Friday, June 25, 2010

2010 Summer Burn-Off, Part 1

During the summer, gamers have come to rely on having a few months of downtime to allow them to go through titles they may have missed during the busier months of the fall and winter. As a result, June, July and August are usually the realm of console exclusives that were previously out of reach, bargain-bin titles from past years that got skipped, or the shame-tinged reapings of a particularly devilish Steam sale.

This year, I almost didn't think it'd happen. After all, the first five months of 2010 have been jammed with massively ambitious AAA games - for a while, it seemed as though the trend would keep up straight through to the fall. Fortunately, just as our ears have stopped ringing from the clarion call of the Electronic Entertainment Expo, most game publishers have decided to give us a break for a few months.

My summer project is going to be Demon's Souls, a game that I still feel I've barely experienced and one that I dearly wish to see in its entirety. But as I've been wrapping the school year and getting set for summer, I've also been sampling a number of titles that I acquired through various inexpensive means. Many of them will be the subject of longer posts in the future, but for the time being, I thought I'd share some thoughts on what I've been playing.

Alone in the Dark: Inferno (PS3)

Well this is an interesting little game, isn't it? Like many people, I was a massive fan of the original AITD games, particularly the second one, which has the dubious distinction of being the game that taught me what a "dumbwaiter" is. And like many did, I read the horrendo reviews of the initially Xbox-exclusive reboot and was very very sad.

I held out hope until I suffered through the terrible demo and finally acknowledged the awful truth - another of my favorite franchises had been subjected to ruin-by-remake.

Then last winter, I finally got a PS3 and remembered that Atari had ported the game to Sony's system after addressing many complaints people lodged about the initial release. It was even given a new subtitle: "Inferno." I had never heard of that happening before with a console port, so it piqued my curiosity. After reading Brad Gallaway's forcefully glowing review at GameCritics.com, I decided that summer was as good a time as any to finally give it a go.

It ain't perfect - there are still plenty of bugs, particularly to do with collision detection, and the writing is fairly awful. The character models are really waxy (like, Madame Tussauds-reject, actually made of candles-level waxy) and there is way too much gratuitous profanity in the script. But compared to the earlier 360 version, it's almost an entirely different game.

The biggest change is that the camera his been freed up and assigned to the right thumbstick, and as a result the game controls much more fluidly. It sounds like many of the most annoying missions have been significantly mitigated by a redesign, and there is also a new late-game chapter that stands out as one of the best of the entire game. Not bad!

Alone in the Dark's gameplay is fascinating. Narratively, it is a very similar game to Alan Wake in many ways, from the general presentation to the amnesiac hero to the DVD-style chapter select menu. But in terms of its mechanics, Alone in the Dark is by far the more interesting game. The interface and mechanics are almost terrifyingly experimental, and I honestly can't believe that Atari tried to do as many new things as they did.

There's a whole post coming about the two games (as well as a feature that I need to finish with my broader thoughts about Alan Wake and its story), but suffice to say, I wish more developers were able and willing to take creative risks like the AITD team did.

The Saboteur (360)

Speaking of gratuitous profanity... The Saboteur is another interesting one. I remember reading Mitch Krpata's surprisingly positive review of the game last year and putting it in the back of my mind as one that I'd like to check out. Assassin's Creed-style open-worlder set in Nazi-occupied Paris? Dang, sign me up.

And it's a really impressive game, particularly during its opening segments. The writing isn't as bad as I'd expected, and the world is really beautiful. Plus, the soundtrack is so good that it upstages everything else in the game. I don't care that absolutely none of the jazz on hand actually played on radios (or existed) in the early forties - Nina Simone makes every single thing better.

Unfortunately, a lot of The Saboteur's game systems are pretty broken, particularly the stealth gameplay and enemy AI. Sneaking is nigh impossible, as the options for silently taking down troops are too limited and it seems like I get spotted no matter how I try to enter an enemy building.

In fact, the game's entire difficulty seems to be off - it's like the designers realized that every mission was devolving into a crazy, never-ending shootout, so they decided to make the player character all but invincible? I dunno. It's a pretty cool game, and running about the countryside blowing stuff up is fun, but as a whole, it's flawed enough that I have a hard time getting too into it.

