Micro Review: Shadows of the Damned [2/3]

   Stupid, fleeting, fun.

Shadows of the Damned is fun while it lasts (which is about one play through.)  After that, there isn’t a whole lot left.  It’s not that it’s a bad game, SotD is competent in most regards, it just isn’t very compelling.  The the game play and characters all have potential that Grasshopper fails to follow through on.  It’s as though they got warmed up and decided to call it a day.  The game’s presence is punctuated by events and dialogue that if they had not been delivered in an extremely over exaggerated fashion would have just been boring.  There are high points though they mostly serve to make you wonder what more the game could have been.  One can only hope that there will be a sequel that delivers a more substantive, consistent, experience.

Rating: 2/3

See also: TrailerOfficial SiteMore thoughts at Ruminatron5000

Buy it at AmazonRent it at Gamefly


Micro Review: Angry Birds [3/3]

There’s probably not a lot more to be said at this point about Angry Birds. There’s nothing to stop you from playing it at this point as the game is available on multiple platforms, and for free no less. I have played the game myself on PSP and via the Chrome browser. What Angry Birds offers is all the key components of a good game. Nothing more and nothing less. There’s a compelling and well realized game mechanic (knocking crap over), a varied set of skills to master, and a wide array of levels to master them in.

Angry Birds has been known to upset some core gamers. A great deal of time and energy has been spent trying to demonstrate how games can be a superior medium for creative expression and storytelling, and this game inadvertently sticks its thumb in the eyes of those aspirations. Having a game as “simple” as this performing far better than many games perceived by the core community to be creative heavy weights (e.g. Heavy Rain.) As much hand-wringing as there is, Angry Birds is never the less a solid game that others would do well to evaluate carefully. The fundamentals still go a long way.

Much of the experience of playing the game can be determined by which platform you’re playing the game on. Since I did not have an iOS device, I originally played it on the PSP. This was a frustrating experience as the PSP joystick “nub” is poorly suited for consistent aiming. I enjoyed the game far more using Google’s Chrome browser which uses the mouse instead. But even with better controls it can still become frustrating to aim precisely. Understanding the solution to a level is simple enough. But managing to execute the shots to perform the solution would have led me to throw my computer out the window if not for the fact that it’s so easy to start over again. And the sheer number of levels make poor one’s easy to forget and move on from while still allowing the player to come back and master levels later.

If you’ve already played it then there’s nothing else to be said. If you haven’t then you don’t have an excuse not to. You’re just missing out on free entertainment. And for those upset by Angry Birds’ success, it’s time to take a step back and evaluate video games more realistically. They’ve come a long way, but there’s plenty more that can be done.

Rating: 3/3

See Also: TrailerMore thoughts at Ruminatron5000

Review: Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together [2/3]


   A deep, yet flawed, game.

Following my play-through of Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions a couple of years back, I was interested in seeing what Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together (a remake of an SNES game preceding FF: Tactics original release) would be like. Tactics Ogre has kept me occupied for months on end since its release, which has proven to be a dual-edged sword. There’s a great deal to do in the game’s world and also a great deal that restrains the player from enjoying it.

Let Us Cling Together follows the story of a young man named Denam who, along with his sister Catiua and his friend Vyce, are plotting on how exactly they will participate in the flagging Walister resistance. The Walister are a Valerian minority are being subjected to ethnic cleansing by the Galgistani who have backed the resistance into a corner. Denam, together with his party and a group of knights exiled from their home kingdom, attack Almorica castle in order to free the leader of the resistance.

This sets the stage for the player’s role in the game: to assemble a fighting force that’s capable of establishing independence for the Walister, and defending the greater nation of Valeria from outside foes. This challenge manifests itself in several forms, the most obvious of which is the process of character building and skirmishes. Much like Final Fantasy Tactics, characters are assigned a class that is enhanced as that character participates in battles. Their vital statistics become stronger and they gain access to more powerful abilities.

Crafting a well balanced team is essential to succeed, though the player can expect to be challenged at a more abstract level as well. Denam will continue to assume greater responsibilities as the game progresses and will be faced with morally difficult situations. It is not a scenario where there is no clearly drawn line between “good” and “evil”. Rather, the player must evaluate the pros and cons to each decision and contemplate their own principles.

