Posts Tagged ‘ Rating: 2/4 ’

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

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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

Review: Final Fantasy IX [2/4]

Over the last two years, I’ve been revisiting many of Squaresoft games. Specifically, I’ve replayed Final Fantasy VI, Final Fantasy Tactics, Chrono Trigger, and now Final Fantasy IX. It’s been an opportunity for me to re-evaluate some of my favorite games with a more critical eye, and I haven’t been disappointed. Final Fantasy IX had made an impression on me ten years ago with its tone and presentation. I enjoyed it this time around as much as I did originally, but I’ve come to appreciate its flaws with more clarity as well.

JRPGs have succeeded by balancing three important elements: characters, world, and plot, but not in a literary sense.  JRPG stories and characters are notoriously convoluted in nature. Characters, world, and story all play central roles in the interactive design of the game though. Characters exist both in a passive, literary context, as well as an interactive one.  Each brings a specific skill set and impetus to explore the game play, and travel to new levels or locations.  Game play itself is developed similarly to the plot of a story, with the introduction of characters, strategies, abilities, as well as how these concepts are layered, paced, and deepened.   Final Fantasy IX tackles each element ambitiously, but has difficulty keeping the audience on the same page.

You enter the game as Zidane Tribal who, along with the Tantalus gang, have been tasked with the job of kidnapping the princess of the medieval  kingdom of Alexandria while disguised as a theater troupe.  Zidane and co. are surprised to discover that the princess is willing to cooperate.  While trying to get out of the Kingdom in one piece they are pursued the princess’s hapless guardian knight Steiner, and incidentally join forces with a young mage named Vivi who had snuck into the castle to watch the play.  The chase leads them aboard an airship, which is subsequently attacked by the queen’s forces, resulting in the airship ultimately crashing into the wilderness.  Zidane, the princess, Steiner, and Vivi are left to survive and to attempt to piece together what exactly is going on.

It’s a story that’s very much in line with past entries of the series, as is the game play.  Each character has distinct set of skills they can learn and use in the turn-based battle system.  Unfortunately, these battles are initiated at random in dungeons and the field, and transition between battle and field mode is incredibly disruptive.  But battles are generally balanced well and are interesting to complete.  Characters learn abilities by acquiring new equipment and using it in battles.  After completing enough battles, the skill will be memorized and that character will no longer have to use that equipment to be able to use the associated skill.  The broader pacing of the game is executed very smoothly, transitioning the audience between dungeons, battle, locations, and cut-sequences in a manner that is perpetually offering new content to explore.

A significant part of the game lies in character management.  The player can enlist four characters at a time in their party.  With limited funds the player must be making decisions on which equipment and abilities to invest in. The process of configuring abilities and equipment requires the player navigate a cryptic system of menus.  It becomes necessary to double check to make sure that the right equipment is placed on the right character, and that they have the correct abilities enabled.  It’s something that the player will learn to deal with after enough time (it’s a 30+ hour game, there’s plenty of time to learn) but it can be frustrating when the game swaps the characters in your party without giving you a chance to de-equip items from those departing characters. Ultimately, when everything is working as expected, Final Fantasy IX’s combat and management system are great motivators for exploring the game’s richly fleshed out and detailed world.

Things start to get hairy after the mid-way point of the game though, when the plot takes a distinct turn for the convoluted.  The problem doesn’t lie with the substance with the story as much as with its execution.  It’s a jarring transition that serves to undermine the immersive quality of the game up to that point.  The elements that are introduced at that point could have been introduced much earlier in the game, but even then it would have still been at odds with the tone and theme of the game.  It’s easy to feel lost and lose motivation to continue, but the game’s conclusion is rewarding despite all of this.  The player should just be ready for a bumpy ride and have a plot FAQ close by.  The majority of the the first half of the game though is Final Fantasy at its best.

Final Fantasy IX rolls up many of the things that have been great about JRPGs and Final Fantasy in the past and conjures a wonderful little world that’s imaginatively presented.  But its concepts suffer from a flawed execution that prevents the game from really building into something more impressive.  The experience at large is quite memorable, yet demanding of the audience’s patience.

Rating: 2/4

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

Buy it at Amazon (also available on PSN)

Micro Reviews: 2010 Wrap Up

There have been many games I’ve been meaning to review around the end of 2010, and just haven’t been able to sink the time into doing more complete write-ups for them. So I just need to clear the plate and get these out of the way before too much time passes after I had completed them.

Left 4 Dead 2

As was the case with Resident Evil 5, Left 4 Dead 2 is begging for you to play it with friends. Though Left 4 Dead 2 is far more playable by one’s self than RE5 was. In either case, the game excels at keeping  players on their toes. Moving quickly from set piece to set piece, the action is intense to play through, and dramatic to witness. Between the enemy AI and ally AI, the player is given the sense that they are engaged in a chaotic, expansive scenario, rather than just a level in a game. In some levels, the difficulty can tend to spike in a way that really frustrates the pacing. Dialing back the difficulty settings is usually enough to keep the player moving on their way though. Left 4 Dead 2 offers a brand of survival horror that has progressed light years from the tank-like controls and sleep walking zombies of the original Resident Evil.

