The Definition of Dilemma

I actually finished up Spec Ops: The Line quite a while ago. I knew as soon as I finished it that I would rate it quite highly, but I was at a loss as to how to review it.

Fundamentally, Spec Ops is a third-person cover-based military shooter set in the Middle East in the present. There’s nothing particularly spectacular in the mechanics nor in graphics. They’re both competently done, of course, but there are no revolutionary leaps in either.

The entire strength of Spec Ops is its story and therein lies the rub. Much of its quality lies in its evolution and its key revelations. Giving away those would essentially ruin the game. So, I’ll just say that the game’s plot is probably the best that I’ve seen in a shooter in at least the last five years and implore that you play it despite my vagueness.

Spec Ops: The Line: 1!

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Duct Tape Fixes Everything

This was originally published as part of a game roundup on 28 February 2011.

Of all the games on this list, Dead Rising 2 is the game which ate the most of my free time and the only one which will get a full review. The first Dead Rising game was what caused me to purchase a 360, so I was somewhat excited about the sequel. Nevertheless, I held back because of my giant backlog. Instead, I ended up getting Case Zero (the prequel, stand alone DLC). After playing through it two or three times, I immediately went out and purchased the full game.

For those unaware, Dead Rising is a zombie game. In the predecessor, zombies broke out in a small town in the Midwest. Since then, there have been other zombie outbreaks around the US, but things have mostly been contained. Knowledge of zombies is now widespread. The player character, Chuck Greene, lost his wife to a zombie outbreak a few years before the start of the game. His daughter was also bitten, but hasn’t yet turned due to daily injections of an antidote called Zombrex which keeps her from turning, but only at one day per dose. In order to afford the extremely expensive medication, Chuck competes on a pay-per-view event called “Terror Is Reality” in which zombies are dismembered in various ways to entertain the masses.

After one taping of TIR, the zombies used for the event are released and overrun the city of Fortune City (a lawyer-friendly clone of Las Vegas). For reasons that he doesn’t understand, Chuck is framed for the release of the zombies and must attempt to clear his name, save himself and his daughter from the outbreak, and get enough Zombrex to keep his daughter from turning.

The game plays very much like its predecessor: large open areas to explore, tons of zombies, dozens of ways to kill them. The game has managed to improved in several important ways: Firstly, the game finally allows you to have multiple save games. Moreover, it is completely possible to beat the game in your first play through–something essentially impossible in the first game. Also, survivor AI has improved markedly which makes saving said survivors far easier.

Perhaps the best change in this iteration is that the vast majority of the world is open to you at the beginning of the game. In the former, you had to work slowly to open it piece by piece through story progression and every new game required you to do most of the unlocking from scratch. This time, only a few areas remain unlocked, and those mostly open up quickly.

Overall, I probably played at least 8 passes through the entire game which is somewhat remarkable for me, as is paying full price at a big-box store for it.

Dead Rising 2: 1!

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Winged Helmets would make it Perfect.

Originally Published 23 August 2010

Last week, I finished my playthrough of Valkyria Chronicles. It is a tactical-ish RPG for the PS3 which is now a couple years old (it’s old enough to not have trophy support). I say tactical-ish because although measured in gameplay, it is certainly a tactical game with RPG elements, but it lacks many of the standard tactical RPG cliches. Of course, I think this is to its credit.

Valkyria Chronicles takes place in an alternate history version of World War II. Although it occurs on the European continent, all of the countries have had their borders redrawn and the fight is primarily between a Western “Allied Federation” and an Eastern “Empire”. The game focuses on the country of Gallia–a state obviously modeled after Switzerland with its complete neutrality and universal conscription and situated about where Lithuania is today. Gallia has rich reserves of the universally useful energy producing ore known as Ragnite and the Empire begins the game by invading Gallia in an attempt to capture this resource to fuel its war machine into Western Europe. The game eventually develops some supernatural elements as the less obvious intentions of the Empire begin to manifest.

I found the plot and characters to be very compelling and I probably would have kept playing to see how it turned out. Of course, I think much of this was due to the obviously rewritten script for the English release. I used the Japanese language soundtrack with English subtitles enabled, and, although I am not fluent in Japanese, I know enough to know that many translations were not at all close to literal. Most notably, the primary female protagonist–who often responds to the main character’s more empassioned moments by simply saying said protagonist’s name in the original Japanese dialog–had many of her lines rewritten so that she said something useful or at least relevant instead. I know that some people may think that translation should be about preserving the original work, but this game in particular may be a case where an adaptation can improve the characterization substantially.

