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Sunday, February 27, 2011

Killzone 2 (7.7/10)

Having never played the original Killzone, I had no idea what to expect with the sequel. If the previews were anything to go by then it would be a graphical powerhouse, but catching up in the middle of the plot is always a bit difficult. Something to do with some gas-mask wearing, red goggled pseudo-Nazis... or something? By the end I can conclusively say that yes, Killzone 2 looks amazing. No, I still have no idea what on Earth was happening... and there was a perfectly decent shooter in there as well.

Killzone 2 takes place on the planet Helgan as the ISA (the good guys) are launching their major counter offensive after the Helgast (the gas-mask wearing, red goggled pseudo-Nazi bad guys) had invaded the planet Vekta (the setting of the first game). You play as Sev, a hardened veteran under the command of Col. Templar (the hero from the first game). Along with your Alpha squadmates Rico, Garza, and Natko, you are amongst the first in.

Apparently the Helgast are a 'race' of humans that evolved to be stronger and faster by the harsh environment on Helgan. Not only are they well adapted, but the also have the home field advantage and a rather fierce sense of nationalistic pride hammered into them by their leader, Emperor Scolar Visari. Under his orders Colonel Radec, the leader of the Helgast forces, will do anything to defend their home soil.
While the story is a pretty predictable and straightforward war parable filled with generic characters spouting familiar lines, the invasion and pitched battles are shown in an epic scale. Sev and his team get thrown into the meat-grinder in one frantic firefight to the next, the intensity getting ratcheted up at every turn. The story never really goes anywhere and the ending is ridiculous, but it's all really just an excuse to shoot stuff so we can let that go...

Graphically Killzone 2 is very impressive. I still think it's one of the best looking shooters out there. Hell, I was completely blown away by the opening cutscene the first time I saw it... but how often are we blown away by a cutscene only to be let down by the game itself? No worries, Killzone 2 looks great in-game as well. While the color palate is a bit drab and "end of the world"-ish, everything from the environments to the animations look fantastic. The explosions in particular are eye-catching, especially considering that is usually the preferred method for accessing new areas.

Being a 'shooter' in every sense of the word, Killzone 2 creates some wonderfully intense firefights. Your arsenal choices are fairly standard, and they have great "heft"... you can almost feel the weight during the kickback. As with similar shooters you'll probably find yourself relying on dropped enemy weapons because you'll run out of ammo. You'll run out of ammo because the Helgast make tricky foes. They are fast, and enjoy making weaving runs into cover.

All that said, I had a couple of random issues with the gunplay. The oddest is that for some incomprehensible reason, someone thought it would be a good idea to incorporate a motion blur effect when you pan the camera. This is only exacerbated during firefights when you try to track a target... it's almost nauseating, inducing a weird sense of vertigo when you try to look along the vertical axis.  I don't why this is more noticeable with Killzone 2 than other games in the genre, but I found it hard to ignore.

One possible reason for this is that the camera pans a bit too slowly using the default presets. When you take into account the speed of the enemy, this is one of the few games where I actually adjusted the sensitivity of the aiming reticule.

Another weird thing with Killzone 2 when compared to other shooters, is it seems to take just a fraction longer to pop into and out of your sights when you want to aim down the barrel. This is compounded by the fact that when you are looking down the sights, the actual gun takes a disproportionate amount of the screen. It will even hide your target if you are aimed too high! Gunning from the hip actually becomes a usable strategy, something I rarely do in these sorts of games.

While the soundtrack and voice acting are par for the course, the sound effects are really good. The guns sound great, and so do the explosions... and considering this is all about shooting bad guys and blowing sh..tuff up, then that's a plus.

Apparently one of Killzone 2's main draws was the multiplayer, specifically centered around large scale battles. I don't play online multiplayer much, but from everything I had heard it was excellent, and if I was into that stuff then I'm sure my score would probably be higher.

Killzone 2 doesn't reinvent the FPS, but it's certainly one of the prettier looking ones (if you consider war torn brownish, greyish ruined cities to be pretty) and has some memorable moments. But the story and characters really didn't hold my attention, and the bizarre motion blur did nothing to endear me to the game either. All in all, it's worth playing (especially now since it's so cheap), but there are newer, shinier shooters out there, including Killzone 3 which just came out as I was writing this...


Score = 7.7 / 10

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Red Dead Redemption (9.7/10)

As gamers we’ve played everywhere from wild fantasy worlds full of wizards and warlocks to realistic recreations of famous battles in both the recent and distant past to fun and wacky worlds where the laws of nature don’t apply and the biggest concerns revolve around rescuing princesses from psychotic turtles. But a fairly obvious locale has been conspicuously absent: the Old West. Sure, a few decent titles have been born from the genre, but none were particularly memorable… until Rockstar came along and gave us Red Dead Redemption. And let me tell you, the famed developers of the Grand Theft Auto series have done it yet again. Red Dead Redemption is nothing short of a masterpiece; a brilliant tale expertly told with all the trappings of the turn of the century American frontier for the player to explore and experience.

John Marston is a former outlaw who renounced his lawless ways. He had settled down with his family intent on living a quiet and peaceful life. But the ghosts of his past come back to haunt him, he has been pulled back into the world he left behind. An 'Agency' within the federal government has come calling demanding Marston's help in tracking down and taking out his former brothers in arms. Only then will he be allowed to reunite with his family. It's a suicide mission and Marston knows it, but he also knows he has no choice.

So Marston follows the trail of one Bill Williamson, a member of his former gang... but when he tracks him down he promptly gets shot and left for dead. Fortunately for him (and us) along comes Bonnie McFarlane who nurses him back to health. To repay her kindness John offers to help around the ranch. These initial missions teach you the basics. Practicing your marksmanship involves shooting those waskawee wabbids that are eating all the vegetables. You learn how to ride a horse by herding cattle and racing Bonnie.

