Reviews by BavarianGod

83

Tell Tale Games Breaks Out

BavarianGod | Nov. 4, 2013 | Review of The Walking Dead

The adventure game has been out of vogue for quite some time. While several excellent point and click adventure titles have been released during the new millennium nothing has really broken into the mainstream. Telltale Games  has been steadily releasing adventure titles with modest followings. Their newest title, The Walking Dead, capitalizes on the popularity of the both Robert Kirkman's comics, which the game is actually based on, and the TV series. Telltale's previous attempts at basing games off of popular media franchises haven't exactly set the world on fire but since we are in the midst of a zombie zeitgeist The Walking Dead is poised to bring the adventure game back into the public eye and possibly raise it from the dead.
The Walking Dead fits into the comic canon and features cameos from popular characters but it's real focus is on original characters. You take control of Lee Everett, a college professor who has been convicted of a serious crime and beings the game in the back of a cop car. The car swerves off of the road when the officer at the wheel nearly hits someone. Lee finds himself cuffed in a ditch where he first encounters the undead. After escaping from his cuffs and surviving a near fatal encounter with a walker Lee stumbles into the home of Clementine, an eight year old girl whose parents left for Savannah prior to the onset of the zombie epidemic. Her innocence juxtaposes Lee's dark past and she is in many respects a source of redemption as Lee takes it upon himself to protect her and help reunite her with her family. Along the way they the duo runs into a colorful cast of characters that join them in their quest for survival. The relationship between Lee and Clementine carries the experience. Clementine herself is very likable and despite her age she never comes off as too needy or whiny. Lee himself comes off as sympathetic and  cultivating his relationship with Clementine is an emotional investment rarely found in games.
Where The Walking Dead's tale succeeds is in its focus on the dark side of humanity rather than the danger of undead flesh eating cannibals. At times it can be brutal and gut-wrenching. There are conflicts within your party, conflicts with bandits and clashes with other survivors. These situations are more compelling than facing off with walkers and offer an appreciable degree of moral ambiguity, generally culminating in a brutally nihilistic resolution. This moral ambiguity is important since most of the gameplay in The Walking Dead centers around managing your relationships with those in your party. Members of your groups almost always have dissenting opinions and it breeds conflict. During conversations you get to choose how to respond and unlike other titles that allow you to voice the protagonist and make choices, The Walking Dead features a timer that prevents you from analyzing your decisions. It keeps the tension up and the conversations flowing naturally. Who you side with and what you say determines how close you are to each person and can ultimately affect how they react in future scenarios. If a character feels that you have their interests in mind they will back you and those who you oppose may become hostile to Lee. While this sounds great on paper in practice it's not as exciting as it seems. The problem is that in spite of giving you a lot of decisions to make, The Walking Dead doesn't change much in terms of it's narrative arc. Some scenarios ask you to make a choice that to save one character causing the other to perish. These two characters generally serve the same role in the plot and there isn't a compelling reason to see both scenarios play out since you won't see any noteworthy additions to the experience. You see the same locations and partake in the same scenarios and puzzles. You as the player have little overall influence on the the narrative and the experience is cheapened by attempting to take another approach on a second playthrough since it becomes apparent very quickly how inflexible the game is. With it's episodic release schedule, it's wholly understandable that The Walking Dead doesn't feature a massive branching narrative but it would have been nice if the path you take to the conclusion of each episode could vary. As it stands there isn't much replayability in The Walking Dead.
Puzzles and gameplay in the Walking Dead are rudimentary, some sequences have you aiming a weapon to take down a few walkers, quick time events are sprinkled throughout the game's five episodes and DLC and there are only a few puzzles. While The Walking Dead gleefully avoids the obtuse puzzles that characterize many point and click games it's simplicity can be off putting to veteran gamers. Puzzles have very apparent solutions and often the only objects you can pick up are the ones used to solve a puzzle. Having a few red herrings or multiple solutions to a scenario might have made these sequences more rewarding.
Recently, Telltale also released a new Walking Dead DLC titled 400 Days and it bridges the gap between the first and second season of the game. It opens with five vignettes that center around a diner that you can play through in any order you desire and closes with an epilogue that ties these sequences together and teases what is to come. These vignettes provide the back story for five new characters and generally distill The Walking Dead to it's most pure and compelling elements. Each sequence involves drastically different characters from different walks of life forced to make nightmarish choices. These choices are generally as grim and gory as anything in the five primary episodes, and in some sequences there is an appreciable amount of suspense and tension. The whole experience will take you and hour and a half to see through at most while the other episodes generally take more than to complete. The epilogue also ends on a rather lukewarm note but it does ramp up the anticipation for Telltale's followup season.
Taking inspiration from it's source material, The Walking Dead features a cell shaded look that turns rather modest tech into something that is very pleasing on an aesthetic level. Characters emote with a slight cartoonish level of exaggeration that does a commendable job of selling each character's performance. The voice acting itself is strong and really brings the relationship between Lee and Clementine to life. Orchestral sounds also interject the drama to intensify the proceedings. The overall presentation does suffer from some awkward scene transitions and some really ugly textures. These flaws are noticeable but do little to detract from the experience.
While The Walking Dead has it's fair share of flaws it may very well be the game that helps shine a light back on the point and click adventure genre. The way in which it capitalizes on human drama and making revolting and stomach churning choices demonstrates why there is still a place for adventure games. It's unfortunate that the illusion of choice in Telltale's blockbuster is so paper thin. Gamers who replay The Walking Dead from the start will find themselves with the same experience featuring different faces fulfilling the same duties as their counterparts. The lack of any kind of challenging or clever puzzles is disappointing since it makes the primary mode of gameplay simply making dialogue choices. Despite falling a bit short as a game, The Walking Dead is a tour de force experience—a sanguinary saga is worth partaking in for gamers and non gamers alike.

