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Sunday, August 21, 2011

Lair (4.3/10)

Everyone loves dragons, right? What is it about these mythical beasts that so readily captures our imaginations? Nearly every culture in history has their own version: powerful, mystical, magical, creatures to be both feared and respected. Dragon lore spans the ages, regardless of geographical location or cultural sophistication. Our intrigue with them bears on the primordial.

So a game with dragons should be pretty sick, huh? Seems pretty obvious... except when it isn't. Lair is a game that came out as what was essentially a launch title for the PlayStation 3 back in 2007. The premise sounds awesome: you play as a dragon rider defending the nation of Asylia against foreign invaders. But sadly, this game is absolute rubbish in nearly every way and may well be one of the most disappointing experiences I've had as a gamer.

The basic story is pretty solid. Volcanoes seem to be randomly erupting all over the continent and the two nations who live there have gone very different routes in dealing with the catastrophe. Asylia is a beacon of culture and civility. The nation of Mokai, who live in a less hospitable area, rely on industry (in a kind of steampunk way) to survive. Naturally, they don't like each other much. They are even color coded: red versus blue (it's been done). You play as Rohn, one of the Asylian Sky Guard, who ride their dragons to protect the citizens below. In the beginning of the game the Mokai attack unprovoked, and the real question is why? There are a lot of political and especially religious undertones to the story. Conspiracy, betrayal, and intrigue lie at the heart, making you wonder about the motives and ideals of the rival factions. Don't worry though, nothing is ever really explained and the ending is ludicrous... but considering how bad the gameplay is, it's just hard to care.

Originally the game was touted for it's use of the PlayStation 3's shiny new Six-Axis motion control for the new controller. By moving the controller, you controlled your dragon in flight. I got the game mostly for the dragons, but I thought the idea of what is basically a flight simulator with dragons was really clever. Then I tried it... and it failed. Miserably. The rudimentary motion control stuff barely worked at all-it wasn't nearly sensitive or accurate enough. I kept thinking to myself over and over, "If only I could turn this crap off and just play the game with standard controls I bet it would be half way decent!" But about half way through there is a pretty massive difficulty spike and eventually I just gave up... something I don't often do (with games at least, even the bad ones). It was basically unplayable. The developers actually released instructions on how to play the game after the fact. That ain't good people. I just couldn't wrap my head around the fact that they didn't at least give you the option of turning off the motion control in lieu of basic analog controls.

Then it turns out, a long while later, they did. You can get a free download allowing you to use a more classic control scheme if you so choose. On a whim I decided to give Lair another go... and give it a chance to redeem itself. Well, I realize I'm getting a bit repetitive here, but it doesn't. You do still need to rely on the Six-Axis controls for some stuff (why they didn't just completely revamp it with Ace Combat flight controls I just don't know).

Of course, they had to go and do the flight sticks inverted... or normal I guess when you're flying a plane. In a cockpit, for those of you who don't know, pulling back on the stick causes you to go up, pressing forward makes you go down. This is all well and good, and there are plenty of people who swear by it, but it's the opposite of the standard shooter controls we have all grown used to. What bugs me though, is like the original mistake of only having motion controls, they don't give you the option to do it differently. Honestly, why not? Still, it's fine, just takes some a while to get used to it.

But even after practice they still don't handle nearly as well as they should in my opinion. Cornering with a dragon must be tough, I can only imagine, but it shouldn't be this tough. Flying is not nearly as tight and focused as it should be. It's more like flying an elephant. What's really confusing about this though is that even with the analog controls you still seem to pan too slowly. It's hard to get turned around once you over-shoot a target. Just trying to bank back around seems to take forever. This is only exacerbated by the fact that you have a completely ineffectual arrow that seems to want to point you in the right direction but can't seem to make up it's own mind.  I realize I'm basically flying around in circles over my target, but is a mini-map too much to ask for? Maybe somewhere in the corner out of the way? Hell, a simple compass would have worked better. It can be very frustrating. By the end I learned the simplest way to do it is to fly off then pull back on the controller (motion control rears it's ugly head) like you're trying to rein in a wayward stallion to get your dragon to do a quick 180 degree turn.

Spitting fire all over everything is pretty cool, I'll grant it that, but aerial dog-fighting fails on it's own because once you lock onto a lock-on an enemy your dragon's fire breath will automatically target them. This seems odd... heat seeking dragon breath seems almost contradictory. But I guess the developers had so little faith in your ability to pilot correctly using their own bloody control scheme, they thought they'd throw you this bone. It's not like the slow camera panning and messy controls would actually allow you to properly dog-fight anyway.

