of the key players. That said, I don't like the way it was told. There are enough visual flashes and screen switches to give an epileptic fits. I know Mason is under the influence of mind altering drugs and that you are bearing witness to the interrogation through his eyes, but I found it distracting to the point that I missed stuff. Oh, and I won't spoil the twist beyond saying it was WAY too obvious... the ending isn't quite as ludicrous as CoD:MW2, but it's not far off either.

While I liked the story more than the last couple of CoD games, Black Ops still has the same issues that have plagued the series. In typical CoD fashion, the set pieces you control by prompts aren't very well explained. I fell off a cliff four times before I figured out what they meant when they were prompting me to repel. It's intuitive enough, but I always seem to have to suicide myself a half a dozen times before I pick up on what is supposedly obvious. When they work these moments are brilliant, but when they don't they are incredibly frustrating.

Along the same lines, there are still a lot of "Huh, what?" moments in Black Ops. The chaos of battle can sometimes leave you wondering where to go or what to do. At one point I spent 45 minutes straight killing wave after wave of Viet Cong only to finally figure out that there were some exploding barrels I had to knife and kick down into the trenches to stop the enemy from continually respawning. This has always been an issue with this series in general for me, and they still haven't gotten it right. Most of the time the objectives are clear, but I still feel they could do a better job of pointing you in the right direction.

Another CoD standby of breaking up the action is with vehicle control sections. But I thought these moments in Black Ops were the worst in the series to date. Piloting the SR-71 Blackbird, or the C-130 3.0 as I call it, was cool but surprisingly short. The controls for piloting the Hind helicopter in Vietnam were just awful. These sequences seemed almost rushed or tacked on, and as a result didn't work at all for me. 

CoD games are also known for their brutal, graphic violence. There are a couple of dire scenes in Black Ops, but personally I didn't think they were near as bad as the "Russian Airport" level from CoD: MW2. That didn't bother me much either, but that's just me. You've been warned...

One major thing that Treyarch addressed that I am super happy about (mostly because it means that I wasn't the only one who bitched about it in CoD: MW2) is the blood splatter factor. When you get shot blood splatters across the screen to, um, drive the point home. But especially in CoD:MW2, it was far too inhibitive, completely obscuring your vision and leading to a lot of quick deaths because you couldn't see what was going on, let alone find cover to regenerate health and clear the screen. In Black Ops this is still a bit of an issue, but it's not nearly as oppressive.

I'm also ecstatic that Nazi Zombies, or rather just Zombies, makes it's triumphant return! Yay, and there was much rejoicing... I loved this mode in CoD: WaW. It's great for late night drunken fun, even if there was no way to win. I like the changes to the, ahem, cast in this one... I won't spoil it for you, but it is a fun distraction, that's for sure. 

Okay, here we go again (I'm tempted to just copy and paste my lack of online multiplayer experience from my other CoD reviews here) but I'll do it anyway... I don't play games online. But going on what I've heard, Black Ops has once again nailed it. If that's your cup of tea, then this is not to be missed... although if this sort of thing is your cup of tea you've probably already got the game and are playing it right now. 

As I've been writing these reviews for a while now, I've found it's difficult to rationalize scoring a game with my system for the single player campaign alone, especially one so short. There is no denying that much of the lure and addictiveness of Black Ops lies in online multiplayer. It seems like most people, or at least people I've talked to, don't even bother with the campaign but rather jump straight online. But seeing as that's not an issue for me, the point is moot. I will say that I enjoyed the single player campaign in Black Ops more than any version since the original Modern Warfare. It was good fun, but ultimately is just more of the same Call of Duty, just with a different coat of paint.

Score = 8.6 / 10

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Resident Evil 5: Gold Edition (7.2/10)

Ohhhhhhh Lord, I’m dreading writing this one. It’s kinda hard to explain, but either Resident Evil 5 is suffering from some sort of bizarre, crisis of conscious, schizophrenic, delusions of grandeur, twilight zone mind job…. or I am. It’s weird, I’ve beaten this game several times now, but it drives me absolutely freaking nuts every time! And yet, I have a funny feeling I'll play it again eventually...

Resident Evil is known as the quintessential survival horror series, the one that arguably started the modern craze. But over multiple mediums (games/comics/movies/animes etc) and so many installments, the canon has gotten... well, more than a little convoluted. I still don’t really know what’s going on! Basically, there is another outbreak of zombie fever, this time somewhere in Africa.