The game’s plot can take a number of different paths as a result of the player’s decisions. On top of all of this, the player must also be considerate of their team’s loyalty. Every character in the game has a racial affiliation as well as a clan affiliation. Denam’s actions with each of those groups can affect his team’s loyalty to the point that they will abandon him if he severely neglects or offends them. Tactics Ogre provides a layered and nuanced approach to issues surrounding war: logistics, strategy, tactics, and morality.

Though, for all of its thoughtfulness, Tactics Ogre has a tendency to over-engineer its game play. It’s easy for the complexity of the battle system to become overwhelming. Players will more than likely try to tackle one aspect of the system at a time and digest it piece by piece throughout the entire game. I found myself learning something new about it fairly frequently even after completing the main campaign. This lends itself to taking advantage of the game’s “World Tarot” system which allows players to revisit earlier portions of the game.  It also gives me the impression that I missed out on an important aspect of the game play.

Tactics Ogre can discourage the player from experimenting with new character classes if for no other reason than meaning to have to start a character over at level one again. Each character’s level is tied to their assigned class. The class itself gains levels rather than the character. Undoubtedly this is designed to minimize the pain of permanently losing a character. As a result, the penalty of losing a character is transferred to developing new classes, which proves to be far more of a detriment to the experience.  Integrating a swordsman class into my team would mean having to spend a considerable amount of time training that class before they would cease being a liability.  Its also worth noting that the game’s graphics are prisoner to it’s original era.  This doesn’t detract from the game play, but it makes it difficult to appreciate the gravity of it’s themes.

Tactics Ogre offers a unique experience with a message about war that would be difficult to express in any other medium. It requires a great deal of investment from the player, which is welcome in some ways, but entirely frustrating in others. For those willing to learn the ins and outs of the system its a great game that will continue to challenge and reward you well after you finish the campaign.

Rating: 2/3

See Also: TrailerOfficial SiteMore thoughts at Ruminatron5000 
Buy it at AmazonRent it at Gamefly

Further Reading: Let Us Remember Together: A Tactics Ogre Retrospective

Review Guide, Revision 3

This blog has served as an ongoing personal experiment in tracking my own gaming preferences and challenging myself to justify them.  I didn’t care much for the way game reviews were typically done so I decided that I wanted to try it out for myself.  After two years now my formula has been slowly tweaked for rating and reviewing games.  My main goal has been to reduce the scale on which games are scored to the minimal number of categories possible in order to try and make them more meaningful.  That begun with a five whole-star scale, then shifted to a four whole-star scale.  Now I am deciding to re-calibrate it to be a three whole-star scale:

Meritless: A game without any redeeming or otherwise positive qualities.

Negative: A game whose good ideas shine through in spite of its negative qualities.  It is a game that’s enjoyable to those who are willing to work at it.

Mixed: The positive and negative qualities of the game are roughly in equal measure.  These games can be enjoyed by the forgiving.

Positive: The game offers a largely positive experience whose good qualities are strong and the bad qualities are relatively negligible.

Exceptional: A game in this category is not only good, but great and it can exemplify the strengths of games as an interactive medium.

I’ve made change to the scale because I felt the difference between a 3/4 and a 4/4 was not the same as between a 2/4 and a 3/4. The difference between the former scores is important, but in a less punitive way. A game that’s scored at 3/4 appears to be missing something or has a caveat when none may exist. It’s simply a good game but not a remarkable one. Having the 3/3 score and the “Exceptional” score changes the nature of the scale to reflect that difference.

I’ll be using this scale to score games going forward, but will not be retroactively applying them to previous reviews.

Review: Portal 2 [3/4]

I’ve delayed writing this for a while now. Portal 2 is one of the most anticipated games of the year, and will certainly have a lot written about it. So it’s hard to see my own review as anything but redundant by this point. I’ll try to keep it short and sweet.

Portal 2 is what Portal would have been like if Valve knew it would be the runaway success of 2007’s Orange Box collection. This is both a good and a bad thing. Portal 2 is polished to a sheen and fleshes out the world of Aperture Labs enormously. But you can also sense a sort of anxiety about transforming Portal into a triple-A game. Part of the original game’s success was facilitated by riding the wake of Half-Life 2: Episode 2 and Team Fortress 2. Getting those two games for $60 alone was worth the price of admission, and having Portal on top of that was icing on the cake (or a second cake, but the internet tells me that’s not true.) Would people pay $60 only for Portal on its own? This is the hurdle that Portal 2 had to overcome. It’s difficult to overstate how high expectations were for this sequel.

