28 April, 2008

Review: The Suffering: Ties That Bind

The Suffering: Ties That Bind (Surreal Software, 2005) is the action horror sequel that takes the horror beyond the prison and into the streets.

This whole thing is spoilers because that's what I want to talk about. The game does have a twist. And I will ruin it. If that works for you, scroll down.

The key to the Suffering games are how they take the horrors of life and turn them into monsters and people at the same time. Sure, there's a monster covered in needles that symbolizes drug abuse. But there's also a whining junkie you can choose to protect through part of the game. There's a fat police officer body with a half dozen arms with guns sticking out of it representing police brutality, but there's also a progressive warden you can help in his efforts to save inmates from the monsters.

Things feel so muddy and hopeless overall, though. Sure, I save the useless addict so he could kill himself instead of getting killed by monsters. Sure I tried to save my best friend, but he died anyway because it was scripted.

Plus I lost Consuela. I will never forgive the programmers for that. Her husband worked on the island in the first game and was kind of a jerk. But he kicked ass and fighting through some of the last sections of the game with him, earning his trust and respect was one of the best parts of that game. But the event where she is attacked in the game happened off screen and because the game is so abysmally coded that it doesn't even include stereo sound, I couldn't figure out where it was happening to save her. In fact, I figured it was a scripted event and it wasn't even possible to save her. I felt betrayed by the writers, but it was the coders. I should have known.

The game is fairly buggy, especially towards the end. People you have to escort to progress get stuck, forcing many reloads. The game locked up and lost the autosave, losing me a couple hours of progress. Enemies also get stuck, though less often. The melee weapons in the game are virtually useless. This is partly because most firearms have melee attacks and partly because their range is abysmal. Maybe that's just because I played in first person, though. Scary games are much scarier in first person, and Ties That Bind needed a little help in that department.

The Suffering was an action game that had combat in it. The sequel seems to be trying to be scarier in the same way as conventional horror games, by making the combat suck. First off, it's limited to two weapons at a time. And there's never enough ammo, which forces the use of weapons that suck. Seriously, the John Woo standard dual 9mm pistols feel less powerful than swearing. Plus there are sections where the monsters just pour in continuously.

The point of all these nerfs (besides the aforementioned cliché of the weak horror hero) is to force the player to turn into a monster more often. But the monster swings wide, making him likely to kill friendlies, and sucks at range, meaning it doesn't even help to transform half the time. So the combat sucks. It also doesn't help that the game frequently spams you with a stream of enemies guaranteed to run you out of ammo at multiple points. I just can't understand how they could have made the game less fun.

Oh wait. I'm forgetting the "twist". Torque's multiple personality is the bad guy. No evil genius killed his family. He did. But it's telegraphed literally years in advance. Back before the original game was made, people knew who the bad guy in the sequel was. There is actually a boss in the game that taunts you by saying "everything you know is wrong". My heart sank to think I had ever actually enjoyed a game with writers this stupid. I had not only figured out the twist at that point. I was utterly bored with it.

Yeah. I killed my family. There's nothing I can do about it. This whole game is a big phony catharsis for something I had nothing to do with. I've actually played that twist in another game, and it did it much better. Plus, these "facts" contradict the ending I got in the last game. Of course, all that can be explained away by saying that the main character is just insane, but then there's no point to any of it. I'm playing a crazy man who creates psychic monsters out of latent suffering and then tries to protect people from them. It's Massive Head Trauma: The Video Game.

Heh. All this ranting about phony catharsis has been a real one. So now that that's done, here's what's good about the game.

The Suffering series has the best monsters, period. The designs are strong. It's easy to tell what you're looking at. They are attached to human weakness and cruelty in a way that makes them feel like they're our own fault. Plus they're just plain nasty. There was one major exception, a giant worm thing. But whatever. Zombies are just what people use who don't want to try. And most other games seem to just think of whatever is creepy and use that. I guess pyramid head from Silent Hill 2 is supposed to be an exception, but I didn't find it half as resonant as anything from The Suffering or its sequel (big stupid worm excepted).

Final Score
2 of 5

I didn't use GameFaqs at all. I did download a trainer to cheat through the end sections of the game. They were pointlessly difficult on Medium, and there are two levels of difficulty higher than that. Plus I was so fed up with the horrible writing and coding that I just didn't care anymore.

26 April, 2008

Review: Gunvalkyrie

Gunvalkyrie (Smilebit, 2002) is Japanese. (And no, that doesn't mean it should be killed with fire.)

It's difficult. It's not excruciating, but it is fairly unforgiving. It also makes things easier for better players by giving them more currency to purchase upgrades. Easier missions cannot be played over for more money, so poor players are out of luck. I actually completed the game having only bought one 4,000 point upgrade. By the time I'd saved up for the 100,000 point upgrade I really wanted, I didn't want it anymore. The challenge was the reward.