But what if an enemy dragon gets a little too friendly in mid-air? Well, you can battle them close quarters if you want! Awesome! While it's pretty straightforward (you need to get the timing right), I found the controls didn't work terribly well here either. My dragon spent a great deal of time slashing ineffectually at nothing, like there was a momentary delay while the game tried to decide to do what I asked it to....

Easily the most fun part of combat is landing your dragon on the ground amidst the opposing army and letting him run amok. Those poor bastards. You can breathe fire, claw the hell out of them, or just eat them. This part is actually pretty enjoyable.

The issue here though is that often, for whatever reason, you'll have multiple tasks to complete at the same time during missions. So just when you think you can land your dragon and have some fun munching on the invading Mokai hordes, you'll receive a message (I think it's funny that they seem to have in-helmet radios at this point in "history...") telling you that your ships are under attack or whatever. Again, the lack of a mini-map and clearly defined objectives make this even more of a chore. It gets appreciably worse too as the game wears on and things get even more hectic in later levels.

But the biggest problem with Lair isn't even the barely workable controls, the disappointing story, or the poor level design... it's the camera. At times it seems to have a mind of it's own. You'll find yourself grabbing something or targeting an enemy and suddenly the camera will spin around. Other times you'll be able to drop some hapless idiot you picked up off the battle field and fling him into a nearby mountain, only to have the camera swing all over the place as if it's trying to get a lock on you again. It's disorienting to the point of inducing nausea.

One of Lair's original selling points was the fact that it looked pretty nice. Keep in mind that was by 2007 standards; the industry has come a long way since then. But having said that, it's still a bit of a weird mixture. The dragons themselves, the reason anyone would buy this in the first place, look suitably awesome. The cutscenes aren't bad, and what's more impressive is the lip syncing which is pretty impressive considering that a lot of teams still have trouble with it. But then there are some of the backgrounds and environmental effects which would have been par for the course way back on the original PlayStation. I mean, honestly, the lava looks like some kid's science project went wrong. The water effects are laughable. Particle effects? Forget it. It's a weird dichotomy, on the same screen you'll see dragons flying fast in all their glory past something resembling stacked cardboard boxes.

Then there are the technical problems that make everything else (the camera, the controls, the graphics) just that much worse. You'll constantly find yourself flying through stuff, making the camera go all wonky yet again. There are noticeable framerate drops and some of the worst screen tearing I've ever seen in a published game. Seriously, I'm surprised it didn't lock up on me all together a few times. This isn't even beta quality.... 

Lastly, Lair is very short. I beat it in an afternoon, and that was with a lot of time writing rude notes lambasting the crap out of it. Still, considering how broken the game was, that's probably a good thing. It's also never a good sign when you're thinking of all the things you'd rather be doing, like playing better games for example, or chewing on a broken light bulb, rather than finishing what you're playing. I kept saying to myself, "I just gotta get through this."

Originally, I probably would have given Lair a very low score, like a 3 or something, because the motion controls were so awful it was practically unplayable. With the addition of the analog flight controls it's a bit better, but after a while I began to realize even that couldn't save it. While I love the idea of a dragon riding flight simulator experience, this one just doesn't work. At all. In any way. I don't know if it's just the fact that I have a particularly fond affinity for these mythical creatures, but it was almost painful to see dragons reduced to this. It's almost like an affront to a cherished belief. I felt insulted. I try hard to find something positive to take away from pretty much everything, but this is one I really have to throw under the bus. Let me put it this way... I had more fun writing this review lambasting the hell out of it than I did actually playing Lair. If only someone else should come along and give it another try, it's an untapped resource! Dragon riding, come on! Ah well, I guess we'll have to make due with Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.


Score = 4.3 / 10

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Conviction (7.6/10)

Having never played any of the previous Splinter Cell games, I was curious about Splinter Cell: Conviction, the latest chapter in the Sam Fisher saga. As a rule I don't like to start a series mid-story as it were, but the game looked pretty cool so on a whim I picked it up just to see what all the fuss was about. After sneaking my proverbial way through it, I have to say that if you like these sorts of stealth based action games then Splinter Cell: Conviction will be right up your alley and you'll really enjoy the ride. If you don't, then you won't. Sadly, I belong to the latter category.