I try not to go into the the cost and value of games when writing reviews, but I want to provide some context so I don’t sound like a nitpicking jerk with my criticism of the game. Primarily, my problem was that the scope was too broad. The single-player campaign fills the triple-A shoes very well, but much of it feels superfluous. By the end of the campaign, I was experiencing Portal fatigue: it was becoming too much work for too little payoff.  It felt like I was retreading puzzles and concepts and waiting for something to happen. The game play was stretched too thin, and the story disposes of the subtlety of its predecessor. What is offered is still quite entertaining, and there were some fantastically memorable moments scattered throughout the game, but I could never shake off the feeling that it would have been better game overall if it had been more constrained. The original was able to work a lot of magic by keeping you on your toes and not giving you much of a chance to reflect on what was going on. In the sequel you will have plenty of time to rest of your laurels, and it has difficulty building the same dramatic momentum.

From the standpoint of game play it’s the cooperative campaign that really shines and is more akin to the original than the single player campaign. Being forced to think about how you would use four portals among two players genuinely adds new dimensions to the game play formula which challenges newcomers and veterans alike. The plot of the cooperative campaign doesn’t have as much of a punch as the single player campaign, but it worked well in keeping us engaged and wondering what was to come, which I would argue is the most important function of a game’s story anyway. Completing cooperative trials feel like great achievements, and having the option to high-five your partner both in and out of game is great. Valve’s creativity is a force to be reckoned with, the cooperative campaign exemplifies that.

Portal 2 is very entertaining game for which fans of the original will not be disappointed. It makes the transition to being a triple-A game quite well and I’m hopeful for more Portal games in the future. Never the less, it doesn’t re-capture the same magic of its predecessor and would have been better served as a smaller package. Perhaps that’s not a fair comparison to make, or an unreasonable expectation. Maybe I’ve already fallen into the line of thinking that “the older games are always better” but playing Portal 2 and constantly thinking back to my original experience Portal leads me to believe the sequel is supplement to the original. It’s good, though not great.

Rating: 3 /4

Review: Metro 2033 [2/4]

Metro 2033 flew under my radar when it was first released roughly a year ago. I got my hands on it recently after having read about it’s subtle morality system. I’m a sucker for these moody post-apocalyptic style games, so my interest was definitely piqued.  And I wasn’t disappointed.  Much like other modern science fiction style games, Metro 2033 is set in a world that’s been ruined by some sort of nuclear disaster. The game doesn’t elaborate much at all about what happened, and instead it focuses on what’s immediately to Artyom, the protagonist. He grew up under ground, where survivors are safe from the fallout and the mutants that roam the surface. Few venture above, but Artyom’s home is faced with the impending threat of the mutants overrunning them below in the former metro tunnels of eastern Europe. And so he sets out to enlist the help of other metro communities to try and eradicate the threat altogether.

The player’s role is to be Artyom’s eyes, ears, hands, and brain. From Artyom’s perspective, the player will navigate treacherous levels both above and below ground while clashing with a variety of brutal mutants. You’ll have access to weapons that are standard for the genre: shotguns, assault rifles, pistols, as well as some other home-made devices. Battles can be tense due to limited ammunition, darkened environments, and the unsettling nature of the mutants themselves. But sometimes the experience is tense simply because the gun play mechanics are clunky. There isn’t a great deal of feedback from the shots that are being placed, and it usually takes a great deal of shots to bring down a target. With many mutants bearing down on the player at once, it becomes a race to quickly unload magazines into targets.   The effect is intense as well as occasionally frustrating.

The experience becomes tedious against human opponents. Bandits, Nazis, and Communists all reside in the metro as well and none of them are making Artyom’s journey any easier.  When fighting mutants, there are a few precious seconds before they are gnawing on your limbs. If the player is alert, they can bring down most mutants before that happens. This isn’t the case with human opponents, who start shooting as soon as they know that they player is there. The game does not offer the tactical control to be able to make this enjoyable. Thankfully, there are more battles with the mutants than there are with Artyom’s fellow survivors.