It's got strange trappings. The setting is a very alternate history. In 1870 a scientist named Hebble figured out how to use pieces of Halley's comet that fell to earth as a powerful energy source. This discovery gave rise to a host of others, and humanity headed to the stars. Then Hebble went bye bye and alien bugs infested humanity's new colonies. The player is part of some sort of power armored military unit (Gunvalkyrie, est. 1899) tasked with tracking down Hebble and killing lots of bugs. Oh yeah, and there are dark energy orbs hidden in many of the levels that used to be human colonists. Yeah. I know. And that's not the half of it. The level names reference Irish and Norse mythology for no apparent reason, the Gunvalkyrie logo is a realistically depicted orca with little white bird wings, and you take your orders from a floating head.

And the unusual movement mechanics are stranger than that. On the ground, the main character mostly controls like a horror game protagonist, in other words, like a dump truck. No, this game is not meant to be played on the ground. It's meant to be played in the air. The left trigger makes the character jump and engage her jet pack. By depressing and pointing with the left thumbstick, the character can be made to boost forward, backward, left, or right. By depressing and pointing with the right thumbstick, the character can turn left, right, or a full 180 without losing an inch of altitude. Also, as the character boosts around in the air, a meter is filled that allows for special attacks which can be used to gain altitude. The best players can complete most of the game in one jump. :P

As much as I like bizarre things, I didn't find this mechanic too satisfying. Heck, just watching a skilled Gunvalkyrie player makes me feel ill. I appreciated the novelty, and the challenge of learning how to manage the mechanic well enough to finish the game, but in the end I would say Gunvalkyrie was mostly a novelty.

Final Score
3 of 5

I used GameFaqs once, but only to learn how to do the special attack because my copy of the game didn't come with a manual.

25 April, 2008

Keepalive: Cel Damage, PGR 2; Alien Shooter Vengeance

I played through Cel Damage, but I don't feel like writing a review. It's more of a crazy party game than a single player one. There are so many random elements to it that anyone can win any given race. Well, that's not entirely true. It would be easier if it was. But there are often split second decisions that can snatch victory from the jaws of defeat (or vice versa). I consider Cel Damage a sort of meditation. Constant cheap deaths wear away the ego, leaving the mind clear for the twitchy bits.

I also spent some time with Project Gotham Racing 2, a game almost as far from Cel Damage as possible, despite the fact that they are both ostensibly driving games. PGR is a decently simulated racing game. The scoring rewards not only winning but winning with a certain amount of style. But, like most racing games, the early stages are boring compact car or economy sports car racing.

I'm not a big racing sim fan to begin with. Without being able to feel the forces involved, they lack the most important feedback mechanism of driving. Some games use the controller's rumble to let the player know when they're losing traction. If PGR2 is doing that, I can't tell. It seems to rumble constantly, like it's trying to let me feel the texture of the road. I don't care that cobblestones feel bumpy. I didn't buy a cobblestone game. I bought a racing game. It's doubly annoying because the rumble on the Xbox controller makes a high pitched whine that I find distracting. Oh well.

And last but not least, I'm playing through Alien Shooter Vengeance on GameTap. It's an isometric action game, somewhat similar to Shadowgrounds: Survivor. The graphics aren't as fancy, but it's got that classic mechanic of putting enough tantalizing loot and upgrades in front of me to keep me playing.

23 April, 2008

Review: Metroid Prime 3

Metroid Prime 3: Corruption (Nintendo, 2007) is an FPS following the interminable sci-fi adventures of the bounty hunter Samus Aran.

Wow. I actually finished a Metroid game. I don't much care for Metroid games. The idea is cool. The music and production design are always right up there. But the core gameplay is collecting stuff and going back over the same territory way too many times, trying to find that one place to bomb I overlooked while putting up with enemies who are just annoyances added to increase play time. I barely got anywhere in the original Metroid. I did better in Super Metroid, but I don't think I made it half way. I got most of the way through Metroid Prime 1 and just got sick of it. So what made Metroid Prime 3 better?

Motion controls. The Wii controls helped the game immensely. Once advanced controls were turned on and auto lock was turned off, console FPS combat was fun again. If Microsoft is serious about motion controls, they should try to do more than just a remote. If they do, developers won't look twice at it. But if they give people like Bungie and Infinity Ward the opportunity to put full fledged motion controls into their games, it'll change the way people play them.