First of all, the story... as the game begins, a morose Sam is hiding from the rest of the world (and himself) as he mourns the loss of his daughter who apparently died at the end of the last game... or did she (cue dramatic music!)!?! Suddenly bullets are flying, conspiracies come to light, daughters' need to be saved, and Sam is now severely annoyed and intent on royally ruining the day of anyone who had anything to do with this.

At least, I think that is what happened... I'm still not really sure. The story didn't make any sense to me whatsoever even after all the dark secrets came to light. This is understandable since I have no frame of reference (hence the fact I don't like picking up a series in the middle), I just wish sometimes developers would give a more thorough recap for those of us who are new. A lot of allusions are made to what happened previously in the series (even in the middle of the game there are flashback sections), and obviously a lot of the characters I'm supposed to be familiar with. I know, I know, I've got no one to blame but myself, but still, throw me a frickin' bone here! While the story is confusing to noobs, all you really need to know is that Sam is mighty pissed and it's a good idea to kill everything that moves.

As I understand it, Splinter Cell games are synonymous with "stealth." It's all about being sneaky, killing the bad guys before they even knew you were there. Or at least they are supposed to be, hence the fact I put stealth in quotation marks back there. For some reason I've really struggled with the controls in Conviction, making the whole "stealth" thing more of a guideline rather than a rule. Not to mention, as with most third person action games, the camera doesn't help matters. It has an annoying habit of zooming into a close up of the back of Sam's head or a nearby wall thus leaving your blind and vulnerable.  I can't tell you the number of times things devolved into a cluster$#@& firefight because Sam would turn a corner right into some guard with a shotgun who would promptly do what shotgun toting guards do best...namely shoot him in the face. Reload, repeat (the checkpoint, not the shotgun... but more on that later).

But having said that, I think all you really need is some more practice. There is a useful cover system whereby Sam cuddles up to the nearest piece of scenery and from there can then slide to adjacent cover. There is even a handy arrow showing what's cover and what's not. While this works fairly well, the camera rears it's ugly head by not allowing you to really scan your surroundings, allowing enemies to causally stroll up outside your field of vision and perforate your skull.

Then there is the 'last known position' mechanic, which basically means that when Sam is seen but quickly ducks out of sight, an eerie silhouette shows where the guards have last spotted him, and subsequently where they will direct their efforts. Now, it must be said that these guards are pretty steadfast and focused once they think they know where their quarry is... firing round after round into that ineffectual concrete block he was hiding behind 10 frickin' minutes ago. Meanwhile, I've snuck all the way around the giant warehouse and picked the idiots off one at a time. I was tempted to leave the last one just so when he finally ran out of ammo and called for help he'd suddenly realize he was allllll alone...  

But when things go from bad to worse there should really be a quick "RUN AWAY!!!" button (there's your Monty Python reference... you're welcome). I often died because Sam got caught out of cover mid crouch and then slowly tried to creep away while they peppered his backside repeatedly (insert joke here). Not to mention he's not the fastest cat to begin with. I'm also surprised there isn't a way to move the bodies of your victims. Sometimes Sam would sneak up and off some poor sod then sneak back behind the only available cover in the area when the guy's coworkers would show up, spot him, then spot Sam and the cluster&#@$ing would begin in earnest. If I had been able to move the corpse into my hidey spot they would have been none the wiser. Along the same lines, creating diversions isn't really an alternative beyond shooting out lights. You do eventually get a cool remote camera that can be thrown like a sticky mine and then be used to target enemies, create distractions, or explode killing those nearby. However, I figured you'd have more options, and the lack thereof I found decidedly odd.

Another cool gameplay device is the ability to "Mark and Execute" targets. Whenever you take someone out with a silent melee attack you basically earn an "I'm Sam Fisher, don't mess with me!" badge that allows you to mark a target and perform an insta-kill. This usually means perforating their forehead with a single bullet in glorious slo-mo... it's fantastic.

Speaking of glorious things, when Sam "interrogates" someone, he really interrogates them. These mini-scenes are vicious as Sam uses his environment to slam, bash, and brutalize those in his grasp to learn what he wants to know. Sanctioned by the UN he isn't. I made good use of toilets, walls and even a piano in Bourne/Bond-esque fashion. I get it though, the guy is after those who kidnapped his daughter and let him think she was dead... I wouldn't be terribly polite either. 

There are some oddly out of place platforming sections that reminded me a lot of Assassin's Creed or Uncharted. These are essentially mild puzzles, but since Sam won't go anywhere he can't there isn't really a fear of falling to your death, which kind of removes any drama. It actually reminds me more of Enslaved: Odyssey to the West in this regard, you just wiggle Sam along until he makes a different animation and you know you can proceed.