75

Moving Narrative, Anemic Gameplay

BavarianGod | Nov. 4, 2013 | Review of To The Moon Cap

There are some games we play for the experience and others that we play for the sheer entertainment they provide. One could argue that the finest examples of what video games offer balance both. Some games manage to do one or the other exceptionally well but fail to strike that coveted balance. To the Moon is part of the latter category. As a “game” it is rather anemic but it does manage to excel as a narrative experience. While some balk at the idea of taking part in an interactive story, those who are open to the concept will find To the Moon to be fulfilling though not without flaw.
To the Moon opens with you taking control of Dr. Eva Rosalene and Dr. Neil Watts, two members of Sigmund Corps., who are on a job to help fulfill the dying with of a man named Johnny Wyles. Watts and Rosalene have a rather interesting piece of tech supplied to them by their employer to accomplish this rather weighty task. They can enter people's memories and implant suggestions earlier in their memories, which essentially create paradoxes leading them to fabricate memories that never occurred. In Johnny's case he wishes to go to the moon but he isn't completely sure why... This makes the Duo of Watts and Rosalene rather complicated. They must take steps backward through his memories via mementos in an effort to understand why he wants to go to the moon. Hindsight being 20/20 it should be easy to figure out how to get Johnny to the moon right? If it were there wouldn't be much of a plot. Johnny's memories are rather cloudy and his wife's unusual behavior makes Johnny's desire only more confusing and unusual.
The plot of To the Moon is ultimately a love story. The world doesn't need to be saved, a powerful artifact needn't be secured, there are no nuclear warheads, no physical conflict. In this regard To the Moon is unique in the video game world and it is an appreciable step forward in terms of expanding what a video game can be. It also manages to present some touching and very human moments. More sensitive players may even shed a tear or two. It's more touching moments are frustratingly countered by poor attempts at humor by Dr. Watts. A large portion of his dialogue is cringe-worthy. He likes to make obnoxious puns and pop culture references that often spoil the mood. There is room for humor in a game like this but what's on offer is the stuff of really bad fan fiction. Humor aside the writing is solid though not exceptional. There are themes of individuality and identity woven throughout the narrative and flesh out the characters quite well. Aside from Dr. Watt's groan inducing humor I was also disappointed by the lack of development for the characters that you actually control. The story centers squarely on Johnny and those in his life but we learn next to nothing about Watts and Rosalene. It would have been nice to learn more about them and their relationship.
Perhaps the strongest aspect of To the Moon is the music. Made in RPG Maker, To the Moon lacks spoken dialogue but the music tells you more than words could. The soundtrack is driven by piano melodies that are sometimes underscored by string arrangements. Do yourself a favor if this games appeals to you in anyway and buy the game bundled with the soundtrack. If this is not your kind of game just buy the soundtrack. Also doing an impressive job carrying the emotional weight of the story are the visuals. The 16 bit sprites are detailed and great care has been taken to get them to emote in meaningful ways. The creator's of To the Moon must have studied hard from the book Final Fantasy VI wrote on how to get characters to emote with simple visuals.
Gameplay consists of searching for objects which allow the protagonists to use mementos to progress deeper into Johnny's memories. Once the memento is unlocked a simple puzzle must be completed in order to travel back. This process repeats itself through most of the game. More diligent players won't find anything off of the critical path. No extra details or plot nuances are added by talking to characters multiple times and only NPCs of importance can be interacted with. It's on the gameplay front that To the Moon takes it's biggest nose dive. The puzzles are not difficult enough nor varied enough to be rewarding and not being able to gain extra insight into the game's events by talking to NPCs or finding objects of interest really diminish the interactive element of To the Moon. Also, by emphasizing narrative there is little replay value for this three hour game.
What To the Moon lacks as a game it mostly makes up for as an experience. An incredible soundtrack and strong visual presentation makes up for failed attempts at humor and easy, repetitive puzzles. While To the Moon isn't for everyone, it is a very unique game that offers a love story that is not an ancillary component to a more grandiose plot. It is an appreciable dose of humanity in a market cluttered by games with narratives rife with machismo, self aggrandizement, and over the top acts of heroism. Here is to hoping that Freebird games works on the gameplay portion of their next release while maintaining their commitment to presenting narratives that are touching and humble.

96

Unreal...

BavarianGod | Nov. 4, 2013 | Review of The Witcher II: Assassins of Kings Enhanced Edition