If you know Rockstar's games, you know their unique mission structure. To progress through the story you must complete missions in order to open new strands and new areas. Soon Marston leaves the ranch in pursuit of Williamson but encounters a distinct lack of assistance from the locals. No one will give something for nothing... to get the information he needs, John gets caught up in all sorts of crazy situations. Read Dead is full of memorable characters who require Marston's help first in order to help him in return.

But throughout all the shenanigans, Marston never loses sight of his goal... to get back to his family. He is simply doing what he must. As the story plays out you learn more of Marston and his past... about why he is the man he is. Let me tell you, it's a truly compelling tale and a testament to how far our favorite medium has come that we can enjoy a story such as this... it's fantastic.

In true Rockstar fashion you are given a massive world to explore. Notorious for making the 'sandbox' game part of the modern lexicon, they've really outdone themselves. Your playground stretches from the scrubby prairie of fictitious New Austin (read Texas) across the border into Mexico and then back up into the plains and mountains of the Southern Rockies. That desolation is impressively captured, you really feel like your stuck out in the "Old West." From the stunning vistas to the small, iconic, "one-horse" towns, the environments are phenomenally well realized.

But don't worry, you'll meet many a colorful stranger as you travel the barren landscape. But there are strangers, and then there are 'Strangers.' The former are random "Help, he stoled me horse!" or some poor sod getting mauled by the local wildlife. You can help if you so choose. The proper 'Stranger' missions are side quests that, while optional, are much more involved with the world at large. These have cutscenes and dialogue. Be it running opium to the tired train workers in Northern Mexico, or getting a nice bouquet of flowers for an old man to give his wife on their anniversary (that one was interesting...) these are clever and worth taking the time to complete.

The sheer size of Marston's world means that accordingly much of the game is spend on horseback. Riding on horse is well done in Red Dead, but just like on a real horse it takes some getting used to... riding a horse, it turns out, is not like driving a car... cornering can be difficult!

The gun play is fun, and there is a 'snap-on' aiming assist that makes things a little more manageable (or you can turn it off if you want the extra challenge). But I love the 'Dead Eye' mechanic. It's great. Activating it sends everything into sepia tinted slow motion. You can then 'paint' multiple targets or line up headshots. Pulling the trigger returns to real time, or in Marston's case, seemingly superhuman speed and accuracy. It does take a bit of practice to really get down, but once you do it's like watching gunslingers in the old westerns... BAM BAM BAM BAM, and a quick spin of the pistol into the holster as their hats are still floating to the ground!

Graphically, Read Dead is very impressive. The environments in particular are stunning. As I rode through the prairie towards the setting sun I was surprised how isolated I felt; how alone. It’s impressive when a game can elicit such a primal response simply through its graphical prowess. The characters themselves also look good, if a little blocky up close (a complaint I’ve had with other Rockstar games). That said, the facial animations are very good, allowing the excellent voice work to really convey a wide range of emotions.

There is a lot of dialogue in Read Dead, and the voice acting is absolutely fantastic. The sound effects are great as well, although the sparse soundtrack did get a bit recycled after a while. But then, there doesn’t really need to be much of a soundtrack… the use of silence enhances that pervading sense of isolation.

Read Dead is a big game… it takes a while to get around. Fortunately Rockstar built in a ‘fast travel’ mechanic. Once you are out of a town you can then setup a campfire. Here you can save your game, change outfits or travel to any previously discovered location or a waypoint you designate on your map. It’s an invaluable tool... otherwise you’ll end up pretty saddle sore.

My biggest issue with Red Dead, and it's not really an issue, is that there is too much to do. Apart from from the main story missions, numerous 'Stranger' tasks and random NPC encounters, there is a ton of optional side content.

There are 'Challenges' and 'Costume' sidequests that you can complete as you play through the game. The Survivalist Challenge might have you collect a certain type of flower, or the Sharpshooter wants you to hit five birds in flight from a moving train. To earn part of a costume you might need to clear out a gang stronghold or even buy a swatch of cloth from the local tailor. Completing these earn you in-game bonuses like an increased Dead-Eye meter or an outfit that dresses Marston up like a bandit so other bandits won't bother him.

They are interesting little diversions, although if you are a bit OCD like I am, you'll start spending most of your time on these rather than the story. This ends up elongating the game significantly! Oh, and these challenges are... challenging. Trying to kill two cougars with your melee knife is a pain in the ass (literally, those buggers are fast and like to sneak up from behind) and trying to disarm six guys without reloading...

There are also bounties. You can collect a bounty poster, and ride off to deal with the scum. Take out all his lackeys then the mark himself. If you shoot him, no worries, just take proof off the corpse and return it to the local sheriff. Of course, you can lasso and hogtie him, put him on your horse and get him back alive for a bigger reward. But be wary, as you are riding back more of his outlaw friends may show up to try and get him back.

But it’s not all about shooting bad guys and dangerous (and delicious) animals. There are plenty of other minigames to occupy your attention. You can do everything from playing cards like blackjack and poker, to five fingered fillet or horseshoes. Hell, you can even arm-wrestle!

And what would the 'Wild West' be without dueling? The little dueling mini-game is well good, but it does take practice... you may think that getting your gun out as fast as possible is the thing to do, but if you go too early your accuracy will suffer. Even if you have your gun out first, if you are busy trying to aim your opponent might beat you to the trigger! Took me quite a few deaths at lunch to figure that out... but that said, gunning down some fool for talkin' sh*t in the middle of the street is one of the more satisfying experiences I've had with a game:^)

In my opinion Red Dead falls just short of gaming perfection. There's a definite learning curve to the controls. It's annoying when you don't realize that you still have your knife or lasso equipped when the bullets start flying. Controlling horses take some practice. Wild animals are annoying, especially those intent on eating you. Cougars suck... don't even get me started on grizzly bears!

Then there is the mission structure: it's standard Rockstar... and while some people hate it I think it's okay. Even if you stick to the plot points alone there is a still a lot to do. Some of those missions are less interesting than others; some go on too long. Also, the pacing is a bit off. It takes a while to get going, and it definitely drags a bit in the middle. The world is so big, with so much to do and so many places to discover, that it's easy to get lost in the wilderness if you'll forgive the bad pun. But all in all, these don't hamper the experience... the breadth of Rockstar's vision trumps these minor concerns.

