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Thursday, December 29, 2011

Dead Island (7.9/10)

Dead Island pissed me off.

For those who know me, it's common knowledge that I'm all about all things related to the zombie apocalypse... maybe not going so far as to purchase a pallet of Spam, but I've enjoyed the zombie renaissance that has come about over the last decade immensely. Movies, books, and a glut of games have over-inundated us with zombies of all shapes and sizes. For me though, it's not just the zombies, but rather what humanity will do when the chips are down. I love asking myself what I would do should the undead rise... and just how far I would go to survive. Would I be able to kill a loved one should they become infected? What would I do for food? Hell, I don’t even really know how a toilet works! It's one thing to say it, completely another to do it....

So Dead Island, the new game from Deep Silver and Techland about a zombie outbreak on a resort island should be right up my alley, right? Dismembering bikini clad zombies should be a laugh! With more akin to games like Fallout or Elder Scrolls than Dead Rising or even Left 4 Dead, the RPG elements (complete with side-quests and skill trees) should seal the deal. So what went wrong?

Well, let's start with what Dead Island does right. On the stunningly beautiful, yet wholly fictitious, island of Banoi, you wake up after a rough night of drinking to discover that most everyone is dead and intent on eating the living. You can choose one of four playable characters, each with their own specialty and base statistics. Purna is a firearms expert. Rapper Sam B. is a tank-like character with high endurance and penchant for blunt weapons. Logan, a former football star, is best at throwing weapons. Lastly, Xian Mei is a desk clerk who happens to be trained in martial arts. She's good with blades. Each character has a "Fury" super attack that ties into their specialty. Build up your "Fury" meter by bashing zombies, then unleash your super attack when your back is against the wall.  But here's the kicker, no matter who you choose one thing is constant: you're immune.

Once the rest of the survivors figure this out, it's up to you to brave the island and bring rescue. Since you're the only ones who can survive being bitten, you're once again given the unenviable task of playing errand boy to anyone and everyone who has a problem. There is the main story of course, which involves getting food and water for the survivors who hole themselves up and wait (rather impatiently at some points) for you to complete your assigned tasks. There are four acts to the story, taking you all over the island from the beaches to the city and even the jungle. It starts slowly, but the narrative is actually fairly engaging, as it goes from a quest for blind survival to the search for the origin of the outbreak and its cause. Every time you enter a new area you'll be inundated with requests for help from different people. These sidequests are sometimes fun, sometimes annoying, but are mostly worth completing.

To be honest, this is one issue that I can't really blame solely on Dead Island, but rather on this type of open world RPG in general: it's easy to get distracted from the main mission at hand when you've got to go out and collect water or food for someone (over and over again... these so-called "continuous" quests are the annoying ones) or find some one's lost teddy bear. Basically, there is too much to do. It's the infamous "errand boy" syndrome. Some of these missions are silly, some are clever. Others are heartbreaking like the ones where people want you to finish off their loved ones who have turned or "please find my sister, she's missing!" style quests that never end well. Still, whether or not you partake in these side missions is up to you. Dead Island is definitely of the sort where you get out of it what you put in, if you see what I mean.

When you're out searching for teddy bears or liquor (or more important things like gas or food) you'll naturally face hordes of the undead. They come in several varieties. "Walkers" are your standard shambling zombies. The "Infected" are weaker, but they are the sprinters (and are a pain in the ass). These two types are the most common as you'd expect. But there are also super zombies, reminiscent of Left 4 Dead. "Thugs" are big buggers who can absorb a tremendous amount of damage as well as inflict a ton themselves despite the fact that they are slow. If they hit you, you'll go flying! Some of the others are obviously ripped straight from Left 4 Dead, like the fat "Floater" who will vomit all over the place if you're not careful. I'll leave the others for you to discover.

To combat the walking undead you'll have to make use of anything available. At the beginning of the game you'll be scrounging for useful items like oars, kitchen knives, or pipes. It's a resort island after all, so guns are pretty rare early on and ammo is always at a premium. You'll need to keep an eye on the status of your weapon... chopping off zombie heads will eventually dull your blade. You can repair them at workbenches that are scattered about the resort. Each weapon is upgradable, with four different levels you can purchase. Also, searching through trash cans and collecting random items becomes important as you can modify your arsenal. You'll also need a "mod" blueprint. Have a baseball bat? Grab some nails and you can make a spiked baseball bat that adds bleed damage. That nice machete that guy gave you after you helped him escape some zombies can be modded to deliver an electric shock when used, provided you can find all the parts.

