Saturday, June 5, 2010

Alpha Protocol (PS3)

I gave in and bought a new copy of Alpha Protocol. And I played it straight through for two nights and an afternoon. I'm left with a weird taste in my mouth, like I'm sucking on a chocolate-covered penny.

The main complaint of the mainstream critics about this game is the lack of technical polish. And it's certainly true that Alpha Protocol's technical issues are legion. The guns are woefully inaccurate. The enemy AI is exploitably stupid. The cover system works most of the time, except that you'll often encounter walls you can't hide behind. Some enemies can spot you from a mile away, while others can't see you from across the room. The movement controls are mushy, and the item switching controls are just wrong. The item description text needs a copy editor like Glenn Beck needs a muzzle.

However, most of that can be overlooked if you come into Alpha Protocol with the understanding that it isn't a shooter. It's an RPG with shooting. This semantic distinction may seem minor, but it can make the difference between smirking at the clunky mechanics or throwing your controller in rage. But, the chocolate-penny taste lingers with me even when I look through the RPG lens.

Alpha Protocol's major selling point, its gimmick perhaps, is that dialog choices are not made explicitly. Instead, you're presented with three or four "attitudes" to take at each choice point in the conversation. So, unlike most RPGs where you select from specific lines of dialog (e.g. "Where are you keeping the shipment?"), you'll instead be presented with the option to be, for example, Cocky, Suave, or Matter-of-Fact. Oh, and you only have a few seconds to choose your attitude--usually just the time it takes for the other person to complete their dialog.

The option you choose determines what the next line of dialog is from Agent Thornton. It also determines your reputation with the person to whom you're speaking. This system of reputation then wins you allies and enemies as you progress through the game. These allies can have very real in-level effects, including providing allied troops for support. And since you only have a few seconds to make your attitude choice, you don't have the luxury of contemplating which approach will yield the best results.

I love this dialog system. It does an excellent job of capturing the nerve-wracking excitement of fast talking your way through an encounter with somebody. For a spy, whose life depends on his ability to quickly and convincingly lie, this is the central experience of their job. Which is why I'm so disappointed with how these dialog scenes fit into the rest of the gameplay.

A real spy's life does not revolve primarily around covert infiltration and explosions. It's about gathering information by working contacts. But, in Alpha Protocol, the bulk of the gameplay consists of sneaking and shooting. And the big confrontations, the climaxes of the various missions, are all woefully conventional boss fights.

The basic structure of the game is that you travel to a city, gather intelligence through infiltration and making contacts, and then use that intel to thwart the enemy operation planned in that city. Along the way, you make a great number of choices (kill that dude or not, save the girl or the innocents, join up or fight) that come back to haunt you in later missions.

But only one of the cities, and its missions, feels like a real intelligence operation (that would be Rome, if you're curious). This is the only city in which the majority of the missions are basically non-violent. You infiltrate a CIA listening post, observe partygoers through a sniper scope, and meet with various scary individuals. It's also, unfortunately, the shortest series of missions in the game.

The bulk of the rest of the missions are basic Metal Gear Solid knockoff sneak-and-shoots. And because of the technical and design failures, these are often more tedious than fun or challenging. Trying to complete every mission by sneaking is probably the most fun, but there are routinely areas where it's basically impossible. Shooting your way through everything isn't fun at all, and yet whenever you take advantage of your allies, the entire mission devolves into a pitched fire fight.

What also bewilders me is the character development system. Each character level you advance, you get ten AP to spend on various skills. These include Pistols, SMGs, Assault Rifles, Toughness, Martial Arts, Sabotage, and Stealth. The only skill that has significant game-changing scope is Stealth, since you eventually gain the ability to become invisible for a period of time. The rest of the skills have occasional perks, but I almost never used the active ones, and rarely noticed the passive ones. In a Western-style RPG, there should be some sense of utility in improving a skill. And I routinely found none, only spending the points to get whatever high-level ability might be hidden at the top of the ladder. I suppose that the designers realized that the Stealth skill was so unbalancing in itself that adding legitimately useful skills on other paths would simply make you invincible.

The writing and characterization are pretty decent. Not Red Dead Redemption-level, but definitely better than average. And the game does a good job of letting you choose your actions at major plot points. The number of variations in different missions, dialog sequences, and endings as a result of your earlier choices must be staggering. Mind you, many of them are minor, a mere throwaway line by another character. But, it does a very good job of making you feel like your choices have real impact and consequences.