Oh, I'd better mention the online components. I don’t play games online much, but Read Dead sounds like it would be pretty cool. I imagine getting together with some friends to raid gang hideouts would be a good laugh, not to mention challenging someone to a duel at high noon…

There have been a lot of great "stories" to come out of the gaming medium in the last 10 years. Rockstar had set the bar pretty high with some of their previous work, but the tale of John Marston sets a new standard. To my mind it is as gritty and relatable as anything we have seen in this medium. In my opinion Red Dead Redemption should go down in the annals of the Old West along with the other great titles in the genre... from classics like The Magnificent Seven, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, or even Unforgiven. And John Marston should be remembered as a flawed but ultimately redeemed character alongside John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. You might think that's a bit of hyperbole, but the fact is that this is a game. By its very nature it allows a level of immersion that you simply cannot achieve with a movie. And that’s just it. Red Dead Redemption begs not just to be played, but to be experienced.


Score = 9.7 / 10

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Vanquish (5.9/10)

An ode to Vanquish by Simon…

Oh Vanquish, I had such high hopes for thee,
Especially considering your pedigree.
But even coming from the makers of Resident Evil,
Could do nothing to prevent this from being drivel.
For no matter how awesome that suit might be,
In the end I’m afraid you disappointed me.

I guess I should elaborate a bit... Vanquish was one of those titles I had my eye on but waited for the price to drop before getting it.

Now I kinda wish I hadn’t bothered. I’ll put this out there early… I rarely trade in games, but Vanquish is already back at Gamestop.

Where to begin… how about the nonexistent, nonsensical story? You play as one Sam Gideon, a chain-smoking bozo who works for DARPA (Defense Adavnced Research Projects Agency). I think Sam's a douche, but apparently he's a genius who has created wondrous new mechanized body armor called the Augmented Reaction Suit (ARS).

After an incredibly lame tutorial introduces us to the marvels of the ARS and the laughably bad lip-syncing that plague the in-game communications (more on that later) we suddenly bear witness to San Fransisco getting obliterated by a solar array that has fallen into the hands of… wait for it… the Soviets! That’s right, they’re ba-ack! With legions of Communist robots no less! Oh, the humanity!

Aaaaaand that’s pretty much it... Sam gets dropped off at the array by his inappropriately dressed handler Elena Ivanova (I still can’t tell if that was supposed to be ironic or not) with Bravo Company and their commander Lt. Col Burns, a giant with a mechanical arm that can transform from a shield to a Gatling gun (ain’t technology grand?!), in an attempt to take the station back before it’s used to fire again on another target in the good ol’ US of A. They introduce a crazy bad-ass Russian antagonist, but then he doesn’t show up again until the very end. There is a bit of a side plot about Sam finding his mentor, Professor Candide, who makes a couple brief appearances, but I never really understood why…. actually I never really understood any of it to be honest.

So you guide Sam as he fights through wave after wave of Red Robots before the next strike. The plot "twists" (notice the quotation marks?) are so numbingly obvious you’ll roll your eyes. There is no character development to speak of. The actual ending was so stupid I threw my hands up in frustration and shouted a loud "WHAT!?!" at my TV. It’s one of those where the plot is so bad it’s not even funny... like it doesn't even count as a "plot" as defined by Webster's.

This is made all the more unbearable by the atrocious sound work. Seriously, it’s just plain awful. The bland recycled pseudo-futuristic technobeats are bad enough, but pale in comparison to the dialogue. Sam goes around spouting one-liners and poor puns that would make Ah-nold blush. But he is actually outdone by Lt. Col. Burns, who is, simply put, a walking cliche. Burns and Sam’s banter is unbelievably bad, bordering on embarrassing.

Graphically Vanquish ain’t too bad, but it ain’t great either. The in-game animations are pretty good and the cut-scenes are okay… but then there are the moments when Sam communicates with his teammates and handler via his helmet. You get to see a HUD and in the upper left corner an image of the incoming caller. But then they start talking… it’s some of the worst lip-syncing I have ever seen. It's almost like they didn’t bother re-animating it for the English version (I kinda want to play the Japanese version just to see if it matches up then). What’s odd though is that the lip-syncing in the cut-scenes is spot on… it’s very weird. It feels cheap, almost half done. But then so does the rest of the game.

The ARS suit is definitely the highlight of Vanquish. Straight out of a Japanese manga, the fashionable evening wear allows Sam to rocket around the battlefield with quick thruster bursts. It does actually work pretty well. But be wary, there is a limited amount of juice you can use. If you overuse the suit it’ll overheat leaving you relatively helpless for a few seconds.

Adding to the suit is a clever "Bullet-time" mechanic that allows Sam to slow down time. Zooming around behind an enemy position, then slowing time to blast the evil Russian robots to bits before they even have a chance to turn around is pretty satisfying. But this also uses the power supply on the suit, so keep an eye on the meter.

Sadly, that’s really all the game is, barring some bigger versions of the robotic menace complete with classic highlighted weak points. The novelty of the suit wears off by Act 2. The level design is pretty repetitive with lots of invisible walls guiding you. For a guy with a crazy awesome rocket suit, it's surprising where he can't go. In the end it becomes a slog through similar areas and level designs where Sam must shoot a bunch of bad guys, keep an eye on the power meter, and wait for Elena to unlock the barricaded doors or the elevator to arrive… 

There is also a fair sprinkling of ‘Quicktime’ events to keep things interesting. You’ll need to be on your toes for these, but I think they are more forgiving than in some other titles. It seems like you're given more time to react to the on-screen prompts.

Oh, and Vanquish is short... like, really short. I beat the game in four hours. But considering that I was really ready for it to be done, perhaps that is a blessing in disguise.