The Witcher 2: The Enhanced Edition

The Witcher 2 was perhaps one of the most criminally overlooked games of 2011. With many RPG gamers looking forward to the release of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim this PC only release was lost in the hyperbolic praise of Bethesda's role playing juggernaut during end of the year awards. So, in 2012, CDProjekt Red has released an enhanced edition which hit the Xbox 360 making it the first entry in the series to grace a console and owners of the original iteration on the PC got all ten gigabytes of additional content for free. This content includes all of the patches which added extra quests and fixed a couple of questionable design choices, adds entirely new quests, and cut scenes to flesh the game's narrative out.
The Enhanced Edition opens with a rousing new cut scene depicting the assassination of Demavend, King of Aedirn. Upon starting the game the you take control of the witcher, Geralt, who is aiding Kind Foltest in a military endeavor to reclaim his bastard children. Success comes but the victory is short lived as Foltest is snuffed out and Geralt is blamed for his demise. From here the narrative takes off as Geralt hunts down Foltest's assassin simply to clear his name. Amidst the hunt for the assin of kings, political turmoil unfolds and Geralt seeks details on his lost love Yennifer. It's a top shelf fantasy RPG narrative. Its structured like a great season of a television show, there are three big narrative threads that are explored as the game progresses and narrative progression is steady for each thread. Like a television show, the game ends with some elements of the narrative resolved while others are escalating and awaiting a sequel. The world of the Witcher is dark and morally ambiguous which makes the element of choice the player us given extraordinarily satisfying. Making choices in The Witcher 2 is not about being a good witcher or a bad witcher, its about what you, the player, see fit to do. While Bioware's games are top notch, relegating in-game choices to a binary moral scale diminishes the impact of many decisions. Also the choices in The Witcher 2 do have an impact on the events of the game—a significant impact. A choice you make at the end of the first chapter completely changes your perspective on the second chapter. The quest line completely changes so you will want to play this game at least twice to get the full effect and, depending on how dedicated you are, maybe several more times.
The narrative plays out over a prologue, three chapters and an epilogue. The three chapters make up the bulk of the game and each is confined to a single location. There is no way to travel back to previous locations once the chapter concludes. The final chapter of the game is rather short though and it doesn’t seem as though there is nearly as much to explore compared to the previous chapters but it does host some of the best quests in the game. This is a narrative driven game and it wants you to move forward. Many players used to games like those in The Elder Scrolls or Gothic series may be upset by this but the narrative so greatly benefits from this rigid structure that it's hard to make a case for a more open format. Each locale is loaded with side quests and very few of them feel like obnoxious chores, a problem that palgues many other RPG experiences. The sidequests mix in some character development, world building and humor generally enriching the core experience.
There are two very compelling reasons (aside from the narrative elements) to do all of the sidequests in a location. The first is that resources in The Witcher 2 are very limited. Unlike most modern RPGs, you can't really grind for money. Reselling items, gear and raw materials nets such a small portion of the items original value that it's not worth doing for the sake of recouping your money. You will have to carefully decide what you can craft and what you should buy since simply buying the gear and items you want will quickly deplete your coiffures. The second reason to do all of those extra quests is to drink in the staggeringly beautiful world that The Witcher 2 offers. The Witcher 2 set a new graphical benchmark with its richly detailed and carefully crafted world. You really have to search hard for an ugly texture. Everything from the biggest building to the smallest environmental prop is detailed and rendered with care. One of the standout quests in the third chapter takes you to  a mage's laboratory that is filled with trinkets, equipment and murals. It's dimly lit, with sinister stones protruding from the walls. Not since being blown away by the pre rendered backdrops in Resident Evil 2 or Final Fantasy VII on the Playstation have I cared to drink in all of the details of a game's environment. Acquiring new armor is rewarding even if the stats aren't a significant improvement over what you have just because the detail put into it is so fantastic. It's a shame that the facial animations don't quite match the graphical leap forward. They are not bad but they are decidedly current gen in a game that otherwise gives us a glimpse at what we can look forward to visually in games.
Combat in The Witcher 2 has been massively overhauled from the first game. Geralt can lay traps, use rudimentary magics and is an accomplished swordsman. Even if you don't focus on leveling spell casting or using traps Geralt is still competent enough to make use of these abilities. Some will see the lack of opportunity to really build a Geralt to their personal style but it's as a consequence of the character's lore. You still place skill points in the appropriate trees to buff the abilities of your choice but you don't really spec into an archetypical fantasy class. When it comes to wielding his blades, Geralt has two swords, a silver blade for monsters and a steel blade for humans. He can parry and counter so timing your attacks in key. Certain traps are more effective for some enemies and magic is a mix of healing, buffing and attacking. It's quite a repertoire and you are left with no shortage of tactical options. Fortunately, a new tutorial was added to the Enhanced Edition to help players come to grips with Geralt's skills and abilities. One rather irritating quirk of the combat is the fact that Geralt can only use potions outside of battle so this can turn some encounters into a trial and error affair. You often have to fail in a battle to see what potions may be worth using. It never makes the game annoying... It just makes alchemy feel pointless. Combat requires some skill and forethought but shouldn't be too taxing to a competent gamer and generally proves rewarding.
To better showcase the combat the Enhanced Edition also includes an arena mode. This does a great job of mixing up enemies and provides a nice challenge. Those who take up arms in the arena and succeed will be rewarded with special gear. It's a mode that some will gravitate toward and others may ignore or simply not enjoy but it is a welcome extra and the rewards are worthwhile. Also included in the Enhanced Edition is a  short animated summary of the events in The Witcher which will certainly help players who didn't experience the first game catch up. Even if you fail to watch this the narrative stands well enough on its own.
The Witcher 2 was a great game with a few annoying flaws. The Enhanced Edition addresses many of these and goes above and beyond with meaningful new in game content. It's packed with new cutscenes and the new quests are some of the best in the game. The structure is rigid when compared to some other RPGs but it boasts a stronger, more direct narrative as a result. The ability to make choices in the game is enriching and adds tremendous replay value and the visuals will whet your appetite for what future games will look like. The combat is solid though the alchemy system is quirky to the point of being almost pointless. None of the flaws present will stay with you for long after you complete this game though. It's likely that you will be more concerned with what CDProjekt Red has in store for us in the next Witcher release.

83

Give Mr. Fisher One More Chance!