The penny-taste comes from the contrast between how well done the dialog/choice system is, and how slapdash the sneaking/shooting system is. I understand that there's little market appeal for a game consisting entirely of talking to people, and that if you go to the trouble of building a sneaker/shooter engine you're going justify its existence by using it extensively.

But the balance between the two in Alpha Protocol is tipped way too far toward the action side. It doesn't feel like espionage to me. It feels like covert special operations.

In short, I was hoping for Michael Westen and I got Jason Bourne.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

IL-2 Sturmovik: Birds of Prey (PS3)

While I'm waiting for a used copy of Alpha Protocol to show up, I've been playing IL-2. This is a WWII fighter game made by 1C (a Russian game developer), named after the most-produced military aircraft in history (the IL-2).

As an interesting turn of events, IL-2 focuses on the Eastern Front of the war--for those of you rusty on history, that'd be the German invasion of the Soviet Union. Personally, I love this decision, since it's introduced me to an aspect of aviation history with which I was unfamiliar. I had never considered the fact that the Soviet Union must have had an airforce during the war. But, they did, and having done a fair bit of reading now, it appears that the skies over the Soviet Union actually saw significant action.

Unfortunately, the game rather fails to provide any idea of the historical context for the air battles you fight. The campaign is broken down into various real battles (Stalingrad, The Bulge, etc.), but the only real context given is "diary entries" by the playable pilots. These are exceptionally boring, and focus on trying to build sympathetic characters instead of exploring the history of the air battles.

History aside, I have rather mixed feelings on this game. On the one hand, it doesn't play like X-Wings Over Europe. But, it also has some deep playability issues.

There are three difficulty modes: arcade, realistic, and simulation. The basic flight model is the same in all of them, but arcade mode includes a bunch of flight assistance. Your angle of attack is restricted such that you never stall, and your wings self-level if you let go of the aileron stick. Additionally, your rudder provides heading corrections with yaw--a real rudder does not control the heading of an airplane, but is rather used in coordination with the other control surfaces to maintain proper flight.

In realistic mode, section-by-section damage is turned on, and the flight aids are turned off. You're responsible for keeping the airplane out of a stall. And herein lies the problem.

In a real airplane, a stall is pretty much a non-event. Your angle of attack increases beyond the critical angle for the speed at which you're flying, the controls lose authority, the nose drops, the angle of attack corrects, you gain speed, and you're out of the stall. It looks like this. But, in IL-2 every stall results in a spin. A spin is far more difficult to recover from. And, while it's true that fighter planes certainly spin more easily than, say, a Cessna, having every goddamn stall result in a spin makes flying in realistic mode in IL-2 very, very difficult.

Realistic mode also turns off the bullet lead calculation, so you have to lead your targets yourself without the assistance of a computed aiming point. This isn't a big deal early in the game. But as the enemy dogfighting AI gets better in later missions, I found it impossible to down enemy planes without the computer assistance.

Simulator mode is even more impossible, since it turns off the radar. Given that there's no head tracking on the PS3, it becomes quite impossible to even find the enemy. I couldn't even make it through the simulator mode tutorial, as I kept losing sight of the enemy fighters.

The ultimate problem here treating the flight realism options as difficulty modes, where you have to take or leave everything. In arcade mode, the flight controls do not act like a real airplane--I was constantly fighting the auto-leveling. Meanwhile, in realistic mode the lack of bullet deflection calculation made dogfighting tedious. I would kill to play this game with a la carte assistance options: I'd like to play with realistic flight controls, moderate stall assistance, and bullet deflection assistance. Instead, I played the first half of the game in realistic mode, and then was forced to arcade mode for the rest of it.

Another annoyance is that there's no AI to control the turrets of a bomber. So, if you're in a slow-ass ground attack plane, like the titular IL-2, and a fighter is on your tail, you're forced to switch views and manually operate the turret. While it's nice to be able to shoot the turret, it would be even nicer if there was also at least some brain-dead AI to run it while you concentrate on bombing Panzers.

This is a game that's probably best for existing fans of WWII fighter sims. It's certainly the best I've seen yet on any of the consoles. But, if you aren't already into airplanes, then this game almost certainly is not for you. And if you're a pilot, or have played a lot of high-fidelity simulators on PC (like X-Plane), it's probably also not for you--the physics are just real enough to make you think you know what you're doing.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Fuck that noise

Okay, so, I made a mistake and read some initial reviews of the European release of Alpha Protocol. They say it's well-written and kind of innovative. And that the actual gameplay is clunky, broken, and obnoxious.