I find myself in the uncomfortable position of not recommending this game, the first time I have done so. Vanquish is different enough to warrant a rental, but with so many great titles out there to play, why bother? The thing is, it’s not completely unplayable. The core dilemma here is that rather than creating a well rounded game with a cool mechanic, Vanquish was based around a gimmick. The ARS suit is pretty cool and is fun early on… until you realize this is all there is to the game. It never develops from any standpoint: be it gameplay, design, or story. Seriously, aside from the suit the best design decision was the "shooting gallery" end credits sequence where you get to shoot the developers in an old fashioned arcade style shooting gallery. I found it was oddly enjoyable... I wonder why?


Score = 5.9 / 10

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II (7.0/10)


(References made to the ending of Star Wars: The Force Unleashed)

The original Star Wars: The Force Unleashed made a lot of promises… and while it lived up to some of the hype, other seemingly cheap and sloppy design decisions ultimately ruined the experience. Being granted the ability to wield the Force as never before was pretty mind-blowing and the action was fast and (for the most part) fun. The story, while fairly obscure, fit well into the overarching canon of the Star Wars universe. Then it was announced that Lucas Arts was working on a sequel. I, like many other disappointed yet fanatical fans, felt my inner Padawan swell with hope. Surely they would make up for their past misdeeds? But as has been the case far too often in recent years, we are once again let down by the franchise we love more than any other. Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II reminds me a great deal of the prequel movies… flashier certainly, but supremely disappointing overall, a mere husk of it’s superior predecessors.

The game begins with Darth Vader descending to the planet of Kamino. Inside a massive cloning facility he opens a chamber revealing Galen Marek, also known as Starkiller. But wait… huh? If you played the first game and did the "good guy" ending then you know Starkiller died. He sacrificed himself, allowing his friends to escape and thus creating the Rebel Alliance and setting in motion everything that was to follow. So this must be… a clone? Can they clone Jedi? If you know the canon of Star Wars outside of the movies you know this subject has been explored… but it never worked. The subjects would go mad after a short time (otherwise, why not make the Clone Army out of Jedi clones? D’uh!).

Starkiller the clone has one thing on his mind, finding the beautiful Juno Eclipse, the only good and pure thing in a life tormented by Vader, the only person who brought him peace. He’s haunted by visions of her, by dreams that can’t be his own for he is just a clone… or is he? Go ahead and cue the dramatic music (*rolls eyes*)...

And that’s pretty much it… the story never develops beyond that point. It’s weird... the plot is based on a flawed premise, never goes anywhere, and doesn’t resolve anything in the end. There is no satisfying conclusion explaining the mystery of Starkiller’s origins, nor does it answer any of the questions it poses. Now, I know I shouldn’t expect too much considering the drivel that has been coming out of Skywalker Ranch since the middle of Return of the Jedi, but come on! I don’t think a cohesive plot is too much to ask for... this borders on insulting your fanbase. Even cameos by Yoda and Boba Fett can’t save it. And the sad truth is that it actually pisses me off more that they were included because it just means that they were trying to placate their audience.

While the story is a waste, there some improvements to the gameplay that make The Force Unleashed II a bit more bearable. Starkiller now wields dual lightsabers. Plus, he has a new Force power, the famous Jedi mind-trick, at his disposal. But apart from these minor additions not much has changed from the first game.

The dual lightsabers are pretty much just a cosmetic upgrade; your combo options are still pretty limited. It looks cool though:^) However, you can now dismember Stormtroopers as you slash your way through them by the hundreds. It’s not as gory as say Ninja Gaiden 2, but it is pretty satisfying.

Starkiller’s Force powers are still amazing; you'll feel invincible once you get used to using the controls. The Jedi mind trick is cool, but obviously isn’t going to be employed in huge areas and on multiple enemies. Why not? Well, because while all the good aspects of gameplay are back, so are the bad ones. The camera is still awful and the targeting system is still rubbish. Trying to target a particular enemy to attack his brethren ends up being an exercise in frustration. I’m really surprised by this considering the fanboy outcry after the first time around... I’d have thought the good people at Lucas Arts would have paid more attention, or at least made more of an effort.

But I always try to give credit where it’s due, they did decide to move the prompts for the ‘Quicktime’ events out to the periphery so you can at least enjoy Starkiller’s Jedi awesomeness in action. Oh, and it seems like they gave you slightly longer this time to react, which is also welcome.

I loved the fact that you could customize your lightsaber in the first game, and now that you have two in the sequel; well it’s twice as nice. The crystals now combine color with a different property like sapping life force from your enemies or improving your health regeneration. The only downer is you can't mix and match color with a particular attribute this time around. Oh, and I’ll mention that the infamous black lightsaber is back, but now there is a white one as well! Equipping both at the same time looks pretty awesome… but then I’m a pretty huge Star Wars nerd so take that with a grain of salt.

A word about the graphics… the cutscenes look absolutely fantastic. I can really only think of one or two other titles that can compare. The actual game itself looks as good as it did before, with stunning environments and good animations. The water effects in particular are impressive, rain swept Kamino looks amazing.

All of the classic Star Wars sound effects along with John Williams legendary score provide the authenticity we have come to expect. But then the dark side rears its ugly head… the voice acting this time around is just awful, as in almost laughably bad. I don’t know if the writing is just that limiting, but Starkiller in particular puts in a performance that would make Hayden Christensen wince.

One last thing to mention about The Force Unleashed II… it’s short. I was actually surprised how quickly it ended. Sure, the first game wasn’t particularly long either and revisiting each level was a cheap and tawdry trick to drag it out, but at least it lasted a little while... otherwise you just feel ripped off, especially if you paid full price.

I don’t know… I think I need to learn to temper my expectations when it comes to anything Star Wars related. As it was, my annoyance with The Force Unleashed II was almost palpable. While there were some minor additions, none of the major problems from the first title were really addressed. The story was crap; based on a flawed premise that adds insult to injury by not going anywhere and not answering the fundamental question it was based upon. As a result, while it’s essentially more of the same with a slight makeover, it actually turns out to be a bigger disappointment than the first… and that’s saying something!