BavarianGod | Nov. 4, 2013 | Review of Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell - Blacklist (Capsule) (NA)

Sam Fisher is in many ways America's James Bond. He has the gadgets, the physical acumen for grappling terrorists with his bare hands, a supporting cast of desk jockeys that interfere with his field work and the backing of a secretive government agency. He's just a shaken martini, a case of crabs and a tailored suit away from being 007's long lost brother. Sam has always differentiated himself from Ian Flemming's fanciful English spy by being less refined, less glamorous and more realistic—enough so to have Tom Clancy's name attached to his games. In recent years, Mr. Fisher has regrettably been more Jack Bauer than his old cunning, stealthy self. While recent Splinter Cell games have not been without some notable additions, on the whole they have strayed from the formula that firmly affixed Sam Fisher as the closest competition to Solid Snake. Despite some misguided PR since Blacklist's announcement, it seems that Sam Fisher is back to his old self—almost. Blacklist kicks off on Andersen AFB in Guam where terrorists have killed a general and made a few things go boom and they are threatening to do it a few more times unless America brings it's troops from abroad back home. While Bond would have been trolling the tourist filled beaches of Tumon bay during such an attack, Fisher is right in the middle of it, waiting patiently in a helicopter that is supposed to depart for an operation. The attack is conducted by The Engineers and it turns out that their leader is rather cunning which leads Fourth Echelon on a globe trotting quest to take them down and restore order. Sam has a personal stake in taking the perpetrators out since his buddy Vic Coste is seriously wounded during the attack on Guam. It's exactly what Splinter Cell fans have come to expect, a world wide game of cat and mouse with a dose of politics and endless debates between administrative desk fixtures and the team that risks life and limb to complete their mission. What's frustrating about Blacklist is is its indifference to some of the heavy political themes present. American imperialism, torture and the detainment of military combatants at Guantanamo are all elements in the plot and Sam and crew offer no thoughts or commentary on them. While I wouldn't want Blacklist to be a heavy handed treatment for or against these things but failing to acknowledge them is mildly disturbing. With a bit more audacity, Blacklist's narrative might have been memorable. Between missions Fisher is able to chat with his crew and even call home on Fourth Echelon’s massive flying command centered called Paladin. It goes a long way toward making the characters more than simply chattering heads pointing out objectives and obstacles. Exploring the Paladin between missions also allows Sam to take on optional missions that can be tackled co-operatively or solo. Recon can also be found between missions that unlocks concept art. The twelve campaign missions reward three different play styles and your actions earn points in each of these categories. Each category has a score that if reached or surpassed results in mastery of that play style for that particular mission. The ghost style will be what Splinter Cell veterans will aim for as it rewards stealthy non-leathal takedowns, evading the enemy and not raising the alarm. Panther play style rewards stealthy kills and the Assault play style caters to impatient jackasses that don't have the good sense to play the Splinter Cell in the way that it was originally intended. Hiding bodies and locating more obscure paths also gives players a point bonus and you score at the end of a mission determines you payment. The stealthier you are the higher the multiplier for point based actions. Money can be used to purchase new guns, gadgets, upgrades and attire for both single and multiplayer. Cash can also be earned at the conclusion of multiplayer matches. The challenges from Conviction also return and completing them earns bonus money. There is also a meta game called Gone Dark that has players following clues to locate terrorists. Following the information you are giving and taking the correct course of action earns you a multiplier for your income at the end of missions. Your missions offer an appreciable number of unique challenges to keep you engaged and being able to take a few different approaches to each task makes them re-playable and puts Blacklist's campaign a cut above the action games it sometimes channels. Whether you are trying to sneak into a truck without knocking out or alerting guards, waiting for data to download while aggressive guards sweep the area or running for your life as everything blows up around Fisher each mission offers intense scenarios that will turn your knuckles white and cause your jaw to clench. Not every scanrio is worthwhile however, first person segments with your partner Briggs are not invigorating in the least. Enemy AI is mostly sharp enough not to trivialize your tasks. Guards that wear helmets will not fall to single headshots, guards with full body armor and respirators must be tackled from the back or sides for successful stealth takedowns and are immune to sleeping gas and electric shocks, and drone operators can be rather pesky by sending barrages of their little robotic buddies after you. Tools like the tri-rotor drone and sleeping gas swing many encounters in your favor however. The tri rotor in particular makes recon so easy and it's four electric charge darts give it more than enough offensive prowess—it often feels kind of cheap to use and purists will want to avoid it. Mark and Execute also returns and can be used in motion now. A perfectionist difficulty setting disables this feature but still allows targets to be marked for easy tracking. Blacklist also marks the triumphant return of multiplayer in Splinter Cell. The much beloved Spies vs. Mercs mode is a 2 on 2 asymmetrical mode that tasks spies with hacking one of three terminals and securing the area while the data transfers. It's the Merc's job to hunt these shadow dwelling saboteurs down. The catch is that the mercenaries have superior firepower but move slowly and their vision is limited to a fist person perspective while spies are agile and able to take the high ground for executions. It is perhaps the most tactical and teamwork focused multiplayer type ever devised. Load outs can now be customized which gives spies more potent offensive capabilities. While Mercs still have the offensive upper hand, this removes much of the tension present in Chaos Theory and Pandora Tomorrow, spoiling the balance those games achieved between these two sides. While many games benefit from the dangling carrot of new weapons and upgrades for your online character Splinter Cell does not. Fortunately, a classic mode is available that features fixed load outs. Both modes also feature infinite respawns which improves the game by forcing players to take objectives rather than turn the mode into deathmatch as well as making the game less daunting for new comers. The PC version of Blacklist isn't the quick and dirty console port we have come to expect, featuring DX 11 features such as tesselation, improved ambient occlusion and higher resolution textures. Outdoor environments are attractive and some missions even occur during the day giving you a chance to absorb the details in the environments. Given the narrative material at hand Blacklist also offers a commendable amount of diversity in it's locals. Xbox 360 owners should be aware that a 3gb HD texture install is required to make Blacklist look acceptable though textures can still be very muddy. The soundtrack takes a page from Battlefield 3 with it's heavy use of distortion and noise and the string piece that plays during Sam's calls to his family is obnoxiously melodramatic and may induce vomiting. Most notable about the audio is the fact that the voice of Sam Fisher has changed. Michael Ironside's deep gravely voice is no longer heard when Sam speaks, instead Eric Johnson voices the master of the shadows. While there is nothing about his performance that is objectionable, his voice sounds more youthful and doesn't match the look of the aging Fisher. What's worse is that this change was made so that performance capture could be used and frankly, the stiff facial animations aren't worth trading Ironside's pipes for. In many ways, Blacklist is return to form. It offers a robust feature set that gives players worthwhile content to explore alone, with friends and while competing with strangers. While it seems there is no turning back toward making Splinter Cell or any other stealth game for that matter, a purely stealthy affair, purists will be able to enjoy the game in classic fashion. The return of Spies vs. Mercs confirms it's status as a classic game mode and even after almost a decade it stands up as a unique and enthralling game type though it's recommended that players stick with classic mode. The narrative is gutless and will likely be forgotten but the gameplay makes up for it. Those who were disenchanted by Double Agent and Conviction should probably give Mr. Fisher one more chance...