But the major issue I have with Conviction is the unforgiving checkpoint system. It seems to auto-save not nearly frequently enough. I got sick of barely getting through a section only to die in the next (because I didn't know what my objective was or where the guards were) and have to do the first part all over again! Cheap deaths abound, mostly because you seem to have to learn the correct path by trial and error. That's never a good sign...

The graphics are pretty decent despite some of the worst lip syncing I've seen in a while (laughably bad). There are a couple of clever tricks employed here that really add to the atmosphere. The most noticeable is that when Sam is out of sight everything goes black and white. It's a cool visual cue, basically letting you know when it's safe to breath and plan your next move. The other is that 'Mission Objectives' are highlighted as brightly lit silhouettes on the environment which remind you what you're supposed to be doing and illustrating that you are, in fact, getting closer to your goal. These not only look awesome, but also provide at least a little guidance.

After my single player experience I wasn't in a rush to try the multiplayer (which I read was disappointing so there you go). That said, I am intrigued by the co-op. The co-op is a completely different set of missions than the single player campaign which involve teamwork. Sounds clever, but I couldn't find anyone interested in having a go round with me so....

Admittedly, I was really kinda on the fence about Splinter Cell: Conviction in the beginning. It's not a bad game as such, and if you're into this sort of thing then I'm sure you'll love it. But for me, well, it's just not my cup of tea. I struggled with the controls, the story, and the mechanics. Oh, and I probably should have mentioned from the outset that I'm not a huge fan of stealth games to begin with... and as a result it was more of a chore for me than anything.

But then there are those moments where everything works as it should and the game really shines: you've killed half a private security firm without being seen and the remaining guards are wetting themselves in fear at your ghostly presence long after you've left the room. Splinter Cell: Conviction can be immensely satisfying. I'm smiling with sadistic glee just thinking about it.


Score = 7.6 / 10

Saturday, August 13, 2011

LEGO Harry Potter: Years 1-4 (7.1/10)

The LEGO series has a surprising amount to offer gamers. No, I'm not joking. Seriously, stop looking at me like that! While the gameplay is relatively simple, the depth that Traveller's Tales have hidden is these games I (anyway) find impressive. To get 100% completion on any LEGO game is actually a feat, because there is so much there. Anyone who has done so will agree, these games are not just for kids, no matter the source material. Now our favorite boy wizard has received the LEGO make over: it's Harry Potter, LEGO style! Or at least the first four movies...

LEGO Harry Potter: Years 1-4 has the same basic construct as the other games in the series, but with far less focus on combat as you might expect. If you know the books/movies you know that's not the case later on, but in the beginning these kids aren't zapping everyone they come across. It's all about solving puzzles, collecting studs, and discovering all the hidden goodies that are all over the place. This time there are 200 Gold Bricks to unlock and find, a whole slew of "Students in Peril" who need rescuing, plus the usual assortment of random things to do. Unlocking other playable characters is still a major component as well, they are like Pokemon (can you collect them ALL?!?). You'll once again want to take notes as you play through the levels, mentally mapping all the areas you can't yet access and who you'll need to utilize when you play back through in "Free Play."

The "cuteness" factor still stands tall. The familiar and iconic scenes from the movies/books are fairly faithfully recreated in LEGO fashion. You can't do much with blocks from a graphical standpoint, but the backgrounds are nicely done. While it must be difficult to get the point across without dialogue, they still manage it well. The soundtrack we've all come to know so well plays in the back ground a little too consistently, and the sound effects are all there from the movies as well.

But while the basic set up and ideas in LEGO Harry Potter are standard just like the rest of the series, there a a few changes made by the developers as far as structure. Once you get to Hogwart's you'll be able to take Harry, Ron, and Hermione around the massive castle and plumb it's depths... or at least some of them. The grounds of the famous castle serve as a sort of pseudo-interlude between story missions. While I think it's a clever idea, I'm not sure how well it works in practice. The layout can be fairly confusing, and there is a ridiculous amount of backtracking. You'll spend way too much time running back and forth, pushing the increasing number of Hogwart's students you've unlocked out of the way.

Fortunately, there are the helpful Hogwart's ghosts who will lead you to your next class. It's during these classes that Harry and his friends will learn new spells. Using this magic will allow you to unlock new areas. There are a fairly extensive number of spells you can learn, which figure prominently into gameplay. For example, the spell "Lumos" which creates light, will cause plants and vines to move out of the way. As you begin to peer into every nook and cranny in the ancient castle, you'll soon realize just how much you have to learn. Sighs... I thought I was done with school a long time ago.