Rating: 3/4

See also: Trailer, More thoughts at Ruminatron5000

Buy it at Amazon.com, Rent it from Gamefly

Vanquish

Vanquish aims to leave its own unique mark on this generation’s action shooters, which have quickly become some of the most popular console games. Vanquish takes established genre devices (dramatic cut sequences) and game play mechanics (cover based gun play) and injects elements of arcade style twitch action. The player is given a super-suit that enables them to zip around large maps to engage enemies, large and small. However, this twist on the genre feels half-hearted. The super suit relies on an energy meter that steadily depletes whenever you use its rockets, melee attacks, or when bullet-time is enabled. The meter makes it very difficult to use these different abilities in combination, and in fact, the entire meter is depleted after a melee attack is executed. Thus, levels rarely force you to take advantage of these abilities and the game ends up being a sub-par third person action shooter. It has its moments, but neither the game play or presentation are particularly memorable.

Rating: 2/4

See also: Trailer, More thoughts at Ruminatron5000

Buy it at Amazon.com, Rent it from Gamefly

Donkey Kong Country Returns

I did not play a whole lot of SNES games back in the 90s. But one that I did play was Donkey Kong Country. Donkey Kong Country Returns brings the series to the Wii, and sets its sights directly on audiences that played the original games. It attempts to simultaneously evoke a sense of nostalgia while offering a greater challenge to gamers that have been playing platformers for years. DKCR fails on both counts. Part of its original charm lay in just how cool it looked at the time, with pre-rendered 3D graphics. That wow-factor is something that just can’t be recreated at this point. However, the graphical presentation was wrapped around a playground of levels for the audience to explore and enjoy. While the level themes are mostly faithful to their predecessors, the playfulness is frustrated by the game’s elevated challenge. They require a significant amount of memorization and leave little room for error. Small slip-ups early on can dramatically reduce your chances of completing a level, and can take too much time to replay to be truly enjoyable. This would make the game unplayable if it were not for the “Super-Kong” feature which puts the game in auto-pilot. It’s an excuse to make levels mindlessly challenging instead of utilizing thoughtful level design. All DKCR has to offer is a weak sense of nostalgia, which would be served better by just playing the original game instead.

Rating: 0/4

See also: Trailer, More thoughts at Ruminatron5000

Buy it at Amazon.com, Rent it from Gamefly

Micro Review: Scott Pilgrim vs. The World [2/4]

As I’ve made clear before, beat’em ups are some of my favorite games.  Irrationally so at times.  Scott Pilgrim Versus the World: The Game was on my radar, though I had not seen the movie and only barely knew about the graphic novels.  I ultimately waited for the game to go on sale before actually playing it.  Right off the bat, I was sold.  It nails presentation with convincingly retro graphics and music, without actually feeling like a 15-year-old game.  It really does create a false sense of nostalgia by capturing some of best aspects of the non-interactive elements from older games.

The game play itself is competent for a side-scrolling beat’em up.  Roaming around and exchanging blows with hipster kids can be surprisingly fun.  The player can level up one of four characters at a time as they progress through seven levels.  This is accomplished both by defeating enemies and by shopping for items that will raise your stats and/or experience.  The steady drip feed of new abilities is just enough to consistently renew player engagement.

The flaws of the game are found in its execution.  This is a game that is most fun when played with others, but it lacks an online multi-player mode, as well as drop in/out for local multi-player.  Thus, the game has to be restarted for others to start or stop playing.  This is made even worse by the fact that the game occasionally fails to save your progress (or at least this was my experience), and forces you to replay the last level that was completed before continuing.  And then, sometimes the game will freeze as well.  Your best bet is to sit down just try to beat the game in a single sitting.  It can be a very bipolar experience.  It has the ability to be very entertaining, but it can be totally marred by bugs and balance issues.

Rating: 2/4

See also: Trailer, More thoughts at Ruminatron5000

Buy it at Xbox Live

Micro Review: Bioshock 2 [2/4]

Bioshock 2 was a more polished, yet vestigial experience. Gone were the terrible voices of the vending machines, wasted first aid kits caused by mistaken button presses, tedious hacking puzzles, and other rough edges found in the previous game. But the overbearing narrative structure and shallow level design haven’t changed either. What was a novel for Bioshock becomes typical in the second iteration with a big daddy playing as the protagonist. There’s not a great deal for Bioshock 2 to contribute to Rapture at this point, but it serves as a good excuse to venture back into the plasmid playground one more time.