Where Metro excels is crafting a world that has texture and weight. It foregos the bombast of games like Gears of War for a quieter, and more unnerving experience. The desperate atmosphere can be felt both in and out of combat. The game is limited enough in scope for the audience to invest in individual characters, rather than the abstract concept of the downfall of the entire human race. There isn’t wholesale slaughter of survivors by mutants; people are slowly picked off here and there, and it’s enough to make the player wonder if wonder if they are going to make it out alive. It’s a feeling that was more prominent in earlier survival horror games and is vivid enough in Metro to keep its audience engaged through its conclusion.

Metro 2033 is not polished as far as graphics and game play are concerned, but it’s a world that’s interesting to explore and the narrative’s momentum is enough to prevent it from becoming stale.

Rating: 2/4

See Also: Trailer, Official Site, More thoughts at Ruminatron5000

Buy it at Amazon, Rent it at Gamefly

Review: Call of Duty: Black Ops [2/4]

Note: This review only covers the single player campaign mode.

Black Ops is constructed from a collection of set pieces strung together by a character driven plot centering around operative Alex Mason.  Alex is being held captive by an unnamed force that is trying to coerce him into recalling what has happened to him over the past seven years.  Each memory he flashes back to becomes a level that the player must re-enact before returning to the interrogation, where the story continues.  Set in the 1960’s, Mason memories shift from Cuba, to the gulags, Vietnam, and many other Cold War locations.  The mortar binding all of these events together, in case it wasn’t clear, is shooting guns at people who are doing the same at you.  The world is walking on egg shells, and Mason has found himself in a situation that could tip the Cold War in favor of the Soviet Union.  Black Ops doesn’t attempt to construct an alternative history per se, but it suggests to the audience that the game’s events could plausibly occur without the general public ever knowing.  This premise is stretched to its limits, and may prove to be too much for some players to continue buying into it.  Then again, most audiences aren’t playing Black Ops to engage in an interactive tour of history.  This approach allows the game to focus squarely on what the events mean for Mason as a character, as opposed to Modern Warfare’s set pieces being the main events in and of themselves.

The game is polished to a sheen.  No detail is left out; the textures, lighting, and animation are all crafted well enough that the player won’t be seeing scenes and characters as polygons and pixels, but as walking portraits.  And with the absurdities of the plot set aside, many of these levels are almost life-sized dioramas (or at least appear convincing enough to be) straight out of the era.  The player doesn’t need to think twice before becoming immersed in the scenes.  The campaign offers solid first person shooter game play mechanics.  Running and gunning feels as polished as the graphics do.  Lining up shots and picking your targets feels smooth and provides excellent feedback.  And there’s a suitable variety of weapons to meet every gamer’s taste.  The fundamentals of Black Ops couldn’t be any more solid.  But fundamentals don’t make a game, and the experience must arc or progress in some meaningful way.  Alex Mason serves as the catalyst to this end, but his character doesn’t provide enough depth for the audience to explore.  Nor do the levels offer a clear sense of differentiation beyond their appearances: snow level, jungle level, Russia level, etc.  Most of these locations end up blurring together as a slide show of backdrops for repeating the same level: move from Point A to Point B; shooting everything in between.

Black Ops’ Cold War backdrop ends up hindering the experience, as the player becomes just a second-hand witness (at times, a third-hand witness) to historic events.  It can be pretty incredible to watch as the Tet Offensive unfolds, but too often it can feel like the game is just recreating scenes from famous movies, at points, it’s practically stealing from the source material it references.  What it boils down to is that Alex Mason has little impact on what is going on around him, and the player has little invested or put at risk as part of his conflict.  By the end, Mason’s role in the story is reduced to a more conventional America (good guys) vs. Russia (bad guys) plot.  And since it’s pretty obvious that (spoiler alert!) the Soviet Union lost the Cold War and there is little doubt that there will be any earth shattering events at that level.  The plot’s strength lies in Alex Mason’s story which, while it’s deeper than for past Call of Duty protagonists, just fails to be all that compelling.  The series’ transition from sheer spectacle, to character driven plot is awkward and somewhat haphazard.  The campaign looks great, and plays well enough, but you aren’t going to find yourself getting lost in the experience.  If you’re playing Black Ops, you’re probably playing for the multi-player mode, which has significantly more to offer.  The campaign serves as a good place to get your bearings and learn how to play the game.

Rating: 2/4

See also: Trailer, Official Site, More thoughts at Ruminatron5000

Buy it at Amazon, Rent it at Gamefly