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by Ethos

Back to the Future: The Game “It’s About Time” Review – It’s About Time

Monday, February 21st, 2011

LIKED:

-Obviously a game for fans made by fans with help from the original team and cast

-Amusing dialogue and characters with good voice acting

-Glad to see new scenarios and not just a rehash of the movies’ plots

-Wraps up the story with subtle hints to ties with future episodes in addition to the cliffhanger

-The timeless soundtrack. Of course

DISLIKED:

-Clunky controls, unstable framerate

-Although expected: Easy and short

Telltale Games has been making a name for itself by taking beloved franchises of different degrees and turning them into episodic point and click adventures. They started off humbly with Sam & Max and then Strong Bad, but are now turning to large movie franchises that have a place firmly in most of our hearts from early childhood.

In addition to the upcoming Jurassic Park games, Telltale has just released episode one of Back to the Future: The Game titled “It’s About Time” on PC, Mac, and PS3. I played it on PS3, and have no point of comparison for the other versions.

The game incorporates ideas that were originally going to be in the movies. Like this one.

Anyway, the game starts with a nod to a classic scene from the original timeless (or timeFULL) movie, but quickly moves on to a fresh plot that takes place after the events from the trilogy. This was a big relief for me. I love the movies, but a retelling with such a different medium would likely not be very successful.

The first thing I noticed after a new plot was the voicework. While I knew that Christopher Lloyd was returning to voice Doc Brown, I was very impressed by the rest of the voice cast who had to imitate the iconic voices from the movie. A.J. Locascio does a fantastic job with Marty, and I was perhaps even more impressed by the work done by Michael X. Sommers who voiced George McFly. It was easy to tell that it was very important to the developers to recreate the treasured atmosphere from the movies.

In that vein, this episode seems particularly set on making the game feel right at home within the franchise cannon. Throwbacks and settings in the opening scenes have enough nostalgia for the entire 5 episode series.

In terms of the new content, the dialogue options are largely plentiful and largely quite funny. It’s worth it to not progress the story – even when you know how to – just to hear all the things the characters have to say.

Looks like Marty, sounds like Marty

Beyond that, however, it’s never really a challenge to figure out how to continue. Anyone with a little bit of experience with point and click adventures will have the common sense to know which items to use with what and what to do next. Still, this could be a product of an introductory episode, and it’s not as if the experience wasn’t enjoyable.

In fact, the only time I didn’t enjoy my time with the game was when Marty would start walking in a way I didn’t expect, have weird collision detection, or when the game had some serious framerate hiccoughs. The game looks fine visually, but I can’t imagine it’s taxing enough on the PS3 hardware to justify such lag. But this is a pattern I’ve seen with most Telltale games, so I imagine it’s just a result of some coding not being as tight as it could be.

That being said, the lag isn’t constant, and it’s hardly enough to be a major point against the game.

It’s About Time is a very satisfying Back to the Future game. It’s not about action, but – strangely – neither were the movies, really. It supports itself with wacky characters, memorable dialogue, and ridiculous time-travel scenarios. The point-and-click format can be a little frustrating, but it’s ultimately a great fit for the franchise, and this first episode shows a lot of promise for the next 4. And if Telltale follows in their own footsteps, the episodes will only get better from here.

Review Outline

Call of Duty: Black Ops Review – Treyarch Has Their Revenge

Monday, November 22nd, 2010

Call of Duty: Black Ops needs no introduction. After Modern Warfare 2 set world-records in sales last year around this time, the world has been well aware of the franchise’s existence. Call of Duty is one of those games that even your non-gaming buddies know about, and even play from time to time.

However, Black Ops is not a game made by Infinity Ward, the people who brought us Modern Warfare. Rather, it’s from Treyarch – the World at War people. Y’know, the game that bridged the gap between Modern Warfare and Modern Warfare 2.

Let it be known straight away that Black Ops is a much better game than World at War. For that matter, it’s a better game than either of the Modern Warfares. Or, to put it simply, it’s the best Call of Duty yet. Yes, it’s built on the same foundations that made the previous CODs so good, and it largely shares the same mechanics and conventions. But even still, Black Ops features the most polished, robust multiplayer experience yet, as well as the most tightly-written and coherent campaign.

STORY

Like every Call of Duty, Black Ops’ campaign mode is intense. Set during the Cold War of the 60s, (territory largely untouched by videogames until now) you’re whisked from one intense, world-changing combat scenario to the next with breakneck speed. However, unlike previous games in the franchise, Black Ops actually knows how to pause – however briefly – to develop the events and characters that these bombastic battles and setpieces are based around. It’s for this reason alone that Black Ops has the most satisfying campaign mode ever seen in a Call of Duty game.

In Black Ops, you’re given a tangible protagonist to work with – Alex Mason, a SOG Operative. At the outset of the game, Mason finds himself strapped in a chair, in a creepy room with a bunch of TV screens flashing numbers. Two mysterious men with muffled voices are interrogating him, attempting to extract information that, supposedly, has the power to stop a war before it starts. From there, the story is pieced together by a series of flashbacks, as Alex is questioned about his history of clandestine operations during the Cold War. The method is effective, and character driven – rather than simply playing to see what fantastically high-energy sequence comes next, chances are that you’ll find yourself interested in knowing how the story develops.

Those who played through World at War’s campaign mode will be happy to see the continuities that Treyarch has preserved in Black Ops. A major player in the story of Black Ops is Viktor Reznov, who gamers will certainly remember as the German-hating Red Army soldier from the Soviet campaign in World At War. Dimitri Petrenko, who you actually controlled during the Soviet campaign, also makes a reappearance. Reznov is the best character in Black Ops by far – and his story is the most emotionally involving. My favorite part of the campaign is an eerie flashback to the final days of World War II, in which Reznov and his men are commissioned to take out a German military base in Russia. The sequence ends with a surprisingly gruesome and disturbing scene that I won’t spoil here – but suffice to say, it more than  justifies the actions of Reznov, as well as Alex Mason throughout the game. This sort of character-involved form of narrative is precisely what was missing from games such as Modern Warfare 2.

GAMEPLAY

Obviously, when it comes to Call of Duty, gameplay is king. It’s no secret that the competitive multiplayer modes are where gamers will spend the majority of their time with the game. For those interested, I wrote a decent bit about Black Ops’ insanely addicting multiplayer suite about a week ago; for more detailed impressions, hit the link and have a read.

To sum up, the competitive Call of Duty experience is at its finest in Black Ops. It’s more or less what we’ve seen before, but added tweaks and adjustments make this the most polished. Those who spent any time with World at War’s online multiplayer will be glad to hear that kills earned through killstreak rewards (dogs, napalm strikes, et cet) no longer count towards a player’s overall killstreak. Those fresh off of Modern Warfare 2 will be happy to see that shotguns are now primary weapons, and dual-wielded shotguns are no longer game-breakers.

And once again, I have to give a shout-out to the four new Wager Modes. They are both a fun diversion from the normal straightforward hecticity of normal online matches, as well as fantastic and addicting in their own right.

The campaign mode, of course, features gameplay as well – albeit increasingly short segments tied together by dialog and scripted scenes. That’s not to say that it’s an entirely passive experience, though – especially on higher difficulty levels, your combat skills will be tested. Also, Black Ops does a better job of mixing in more objectives than simply mowing down wave after wave of enemies. One particularly interesting sequence puts you in the shoes of a CIA agent directing a small ground force of troops from the air above, using radar equipment. During this level, the gameplay shifts from above to the ground with very slick transitions, allowing you to play as a ground soldier as well as the directing agent above. Vehicle segments, which have remained absent from the Modern Warfare games, are back with vengeance in Black Ops, and they provide some of the game’s more intense moments.

Like World at War before it, Black Ops features an entirely unique game mode in the form of Zombies. Once again, you and up to three other people stake out in a run-down military base and fend off wave after wave of undead scum. The mode is almost exactly the same; you use the points you earn slaying zombies to buy weapons and ammo, as well as open up doors to new rooms, making the overall arena larger and larger over time. Weak barricades can be rebuilt, but essentially all their is between you and and the hoard is your trigger finger. It’s fun, intense, and undeniably addicting. And this time around, it features 100% more cheesy one-liners from the faceless soldiers you play as.