Oh well, at least you didn’t have to try and pull down a Star Destroyer in this one…


Score = 7.0 / 10

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (7.7/10)

Let's face it: the annual installment of the Call of Duty franchise is probably the most eagerly awaited release of the year for a majority of the gaming public. Every year multiple games end up changing their release date simply because they don’t want to go up against the Call of Duty juggernaut. Considering the success of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, should we be surprised? Absolutely not. CoD4:MW is probably the best shooter I’ve ever played. Then it was announced that Infinity Ward was back to make Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. Panic ensued…

It’s impressive that the franchise has gotten to the point that if I were to show you a scene from a game where you are careening down a mountainside on a snowmobile dodging trees, rocket fire, and jerks with guns shooting at you from other snowmobiles only to jump a gorge to rendezvous with your escape chopper you would just look at me and say, "Oh, that must be from the new Call of Duty game, huh?" These over the top action sequences have become synonymous with this franchise, while in other games they seem paltry and cliché. CoD:MW2 does an awesome job of creating memorable moments. There are more than a few that end with you gasping a breathless "Wow…"

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 is a blockbuster in every sense of the word: loud, fast, chaotic, and meaningless. Most big summer movies are heavy on action and lacking in plot. CoD:MW2 is no different. The story takes an interesting turn when Imran Zakhaev, the evil bastard from the first game everyone so enjoyed capping at the end, has become a martyr in the fullest sense of the term. He’s the idol of the new Russia, and he has some fanatical followers intent on bringing down the good old US of A.

Initially it’s quite well done (especially the reappearance of an old friend!), but things quickly degenerate into a nonsensical mishmash of various worn war cliches and over the top moments that have you rolling your eyes and slumping back in your seat going "Really? Reeeeaaaalllllyyyy???" If they had toned it down a shade it might have worked… but it ends up coming off as preachy. Literally, the last half of the game, I remember thinking, "Yeah, yeah, blah blah blah, just let me get back to the action already!" Oh, and the ending sucks. It’s ludicrous to the point that it actually pissed me off.

I would be remiss if I didn’t at least mention the infamous "Russian Airport" level. It’s important to the story because it sets up everything that follows it, but let me tell you, it ain’t for the faint of heart. As desensitized as we have become in our culture today it didn’t bother too many people, but it certainly straddles the boundary of good taste. Fortunately, the game will actually prompt you as to whether or not you want it included.

However, we don’t tend to go and watch summer movies for the narrative, nor is that the reason to play CoD:MW2. We play to shoot bad guys. In this regard CoD: MW2 shines as bright as its predecessor does. After a bit of practice you will be popping in and out of your sights, taking down terrorists like a seasoned veteran. Of all the shooters I’ve played I really think that this series has nailed the shooting controls best of all the competition. This is the gold standard.

Graphically, it's an impressive game as well. Sure, CoD: MW2 doesn't improve much over the last few CoD titles but it still... one section in particular was really impressive, when you shoot your way through a market in Rio de Janeiro. Crap is flying everywhere and it looks great. There are no hiccups in the frame rate at all!

I do have some gripes about the gameplay/design. When you get shot there is a blood splatter across the screen to indicate that you have, in fact, been shot. This would be fine, but it is far too intrusive. One hit from an enemy bullet obscures the screen so much that you can’t even see who is shooting you. Now, I realize this is pretty realistic in a sense… but this is a game. Because these battle sequences are so chaotic, with incoming fire from all directions, you can get disoriented quickly.

This would be manageable if not for my other issue. There isn’t really a ‘true’ cover system. I’m still surprised by this, or the lack there of. You can’t go into cover the same way you can in games like Gears of War or Uncharted. If I get shot, you’d better believe my first reaction is to find some cover while I get my bearings, not just ‘crouch’ behind a crate.

The end result is that when you get hit, you can’t see what is going on, and you can’t get cover quickly to get your vision back. You go from enjoying your Tuesday and protecting America and her interests, to being completely buggered very quickly. There are lots of "Come on! $#%&^ *&#&#%!!!!" moments. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve inadvertently run right into the enemy because I couldn’t see what was happening. I feel like CoD:MW2 dances on tiptoe back and forth over that line separating challenging and just plain frustrating.

I have a couple of other minor issues with CoD:MW2. While the sound is awesome throughout the game, it's almost too good in parts. Sometimes the objectives are spoken directly to you by your commanding officer. "Concentrate fire on the far bank!" can get lost in the cacophony of the chaos surrounding you. You can hear him shouting, but you are busy getting shot in the ass and are noticeably unable to split your attention. There were a couple of times when I had no idea where to go next because I couldn't hear my orders. My other problem is that the single player campaign is pretty short. Normally it would bother me more, but they really did cram a lot in to a short six hours. As it was, I was ready for it to be done when it ended. Of course, I don’t play online multiplayer much…

So once again I’m forced to put in my standard caveat about how I don't play games online. Multiplayer, more than anything else, is what Call of Duty is known for, and the primary reason it sells as well as it does. You’ll be surprised here, but I have actually played CoD:MW2 online (at a family friend’s house during a Christmas party… sorry Mom). I didn’t play for very long, but it was still quite fun. I imagine if I took it as seriously as some people I'd become completely obsessed.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 falls prey to the pitfalls of most sequels: the developers simply tried too hard to top the original. That was a mountain to climb; Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare is deserving of its unofficial title of the best shooter this generation. As a result, I think that while things are bigger, faster, louder, and crazier, that doesn’t translate to better in this case. But don’t let that dissuade you from trying it, you should, whether you want a great multiplayer experience (the score of my review would almost certainly be higher if I played online) or just a fun shooter to play through in a weekend. Of course, everyone (including me) bought it and it broke sales records so what the hell do I know…


Score = 7.7 / 10

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Left 4 Dead 2 (9.5/10)

"How to write a Left 4 Dead 2 Review" by Simon. Let’s see.. take my review of Left 4 Dead; add a new cast of characters, an actual cohesive story, the inclusion of melee weapons, and the introduction of some new 'Super Zombies.' Let simmer over five all new chapters and…. Mmmmmmm that’s good Zombie Apocalypse!

