Friday, July 9, 2010

2010 Summer Burn-Off, Part 2

Man, you know it's summer when an entire week can pass and no one writes anything. We here at Melodico are traveling around, laying around, and generally screwing around, and we hope you are doing the same. I thought I'd take some time this morning to finish talking about my summer burn-off games. Ready, set, Boilerplate Intro!

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. In Part 1, I talked about Alone in the Dark: Inferno, Killzone 2, The Saboteur and Max Payne 2.  In part 2, I'll be talking about...

Hitman: Blood Money

Here is a game that I'm actually not checking out for the first time - I'm replaying it, bit by bit. I'm not sure I'll make it all the way through, but I do want to make it to that awesome Mardi Gras level, just because I have this memory of the level design being kick-ass and I want to see if I'm remembering right. I haven't played the game in a few years and all the stealth games I've been playing lately (well, pretty much just Splinter Cell: Conviction) have me thinking about what it was that made the Hitman games so special to me.

Now that I've come back to it, it's clear - there is simply nothing else like them. The mixture of extremely unforgiving AI, wide-open maps and limited save slots leaves the game feeling more harrowing, stressful, and ultimately satisfying than a hundred of Sam Fisher's mark-and-execute instakills. What's more, there is so little action in the game... I mean, of course I knew what it was all about when I started playing it again, but the shift from all the action-centric gaming I've been doing to a game that relies so heavily on cautiously planning and waiting was jarring nonetheless. I've gotten so used to the peaks and valleys of current console games that my body had lost touch with all the other rhythms that are out there.

Which brings me to another point - the game's PC-ness. (By which I mean "Personal Computer-ness," not political correctness. This is a game about a genetically bred killer-for-hire, after all.) I played through Hitmans 1 and 2 back when I was a hardcore PC gamer, before I sold my rig for a mac and turned into another creative type who can't play PC games, and it couldn't be clearer that Blood Money's true home was on the PC.

Firing up the game for the first time this summer, I was struck by just how far most games have been streamlined since 2006. The UI presents a mess of button presses and combinations - a different series of inputs is required for just about every one of the hundreds of motions and interactions in the game. It's clear that there was this big move towards contextual controls after this game was released, and I think that reflects one way that console controllers are perhaps oversimplifying games.

Contextual controls are great for some things, but for a game like this, it feels like the systems need to be deep and obtuse enough to actually experiment. It's been rumored for a while now that IO is going to make a new Hitman game, and I am pretty worried that it's going to get console-ified beyond recognition. If the "Silent Assassin" achievement goes away and there's a one-page layout of every control in the game with the B button marked "interact/attack/contextual action," we're all screwed.

Just Cause 2

I played Just Cause 2 for a bit after I got it, got far enough to get a sense of the game, and then made the regrettable decision to write a 100-word review of it. I haven't done one of those since, and this game is why - after posting it, I couldn't help but feel like I'd given Rico's Big Adventure monumentally short shrift.

(As a side note, I'd like to say that those 100-word reviews were conceived as a way for me to practice brevity. Good writing is born of good editing, and I wanted to see if I could actually say something meaningful about a game in 100 words or less. I think I succeeded, but after coming back to Just Cause 2 again and again, I also feel like I did the game a disservice. So, time to rectify that.)

I'll actually be writing about the game a bit more later, as well, but for now, can I just say that this is the absolute most empowering open-world game I've ever played? It makes me wish that the combat weren't so janky, since it's during the actual missions that I begin to get frustrated and lose interest.  But my god, navigating the island of Panau is a blast. This is not a game about shooting, or blowing things up - this is a game about flying.

Hyperbole alert: I've never played a game that so effortlessly captured the grace of aerial motion. Not ever. As fun as the airplanes are (my sicker side will never tire of riding a 747 straight into a military base), there's simply no substitute for Rico's parachute. Words can't express the feeling of lift, sway, pull, lift, sway, glide that travel via parachute gives... it is one of those things that can only be experienced through play.