But oh, wait! There’s more still. Many reviewers across the interwebs have refused to “spoil” it, but I’d feel downright remiss if I didn’t mention Black Ops’ wonderful little easter egg: Dead Ops Arcade. It’s a top-down arcade rendition of Zombies, complete with charmingly MIDI arcade music, tons of power-ups, high scores to rank up, and a random gorilla who steals your shit at the end of every game. That is to say, it’s entirely and completely awesome. You’ll have to reference the internet to find out how to access it, but hey, we don’t have any problems with that in this day and age, now do we?

If you haven’t gathered, Black Ops packs in a ton of gameplay value for your buck. And it’s all quality.

GRAPHICS

Like every other aspect of the game, Treyarch has found a way to push the envelope a little further in the aesthetics department. Character models, for example, are notably more detailed and expressive. Textures are rich, water effects are fantastic, and the game never slows for a second, no matter how much is going on at one time. (During the campaign, at least.)

Also, like no Call of Duty before it, Treyarch has managed to put together some impressively atmospheric sequences in Black Ops. A particular sequence that comes to mind is when Alex Mason and his crew explore a downed ship carrying a chemical weapon – superb lighting effects, eerie music, and a copious amount of dead bodies make this one of the more memorable levels.

SOUND

The sound of war is hot and heavy in Black Ops. Once again, the sound design is quite superb, and only enhances the bombastic action of the setpieces. Aside from sound design, Black Ops features very strong voice acting that keeps the action believable. There are plenty of voices you’ll recognize, even – Sam Worthington (the Avatar guy) voices Alex Mason, and does a fantastic job of it. Ed Harris is slightly less impressive as Mason’s CIA handler Jason Hudson. Other notable voices include Gary Oldman as Viktor Reznov (probably the best performance in the game) Topher Grace, and Ice Cube. (Not as obnoxious as you’d assume.)

CONCLUSION

You won’t find a much more complete entertainment package than Call of Duty: Black Ops. From the intensely engaging campaign mode to the insanely addictive multiplayer, from the cooperative mayhem of Zombies to the charmingly unexpected Dead Ops Arcade, this is a hell of a bang for your buck. Treyarch as outdone both themselves and a certain Infinity Ward with this one. If you’re a fan, don’t miss out. If you’re not a fan, this won’t change your mind. If you’ve never played, this is the best place to start.

Metroid: Other M Review – There is Exploration in Metroid

Monday, August 30th, 2010

LIKED:

-Fast and varied combat, way beyond a button-masher

-Surprisingly engaging story and voice-acting, despite some cheese

-Challenge, optional paths, good puzzles, and spooky moments

DISLIKED:

-The rare, but annoying, forced first-person sections

-The controls for the just as rare, just as annoying 3rd person suspense building sections

-Not as much environmental authenticity as the Prime series

Metroid: Other M was a game that nobody was expecting in a great number of ways. After the Metroid Prime trilogy was completed and saw moderate – but not blockbuster – success (the entire trilogy combined sold about 20% of New Super Mario Bros Wii sales alone), the entire gaming population was neither clamouring for nor expecting any new Metroid titles for at least a little bit. But then along comes Nintendo at E3 2009 to announce a collaboration with Team Ninja to make an all-new story-heavy 2D-3D hybrid Metroid game. It was both unexpected and a risk, but the major question is: did it all pay off? Largely, the result is not only a “yes” to that question, but a promising effort for the future of Nintendo’s dwindling hardcore fanbase.

Story

This is fun

This is the one that might have the masses split. Not so much because of the story itself (although it gives a rather bold backstory for Samus), but because one of this nature exists at all. Metroid has traditionally been told largely through mood, implication, and optional in-game research rather than the involved cutscenes that Other M brings to the table. Personally, I think the story-telling is refreshing for a Nintendo title. It is sincere, introspective, and fits the mood of what (little) I have seen of the Metroid series. I love that Samus frequently gives her personal take on what people say and the things around her. It solidifies her character as solitary, critical, yet very human. While the plot, style, and even characters are nothing new, I can’t compare Other M’s story-telling style to any other game. In fact, I found myself wishing for more of Samus’ commentary during extended sections without a cutscene.

But despite these scripted elements, Metroid: Other M doesn’t abandon its predecessors’ ability to foreshadow and create the appropriate atmosphere through gameplay and natural surroundings. Windows in a hallway overlook directly into a boss’ liar, and room and puzzle designs give clues as to the nature of the facility that Samus is exploring.

Still, while I’m pleased to see Nintendo take big steps – for them – toward immersive and admittedly unique story-telling, Other M is not particularly well-written, is prone to being occasionally hokey and melo-dramatic, and isn’t very surprising. That being said, my previous comparisons to Kingdom Hearts aren’t far off in the sense that despite these short-comings, the result is greater than the sum of its parts. Not to say that the style and themes are similar to Kingdom Hearts, so don’t be turned off if you’re not a fan of keyblades.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Metroid’s story, however, is how well it stacks up to modern HD titles. Sure, it’s no Bioshock, but the tale is engaging the entire time and even has moments that are completely badass, something not seen in a Nintendo title for quite some time. Other M’s story was the element that had me the most skeptical going in, and after completion, I am sold.

Young and naive... naive and young... young and naive...

Gameplay

It works. Other M’s bizarre hybrid of 2D and 3D simply works. Not only that, it is a better experience for it. 2D combat uses the Wiimote held sideways and is fast-paced and frantic. Samus runs quickly, shoots quickly, dodges quickly, and jumps like crazy. In 2D, as long as Samus is facing an enemy, she will shoot it. This auto-aim doesn’t dumb anything down, however, it just allows the focus to be on positioning and strategy instead and this is a great design choice.

To dodge, Samus needs to tap the directional button in any direction. It’s very easy to pull off – which is good because it’s an essential move – but the catch is that if you want to take advantage of Samus’ speed, you need to be holding down a directional button, and not be tapping.

Of course, there’s always the option to point the Wiimote at the screen to make the smooth transition to first person. This lets Samus gain the ability of powerful missiles and precision aiming at the expense of mobility. The transition works incredibly well from a mechanical standpoint although there are a few intense instances in which the transition is unfortunately a little disorienting.

Perhaps more important than combat, is the freedom the first-person perspective gives you in platforming and exploration. A 2D perspective can feel limiting sometimes, especially in a game like Other M, when there are hidden paths, secrets in corners, and long hallways. Thankfully, the first-person perspective is a godsend for any meticulous player. Of course, the game was designed for players to make full use of all options, but that just means it was designed well.

In fact, all abilities that Samus gains are consistently useful. While some of them stack, others aren’t just useful for a short time after they’re gained, but can be implemented in combat and searching for hidden items and upgrades throughout the experience.

But on that note, I unfortunately have to move on from the great combat, varied exploration, and well implemented unique gameplay mechanics and talk about some of the duds.

I hate these guys

While missile ammo, beam charging speed, and health can be upgraded by searching the various areas in classic Metroid style, major upgrades are handled terribly. Samus is fully equipped the entire game but only uses weapons that she’s authorized to use. Now, the game gives a bit more justification for this, so it’s not quite so awful as it sounds in that simple summation, but overall it’s a frustrating mechanic. Thinking “I could have got that extra health earlier if this stupid weapon was authorized” took me out of the experience on more than one occasion. I know it’s just a pretense for releasing the equipment, but at least finding it scattered across the game is familiar and consistent with finding the other upgrades.

In addition to that annoying quirk, there are two other gameplay instances that frustrate during Other M. One is a forced first person perspective. This happens a few times for either research or combat. Both cases are contrived and feel antithetical to the rest of the game. The other instance is during times that are meant to build suspense. The camera zooms into a tight 3rd person over the shoulder shot and Samus can only walk slowly and without using her weapons or abilities. In and of itself, these sections actually work to build tension. But the controls are horrible. Walking in a straight line is fine, and even some turning is okay. But trying to backtrack or maneuver tight spaces is a nightmare.

Another thing that might be more of a personal annoyance is a small frustration at the location of the game itself. All of Other M takes place in a single facility. Now this facility manages to work in a lot of other classic Metroid sceneries, but it just doesn’t feel as authentic as the locales in, say, the Prime trilogy.