Now, one thing I need to mention at this point is that Dead Island is really meant to be played with friends. Not like Left 4 Dead per say, but rather more akin to Borderlands. Provided your partners are at roughly the same point in the game (or are behind you if you are hosting), then you can play together. You can swap weapons, and help each other out. It's quite fun, screaming into the headset as you're getting eaten, hoping someone will make it to you in time....

The biggest issues with Dead Island lie with some bizarre decisions in the basic design of the game. What annoyed me the most is the auto-save system. The inability to save whenever you want is a major crutch, but this becomes infuriating in the face of one simple fact: the auto-save doesn't always seem to work. It's very weird, when the game first launched it was well documented that some players (especially on the PS3) had major save issues... like they'd play for a while and upon reloading would discover that nothing had saved. I was one such victim, I got set back more than once (hence the fact it took me so long to complete this review... after losing a five hour play session, onto the shelf it went). Sure, there have been some patches they've released that have supposedly fixed the problem, but it doesn't change the main issue at its core. If we had the option to save whenever we want, as is par for the course in open world RPG's like this, then these admittedly major save related headaches wouldn't even have been an issue.

There are a slew of smaller problems that, while not nearly on the level as the save catastrophe, are still head scratching. The menu system isn't nearly as streamlined as it could have been, and takes a while to get used to. Another infuriating issue is weapons magically disappearing. Every character can throw their melee weapons and retrieve them from the dead. When things get hectic and their corpses disappear, sometimes the weapons disappear with them. After you've spent a crap load on upgrading your favorite blade only to search a recent battlefield for five minutes and not find the bloody thing again... well, it's more than a little frustrating.

Another weird problem is that upon reloading a save the game seems to want to start you off where ever the hell it feels like it. I was started once in a place I hadn't even discovered yet! Another thing to keep in mind is that there are several "continuous quests" such as bringing people food or finding some chick's lost necklace which can seemingly reset upon reloading. I ended up focusing on one mission at a time, just to make sure they were actually completed before I'd turn off my system. Again, it's not the end of the world, but you can't escape the feeling that you shouldn't have to do things this way if the game worked as it was supposed to. It feels cheap, especially when you are re-spawned with a zombie already chewing on your love handles!

One last thing to mention: the enemies level with you. This is something that's fairly commonplace in these sorts of games, but Dead Island takes it to the extreme. Regular "walkers" take an insane amount of punishment towards the end of the game before going down regardless of your weapon of choice, and as the game progresses you'll face hordes of them. Then there are the super fast "infected" bastards; when they join the walkers you'll find yourself being attacked from all angles and quickly end up as dead as the zombies you face. This actually provides an interesting dichotomy. On the one hand, I like how it forces you to pick your battles. If you don't like the odds, run! Trust me, after a while, you'll learn that legging it is the more viable option sometimes. But the flip side is that you never really feel like you're making any advancement. Finding that bad ass machete and upgrading so it's on fire should be empowering, but if it has all the effectiveness of a dull butter knife you'll wonder why you even bothered. And all of this without bothering to mention the guns... which seem strangely ineffectual. I mean, I know these are zombies, and I know we are supposed to shoot them in the head, but even that doesn't seem to do a lot of damage consistently. And that's what bothers me, it's the consistency (or lack there of)... which speaks to the entire experience of playing Dead Island if you ask me.

Then there are the technical issues. There are a lot of them: frame-rate drops, texture pop ins, lag... and I had the game completely lock up on me a couple of times, both online and off. Hit detection is really hit and miss. Normally, I'd pass this off with a shrug due to the scope of what the developers were trying to achieve, but these issues are so consistently prevalent that they are impossible to ignore. Dead Island honestly seems like an unfinished game in this regard, like it was rushed to meet a deadline.

The graphics are really hit and miss. Some of the environments look great, others not so much. Same with the character animations. There are some consistent pop-in and texture loading issues seemingly every time a new area loads up. Oh, and the cutscenes are laughably bad, especially with the lip-syncing.... like worse than a bad kung fu movie bad. When compared to the beautiful beaches and jungles you explore, again, the inconsistency is mind boggling. The same can't be said for the sound work, which is generally pretty poor. The zombies sound great (it'd be hard to screw that up, even if their aural cues get repetitive), but the voice acting from the host of NPC's and even the cutscenes themselves aren't terribly impressive.