Left 4 Dead 2 follows four new survivors as they battle the undead hordes. They are Ellis, Coach, Rochelle, and Nick. The story is much more focused this time around as the group first meet on top of a hotel where there should have been a helicopter rescue in Savannah, Georgia. But as the choppers disappear into the distance without them, the four decide to stick together, a sort of strength in numbers approach. The new goal is to make it to a local mall, where CEDA (Civil Emergency Defense Agency, a not so subtle reference to FEMA and the complete balls up that was the response to Hurricane Katrina), supposedly has another evacuation center. Needless to say, things don’t go as planned.

The new crew, in an ironic twist, must pursue their rescuers. They travel from a carnival theme park, through the dark, dank, and dangerous bayou. Then they must stumble through a torrential downpour, before finally arriving in the 'Big Easy' herself, New Orleans where rescue waits on the far side.

While the first game didn’t really have a story as such, rather more like cliched zombie movie scenarios, L4D2 has a coherent plot that stretches across five chapters. The set ups are still the same (working your way through various safehouses until a last stand where you must survive until rescue arrives), but now there is a narrative connecting them… although it is pretty thin. Still, it’s nice to see progression towards a goal if nothing else.

What really impresses me about the new levels though is the cleverness of the design. ‘Dark Carnival’ takes you through a theme park complete with zombie clowns with squeaky shoes that draw other undead walkers towards him. You can even play a version of 'Whack-a-Mole,' or try your marksmanship in a shooting gallery. It's a good laugh if nothing else. ‘Hard Rain’ takes you through a small town to get to a gas station on the far side so you can get fuel for your boat. Once you get there, you have to turn around and come back and that’s when the deluge starts. As the rain inundates the surrounding things look completely different, making everything you just went through virtually unrecognizable. It’s very smart design, and those are just two examples... there are other ideas in the other levels that I won’t give away here.

The gameplay is pretty much the same with a couple of noticeable additions. The most obvious one is that you can now use melee weapons in combat. Why would you want to risk blood splatter for close quarters combat? Because it’s bloody fun, that’s why! You can still carry a rifle or shotgun as your primary weapon, but if you take a melee weapon it replaces your pistol (the one with infinite ammo that was your back up in the first game). There are lots of options for zombie bashing, everything from crowbars and fire axes to billy clubs, samurai swords, guitars and even frying pans. Again, allowing the zombie menace to get close enough to actually use these weapons is a bit risky, but lopping off undead heads is extremely satisfying. And besides, if you spent much time with the first game, you know you’ll end up getting cornered by seething masses of zombies, so now you have the option to blindly hack your way out!

There are also some new ‘Super Zombies' in L4D2. Along with the Boomer, Hunter, Smoker, Tank, and Witch, you must now face the Spitter, Charger, and Jockey. Spitters will… wait for it… spit acidic goo at your team from distance. This is sort of an "Area of Effect" attack, whereby a swath of ground gets covered. Step into the goo and you get hurt. Oh, and if you do manage to take out a Spitter still be wary, when they go down they dissolve into another hazardous puddle. The Jockey, as his name implies, is a short, quick little bugger that will jump on his victims shoulders and ‘ride’ him away from the group. The Charger will sprint at the survivors at high speed, bowling them all out of the way. But whoever he ‘catches’ in his over-sized fist will be slammed into the ground repeatedly, knocking out large chunks of health, until the rest of the team regain their feet and take him down.

There are a few other additions I’ll mention quickly. The first is the inclusion of the defibrillator. You can now bring back dead teammates immediately rather than waiting for them to respawn in some distant closet. There is also an adrenaline shot you can use instead of pain pills. You get a temporary health boost that diminishes a little quicker than the pills, but it also grants you some extra speed.

Added to the pipe bombs and Molotov cocktails is the new "Boomer Bile" grenade, a flask of nastiness you can chuck at your enemies. Just like when a Boomer pukes on you, nearby zombies will be drawn to whatever the bile touches. Tossing one at an onrushing Tank so the zombies mobbed him instead of me brought a huge smile to my face.

There is no appreciable improvement over the original Left 4 Dead in either the graphics or sound departments. The graphics are still perfectly functional if not all that impressive. The sound work is once again centered on the cries of the undead and the sound cues of the ‘Super Zombies.’ You’d better learn the new ones quick! The Chargers grunting roar or the Jockey’s demonic laugh will soon have you calling out warnings to your teammates. Oh, and stick around in each safe house. The survivors banter back and forth much more this time. Ellis' stories in particular are pretty funny.

Again I must state that I don't play online multiplayer. But of all the great titles that would compete for my time, L4D2 would be at the top the list. I love the idea of playing as the zombies! In addition to the ‘Versus’ and ‘Survival’ modes, there is now a ‘Scavenger’ mode as well where you have to hunt for gas cans to keep generators going (if you play as the humans) or keep them from their task (if you are playing as the zombies).

While it doesn’t take many radical leaps forward, Left 4 Dead 2 is more of the same zombie mayhem you enjoyed so much the first time around with just enough added to make it worth the full price for admission… at least I think so. More of the same, in this case, simply means more zombie killing fun! But with the inclusion of melee weapons and the other additions, it gives you just enough variety to make everything seem fresh again. Once again, it’s best played with a friend. At my house we have played each of these maps over and over again, and this is still the go-to series for late night drunken fun!


Score = 9.5 / 10

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Heavenly Sword (7.5/10)

Heavenly Sword is all about… well, a heavenly sword! The sword is said to be an ancient and mystical weapon that is supposedly the only defense against great evil. According to prophecy, when the time was right a male heir would take up the blade. But whoever wields the godly blade will be cursed, as it will sap the life of the one that binds its power. When a daughter was born instead of a boy, the clan despairs. Beautiful Nariko is looked upon with disdain, as if her birth is a portent of doom. Her father, the clan’s patriarch raised her to be a deadly warrior all the same for he knew no better...