The motion controls helped more than just combat. Pulling plating off walls with the grapple, detaching energy cannisters with a twist and a pull, working consoles with a touch of Samus' hand, and using the pointer to switch visor modes were some of the many little touches that all added to the texture of the experience. Some of them were clunkier than others, but the effort was appreciated. Of course, almost no amount of "texturing" would make the game fun if it was just running through the same areas repeatedly.

While some backtracking is essential the the Metroid series, MP3 minimized it and made it less painful by allowing me to get all the collectibles in most places I'd previously visited marked on the map. It made it so I could actually look at the map and plan a route to pick up everything I needed. That simple element made the collecting straightforward enough that I finished the game with 100%. For someone who never even finished a Metroid game before, that's really saying something.

Plot and story have been emphasized at least since Metroid Prime and MP3 is no exception. There's a plot that runs through multiple Metroid games about Samus being infected with some weird bio energy. Sometimes you can see her face reflected in her faceplate and see the disease progressing. That was powerful. The infection gives her some special abilities, which were generally good for gameplay as well. That said, Samus is an empty vessel, like so many game protagonists, so it's hard to care too much. And the other characters in the game (many of whom I was really looking forward to seeing more of) effectively disappear after the first act.

Final Score
4 of 5

GameFaqs usage:
**SPOILERS** (highlight to read)
1) couldn't see a small morph ball passage
2) forgot about the command mode of the visor (which is understandable considering you get introduced to it, then have no need of it for over two hours)
3) can only bomb a certain boss' foot with morph ball bombs
4) first time the objective system pointed me in the wrong direction
5) another easy to miss morph ball passage
6) bogus invisible wall keeping me from an energy cell
7) just didn't notice the grab ledge in the acid rain walkway area
8) to remind myself to go back to the observatory to find the last few items
9) didn't realize I could use the command visor to have my ship pick up a generator


22 April, 2008

Keepalive: Wii Rant & Recent Numbers

What? A Tuesday update? When does that happen?

Well, someone ticked me off. Plus I woke up with only two hours until I had to be somewhere else, so I figured I'd make an entry, then shop for some more used Xbox games.

So who ticked me off? Some guy. I don't feel like giving him free press. Long story short, he called Wii a virus because people pick it up, play for two months (during which time they infect others) then stop. Why does this tick me off? It ticks me off for two reasons. Well, one's a reason and the other's a suspicion. The reason is that game developers (like the one he works at) don't support the machine. The suspicion is... he's not a gamer. He probably never owned a Gamecube. He's never played Mario Sunshine, Metroid Prime 1&2, Eternal Darkness, Thousand Year Door, Wind Waker, Pikmin, or any other Gamecube exclusives. If this is true and he shelved his Wii after two months, he needs to turn in his Gamer's Club Card.

In other news, the virus is spreading faster. Nintendo must have upped production or shifted it to the US because they moved from selling a half a million Wiis a month here to almost three quarters of a million Wiis last month. It sometimes seems people will keep saying it's a fad until there's no one left to sell to. The PS3 finally fell back behind the 360, but just barely. I'm thinking the Blu Ray bubble popped. But if the sustained sales are enough to keep them competitive with Microsoft that can only be a good thing.

We know how Microsoft "innovation" goes when they don't have competition (see: Windows Vista). Of course, considering how little we're hearing out of MS these days, Sony will probably need to actually beat them this holiday season to get them off their collective butts. Case in point, the 360 is getting a Wii remote.

This will never work. Microsoft always pays lip service to broader audiences to keep investors thinking their dollars are in the right place, but they only put enough developer power behind it to produce a quiz game and a couple "family friendly" titles like Kameo and Viva Piñata. The truth is, they could probably already be succeeding in this space just by pushing Live Arcade, but until someone can make a convincing argument internally that the numbers are there, MS will just keep trying to bleed the hardcore dry. Of course, EA recently went back on charging for extra weapons in an upcoming game due to gamer backlash. One can only hope this marks the start of a "we're not gonna take this nickel and dime garbage" movement. Of course, nickels and dimes are now five and ten dollar bills, but the principal is the same.

Over on the music industry front, Rock Band is finally announcing full albums for download. I don't think anyone really cares about Judas Priest that much, but the Pixies album due in the summer should be better. I keep wondering when the tipping point will be. With MTV behind them, it seems like eventually Rock Band should simply be a platform for music, like an iPod.

I think the problem is that that's how MTV and Harmonix feel. The tipping point should just "happen". Creating infrastructure; creating platforms, requires megalomania, vision, expert knowledge, and giant piles of cash. I'll leave it to the reader to determine which of these MTV and Harmonix don't have / aren't willing to risk. Of course, being tied to gaming consoles may be the worst part. They might need their own mini console (with hard drive). Yeah. Platform building ain't easy.