Here's the thing... if Dead Island worked as advertised it would be a 9.5/10 easily. When it gets it right, it really gets it right! It's bloody brutal in the gameplay department, with a story that takes some time to develop but is ultimately satisfying. There are a ton of collectibles to find if you are so inclined. But sadly, the technical and design issues end up rendering what should have been an awesome game merely passable, with poor implementation making it more frustrating than fun in a lot of areas. The truth is I wanted to like Dead Island more than I actually did. With a little more development time to iron out some of the technical issues and a few different design decisions and it could have been exceptional. My only saving grace might be the fact that the ending sets it up for a sequel... so here's hoping they get it right the next time out.


Score = 7.9 / 10

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 (8.4/10)

To read the official full length review follow the link here: Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. 

The Call of Duty franchise is known for jaw-dropping set pieces, fast and frantic gunplay, and the most popular online multiplayer experience ever. The most recent installment, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, was heralded as the most anticipated release in history. The fact that Infinity Ward, makers of the previous Modern Warfare titles, was now teamed up with Sledgehammer games didn't dissuade anyone. The release did not disappoint in this regard, as the game shattered sales records virtually across the board. For a great many gamers out there, this is their definitive gaming experience. But for a franchise that has set the bar so high and has such a fiercely loyal fanbase, does MW3 live up to the hype surrounding it?

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 = 8.4 / 10

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Super Mario 3D Land (9.4/10)

I purchased a 3DS back when the price dropped a few months ago. There were a couple of reasons for this. Firstly, I haven't actually owned a handheld system since the original GameBoy (which made me feel old). Secondly, I really wanted to play the Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D remake. Plus, there are so many great titles that were available on the DS systems that I never had a chance to play. Since the 3DS was backwards compatible, it seemed like a great chance to have the best of both worlds as it were. And while I love my 3DS, I've been less than impressed with the admittedly small launch library (Ocarina of Time being the one truly awesome game available for the new system). However, I was unaware of just how fully my mind would be blown when I picked up the new Super Mario 3D Land. Not only does it bring back childhood memories of the classic Super Mario Bros. games I played as a child, but it utilizes the 3D technology in such a proficient way that it truly surprised, and more importantly, impressed me.

Super Mario 3D Land is the first game I've played where the 3D effects are more of a help than a hindrance. I've been dabbling in some of the other titles that have been available (don't worry, the reviews are coming), but from that standpoint the new Mario game nails it. It's the first game I've played on the 3DS that really harnesses the awesome power of glasses-less 3D. It looks great, and didn't give me headaches the way some of the other titles have. But most importantly, it actually enhances the experience. There are some 3D related puzzles, but that's not what I'm talking about. There were actually a few moments where Mario falls and it gave me a weird vertigo sensation... awesome! This is the future here people!

In a stunning (and completely unexpected) turn of events, Princess Peach is kidnapped by the evil Bowser and his cronies. Mario hastens after the villains to rescue her. It's hilarious, after each world Mario will receive a message from the Princess complete with "Maaaariiiiooooooo!!" scream. It's the very definition of "old hat," (that is to say it's been done)... but hey, it's been working for this long. If it ain't broke I suppose....

So off goes Mario, leaping and jumping his way through eight crazy worlds. Each world has multiple levels, perhaps a Toad House or two, and a boss level at the end. Probably my favorite thing about Super Mario 3D Land is the level design. Some of the levels are incredibly clever, utilizing all three axis. There are some parts that are more of the classic 2D side scrolling we all remember, but mostly you have control of Mario in all three dimensions. The way the levels are designed gave me a feeling of control over our plumber pal that I haven't really experienced before.

I had several "Wow... that's awesome!" moments that came right at the beginning of the level as I saw what I was up against. And that kept happening. Even late in the game there were new gimmicks, gizmos, and environments getting pulled out of the developer's bag of tricks. Some harkened back to previous games (including several wonderful homages to the originals), others were entirely new... and unexpected. I can't recall a game that had me smiling so consistently, nodding at each new trial that was tossed into the mix.

To help Mario traverse the challenges before him, you'll find a slew of different power-ups. Beyond Mushrooms to help you grow and Fire Flowers giving you some offensive options, the Tanooki suit makes its triumphant return. This raccoon-esque suit allows Mario to glide after he jumps. It really helps in some of the harder platforming sections. You'll also gain a Boomerang Flower on rare occasion, allowing you to toss the winged projectiles at your foes... a welcome change from the other way around!

What's nice though is that you can keep one power-up in reserve. By tapping the bottom screen you pop it out and can even switch back and forth between what you currently have. For example, if you're already powered up with a Fire Flower and you get a Super Leaf and turn into Tanooki Mario, then the Fire Flower goes down into your bottom screen inventory. If you prefer the Fire Flower (or the situation requires it), activate the power-up and when you switch the Super Leaf will automatically go into the inventory instead.