Yeah. I'm gonna wait to find a cheaper, used copy before I play it.

(I did buy an older WWII fighter sim, though, that I'll be reviewing in the near future.)

Saturday, May 29, 2010

I'm having trouble waiting

Alpha Protocol comes out next week. I'm pretty fucking excited.

If it sucks, though, I'm going to have a supercritical brain meltdown.

Also, what is it with everything for download on the Playstation Network sucking? Only things worth it are Echochrome and Marvel vs. Capcom.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Red Dead Redemption (PS3)

Red Dead Redemption is just straight awesome. From the opening scene on your train ride out West, to the painful climax, Redemption is excellence in gaming. I don't even know where to start telling you how stupendous this game is. How 'bout let's start with the writing?

I'm really having trouble thinking of an equally well-written game. The characters are varied, vivid, and colorful without being caricatures. The protagonist, John Marston, feels like a real gentleman outlaw: intricately polite, plain-spoken, and forceful. One detail I find deeply endearing is that Marston remains faithful to his wife throughout the entire game--fucking the numerous saloon whores is not an option, and there is no obligatory love interest shoehorned into the game.

Nearly every line of dialog rings true. There are a few anachronistic word choices (I don't think anybody used "snarky" in 1911), but they're easily overlooked. Within seconds of meeting them, you find yourself adoring the sympathetic characters and despising the antagonists.

I can't say that I was too taken with the gay character, given that he was quite unpleasant; there is no sympathetic gay character to balance him out. And I also found parts of the game a little lacking in the racial diversity that certainly existed on the frontier (apparently, in real life, about 40% of cowboys were Black). But, in the more metropolitan areas of the game, racial diversity isn't an issue; in fact, social institutions (like saloons) are anachronistically integrated.

The story feels powerful and brutal, just as one imagines life on the frontier to be. I really don't want to say very much about it, because I don't at all want to spoil even one second of it for you. But suffice it to say that I didn't once want to skip a cutscene. And the ending damn-near brought a tear to my eye. It definitely left me in the same sort of a melancholy haze one experiences after watching, say, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

The setting is a truly genius choice. As I mentioned above, Rockstar chose the year 1911 for their story to take place. With this choice, they're able to seamlessly mix electric lights and horseback rides. They can even include sniper rifles and semi-automatic pistols without people like me screaming bloody murder about anachronism (as I did in my Call of Juarez review). As a result of their choice for a latter-day West, Redemption manages to almost completely avoid the cliche settings that plague most media set in the Old West. It's recognizable as the Wild West, and yet it feels fantastically fresh.

Gameplay mechanics are quite excellent. Gunplay is intuitive and smooth. The Dead Eye bullet-time mode works great, allowing both queued and manual shooting. The minigames, from Texas Hold'em to horseshoes, are well-designed and fleshed out fully--although the gambling AI, once you learn its idiosyncracies, is guaranteed easy money. They even went with a simple white dot as the aiming reticle. It's like they read my Call of Juarez review and said, "Let's not do any of this shit Aubrey hates."

The only thing I found poorly-executed in terms of gameplay is shooting from horseback. In order to maintain speed on the horse, you must hold X. In order to aim, you use the right analog stick. This means that you cannot aim without your horse slowing to a crawl. I seriously think it's probably easier to shoot and ride a horse in real life than it is in Red Dead Redemption. And since combat from horseback is such an extensive part of the game, its clunkiness must be considered a major oversight on the part of the developers. It doesn't make the game unplayable, but it does mean that you'll wind up using Dead Eye for absolutely every shot you take from horseback.

My only major gripe is with the second act of the game. Without giving too much away, you journey to a Mexican border state embroiled in a civil war between an oppressive, reprehensible general and a peasant's revolution. In order to advance through the game, you must complete missions for both sides of this conflict.

However, the general's missions are largely despicable. In one of them, you're tasked with pacifying a rebel-held village. So you shoot all the revolutionaries trying to kill you. Then, the Mexican soldiers round up all the women, who are taken back to the general for use as sex slaves--and if that isn't bad enough, the general implies that he kills these rape victims when he's through with them. And, after all that, you help set fire to the village.

