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Sunday, July 31, 2011

Killzone 3 (8.3/10)

My initial thoughts of Killzone 3 were much the same as  Killzone 2: gorgeous graphics, great weapons, with a tired, cliched grunt war story... now with jetpacks! Fortunately, Guerrilla Games and Sony made a few changes for the better and I'm happy to say I enjoyed it better than I did its predecessor. 

The story begins where the last game left off, although the beginning is clever. It's sort of a flash-forward, flash-back sort of thing. You once again take control of Tomas "Sev" Sevchenko with his moronic partner Rico Velasquez (the idiot who turned Scolar Visari, supreme ruler of the Helghast, into Swiss cheese at the end of Killzone 2). Sev and Rico regroup with Captain Narville (who is not terribly pleased with Rico's trigger happy behavior) and try to bug out before the entire Helghan military descend upon them.

Meanwhile, there is some weird internal politics working in the Helghan hierarchy in the wake of Visari's death. It's not obvious to begin with how that's going to play out beyond giving you different sorts of enemies to shoot, but it does add a welcome level of suspense. It's nice to have a proper face to your enemies rather than just the non-descript red goggles. 

You then flash forward six months as the feeble pocket of ISA resistance is trying to stay hidden and off the radar as they wait for reinforcements to come all the way from Earth. You can tell it's been a while because Sev's hair grew out. Now, as opposed to pitched battles in and amongst the ruins of Helghan cities, you're forced to employ more guerrilla style tactics to survive against overwhelming opposition.

The Killzone franchise is best known for it's graphical prowess, and this third installment is absolutely beautiful. The destructible environments, smoke, particle effects, lighting, and facial animations are all stellar. The environmental detail is right up there with Uncharted 2: Among Thieves and God of War 3 as far as I'm concerned. The cut scenes really are impressive, especially considering everything that is going on... very fast and chaotic, but again, it's beautifully rendered.

The gunplay, which people seem to either love or hate, is still pretty good in my opinion. The guns all have great weight to them, you can practically feel the recoil. Your Helghast foes are tricky, being quick and employing good use of cover. The guns still pan a little slow for me; tracking a running foe can be frustrating. Tweaking the controls helps a bit. There are some great high intensity gunfights, especially towards the end. Seemingly endless waves of Helghan forces bombard your position. The sets are so gorgeous I wanted to take my time and have a look around, but that's a bad idea-you'll get filled full of holes. Also, for those sections where you have help, the bizarre little health gun that magically zaps you and your fallen comrades back to health is back! I don't know, it looks... silly. 

They solved the ammo shortage problem from the last game as well. It seems like the levels are liberally sprinkled with ammo dumps, so you won't have to rely on those crappy Helghan weapons. Actually, I take that back... some of the specialty guns you get in the latter half of the game are pretty beastly, so I won't complain. There is the awesome energy gun that makes people explode (reminds me of the movie District 9) and the Bolt Gun, with exploding bolts for crazy damage. 

One thing I really like with Killzone 3 is the fact that the developers added enough different types of gameplay beyond the standard shooter parts that it's actually well paced. The vehicle components (including a really cool bit where you ride a mech) break it up nicely, even if most of these sections tend to be "on rails." There is also a lengthy stealth/sniper section that was borderline stressful in both good and bad ways. Good in that sneaking around, melee killing guards then running and hiding was very well done. Bad in that it fails as stealth missions often do... when you get spotted. It's best just to give up and let them kill you, start again from the last checkpoint (which were thankfully pretty frequent) and try a different route. I just get annoyed when it seems like the only way to move forward is to die enough times that the correct path is found by process of elimination.

The jet packs are pretty sick, I have to say... although what their purpose is beyond making you jump higher and thus presenting an easier target, I'm not altogether sure. In a game that revolves around cover-based shooting it seems almost counter productive. Having said that, it's still super cool, and the controls make them easy to maneuver. What's frustrating though is that they are, if anything, underutilized. You have them briefly on one section (that level is really short) and then they are gone. However, I've heard they can be a blast in multiplayer, much like Halo: Reach, and that particular section in the campaign is a blast to play, so it's worth it. 