In substance, Bioshock 2 is almost identical to the original. You’ll be listening to many tape recordings, a delusional leader (though this time of a collectivist bent), and have plenty of errands to run for strangers. You’ll need to decide once again whether or not to harvest little sisters for their adam, though there is still little incentive to take it from them. There are now big sisters which will oddly intervene only when you save little sisters, as opposed to when you kill them to harvest their adam.

The character designs were less cartoonish this time around and easier to take as seriously as the game would like you to. There were also some memorable scenes where you venture outside Rapture or shift perspective to other characters.  In those instances the game successfully plays off of, and with your expectations.  It varied the pace of the game in a way that the first should have done, but more would have been welcome in the sequel as well.

The silent protagonist is a common device in first person shooters like this, but when there’s so many conversations silence begins to stick out more and more. Given how little you actually customize the protagonist I don’t understand why he is not given any lines. It would have helped a great deal in engaging the player and smoothing out the game’s story.  There’s not a whole lot more to add. It’s a shameless excuse to extend the shelf life of Bioshock’s game play. Nothing lost, nothing gained. The changes made from the first game are more similar to annual Madden game changes than a full fledged sequel.

Rating: 2/4

See Also: TrailerMore thoughts at Ruminatron5000

Buy it at Amazon

Rent it at Gamefly

Review: Bioshock [2/4]

Since its release, Bioshock has been something of a big deal. Heaped with praise for its storytelling, imaginative game play, and an environment that’s immersive like no other.  Having missed out on the games over the last few years, these were my impressions of the game. The bar was set too high in my mind, and my experience with Bioshock didn’t square with the hype. There are many good qualities in the rough that have resonated through the gaming community, but I found that it’s not all that it’s cracked up to be either.

The concept of Rapture is wildly imaginative and intriguing. Deep under the ocean are the ruins of a fantastic city led by a man whose vision of free markets ate itself alive. It’s unlike most other worlds captured in video games. Equally impressive were the “plasmids” which give people super-human abilities. They can be combined to create spectacular battle strategies that give Half Life 2’s game play a run for its money. So what exactly went wrong?

My chief complaint lies in the fact that Bioshock reminded me me that games do not always need a story. Stories provide a template for events to occur. Events are a necessary part of a game in signalling progression and providing feedback to the player. Stories aren’t required to provide events, and when stories are used, events should form the dominant part of the equation between the two. Games don’t always tell coherent stories, and that’s acceptable when they are the means to the end of a good game. Final Fantasy IV serves as a good example of this. Bioshock flips the balance of that equation and neglects to utilize its strengths to the fullest.

Instead of letting the world of Rapture speak for itself Bioshock assaults you will dialog and tape recordings from every man woman and child who ever lived there. It was a suffocating.  I know I could have ignored the tapes, but there is still a subset of them that genuinely contributed to the experience. I know this is supposed to be about how Rapture catastrophically failed, but it would have been preferable to have a few survivors left to talk to instead of wading through so many tapes of what they had for lunch last month. That aside, you will still have plenty of people chit-chatting you into oblivion via radio.

Similarly, the level design made little use of the plasmids. You could take advantage of your environment to dispatch enemies more efficiently, but this is never a requirement as you can just as well expend some extra ammo and clear a room all the same. You’re free to come up with creative strategies, but you will only enjoy them for their own sake, and not as part of feedback for completing a challenge. It would have been cool if the game gave you some hints on exploiting these strategies, but Inevitably the level design revolves around a story which mostly involved doing favors for other people. The entire experience ends up blurring together with few milestones that signal real progress. Most confrontations devolve into noisy, chaotic messes instead of well designed challenges.

Bioshock as a game met a similar fate as Rapture the city: a grand vision that caved in on itself after so long. Burdened with the task of trying to articulate why Randian ethics would fail in practice, Bioshock is constantly distracted from delivering on its potential. Even in it’s attempts to dismantle Randian ethics, Bioshock still managed to miss its target. The game can be completed without having to rely heavily on plasmids (or other adam related attributes.) The reward for harvesting adam from little sisters is negligible.  It’s hardly worth it unless you’re just looking to play around with plasmids as quickly as possible.  In which case, the game’s statement on ethics are probably not all that important to you.

It’s a game that should have directed itself more closely to the style of Castlevania: a game that consists of many interconnected dungeons, with a narrative that mostly leaves the player to put the pieces together for themselves.  Clocking in around 20 hours to complete, Bioshock’s flaws became exhausting.  If it were half as long, with more carefully designed levels, I would enjoy going back and trying different strategies.  As it stands though the ratio of busy work to fun scenarios is frustrating.  My perspective on the game may have been unfairly colored by the expectations I had since the game’s original release, but it’s difficult to ignore the aspects of the game which ended up being self-defeating.

Rating: 2/4

See Also: TrailerMore thoughts at Ruminatron5000

Buy it at Amazon

Rent it at Gamefly

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