Now, I'm not inherently opposed to stomach-turning missions in video games. Scenes like No Russian (from Modern Warfare 2) don't phase me, and resonant as powerful art. But in a sandbox game, with a moral choice and reputation system, it seems like you should be, you know, given a damn choice. It seems to go against the very notion of an open world to be railroaded down such an obviously morally bankrupt path. It's hard to feel like I'm on the road to redeeming my murderous outlaw past, so that I can return to my farm with a clear conscience, when I'm literally forced to oppress and debase peasants in order to advance. It seems that mutually exclusive branching missions would have been easily accomplished, allowing people playing the sociopath to help the general, and those of us interested in a more well-adjusted Marston to help the rebels.

That said, the brutality of the second act is totally balanced out by the gentle beauty of the fourth act. Having finally recovered your family from the clutches of the US Marshal, the fourth act is about ranching with your family. You drive cattle, break wild mustangs, kiss your wife, and teach your son to hunt. As denouement, it succeeds without blemish.

Please don't let my couple of complaints turn you off of playing this game. There's so much to do that the objectionable missions make up a tiny percentage of the time you'll spend with Redemption. This is one of those games where you'll play through the story missions, grinning nearly the whole time, gleefully enjoying all but a few moments. And then, when you're done, you'll go back to roam the world and suck every last bit of marrow from the game's bones.

This game is a masterpiece. This game is a triumph. I'm making a note here, "huge success".

Monday, April 5, 2010

Lego Star Wars: The Complete Saga (PS3)

Why did I buy a kid's game? Well, you see, all sorts of people whom I respect over on my favorite website suggest, in every game-related thread, that the Lego games are excellent and great light-hearted fun. And they're completely wrong. Wrong enough that I'm beginning to question their taste in general.

This game is garbage. I don't mean that it's juvenile and kiddy. I mean that it's not fun on any level.

I'm not sure what exactly I expected. I guess I expected that it'd be like Force Unleashed, slightly simplified for little hands, and thoroughly de-violenced. That's a reasonable expectation, right? But, instead, it's this nearly indescribable game-like thing. A pseudo-game.

First off, there is literally zero challenge. You cannot die. You cannot lose. You cannot be set back. If you are hit too many times, you fall apart, three seconds pass, and you are resurrected to exactly the same spot. Even as a child, I could cope with Sonic dying for the last time and having to start over. And because there was some feeling of risk, there was a feeling of reward when I finally triumphed.

There's some sort of mechanic wherein you collect coins during the level, and then lose coins for dying. So, in theory, you could say that the "challenge" in the game is to get as many coins as you can. But I can't find any use for the coins, or any reason to care about them. It's like getting the high score on an arcade machine set to free play... it shows resistance to tedium, not skill.

Lacking a challenge, I'd at least hope for some sort of spectacle or experience. But I'm disappointed on that front as well. Since it's a Lego game, the graphics are intentionally low-fi and plasticy. They're impressively photorealistic, though. They look exactly like photos of Lego.

The experience is horribly lacking as well. While the box gushed about more Force powers, they're all essentially identical. You press the circle button, and Force shit happens. Mostly what you'll be doing, though, is picking up Lego bricks and reassembling them. You achieve this by standing near the bricks and holding down the circle button until it's finished assembling. Exciting.

The combat is just as dull. You press the attack button, and the character attacks the nearest badguy (either with a lightsaber or a blaster). The attacks take forever to execute, so combat just drags. Also, getting around between combats drags, because all of your characters run like Jabba the Hutt.

There are some puzzles. Well, three types of puzzles repeated ad nauseum. 1) Use the correct kind of character to open a door; 2) Stand on a button; 3) Smash random set pieces until you find a pile of bricks, then reassemble them into a door panel. That last one is particularly obnoxious. I spent about ten minutes running around the first level bitching about lack of progress in a game made for children before I my wife told me I needed to use the Force on that particular pile of Lego rubble.

Anyway, don't buy this game. No, I don't care if you're the parent of a small child, enormously worried about the psychological and neurological effects of violent video games on young humans. If your kid is that young, and you're that worried, then you should just buy him or her a bigass set of actual Lego. You can get a fuckton of bricks for $60.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Dante's Inferno (PS3)

Dante's Inferno is easily one of the most over-hyped, under-delivering games I've ever had the misfortune to spend money on. The publicity campaign had a couple clever stunts, and stirred up some controversy for a sexist photo scavenger hunt.

But nothing about the actual game is clever. And nobody who's taken a sex-ed class is going to find it transgressive. It's at best puerile, but spends most of its time hovering somewhere around stupefying. The only positive thing I can say about Dante's Inferno is that its title does not contain either a numeral or a colon.