The other major change is the "hub" that is the Leaky Cauldron. It's funny, the dirty pub plays a subdued role in the Harry Potter movies (it's much more prominent in the books), and it extends all the way out the back door and down Diagon Alley. In the Leaky Cauldron you can continue the story missions or have a look at a board in the corner and go back and try your hand at "Free Play." You can search the shops on the main thoroughfare in Diagon Alley to unlock special bonus cheats, alternate costumes, and a host of spells just to name a few options. Head further down to Gringott's to access bonus levels etc, etc....

The problem is... well, Mos Eisley cantina this isn't. Again, as with Hogwart's castle, the layout is confusing. It would have been better if everything had been in one place. Plus, running back and forth just takes too long.

There are a lot more puzzles this time around as well. With less of a focus on combat, much of the game revolves around moving obstacles, and unlocking the next path. Most of these are pretty rudimentary, again, as you might expect from a "kid game." Having said that, some are surprising crafty, requiring you to think a bit about what to do next. Sadly, others are just annoying as you collect "x" number of the same item or search for potion ingredients for the umpteenth time. Still, considering the sheer number of puzzles, it hold up reasonably well.

Another seemingly random issue I have is the nature of the splitscreen when playing on the couch with a friend. It's weird, if you are on the same screen then everything is fine, but rather than being tethered together (which also sucks, I'm not complaining about that), the screen splits on a line. This would be fine if the bloody line stayed still. It's hard to describe: depending on the relationship between the characters the line moves at an angle or even vertically. For some reason this bizarre phenomenon really messes with me, giving me headaches. It's like vertigo or something. I get what they were trying to do, but please... leave it be. 

But ultimately LEGO Harry Potter: Years 1-4 is really just more of the same, even if the formula has been slightly tweaked like a Half Blood Prince potion. What's more, that formula is starting to get old. While LEGO Harry Potter isn't really bad as such, it's still probably the worst of the ones I have played (although admittedly I never played LEGO Batman, or the LEGO Indiana Jones games). It's just not as fun in my opinion. Of course, that's really what it's all about, especially considering their target audience. Still, I know it'll stay on my shelf along with my other LEGO titles for those rare days when I feel like something a little different... slowly slaving away, spending countless hours towards that elusive 100% completion. Wow, what a contradictory sentence...


Score = 7.1 / 10

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Aliens vs. Predator (5.6/10)

Anyone know Joe Juba's phone number? I owe him an apology. He wrote a review of Aliens vs. Predator in Game Informer a while back that got my blood boiling! How dare he give it a lowly 6.5 out of 10? Blasphemy says I! It's got Aliens... it's got Predators... what's not to like?

Buuuuuut then I played the game... and as much as I hate to admit it, he was right in his assessment. It's the game itself that is the disappointment and Rebellion and Sega who should be called out for this catastrophe against some of my most beloved franchises.

The draw of the game (the original on PC way back when was pretty awesome) is that you get to play as all three main species: the Marines, the Aliens, and the Predators. So why was it such an unmitigated disaster? Well, let's run down the checklist. The story is beyond lame for all three campaigns. Honestly, I know we are reaching for reasons to bring them all together in a bloody battle royale (again), but this stuff is just getting silly. It's not engaging, it's poorly written, and the voice acting is laughably bad (even the reappearance of Lance Henrikson can't save it... but more on that later). It's kinda clever how they all tie together, but it ends up being even more disjointed.

The Marine campaign revolves around your classic space grunts getting downed on the surface of a planet where the Weyland-Yutani corporation has discovered another "Hunter" temple. You, the no-name "Rookie," get separated from your comrades (what did you expect?) and are alone, in the dark... with a pistol. The aliens get loose, start eating everyone, then the Predators show up, and things get really hairy. Before too long you get all the iconic weapons we've seen before: pulse rifles, smart guns, and flame throwers, not to mention your motion tracker. When this thing starts beeping, it's brown trousers time.

When you play as a Predator you take control of a young warrior tasked with eliminating both the serpents who are your mortal enemy and the human interlopers who are desecrating hollowed ground. You get all the cool Predator toys: cloaking, shoulder mounted plasma canon, wicked bladed discs, and even the collapsible spear. Obviously, this campaign is focused more on stealth, utilizing your cloaking ability to harry your opposition into committing seppuku because all their friends keep winding up dead sans spines. With all the tools in your arsenal you can mix it up and get creative. For the most part they work fairly well... until you get spotted. Things then devolve rather rapidly into a running cluster$%#@. Par for the course really, but the aforementioned twitchy controls make death all the more likely...