But to end my gameplay thoughts on the positive note that the game deserves, Metroid: Other M was a pleasantly challenging experience. Experts won’t have a terribly hard time, but the title thankfully does not feel dumbed down and the only way to fully recharge health is to find a save point. No health bonuses for defeating enemies. Although at critical health, Samus can take about 10 seconds to recharge a portion of her health at the risk of leaving herself incredibly exposed. Because of the risk and the only partial recovery, I am very thankful for the mechanic.

Graphics

Other M does not look as good as Metroid Prime 3. Other M does not reach the excellent level of art design that the Prime trilogy possesses. Of course, Retro Studios’ work would be hard to match, so this isn’t really a surprise or a disappointment. Especially because Other M is still a very pretty game, just not the best the Wii has ever seen. And with so much production value and attention to cinematics both in scenes and gameplay, it’s occasionally difficult to come to terms with the fact that there isn’t a HD version of the game that you could switch to. Of course, that is a hardware issue, so I cannot fault the game for that.

However, because the only way to move around the world is in the 2D perspective, there is a distinct lack of more epic terrains. Smaller rooms and tight hallways make up the majority of the environments, which isn’t new to Metroid, but can feel a little claustrophobic when coupled with my previous gripe of the overall location choice.

Jump on the head, blast off the face

Sound

Metroid: Other M successfully combines music and sounds reminiscent of both the classic Metroid games and the Prime series as well as throwing in some more epic elements into the mix with even a small taste of Mass Effect in there. Still, the sound design isn’t as detailed and unique as the Prime series, although still quite impressive because – again – comparing technology to Retro’s trilogy is a bit of a lost cause. In fact, I played with the volume louder than I usually have it, and the score was always appropriate in tone and volume.

The voice acting was way better than I expected. Samus’ somber thoughts were able to portray her serious nature with genuine emotion, and the supplementary characters ranged from believable to good. Sometimes a few lines were ridiculous, but that was more a fault of the writing than the actors.

Final Thoughts

Do not let my nitpicking deceive you, I really enjoyed Metroid: Other M. Despite its ridiculous name, Nintendo and Team Ninja were able to make a unique, ambitious title that was largely able to bring the best from all of Samus’ adventures into a new form. Other M is an extremely promising effort from Nintendo, showing that it is, perhaps, willing again to try and push boundaries to make unique hardcore titles. Oh, and did I mention that the game continues beyond the credits? Other M isn’t super-long, but it’s worth your money as a Metroid fan, or a gamer looking for a moody action-packed adventure with – yes – exploration.

Review Outline

Alan Wake Review – Fear The Dark

Tuesday, June 1st, 2010

LIKED:

-Solid combat mechanics

-Some intriguing storytelling

-Some impressive atmospheric moments

DISLIKED:

-Major lack of atmospheric focus

-Some awkward storytelling

-Repetitive gameplay

Alan Wake is a strange beast. Billed on its own boxart as a “psychological action thriller,” Alan Wake is a solid action/horror experience built on some solid gameplay mechanics. It tells a clever, twisting story that managed to hold my interest until the end. And, at its finest, it does garner some atmospheric merit. But while Alan Wake does many things well, it never manages to jump off the page in any meaningful way. The result is a game that is fun to play, but ultimately, rather unfulfilling. Read on, and I’ll explain.

STORY

Alan Wake often draws comparison to Quantic Dream’s interactive thriller, Heavy Rain. The only real reason for this is that both games share an emphasis on storytelling. Alan Wake is (or attempts to be) a psychological thriller, filled with all the mystery, intrigue, and plot twists that you’d expect. The premise is quite basic, and quite familiar: Alan Wake is a struggling writer, hoping to enjoy a quiet vacation with his wife, Alice Wake, in Bright Falls – a quaint (read: absurdly fucking creepy) little mountain town. Unfortunately for Mr. Wake, things go wrong mere moments after he checks into his cabin. Alice is assaulted and thrown into an icy lake to drown. Alan dives after her, but quickly blacks out. He wakes up a week later, with no memory of what’s occurred in the last seven days – the last thing he remembers is the drowning figure of his wife. From there, shit just gets crazy, for lack of a better phrase. Alan soon discovers that the events unfolding around him are the living manifestation of a novel he wrote – with himself as the main character.

I won’t discuss specifics any further. Credit must be given where it’s due: Alan Wake’s storytelling has some real merit. The concept is quite clever indeed, and it’s a mystery that’ll keep you guessing until the end. Unfortunately, though, as clever as the plot may be, the execution often falters. While playing Alan Wake, it’s difficult not to draw comparisons to several other comparable stories – Silent Hill, Shutter Island, The X-Files, Secret Window… the list could go on, frankly. It’s actually somewhat vexing, as is the game’s liberal use of tired, clichéd horror conventions. Sure, the horror genre is built on certain conventions, but Alan Wake seems to go out if its way to include each and every one of them. Creepy little resort town with a dark secret? Check. Old woman with cryptic, forboding words that come true later? Check. Missing wife? Check. Dudes with chainsaws? Check. Check, check, check, it’s all there. I promise.

Now, as we all know, a story doesn’t have to be particularly original in order to succeed. What matters most is how well it’s told. Are the characters robust? Is the pacing efficient? Is the scripting strong? Does it build a cohesive atmosphere? These are the questions to be asked, and when it comes to Alan Wake, the answer is “not quite.”

Alan Wake is an entertaining protagonist, and he’s characterized well during the game. However, he’s also the only character in the game that’s developed to any extent. Nobody else is given any meaningful attention, and that includes Alice, Alan’s missing wife. It’s kinda difficult to give a damn about her, or her grim fate, because the game devotes absolutely no screen time to her.

Something that really annoyed me throughout Alan Wake was the absurd amount of pseudo-foreshadowing that never paid off, and never made sense. I’m referring mainly to the radio and TV transmissions that you can listen to/view during the course of the game. On the radio, you’ll usually hear an excerpt from some talk show, and the subject matter is so vague and pointless that you can’t even tell if it’s even supposed to be foreshadowing. On TV, you’re generally treated to scattered episodes of a horror show called Night Springs. Obviously an homage to The Twilight Zone, the show always tells the tale of something weird and supernatural. But again, while it’s clearly supposed to provide some sort of insight or foreshadowing, it’s never clear what that is. I spent an substantial amount of time during Alan Wake standing still, watching TV or listening to the radio. And, after beating the game, I’m still not sure why.

The most damning flaw, though, is this: Alan Wake gravely suffers from a lack of focus when it comes to setting and atmosphere. The game can never quite decide if it wants to be a Silent Hill-esque psychological thriller or an X-Filesy supernatural action flick. One moment, you’re walking through the woods, shrouded in darkness, flinching at every sound. The next, you’re cruising around in one of the game’s several bizarre vehicular sequences, mowing down zombies in a way that’d make Woody Harrelson proud. The next, you’re having epileptic visions of futuristic space-men in makeshift Big Daddy costumes. (I’m being dead serious.) What this grab-bag of plot elements does is ensure that Alan Wake never manages to reach the level of atmospheric genius that it occasionally teases. Also, as you can probably gather, a lot of it is simply ridiculous in its own right. I rolled my eyes more than a few times.

Don’t get me wrong: Alan Wake is an entertaining yarn. But for every clever twist or shocking revelation, there’s an equally stupid tangent or senseless revelation to make sure the story never reaches the level of narrative mastery it strives for.

GAMEPLAY

The storytelling may be all over the map, but Alan Wake’s gameplay is based on some very simple, very solid mechanics that make it an oddly fun game to play.

Gameplay is straightforward enough. You make your way through dark, creepy environments with a both a flashlight and a weapon in hand. Creepy shadows known as Taken attack you often, and in order to defeat them, you must first focus your light on them, and then shoot them.

Alan Wake is oddly combat-intensive. At times, you’re up against close to a dozen enemies at once – and your arsenal of weaponry can become quite robust. Pistols, flare guns, shotguns, and flashbangs make for some explosive combat sequences. It’s an odd thing; these bombastic combat sequences seem rather out-of-place in a survival-horror game, and yet, they’re some of the strongest moments Alan Wake has to offer. Taking down a hoard of Taken with an assortment of flashbangs and bullets can be extremely satisfying indeed.