Enter the aforementioned evil in the form of King Bohan, a sociopathic despot who desires the sword for his own ends. He sends his massive army against the small clan, prepared to wipe them out. Nariko and her father battle with their clansmen against the King’s forces, but they are too many. In a last desperate attempt to save her people Nariko takes up the sword, and succumbs to the curse. The blade will slowly kill her; she has little time to face Bohan's hordes.

Now Nariko must protect the blade from Bohan’s evil clutches. She is helped by the orphan Kai, a young women you will take control of for certain sections of the game. Her missions involve ‘Sniping’ sections with her arrow gun. Kai is… peculiar to say the least. She’s a few trees short of a forest, a few cans short of a six pack… you get the idea. But when you find out why… well, I don’t think I’ve ever had such a strong reaction to a game character. But Nariko needs her aid, and she’s good at "Twing-twang!"

This game is full of inspired performances and good writing. The incomparable Andy Serkis not only plays King Bohan, but also helped to write the story. Bohan’s lieutenants are very well done, with some memorable characters and more great voice acting. Because of the great cast and some pretty good facial animations, a fairly lame story becomes an emotionally charged tale where the characters are well developed. As you learn the secrets of Nariko’s painful past, or how Kai ended up as she is, you really feel for them.

However, you might notice how familiar the combat feels. Let’s not beat about the bush here… the combat in Heavenly Sword is very obviously influenced (if not completely ripped off) from God of War. It ain’t subtle, I’ll say that… but I’ll also say that it’s quite responsive and enjoyable. You mix light and heavy attacks to form combos in the same way. There are multiple forms the sword can take. The two-bladed style is the balanced version or they can combine for the slower but more powerful big single blade. Then there is the ‘Ranged’ mode, where the dual blades are on chains for weak, yet fast and reaching attacks. It’s a good idea to experiment with the different tactics to find what works against certain enemies. But yeah, in the end you can't help but feel like you're playing a God of War clone. Still, it’s pretty fun so I don’t mind nearly so much.

But what I love most about Heavenly Sword are the few sections of the game where you get to fire projectiles that you can then steer. This ‘Aftertouch’ has been used in other games (Dark Sector anyone? Hello? Anyone?), but basically you use the Six-axis technology on the PS3 controller (rudimentary motion control for those of you who don't know) to control the projectile in flight, guiding it into the target like a cruise missile. Driving one of Kai's arrows around a corner, over a barrel and back into the bad guy’s forehead is immensely satisfying. It’s good fun, but I recommend turning off the Six-axis stuff and just using the controller normally, otherwise you’ll end up banging your head against the wall. I always felt like the Six-axis technology never worked well, and was a gimmick at best.

Graphically, Heavenly Sword is middle of the road, nothing particularly special but certainly not bad either. The environments look great, but I did have some lag issues, especially when there was a lot of action on a crowded battlefield. There is some impressive motion capture, especially facial expressions… how much of this is Andy Serkis I don’t know, but at the time it was top tier.

I’m trying to think of a game with better voicework, but I may be destined to fail. For such a small, relatively obscure title, Heavenly Sword has a truly wonderful cast. Andy Serkis makes the game as he lends his voice and wit to the role of the evil ruler King Bohan. Lydia Bakish, who does Kai, is excellent as well. The score is great and it enhances the atmosphere, as do the sound effects.

But despite the brilliance of the cast there are other issues with Heavenly Sword beyond the ripped-off combat mechanics. The boss battles always felt a bit contrived to me. This is a downer because Bohan’s entourage is more than a little quirky. In the end, they are all the old-school, garden variety, pattern bosses where you learn their moves, then wait patiently, dodging everything for your turn to get a hit in and slowly whittle them down. Not terribly challenging, not terribly engaging either...unless it becomes down right frustrating, which the final boss definitely is…

There are a fair number of random ‘Quicktime’ events in Heavenly Sword that come out of left field. While QTE works in some games, in Heavenly Sword they ask too much. Your reaction times will have to be superhuman to get them right on the first go. Plus, they tend to rear their ugly heads during climactic boss battles. In these, the QTE’s become quite frustrating since you are usually concentrating on your chance to break the pattern of the boss, you’ll wind up missing the prompt all together.

But sadly, my biggest complaint with Heavenly Sword is not its lack of originality, but rather that the experience is over far too quickly. It’s really short… even by modern standards. Normally, I’m not one to complain about game length, but this is one case where they could have expanded it just a bit and it would have been beneficial rather than becoming predictable and repetitive. Sure, most of the fights were against the same generic enemies, but I still had a good laugh bludgeoning the poor fools by the hundreds. The game is so short that the tension of the tale never really develops. It could have been really engaging if only it had a bit more time to mature.

Heavenly Sword is an unapologetic, almost brazen imitation of God of War. Nariko was immediately branded as a female version of Kratos, and the gameplay besmirched as a direct copy. While there is some truth to that, I wouldn’t let that dissuade you from playing it. I think it has enough personality to stands on it’s own two feet. It’s a fun, if short, game with a wonderful cast. Put it another way… if you liked God of War and can get past the fact that it "borrows" a lot from that franchise, then you might enjoy Heavenly Sword. I did…


Score = 7.5 / 10

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Assassin's Creed (9.0/10)

If you’ve never seen the original Assassin’s Creed teaser trailer, here it is. While the trailer promises a lot in the way of gameplay, and for the most part it delivers, the clever use of historical fiction and an increasingly intriguing story are really what makes Assassin’s Creed stand out. Ubisoft took a risk with this game, but its success has ensured multiple entries for us to enjoy.

The story beings with a young man named Desmond Miles awaking from a terrible dream rife with faceless people to discover that he is not, in fact, dreaming. He is hooked up to a machine called the Animus, which allows the person to relive the collective memories of his ancestors which, it turns out, are passed on genetically almost like instinct. Desmond is actually slipping into the shared memories of his progenitors. Being held prisoner against his will, his mind is being plumbed by the evil Abstergo Corporation.