Chris Redfield (one of the main protagonists in the series, he and Leon Kennedy seem to swap back and forth for each game) hits the ground running with a new partner, Sheva Alomar. Their mission: stop an annoying douchebag (with probably the worst voice-over ever…) from selling a bioweapon on the black market. The intrepid new duo then have to follow the breadcrumbs trailing the evil Umbrella Corporation all the while fighting through wave after wave of psuedo-zombies called "Majini’ and increasingly larger bosses. The Majini are innocents, cruelly infected by a parasitic virus engineered as a weapon. I don't want to give away too much as it takes some reasonably clever twists and turns, but there are so many "Huh, WTF?!?" moments that it loses whatever momentum it manages to build up.

In an interesting design decision that ultimately falls flat, RE5 was designed to be co-oped. Sheva, whether controlled by a friend or the computer, is always with you. But man, when playing with the computer there are some real problems. First, the ally AI sucks. She's pretty useless. For example, you can swap weapons and ammo back and forth. This would be great but for the fact that the computer will only use the pistol, not the machine gun or other situation sensitive armament. It's pretty moronic. She will do things like heal you if you are in trouble, but all too often it's the other way around. After messing around with it for a bit you'll soon understand, she ends up being a glorified pack mule.

And even using her to carry your excess equipment and ammo fails! The inventory screen that comes up, but does not pause the action, is a 3x3 grid giving you 9 total spaces for weapons, ammo, health etc. But even trying to do something simple like getting two herbs together on the same grid to form a healing potion can cause you to pull your hair out! The other problem is you have to be right next to each other in order to trade anything. If things are getting hairy you'd best hope you have everything sorted because if you get attacked trying to equip weapons or ammo you'll find yourself completely buggered. This becomes more of an issue towards the end of the game. This is a real shame because if it was done better, the entire experience would have been far less frustrating.

But what is really crazy is that if you have someone to co-op the game with instead of the moronic AI, suddenly RE5 becomes playable! It truly can be a scary game. The tense actions sequences and scary moments are best shared with a friend. What was intensely annoying becomes intensely exciting! It can actually be a lot of fun if, that is, you can get past the crappy controls and the poor design decisions.

From a gameplay and design standpoint RE5 is hard to define. I’ve heard both positives and negatives about the controls. Personally, I think they suck. They work, sure, but are poorly designed and a pain in the ass. For example, you can’t run and gun at the same time. Are you freaking kidding me??? In this day and age?!? Seriously, it’s freakin daft. If I’m surrounded by fast ass zombies I’m going to want to be able to run the hell away while shooting… it leads to some incredibly cheap and frustrating deaths.

The infamous 'Quicktime' events are back as well. I've always been a fence sitter about QTE. I've found it works in some games, not so well in others. RE5 is, sadly, one of the latter. There are a lot of these moments, and they come up unexpectedly... which wouldn't be nearly so bad if not for the fact that you have to have reaction times in the neighborhood of 0.00000065 seconds to actually pull them off. If you don't, well, you get to watch it load and then all the animations again until you get the timing right. It's not challenging in any way, just annoying because all you are doing it learning a pattern... over and over again.
So what are RE5's redeeming qualities? Well, it has great graphics. When it came out I think you’d be hard pressed to find more too many titles that looked better. The lighting effects are impressive and the animations are very well done, despite the fact that the main protagonist is a poster child for steroid use. It runs smoothly even when things get really chaotic. RE5 also sounds pretty decent. From the growling Majini to the guns cutting them down, the effects sound great. The score does a great job of building tension, but it can get a bit repetitive. Some of the voice work is pretty good, even if the lines are hammy as hell. Oh, and one of the bad guys... good gravy, I was so glad to kill him because his voice was so bloody annoying! It's like the went out through dozens of voice actors before they found the one with the worst pitch and accent possible just to get under my skin...