You'll not be completely alone either as you attempt to free the Princess. Your loyal friends the Toads show up from time to time. Sometimes they have houses in each world where you can go in, say "Hullo!" and get a free power up. You'll also notice binoculars in some of the levels. You can use these to look around and see what challenges await (by tilting the 3DS to look, it's a very well done and effective technique). However, keep an eye out for Toad and his buddies. They are usually mere specks in the distance, but if you can get the camera centered and zoom in then they will drop some goodies for you.

As we've grown accustomed to, each level has three hidden "Stars" to discover. Some of them are right in front of you, others are fiendishly hidden. You'll need to actually search out the hidden stars though, as certain levels won't be unlocked (including some of the boss levels at the end of each world) unless you have the requisite number of stars. Unlocking hidden levels I understand, but I didn't like the fact that you couldn't finish out a world without backtracking. Still, it adds a lot of replay value to the game as I went back repeatedly to certain levels to search for the illusive ones I had missed. 

But one thing that I found interesting is that the game is surprisingly easy. The levels are pretty short and relatively straightforward (of course, the aforementioned variety keeps things from getting stale).  After the first couple of worlds I never had less than forty lives. And if you do have trouble, the game removes any shred of challenge. There was one part where I simply couldn't get the timing right on these jumps and would subsequently fall to my death. It was almost a running gag, as I ran through half a dozen lives. Then, the next time the game reloaded, I was given a white Tanooki suit that allowed me to not only fly, but also be invincible. It was like an invincible star mixed with the raccoon suit. Of course, that didn't help with the mistimed jumps... and if you lose enough lives you'll get the infamous "P-Wing" which shoots you straight to your goal at the end of the level. I understand the reasoning behind this. After all, the game is designed for a younger demographic in mind. Still, I kinda felt like the game was feeling sorry for me. Of course, you don't have to use the magic suit if you don't want.

However, once you've defeated Bowser and rescued the Princess (sorry, by this point I don't consider that a spoiler) you unlock the "Secret Worlds." These levels are much more difficult. Oh, and there is no super magical Tanooki suit to save you this time! In fact, be wary, there are poisoned Mushrooms that have negative effects out there as well! You've just got to get it right: it takes time and patience to get through these challenges.  After beating the first world you unlock Luigi as a playable character, which was a nice surprise. I have a feeling I'll be chipping away at these for a while, not to mention going back and getting all the hidden stars from the previous worlds as well.

I love my new 3DS, but up until now it was just for the fact that I could go back and play all the games I missed from the previous DS generations. But Super Mario 3D Land is one of those games that makes it worth purchasing a new system in the first place. It's an absolute blast to play, reminding me of childhood memories while innovating at the same time. It's fun, funny, and challenging in all the right places. The 3D effects actually work, and what's more, actually enhance the game experience. It's the first example I've seen (with the possible exception of the movie Avatar, provided you saw it in the theater) where the 3D is more than just a gimmick. If you own a 3DS, then this is one title you can't miss!


Score = 9.4 / 10

Friday, December 2, 2011

Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary (8.3/10)

Over the course of writing all these reviews, I'm increasingly reminded that there are some noticeable absences from my gaming resume. With the current trend of re-releasing games from the previous generation of consoles with shiny new HD graphics, we have been given a sublime opportunity to replay some true classics. The God of War Collection allowed us to replay Kratos' adventures, and with the new God of War: Origins Collection, now the entire saga is available on PS3. The ICO and Shadow of the Collection (something I'll finish up soon), gives us the chance to play (or re-play) two games that regularly appear on reviewers "Top 10 Games of All Time" lists. Recently, there was also a Metal Gear Solid HD Collection released, which is something I'll have to pick up as well when I have the time (and money); I never played any of those either.

However, of all these classic titles now available again (or for the first time!) for our gaming pleasure, the one I've been most excited about is without a doubt the remake of the original Halo: Combat Evolved. I jumped on the Halo bandwagon with Halo 3, and have played and enjoyed these games immensely (with the exception of Halo: ODST, which sucked). Now I, along with the rest of you, have the opportunity to go back and play not only a truly classic FPS, but one of the forerunners (inside joke!) of the modern online gaming experience.

For me, the highlight of playing Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary was the chance to see Master Chief's story begin. It actually takes place just after Halo: Reach ends. The faceless Master Chief is a Spartan, the last of a group of cybernetically enhanced soldiers. Humanity faces a threat never before encountered: a ruthless race of aliens known as the Covenant who are intent on taking control of the newly discovered Halo rings. These structures aren't natural formations, but rather massive hoops so big they have their own atmosphere. On board the ship "Pillar of Autumn," Chief is thawed out of cryo-stasis to join the fight. Naturally, he is the only one who can get the job done. With their ship hopelessly damaged, Chief takes the computer AI Cortana, sticks her into his helmet, and they all crash land on Halo.