But why? Well, the Abstergo Corporation is actually known by a much more common moniker: the Knights Templar. They have pulled the strings of world politics and industry for centuries. They are the puppet masters. But there has always been a resistance, those who have attempted to balance the scales. They are known as the Brotherhood of Assassins. They work tirelessly to foil the Templars nefarious plots which center around the search for the Pieces of Eden. These are artifacts of supposedly enormous power. That’s where Desmond comes in, forced to relive the memories of his assassin ancestor Altair ibn La-Ghad, back in the time of the Third Crusade in the Holy Land.

Desmond doesn’t have much choice so he acquiesces and flashes back to Altair who is trailing a Templar named Robert de Sable. He is looking for the location of the Arc of the Covenant. Altair is a crass, egocentric, arrogant bugger. When Robert escapes Altair must return to Masyaf, the stronghold of the Brotherhood, empty-handed. There he is punished by their leader Al Mualim for his insolence and ignoring their creed. He’s stabbed, and if that wasn’t bad enough, he’s busted all the way down from master to lowly novice. To atone for his disgrace, Al Mualim demands he assassinate nine men who work towards the Templars evil ends in Jerusalem, Acre, and Damascus.

But as Altair completes his tasks, it soon becomes apparent that more is going on here than was initially suggested. Each target, while contemptible in his own way, speaks to Altair before they pass on. With their dying breaths, they hint that perhaps things aren’t so simple. It all builds to a clever and enthralling conclusion. There were some surprising twists and turns that had me nodding and smiling as they came to light.

When you first get into AC you may find the controls take some getting used to… they certainly did for me. But with a little practice you’ll see how clever they actually are. There are essentially two different sets of controls, one passive and one active. By pressing 'RB' you put Altair in active mode, where you can run, climb, and fight. I'm not going to try to explain beyond that, it's just too confusing. Again, it takes practice, but once you learn the nuances you’ll be slicing your way through Templars and their minions with barely contained glee! Countering is the best though… if you time it right you can counter an enemy attack and pull off an instant kill with a cool graphical interlude. Even having seen these animations hundreds of times I still think it looks awesome!

But one of the things that makes AC so much fun is the parkour skills of our hero. Altair possesses the almost super-human ability to climb up, over and around… well, pretty much everything! It’s great fun, but it’s definitely not a perfect mechanic. You’ll find yourself occasionally taking a flying leap off the side of a building because you didn’t have the camera angled properly and suiciding yourself in the process. By keep your eyes open and you'll discover the path to follow up the side of a structure, and a quick flick of the thumb will guide Altair there. 

While a true assassin isn’t seen or heard, things don’t always go to plan. Guards have an alert level that goes from yellow to red. Keep a wary eye out, and disappear to avoid their notice… or alternatively you can kill them before they can raise an alarm. If you attract the notice of the guards by being naughty, you know, dashing up the side of a building or killing their friends, you’ll be well advised to hightail it out of there. As soon as you get out of a line of sight from your pursuers you can avoid them by hiding in haystacks, blending in with a crowd, or sitting on benches until they give up the search.

Whenever you get to a new part of one of the three major cities, you need to find the Brotherhood's lair and speak to your handler.  He will require you to do some research on your target before giving you the go-ahead to take him out. This involves things like eavesdropping on a conversation between conspirators, then pick-pocketing a map that may show where the guards are stationed. Sometimes you need to tail an informant to a secluded alley and beat the information out of him. 

Once you get enough intel, you can take out the mark. These are usually cleverly designed setups where you have to get close to the mark without being seen, take him out, and escape the scene. It’s thrilling stuff, especially if you can pull it off like a true assassin and keep it from turning into a brawl. The sense of accomplishment to a well-performed assassination is very satisfying.

There are some major design complaints with AC though. The main issue is that the game does get a touch too repetitive. From the mission structure to the combat, by the time you’re at the end of the game you’ll hardly be paying attention. Once the enemies get a bit tougher (and better at blocking), combat turns into a waiting game as Altair waits patiently for his foes to attack so he can counter. It doesn’t really take any skill and rather than the game getting more difficult towards the end, it actually gets easier. The structure for each assassination mission revolves around doing the same basic mini-missions over and over again. Find a tower, scope out the landscape, then pick-pocket/eavesdrop/beat someone up to get information, go assassinate the target and then repeat. Personally, I enjoyed the gameplay so it didn’t bother me too much, but it’s still a problem.

I normally wouldn't mention this, but there is LOT of stuff to collect in AC. Flags litter up the place from the countryside to the cities. There are Templar Knights all over the place who need to be dealt with. Multiple vantage points need to be found, climbed, and leapt from. And all of this does… nothing. I spent an inordinate amount of time finding every bloody flag and killing every bastard Templar I could find only to get an Achievement/Trophy. That’s all well and good, but for that much effort there should really be some sort of in-game payoff like a lightsaber or the ability to fart on your enemies or… well, something! Fortunately, it appears that I’m not the only one to complain about this is in the subsequent sequels there exist similar collection side quests, but at least you get some cool stuff for your trouble.

Assassin’s Creed boasts some truly stunning vistas on a scale that was, at the time, completely mind blowing. Watching Altair perch on the top of a high tower and the camera panning around showing Jerusalem stretching out below was breathtaking. That said, the up-close cutscenes are far from perfect with the facial animations looking particularly blocky. The in-game animations are brilliant though, (albeit not without the occasional disappearance into the wall or through the floor). I particularly love the camera angle change when you time a counter move perfectly. It switches to a slightly different view as Altair does his dance of death, then returns to the normal view, blending together naturally. Those counter animations look painful!

Assassin’s Creed takes some pretty big leaps in gameplay and design, and while it’s certainly not perfect, it definitely sets a solid foundation from which Ubisoft can develop a long and fruitful franchise. The story, while clever and intriguing on it’s own, lends itself to any number of sequels. The gameplay is addictive even if it does get a bit repetitive. The wonderfully realized cities are a joy to explore especially since you can climb all over them! The actual assassination missions are not only cleverly designed, but devious as well. If you manage to pull them off properly, you’ll feel like a true assassin!


Score = 9.0 / 10