Then there is the Alien section. It's short, like less than three hours short. It's weird, playing as the Alien is easily both the most fun, yet conversely, the most frustrating of all. I realize you don't have much of a narrative to work with when your protagonist is a mindless killing machine, but I think it says more that the developers didn't believe in their own work enough to make it longer. Naturally, the aliens don't have a proper ranged attack, not to mention they are killed relatively easily, so it's all down to sticking to the shadows and making fast escapes. It's fun climbing on the ceilings and walls to stealth kill unsuspecting victims (although it can be very disorienting), but it's repetitive and the canned death animations get old quickly. They obviously didn't try to add any more to it than that which left it a short and unsatisfying experience... although the ending made me smile.

And there are so many cliches wrapped up in each part of the story that it's more eye-rolling and groan-inducing than engaging. I know we are working with source material here people, but a little originality wouldn't go amiss would it? Everything is stock and standard: the dark corridors with stuff scuttling around in the background followed by "Holy crap!" moments when baddies pop out to try and eat your face. Sega and Rebellion did manage to get the atmosphere right, I'll give them that. But everything in the game has been taken, in one form or another, from things we have already seen on the big screen.

I'd be okay with all this if not for the fact the game's source material is tempered by the graphics, which are embarrassing. They are laughable really, since they look perhaps slightly better than what the last gen of consoles could churn out. There are frame rate drops, straight freezes, and texture pop in issues, which is astonishing considering how bad it looks to begin with. Both facial and character animations are canned and repetitive, as are the close-up kill moves. The sound isn't as bad, but still not great. All of the classic sound effects are there from the cloaking of the Predators and hiss of the Alien moving in for the kill, to the distinctive sound of the pulse rifles and the incessant "beep beep beep" of the motion tracker. Oh, and Lance Henrikson is back! Talk about milking a role (I kid I kid, Bishop rocks!). But even he can't save the poor script, awful dialogue, and terrible voice-acting from the rest of the cast. Honestly, I guess that makes the xenomorph sections a little more bearable as you don't have to listen to the inane crap people are spouting.

Then we can focus on the controls... which suck. They are twitchy as hell no matter which species you're using (but especially in the Alien campaign). While all three campaigns are essentially first-person shooters, the super fast camera panning doesn't help. It actually makes things worse, especially considering how quick the bloody aliens are. Seriously, they are a blur and trying to get them sighted is a huge pain. Then there are the finishing move animations which take waaaaaay too long. Don't get me wrong, the high gore factor is pretty awesome, but this wouldn't be such a problem except for the fact that you still take damage while doing them! So if you start to finish off one poor sod by ramming your inner mouth through theirs and their buddy happens to glimpse the horror out of the corner of his eye he'll pump 60 or 70 rounds into your exoskeleton before you've even finished your brain snack. As soon as you come out of the animation you'll be near death, one more round needed to finish the job. Needless to say this can be exceedingly frustrating which is further exacerbated by the fact that the checkpoints tend to be too far apart. Having to replay entire sections that weren't any fun to begin with is more than slightly annoying.

There is also a confusing scoring system that I can't, for the life of me, figure out why it's included at all. Basically you get bonuses for completing missions in a certain amount of time and doing so in a particular fashion. What's the point?  If you're going to give a score per level if the player completes arbitrary actions there should be some reason for it. It's actually detrimental because you are thinking about it as you are playing rather than just reacting to situations. Sure, some of it is worth exploring, but I found it more distracting than anything else.

Another thing I find surprising is the lack of split-screen for multiplayer. There is apparently a cool pseudo-horde mode (a la Gear of War 2) but you can't play it on the couch with a friend. Instead, you'll have to find someone who actually still owns this disaster and try to play with them online. Needless to say, I couldn't be bothered.

But what really struck me about Aliens vs. Predator wasn't the poor graphics, crap controls, or even the distinct lack of originality... it was something at a more basic level. I'll sum it up like this: the level design can be clever as most are mazes, just as you would expect from the movies. But as you work through all three campaigns you realize the developers commit yet another cardinal sin; namely that you play the same damn levels over and over albeit from different perspectives. Seriously, it took me forever to complete this game because it was such a bore, but when finishing up the Marine campaign I suddenly realized that I had, in fact, already played through these same sections as both the Alien and the Predator. I get that you are trying to over lap the narrative to see it from each perspective but still. It feels cheap, like they couldn't be bothered... which is actually an apt description of the entire experience if you ask me.