But, while blowing away zombies is well and good, Alan Wake is missing that crucial element of helplessness. Simply put, the game far overpowers you, and because of this, it’s just not that scary. In a good survival-horror experience, the emphasis should be on conservation and survival. Bullets should be scarce, enemies should be overpowering, and there should be a constant, gnawing sense that death is close at hand. In Alan Wake, you don’t get that feeling, because you spend 90 percent of the game decked out like a nerdy Rambo. Ammo is absurdly plentiful; I can recall one, and only one instance, in which I actually ran out. And, while you’d think the addition of a flashlight would only make resource management more of a challenge, I never ran out of batteries. Ever. Probably because the damn things recharge, for whatever reason. (Not even the Energizer Bunny can do that, Remedy.) I found many creative ways to slay zombies in Alan Wake; but I never once feared for my life.

Alan Wake’s gameplay also suffers in that it tends to be quite repetitive. Mission variety is sorely lacking; rarely is there an objective aside from “travel from point A to point B.” And it’s the same every time – walking down dark path, pausing to slaughter the occasional hoard of Taken, and then resuming dark path-walking. Occasionally you might have to power a generator or open a gate, but that’s about it. There are a few notable exceptions – Alan’s escape from a mental institution comes to mind, as does a very tense gameplay segment involving bear traps. But, overall, Alan Wake tends to be a very repetitive – and thus, predictable – experience.

Alan Wake is a fun game to play. Combat is satisfying, and the night-shrouded environments are fun to explore. But, as a survival-horror experience, it just doesn’t work. Unless you have a serious aversion to the dark, Alan Wake probably won’t scare you in the least.

GRAPHICS

Alan Wake looks really good in motion. In-game environments are gorgeous. Sure, they’re all dark and shadowy, but Alan Wake makes the night look both beautiful and unsettling. Most of the time, your path is illuminated only by the flashlight you carry, and the effect is really quite mesmerizing. By necessity, the lighting effects of the game are flawless. The beam from your flashlight behaves with remarkable realism. Dramatic lighting effects such as the glow from flares lights up the screen in a spectacular fashion.

Alan Wake has a lot of technical wizardry behind its in-game graphics; unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the cinematics. Alan Wake has a lot of cinematics, and by modern standards, they’re pretty damn ugly. Character models are washed-out, low-poly, and poorly detailed. Animations – particularly facial animations – are absolutely laughable, and really detract from some of the dialog scenes. Also, for whatever reason, many of the cinematics suffer from dramatic artifacting.

In short, Alan Wake looks good during gameplay. Once the cinematics start rolling, things get ugly.

SOUND

Alan Wake really could have benefited from a more intricate sound design. It’s hard not to recall 2008’s Dead Space, and its masterful use of sound to build its atmosphere. Alan Wake has no such mastery in its sound design; in fact, none of it really stands out. On top of that, the voice acting isn’t particularly strong, and the music is mostly forgettable. None of it is bad – it’s just regrettably mediocre.

CONCLUSION

Alan Wake is frustratingly middle-of-the-road. It’s a solid, but unamazing interactive experience that always feels like it’s on the edge of brilliance. But, strive as it may to reach that goal, it’s hindered by a lack of focus, and an inability to break the mold in all but the smallest of ways. The game is a classic example of a missed opportunity for greatness, as well as an example of undeserved over-hype. The ending to the game implies that sequels could follow, and I’d really like to see Remedy take another crack at things – but, sadly, I don’t think that’s going to happen.

Alan Wake - 7.5/10

Super Mario Galaxy 2 Review – Glaa-hoo!

Saturday, May 29th, 2010

LIKED:
-Challenging, fun, and clever level design.
-Far and away the best-looking Wii game.
-Clever ways to help new players without dumbing down the experience for veterans
-No more contrived missions
-Absolutely beautiful largely-orchestrated music
-Cloud Mario
-Better overworld
-Pointer and motion controls are great…

DISLIKED:
-…but the waggle is not great
-Not enough Rosalina!
-Peach needs to die

Nintendo is a funny beast these days. They’ve quickly forgotten their days of cutting edge software and technology to ride the success of the Wii, 9 year old hardware that they claim is still a showcase of modern technology. They hype and showcase games like Wii Music which turn out to be mind-numbingly shallow, and use E3 to reveal anti-gaming devices like the Wii Vitality Sensor. Still, when it comes to their 3D Mario franchise, they have been nothing but consistent and even excellent. The series has become more reliable than their previous shining gem franchise, Zelda. Mario 64 set the standard for 3D platforming, and Mario Sunshine followed suit with tighter controls, better camera, and better graphics, if not slightly worse level design. Then came the Galaxy series. Ironically when Nintendo seems to be most ignoring the fanbase that made them, they’re creating some of the absolute strongest games they’ve ever made in Super Mario Galaxy 1 and 2. So much so that one almost forgets they’re not in HD. Super Mario Galaxy 2 is absolutely the best 3D Mario game, and the best game that Nintendo has released since Ocarina of Time.

Star Get!

Gameplay
This is all that Mario Galaxy 2 is, and so Nintendo nails it. Mario, Luigi, and Yoshi all control so tightly, yet very distinctly. Mario makes quick stops and intuitive acrobatic moves, Luigi skids around while running faster and jumping higher, and Yoshi flutter-jumps with – thankfully – less of that constipation noise while doing so.

The brilliance of the gameplay in this game is how carefully Nintendo implemented difficulty levels without the need for a difficulty setting. If you’re new to games and don’t have 14 years of controlling a 3D Mario under your belt, you can use – otherwise easily ignorable – “hint TVs” that are scattered around the levels. If you still suck really bad, ghost Rosalina will offer you the “win button” and you can just watch Mario get the star by himself. You’ll be marked for being a n00b, however, as you’ll get a bronze star instead of a gold one if you use this cop-out. The reason why all this is good is because it eliminated the need for Nintendo to dumb down the levels or the challenge of the more difficult missions. That’s not all, either. It’s easy to get to the end credits of the game without collecting the comet coin available in every level or discovering the secret stars some levels have to offer. If you do take the extra time – and challenge – however, the reward is far from small. Super Mario Galaxy 2 piles on the options and additional gameplay to an even greater extent than the impressive original.

But forgetting that this game essentially has 240 different stars to collect, the main 120 missions don’t hold back, and it’s extremely satisfying for a veteran gamer. To gain perspective of the additional challenge present in the sequel, let me provide an example: Anybody who played the original Galaxy knows of missions that would require you to collect 100 purple coins within a time limit while platforms disappeared permanently as you stepped on them. Well in Galaxy 2, you have a similar mission, but with the added challenge of shadow Marios – that do damage if they bump into you – chasing you, mimicking your every move. Therefore, if you slow down or retrace your steps, you’re as good as dead.

Starship Mario!

So the game rewards you with more gameplay the more you play, and challenges you more than ever before, but it somehow doesn’t stop there. It’s also incredibly varied. Whereas the past three games are plagued with varying degrees of dud-missions, Super Mario Galaxy 2 instead decided to make more levels with fewer missions. The result is essentially never getting sick of a level, and every mission feeling fresh. It is extremely surprising and just as impressive how much Nintendo managed to pack into this title

I could go on and on about the gameplay, talking about the new – great – suits, and the new – better – overworld, but I think you all get my point. This is one of the tightest, most fun experiences you can find in a video game. Even the motion-only levels work as Nintendo is well aware of the limitations and doesn’t try to do anything that the Wiimote can’t. However, that doesn’t mean that the waggle attached to the spin move is excusable. The spin move in the Galaxy series is a fantastic addition to Mario’s moveset, but the execution is not. Although the waggle is as precise as anybody could make it, the fact is that it can still be accidentally triggered if I scratch my nose and that a button press would be more precise in tight situations. Maybe the Wiimote doesn’t have enough buttons, but that doesn’t mean the waggle motion to spin is any less stupid.

Story
This is Mario. You save the annoying bitch, Peach from the hilarious idiot, Bowser. If Rosalina kills off Peach, then I’ll care about the story.

