Brotherly Love

I rarely stop playing one game to play another, but F.E.A.R. 3 was a game I quit playing when Amalur came out. Unfortunately, that probably says a lot about it. For those who haven’t been paying attention for the last half-decade or so, the F.E.A.R. series are first person shooters with a horror theme.

F.E.A.R. 3 starts out with the protagonist of the first game (the voiceless protagonist “Point Man”) teaming up with his psychic dead brother (Fettel)–who he killed in the first game–in order to find their equally dead psychic mother (Alma) who recently became undead, psychic pregnant (probably the worst kind of pregnant) after mentally, and apparently physically, raping the protagonist of the second game.

Unfortunately, while this installment of F.E.A.R. has kept all of the crazy plot of the previous games, it has failed to keep much of anything that could be considered “horror”. Although the game will periodically have supernatural occurrences or attempt to startle the player, most of it falls very flat due to the fact that the game mostly plays more like a modern military game in the vein of Call of Duty or a near-future game like Halo. To be precise, players should expect lots and lots of cover-based shooting with the prerequisite regenerating health. It also doesn’t help that the player is encouraged through the entire game to attempt to accomplish mini-achievements to rank up their character. Again, how scary is a situation when the game is explicitly encouraging you to try to get 15 melee kills in a level?

Worse yet, F.E.A.R. 3 has much the same problem that Clive Barker’s Jericho had: almost every encounter feels too long. Fights seem as though they have just a few too many enemies and enemies seem to have just a bit too much health–boss enemies especially. It is frustrating to have to put 10 sniper rifle rounds into an enemy’s head before it even begins to react.

Although the plot remains disturbing and crazy, F.E.A.R. 3‘s plot feels less well constructed than the others. The first game felt as if the world was well constructed and as if things happened for a reason. Here, levels feel disconnected. The finale especially feels like the worst kind of deus ex machina. A character, who though mentioned previously and who was well characterized, suddenly becomes key to saving the day almost inexplicably. Of course, murder being the only way to resolve problems in the F.E.A.R. universe, said character needs to die. Them being already dead is unimportant.

A fumbling plot and follow-the-leader gameplay are never enough to satisfy and F.E.A.R. 3 manages to make sure it has both.

F.E.A.R 3: 0

 

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Fateless

Last night, I finished up Kingdom of Amalur: Reckoning. Amalur is a third-person, action-RPG hybrid in a fantasy setting.

As the game begins, the player’s character’s corpse is being wheeled through an unknown dungeon to be disposed of. After a bit of character creation goodness, said character wakes up in the center of a pile of corpses and then has to fight her way out of the collapsing “Well of Souls”– a magitech device which is apparently responsible for her recent resurrection.  During the escape, bits of the backstory are dropped in–a great war between the elves and the mortal races, etc. Once free of the well, the main character is largely set free into a large open world to explore.

Relatively early into the game, I began to draw comparisons between Amalur and Fable. Both are 3rd person, action-RPG hybrids in fantasy settings. Furthermore, both games have a three-treed ability system of magicy-ness, fightery-ness, and thievy. It has been long enough since I played the original Fable that I would have difficulty making a reasonable comparison, but compared to the latter two Fable games, Amalur is far better. The world in Amalur is bigger; the enemies are more diverse; and the NPCs are less like setpieces and more like legitimate characters in their own right.

My main complaint about the game is that it seems poorly balanced. I pursued a “balanced” approach through the game–evenly splitting my abilities between the three ability types. Although my “fighter” type abilities scaled well over most of the game (due primarily to the continual, ready access to newer and better equipment), the “mage” and “thief” abilities didn’t scale nearly as well. In a sense, though, that doesn’t really matter. Aside from the period of time while I was running around the map with no armor and all my abilities disabled (I was farming for skill trainers), I was never in any particular fear of losing fights. The game itself was surprisingly easy.

Summed up: Amalur is the game that I wish the later Fable games had been. It managed to be both wide-open with lots of options and yet still managed to feel connected and consistent.

Kingdom of Amalur: Reckoning: 1

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It’s a Tad Bit Dark in Here

 

Over the past few weeks, I’ve worked my way through the three Penumbra games. I took them in their nominal order, thinking that playing them would be important to my eventual enjoyment of Frictional Games’ Amnesia: The Dark Descent.