First off, they had great material and they squandered it. I'm not expecting a slavish retelling of the tail as interactive poetry. When I heard they'd replaced the poet Dante with a crusader knight named Dante, I accepted that as necessary to give the protagonist any pretext for combat skills. I'm not unreasonable.

But the game does abso-fucking-lutely nothing with the story. And they mangle it unnecessarily. In short, Beatrice becomes the bride of the devil through an act of premarital sex and Dante's subsequent betrayal. Meanwhile, Dante gets stabbed in the back, and then beats the grim reaper in single combat with polearms, appropriating the reaper's scythe. (In the real work, Beatrice is in heaven with God. Because she was pure, good, and saved.)

The scythe, by the way, looks terrible. If Death Himself showed up to claim me with this tacky-ass scythe, I'd consider immediate reincarnation so as not to be seen with it. Imagine a 14 year old stoner drew Death's scythe. The handle's a spine, there're lots of skulls all over it. This is not the weapon of an elemental force of nature. It's a biker tattoo.

Anyway, literally nothing substantial is done with the source material other than a series of collectibles consisting of the people named in the real Inferno. Each time you encounter one, he or she spouts about three sentences of his or her story. And then you play a minigame to either condemn or redeem them. The condemnation or redemptions accumulate as points, which then unlock new powers.

The gameplay consists nearly exclusively of fighting the same half-dozen enemies over and over again in new rooms. There are a few half-ass move-the-box puzzles thrown in, but they're so transparent and trivial as to be contemptible. There are bosses scattered through the game. Think Devil May Cry, but with more quick-time events.

I want you to understand this: you just fight things. You just mash on the same damn buttons over and over again. You unlock some new moves and powers, but it's pointless. You'll spam the same ridiculous cross-shaped ranged attack, and you'll mash on the attack buttons.

Actually, lemme pause here to describe this ranged attack. It emanates from a cross that Beatrice gives Dante. And it is literally a man-high, blue, glowing crucifix of force that damages enemies. It flies like a haduken, but it's a goddamn blue wireframe cross. Oh, and it gains multi-shot, so you're firing anywhere between one and 5 crosses at a time--up to probably 30 of them on the screen at a time. How much more fucking literal-minded could the designers be?

But the thing is, the gameplay has nothing at all to do with any inferno, Dante's or the game's. You could swap in a baseball-themed texture package and edit some dialog, and the game would make exactly as much sense. The levels of hell that Dante describes become literally just background textures, walls surrounding boxing rings. And they all look the same anyway, so it matters even less.

The only level with an obviously distinct visual style was Lust. Lots of vaginal doorways and phallic pillars. Scary, naked-breasted demon ladies who shoot toothed tentacles out their vagina. Obviously the entire level-design department devoted their entire development budget to Lust, and then only had enough to make one other texture set.

Had I been working from the same source material, I would have built a game like Psychonauts: you must confront manifestations of each sin. In my game, Lust wouldn't be a corridor full of dicks; it'd be the offer to see some titties, with a trap. You'd escape Lust by managing not to look at the progressively nastier digital pornography presented. Maybe that wouldn't fly with the ESRB, but I can tell you that I wouldn't make Gluttony a shit-brown-tinged corridor full of fat enemies.

At the very least, a Zelda-like themed-temple approach would have been appreciated.

Frankly, Dante's Inferno reminds me of Mario Kart. No, of course, Mario Kart is a cartoon racing game while Dante's Inferno is an action game. But in both games, the gameplay is confined to a single, relatively narrow path. Deviation is simply not allowed by the physics. You'll never reach the mountain in the background, no matter how hard you try.

But, unlike Mario Kart, Dante's Inferno is not any fun. The combat is bland like the sun's surface is warm. And since the combat's the only thing of any substance in the entire game, playing it is a little like eating a big bowl of unflavored gelatin.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Dead Space (PS3)

I was going to review Dead Space. But it was too creepy and jumpy for me. And it kept spawning spooky monsters right behind me, like literally at my shoulder. And there's no about-face button, leaving you to mash as hard as you can on the analog stick in hopes that you can turn around before the alien eats your face.

But it's real pretty. And the interface design is quite novel.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (PS3)

I always have a lot of trouble reviewing games I liked. It's always much easier to tear apart a game that sucks. And then I realized that I like Uncharted 2 not because it did something revolutionary, but primarily because it doesn't suck. So this is about the ways in which Uncharted 2 doesn't suck.