The PS2 continues to sell well. I keep thinking it's selling as a Guitar Hero player, but then again, maybe it's selling as a DVD player, or Rock Band player, or cheap old game player. That's the benefit of owning a proprietary platform. Once there's enough compelling content, the thing sells itself and the money rolls in.

I suspect that's what's going on with the PSP. It's selling gangbusters in Japan. How gangbusters? It's almost equal to the Wii and DS combined. Yeah. And it beat everything but the Wii and DS in the states. Capcom's Monster Hunter franchise is disgusting popular in Japan. Plus there's UMD porn in the land of the rising sun. That never hurts. Here in the US, I'm guessing the lower cost plus God of War and Final Fantasy having recent (and well reviewed) releases on the system would cover it.

Well, that's more than eaten up my time. Congratulations, you are now up to date with my largely ignorant opinions about the game business.

18 April, 2008

Keepalive: Cheap Games & Doom 3 Co-op

In random gaming news, I picked up some cheap games to enjoy on my Xbox. It's pretty scary when you can pick up three games for ten dollars. I mean, I'm a cheap guy, but that's ridiculous.

I also played OpenCoop for Doom 3 with my brother on Wednesday. We'll need to set up our own server and get him a microphone so I can annoy him with random decade old pop culture references as we play, but it was definitely fun. Unlike many cooperative games which allow people to spawn into the game constantly (somewhat diminishing the fun factor), OpenCoop makes it so that any health you grab beyond what you need, goes into a respawn pool. If you die, and there's enough health left in the pool, you respawn. When the pool runs out and you die, you have to watch whoever is still in the game and hope that they can survive / win the level / find enough health to get you back in. It keeps the game challenging. When I played System Shock 2 co-op, it wasn't nearly as fun as we just kept respawning and bashing everything to death with our wrenches. :P

Review: The Suffering

The Suffering (Surreal Software, 2004) is an action / horror game about a strange prison island where something turns people (living and dead) into monsters.

The Suffering is a strange hybrid. First off, it's a horror game, but unlike most horror games, the hero is powerful. This undercuts the scary, but I didn't mind. Having to play an FPS with thumbsticks was scary enough.

There are also a lot of scenarios which offer a choice of helping people or killing them. Helping them also helps you as they often know how to find shortcuts or equipment stashes. Killing them is, I assume, fun for some people and a bit less work. I didn't really go that route, so there might be other benefits I don't know about. I do know that saving them earns praise from ghosts of the hero's family (who he was imprisoned for murdering). It's also worth mentioning that there are some bugs with the AI, so I sometimes had to reload the game when someone I was helping would get stuck.

I myself got a little stuck from time to time. There were a variety of reasons for this. Sometimes the blurry visuals would make it hard to see where to go. There was one area where monsters kept spawning forever that I just had to run through, but there were other areas where they spawned a lot, but all needed to be killed to proceed. There was a similar inconsistency with environmental hazards (fire and electricity) which were usually deadly, but not always. The same went for things that were sometimes supposed to be shot, but not always. The game was mostly consistent, but just inconsistent enough to send me to GameFaqs a few times. (I already mention when I cheat to finish a game in these reviews, but I'm thinking maybe I should also record the number of GameFaqs visits I make to give a sense of whether a game's puzzles are more troublesome than fun.) At the end of the day, the puzzles have enough variety and make enough sense that they feel like a worthwhile part of the game, not just padding. Let's move on to the action.

Like I said, I am not a fan of thumbsticks for first person shooters. The Suffering can also be controlled in third person, but given that head shots matter, I found first person much more useful, though even then, every time I shot for the head, I missed having the fine aim a mouse provides. Overall, that was a minor annoyance as the game (on medium difficulty) isn't really hard. You may be picking up on the fact that I'm not praising any element of the game too highly. That's okay, though.

The Suffering is more than the sum of its parts. The visuals were only okay, but they worked. The action was only okay, but it worked. The characterization was only okay but it worked. When it all came together with the variety of settings, the continued revelations about the horrors in the island's past, and the idea that the choices I made would affect the ending, I always wanted to see what would happen next (and went online to purchase the less well reviewed sequel as soon as I finished the game).

Final Score
4 of 5

14 April, 2008

Review: Pikmin 2

Pikmin 2 (Nintendo, 2004) is the story of the return of Captain Olimar (now with co-worker Louie) to the pikmin world to try get his employer out of debt by collecting its "treasures".

Whereas the first game was just Olimar trying to repair his space ship before his life support ran out, the second is about looting. And if there was any doubt that Pikmin takes place on earth, the sequel crushes it, as Nintendo apparently managed to make deals with a lot of companies. The batteries, bottle caps, and other detritus that is the goal of the game is generally stamped with a specific, recognizable brand name. Well, there's that and you dig up a globe of the earth. I'm not sure which is more definitive.