All three games try to be horror games, in a first person point-of-view with the majority of the gameplay consisting of puzzle solving. The games themselves having a rather advanced physics engine which is itself often leveraged into the puzzle design. The three games, though built in the same engine and part of a single continuous narrative, are remarkably different in tone, though. In a sense, it is thus similar to the three Alien movies.There, Alien  was a thriller, Aliens was an action movie, and Alien 3 was crap (I think “crap” is a genre of movie…).

With Penumbra, the first game was most reminiscent of old adventure game, but with the worst parts of the survival horror genre mixed in for flavor. The game had enemies, many of which it was necessary to fight. The game, though, saddles players with a quite horrible control system and weapons which take far too many strikes to kill. This is the kind of thing that Resident Evil, the mindshare leader in survival horror™, gave up years before Overture‘s release. As frustrating as that was, though, perhaps more aggravating were the adventure gaming aspects. The game was rife with the 3d equivalent of the old “Hunt the Pixel” puzzles–the find the single takeable item in a room full of otherwise interact-able physics objects. Oh, and once a player finds it, they’ll then begin the wonderful combinatorial exercise of rubbing each object against every other object they find in a vain hope of solving the badly clued puzzles.

Penumbra: Overture: 0

Black Plague picks up immediately after the events of Overture. Unfortunately, it also begins by creating a large number of never-resolved plot holes. In Overture, you were climbing down through an abandoned mine, searching for your father, in Black Plague, you find a large hidden research lab, apparently at the bottom of the mine. This lab is in active use, despite the face that the only apparent way in seems to not have been used in decades. The game does try to talk around this seemingly glaring inconsistency, but it never quite convinces. Gameplay wise, it is very similar to Overture–more adventure game puzzles–but this time, I would argue that the survival horror aspects are missing.

Survival horror games traditionally require players to have a chance to fight back against their foes–even if their odds are terrible. In Black Plague, though, all of the weapons were removed. On the one hand, this certain removes the problem that Overturehad in which the combat system was awful, but it turns the main character into someone who flees from danger at all times. This makes enemies seem more like just more puzzles rather than threats. It’s probably a net improvement, but the inconsistency between this and its predecessor is quite noticeable.

Continuing with my Alien analogy, this game is much more “adventure” and much less “survival” than its predecessor. It was certainly better than it’s predecessor. The dialog and writing are both improved, and the “antagonist” (such as it is) for most of the game manages to inspire a true sense of hatred. Even so, under-cluing abounds, and I really can’t recommend it.

Penumbra: Black Plague: 0

The final Penumbra  game, Requiem, is very dissimilar to its predecessors. Rather than being (or at least attempting to be) a horror game, this one is almost entirely a puzzle game. Rather than having the continuous, logically connected areas, the player teleports from contrived puzzle room to contrived puzzle room. Although the puzzles themselves are usually somewhat interesting, it feels like a step backward compared to Black Plague.

Perhaps worst of all, Black Plague  had a satisfying ending. By bringing the protagonist back to run through a rat maze, I think the series itself is harmed. Even the framing story for Requiem feels tacked on and forced.

Penumbra: Requiem: 0

 

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Implausible

Originally Published 6 January 2012

I finished up the single player campaign of Homefront today. It’s a rather standard FPS affair: regenerating health, two weapon limit, checkpoints. Basically, it uses the same general play style that every FPS since Halo has used. The only interesting part of the game is its backstory.

Homefront takes place in an alternate future where North Korea has managed to become a major military and political force. Coincident with this, the US’s power has waned. This ultimately leads to a surprise EMP attack by Korea and an occupation of a large part of the western US. The player takes the place of an apparently mute pilot. The game begins with him being captured by occupation forces for unknown reasons and then being rescued by US guerrillas.

Unfortunately, there are two problems with the backstory. Firstly, it seems very implausible to me. I’m willing to accept that the US might lose a substantial amount of military and political power–perhaps even enough to face an invasion–but I don’t think North Korea could, in the decade and a half or so between now and the when the game is supposed to take place, gain that degree of military might. The second problem is more pedestrian: the backstory mostly doesn’t matter. The Koreans could have been palette-swapped to be Russians, Chinese, Nazis, Aliens, or even humanoid Dinosaurs. Aside from periodic newspapers expanding on the backstory, the particular facts of the situation do not matter in the slightest.

Worse still, the game makes very little progress against the background. The entire game leads to one single engagement to retake a single city from the occupational forces. In fact, the entire game is maybe 4 hours long which is hardly enough time to do justice to what might have been an interesting story.