80

The Horror...

BavarianGod | Nov. 4, 2013 | Review of Spec Ops: The Line

It would be easy to look at Spec Ops, groan and promptly write it off as another addition to the bloated cabal of modern military shooters, but to do so would be a mistake. What, on the outside, looks like a game about three hardened delta force commandos shooting up brown people in another sandy Middle Eastern hell hole defies outward appearances and proves to be a bit more clever and surprising. Given the fact that the earlier entries in the Spec Ops franchise pro occupied themselves with cut and dry tactical military action you would be forgiven for making such an assertion. The game opens with a bombastic set piece that seems to have been ripped out of Call Of Duty. It looks like a deleted scene from True Lies, with your character manning a mini gun, shredding lesser enemy helicopters between the sky scrappers of Dubai. You shoot through large glass walls at choppers on the opposite sides of buildings, one unfortunate bird smashes into a crane as things are constantly going boom. It's what we have come to expect from this kind of game. The sequence ends and you flash back to the beginning of the sequence of events that led to that point. No surprises so far. You play as Walker, a Delta Force operative (voiced by Nolan North of Uncharted fame) and are accompanied by Adams and Lugo, your trusty wing men, on a mission to rescue the people of Dubai and locate Colonel John Konrad. The narrative is loosely based on Joesph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and it takes a lot of cues from Frances Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now, which is also based on Conrad's novella.
The not-so-unusual set up is followed up with some not-so-unusual third person cover based shooting as the game introduces you to Dubai and your squad mates. The shooting mechanics work well enough. You take cover, blind fire, pop out of cover to take precise shots, order squad mates to throw flash bangs and attack. Left to their own devices, Lugo and Adams prove themselves to be competent. They will kill enemies and they generally stay out of your way and make an effort to preserve themselves. It's very refreshing to have AI squad mates that do more than shout, “Reloading!” and “Stay frosty!” every five seconds. In short order, the first wrinkle to otherwise not-so-unusual formula is introduced—environment based attacks. You will find the sandstorm has left mounds of sand heaped behind fragile barriers that can be destroyed in an effort to bury your foes. These environmental advantages are sprinkled throughout the campaign and really brings the setting to life. Engulfing enemies in sand isn't enough to warrant playing any game, but from here Spec Ops only gets more interesting. The second major deviation this game makes is placing you in the middle of moral dilemmas. These sections don't have any lasting effects on the game's narrative but act as a means of reinforcing the game's themes. These are not about playing a “good” soldier or a “bad” soldier but rather having to make a choice you may not want to make. Making these choices strips any pretense of being a bad ass hero, they remind you that you can't save the the day all of the time and sometimes you might not be able to save anything at all... One of the most uninspiring and unappealing aspects of modern military shooters is the art direction. I can only wade through so many brown mud huts, gray warehouses made out of tin and steel, and dilapidated villages before I want to gouge my eyes out. In spite of all of the sand, Spec Ops offsets the desaturated, sandy sun baked sections with vibrant, colorful interiors. You wade through seas of abandoned cars on highways, blast your way through luxury hotels, crawl out of the apocalyptic center of the city, and bounce across glass filled rooftops. Dubai, as depicted in Spec Ops, is a surreal place. The art style lends itself to the narrative—more specifically the character's mental states. What you see may or may not be real. The characters themselves are detailed and they become more haggard and war torn as the game progresses, animations are altered a bit to reflect the change in characters. There are some visual metaphors sprinkled about if you pay attention (and you should) to the detailed and engaging setting. It's not the technical marvel that Battlefield 3 on the PC is but the art direction makes this infinitely more interesting to behold. Also the soundtrack deserves special attention. Dubai has also been rigged with speakers and a DJ, known as The Radioman, is broadcasting throughout the city. He sounds like an aging hippie and the music he plays kind of reflects this. Did you ever think you would have a shoot out in a modern military game while Deep Purple's Hush plays in the background? What about Martha and the Vandellas Nowhere to Run? It's fantastic. The juxtaposition of these tunes with the violence of the gun play creates and truly unsettling tone. It seems really obvious that Apocalypse Now was a huge influence on this aspect of the game. There are also some noteworthy ambient, largely guitar-based compositions that sew together the sections of the game that don't have licensed tunes playing in a cohesive manner. The voice acting is also commendable and the writing is very self aware of genre tropes and plays off of them. The whole game centers around critiquing and in some ways defying what you have come to expect from other games in this genre. You won't play anything like it. What sets Spec Ops back, and is likely to turn off most gamers, is its short length. It is completable in a single sitting and most players will clock in about five to eight hours depending on skill level. The moral dilemmas are not designed to extend the game but rather to set the tone for your play through and experiencing their different outcomes really doesn't extend the game play experience in any meaningful way. Spec Ops was clearly designed as a single player experience and the multiplayer is best ignored altogether. Playing the game in co-op will only further shorten the experience. It's a shame that completing the main single player experience doesn't unlock bite sized missions or episodes from your squad's past. Given that PTSD and war induced stress are huge themes it would have been an appropriate way to add to the game's content without artificially extending the main campaign. The gameplay itself doesn't quite come to a climax. There is a tough final stretch which I was expecting to pay of with a unique gameplay finale. Instead you shoot your way through some of the same late game enemy types utilizing the same tactics that carried you through the rest of the game. The final chapter doesn't involve firing your weapon at all and while I am not opposed to that in any way I was hoping to see my struggle to get to the final chapter culminate in something unique. There is a strange imbalance between the big narrative conclusion and the comparatively lukewarm gameplay conclusion. Spec Ops is one of the most mature and interesting games of the year. It is an experience. One unlike any other in terms of the way the game mechanics reinforce the themes and concepts put forth by the narrative. It should be on your radar but don't expect to put dozens of hours into it. In terms of gameplay it's competent rather than exceptional, but where it excels is where other games in its genre need to take a hard look at what they are doing. Games like Spec Ops and Bioshock will be important examples in video game history for integrating gameplay mechanics with narrative themes. This alone makes it worth playing and possibly revisiting in a few years time.