Uncharted 2 is your average action-adventure archaeological platformer/sneaker/shooter. Think Tomb Raider with waxed chest hair instead of jiggly bits, then add in a dash of Metal Gear Solid 2 on Very Easy.

All of the bits present are very satisfying. Even the sneaking mechanics, which are usually tacked onto otherwise solid games in a cumbersome way, feel well-integrated into the rest of the play experience. I even found myself looking forward to the opportunity to sneak up on a dude and murder him silently. It's especially satisfying to throw a dude off of a cliff by reaching up from below and grabbing his shirt.

The platforming is also well done, with a couple of caveats. The first is that grabbable surfaces and wall features are often nearly indistinguishable from environmental textures or decoration. And the second is that the platforming often makes little or no sense within the context of the location and story. If Uncharted 2's architecture is to be believed, the Ancient and Illuminated Seers of the Orient consisted mostly of monkeys.

The combat does the worst out of the main game elements, but still is not lagging too far behind. The basic combat throughout most of the game is entirely adequate. It does its jobs of spicing up the platforming and punishing you for sneaking failures. The controls are a little weird if you play a lot of shooters, and I struggled with them mightily. The biggest letdown is that in the last quarter of the game, new enemies are introduced that render useless the vast majority of weapons you acquire--and these enemies must be overcome by force.

Throughout nearly all of your adventures, you work with one or more of a revolving cast of sidekick characters. This could have been a fucking disaster. But all crisis was averted by making the sidekick indestructible, and respawning him a short distance away if you ever lose him. You don't have to babysit your sidekick.

The levels seem like they should be cliche and hackneyed, with locations like jungles, tombs, jungle-tombs, and trains. But, inexplicably, all the level design feels fresh. I think this may be a result of choosing some well-worn concepts and locales, then building the level in an unconventional part of the locale. For instance, the urban jungle level is set in a Nepali city ravaged by war. Instead of being confined to sewers, tunnels, and markets at night, you climb through bombed-out houses and evade armored personnel carriers.

The puzzles are pretty decent as well, being legible without also giving away the solution. Most of them even consisted of something more complex than dragging a crate to a pressure switch. But, of course, none of them were real mind benders either. The most difficult puzzles involve quick reflexes more than keen wits.

One thing I really appreciate is the camera work in the game. The camera is never at a useless or even ugly angle. While open combat sections give you full camera control, many platforming and drama-building sections use a fixed camera position. These fixed cameras are excellently placed, and give the entire game the feel of an action movie. My wife actually commented that she often couldn't tell what was a cutscene and what was gameplay. The game looks pretty damn nice.

I liked Uncharted 2. And I bought it on the recommendation of a friend, who told me not to take it too seriously and just enjoy the ride. So if you can appreciate the stupid spectacle of a big-budget summer action movie, you can probably dig on Uncharted 2.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood (PS3)

Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood is just straight embarrassing. If I'd been the developer, I would have demanded my name be removed from the opening credits. If I'd been a programmer on the game, I would have demanded that I be credited as Alan Smithee.

Let's start with the most embarrassing part: the damnwriting. (That's one word, by the way, like "damnyankee".) The game follows the lives of three brothers: Old, Middle, and Young (I recall them having real names, but, honestly, I couldn't care less). Old and Middle start out as soldiers in the Confederate Army during the Civil War, but desert just before the Battle of Atlanta to save their family farm--a task at which they fail. This leads their commanding officer to decide, for some unaccountable reason, to swear his life to tracking down and killing the deserters. [Oh, and just so you know their old CO is Real Evil™, they make sure that he has lots of irrelevantly racist dialog.] So, the war ends, and the brothers become outlaws who go in search of the treasure of Juarez--except for Young, who's a priest and just tags along annoying Old and Middle.

The whole story is told from Young's vantage point in a series of still-frame storyboards. And he's incessantly yammering and blathering on and on about turning his brothers to the road of righteousness. Almost immediately, this becomes totally unbelievable, given that the older two brothers kill pretty much anybody who so much as mildly irks them. And yet this obnoxious and whiny brat continues to harp on.

Also, the portrayal of Native Americans in the game is pretty damn painful. It's borderline racist, and definitely totally clueless. While they use the real names of real native tribes, they ascribe to them your standard set of stereotypical "talking-animal" native beliefs. Oh, and of course, they all refer to themselves in the third person, and speak in ridiculous stilted English--not as grammatically incorrect as Tanto, but still ridiculous. It's one thing for characters in the game to have racist views of the Indians (that's artistically acceptable), but it's another thing entirely for the designers to research the actual portrayal from old Western radio plays. Embarrassing.