Graphics
No, it’s not in HD, but that’s a fault of the system and not the game itself. Like the original Galaxy before it, Super Mario Galaxy 2 looks beautiful. It’s one of the rare cases that shows that the Wii is more powerful than the Gamecube, and it shows it in style. The game is colourful and varied, with great animations and more interesting backdrops than the original. The game might be cartoony, but there’s something epic about the art style too. Lots of swirling star systems in the background, massive waterfalls, and exploding volcanoes, Super Mario Galaxy 2 is the best looking Wii game. It may not have the resolution of the HD systems, but it’s more of a joy to look at than most games, regardless.

Annoying shadow bitches...

Sound
Because Galaxy 2 has no story to speak of, it has to draw the player into the world with graphics and music. Luckily the game sounds just as beautiful as it looks. Not everything is orchestrated, but a lot of it is, and the tracks are even more inspired than the original. There is Hollywood-worthy cues mixed with fun-loving throwbacks. Even the MIDI-style stuff works because of the nature of Mario. This series is leaps and bounds ahead of Zelda in terms of production and personality, and the soundtrack is just more proof of that. The sound effects are just as fun and appropriate as the original, but – like mentioned earlier – it’s nice to hear Yoshi’s return absent of constipation noises.

Final Thoughts
Forget everything you know about the current state and philosophies of Nintendo. Super Mario Galaxy 2 is a lavishly produced, all-out production and it’s crammed-packed with top-notch controls and the best level-design available. Some people may still get a little seasick from Mario’s topsy-turvy antics, but a better camera and tight controls obliterated that problem for me. There’s so much to find and enjoy for players of absolutely any level, and even after playing through almost the entirety of both games, I still want more. This is the sole reason to own a Wii. The cut-scenes are still cringe-worthy, and I got annoyed with an unnecessary scene every time I played as Luigi, but the issues are so incredibly minor that I feel weird even mentioning them. Highly recommended.

Review Outline

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time Review – Honor and Glory

Sunday, May 16th, 2010

Ha! Didn’t see THIS one coming, did you? I know the game’s 7 years old or so, but hey; it’s a classic, and in spite of all appearances, this IS Prince of Persia week. And, unlike Ethos, I actually managed to finish the game this week. In fact, I sat down yesterday and beat it all in one sitting. Because I’m awesome. Anyway. Um. I should probably get to the review. Though, I admit, I’m actually enjoying this little italicized intro a bit too much. I fucking miss you guys! I haven’t talked to you all week! How’s it going? Good? Good. How’s it going for me? Ah… well. Let’s just, uh. Get to the review.

LIKED:

-Unparalleled platforming mechanics

-Flawless level design

-Brilliantly constructed storybook-esque, Persian atmosphere

-Subtle, sweet, and engaging storyline

DISLIKED:

-Shallow, repetitive combat

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, and its two sequels, are by far the best action-adventure games of the previous generation. Apologies to Kratos, Link, Dante, and plenty of other action heroes with quality games, but Prince of Persia takes the proverbial cake. It began with 2003’s Sands of Time; and while Sands of Time is (unfortunately) plagued by a rather shallow combat system, its unparalleled level design, platforming mechanics, and atmosphere set it apart as not just one of the best action-adventures ever made – but one of the best videogames, period.

Story

I hope that everyone’s at least somewhat familiar with the story behind the Sands of Time trilogy. When it comes to time-travelling epics, it’s probably the best thing the world’s seen since Back to the Future. (And I don’t say that lightly, because I fucking love Back to the Future.) The Sands of Time is only the tip of the iceberg, but it’s still one hell of a ride. A young, unnamed Prince gets his hands on the Dagger of Time; a magical weapon with the power to (you guessed it) control time – soon afterwards, a traitorous vizier tricks him into using said dagger to unleash the destructive Sands of Time. Everyone turns into monsters, buildings crumble, sand flies everywhere – basically, everything turns to shit, and it’s all the fault of our Prince. So, with the help of the gorgeous Farah – the only other survivor of the sands – our unnamed protagonist sets out to make things right.

The storyline in Sands of Time isn’t that deep, and the game isn’t laden with cutscenes or dialog. But, really, the subtlety of it is what makes it so beautiful. I’ve written about the romance between the Prince and Farah before – remember Romance Week? They scored the #4 spot on my Love Story Hits countdown, and for good reason. There’s something universally charming about the two of them and their constant back-and-forth banter that gradually leads to their falling in love. Oh yeah, and the dialog is endlessly entertaining and well-written.

Gameplay

After all of these years, The Sands of Time still has the most brilliantly conceived platforming mechanics ever seen in a videogame. There are two basic reasons for this: the Prince is one of the most versatile and acrobatic characters ever seen, and the level design is, in a word, flawless. Every seamless environment is designed to allow for the Prince’s unique methods of transportation – wall-running, death-defying jumps, pole-swinging – the list could go on. But, while they may be contrived in such a way, they don’t look like they are – they look almost entirely organic. There really isn’t a single other game in the world where it’s such a joy to simply move.

Unfortunately, the Sands of Time is plagued with a shallow, repetitive combat system. Combat was drastically improved in the two latter entries of the trilogy, but it’s still pretty lame in Sands of Time. The Prince has a single-button combo attack, the ability to vault over enemies, and the ability to freeze enemies in place. It all looks freaking badass, but it’s somewhat boring to actually play. Not awful, not broken… just kinda boring.

Graphics

Upon its release in 2003, Sands of Time looked gorgeous. Character models were lacking even for their time, but the beautifully inspired Persian storybook aesthetic was a literal joy to behold. And, believe it or not, it still is. Sure, it looks last-gen, and it’s pretty damn jaggy on a 42″ HDTV. But it’s the artistic vision behind Sands of Time that really defines the visual experience. Think Lawrence of Arabia, or Disney’s Aladdin. The Sands of Time presents a seamless world where it’s easy to lose yourself.

Sound

Just to round out the near-perfection, Sands of Time has very competent voicework (especially for its time) and a top-notch musical score. In fact, it’s such a good musical score, you’ll wish it appeared more often than just during combat sequences. Yuri Lowenthal has always been one of the favorites in the business, and his role as the titular Prince will always remain my favorite of his.

Final Thoughts

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is, simply, timeless. It’s a game that will always be recalled with the same fondness as, say, Indiana Jones, or to cite a more similar example, Back to the Future. Sitting down and playing through the game again yesterday was the most fun I’ve had in a long, long time. If you haven’t experienced this masterpiece for yourself, I can’t recommend it strongly enough. It’s one of the definitive interactive experiences.

Final Fantasy XIII Review – Lost Focus

Monday, March 29th, 2010

FFXIII Box Art_(PS3)LIKED:
-The inventive, fast, challenging, and satisfying battle system.
-Absolutely beautiful fantasy visuals
-When the menu and upgrading systems open up, they are the best in the series

DISLIKED:
-The fact that those good things open really far into the game
-Horrible writing
-Practically zero opportunity to connect to the primary world
-Apart from the battle system, very unfocused and practically automatic gameplay takes the front seat for most of the game

Note: I rarely go into detail explaining mechanics or story elements in this review. If you’re very unfamiliar with the title, our Final Fantasy XIII Week in the Riddlethos archives has a wealth of details.

Final Fantasy XIII. Like all the other iterations in this heavily and emotionally debated series, this one has the fans divided. I strangely stand somewhere on both sides. I enjoyed my 60 hours with the game and have a lot of high praise for the game in some areas, however I cannot deny some tremendous design flaws and missed opportunities that weigh down all the highlights at every turn.

Gameplay
This is the most bizarre sub-category to both score and talk about. That’s because it can range from either the very best or the very worst I’ve experienced in a very long time.

I’ll start with the good stuff. Final Fantasy XIII’s battle system is top-notch. The focus on individual battle strategy finally let me go all out and use spells and strategies that I would flat out ignore in other iterations. The pay-off is huge. Planning paradigm combinations and successfully navigating a challenging battle to the finish is incredibly satisfying. Experimentation begets powerful strategies for boss fights, and a hard-fought win has never been such a good feeling in a JRPG before. Mass Effect 2’s combat seems like filler after this. To supplement this system, Final Fantasy XIII almost does a lot of things right, and this is when it gets difficult to write about.