77

Hong Kong cinema meets Open World Action

BavarianGod | Nov. 4, 2013 | Review of Sleeping Dogs Digital Edition

Every now and then a game comes out and defies expectations. When Activision canceled True Crime: Hong Kong and Square Enix purchased the rights it seemed to be a bad omen. If making the necessary changes and polishing the game was not worth Activiaion's time than what hope should gamers have? It's not as though the first two True Crime titles set the world on fire―they merely served as appetizers for Rockstar's next release. Thankfully, Sleeping Dogs turned out to be one of 2012's biggest surprises. It's far from perfect but it offers a competent and open world game with some thoughtfully fleshed out mechanics. Fans of film directors like Johnnie To, Ringo Lam and John Woo will feel right at home in Sleeping Dogs. You take control of Wei Shen, a Hong Kong native who has just returned home after spending some time in the United States. He is working as an undercover cop under superintendent Thomas Pendrew and his handler Raymond Mak in an effort to take down a powerful Triad gang known as the Sun On Yee. Wei's assignment positions him as a lowly thug under the wing of a 'roided out hothead named Winston Chu and follows his ascension to a prominent figure within the Sun On Yee. Things become complicated however, as the line between undercover cop and criminal blurs. Wei becomes deeply entrenched in the criminal underworld, building friendships with his gang-mates while witnessing signs of corruption within the police force. The yarn spun by Sleeping Dogs is solid enough but it's telling stumbles. Pacing is all over the place, and many important elements seem undercooked. Sleeping dogs has issues integrating plot points into missions and providing build up. For example, Winston has a fiancee that is revealed when you have to run a few errands for her as part of a mission. She softens Winston's image and makes him a little more human but, unfortunately she exits the plot just as abruptly as she shows up making her little more than a tool to develop Winston. Thankfully the finale builds in a satisfying way and there are some sections that are really effective and engaging in the middle portion of the tale. Its just a shame that it couldn't be more consistent and better developed. Being an undercover cop Wei must straddle the line between right and wrong and missions reflect this. Good guy Wei finds time between running errands for the an police inspector to help with some of her cases. Triad missions are strait forward affairs that usually involve collecting protection money, stealing stuff, beating the hell out of other gang members and maybe shooting a few people. Cop cases play out more like multi-stage quest chains commonly associated with RPGs. Wei also earns experience for both a cop skill tree and a triad skill tree. You earn both types of experience in both mission types but being a public menace and destroying public property or killing civilians will take away from the cop experience you can earn in a mission. Throughout the course of Sleeping Dogs Wei hacks cameras, races, sings karaoke, cracks combination locks, plants bugs, triangulates cellphone calls, bets on cock fights, plays mahjong poker and picks locks. The game does a great job of mixing these elements up and missions are generally interesting with only a few lame ducks. All of the aforementioned elements are secondary to the driving, fighting and shooting you will be doing to make your way through the game. The fighting system in this game really shines. Wei relies on strikes, grapples and counters to dispatch his foes. Enemies come in varieties as well, some specialize in strikes and block many of your attacks, grapplers are burly chaps that you want to keep at bay with power strikes, some enemies wield knives and tire irons and later in the game you will find enemies that are really only susceptible to counters. If you want to live in Sleeping Dogs, you will have to prioritize your foes and time your attacks carefully. Your wushu can be supplemented by finding Jade statues that can be returned to the Kung Fu master in the game. These moves are valuable tools and you will find yourself utilizing most of them. They allow you to snap your opponents limbs, deliver powerful blows and disarm your foes. It's a great system and is evolves enough during the course of the game to remain engaging. Driving is similar to other open world games with cars that handle differently based on weight and size. The one unique addition to the driving mechanics is a button that allows you to throw the car sideways by pushing the appropriate button or key and moving in the direction you wish to go. This allows you to ram vehicles that are in hot pursuit of Wei. Motorcycles, scooters and boats are also among the vehicles you will pilot. Shooting is of the cover-based variety and Wei can vault from cover and enter slow motion as well as blind fire. It's solid but the mechanics are not as unique and engaging as the hand to hand combat. In light of this most of the game focuses on hand to hand confrontations. Sleeping Dogs' interpretation of Hong Kong is an efficiently constructed playground. There is an unusual amount of verticality in this game despite the lack of air vehicles. Wei can climb the ledges and scaffolding around a number of the building and access rooftops. Pedestrian overpasses on the streets also provide access to high places in which numerous collectables are tucked away. Free running is also a part of Sleeping Dogs' bag of tricks. At certain points Wei will have to pursue targets on foot through a gauntlet of barriers and other impediments. These sections involve the player running after them and timing button presses to clear obstacles gracefully, poor timing results in fumbling over an obstacle and loosing ground. The animations for these sections don't flow together as smoothly as those in Assassin's Creed but the extra input required to complete them is a welcome addition that adds a small layer of interactivity in what is usually a passive experience in other games. It's just a shame that the camera is not exactly stellar. It seems to have a knack for being in the wrong place most of the time. Strangely absent is the ability to center the camera with a button press that's so common in third person action games. On the PC, Sleeping Dogs is a really pleasing game to look at. Square Enix has also made a high resolution texture pack available for those with decent rigs and includes some DX11 features. Hong Kong is wonderfully detailed with neon signs glowing, power lines forming webs overhead, air conditioning fans spinning on the sides of buildings, and plenty of pedestrians and traffic to make the city feel alive. Also, the game wisely uses rain to give everything a nice sheen--as it rains the wet pavement reveals reflections of neon signs and characters appear wet. The handful of interiors are also detailed and pleasing to look at. NPCs are not too detailed and are a little more robotic as a result of a low poly count and the cars are not tremendously detailed but these are technical limitations that are to be expected. The main characters however are richly detailed, making the cutscenes a treat. Skin textures are very detailed and the tattoos that adorn the bodies of the gangsters add quite a bit of character to each of them. You can also customize the clothing that Wei wears and wearing certain combinations of clothing can provide stat benefits. Cloting options are rather varied accounting for both ridiculous looks and strictly business attire. The auditory presentation of this fictionalized version of Honk Kong is pretty solid. There is a good mix of hip hop, rock, classical, electronic, and some Chinese tracks to add some local flavor to the the soundtrack. Likewise most of the commercials and DJ speak Cantonese. Characters generally speak English but throw in some Cantonese which, given the strong western influence in Hong Kong, isn't entirely out of place. The stereotypical accents usually add a small degree of authenticity but can be a bit ridiculous at times―particularly the pork bun vendors. Lines that will have you giggling in the first few minutes in the game are rather grating in the last few hours. The vocal performances by Will Yun Lee (Wei) and Tom Wilkinson (Pendrew) are particularly strong however. Many of the other voice actors turn in solid performances. For a game that was almost canned, Sleeping Dogs is quite impressive. The story fumbles around before ending on a strong note and the camera can be irritating but these faults are offset by great mechanics and strong visuals on the PC. Sleeping Dogs isn't ready to dethrone Grand Theft Auto as the best open world crime game but it's robust mechanics and numerous diversions make it a strong addition to the genre. It appears that Square Enix stuck gold by reviving this dead dog.