By the end it occurred to me that if they had tried to make three separate games; one for each species, and really focused on each individual experience rather than trying to cram it all into one package, then it might have worked. The human campaign, with a bit of polish, could have been perfectly passable. Same for the Predator section. With all those cool weapons at your disposal it certainly had potential. Hell, you could have tacked on the Alien campaign as an unlockable for giggles, as short as it was. What you get instead is a bug-riddled mess that doesn't work properly on any level.

Here's the thing that will probably convey just how annoyed and disappointed I am with this game. I started writing my notes on this WAAAAAY back when I first started this blog (about eight months ago for those of you wanting a bit of perspective), and it's taken me this long to finish it. It could have been better with a little more effort. No, scratch that... it should have been better. It's inexcusable in my opinion; these are venerated franchises that deserve more respect than the drivel that has tainted them in the last several installments across multiple mediums (I'm including poor movies, novels, and comics under that heading). It's a pity really-we are left lamenting what could have been. 

God, I can't wait for Aliens: Colonial Marines! But if that one sucks I'm officially giving up...


Score = 5.6 / 10

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions (8.2/10)

While battling the malevolent Mysterio, our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man screws the proverbial pooch when he accidentally breaks an ancient tablet known as the Tablet of Order and Chaos. Madam Web shows up and lets him know that, as is always the case, he may have set about a series of events that could destroy the universe. The broken pieces of the tablet are scattered across space, time, and alternate realities. In every one Spider-Man must get to it before they fall into the wrong hands. Madam Web calls on the other variations of our iconic hero from different periods in history and different universes to heed the call. Such is the story of Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions: you will play as the Amazing Spider-Man (classic costume), Ultimate Spider-Man (black costume), Spider-Man Noir (a 1930's version of the web crawler), and Spider-Man 2099 (the futuristic incarnation).

I'm not terribly familiar with comics in general (I'm every kind of nerd but that one), and I think it's because of this that I actually found the plot rather enjoyable, mostly because I had no frame of reference to the canon. Basically, each level is all about chasing down a classic Spider-Man villain who has gotten a hold of one of the pieces of the tablet, thus dramatically increasing their power. You fight through wave after wave of henchmen with different gameplay mechanics and combat styles depending on the Spidey you're playing as before facing off against the boss himself to regain the missing piece of the tablet. There are three acts, each comprised of four levels, one for each version of Spider-Man.

The basic combat is standard button-mashing simple combos against hordes of henchmen and monsters. It can be surprisingly satisfying and frustrating at the same time. After some practice you'll be beating the snot out of them en mass with little trouble. But when they start throwing in larger enemies, things can get overwhelming. When you actually reach each boss, they are your run-of-the-mill, pseudo-scripted encounters where you have to learn their pattern, then wait for your opportunity to strike and whittle down their health bar. There are some really cool moments though; it sometimes switches to first-person perspective and you start punching it out with your foe!

Platforming also plays a fairly large role in Shattered Dimensions. As you would expect, Spider-Man uses his webs to sling himself all over the place. Most missions are comprised of multiple vertical levels. It takes some practice to get from point A to point B, but once you get it right it's an absolute blast to dart in and out of enemies, then escape to higher ground, or sling your way around to get to hard to reach ledges.

While all the Spider-Men have the same basic move set and combo abilities, each variation has their own special characteristics that make them unique. This adds great variety to the gameplay and keeps things from getting stale. The Amazing Spider-Man missions are the classic web-slinging and ass-kicking you would expect. But then things change. For example, the Spider-Man Noir levels are essentially stealth missions. Staying in the shadows turn everything black and white, while stepping into the light means you can be seen... and shot. The trick is to position yourself behind your foes, then take them down silently. It reminds me a lot of Splinter Cell: Conviction and Batman: Arkham Asylum in this regard.

The Spider-Man 2099 missions involve a lot of free-fall sections as you fight through the towering skyscrapers of the future. Combat in these levels are also a blast, due to the future Spidey's ability to have "Accelerated Vision." This slows enemies down to a crawl, creating a sort of bullet-time effect. Ultimate Spider-Man has a similar skill, his "Rage Meter." Fill it up by beating down bad guys. Once activated, Spidey harnesses the power of the black suit and becomes a cyclone of whipping tendrils... until the meter depletes.