But Killzone 3 is not without some problems. The ally AI can still be a little wonky as your teammates tend to run right in your line of fire. The motion blur problems aren't as bad this time around (something that annoyed me with Killzone 2), but I still think it's noticeable. Also, for some weird reason, there is a delayed reaction when you smash open doors. Swinging your weapon at the door doesn't cause a reaction until a full second later. The first time it happened I thought I'd done something wrong, and pressed the melee button again when it suddenly fell apart. The guy on the other side started filling me with hot lead while I went ahead and impotently swung my rifle again...

Speaking of unnecessary technical frustrations, combat can still be maddening in some places. So can the checkpoint locations and respawn points. I hate it when you reload right into the middle of a crossfire-it hardly seems fair. On the technical front there are other issues, like glitchy graphics (which is understandable to a point) and even some freeze moments. 

The story is riddled with the same war cliches (we don't leave our people behind, disobeying direct orders because of what is thought to be "right") that we've suffered through time and again. There are also some oddly elongated follow the leader sections at the end of most sequences. I can't understand why they drag out the way they do unless it's just to allow you to gaze at the gorgeous environments without getting shot at...

I also think the characters are... unsympathetic. Velasquez and Narville drive me nuts with their constant back and forth bickering. Shut the hell up already and shoot something! I get what they are trying to do, but it's just too ham-handed for me. The whining Helghan politics sections are well scripted, but they all seem completely sociopathic and selfish without an ounce of reliability.

Like Killzone 2, the soundtrack and voice acting are all too familiar, but the sound effects are some of the best I've heard. The clattering of the guns, screams of the fallen, and the explosions are all fantastic. I'm not sure if it was my playthrough, but sometimes the lip syncing was noticeably off. It's like the audio and the animation didn't sync up properly. Tsk, tsk... but then it goes right back to being fine.

I feel the need to quickly mention that Killzone 3 is completely Playstation Move integrated, right down to the awesome gun peripheral. I haven't tried them out personally, but it sounds fun. The game is also 3D enabled, so if you've got a shiny 3D TV you can check that out as well, although I've heard that it is less than impressive.

I'm not a huge online multiplayer guy, but I have heard that this is pretty good in Killzone 3. It has a fairly large following, and some fiercely loyal fans. Maybe one day I'll try it, but if you're looking for something a little different, it's worth checking out. 

I had a bad feeling that my conclusion regarding Killzone 3 is, as I said in my intro here, much the same as Killzone 2. It boasts both the same positives and negatives that seem to plague the series: great graphics, awesome sound effects, pretty good gunplay, cliched story, and technical issues. But I have to say that I enjoyed this third installment quite a bit more... it may well have been the jet packs, they make everything better.


Score = 8.3 / 10

Friday, July 22, 2011

Tiger Woods PGA Tour 12: The Masters (9.0/10)

I haven't played with Tiger for a few years now, but it seems I'm the only one! HA! Okay, I swear, that's the last joke I'll make about his... proclivities. Anyway, the Tiger Woods franchise by EA Sports has always been the pinnacle of the golfing video game, and Tiger Woods PGA Tour 12: The Masters may be the best one to date. It's about as close as you're gonna get short of actually putting on your spikes, grabbing your clubs, and, you know, actually heading outside and getting some sun.

Having said that, it can be every bit as frustrating as real golf. I've never been a big fan of using analog swing sticks. I don't have any of the motion peripherals, in this case a PlayStation Move (although I've heard it works quite well), so I'm just using a normal controller here. But to be honest it just takes a bit of practice. In fact, I highly recommend playing a practice round when you first pop the game in... it will make things easier in the long run.

You've really just got to be able to move the swing stick back and forth on a level plane. The tricky stuff comes in when you have to hit partial shots as opposed to a full swing. Of course, that's a lot like how it is when you're actually out playing for real. What's not terribly realistic is that you can apply spin to the ball while it is in the air, thus correcting any mistakes you might have made or guiding it closer to the pin. What's also weird is it seems inordinately easy to hit the fairways while putting can be a real challenge, especially once you get to tournaments where the greens get faster. Mind you, that's pretty realistic too... I guess it's a mixed bag. 