90

Asteroids on Steroids

BavarianGod | Nov. 4, 2013 | Review of Beat Hazard

Chances are if you have a pulse you enjoy music. Music is one of the strongest means of expression the human race has and since recorded history man has invented new ways to make and enjoy music. So, what do music and twin stick shooters have in common? Well, nothing unless you are playing Beat Hazard Ultra. Beat Hazard allows you to use music from your library (or from the game's own soundtrack) to create the soundtrack for space ship genocide. Everything from the movements of your enemies to the power of your weapons depends on the scherzo of slaughter that you pluck from your music library. With plenty of twin stick shooters on the market one naturally wonders if the novelty of a game reacting to music that you choose from your own collection is enough to make it worth your time. Like a proper arcade twin stick shooter, Beat Hazard doesn't even attempt to tell a story. All you need to know if that there is a bunch of stuff somewhere in outer space that is trying to destroy your humble vessel and its up to you to survive. This is wise as any attempt to tell a story would betray the game's arcade roots and simply stand as an inhibiting influence between you and twin stick bliss. Gameplay comes in several flavors; standard arcade, survival, boss rush and chill out are all on the menu. After making your musical selection your ship is placed in the middle quiet and serene space. Things don't remain quiet for long however. Ships and asteroids glide in and shuffle to the sound of your chosen track. Every beat sends them dancing around the screen and hopefully, into your laser beams. Power ups and score multipliers are dropped by foes and risking destruction to scoop them up is as rewarding here as it has ever been. The greater the dynamic range of your musical selection the more difficult and interesting the game is. Having swarms of enemy ships on screen during a diminuendo is perilous as the loudness of your music determines your weapon strength. Your lasers of doom become pea shooters of personal peril once the music quiets. Should a boss enter the fray during one of these quiet moments you had best hope your bobbing and weaving skills are on par with Muhammad Ali. In this way, choosing the music that sets the tone for the action is more than a gimmick. Beat Hazard has a few tricks up its sleeve to ensure that you will remain fixated with it. In addition to powerups, enemies also drop money. Money can be used to purchase perks and upgrades for perks that have been purchased. Perks can be unlocked by leveling up. Every point you earn goes toward leveling up. The perks include things like starting with additional powerups at the beginning of a track, micro missiles, an energy beam and additional lives. Extra difficulties can be unlocked to keep very skilled players engaged as well. It must be said though that as a result of the perks the average player will struggle at the start. As you unlock more perks the game becomes much easier and most likely too easy for skilled twin stick shooter aficionados. For those that don't have a robust digital music collection the game also offers a suit of original music and there is also the option to stream music from internet radio. The internet radio option is a phenomenal addition for even those with a music stores worth of digital tracks to choose from by adding a element of unpredictability to the mix. It's also perfect for survival mode. Visually Beat Hazard is an ocular assault of colors, explosions and mayhem. The visual business can be cranked down or turned up based on your preferences. Ship design is clean and detailed though a bit unremarkable. Designs vary between human based designs an a few alien type enemies. The simple star filled back drop is rarely visible once the action picks up. The audio is minimal bringing your music to the forefront. It's a wise decision since the sound effects largely to inform you of things that you may not otherwise see among the visual chaos. Your enjoyment of Beat Hazard Ultra will largely depend on your affinity for music. If you enojoy music that appropriately sets the tone for destroying stuff than you should find that Beat Hazard offers hours of fun. If your muscial choices are overproduced and plagued by dynamic range compression than it is likely that you will find Beat Hazard too easy. For me, there isn't a better twin stick shooter on the market. Trying be complete a cut together 27 minute version of Pink Floyd's “Shine On you Crazy Diamond” or Liquid Tennsion Experiment's “When the Water Breaks” are challenges that will remain on my gaming bucket list for some time. Beat Hazard does everything it can to make the most of it's gameplay and mechanics by offering a solid leveling and perk system and an appeal that is lasts as long as your digital music library allows.