I guess that makes me American.

The graphics are a definite step up from the original, with more detailed textures and a camera that can zoom out to see a bit more than the original.

But the gameplay... They added stuff, lots of stuff. But it didn't really help.

They added a co-worker. You can control him separately, which can be handy, but isn't really key to any part of the game. Split screen co-op is possible, but I don't know if that would make the game more fun or less. You see, Pikmin 2 has a lot of enemies with area effect attacks. I suspect a second player would mostly add more chaos. In fact, there's so much chaos in the game, I often fought enemies by myself, or with as few pikmin as possible, just to keep my losses to a minimum. This meant long stretches of circling bad guys and punching them in the back or throwing one pikmin on the enemy repeatedly. I didn't resent it. I felt good to be a better steward of my pikmin. (I only lost a quarter of the pikmin I lost in the first game.) But Devil May Cry it was not.

They added loot. There was loot in the first game, but it was just enemies and food pellets that created more pikmin. P2 has that plus monetary treasure plus berries that can be turned into "potions" that freeze enemies or speed up the pikmin. I never bothered with the potions as collecting berries felt like busywork. The monetary loot just meant I had to be sure to clear the path for the pikmin to carry it back to the ship.

They added impediments. Electrical and poison barriers joined the old flame spouts and pools of water as environmental blockers. Essentially this just meant busywork of separating out the appropriate minions to knock them out so the rest could pass. There were occasionally traps as well. Mostly it just meant the game had to be played slowly and carefully.

They added pikmin. White poison pikmin and purple sumo pikmin were added to the red, blue, and yellow pikmin from the first game. Outside of using their weight to open an early passage in the game, the sumos weren't terribly useful. The poison ones could be considered overpowered as they run very fast, and any smaller enemy who manages to catch one and eat it dies from the poison. I kept them in reserve for emergencies that never came.

They added underground segments. Dungeons, would probably be a better term. I'm not sure if I can fully describe how much is wrong with the dungeons. They completely remove the timed element of the game. They are randomly generated, so sometimes the enemy placement just sucks. (The reset button was my friend in the dungeons.) They are almost completely flat and basically grids, so the game loses it natural feel. And some are suspended in the air, so throwing pikmin onto the back of an enemy will often get them hurled to their deaths. I generally found time consuming strategies to make my way through them with minimal losses. But I'm honestly kind of surprised I stuck with them. I kept thinking there was fun in there. I just needed to find it. It's quite possible that this game was just coasting on my good will from the original.

For everything they added, there just seemed to be less to this game. Part of that may be the lack of time pressure. Not only do the dungeons completely remove the clock, it's made explicit very early on that you're under no time pressure to finish the game within a certain number of days. At first, that felt freeing. I could waste all the time just building my Pikmin stores, or collecting berries. Then I realized that the stuff I was free to do was totally boring.

At the end of the day, I was glad when the credits rolled. Technically that's not the end of the game. In fact, I barely touched the third area of the game and I suspect there's a fourth area beyond that. But my good will hasn't run out yet, and I think I'll keep it that way.

Final Score
3 of 5

That's technically the end of the review, but I wanted to talk a little bit more about what went wrong with the game. Again, this is my personal perspective. According to a review aggregator, critics slightly preferred Pikmin 2. But to my way of thinking, the focus of the sequel was off.

The designers upped the action quotient, but what I enjoyed was the focused exploration. Every day mattered, so the game was always about covering as much ground as possible. It was also a memory game as there was a constant cataloging of obstacles so that when one goal was accomplished, other avenues could be explored. It was the kind of "I see what I want, but how do I get to it" that's been part of Nintendo game design since forever.

That's always the problem with sequels. Retreads are often dull, but trying to go a new way may alienate the fans. I respect the designers for not being complacent with Pikmin 2. But trying to make it more combat centric killed what made the game special.

12 April, 2008

Assault Rifles Should Stop Sucking

Some games try to be realistic. In those games, assault rifles are terrible engines of destruction. You point at it. It dies. In others, they seem to have the effectiveness of a high speed rubber band gun, only not as cool looking.

The truth is, real world weapons in games have had problems since forever. DooM's Gatling gun fires pistol bullets at a pretty unimpressive rate. Off the top of my head, I'd guess around four hundred rounds per minute. Submachine guns made in 1918 fire over twice that fast. And building a Gatling gun to shoot pistol ammo really doesn't make sense.

The thing that actually saves the DooM Gatling gun is pain. It fires fast enough that it can keep many enemies in the game stuck in their pain animation, unable to attack or even move much. So while it's really not as powerful as it should be, it feels powerful.

