Reviews by beatstar

90

A gracious conclusion to the series

beatstar | Aug. 25, 2013 | Review of Saints Row IV NA

[GMG Mods: A repost from The Global Marketeer, my blog, with minor edits for content]

Seven years ago, the first Saints Row was released to the English-speaking world and stunned dozens with its emphasis on customization, gameplay, and storyline. Back then, it could be said that it was little more than a glorified Grand Theft Auto clone, but over time the comparison grew thinner and thinner until Saints Row: The Third hit store shelves in 2011. The title finally set the series apart from its former rival; by elevating its protagonist to a supreme crimelord off the bat (for those unfamiliar with the Saints Row 2 DLC), but the sudden shift in character design as well as the incorporation of wacky, campy humor was often a source of ridicule.

Saints Row IV provides nearly the same platform with all the decadence from The Third included. With that said, Volition attempts to make great strides by being inventive once more with its series, even as a once-scrapped DLC project. Does it live up to it’s predecessor, much less the series? Let’s take a look.

The game starts with a young British woman recounting a very general history of the Saints from the beginning: the rise of pop culture icons from degenerate street thugs, and from their actions the public voted its leader (the protagonist) into the presidency.

It seems like a very unorthodox place to put a protagonist; but then again, it falls in line with the events of the previous title. You are then sent to personally kill Cyrus Temple, anti-gang STAG leader turned terrorist in an international assassination. After that’s done, you’ll disarm a nuke mid-flight and somehow land perfectly in the Oval Office. Enter title card (just in case you forgot what you were playing).

After that, you are about to interrupt a press conference until you are warned about the possibility of aliens attacking. Lo and behold, they do, and it’s your duty as President of the United States to stop them.

If you are new to the series or haven’t played since the first, the game’s fast-paced action and nonconformity might be a little overwhelming, but it will eventually win you over as one of the most… unique and contradictory games out there right now.

There are few similarities to be found comparing the series debut to IV, but the latter frequently phones home to the second title in ways The Third never really took advantage of. Like 2, there is a proportional amount of seriousness just as there are silly moments of camp and satire, and it seems that becoming president the protagonist matures in a way to become an ideal leader for his or her gang.

There are countless references and homages to nearly everything in this game. From clichéd Hepler-written Mass Effect 3 romances (which are simplified here as push button, receive sex), to tired 2006 memes (Do A Barrel Roll), to Prototype and MineCraft, to minced lines from William Shakespeare’s plays, 1995 film Hackers, to 1989 film They Live, among plenty of others. None of these insertions prevent the main story from being refreshingly original, though.

The writing is excellent both on a superficial and analytical level. Apart from a few awkward moments such as a few lazily written lines at the beginning and forth-wall breakage towards the middle of the story, the writing and execution of the lines are well-done and often amusing in nature. The vivid characterization of the protagonist as a “puckish rogue” (referencing Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream) compliments the extraterrestrial antagonist Zinyak, who paraphrases a Romeo & Juliet line to counter this sentiment poetically.

The fun doesn’t end there, though. Shaundi’s druggie past and unexplained character redesign is also taken into account, as the major plot-point is to rescue your fellow gang members (homies) by living their worst fears with them. As the story progresses, they become increasingly outlandish, and you might be surprised to find out what they exactly are.

The game’s dynamics are, at first, similar to Saints Row: The Third. The first things you may know off the bat is a more complex weapons system (upgrading your weapons is paramount if you want them to do the same amount of damage as in the previous game) and the [re]introduction of superpowers, depending on whether you played The Trouble With Clones or not. But your options become increasingly varied as you go along, eventually taking the shape of Tron and early-90s Beat ‘Em Ups.

The AI has been greatly improved. This time around, there is an need for actual tactics to take down your enemies, some of which are invulernable to conventional weapons. Your enemies know how to take cover and hide, and the mini-bosses have shields which require the use of your superpowers to break through them and take them down with.

With your superpowers, may find yourself doing fine without the need of a car or weapons, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t just as customizable as its predecessors. You can still pimp out your vehicles as usual, but now you can also change the design or skin of your weapons, which adds a degree of customization to the table.