The levels are pretty generic: your standard 1860's towns, canyons, scrubland, mines, forests, etc. Of course, they add in a fair bit of engineering that would be totally ludicrous to imagine in the time period: like thousand-foot-drop elevators suspended from hemp rope. Nothing spectacular, but anything in the Western genre has a relatively limited vocabulary to draw from, so it's forgivable. Of course, none of the levels really felt like lived-in places; they just felt like game levels or movie sets, which is considerably less forgivable.

The combat itself is mostly ho-hum. You point, you shoot. Damage is handled semi-realistically. Most enemies go down in a couple pistol shots, or just one well-placed rifle shot. Some random enemies take considerably more ammunition to fell. Some of them go down in a single pistol shot to the arm.

What ruined combat for me is the atrocious cover system. Essentially, when you get near something cover-like (a box, railing, fence, rock, etc), you automatically crouch behind it. At this point, the controls change subtly. Your right stick simultaneously controls where you're aiming, and how far you're peeking out around the cover object. This blending of two motions on one stick results in a lot of situations where you simply can't make the shot, because as you approach the target with the reticle, you also slink back farther behind the cover, obscuring your target.

One minor thing that drove me absolutely nuts is the aiming reticle. In a science fiction game, you can make the reticle as prominent and silly as you like, because it adds to the atmosphere. In a game set in contemporary times, I'd like you to build as minimal a reticle as possible that still indicates everything I need to know. In a historical game, I want a reticle that properly reflects the relatively imprecise sighting devices of the time and that does not detract from the atmosphere. To wit, in a Western game, in which most guns have only the barest of sighting devices, a simple dot would suffice. Furthermore, I expect that when I press the precision aiming button, that I aim down the sights of the weapon.

Bound in Blood, instead, gives me a giant goddamn reticle that expands with rapid fire. It seriously obscures half of an enemy. Pressing the precision-shooting button zooms in (while you cant your pistol over gangster-style), while leaving the reticle untouched. This means that as you zoom in to shoot at something far away, you obscure your target most of the time. This is the case with all weapons, except for the sniper rifles.

And on that subject, scoped sniper rifles have absolutely no place in a Western-themed game. The telescopic rifle sight was not invented until 1880 in Europe. While they might, perhaps, have been physically available during the time period depicted in the game, they'd be extraordinarily expensive and delicate instruments--available only to the extremely wealthy hunter. So the idea of dozens of dudes riding their horses around the Wild West carrying imported European optics is ridiculous.

The other great myth of the Western, the fast draw shootout, of course makes its showing in the game. Out of all the Western games I've played, Bound in Blood's mechanics are by far the worst. You use the left stick to slowly circle your opponent, and the right stick to maneuver your hand close to, but not touching, your pistol. Then, a bell rings, and you move your hand to your weapon. Having drawn your weapon, a crosshair appears that moves up your target's torso. A touch of the fire button ends the duel.

The problem is with the first part: circling your opponent while controlling your hand's position. The circling is annoying, and seemingly serves no purpose. Meanwhile, the hand-control mechanic doesn't even make sense. Your hand drifts all over the place, and it's your job to move it back. Assuming that you've gotten your hand as close to your weapon as allowed when the bell goes off, winning the match is a foregone conclusion. The whole thing is silly, and captures none of the lightning-reflexes feeling that a quick draw duel is supposed to.

If you're jonesin' for a Western shooter, don't even look twice at Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood. Instead, dust off your PS2 and fire up Red Dead Revolver. Or, do what I am, and wait for Red Dead Redemption.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Darksiders (PS3)

I put down my controller about four or five days ago, after playing Darksiders for three days. Today, I realized that I'm never going to pick it back up. (It'll be traded in to my local RPG/gaming store in the next couple days.) I'm not going to pick it up again because Darksiders is boring.

War, the protagonist of Darksiders, is supposed to be a badass, but comes off looking like a cartoonish buffoon. His upper body is blown out of proportion, one arm is three times bigger than the other, and his head is tiny. Just looking at him, you know the name of the game will be buffoonery.

Darksiders purports itself to be an action-adventure game in the tradition of Zelda. In reality, it's more like Ocarina of Time's deformed twin. The developers pretty much lifted every possible game mechanic that they could from Zelda. Except that, in the process of stealing the idea, they some how left behind what it was that made it fun in the original form.