Unfortunately, a lot of guns don't even do that. The TimeShift assault rifle got me to write this article, but the Half-Life 2 SMG and Halo 1 Assault Rifle are the worst offenders I can think of. They're all useless past 30 meters and not terribly useful up close as they do so little damage that two or three opponents will easily down you before you can kill anyone. I suppose the argument is that weak weapons force strategic play.

But they don't. I generally use a different weapon. Or I just wait around a corner and wipe out the AIs as they come to me. I don't suspect that is what the designer intended. But the designer got stuck between a rock and a hard place.

First, there's the problem of content. If fights are over too quickly, the game's over too quickly. There are only so many artists and so much time, so making the enemies stay standing is one way to keep the game's length up. Of course if it feels like I'm watering plants instead of firing a powerful weapon, the game has achieved the perfect combination of long and boring.

Second, there's the problem of risk / reward. A designer needs to make death a very real possibility for players to provide a challenge. But a designer also wants players to be in the middle of the action, with death flying in every direction to provide excitement. A few games have tried to balance these ideas by making it so the player gains power from every kill or actually needs to keep killing to stay alive. Some games are built around killing people in quick succession to increase your score. But, to my knowledge, those experiments have failed to catch on.

Not that I'm saying Devil May Cry is a failure, of course. But its system of dropping more money and health as the combo count got higher never provided me an incentive to get in the middle of a clump of enemies. I'd still focus on knocking guys away or doing air combos to isolate my targets. The only change was that as I learned to kill them faster and keep the combo going between targets, I could eventually get on a roll, which was awesome. I never got on a roll in HL2 or Halo.

Those games actively discourage uninterrupted action. In HL2 I found it most effective to always know where the nearest health boxes were so I could run to them if things got hairy. In Halo, your shield only recharges if you take no damage for ten seconds or so. Hiding behind rocks, waiting for your shield to recharge, is an integral part of the Halo experience. Does that sound like fun to you?

At least in Gears of War, I can still see over the cover I'm behind so I have something to look at. In Halo (or TimeShift or most other recharging health games) I'm usually stuck looking at radar so that I can hopefully get the drop on anyone coming around the corner and not have to start the waiting all over (or die and have to go back to the last checkpoint).

Maybe the problem is that shooters just have guns. In DMC there are guns, hand to hand, and acrobatics. Hand to hand generally sucks in first person, and acrobatics give people motion sickness. So there are just guns.

But there could be more, couldn't there? Stranger's Wrath had guns that knocked guys out or tied them up or made them throw up. SWAT 4 had its pepper spray paint balls and tasers (and flash bangs and rubber ball grenades and beanbag shotguns and riot shields and so on). Yeah, there's definitely room for improvement in FPS gameplay.

That's not to say the familiar isn't still fun. But when it makes assault rifles suck, it needs to be reevaluated. :)

Review: Pikmin

Pikmin (Nintendo, 2001) is a real time strategy / puzzle game for the Nintendo GameCube.

The premise is fairly simple. There's a little space man. He can control little plant guys. He must collect space ship parts while overcoming various obstacles. And he must do it fast. There are 30 ship parts to collect in 30 days and each day is fairly short. Well, technically not every piece is required, but you know me. I needed them all.

For me the meat of the game was discovery. The game has a lot of tricks to it both in how to fight enemies (mostly bugs) and how to overcome obstacles. The in game text gives the basics, but there's still a lot to learn. I often decided to play a given day over (sometimes many times) so that I could do things better and faster.

I've never been fond of trial and error as a gameplay mechanic (except for Blood and King Kong, where dying can be a good scare), but it didn't bother me in Pikmin. That was partly because a "day" isn't very long (13 minutes according to Wikipedia), so I didn't feel like I'd lost much progress, and partly because I always felt like I was learning something. Of course, I was often learning it at the expense of my Pikmin. Against the more dangerous foes, they would die by the score.

This raises a moral question. Just because I could control the Pikmin and send them off to their demise, should I have? The game says yes. I got the happy ending and lost over 800 Pikmin along the way. I didn't really think about it at the time. It was how the game was designed to be played. But it nags at me (partly because I believe Christal may have done it without killing any). Between missions the main character worries about his life support running out, pines for his loved ones, and feels bad about the losses the Pikmin suffer, but that doesn't justify his actions. It only explains them.

Graphically the game is fine for its time. The textures are flat. There's not much in the way of lighting (although the color does change with the time of day). Running around with 100 Pikmin trailing behind is pretty impressive. And when I was fighting a large enemy with dozens of Pikmin attacking its feet as I threw more Pikmin who clung and attacked the top, occasionally getting shook off and hurled in all directions... well, I was too busy to care, but that might have looked cool to an observer.