Fortunately, this time around you actually have a caddie out on the course with you to help you out. Your non-descript caddie will give you a couple of different shot choices depending on the conditions and lie. While he can be really helpful in letting you know the lay of the land, he won't always necessarily be right. It's clever that he can be flawed. You need to pay attention and trust your instincts rather than blindly follow all his tips. But what I really like is the more you play a course, the more efficient he will become. Again, this is impressively realistic. It stands to reason that a caddie needs experience on a particular course to know what is the best play to suggest given the situation.

However, your caddie can also be a bit weird. All of a sudden you won't get his help. It's... odd and surprisingly discomforting when he doesn't have any advice to give. It can also be frustrating, especially on the green. When he does desert you, you really have to know how to read greens. Of course, you do have the option to turn him off all together if you'd rather do it yourself. Personally, I liked the companionship...

Fortunately, the career mode, now dubbed "Road to the Masters," seems a lot more structured than some of the previous entries, mostly because it actually has a goal now... to qualify for the illustrious Master's tournament. I'm glad the good people (?) at the Augusta National Golf Club finally buckled and allowed themselves to be included. Of course, now it's the UK Open instead of The Open Championship... sighs. Still, like most sports titles where licensing rights become an issue, the Tiger Woods games never felt right without being out there amongst the azaleas on golf's most dramatic stage. 

When you finally get to Augusta National you'll be stunned by just how beautiful it looks... just like on TV. If you follow golf, or are even a casual fan, you'll know all about Amen Corner and the fabled bridge leading over the water to the par 3. It's just gorgeous. But at the same time, the greens are just as vicious as they look when watching the pros. They are brutal- it's like putting on an ice skating rink! This course will really punish you if you get careless. After qualifying for the most illustrious of golfs many challenges, I have to say, as cliche as it may be, I have a new appreciation for just how awesome these guys and girls really are who do this for a living... this ain't easy. Having said that, I was disappointed they didn't actually animate it so I could see the coveted green jacket draped over my shoulders after I won.

It's not just Augusta National that looks impressive. All the courses are visually stunning. The player animations, while a little limited, look good too. I really like the realistic ball physics as well. If you play golf you know all about the funny ways the ball can bounce, how it can be effected by the wind and the path of your club to the ball. The shots do react as you would expect.

You have a wide range of character customization and clothing options. I was actually able to create a reasonable looking avatar this time! I spent a fair amount of time going through my clubs, which can be customized from several major brand names (Nike, TaylorMade, Calloway, Ping, etc) down to the different shafts and grips. There are a ton of different clothing options, you can even wear a tartan kilt if you want... show off those legs!

But to unlock all of these goodies you need to complete challenges... and there are a lot of them. Sponsor challenges unlock stuff in the pro shop. I like this change in some ways, but at the same time it does force you to play the game a certain way, which I've always found oddly unrealistic. To be honest, it's best not to think about them and just play naturally. You should be rewarded for playing well, that's the key. And to a point you do; gaining XP for your accomplishments in a round and completing specific tasks on the course in question. You can then spend these points on various attributes. It's all pretty standard, but seems much more focused this time around which is nice. While the early levels to the ladder go by quick, to really max out your golfer would take a lot of time and effort... again, just like real golf!

I only have a couple of complaints about Tiger Woods PGA Tour 12: The Masters. The first, and easily most glaring, is the long load times. It does take its sweet time. The game can also be too easy once you get used to using the analog controls. I smashed the competition, and after a while upped the difficulty level. And while Jim Nance and David Feherty make great commentators, their lines do get recycled. But they are nowhere near as bad as your caddie, who runs out of new stuff to say pretty early on.

You may have noticed one phrase was often repeated over the course of this review... and that is Tiger Woods PGA Tour 12: The Masters is pretty darn realistic. The highs and lows of actually being out there on the course are mirrored pretty well, easily hit fairways notwithstanding. When you hit that sweet putt and watch it curve into the cup... well, I was fist pumping right along with my digital self. While it's been a while since I've put on my spikes and grabbed my clubs, Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2012: The Masters is the best golf game I've ever played. Elin probably wishes the same could be said of ol' Tiger himself... sorry, couldn't resist!