Perhaps the best part of the game is also the hardest to actually watch. Through several segments of the game, we see both the inhumanity–random killings, death squads, summary executions–of the occupying forces against the local populace and then later we see the similar inhumanity–torture, “deadliest game” situations, slavery labor–of insurrection forces against their occupiers.

Overall, I can’t really recommend the game. There just isn’t enough there to make it worth playing.

Homefront: 0

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On Fidelity

Originally Published 6 January 2012

Earlier this week, I finished up my playthrough of Catherine. The game itself is somewhat difficult to place into a genre, which is one of the things that made this review difficult.

The premise of the game is that you play as Vincent. Vincent has a dead-end job, but it’s enough to pay the bills; and a long-term girlfriend. The girlfriend–Katherine–has started hinting that she wants their relationship to move forward with the presumption that it is toward marriage. On the same day that she starts dropping these hints, he ends up having a one-night stand with another girl. The rest of the story is about his trying to come to terms with both his betrayal and what he wants to do with his life.

At the same time that Vincent is having this life crisis, he has begun to have terrible nightmares. In these nightmares (which he can’t remember after waking), he is forced to climb a wall or die. Every night, the complexity and danger of the wall increases.

These two ongoing parts of the game intertwine into one strangely coherent narrative on what the best way to move forward in life is. Vincent’s daytime problems are addressed by interacting with other characters, sending text messages, and trying to figure out his situation. The nighttime problems show up as a sliding block puzzle that is both simple and surprisingly deep. The puzzle game aspect was interesting enough that, even when I didn’t need to do the puzzles (due to having cleared them previously with a high enough score), I still did because they were fun.

Overall, I found Catherine to be very compelling. It was a game in which adult themes–love, fidelity, and finding a place–are address in a relatively adult and realistic way. Finding non-indie games that address these themes is rare enough; finding one that addresses them well was a great surprise.

Catherine: 1

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It’s the Plot that causes Madness

Originally Published 20 December 2011

I just finished up Alice: Madness Returns. I think it is important to note that, unlike the first game, this one doesn’t have American McGee’s moniker on it. That should be the first warning sign.

Gameplay wise, Alice is a 3rd person, action-platformer. Unfortunately, both the controls and level design are clunky. Considering the game is based on the UT3 engine, one would think that the controls, at least, would be solid. The level design issues are partially mitigated by the extremely large number of hints sprinkled about the levels. Unfortunately, the poor platforming coupled with the rough controls makes much of the game tedious.

Worse still, the game seems to repeat everything one too many times: go collect the 3 hoozits; doyet another damn sliding block puzzle; oh look, they’ve reused the same minigame for the tenth time even though it lacks even the small amount polish that the main game got.

Furthermore, the early writing of the game is also somewhat iffy. Lots of backstory is applied at once–likely because it is a sequel to a game that came out 10 year ago–and that often feels forced and muddled. Worse, much of the dialog feels like a first draft. Rapport between characters is often lacking. Non sequiturs abound, but they don’t feel like the whimsical wanderings of slightly deranged minds; they instead feel like result of writers would couldn’t be bothered to string together a consistent relationship between the overall plot and the actions that Alice is directed to take.

The main shining light of the game is the art direction. Alice’s “real life” outfit looks brilliant and her first few “Wonderland” dresses are beautifully constructed. Similarly, the first two (of five) chapters do have very nice visuals with vivid color and a consistent feel. Unfortunately, as the game becomes “darker” the levels become grey and brown. It seems a lazy way to go about the descent. A more clever and creative approach would have been appreciated.

Unfortunately, art direction doesn’t make a game, especially art direction that goes downhill over the course of the experience. And even if the plot does begin to come around in the final chapter, that hardly makes up for the muddled mess that the previous four chapters offered. There’s no way that I can recommend this game.

Alice: Madness Returns: 0

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Brick by Brick

Originally Published 28 March 2011

Earlier this month, I played through 3D Dot Game Heroes. Like many things, I’ve been distracted and have only now gotten around to writing a review for it.

3D Dot Game Heroes is a parody / homage to the 16-bit era, top-down, action-adventure games of the mid-nineties. Specifically, the game most often reminded me of A Link to the Past. You take the role of a Hero (or Sage or Prince) and must go recover the six orbs to create the Light Orb and use it to defeat the Dark Bishop and his attempts to resurrect an ancient evil Dark King using the (unsurprisingly) Dark Orb.