The real strength of the game, however, is the gameplay which is far different than the standard tactical RPG gridmap configuration. The game proceeds in turns in which each side is allocated a fixed number of “Control Points”. Control points are used to command infantry (1 point), tanks (2 points), or issue orders to units (variable). When the player takes control of a unit, the game goes from its standard tactical map view to a third person perspective behind the unit with relative autonomy of movement–no grids to be found. In this mode, each character has a fixed movement rate and can take one action. Actions are usually either healing or firing a weapon with movement and weapon choices determined by their class. While moving, characters are vulnerable to opportunity fire from nearby enemy units, so rushing headlong into an enemy encampment is rightly discouraged, but sneaking around behind cover is often rewarded. Another unique aspect of the system shows in the actual attacking mechanic. Once a player has decided that they are properly set for an attack, they can go into “aiming mode”. This is an over-the-shoulder view from the unit’s perspective that allows manual aim of whatever firearm the unit has. The game will auto-aim at the center of mass of enemy units to help the player, but skilled players can aim for headshots to increase damage potential with a chance of missing outright due to bullet spread.

There is a lot to like in the general configuration of the battle system. By making the limit one of “total action” rather than limiting total units and giving 1 action per unit, more advanced strategies become possible. At the same time, to prevent simply running one unit through an entire mission, the game provides diminishing returns in the form of reduced movements on subsequent actions taken on the same turn and, for certain classes like snipers, limited ammunition. The balance thus struck is remarkably workable.

I have only two complaints about the game. First, it seems to be set up so as to encourage grinding. Leveling is done on a per class rather than per character basis, so it often seemed (to me) like power levelling was a compelling proposition. The extent to which some of this is required to beat the game is unclear to me. I never particularly had serious problems with a level, but this may have been due to being over levelled for much of the game. Second, I found the final level of the game to be somewhat frustrating. Although it was a trick fight and I had immediately figured out the trick, I hadn’t found a way to actually control the battle and win. I ultimately had to go to a faq for a workable strategy which I consider indicative of a problem in the mission’s design.

Notwithstanding those two issues, I would highly recommend this game. It is quite easily the best tactical RPG that I’ve ever played and also one of the best RPGs that I’ve played in quite a while.

Valkyria Chronicles: 1!

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Wake Up

Originally Published 18 August 2010

Last week, I completed two playthroughs of Alan Wake. Alan Wake is a third person horror game developed by Remedy Entertainment–most commonly known for making the first two Max Payne games.

Alan Wake is centered around the titular author. Famous for his series of Alex Casey (quite obviously a name-swapped version of Max Payne) novels, he is now in a slump after finishing the last book in the previous series and hasn’t put a word on a page in over a year at the beginning of the story. He has come to the small town of Bright Springs on a vacation. His wife hopes that the trip will help him overcome his writer’s block, but when she reveals her wish, Wake stomps out of their rental cabin in a huff. Moments later, his wife screams out, and once he returns to the cabin, he finds a broken railing overlooking the lake the cabin is situated on and dives in after where she has presumably gone.

The next scene shown to the players is of Wake in his car, crashed over a small cliff with his wife nowhere to be found. He is far from town and attempts to make his way to a nearby gas station. As he does, he finds pages of a manuscript that he doesn’t remember writing, but that bear his name and the title he was planning on using for his next book. Soon thereafter, he begins to find shadowy humans who attack him on sight and can only be hurt by burning off a layer of “darkness” covering them and then firing at the exposed body underneith. Once at the gas station, he discovers that he is missing a week of time in his memories and begins a desperate struggle to discover what happened in the missing week and what has happened to his wife.

The gameplay of Alan Wake is mostly of the form “get from point A to point B without dying”. On the lowest difficulty level, this is generally a question of simply controlling crowds with the flashlight and then gunning down the enemies once their darkness shields have been broken. On the higher two difficulties, the game actually achieves its horror setting. On these difficulties, enemies have more darkness to shield them and take far more ammunition to kill. As such, the game becomes more about conserving equipment and trying to avoid, dodge, or distract the evils in the night.

Two kinds of enemies make up the bulk of the threat to Wake: the Taken and the Poltergeists. The Taken are human-shaped bodies which are protected by darkness and which usually pursue Wake with melee weapons. They can be slowed by shining a flashlight on them until their shield of darkness burns off and then shooting them with normal firearms. Poltergeists, on the other hand, are objects which have been controlled by whatever evil is pursuing Wake. They are thrown about in their entirety and can only be destroyed by shining the light at them until they are burned away. Despite having a fundamentally limited set of obstacles, the game manages to keep things fresh by putting Wake against them in various interesting ways. For instance, the game at one point introduces flashbangs. Rather than having them as an addition to an already outfitted character, players are instead given them as the only weapon to defend themselves in the night. This forces the player to become acquainted with their use, conservation, and strategy.