The side-missions (or Quests, as Saints Row has taken to calling them) are better incorporated here than in the last game. Every mission has the description and reward laid out ahead of time, so you don’t end up doing an optional activity by accident thinking it progresses the story. There are also “Loyalty” missions grouped up in this category (another throwback to the Mass Effect series) where you spend quality time with your homies in order to upgrade them with superpowers. Each of these missions are fantastic and jam-packed with action and plenty of humor to go along with it.

Then there’s sound. The radio isn’t all that great in my opinion, but the score shines, much like Mass Effect 3′s did. The weapons do sound slightly less spectacular, but it’s made up for in part by the dubstep gun. Yes, you read that right, dubstep gun. Besides that, the voice cast did a good job voicing their lines and I have no complaints relating to the performance.

As for the performance of the game itself, the game’s eminence of being in a simulation with intentional glitches is never going to be enough to excuse itself from its occasional crashes. The last thing I want to worry about is crashing to desktop half-way through a lengthy mission. Graphically, it competes with the The Third (obviously, as it was intended to be DLC) and performance is similar.

To wrap this up: Yeah — the game will probably confuse the hell out of people not familiar with the series or those who just played the first. But at the same time, it will give Saints Row 2 fans a decent explanation to what happened to their favorite characters, and also give them a bit of closure.

Saints Row IV is a risk-taking but fun space opera/comedy. With complete creative control given by Deep Silver, the game is a compromise the sublime and the ridiculous, and you should definitely give it a try. If you’re going for 100%, it’s worth the $50 pricetag, otherwise wait for the sale.

90

Life Is Like An Aeroplane

beatstar | Aug. 17, 2013 | Review of DuckTales: Remastered

[GMG Mods: A repost from with The Global Marketeer, my blog, with minor edits for content.]

Musical earbugs and great TV shows aside, DuckTales is best remembered as a 1989/1990 video game developed and published by Capcom for the Nintendo Entertainment System and Gameboy. Known for its five expansive levels, Nintendo Hard difficultly, and legendary soundtrack, the game was a smash hit and received great reception at the time, such as from video game magazines Electronic Gaming Monthly and Mean Machines.

Nearly 24 years later, the game returns in the form of a remaster by WayForward Technologies; a hi-def polishing of the music, environment, and sprites; as well as adding new things such as cutscenes done by the original TV voice cast, unlockable concept art, and redesigned levels made for the current generation of consoles/PCs. The game’s download size, less than a gigabyte across the board, makes it a quick and easy download to your gaming system, regardless of platform.

The first recognizable addition to the remaster of DuckTales is the introduction level that takes place in Duckburg mansion, under siege by the Beagle Boys. Through this level, WayForward does a good job at explaining the backstory behind the video game as opposed to the original, which left it up to the player to formulate.

The plot mediates on a race between the Ducks and the Beagles to obtain various pieces of treasure. At first; it seems logical, but then the story begins to drift and eventually form holes when the Beagle Boys were nowhere to be found on levels such as The Amazon or the African Mines, yet plentiful on The Moon and in Transylvania.

Nonetheless, the cutscenes are almost always appreciated the first time around. After that, however, it would really help to have a “press X” to skip option instead of having to go to the pause screen every time thereafter.

DuckTales’ noted difficulty setting is one of spectacle; the ‘medium’ difficulty system is probably not what you expect, depending on how much AAA games you might play. Instead of simplifying the game to cater to a casualized audience, its difficulty is roughly the same as the original (and NES games in general); that is, each setting is arguably a step ahead of today's games. For the medium setting, it’s three hits and you’re dead, two deaths and the level resets (not counting pickups).

There is a lot of trial and error and the game could easily be likened to Dark Souls or Winnie The Pooh’s Home Run Derby. Despite this, the game is for the most part fair, although some sections (such as the mine shaft section in African Mines) can be brutally difficult by not letting you go left enough, especially after all of that hard work you spent getting that far.

The game’s treasures (both in the literal sense and the figurative sense) are scattered throughout the level, and it pays off to explore every crevice available to you in the game and then some. It is even possible to obtain an extra bar of life, depending on where you search.

The sound design of this game is outstanding. From the background music of The Moon and The Amazon, to the climbing of ropes, to even hitting a block with your pogo stick, it all sounds spectacular. Although the age starts to show in the voice cast, they perform their lines faithfully and with the same DuckTales flair as the TV show.