Final Score
4 of 5

10 April, 2008

Review: TimeShift

TimeShift (Saber Interactive, 2007) is another period sci-fi game where you go back in time to fight some guy who went back in time to take over the world.

I enjoyed the free form format of the last review, but I'm feeling retro today.

It's an FPS. Shoot guys. The guns are okay. Not great, but okay, except for the assault rifle, which I plan to write an article about after this. The enemy AI is pretty limited. They can't operate ladders. They're scripted to jump over stuff at you because it looks cool, even if it's obviously suicide. Actually, it's kind of the same fights over and over. I was either poking out from cover to kill people, or waiting for people to come around my cover to kill them. Once in a while, I'd use my time powers to take out a room of six guys in one big slo-mo sweep, but I generally tried to conserve my slo-mo for emergencies because one guy with a shotgun could force me back to a checkpoint in two shots.

Also, the enemies had "AI aim" and were way too accurate at long ranges. As such the game has these wide open vistas which devolved into finding a rock to hide behind and shooting guys when they try to come around or popping out and sniping them if they refused to move.

Long story short, if you want a time slowing shooter, F.E.A.R. is probably still the gold standard (as long as you don't mind fighting in generic office parks).

Never mind. There's a hint of a plot but only just. The characters are completely undeveloped. Just never mind.

So if you do hate generic office parks, TimeShift may work better for you. It's got a lot of special effects and shininess.

Also, because they were trying to sell it based on its "novel" time mechanics, they didn't bother to mention the fairly respectable destructible stuff.

This is something cement coming apart, but blowing through drywall to get at guys was pretty fun.

Final Score
3 of 5

06 April, 2008

Review: Crimson Skies: High Road To Revenge

Crimson Skies: High Road To Revenge (FASA Interactive, 2003) is a period sci-fi aerial combat game.

You know what? I'm bored with how I usually write reviews. Let's try something different. Um... Hmm. I hadn't given this a lot of forethought.

Crimson Skies is set in an alternate past right out of the old pulp magazines, with dashing sky pirates fighting for the various city states of the former United States of America. The game does a good job creating the feel of pulp reality with crazy plane designs, a brash, brawling, womanizing hero, and zeppelins. You can't have an alternate reality without zeppelins.

When I started Crimson Skies, I thought I was going to hate it. It took forever to take down enemy planes, and the upgrade tokens I was hoping would turn my plane into something worth flying were a huge pain to get to. The first island has blimp wrecks all over, many of which have upgrade tokens in them. But the collision detection in narrow spaces is pretty iffy. Sometimes I would bounce off a wall and keep going. Sometimes I'd get stuck nose first in the wall and grind to death. Luckily, most subsequent levels put the icons in easier to reach places and didn't have so much finicky architecture. There was a cave complex near the end that sucked, but mostly it was fun. Flying between (and through decorative holes in) buildings in Chicago was especially keen.

The fighting itself wasn't bad once I upgraded my plane. The planes are all built for multiplayer, so once they're upgraded, there's nothing they can't fight one on one. I actually never used anything besides the upgraded starting plane (unless the mission required something else). Well, actually, that's not entirely true. There are a lot of gun emplacements in the game, and no plane has enough endurance to get through many of the missions, so a third of the game is a shooting gallery. But there was generally enough to shoot at and enough switching from one gun position to another to make it fun. Plus shooting at stuff from a zeppelin does feel different than shooting at stuff from an emplacement or a truck or a boat or a plane, and the variety adds a feeling of depth to the world.

There's no on-foot action, which I didn't mind. All the "human scale" interaction takes place in cut scenes. Maybe my history is off, but I thought the cut scenes were very well done for 2003. They weren't impressive or spellbinding, but they made me smile from time to time.

The music was also a standout with a stirring period sounding score. It would occasionally play action music when there wasn't any action, but for the most part, it significantly improved the feel of the game. It sparked my imagination, which more than compensated for the mediocre visuals.

A lot of the game takes place in natural settings, which look fairly bland. I have some mixed feelings about FASA going out of business. On one hand, my first experience of them was Battletech, a pen and paper wargame with giant robots... all stolen from a Japanese cartoon show I was very fond of (Robotech). Part of me never forgave them for that. But the thought that there won't be any new Crimson Skies games, with shiny planes, billowing smoke, and simulated cloth zeppelins to shoot makes me sad.

Final Score
3 of 5

P.S. I forgot to mention the controls. Trying to control a plane with anything other than real plane controls is always a compromise. Being unable to steer and look around at the same time or correct my orientation and keep a hand on the throttle at the same time was a bit of a pain. Maybe there was an alternate control scheme in the menus. It's an arcade style game, so perhaps I'm asking for too much control, but it would have made the game better. I am one of the weirdos who actually liked the interior view in the Rogue Squadron games on GameCube because it let me use the right thumbstick to look around.