Score = 9.0 / 10

Monday, July 18, 2011

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (9.8/10)

Usually games/books/movies end with a cliffhanger. Uncharted 2: Among Thieves begins with one. Our good friend Nathan Drake wakes up to find himself bloodied, bruised, and falling out of a train car in the Himalayas. Sucks to be him...

From there, Drake's latest tale flashes forward and back on a veritable roller-coaster ride of intrigue, conspiracy, discovery, and betrayal. This time the quest is to follow the breadcrumbs laid by the expeditions of Marco Polo in search of Shambala; otherwise known as the mythical, mystical Shangri-La. The chase takes you all over the world as you unravel the mysteries both past and present. And let me tell you, it's fantastic even if it does take a turn for the weird towards the end. But considering it was the same in the first game, I guess that's par for the course... personally, I blame Indiana Jones.

Drake is again joined in his adventures by his mentor/bad influence Victor "Sully" Sullivan (make sure you look through Drake's journal to see the many moods of Victor Sullivan... priceless). There are new faces as well: most noticeably Harry Flynn, another erstwhile adventurer, and Chloe Frazer, his partner in crime who has a history with Drake himself. Is it weird that she actually turns me on? Nevermind, I probably shouldn't have mentioned that...

Pretty much everything gameplay wise is the same as the original: third person, cover-based shooting combined with platforming sections and giant puzzles reminiscent of Tomb Raider. It worked so well the first time out nothing really needed to be changed, but rather honed. Hey, if it ain't broke...

One thing that truly makes this series sparkle is the performances put in by the voice actors. Everyone does an exemplary job, but none more so than Nolan North who voices Drake himself. His off-the-cuff humor is priceless, and it's all down to timing. Ask any comedian, timing is key (not that I'd know, I'm not a comedian). Perhaps it's my background in bad British sitcoms, but his dead pan style leaves me in stitches.

But the effectiveness of the stellar voice work wouldn't be possible without the graphical fidelity to make it believable. This is where Uncharted 2: Among Thieves really shines. There are only a few titles that can compare today, and when it first came out it was second to none. The facial animations and lip syncing are beyond good and there are parts when it literally looks like a movie. The cinematography of the cutscenes reminds me of some Hollywood blockbusters. There are some amazing set pieces and let's be fair, it would be awesome on the big screen!

For me though, it's the little things. The environments themselves are spectacular and incredibly detailed. There is one point in particular when Drake is on top of a hotel-the panoramic view of the city below is stunning. The particle effects, especially the snow, are just awesome. But that's nothing compared to the lighting, which is also top-notch. The dancing blue flames send an eerie glow whenever they are lit. Trust me, you'll see, when the light reflects off wet rock or even the faces of the characters, my eyes open wide each time. I mean come on, when Drake falls in water his clothes get wet (duh!), but they look realistically wet... like if he's submerged up to his chest then everything below will be wet, but his Backstreet Boys hair cut will be dry (relatively speaking). Plus, this all runs with hardly any real frame rate problems which makes it all the more impressive.

The only real problem with the graphics is that they might be too good. The funny thing about platforming in these games is that the graphics are so good it's not always obvious where to go next because the bits of wall that Drake can actually grab onto blend into the background so well. This can lead to some embarrassing moments as Drake suicides himself by jumping off into nothingness. You think to yourself "I can make that jump, surely Drake can grab onto thi... oh, nope. He fell to his death. Again." And sometimes if you don't have him lined up just perfectly, he won't grab what's three inches to his right. Load times make this even more annoying at times.

To say the puzzles are grandiose would be an understatement. Some of them are literally jaw dropping, but I don't want to spoil the surprise. That said, as clever as they are, I found them to be more of a chore in the end. Reminds me of the classic Indiana Jones or Tomb Raider in a lot of ways: over-the-top and completely unbelievable, but still very cool all the same.

To be honest, my only other negative comments about this game are minor; they really don't effect the gameplay or the brilliance of the production. As good as the animations are, they can still appear a bit too canned sometimes and don't always look fluid depending on the situation. Still, that's just me trying to find something to complain about. It's the same for every game out there. Oh, and for the record, I don't care who you are-if someone jumps off a cliff and you catch them one-handed, you'd be lucky not pull your arm out of its socket, let alone lose it all together. Drake is not supposed to be a super hero, just a hero.