Despite minor flickering issues, the game plays fine on the PC and has never crashed thus far. It’s what a Day 1 purchase should play like, as opposed to a Bethesda-like assortment of glitches and bugs. The enemy AI isn’t wonky and, spiders aside, they are all easy to deal with or to get past.

DuckTales is a flawed gem with a lovable cast and a forgettable story. The latter is made up by a good soundtrack and good gameplay, and experienced gamers shouldn’t be too conspicuous about this title. It’s a challenge, but a very rewarding one. In that regard, it's a great game and definitely worth the $15 (or less) retail price.

80

Good Vibes in the beta, certainly continued in the final release

beatstar | Aug. 15, 2013 | Review of Payday 2

[GMG Mods: A repost from with The Global Marketeer, my blog, with minor edits for content.]

After being gifted a beta copy of this game by a friend, I was eager to play a game from the PAYDAY series for the first time, even if it was the second one.

With a “free” game in my Steam library (at least, until the final game is released) I decided to evaluate PAYDAY 2 as the game that very well might have struck gold.

Following the tradition of its predecessor, which in turn took inspiration from the Left 4 Dead series, PAYDAY 2 is a game where you complete heists in a four-man entourage. In the game modes I’ve experienced, these heists include: holding up a jewelry store, robbing a bank, and cooking crystal meth for a drug lord. These missions and heists seem varied, but all of them revolve around the almighty dollar, and they also (for the most part) rely on skills such as crowd control, intuition, and markmanship. To get through a vault, for example, one must drill through while holding down the perimeter from police armed with shields and tasers. Often, your equipment might break midway through the drilling and it’s up to you or your teammates to fix it.

The dynamics of these missions are pretty remarkable, even if they aren’t necessarily groundbreaking. During a heist, you have the choice to go quiet and steal “silently” without alerting the police, or you just go full Rambo and shoot the whole place up. It’s entirely up to you and/or your teammates on how you choose to proceed, but the former provides a much more challenging and rewarding experience. This is especially true on the bank missions, where the rows of safe deposit boxes take a long time to pick open and are an inefficient use of time if you’re being attacked.

Once you unload the minimum amount of goods to the getaway vehicle, you can either end the mission right then and there, or, “if you’re feeling greedy”, you can clean the entire place out. Both of these options are always left open to you if your team is willing to spend more time on the heist.

Death in this came comes in the form of being “in custody”, or, in other words, purgatory. If one of your teammates is locked up, you either trade a “hostage” for him (except during police assaults), or alternatively your teammate can wait it out. In either case, their death comes with little consequence and you can still proceed with the mission as usual.

As for the story — there is none. Don’t try to convince your self that there is, you will only make your head hurt. All that you need to know is that four guys rob places, cook meth, and make loads of money doing it. It’s pure action with no need for a backstory. I’m indifferent on premise when it comes to the FPS genre, but the fact that there is no major plotline allows players to focus more on the game itself instead of the reason which drives your character’s motivation to rob. As for your team’s “bosses”, do we honestly give a damn about Hector or Vlad? Probably not. These are just minor additions to appease people who like light vignettes to further their immersion.

Speaking of the NPCs, the AI of this game was once invariably sporadic in the Beta, but by and large it has been patched. Enemy AI will still often ignore your location until you fire a bullet and do not check entrances, despite being SWAT officers and the like.

In the game, though, the civilians are your biggest problem. Crowd control is a pain should you need to actually use it, and, if not reminded to sit the (umph) down enough, they will not hesitate to run away, even during the middle of a firefight in the direction of your bullets.

Then we get to sound design. It takes major influences from the ambient and electronic department and tweaks them to the environment. For example: A quiet scene in Casing Mode (where you attempt to blend in as a civilian) would get a quiet repetitive monotone beat, whereas a full-on police assault would get a more sonically induced electronic track.

Once again, it’s not groundbreaking, because it’s been a tried a true music genre for first-person shooters, but the score does a good job without sounding overtly tryhard. Keep in mind there is a lack of attenuation for voice chat, so you have to lower down the music and SFX if you want to clearly hear your friends speak without it being buried in a barrage of gunfire and electronica.

Finally, there’s stability. Even as a beta on its last updates, there is still much to do. The crashes to desktop, the random freezes and the unexpected slowdowns all have the potential to ruin the game, but if they just implemented a bug-reporting program (besides the silent built-in one run by Steam) perhaps these issues could be addressed sooner. These stability issues are not uncommon, but ultimately they didn’t overshadow my gaming experience enough to give it a bad or moderate score.