All style, no substance

All style, no substance

Like almost every single thing in Final Fantasy XIII, the Crystarium powering-up system is either a non-interactive tunnel with the illusion of choice at best, or a fantastic and open system representing a high-point of the series. It’s truly a staggering difference. In the “tunnel” portion of the game – that lasts around 30 hours, no joke – the system might as well not exist but function automatically. Once the game and system opens up, however, it becomes interesting and important strategy to decide if characters are going to learn another role at a very high price and abandon buffed stats, or favour more powerful characters instead of extremely helpful choice in battle. And there are many more micro-decisions within those major choices. It’s like night and day.

But that’s the issue present in all the gameplay except the battle system proper. Upgrading weapons is fantastic, but weighted such that nothing significant can really be done until late in the game, and same goes for complete customization of the party. There is no reason for it. The game becomes even more difficult at the end, so the hand-holding gives a false impression to newbies and frustrates veterans. In fact, the game only fully opens up after completing it. It’s as if the game wanted to hide all of its fantastic gameplay elements away.

And the “tunnel” I speak of really is that bad. It takes place any time you’re in Cocoon and it very rarely is anything except for a straight line that your character runs down. You can’t go off the beaten path to find your own perspective of the world and feel like you discovered Cocoon because there is no Cocoon to discover. The world is explicitly presented to you, and the personality and depth suffers greatly for it.

As a final complaint, Final Fantasy XIII seems to make things worse by occasionally showing a hint of how it could have done more in the tunnel. One location allows you to explore just a tiny bit so that you can overhear conversations with regular non-distressed citizens, while another section takes place in a flashback in which you can actually talk to a few characters at your own pace. But both of these examples literally only happen once a piece, so they are more frustrating than refreshing on account of their rarity. And all of this wouldn’t be so hard to bear if the story was well told…

The bike's too cool for him

The bike's too cool for him

Story
Final Fantasy XIII has a horribly told story. Sure, the scene direction is fine, but even Final Fantasy X – a title I consistently bash for mediocre characters, melodramatic dialogue, and poor scene direction – had me emotionally invested in the ending. There is some great character design in Final Fantasy XIII (some of my favourite) and solid voice work, but the writing steps on all the potential. There are some interesting set-ups for character arcs, but every climax is handled either in a forgettable or terrible manner, placing preference on gimmicks and melodrama before respecting the characters. The premise and many of the plot points are incredibly intriguing, but one of the game’s rare consistencies was in missing these opportunities. Also, even with all the dud or absentee villains of VIII, X, and XII, XIII trumps them all with the most bland, one-dimensional villain in Final Fantasy history.

I beat the game yesterday, and I remembering thinking to myself during the final scene, “if this was a well-told story, this ending may have been beautiful,” but as it was, I was just excited that I finally reached the post-game and thus the final level of the Crystarium.

What an incredible waste of a gorgeous world and intriguing premise.

Graphics
Speaking of gorgeous world, if nothing else Final Fantasy XIII is jaw-dropping. While not technically the best, it is my favourite looking game of all time. There are a few dud animations, but the environments, character and enemy design, and unbelievably beautiful CG scenes are just some of the reasons why Final Fantasy XIII is a perpetual joy to look at. The PS3 has very rare frame-rate hiccoughs, but it never seemed to affect the silky-smooth and blazing-fast battles for a moment. The only other small complaint is some enemy pop-in once you’re out of the tunnel. The landscape is unbelievable, but a massive creature quickly fading into view on occasion ruins the magic a bit.

Sound
The music is a mixed bag. There were some very great moments in the soundtrack when I was happy to see risks pay off to create a unique and fitting soundscape. Other tracks, however, were distracting and out of place. Other tracks still would surprisingly loop very awkwardly as if they weren’t written for a video game. The rest of the aural experience, however, is very pleasing. Context sensitive quips from party members are generally better dialogue than what the cut-scenes have to offer, and sounds from the environment often offer the only connection to the surrounding world.

Final Thoughts
Final Fantasy XIII may have some outstanding and even unparalleled gameplay, but waiting for 30 hours to access a lot of it is way too much to ask of newcomers and veterans alike. If the tunnel had better writing, it would have been more forgivable, but the fact is that it doesn’t and so it just comes across as unfocused and simply bad design. It’s deceptive, inconsistent, and devoid of the sort of rewarding exploration that Final Fantasy is known for. Cocoon could have been an amazing world to explore and get to know, but instead nobody got the chance and Final Fantasy XIII has all its gems –and believe me, they are truly gems – in the menus and battle system in late and even post-game. You have to really love the battle system to get to where FFXIII truly shines. For me, that worked just fine, but for many it will be too little too late.

Final Fantasy XIII - 6.5/10

Review Outline

God of War III Review – Vengeance

Monday, March 15th, 2010

god of war 3 box artLIKED:
-When it looked absolutely incredible including the new stylized cutscenes
-Better weapons and Quick-Time Events
-Thorough and HD bonus content
-Some amazing boss battles

DISLIKED:
-The rest of the boss battles
-No matter how streamlined, Quick-Time Events still suck
-Weakest story of the trilogy
-Surprising lack of cool locales
-Some bizarre hand-holding

I’m a newbie to the God of War series. I got the Collection late last year, slowly beat the first one and then blasted through the second game in a few days in late February. And while I didn’t fall in love with the games like so many have, it was perfect timing to lead into the final instalment of the Kratos trilogy. And after completing all three games in under half a year, I found that God of War III managed to be the best in the series despite falling a little flat in a number of occasionally surprising areas.

First off, it’s important to note that when God of War III is at the top of its game, it is unstoppable. The opening sequence is beautifully choreographed, unbelievably epic, incredible looking, and perfectly paced. The game manages this feat in a few cases, but less often than the opening might have you believe.

But more on the downfalls later, because there are a few great choices made for Kratos’ finale. First, the control scheme was thankfully tinkered with a bit. A single magic attack is now tied to a specific weapon and mapped to the R2 button now. This leaves L2 free for the new addition of “items”. Items are tied to a third bar under health and magic, but instead of collecting item power through orbs, it automatically regenerates. This system allows for the introduction of a new abilities without necessarily ditching some of the classics, and all the abilities, items, and weapons are surprisingly easy and quick to access which is necessary for the pace of battle in God of War. And while this is largely a great system, and some new items are great and include providing a satisfying new way to treasure hunt, others are surprisingly gimmicky. I’m reminded of the new Prince of Persia in which Elika’s new “abilities” aren’t so much abilities, but are different animations triggered by finding a coloured platform. On a more positive note, it seems like Santa Monica Studio realized that the chains were always the best weapon in the first two installments, and made a few worthy imitations among Kratos’ weapon arsenal. For the first time in the series, I used an alternate weapon as my primary means of tearing enemies to shreds.

god_of_war_iii_profilelargeSpeaking of tearing enemies to shreds, God of War III is the most brutal game I’ve played. Granted, I never played Manhunt, but I like to think I have a fairly strong stomach and I turned my head in a few instances. But beyond occasionally going a bit too far, it does mean that the series retains its badass status. There are new ways to rip apart the bad guys, and even use them as battering rams, which is very satisfying. It was also nice to see fewer doors requiring button mashing and Quick Time Events streamlined to be noticeably less stupid; although still stupid.

Staying in the vein of good decisions for just a moment longer, God of War III sports the best puzzles of the series. Never getting too annoying or too easy, they feel more polished than the original’s frustrations or the sequel’s reliance on happenstance. The music also learns a lesson and finds the balance between epic and ambiance.

Finally, because the game is void of CG cutscenes and looks great doing it, God of War III tries to switch up some of the story-telling by using a new art style that makes me hard pressed to describe as anything but “really cool”. It’s a stylized cel-shaded look that is a welcome addition.

God of War-703932Well…most of the time. There is a section in the end that uses it in gameplay, and while it looks fantastic, it’s during a low point for the series. God of War III tries to place emphasis on perspective, occasionally letting you look through Kratos’ eyes or the eyes of his victims. The gimmick looks fine, but the focus was a bad idea. Kratos is a badass, but that’s where his strength of character stops. God of War III tries to introduce more story and themes than ever before, and while the personal approach works for a time, it is ultimately a definitive dud. Kratos is not a sympathetic character, and his arc in this game makes absolutely no sense and it makes for a very anti-climatic finish including a disappointing boss fight. In fact, excluding two incredible examples, the boss battles are disappointing in general. To compound the disappointment, none of the environments are really that interesting. After the sequel upped the ante, God of War III fails to introduce the same level of beautiful and intriguing environments, it just feels like a step backward.