90

Bringing Literary Conventions to Gaming

BavarianGod | Nov. 4, 2013 | Review of Dear Esther

Developing a consistent lexicon for storytelling in video games has been a vexing proposition for those involved in the industry over the past several decades. Literature and cinema have their own distinct rules and ways of communicating themes and idea to their audiences and video games should be no different than either of those mediums. Lessons learned are quickly forgotten or ignored as fans endure poorly structured narratives in hopes of finding the gems among the stones in the gaming landscape. Dear Ester is among gaming's Avant Garde, forgoing any kind of actual gameplay in a demonstration of the potential power of interactive storytelling. There are no enemies, no puzzles, not so much as a single item to pick up or collect. It would be natural to wonder why even make Dear Ester interactive at all. Couldn't it's yarn just be put onto pages or film? Opening with your in front of the Lighthouse with your character delivering a soliloquy, after which you are left to explore your surroundings. There are no objective markers, no text prompts, no intrusive and hideous HUD to obscure your view of the world. Exploring the nooks and crannies of the surrounding area occasionally prompts random statements from your character. These are usually excerpts from letters the the title character Esther. In these letters are few of the Island's former inhabitants are referenced repeatedly. There are also several themes that emerge from these excerpts and astute players will notice those themes reflected in the environment. A glowing red beacon on top of a radio tower is almost always present and, like a moth to a flame, is compels you to seek it out. Paths split and merge around the island and it's easy to find your way forward. This set up wouldn't be engrossing for very long if it wasn't for the visuals. Dear Ester benefits from an excellent graphical presentation and art direction. Textures are rich, dust picks up, leaves blow around, the foliage is dense, and landmarks dot an otherwise open landscape. Warm candle glow contrasts with cool night skies and somehow Dear Esther manages to make caves, often the most drab environments found in games, rather breath taking. Rock walls are scrawled on with luminescent goo, and the rocks form awesome structures with stalactites and stalagmites jutting from the bedrock forming nefarious teeth. Rivers flow through the cave's interior terminating in grand waterfalls. It is perhaps here that the game's setting can be most clearly seen as a metaphor. To deride Dear Esther for it's lack of actual gameplay is to remain oblivious to it's excellent adaptation of literary devices to tell a simple interactive story. It's a story that places you not just in the shoes of the protagonist but in his mind and soul. Its an introspective tale which is remarkably rare for a video game. To discuss any more of the plot would undermine the experience and the mystery. Allegory, allusions and metaphors are all present. Dear Esther explores new territory for narrative in an interactive media. With it's lack of a defined structure and a devilish desire not to be too explicit with its plot points Dear Esther's yarn will displease some an accusations of pretension will likely ensue.
There have been games in the past with exquisite narratives and there have been games that have extraordinary gameplay and mechanics. The biggest challenge is getting these two aspects of a game to work together harmoniously—to have game mechanics that fit into narrative themes. Mechanics and gameplay elements that reflect the subtext of the narrative itself. In many games story and gameplay exist in almost separate bubbles. Actual narrative often bookends levels and takes a backseat while the player controls their character. It's an antiquated formula that only a handful of games seem to have shaken. Given Dear Esther's unique narrative presentation I must confess to being curious as to how they might have tackled this issue and it was disappointing to me that I didn't get to see The Chinese Room's solution to this issue. The way The Chinese Room engages the player without traditional mechanics is through simple exploration. By making discoveries in the world you are treated to a bit of exposition. Symbols, diagrams, and writings can be found in the world to reflect elements of the exposition. A book or film could never deliver the level of immersion that Dear Esther offers. The experience only works because the player can choose to see or not to see things in the environment. The ability for the player to set the pace of the story and be given the opportunity to discover the details makes Dear Esther work. Dear Esther has had a remarkable journey from Half Life 2 mod to independent release. It's an exercise in adapting literary conventions to an interactive experience and it's an exercise worth taking part in. The excellent soundtrack and visuals hold your attention while the plot takes shape. The conclusions will stick with you long after the hour and a half it takes to see it through and it's likely that you will want to revisit Dear Esther to soak in it's finer points. While not for everyone this is an important game and it's my greatest hope that developers take note of what Dear Esther has managed to accomplish.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DlNEYBirnXQ