Each different Spider-Man not only has his own unique combat style, but also graphical style as well. The Amazing Spider-Man and Ultimate Spider-Man sections are cel-shaded, reminiscent of Borderlands. Spider-Man Noir's sepia-tinted graphics provide a wonderful counterpoint to the flashy vision of the future in the Spider-Man 2099 levels. And while the game looks great with these graphical variations, the cutscenes in between the acts look fantastic too!

For me, the highlight of the game was the brilliant voice work. The Amazing Spider-Man is voiced by Neil Patrick Harris, and he is hilarious. He spouts Spidey's one liners and off-the-cuff remarks perfectly. Bad (and I mean bad) puns abound! While this is just my kind of humor, sometimes they fall a little short of the mark and can start to get stale after a while. The other voice actors do a great job as well, from the villains to Madam Web to the other versions of Spidey himself. Quick side note: after doing some research it seems that each voice of Spider-Man is someone who has previously voiced the web crawler in one or another of the cartoons over the last thirty years. How cool is that?

A lot of the levels, while fairly linear, still leave plenty of room for exploration, finding collectible spider emblems and hidden spiders. Finding these garner you 'Spider Essence' which is essentially experience you can use to upgrade your hero. There are multiple choices available, some unique to each Spider-Man. You've got "Combat Upgrades" and "Character Upgrades." The combat variations increase your combos, special abilities or health, giving you different options in how you approach battle. Character upgrades are things like increasing the Ultimate Spider-Man's "Rage Meter." It takes a lot of gathered experience to unlock them all!

Along with those previously mentioned collectibles, there also challenges you can try to complete. These are tracked in the "Web of Destiny." For each level you have optional tasks that require different styles of play or specific moves. By completing some you unlock others. There are a few things about this that kind of bug me... first, while these are optional and you can complete a lot of them without really trying, they prove to be an almost unnecessary distraction. You want to try and complete these challenges for the experience bonuses that come with them. Certain abilities and upgrades are only available after you complete a certain number of tasks. This leads to my second problem with these sorts of arbitrary challenges in-game: they force you to play a certain way if you want to get everything. There are 180 such challenges, and despite my best efforts I only completed about 150 of them. I found myself constantly checking to see what I needed to do next, which kind of counteracts the fact that they are optional. I felt like this broke up the flow somewhat. Still, that's just me; depending on how you choose to play, you define your own experience.

Far and away the major problem with Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions is the camera. Isn't that always the biggest complaint with these sorts of third-person action games? In the heat of combat it's easy to get turned around or blocked by a wall that suddenly pops out of nowhere obscuring your vision and leaving you vulnerable. When web-slinging about the city, it can be difficult to keep going the way you want as the camera seems to bounce you around a fair bit. While this is par for the course, that minor frustration is nothing compared to dealing with the camera while climbing on a wall. It really seems to have a mind of it's own, leading you in completely the wrong direction unless you get it perfectly lined up. It doesn't break the game by any stretch of the imagination, but it could certainly be better.

It seems like, as good as Shattered Dimensions is, there are a few minor issues that brought it down. My perceived flaws with the "Web of Destiny" and the camera woes aside, I felt like the game dragged on a bit. It's a fairly lengthy adventure and I started to feel I was doing the same things over and over... for a title where the whole point seems to be variance in the powers of the different Spider-Men, that seems like a failing. Don't get me wrong, playing as the different versions of the hero works, and often flows together well, but by the third act the novelty had worn off. The plot doesn't really develop a whole lot. The goal is always the same: chase down the boss battling through their cronies, fight him/her usually a couple of times on the way, then face the super-powered version as they absorb the tablet. Some of the formulaic boss fights work quite well, others not so much. Once I learned their patterns, it was simply a question of waiting, sitting there twiddling my thumbs until I had an opening. Then, it's grab that piece of the tablet... and repeat.

I also encountered a few technical glitches that somewhat spoiled the experience for me. The game locked up completely once. Another time I had to reload a checkpoint because the barrier sealing a door didn't disappear after I had defeated all the enemies. It was... annoying.

Despite these minor complaints, and the rather bigger problem with the wonky camera, Spider-Man Shattered Dimensions is probably one of the best "super hero" games I've ever played. The combat, when it works properly, is satisfyingly awesome, as is swinging around the levels on strands of webbing. There is a ton of stuff to discover and collect, and upgrading to new powers and abilities is always fun. With a sequel just announced, (Spider-Man: Edge of Time is on the way!) I hope Beenox continues with what worked so well in Shattered Dimensions, and takes note of what didn't... namely that bloody camera!


Score = 8.2 / 10