And that’s the thing, although there were some good decisions made, they were still made within the God of War universe, and there was only so far the series could go before it started to feel stale. While the better puzzles, combat configuration, and occasional moments of spectacular visuals and scale are enough for me to call this the best game in the series, I’m glad it’s over for now, because the formula is aging when it wasn’t spectacular to start.

Final Thoughts
God of War III is a worthy conclusion to a, frankly, overrated action series. It’s still a lot of fun and will absolutely satisfy every fan of the series, but it’s a little annoying to see every good decision countered, while not fully delivering the boss battles and environments we all expected. Still, despite a story gone sour, it was nice to finally see Kratos’ insane antics have an impact on the world around him, and to also experience the game’s strong moments which were, admittedly, incredibly strong. A must for all God of War fans, and worth looking into if you own a PS3.

GoW3

Review Outline

Heavy Rain Review – How Far Will You Go?

Friday, March 5th, 2010

Heavy Rain boxartLIKED:

-Fantastic, gritty mystery drama told from multiple angles

-Character-driven, emotional drama told from multiple angles

-The ability to alter the story dramatically, and the emotional weight your decisions carry

-Control scheme that makes the actions on-screen feel like an extension of the player

DISLIKED:

-Some awful voice acting

-Lacking facial animations

-Walking

Heavy Rain is a difficult game to review.

This is because it’s almost a stretch to classify Heavy Rain as a “videogame.” These days, videogames are often referred to as “interactive films,” but Heavy Rain takes this concept to the extreme – it’s literally a ten-hour long movie. Thankfully, Heavy Rain is a pretty damned awesome movie – and its interactive nature makes it an experience you can’t quite find anywhere else.

Heavy RainGAMEPLAY

There isn’t much to say here. Heavy Rain features literally no gameplay conventions or mechanics that can be critiqued. The gameplay is the story – they’re one and the same. You’re just there to enjoy the ride, direct the characters, make important decisions, and occasionally engage in a quick-time event.

It’s a good thing, then, that the control scheme is so tightly done. Heavy Rain succeeds fantastically in making the events on-screen feel like a natural extension of yourself. For example, a very early part of the game requires you to shave. You perform this task by nudging the right control stick in the indicated directions. However, if you do it too quickly, poor Ethan will cut himself with the razor. In another example, a character’s hands are bound. How do you bust out? Shake the DualShock up and down. After a while, it becomes intuitive what controller actions are required for certain things. It feels so natural, in fact, that you’ll find yourself wincing in pain during some of the game’s more macabre moments. However, this review is spoiler free – so go play yourself if you want to know what I mean.

My sole gripe is that the simple task of walking in Heavy Rain tends to be something of a bitch. No, seriously: the walking mechanics are just bad. You walk by holding down R2 and steering with the control stick. This wouldn’t be too horrible if the control stick inputs weren’t such a crapshoot. Painfully often, you’ll find yourself walking in the complete wrong direction, missing tight corners, and other such disorientating nuisances. It’s just a very weird control scheme, and one has to wonder what possible advantages Quantic Dream thought it would have.

Hers does too.

STORYLINE

Heavy Rain is an incredibly well-written, suspenseful, and tightly-paced thriller. The scriptwriting is fantastic, with nary a sloppy sentence to be found. The world is deliciously moody and atmospheric – sure, rain is pretty much the cheapest atmosphere buff in the books, but because of its context and importance to the plot, it really, really works in Heavy Rain – more so than anywhere else. Rain is always falling, and it’s beautiful to see.

Heavy Rain tells the story of four people and their respective struggles in the mysterious case of the Origami Killer. The killer is a psychopath who drowns his victims in rainwater, and adorns their bodies with an Orchid flower and (naturally) an origami figure. Ethan Mars is a desperate father trying to save the life of his one remaining son. Madison Paige is an insomniac journalist who meets Ethan by chance. Scott Shelby is a private investigator, looking into the case of the Origami Killer on his own. Norman Jayden is a triptocaine-addicted FBI profiler, sent to aid the police in their official investigation. The four separate narratives are weaved together perfectly to form the story as a whole.

The cast is one of Heavy Rain’s strongest points. Some characters are weaker than others, yes, but they all serve a purpose in the story, and they have strong, believable personalities. My only disappointment was in the female lead, Madison Paige. She’s a strong character, yes, but by the end of the game, I felt like I still didn’t know enough about her. Ethan Mars, on the other hand, is an extremely strong and well-developed lead protagonist – you’ll feel emotionally connected to him, and his desperate quest to save his son.

scott shelbyA lot of recent games have been about “choices,” but no game executes this concept like Heavy Ran does. Sure, it may not have the cross-game world-changing decisions that, say, Mass Effect does – but I guarantee you, few other games out there will make you doubt yourself and your actions the way Heavy Rain will. This review is spoiler-free, so I can’t go into details, but I will say this: I always thought the tagline “How far are you prepared to go to save someone you love” was cheesy and melodramatic – until I played the game. Then it made sense. While playing Heavy Rain, you’ll feel like a part of the story – and you’ll feel the weight of your actions.

But Heavy Rain’s narrative isn’t perfect. In fact, it has a few rather glaring errors that keep the game from garnering that coveted perfect score. (A perfect score on Riddlethos IS coveted, right…?) My main complaint, ironically enough, is with the voice acting.

I say “ironically” because most of Heavy Rain’s voicework is quite strong. The four main characters are all very well acted, and the actors are all refreshingly new to the medium of videogames. There are no Yuri Lowenthals or Nolan Norths to be found, which helps set Heavy Rain apart, and lend it a more believable, movie-like persona.

However, Heavy Rain contrasts these strong performances with some absolutely god-damned awful performances. And, when trying to tell a story as deep and involved as Heavy Rain’s is, you cannot afford that. You just can’t. It’s okay to have a few “mehs” here and there, but Heavy Rain has entire (very pivotal) scenes ruined by voice acting that belongs to some shitty anime dub. For example, there’s not a single acceptable child actor in the entire game. Not one. Nobody expects a child character’s voice acting to be fantastic, but in Heavy Rain, it’s downright painful. And since some of the game’s most important scenes revolve around children, this is unforgivable. Also, many of the game’s characters sound like they’re either trying to imitate or speak through some sort of accent. It’s really noticeable, somewhat obnoxious, and always annoying. At the end of the day, Heavy Rain is still a well-acted game – but that’s why the parts that aren’t are so offensive.

Also, the game’s plot does teeter out near the end. Or at least, it did for me. You can get multiple endings in Heavy Rain, and mine had to have been the worst. Play it and judge for yourself, but in a nutshell: Heavy Rain spends a little too much time building up the tension, and proceeds to break it in a rather hurried, anti-climactic fashion.

Norman JaydenGRAPHICS

Heavy Rain is a pretty game. But it’s not as pretty as was promised. Remember during this year’s CES when that rep from Sony said that “graphically, [Heavy Rain] blows Uncharted 2 out of the water”? Yeah, it doesn’t.

Still, it’s a pretty game. Environments are moody, evocative, and covered in some very well-done rain/water effects. In fact, the water is some of the best I’ve seen, rivaled only by the illustrious Uncharted 2. Character models are extremely well-detailed, and in fact, Heavy Rain may rival Uncharted 2 in this regard. Animations for the characters are also very well-done, for the most part, but this brings me to my next complaint: Heavy Rain’s facial animations are very lacking. I really wish Quantic Dream would have taken the time to tighten them up a bit, because the effect of certain scenes is dampened by facial animations that lack any noticeable emotion. Again: not really a mistake that such a story-driven experience can afford to make.