I bought one of the downloadable add-on packs for the game, the one that came with the rocket parachute. It adds the ability to blast Rico around when his parachute is out. In my opinion, it kind of breaks the game, unfortunately. I tried it out, had a good time, then went back to Rico's regular chute - something about having what amounts to a perma-jetpack sapped quite a bit of the fun from the game.

So it's a massively frustrating game the moment guns get involved, and the enemy barks are both atrocious and bizarre in their syllabic emphasis. The story is crap and the map is about 30% too big. And it still feels like the game fights me in my attempts to cause any serious chaos - my explosive weapons run out of ammo as fast as I can purchase it and in a game as patently ridiculous as this, it seems odd to constrain the protagonist to only carrying the one primary weapon he can sling across his back. But all the same, it's a game that I'll be dipping into for the rest of the year, if only to climb a giant mountain, take in the horizon, and... jump.

Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands & The Sands of Time

I played through The Forgotten Sands for a Paste review; I just filed it and am a little burnt-out on things to say about that particular game. I'll link to the review when it's up, but suffice to say - this game has one hell of a lot going for it, despite some glaring flaws in is production. Ubisoft continues to flummox me with their incredible, incredibly uneven design. But gosh, the platforming in Forgotten Sands is blissful.

Which brings me to The Sands of Time, one of those "greatest games of all time" that I never got to play. Six months or so ago I bought a copy of it for like $3 online and I gave it a go but got distracted by some other newer, shinier game.  

Sands of Time looms large over Forgotten Sands, to the point that the game is namechecked twice on the back of the box. (My personal favorite - beneath a screen shot: "Climb, leap, and wall-run in an epic Sands of Time adventure."  Um... what?) So it seemed like I should give it a go, if only to better inform my take on Forgotten Sands.

I did, and... damn, you guys, I just couldn't get 'er done. I hope I don't get crap for this, and it may very well be that the 360 has some issues running the game, but Sands of Time has not aged well. The audio is floaty and disconnected, (voice acting blasts above the music, and try as I might, I can't get it to sound balanced), and the controls feel tricky and unresponsive.

The physics are incredibly floaty, and there just isn't a sense of connection between the Prince and his surroundings. It was very difficult for me to tell where I was supposed to go next, and what was even possible in a given room. Those two aspects are both hugely improved upon in Forgotten Sands - the Anvil engine feels tailor-made for PoP-style platforming, much moreso than the awkward adaptive platforming in the Assassin's Creed games. The camera is also hugely improved in the newer game - in Sands of Time, I found myself unable to tell just what the hell was going on a lot of the time.

But that was all survivable, since the platforming still managed to be fun and the story was just as good as I'd heard... until the birds. As has been mentioned by many a writer and reviewer, the combat is the game's weakest point... and it is. It is very, very weak. But for the most part, it's easy enough to be bypassed pretty painlessly. At least, until I got to the menagerie level and had to face off against those damnable. black. birds.

The fucking things fly up to you as you're climbing around and hover, cawing, until they dive in and smack you in the face. Okay, this is pretty standard... but the prince can't do an aerial attack. (Though maybe he can? Maybe there's a button combination I'm missing?) The upshot of that is that every time I have to fight a bird, I wind up standing there, waiting to see it telegraph its attack, trying to time the Prince's swing so that he connects, and... eight times out of ten I miss entirely, and the bird takes a punishing amount of health and knocks the Prince on his ass, where he remains for a good little while.

I died enough times trying to get past the stupid things that I gave up. I'm still not certain that I won't eventually see the game through, but for the moment... well, I guess I've got better things to do.

Mirror's Edge

Speaking of better things to do... this game is one of them. At the recommendation of the inimitable Nels Anderson, I picked up Mirror's Edge for ultra-cheap online. It was a game that I'd demoed, read about, but never owned... and it was time.

So sheesh, what can I say about the game that hasn't been said? I guess just some of my impressions. It is an experience well worth having for anyone who is interested in the intricacies of game design. It's far from perfect (obviously) but it's such a bold creation in so many ways that it really demands to be played.