Another thing that I quite liked, and is probably the reason I have played this game so much, is the weapon upgrading. It's surprisingly addictive. You'll find various weapons on your first playthough, but you'll never really get enough money to upgrade them. As you play it again and get more loot to sell you can upgrade ammo capacity, or firepower. There are a fair number of choices with multiple versions of your standard shotguns, pistols and machine guns and so on. When certain weapons are fully upgraded you'll gain access to special, expensive versions like an automatic machine pistol or a 'super' shotgun. I still don't have them all, but it's fun to go through and upgrade each one:^)

The Resident Evil series is known for it's high intensity boss battles against giant, mutated... things. RE5 keeps the tradition alive. Each boss is arguably bigger and more disgusting than the last. Usually there environmental elements to the boss battles, like early on where you have to trap a reforming tentacle monster in a furnace room and flash fry the bugger... but you gotta lure it in there first. These are easily some of the best moments in the game, just seeing what they have come up with! But more often than not these fail as well because of the poor controls. Mostly likely you'll find yourself running in circles, trying to put enough distance between you and whatever monstrosity you're currently facing, quickly turning to pop off a few rounds before it gets too close. Rinse, repeat... pretty annoying.

I’m convinced that Resident Evil 5 suffers from some sort of psychiatric malady and needs to see a therapist. It can be fun, especially if you are playing with a friend. When it gets is right, it's totally worth it... but let me tell you, it can be really frustrating. The story is mostly nonsensical. The controls are a mess and result in a lot of cheap deaths, as do the QTE's. Sadly, RE5 crossed my personal boundary going from fun to just plain frustrating. This is real shame, because it ends up being one of those games that could, and probably should, have been so much better...


Score = 7.2 / 10

P.S. A quick word on the downloadable content that is included in Resident Evil 5: Gold Edition. Lost in Nightmares reminds me a great deal of Resident Evil 2, probably because it is a direct ripoff of the famous mansion scene. There are various puzzles that you must solve to access the other parts of the mansion in pursuit of the antagonist (I won’t give anything away, needless to say it ties in directly with the plot of RE5). It does a great job creating a scary atmosphere, even if nothing really happens... but ultimately not worth it, in my opinion.

Desperate Escape, on the other hand, is a blast! It follows some of the side characters during the end plot of RE5. This is very much a "Meanwhile..." scenario. It’s frantic pace and constant action left my palms sweaty! It’s also pretty short (both are only about an hour each) and doesn’t really add much beyond some fun action scenes, but I still want to play this one again with a friend. It’s very challenging and very chaotic, especially at the end!

Monday, January 3, 2011

Medal of Honor (9.0/10)

Here's a riddle: which came first, the chicken or the egg? While this causality conundrum has perplexed philosophers for centuries, we gamers have a similar question... of the brilliant World War II shooters which came first, Medal of Honor or Call of Duty? The answer is, and I didn't know this, Medal of Honor. But when CoD departed from its WWII roots and changed the landscape of the industry with Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, the MoH franchise was left in the dust. However, having played their newest attempt to wrest control from the CoD behemoth, I'm surprised and happy to say that I really enjoyed it. While you could say it's just another fish in the overpopulated pond of military shooters, the gritty realism of Medal of Honor spoke to me... more so than the over the top action of recent Call of Duty titles.

But let's not beat about the bush, Medal of Honor shares a great deal with Call of Duty. The controls are exactly the same. The action is, for the most part, almost identical. The gunplay is obviously similar. The level design and set up is virtually a carbon copy, right down to the obligatory sniping missions and flyovers by C-130's. All in all, there are far more similarities than differences. But I think the story in MoH is far more believably realistic and, in its way, far more scary...

You follow the exploits of the elite special forces operatives of Tier 1 as they battle tooth and nail against the Taliban in Afghanistan. Because the location is in the news everyday, most people have a passing understanding of not just the unforgiving environment, but the tenacity of the enemy. The plot is a standard 'war' tale, typical fodder for movies and games for ages now. It revolves around a group of soldiers who get screwed over by the top brass. The pencil pushers in Washington, drunk on American superiority, are concerned with logistics and the overall outcome nevermind the situation in the field. But because they are the ones who ultimately call the shots, tragically those soldiers on the ground sometimes suffer from their shortsighted ineptitude. It turns into another "We don't leave our people behind!" story. But a true soldier doesn't leave anyone behind, regardless of orders, no matter the how overwhelming the odds...