SOUND

I’ve already gone over the voice acting, so there isn’t much more to say here. I suppose I can give a shout-out to the game’s soundtrack, which is very solid, though not exactly memorable. Heavy Rain is saturated with somber piano melodies, which fit the mood very well. Aside from that, there are some bombastic orchestral cues for the more high-energy sequences, and not a whole lot else. It’s more or less what we’ve come to expect from a high-profile Western release. But it is very good.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Heavy Rain is an easy recommendation to any gamer patient enough to sit back and enjoy a good yarn. It’s an emotional, character-driven experience that makes a damn good argument for videogames as a legitimate and unique form of storytelling. The game has a few imperfections that stand out, but none of them are deal-breakers. It’s one of the most unique gaming experiences in recent memory, and it’s thoroughly engaging from start to finish. Here’s hoping it doesn’t take Quantic Dream five years to release another game.

Heavy Rain - 9.0/10

BioShock 2 Review – Big Sister is Always Watching

Wednesday, February 17th, 2010

BioShock 2LIKED:

-Moral choices that actually carry weight

-Fantastic exploration and atmosphere

-Fun and varied combat

-Big Sister battles

DISLIKED:

-Over-emphasis on combat in certain sequences

-Loss of novelty/mystery from first game

-Loss of Andrew Ryan. Sophia Lamb just doesn’t measure up.

BioShock took the world by storm upon its release back in 2007. With its brilliantly told story, masterful atmosphere, and varied first-person gameplay, few other games to this date offer such a complete experience. Two years later, 2K Marin’s return to Rapture in the form of BioShock 2 most certainly suffers from a case of “been there, done that,” and comes replete with a few new issues of its own. But make no mistake; BioShock 2 went above and beyond my expectations in many ways, and proves that there’s life left in Rapture yet.

STORYLINE

The story in BioShock 2 gets the job done. Set eight years after the original game, BioShock 2 puts you in the shoes of a Big Daddy who’s been separated from his Little Sister companion. It just so happens she’s being held by a woman named Sophia Lamb, who has all but assumed control of Rapture – or what’s left of it.

BioShock2-1Like the original game, you’re presented with certain moral choices – and this is one area in which BioShock 2 improves upon its predecessor. In the first game, you were simply given the choice to harvest or save the numerous Little Sisters you came across. Very black-and-white to say the least, and frankly, the game never gave a legitimate reason to care about the creepy little things. (Which is why I harvested them all.) Because of the new Adoption system (which allows you to “adopt” little sisters, carry them around, and have them gather ADAM) the choice between harvesting and saving the sisters carries much more weight. Listening to their childish prattling while you tote them around is undeniably endearing, and as you protect them from the many dangers of Rapture, you’ll likely develop a sense of responsibility towards them. The Sisters will act differently towards you depending on how many you’ve harvested or saved – and it’s hard not to feel awful when a Little Sister cowers and asks, “Daddy… you’re never gonna hurt me, right?”

Little Sisters aside, BioShock 2 also gives you the choice to let certain people live or die at several points during the game. The decisions aren’t easy either – just to illustrate, there was a time that I spent several minutes looking straight at a man who was begging for his life, unable to decide. Finally I decided to let him live and walked off – only to change my mind, run back, and fry him with my Incinerate plasmid. BioShock 2 isn’t “all about choices” in the sense that, say, Mass Effect is. But the choices you make carry stunning emotional weight.

But in spite of this, the storyline in BioShock 2 simply can’t stand up against that of its predecessor. The mystery behind the ruined utopia of Rapture has long been solved, Andrew Ryan is gone, and as a result, the game loses a lot in the way of narrative punch. Sophia Lamb, unfortunately, simply can’t match the charisma and sophistication that made Andrew Ryan such a likable “villain” in the first game. Her motivations are clear as mud, her philosophies aren’t particularly interesting, and by the time the game is over, you’ll probably have grown a bit tired of her pseudo-Marxist collectivist ranting. Ironically enough, she’s most interesting when Andrew Ryan talks about her in the few audio diaries he has in the game. His reactions to her ideals are more interesting than her actual beliefs are. To be sure, BioShock 2 is still an extremely well-written game. But the novelty is gone, Ryan is gone, and both are sorely missed.

BioShock2-2GAMEPLAY

BioShock 2 plays more or less like the original did, with some subtle improvements – such as dual-wielding and more practical plasmid upgrades. For example, upgrading your Lightning plasmid allows you to charge it and subsequently unleash Chain Lightning, which can hit multiple targets. Like the original game, the variety in which you can approach combat situations is fantastic. See a Splicer chilling in a pool of water? Zap the water with lightning for an instant kill. Is there a puddle of oil on the floor? Ignite it with your incinerate plasmid to toast anyone standing near it. Is a Big Sister on her way? Think smart, and run to a hacked security camera or turret to gain the advantage. Combat can be a blast in BioShock 2, especially when facing off against such frightening and unique foes as the Big Sisters or Big Daddies.

However, someone at 2K Marin seems to have misjudged just how important combat is to the BioShock experience. That is to say: despite how fun it is, it’s far from the main appeal of the franchise, and at times, BioShock 2 seems to think that it is. Certain segments place too much emphasis on shooting down Splicers and Big Daddies when they should be allowing the player to simply explore and enjoy the atmosphere of Rapture. The endgame, in particular, is frustrating because it’s nothing but battle after large-scale battle and you’ll likely be begging for the end long before it’s over. BioShock 2 still places a healthy emphasis on exploration and atmosphere, but for BioShock 3, 2K would do well to scale back the combat to a more acceptable level. (i.e., the level it was at in the original BioShock.)

Entirely new to BioShock 2 is the online multiplayer mode. At first glance, the mode seems entirely superfluous – BioShock doesn’t exactly seem like an experience that lends itself to deathmatches. But, believe it or not, the limited amount of time I spent with it was actually pretty enjoyable. There are a variety of mode to choose from, including team deathmatches, free-for-alls, “Capture the Sister,” et cet. Like Modern Warfare 2, there’s a rank system – the higher your rank, the more goodies you unlock, including additional plasmids and gene tonics. The battles themselves are complete with BioShock conventions such as turret hacking and taking photos to earn damage bonuses. It’s a lot of fun, and it’s interesting to see BioShock’s unique combat carried over to an online arena. But, at the same time, it’s difficult to imagine why you’d choose to play BioShock 2 over the bevy of online shooters out there.

GRAPHICS/PRESENTATION

BioShock 2 looks identical to its predecessor. In fact, it’ll likely look a bit worse, if only because so many prettier games have been released since 2007. The game continues to use an older version of the Unreal engine, and it definitely shows. But even so, like its predecessor, BioShock 2 manages to be one of the more visually appealing experiences in recent memory. The art style is fantastic, and you’ll be stopping to take in the sites more than once. The underwater sequences, which are new to BioShock 2, stand out in particular. During these segments, nothing attacks you, and you’re allowed to simply take in the aquatic sites.

BioShock2-3SOUND

The sound design in BioShock 2 is impressive on many levels, and acts as an essential part of the game’s atmosphere. Rapture wouldn’t be the same without the inane babble of the resident Splicers in the background, accompanied by the whale-like groans of the lumbering Big Daddies. The chilling, velociraptor-like screech of the Big Sisters is fantastic as well. Finally, a shout-out must be given to the game’s dark but whimsical musical score. The original compositions are fairly subdued, but always very good. And like the original, the use of 1950’s art-deco era music is a very nice touch.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

BioShock 2 does fall on its face on a few occasions – mostly with its over-focus on combat and weaker storyline – but to be honest, its biggest fault isn’t really a “fault” at all. BioShock 2 simply isn’t BioShock 1. In the original BioShock, the novelty and mystery of the experience was a huge part of what made it so engaging. When I first crash-landed into Rapture, I had absolutely no idea what to expect – I was confused, a little frightened, and determined to discover what, exactly, had happened to destroy the paradise Andrew Ryan had attempted to build beneath the sea. But in BioShock 2, you go in already knowing what makes Rapture “tick,” per se. You know what the city is, why the city is, and what to expect from it. Again: the novelty is simply gone.

But while this is disappointing, it can hardly be called a “fault” on part of the game. And even though we’ve been there before, Rapture is still a fantastically immersive place to explore. BioShock 2 is still an extremely well-executed, atmospheric experience, and if you enjoyed the first game, it’s difficult to imagine that you couldn’t enjoy its sequel. Despite all my prior misgivings, I had a blast with BioShock 2 – and I’m genuinely interested in seeing where the franchise goes from here.

BioShock 2