Sword combat in Darksiders is your basic mash-button-repeatedly approach. There are some extra controls mixed in, allowing you to produce more varied combos. But, the vast majority of combat will consist of running in close, mashing wildly on the attack button, then dodging back out of range. Each attack deals a pitifully small amount of damage, so this is destined to take quite a while.

Added into the mix is a mechanic whereby, having whittled down the enemy's life for a while, you can choose to kill them "instantly" with gory results. "Instantly" is in quotes in that last sentence because the actual instant kill animation generally takes between one and five seconds. Since there are numerous time-critical sections of the game, this lag becomes extremely obnoxious.

But combat isn't ruined by the mechanics, it's ruined by the level design. You're fighting constantly. Move fifty paces, and there's another battle. Where Zelda uses combat to spice up puzzle solving, Darksiders makes its dreary, repetitive combat the focus of the game--like Devil May Cry, but wearing sweat pants and sensible shoes. And the combat is made extremely annoying by the developers dumping masses of enemies on you at once, meaning that you'll invariably get whacked by some low-power shitheel while you're trying to avoid highly damaging attacks by the more powerful baddies in the mix.

Of course, no Zelda clone is complete without an inventory system full of interesting items. Problem is, each of the items I received in Darksiders was already in a Zelda game. And they largely act the same way. The boomerang substitute even has that multi-target lock-on power, and the ability to be set on fire by targeting a torch early in the sequence.

The level design is also derivative of Zelda. There are large "travel areas" interspersed with "dungeons". The dungeons, happily, are not exact duplicates of Zelda dungeons. But they definitely feel like they could be concepts rejected by the Zelda team for being too dull and easy. The only puzzles I've found difficult are those where the objective is poorly indicated. Not once did I have the typical Zelda moment of thinking, "I know I've gotta get up there, but Jesus, how?" [Well, okay, once... but, only because the art was so bad that I couldn't identify a boomerangCrossblade target.]

But the Zelda similarities don't stop there. What most infuriated me in Darksiders' wholesale theft was the appropriation of details. Like they couldn't come up with a better method of improving War's health than "life containers" and pieces of life containers? Many items are stored in bottles, which are purchased or acquired as separate items? There's even an item that acts like a fairy. And, you know that sound that plays in Zelda when you get something right and solve a puzzle? Yeah, Darksiders has one of those, but, like, all dark and creepy, man.

Oh, and you even have a Navi. By which I mean that you're infested with "The Watcher", a loathsome creature whose job it is make sure you complete your quest. And who pops out at regular intervals to highlight important objects and objectives. He even says, "Hey, over here!" a couple times.

But for all its theft, Darksiders didn't steal the thing that makes Zelda's complexity so enjoyable and non-frustrating: conventions. Link winds up with a zillion items and several magic spells, but you know when to use them because the game shows you the appropriate use and then sticks with it. Darksiders gives you an item, but gives no instruction (subtle or otherwise) about when it's appropriate to use the damn thing. This leads to you rubbing every item on every set piece or enemy, hoping that something will stick.

In summary, Darksiders is a blatantly shameless, boring, mildly inept, ho-hum, uninspired rip-off of Ocarina of Time. With way more blood. And none of the charm.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Next Time

Next time, I promise a longer review. I'm playing Darksiders, and oh boy will I have some shit to say about that.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Borderlands (PS3)

I'm having a lot of trouble with this review. You see, Borderlands is such an excellent game, with so few faults, that I don't know what the hell to talk about. I mean, I could blather on with simple descriptions of the game, but you could just read the wikipedia article for that. So I'll try to tell you why I like the game. It'll probably be short, though, so try not to yell at me too much.

I think the main thing that I love about the game is the feel of it, the attitude. It's rendered in slightly-cartoony cell-shading, immediately setting it apart from all the regular brown-and-grey shooters out there. It's consistently funny, both in dialog and in detail. The main quest is compelling, and unfolds slowly--almost teasingly.

The gameplay can't be beat. It's an FPS with character-improving skills. Unlike a game such as Fallout 3, your weapons skills don't affect your aim. So you never fire a shotgun at point blank range only to miss completely thanks to an unseen dice roll.

But unlike most FPS out there, it's based on an open world with quests providing structure. Far superior to your standard push-forward-through-corridor experience.

The boss battles are also just straight excellent. Each one, I survived with just the barest of health remaining, panting with excitement and fear.

Listen, just go buy it. Right now. If you've ever enjoyed an FPS in your life, go buy Borderlands. Let me put it this way: it's better than Half-Life 2.