The entire concept of a first-person, speed-focused platformer seems so brazenly out-there, which when you think about it, really shouldn't be the case. Are we so addicted to gun-wielding lumberers that it strikes us as an Incredibly Novel Idea to make our avatar a fleet-footed female messenger? Yes, I suppose we are.

And DICE kind of is, too - as evidenced by the perplexing amount of combat that the game requires. I had this issue a bit with Forgotten Sands as well, but game designers, hear my call: if your game does something brilliantly, go with it. It's not necessary to add combat to a platforming game... if you are cooking a beet stew and you've got some brownie mix lying around, you do not have to put the brownie mix in the beet stew.

This game could've been absolutely combat-free, just Faith sprinting along and dodging the law, and it would have been AWESOME. As it stands, things fall apart the moment a police officer gets in my path. Suddenly I'm running the wrong direction, hitting walls, trying to do combo melee attacks that don't feel good at all... and the game feels broken and unfinished.

I would take the steep difficulty and frustrating controls if the game could just remain pure, but it seems so dedicated to "shaking things up" that it loses track of the fact that it's actually just "ruining a good thing."

Last thing - since at it's heart, it's more of a racing game than an FPS, I think that Mirror's Edge 2 (that's coming out, right?) would benefit hugely from adding a rewind feature like NFS Shift, Dirt 2, Forza and The Forgotten Sands. One of the reasons that the platforming in Forgotten Sands feels so good is that even when I screw up, I get a few chances to rewind and try again, and it both encourages experimentation and functions as training wheels. By the end of the game, I was barely using the rewind feature at all, but that was only because I relied on it quite a bit while I was getting the hang of the controls.

Seriously, y'all - if/when Mirror's Edge 2 comes out, it's going to be one to watch.

Ratchet and Clank Future: A Crack in Time

I'll close out with this one, a game that I've been wanting to play since I got a PS3 but just not quite enough to play full retail for it. The price hit my "doable" range online, so I went for it, and I'm so glad I did.

There's a weird paradox going on in gaming these days - gaming's detractors still view games as "kid's stuff," but in truth there is an appalling dearth of quality kid-friendly games out there, for whatever reason. The Lego games seem like they fit the bill, but those ape other IPs and don't bring much to the table beyond some fun platforming and goofy Lego humor.

A Crack in Time is a game that I would buy for my kids without a moment's hesitation. It is joyful, fun, deep, and wildly funny - honestly, the game's writers have channeled Pixar's mojo to a surprising degree. They've mastered that Pixarish ability to make jokes that are simply funny, not just lace their stories with grown-up double-entendres, as has been the habit of so many other animation studios (ahem, Dreamworks).

The guns are hilarious and varied, the puzzles are incredibly well done and creative, and dang, what can I say about the game's looks? This is a fantastically colorful game, loaded with screaming blues and yellows and greens that pop off the screen in HD, an eye-searing and welcome change from the dark, drab, realistic games that I seem to still spend my time playing. Jason Killingsworth said it better than I ever could in his excellent Paste column about the game, so I'll let him take it from here:
After spending weeks, months and years of my gaming life immersed in the muted worlds of such post-apocalyptic shooters [as Fallout 3], Crack In Time offered a sort of tangy-sweet raspberry sorbet for my bored-silly eyeballs. It was like watching Sam Mendes’s Jarhead 20 times in a row and then unexpectedly finding myself descending through the atmosphere of James Cameron’s Avatar and catching my first dizzying glimpse of Pandora.
Yep, that about sums it up. If you're looking for something to really shock your senses and tickle your funny bone, give A Crack in Time a whirl. Your retinas (and your brain) will thank you.

So that's that! I'll be dipping my toe in plenty of other waters this summer, and am very much looking forward to some of the Summer of Arcade games coming to XBLA. In particular, I can't wait to check out Limbo, a beautiful, nasty little piece of work that I got to play a bit at GDC. I'll write about that stuff coming up, and hopefully we'll get some more regular posts going during the rest of July. Or maybe we won't! Cuz we don't get paid and we didn't promise y'all nothin.

In the meantime, let me know if you've played through any of these games, and what you thought! And, of course, if you're doing any good summer burning-off of your own, I'd love to hear about it.
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