At first, their mission is simple: help find and protect the rest of the survivors. However, before long they discover the true nature of the rings, and what their purpose actually is. Those who know the canon already know about the Flood, but for me it was interesting to see how it all began. Plus, there are hidden terminals for you to find that have some awesome CGI videos... but do they just tell the back story of Combat Evolved, or are we seeing hints at Halo 4? Stay tuned....

Anniversary is the original Halo game remade with a shiny HD graphics engine... but that's really the only change that has been made. Everything else from the original release is as it was, just prettier. You can even hold down the "Back/Select" button and it will revert to the original Xbox graphics. My, how far we have come! Still, it's not all flowers; a lot of the design is full repetitive, dark corridors that still all look the same. The cutscenes are also made over. But to be honest, it doesn't really look like a lot of effort went into them. They seemed very jerky, with some laughably bad lip-syncing. Still, considering what awaits you should you revert to the original graphics, the difference is night and day.

The Halo series is known, probably more than anything else (with the exception of the super hot, scantily clad AI hologram... oh yeah, and the Chief himself of course), for re-defining the FPS genre. While things have come a long way in the intervening ten years, the fact that Anniversary still boasts some intense and frantic action even by today's standards shows just how mind blowing it was way back when. When you're out in the open and vehicles come into play, things become an exercise in strategy mixed with mad dashes from cover to cover. Of course, I still suck at driving the Warthogs, I've never gotten the hang of those damn things! In the halls and corridors of Halo it turns even more hectic as you never know what you'll find around the corner. Late on in the game the action is virtually non-stop, no matter where you are. Sweaty palms are common to say the least!

However, if there is one thing about playing a nicer-looking-but-otherwise-completely-unchanged game is that it's still a ten year old game. Things have come a long way in ten years. I was constantly noticing little things... things that the industry as a whole have left behind. The simplistic level design is one such example. Sure, there are some wide open areas, but most of the game smacks of old-school corridor shooters: a maze-like construct of similar looking areas. It's easy to get turned around. This is exacerbated by the fact that there aren't really any objective markers to follow, meaning you can spend a significant amount of time backtracking. That doesn't include those areas that you have to backtrack through anyway. Checkpoint placement is inconsistent at best. Sometimes dying will set you surprisingly far back... a frustrating realization to say the least.

The AI, both ally and enemy, are apparently untouched, and still as good as they ever were. That's saying something for the time it was made: it has aged well! All of the classic weapons are present (as you would expect since this is where it all began... duh!), including the infamously over-powered pistol. As fun and intense as the gun battles can be, at higher difficulties (including the legendary "Legendary Difficulty") it's nuts! Still, for the most part, Anniversary serves as a living reminder that the industry has, in fact, learned from its mistakes in the intervening time. And let's be honest, if they had remade Halo: Combat Evolved with the intent to fix these issues then it wouldn't have been the same game, now would it?

Regular readers know I'm not a huge fan of online multiplayer, but the Halo games are one of the few series I actually enjoy playing online with friends. This new Halo remake brings back most of the classic multiplayer maps from the original, but it's all run through the Halo: Reach servers. It's a blast. A co-op mode was also added, a welcome addition. It's definitely fun (not to mention being worth a laugh or three) to try and take on the Covenant with a friend!

In the end, I came away with mixed feelings about my time with Anniversary. On the one hand, it was great to see how the saga began, to see Master Chief and Cortana start their journey. While I understand that Anniversary isn't true to the original multiplayer experience (something to which I have no frame of reference), I had fun playing online using the Reach engines. However, the other side of the coin is that inescapable feeling that you're playing an old game. Not a bad game by any stretch of the imagination, but an old one. A lot of the basic design is very dated, and that's putting it politely. Switching back to the old graphics is both scary, eye-opening, and thrilling, all at the same time. And as I said before, it provides perspective... the fact of the matter is that the gaming industry has, for the most part, evolved on its own, leaving some of those outdated models behind. Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary is still absolutely worth your time whether you're new to the experience or reliving a classic, but for me I appreciated said perspective more than anything. It's a good time to be a gamer. I can't wait to see what the next ten years brings!


Score = 8.3 / 10

P.S. Now we can only hope that they will decide to remake Halo 2. As I understand it from true Halo-ites, this is the definitive Halo experience.