Of course, the plot sounds ridiculous and hackneyed because it is deliberately trying to invoke the memories of those older games. Over the course of the game, there are numerous references dropped to various other games–people inside bomb-accessible caves who force you to pay to “fix their door”, enemies who have “secret[s] to everybody”, NPCs trying to trade their copies of Demon’s Souls for the game you are currently playing, and other such fun bits. Taken together, it is a rather humorous little narrative that is built.

The gameplay in 3DGH is somewhat similar to the 2D Zelda games–you have a sword, you can have one “active” item, and you can block or dash. These make up the key abilities of the hero. The main difference, however, is that your sword is generally of a size best described as “unreasonable”. Being at maximum health causes your weapon to be gigantic–often spanning an entire axis of the screen (or if you’re using a fully upgraded infinity plus one sword both). Unfortunately, this leads to my main complaint about the game.

The game seems to be built so as to be played with the player’s weapon at maximum power at all times. Being even half a hit point short of maximum health causes the weapon to revert to a far smaller and weaker version of the same. Although it is sometimes still usable, I found that losing a single tick of health would usually quickly spiral out to death due to the increased danger of having a shorter and weaker weapon. This kind of statistical instability led to some frustration on my part.

3DGH also seems to have decided to include the most annoying feature that has mostly been left behind in modern games: the lost forever item. In fact, the game has a large number of completely unclued quests which are lost forever if you do not do engage them at specific times. Worse yet, one of these quests spans the entire course of the game with a checkpoint between each major area. Miss a single checkpoint at the quest is failed. Not all of nostalgia is good.

Overall, I found the game entertaining, though I eventually resorted to a FAQ in order to find the unclued quests which were being triggered by quest advancement. If the game had cleaned up these few areas, I would have been able to recommend it without caveats. As is, however, I have to say that it is a niche title aimed (essentially) at people who are in their mid to late 20s.

3D Dot Game Heroes: 0

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On Content Reuse

Originally Published 27 March 2011

Earlier this month, I finished my playthrough of Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II. If you missed the first one, my review has unmarked spoilers related to the ending of the first and therefore the set-up for the second.

In the first Force Unleashed, you take the roll of Starkiller. He is apparently the most powerful Jedi ever and has been indoctrinated since youth by Darth Vader to be his apprentice. To this end, Starkiller’s been hunting down Jedi who escaped the purge at the end of Episode III. Over the course of the game, he meets a woman and begins to doubt the mission that he has been given. Eventually, he turns on Vader and helps to form the rebel alliance. However, forming the Rebel Alliance was always Vader’s plan for Starkiller–doing so would gather them in one place where they could be destroyed. In the end, he dies fighting the Emperor in order to allow the Rebel leaders to have time to escape.

Since the main character is canonically dead, it would seem as though making a sequel would be difficult. Fortunately, cloning is a fact of the Star Wars universe, so they just clone a copy of Starkiller and start things up again. Vader, for whatever reason, has been cloning Starkiller. Most copies have been failures, but this one at least hasn’t gone insane yet.

Given the say these things tend to go, Starkiller quickly breaks out and attempts to find both the woman he loved and (by coincidence) the rebel alliance he helped form.

Gameplay wise, Force Unleashed II is essentially identical to its predecessor. Very little has been changed in that area, though there are new, force-empowered enemies that are rather common and immune to many of the force powers that you can level up. In the late game, the game likes to throw large groups of jedi-clones at you. This leads to very annoying fights where you can only use lightsaber attacks and none of the high level force powers are of any use.

My real complaint with the game came when I made a second pass and made a strong realization. On the second run through, I realized that the game only actually has about 4 levels. To extend the apparent length of the game, the developers have you run through each level twice. Furthermore, the game commits the primary sin of Clive Barker’s Clive Barker’s Jericho (by Clive Barker)–its encounters are slightly too long and much too similar. Encounters with enemies should have things that differentiate them and make each one at least slightly unique. This game manages to forget that and have wave after wave of samey encounter.

Ultimately, I don’t think the game has enough content to justify its existence.

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II: 0

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Plodding

Originally Published 16 March 2011

Last week, I finished my run through Condemned: Criminal Origins. It had been in my 360 since before the holidays, but I’d been distracted by other things and just got around to finishing it.

The PC in Condemned is a law enforcement officer with a track record of capturing serial killers. Lately, however, he has been in a slump. The last few killers that he had been investigating have apparently gone to ground, their trails ice cold, soon after he begins pursuing them. The game starts with him doing an investigation into a new killer.