I think the reason I found it so compelling is that you can actually imagine it happening. The infamous, over-the-top action scenes that CoD are more for entertainment purposes than being anchored in reality. In MoH, those sequences are replaced by what I would more naturally associate with what really happens in war, or at least what I assume it to be having never been in battle myself. There is one scene in particular where you are in the boots of an Army Ranger and everything has gone FUBAR (look it up if you don't know what it means). Your squad has fallen back to some dilapidated huts and the Taliban are pouring out of the mountains to overwhelm your position. Your ammunition is running low, and there is no hope of survival... well, it's more than a little intense. When I finished Medal of Honor, I sat there for a moment, although it was 2 AM, and thought about the people who actually do this... who are actually fighting half the world away. I'm no fan of the wars that we are currently involved in, but that's not to say I don't respect the men and women of our Armed Forces who are risking everything to bring liberty and stability to those parts of the world that suffer from oppression and tyranny.

Aside from the narrative, there are some other minor design differences to CoD. First, while there isn't a true cover mechanic, you can now 'slide' into cover if you are sprinting and then crouch. Thank you DICE, I appreciate that... it's nice to be able to get out of the line of fire more quickly. I also really liked the grenade effects. If one goes off near you and you manage to survive the blast, the concussion will mute the surrounding chaos and cause the screen to shudder. I hope and pray I'm never on the business end of a frag grenade, but I imagine that to be a fairly accurate representation. The ally AI is pretty good, although these Tier 1 guys still can't seem to get out of your line of fire. Sorry I shot you in the ass mate, you probably should have looked before you moved up! Another addition I liked is the ability to request ammo. In most games in this genre, you end up using the enemies weapons against them because you run out of ammunition. By giving you the option to borrow ammo from your squad mates, you get to keep your superior weaponry. That is greatly appreciated, I'm sick of dusty AK-47's...

Graphically MoH looks very good, but I think that I'd have to give the nod to the CoD franchise on this score. The environments, especially the infamous tunnel riddled mountains of Afghanistan, are very impressive. But sadly, I think that the explosions, specifically the debris, are far too pixelated and don't appear nearly as believable. But ironically, when there is a major explosion and there is dust in the air it looks quite realistic. There was also some minor texture loading issues at the beginning of some scenes which was mildly annoying, but the action was pretty smooth over all.  

The sound work is good as well, although I had the same problem with MoH that has plagued me with most military shooters... when the action really heats up and the bullets are flying, I can't seem to focus on what my commanding officer is telling me to do. As a result, I keep nailing wave after wave of Taliban, but not actually getting anywhere. It's easy to lose track of your next objective until you finally get shot one too many times and have to do it all over again. Apart from that minor complaint about the genre in general though, MoH sounds great. The voice acting, while laden with familiar 'war' cliches, is well done, and the soundtrack is pretty decent.

One of the reasons I think MoH didn't get reviewed as well as it's contemporary counterparts is apparently the multiplayer isn't up to par. Considering that online multiplayer is really the reason most people by these sorts of games, I'm not surprised. But since I don't play online much, this isn't an issue for me. All I can tell you is that I enjoyed the single player campaign more than I have the last several CoD games...

In an over-saturated market chalked full of similar product Medal of Honor doesn't really do much to distinguish itself from the competition. Is that necessarily a bad thing though? I'm gonna say no. It's comparing apples to apples in my opinion. If you like these types of games, it's definitely worth checking out, but don't be surprised if you catch yourself sighing at some points and thinking you've done it before, because you have. But the plot provided me with a surprising insight into what our service men and women might actually be facing, and I surprised myself by how much I was affected by it. The camaraderie, the horror of battle, the sacrifices that are made without hesitation because it is their duty is delivered to the player in a way I haven't experienced quite like this before. Perhaps it's a lack of pretension in the presentation, perhaps it's just the subject matter... I'm not sure. I know a few people in the military, and whenever we talk about what they have endured I can always tell it's with a forced patience... like explaining something to a child. The fact is if you haven't experienced what they have, you have no frame or reference and can't possibly understand. While I've always understood that to some degree, it's surprising and impressive that a video game could drive it home so forcefully.


Score = 9.0 / 10

P.S. After the story has ended but before the credits roll, the good people at DICE have put in some text talking about the real service men and women currently fighting for us around the world. I won't tell you what it says, but please... take the time to read it. It made me think... we mustn't forget to appreciate what we have, and what others have given so that we can enjoy the things that make us happy no matter how ultimately inconsequential they might be... like video games;^)