Come to think of it, the PS3's controller might be perfect for Crimson Skies. The tilting could be used for what the right thumbstick is used for in the Xbox version, and the right thumbstick could be for looking around. It might even be better to put the throttle commands on the L1 and R1 buttons. Yeah. That could work.

Oh, I've been talking a lot lately about game length. Crimson Skies is a good length. I almost thought it was too long. There was a plot twist I would have been happy to see "To be continued" after. But the game didn't go on super long after that, and had a big giant action finish which was cool. Also it wouldn't have made much sense to end at the earlier twist, since the revenge from the game's title hadn't happened yet.

05 April, 2008

Review: Oddworld Stranger's Wrath

Oddworld Stranger's Wrath (Oddworld Inhabitants, 2005) is an alien western.

The controls in the game aren't very good. Movement is floaty. The camera moves slowly. And I found the amount of controls cumbersome, especially when you add in buttons that work differently in first and third person.

In addition to managing the controls, you have a bunch of different types of ammo to manage. There's a crossbow which can hold two types of ammo at a time. The ammo is small animals, which must be captured. But for the most part it doesn't matter. None of them are fun to use.

I guess what it boils down to is that everything in the game is slow. Everything feels like a slog. I'm guessing that in an effort to make the game as long as people wanted, the developer removed all the fun. I'm glad that Portal and Call of Duty 4 are encouraging observant publishers and developers not to let their games drag on. I'm hoping we'll actually get to a point where designers are constantly asking why a section of a game needs to be included, instead of just trying to put busy work in front of the player. Poorly placed save points also made the game longer, making me replay sections I'd already cleared.

I actually cheated to finish the last fight in the game. There was nothing rewarding about the gameplay, so why master something dull? It's also worth mentioning that the game took all of my stuff at a certain point, some of which it never gave back, further emphasizing the pointlessness of trying to play well.

Uh... yeah. Oddworld games always think they're delivering some sort of environmental message, even going so far as to include a quote from a Sioux chief at the end of the final cinematic. It's pretentious and makes all of their games that I've played depressing in tone. It also doesn't help that there are no characters to speak of. Every character of a particular race (males and females) are voiced by the same person. The acting is bad, to the extent it's even present. There are a few funny lines from some of the townspeople and one type of ammo that insulted me while sitting on my crossbow.

As one of the last Xbox games to come out (before Microsoft dumped the machine like a bad habit to try and push it's lead with the 360), OSW looks good. As with most consoles, there are some issues with blurry, low res textures, but for the most part the visuals do the job.

The audio is good, but not great. For the most part it works. Footstep sounds, gun shots, and other environmental sounds work. But a lot of the dialog, especially from the townspeople, sounds like 8-bit samples (the way PC games sounded in the early 90s).

Final Score
2 of 5

04 April, 2008

Keepalive: Breakdown & Sony Both Suck

My sleep schedule is ostensibly normal now. I've seen Buffy: The Vampire Slayer beginning to end. And I now have an Xbox (original, not 360).

I started playing Breakdown. It's a "you have a body" type game, where you can look down and see your feet. And there's an emphasis on hand to hand. Well, there's supposed to be. The early sections all involved guys who shoot you, so hand to hand is pretty much useless so far. And there's a lot of trial and error in the gameplay. And the game looks painfully generic, like it was a PS2 port. And the pacing is the suck as well. It turns out that having a body in this game just means you get to spend large amounts of time watching boring, repetitive animations. I got sick of it and put in Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath.

It's a first person / third person hybrid in an alien version of the old west where the main character is a cat man bounty hunter who has a crossbow that shoots animals. I should have a review in a day or two. Kinda sucks that I don't have a capture card to take screen shots, though. :P

I also wanted to mention one strange phenomenon I'm noticing. Apparently certain games (Devil May Cry 4 and Grand Theft Auto 4) are selling more units on the PS3 than I would have thought. I think the 360 has something like a four to one install base advantage in the US but is outselling the PS3 (on certain games) by less than two to one. I'm sure that's partly because 360 owners have more choices and PS3 owners are a little more hard up for content, but there's probably another major reason. Since these were franchises that defined the PS2, I'm assuming people feel like playing them on PS3. This is despite the fact that DMC4 has a 20-30 minute install on the PS3 and GTA4 will have exclusive downloadable content on the 360.

It's good that Microsoft isn't gaining a complete monopoly, but with Sony lagging in game quality, hardware performance (slow ass blu ray and taking over a year and a half to get rumble into controllers), and online service quality, I'm not sure it matters. What good does competition do the consumer if it provides no pressure to improve?