Soon into the investigation of the most recent murder scene, the PC is ambushed and has his gun stolen. The thief makes various comments that seem to allude to a greater knowledge of the PC before running off. Said thief very soon kills two police agents with the PC’s gun and leaves him wanted for two cop killings. The PC then flees to pursue the real killer, find the missing serial killer (who doesn’t seem to be the same person as the one who took his gun) and to clear his name.

Although the plot of the game sounds as good a starting point as any, the later end of the plot quickly decays into a rather disjointed mess as (insufficiently explained) supernatural forces begin to pop up as the ultimate root of all the madness. This is compounded by the fact that–although the PC is ostensibly being driven to clear his name for two murders–by the time even the first level is completed, he has murdered at least a dozen people. To me, this made deep motivations very unclear.

Condemned is a mess, gameplay wise. The game uses a first person perspective, but uses melee combat as the most common form of interaction with enemies. This style choice results in rather frustrating interactions if you get surrounded or are hit from behind and have to very slowly pan around with the analog stick. Furthermore, the game is deliberately drawn out by the insufferably slow moving speed of the character. The game also uses a checkpoint/autosave as its primary method of saving. While nice in theory, Condemned’s checkpoints store complete game state, so if you were two steps ahead of an enemy who is about to stab you to death, you’re stuck being stabbed to death every time you load (unless you choose to restart the level of course).

It also doesn’t help that the game probably would have looked at home on the Dreamcast. Although I understand that it is a five year old game and an early title in the current generation, but it has aged very poorly. Consider that Jade Empire, Devil May Cry 3, and Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones are contemporaries and consider in that light. It also mostly takes place in badly lit sewers or abandoned buildings, resulting in a lot of generic, gray/brown, destroyed levels.

There wasn’t much for me to like here. I tend to enjoy and seek out horror games, but this was yet another game that attempts to startle rather than to induce an actual environment of fear and apprehension.

Condemned: Criminal Origins: 0

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Heading West

Originally Published 8 March 2011

Last week, I fired up my 360 and decided that I wanted to play more Dead Rising 2. I’d mostly played that game to death, though, so I decided to instead play Case West. Case West is a standalone DLC / epilogue to the Dead Rising 2 storyline. Because of its status as an epilogue, expect unmarked Dead Rising 2 spoilers below.

At the beginning of Case West, Chuck is fighting off a zombified TK. Into the scene enters Frank West (he’s covered wars, you know) carrying a baseball bat. After saving Chuck, Frank quickly realizes who he’s just saved and questions Chuck about his role in the zombie outbreak in the city. Chuck still needs to clear his name, so he and Frank team up to go to a nearby Phenotrans (the Dead Rising universe’s Umbrella Corp) facility.

Said facility supposedly has a contact that Frank had been working with to get inside information on Phenotrans to help expose them. Chuck goes along under the assumption that the facility might have evidence to incrimination Phenotrans for the Fortune City outbreak and to help clear his own name.

Gameplay in Case West is mostly identical to that in DR2. The main difference is that there is an ever present CPU (or coop) companion in Frank. Mostly though, he just distracts enemies. This function turns out to be vitally important, however, due to the very large number of non-zombie enemies who carry firearms. Although there were some such enemies in the main game, Case West is quite full of them and they are a major source of unfun in Case West. Since being hit by an enemy, even by an attack that doesn’t cause you to actually lose a hit point, causes you to drop any two-handed weapon, their long-range machine guns quickly become the bane of Chuck and Franks’ existences as you’re dropping weapons or having attacks interrupted. This is especially bad in the “zombie pens”–one of the largest rooms and one often used for transit between other areas–because these gun wielders are numerous and in areas which are somewhat isolated from the main travel paths.

At the very beginning I was confused by Case West. Although I’d beaten DR2 multiple times, I’d always gotten Ending S (the best ending, at least based on PP reward) because it is so easy to get. It turns out that Case West begins from Ending A (the second best), instead. This seems to me like a strange shift since Dead Rising 2 seemed to follow from the best ending to the original Dead Rising. Before I learned about that decision, I was wondering why the game made no references to Chuck’s daughter or love interest and was completely at a loss for why Chuck would abandon them to go off on a jaunt with Frank.

Overall, I wasn’t that impressed with Case West. The human enemies detract from a lot of the fun and the plot really doesn’t do much for the series as a whole–it’s basically just a setup for a sequel.

Dead Rising 2: Case West: 0

 

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