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.