In closing, PAYDAY 2 delivers a whole lot of fun in a familiar package for those familiar with first-person shooters. If it were just 10 dollars cheaper ($19.99), it would be a clear buy. Still, if you’re anxious to give it a go, it's still worth the money for the most part.

It’s no secret that the game has problems; there are plenty to fix, and yet so little time to correct them before the game’s release, but with the conclusion of the beta, Overkill Software has made a good first impression to their second installment of their series.

65

One step forward, or two steps back?

beatstar | July 3, 2013 | Review of Hitman: Absolution

When I first saw the unveiling of Hitman: Absolution, I was optimistic to see our favorite nefarious assassin make it to the current generation of gaming. What I was not optimistic for was the Hollywood cast, or the introduction of "magic pockets" (that is, the ability to carry a sniper rifle in your coat pocket). In the faux pas words of Max Scoville, who interviewed IO Interactive staff after a preview of the game, my worries were "assured".

It is true that Absolution retains its stealth ethic (and arguably with as much rigor as Silent Assassin), but it is greatly downplayed by an obnoxious point system ever present in the upper left corner. Every misstep you perform is noted here, and it cannot be disabled unless you play on purist. I assume that this is the IO's snide reply to those who complained about mystery witnesses at the end of the level in previous games.

Speaking of AI; it has definitely improved to some extent, there are no longer telepathic NPCs who know who you are just by hearing a guard lift up a radio without saying any words in it. At one point, I was amazed how the AI suspected I was behind them when I reloaded my gun, or when I knocked out a guard and his radio made some kind of interference. But it is still not perfect. Unless you yourself make noise, guards never look behind themselves, even when you throw something right in front of them from 5 feet away. I found this AI was most comparable to Silent Assassin, since I still remember being shot in St. Petersburg for running.

The story in itself is one of question. Although it lines together with the conclusion of Blood Money rather well, it goes into a whole other direction with the inclusion of a plot device, a 14 year old genetically modified girl given superhuman abilities with an isotope in her necklace. A dying request by one of 47's former employers is to protect her prized innocence, and seek out and kill those who wish to do her harm. The initial casting of William Mapother and recasting of David Bateson has 47 speak more lines in this game than arguably any of his previous titles. Yet 47 doesn't babble, his newly founded areas of dialogue include briefing the player, found on by pressing the F1 key when on a level.

Regarding level design, the developers have largely abandoned that open world feel in favor of a more linear theme. The open world concept is still alive in some levels such as the Chinese New Year and Hope missions, but is by no means to the same extent as Blood Money was, which was way more consistent. I do admit, though, that they were far more generous in sheer number with 20 levels.

Graphically speaking, the visuals are stylistic, but too many filters and post-processing are applied in the name of artistic direction. It was almost reminiscent of Battlefield 3 in a way, knowing that the visuals already looked just fine 5 filters ago. Luckily, you can turn off the bloom in the settings.

The depth of field is incredibly flawed, however. Even at the highest setting, you have a severely myopic camera that will unexpectly blur out even the most important things in your field of view. It is especially bad when 47 is coming out of a dark tunnel in a mission to enter Dexter's Industries, but perhaps it is intentional. If so, it was not a good decision to include it within the game.

With the absence of Jesper Kyd, the sound design is left extremely sporadic and often random. The music will often cease or begin without any cue, and the action music, when 47 is discovered and NPCs turn hostile, is uninteresting and bland compared to the orchestral/electronica mix we've come to know and love.

In conclusion, Absolution is probably one of the most polarizing titles in the Hitman series since its conception in the year 2000. Now approaching its adolescence, it has lost most of its innocence and changed its state of mind in order to fit in with the in crowd. That means no more map, no more first person point of view, and no more "stop and smell the roses" missions. Is it a good thing? I'm not so sure at the moment. Usually, when a game gets a mixed rating the critic suggests that only true fans pick up this title, but I suggest the exact opposite. If you're new to this series, playing this first can give you a taste of the gameplay so you can work backwards to the core of the series and see what was the true aim of the series was all about. That is what I believe Absolution, after 6 years in development, seems to be lacking.