Reviews by skymt

65

Unique design, weak combat

skymt | Aug. 24, 2014 | Review of Xotic Premium Edition

Xotic is a score-attack FPS with an "alien" visual style and a thin story. Its levels are small arenas packed with small chain-reaction "scabs" to shoot, big "brains" to find and explode, "orb essence" pickups to collect, and enemies trying to keep you from doing all that. A lot of the fun and challenge of Xotic, then, is in balancing those three score objectives, combos, and the clock with the need for survival.

The score-oriented mechanics in Xotic can be great fun for a player in the right mindset. It's satisfying to scour all the nooks and crannies for things to collect or blow up, then play again and try to optimize your route through the level to get a better time and higher combos. There are even time-attack bonus levels that remove enemies entirely to focus on racking up points.

Combat is Xotic's weakest point. It just feels stiff and unsatisfying, like the animations and effects needed more work. Enemies don't react strongly to being shot, and the player's weapon is weakly animated. For example, the shotgun has a firing rate that's similar to the Doom 2 super shotgun, but the lack of that gun's cool reload animation can make it difficult to tell when you can fire again. Xotic has a nice selection of weapons, but many of them feel redundant when applied to the simple combat on offer.

Movement in Xotic has a lot of momentum, like a much more floaty version of Quake 1. The "hologram" feature makes moving around the levels fast and fun. On the ground it acts as deployable cover, but in the air it appears as a platform below the player's feet. With a little timing practice, it's easy to use as an infinite air-jump, quickly flying across the level.

Xotic claims four game modes, but they change very little. The "campaign" mode opens the level exit when all the enemies are defeated and is scored based on all three score objectives. The other three modes, one for each score objective, rank you simply on time to completion. This is much less interesting than the balanced play required for the main mode.

This version of Xotic comes with all three DLC level packs. They're smaller than the four worlds of the base game, with only three levels each. Pipe Works is disappointingly linear and confined, Temple Crypt has the more balanced design style of the base game, and Warp Field has spacious, vertical levels with high-scoring paths.

While I enjoyed my time with Xotic, the issues with combat make it difficult to fully recommend. It's still worth a try if the idea of a score-focused FPS appeals to you.

70

Alan Wake's Groundhog Day

skymt | Aug. 13, 2014 | Review of Alan Wake's American Nightmare

Alan Wake's American Nightmare is a smaller-scale follow-up to Alan Wake, moving the action from a Pacific Northwest forest to the Arizona desert. The level structure is radically different this time around. Instead of Alan Wake's traditional linear design, American Nightmare consists of 3 large and relatively open areas, each of which is visited 3 times over the course of the game. Each visit has Alan tread a lot of the same ground. This repetition is the biggest fault of the game; unlike the original, I was growing tired of American Nightmare by the time it ended.

Combat has had some subtle refinements, including a few new guns and a flashlight that charges quicker but doesn't last as long. The addition of new enemy types is quite welcome and adds some variety to the fights. Subtle changes to the combat design add up to a snappier feel and faster pace. I would have liked to see these changes brought back to the original game in an optional mode.

As in Alan Wake's DLC episodes, little happens here to advance the plot. On the plus side, American Nightmare offers an amusing framing (the game is an episode of the fictional Twilight Zone-style show Night Springs) and a colorful, memorable villain (Mr. Scratch, Alan Wake's demented doppelganger).

In addition to the story mode, American Nightmare has a wave-based arcade mode. With the improvements to the combat, some players might enjoy it. I didn't find it engaging without the story there to push me forward.

A proper sequel to Alan Wake has been promised, and we'll have to wait for that for the story to pay off. Until then, if you want more Alan Wake, this will do.

85

Enter the dark woods

skymt | Aug. 12, 2014 | Review of Alan Wake

Years after demonstrating their mastery of mood in Max Payne II, Remedy returned with Alan Wake, an action thriller about the titular writer fighting a dark supernatural force to rescue his wife. The game mostly takes place in the forest around a small mountain town, and what a beautiful forest it is. Alan Wake captures the feeling of being alone in a dark forest like no other game has managed.

Despite the simplicity of the damsel-in-distress plot, I found a lot to like in the story. It plays with reality in some fun ways, with Alan finding pages of a novel he doesn't remember writing that describe what's happening or is about to happen. It also touches occasionally on some interesting themes about the anxiety of creation.

In genre Alan Wake is a shooter. Most enemies are humans that have been consumed by the darkness. They have a shield of darkness that Alan needs to burn away with light before finishing them off with a few bullets. There are many moments of tension as Alan fends off foes with his flashlight and flares, weaving between blows and keeping one eye on his supply of batteries. A lack of enemy diversity means combat may get repetitive, and it's certainly not the highlight of the game, but I had fun the whole way through.

This PC release of Alan Wake comes with two DLC chapters composed largely of modified assets from the main game. They offer some interesting scenes, more challenging combat scenarios, and an exaggerated dreamlike quality, but they do little to advance the story. It left me wanting more, which I've heard is what a good story ought to do.

70

Breezy history romp

skymt | July 25, 2014 | Review of Assassin's Creed® 2 Deluxe Edition

Assassin's Creed 2 is the game that turned Ubisoft's alt-history open-world stealth-action series from a hit into a phenomenon. It refined the first game's mechanics while providing a grander scope and a more memorable protagonist, but some core flaws continue to hold it back.

Ezio is our protagonist for this entry, and he's a lot of fun. He starts the story as a teenage troublemaker, but when his family is betrayed he's forced to grow up quickly, being trained as a member of the Assassins to seek revenge against the shadowy Templars. Ezio's roguish charm keeps the story engaging even when it meanders.

The stealth system in Assassin's Creed is simplistic. Ezio can blend into a crowd, providing invisibility but limiting his movement, or he can climb buildings to stay out of sight and pick off rooftop guards one at a time. It's effective enough when the level design supports it, but there's one area at the very end of the game that nicely highlights its limitations. The endgame stealth challenge is a series of hallways with simple cover and guard patterns that you might see in the tutorial of a more advanced sneaking game. With the signature mechanics of crowds and climbing stripped away, you can see how bare-bones the stealth here really is.

Sword-fights tend to feel like a punishment for failing to sneak, which especially grates when fights are frequently forced by the mission design. They're never difficult, as Ezio has plenty of health and countering is quite powerful. But they tend to take too long, and they're not as complex or engaging as the melee in games like Batman Arkham City or Sleeping Dogs.

Assassin's Creed 2's biggest strength is its atmosphere, transporting you into bustling historical cities full of authentic recreations of real-world architecture. It falls down slightly if you look too close, with many duplicated citizens, buildings and storefronts, but the effect while playing is wonderful.

Some assassination missions tie together everything good about the game, providing you with a target and the freedom to reach the target any way you can, followed by an exciting chase as you escape the guards. Those are the moments that make the game, and it's a shame there aren't more.