I should mention that Uncharted 2: Among Thieves does have online multiplayer. Those of you who read a lot of my reviews will know by now this sort of thing isn't my cup of tea, but I've heard good things about it. I'm not surprised, the quality of the gameplay, weapons, and cover mechanic make a good combination. 

The Uncharted series is easily one of my favorites for this generation of consoles. These two games on their own warrant investing in a Playstation 3. Nathan Drake's second installment ups the ante set by the first, and does not disappoint. The production values, amazing graphics, brilliant voice acting by a dazzling cast, fast and frantic gunplay, massive and clever puzzles, and challenging platforming make this one of the most well-rounded games I've had the pleasure to play. With Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception on the horizon and some tantalizing glimpses of what we have to expect, I simply can't wait to see what he gets up to next!


Score = 9.8 / 10

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Homefront (6.6/10)

To read the official full length review follow the link here: Homefront. 

One thing I've always found interesting about American foreign policy is that despite the threats of the Cold War, we have never had to truly face a threat on home soil since the Civil War. The horrors of Pearl Harbor and 911 notwithstanding, America's military might has always been best utilized going to the fight rather than waiting for it to come to us. Homefront, a military shooter by Kaos Studios and THQ, shows us a horrific glimpse of what could happen, but the game itself is perfectly average in every respect and marred by some technical missteps that dull the impact somewhat.

Homefront as an idea is terrifying. But ultimately, Homefront as a video game is nothing special. It's a standard, run-of-the-mill shooter that becomes sub-par due to poor design and technical mishaps. The story, while initially alternating between disturbing and intriguing falls flat due to the fact that the game is pretty much over before it can even get going. To tell the truth, there are better, more polished versions of the same sort of game out there. Still, what I'll remember about Homefront is not a shoddy shooter, but rather a scary vision of one possible future that reminds me: you sometimes reap what you sow...

If you want to read more of my specific thoughts about the game, follow the link to read the full length review at VG Fever!


Score = 6.6 / 10

Infamous 2 (8.8/10)

To read the official full length review follow the link here: inFAMOUS 2.

To tell the truth, I was never a big fan of inFAMOUS. A lot of people were, I've had many "heated" discussions about this. Sure, it was a solid game in many respects, but there were a lot of minor problems with it that just rankled me in particular. By the end inFAMOUS felt more like a chore than anything. Feel free to check out my full review here. However, I'm pleased to say that for the sequel Sucker Punch has taken the collective criticism to heart and actually solved a lot of the issues that plagued the original, especially for nitpicking moaners like yours truly. 

If you want to read more of my specific thoughts about the game, follow the link to read the full length review at VG Fever!


Score = 8.8 / 10

P.S. I can't wait to play it through as evil Cole now!

Monday, July 4, 2011

Dungeon Siege III (7.3/10)

To read the official full length review follow the link here: Dungeon Siege III.

Recently, I’ve found myself
with an overabundance of free time and some friends have helped fill the void by getting me thoroughly addicted to tabletop role playing games like Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder. It’s interesting... you won’t look at RPG’s the same way again. The reason is simply because by rolling the dice and doing the math, you work out (via the algorithms that were created over 40 years ago) the damage you cause based on both your ratings and that of the enemy. Video games, of course, do this for you in a much faster digital environment. Sadly, it’s sort of like meeting the man behind the curtain... it takes away some of the mystic.

So what fortuitous circumstances are these that I find myself reviewing Dungeon Siege III, a perfect example of what I’m talking about! I always knew at a basic level what all the statistics meant in games like these, but things like Will, Stamina, Agility, and Critical now have new significance.

Dungeon Siege III doesn't reinvent the wheel by any stretch of the imagination, but if you're into these sorts of D&D style, loot collecting, hack and slashers, then it's definitely worth a look. For me though, I ended up disappointed. While the game can be fun, the surprising linearity, terrible camera (both online and off), uninteresting (and seemingly uninterested) characters, and the lack of a New Game + mode made this dungeon crawler feel like a lost opportunity.

If you want to read more of my specific thoughts about the game, follow the link to read the full length review at Game Over Online! 


Score = 7.3 / 10