Killzone 2 (PS3)

Hmm, I actually think I could start each of these with "speaking of gratuitous profanity..."

After months of fucking hemming and hawing, the used fuckin' price for this game hit $15, so I finally decided to pull the motherfucking trigger. Which is an apt turn of fucking phrase, of course, since the only thing this fuckin' game offers is the opportunity to pull the goddam trigger, again and again and again.

But holy crap, you guys. It may do one thing, but it does it well - combat in Killzone 2 is very impressive. The game's physics and character models are superlative - to this date, I really may not have seen their equal. Developer Guerrilla Games displays a real mastery of virtual firefight design, too. The levels are splendidly well-put-together, with chokepoints, multiple paths, elevated positions, and defensible bunkers all strategically placed to best allow for flowing tactical improvisation.

But great level-design is only half the battle (so to speak); you also need good AI to take advantage of it. Fortunately, Killzone 2 has some bloody great enemy AI. It makes me realize how boring the AI is in many cover-based shooters - many games just require me to take cover and pick off enemies one by one, then move on. The moment I try that approach in KZ2, I get flanked, flushed out with a grenade, and perforated. The aggressive Helghast troops force improvisation and scrambling tactical maneuvering... and as I scramble and maneuver, it's a safe bet that my virtual opponents are doing the same. Survival in KZ2 requires a level of mental engagement that I haven't had with a straight shooter in some time.

What's perhaps most remarkable of all is how utterly unremarkable the rest of the game is. It's like Guerrilla tried to make the characters, setting, and story as boring and unimaginative as possible. Despite the blaring Michael Bay soundtrack and the bombastic big-picture cutscenes, the in-game narrative feels completely without purpose. The levels that I've played so far could be strung together in a totally different order and nothing would change. And while the level design is stellar, the environmental design is bland and repetitive, high-res renderings of a completely wrecked, depressing urban wasteland.

Then there's the issue of building the story around an invasion, which sort of feels off. I didn't play the first Killzone, but it's odd to be a part of an invading force that so cavalierly arrives on another race's shitty homeworld and proceeds to blow the crap out of it. When coupled with the fact that my mates in Alpha Team are a bunch of homophobic jockface dickwads, the whole setup ends up making me feel weirdly like I'm one of the bad guys. Despite their "scary" red eyes, I often find myself empathizing with the poor, vaguely clownish Helghast foot soldiers as I and my asshole buddies gun them down.

Small note - it's been mentioned before, but it really is distracting how short the player character is. Named "Sev," the dude seems normal-sized in the cutscenes but in the game his eyes are on a level with the other characters' chests. Barely. It kind of makes me think that he's spending the entire game in a sort of hunch or something? Maybe he's constantly tensing his muscles to help with his insanely deadly knife attacks.

Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne (360)

I started playing this one after Tom Cross wrote about it over on his blog Delayed Responsibility.  I am a huge fan of the original (behold my desk, upon which is an ORIGINAL Max Payne mousepad that came bundled with the PC version on release. "Do Not Cross: A Man With Nothing To Lose") and was really looking forward to checking out the sequel, especially after Alan Wake reminded me how good Remedy is at pacing and building atmosphere.

The game doesn't disappoint. Even this many years after its release, it plays great, and it remains remarkable how the bullet-time isn't the real attraction for these games - it's the vibe, the story, the flow. I haven't beaten it yet, but I'm sure I will - even on 360, the controls feel good, and while I wouldn't go so far as to call them flawless (Max's shoot-dive gets stuck on the environment more than I'd like), they're still pretty outstanding. Plus, Remedy has always rocked at Easter-eggs and meta-humor, and I assign bonus points for calling one level "A linear sequence of scares." Wonder if that was inspired by the already-under-development Alan Wake?



Coming up next week in Part 2: the dark business of Agent 47, Mirror's Edge, Two Princes of Persia, a return to Just Cause 2, and some time with the most colorful and creative PS3 game of 2009... that no one played.

But in the meantime, I'd love to hear from you via our brand-spankin new Disqus commenting rig.

Have you already played any of these games? Which ones are worth seeing through? And more to the point, what are y'all planning to check out during the summer downtime?
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