I ultimately found the plot of Alan Wake to be very compelling. What I think sets it apart from other contemporary horror games is that, despite being in a disturbing situation, the main character actually has allies who take him seriously and also experience the madness going on about them. Here, I’d compare to Deadly Premonition where although there is madness all around, the protagonist seems to be the only one who experiences it. I found that giving Wake allies who also had to deal with the craziness gave it a grounding that helped keep things cohesive.

It is somewhat uncommon for me to play through a game twice, so that may be evidence of my feelings about the game. On balance, I think it is one of the better games that I’ve played in a while and certainly one of the finest in the horror genre. Without using the cheap scares and startles that some horror games insist on using, Alan Wake managed to convey an environment that was hostile, frightening, and still somehow just a bit too close to possible.

Alan Wake: 1!

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See, they use bolts as currency

Originally Published 12 May 2010

Two weekends ago, I played through Ratchet and Clank Future: A Crack in Time. For those unfamiliar with the series, they’re rather quirky platformers with a humor slant and little need for realism.

I gushed about the previous one, and the sequel is quite good in its own right. The game follows most of the recent platformer tropes: weapons that level up when used, a dozen different types of collectables, jumping puzzles on rails, etc. The game does branch out a bit from the standard fair by adding some interesting things by making use of time-travel based puzzles. These show up in the form of rooms where you can record a sequence of moves for a “shadow” and then work in cooperation with the shadow to get through the room. Although this particular type of puzzle has shown up in a few flash games, this is the first time that I’ve seen it carried out in 3D in a modern platformer.

I found the game enjoyable enough that I decided to defeat it. I had mostly completed the task by the end of my first playthrough, but getting all of the trophies required a second playthrough anyway (basically there was a trophy for beating the game a second time) and I got the remaining trophy that I needed in the post-game of my second playthrough.

I’m beginning to come to the conclusion that the Ratchet and Clank series is one of the top-tier Playstation-exclusive titles. Although it may not be as angry and violent as say God of War or Resistance, it provides one of the most enjoyable gaming experiences that I’ve had lately. It definitely helps that the game makes a strong point of not taking itself too seriously and provides continual humor value without compromising on gameplay.

Ratchet and Clank Future: A Crack in Time: 1!

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Charted!

Originally Published 15 April 2010

Being a multi-platform owner, I get certain advantages. One of these advantages is the ability to play the platform-exclusive titles for each system. Most recently, this meant that I played through Uncharted 2: Among Thieves–a PS3 exclusive released a few months ago. I actually finished the game on Sunday, but after looking at the trophy list ended up deciding to take a shot at the Platinum Trophy which ended up requiring me to beat the game on the two highest difficulties. I finished the second of those runs last night.

For those who missed it the first time around, the Uncharted series centers around Nathan Drake, a self-reported descendent of Sir Francis Drake and something akin to a treasure hunter by trade. This time around, he has been pulled into a scheme to find Marco Polo’s lost ships and the treasure that was presumably within them. As with most things in Drake’s life, this quickly degenerates into people shooting at him and buildings collapsing while he is in or on them.

Gameplay wise, it is very similar to the first Uncharted. It seems to use mostly the same engine which, despite the intervening time, is still very impressive. The gameplay is mostly of two forms: Prince of Persia style platforming and cover-based gunfighting sequences. I think this iteration of the series manages to blend the two styles of play somewhat better than the former in that it makes use of the platforming mechanic to create interesting encounters. For example, at one point, you are forced to carry out a gunfight while hanging off a telephone pole and scrambling around the various signs on it to maintain your cover. At another point, your entry into a room full of enemies is made via a scalable wall at the end of a platforming section. This gives you interesting retreat scenarios and greately enhanced cover, but limits your ability to make use of all of your equipment.

Perhaps the most interesting scenario, however, is the chase level. In this scene, you are in the back of a flatbed truck in a convoy. The enemies have spotted you on the truck and so enemies in other trucks are shooting at you, your truck, your ally’s truck and basically anything else nearby. In order to survive, you have to jump from truck to truck, clearing enemies as you go, so that the you don’t end up flying over a cliff in one of the trucks as it is taken out by your foes. The entire scene looks like it was shot for an action movie and is incredibly fun.

There is very little that I can really complain about in the game: the acting is extremely well done; the gameplay is mostly solid; and the plot is interesting enough to keep me playing. Perhaps my only complaint is due to my play through on the highest difficulty (which they call “Crushing”). On the highest difficulty, due to the increadible ease of dying, all of the relatively minor control flaws become glaringly apparent. Every time that I died due to the game refusing to make a corner transition properly or shift from one kind of cover to another made me spew curses. Luckily, the lower difficulties (even Hard) tend to be forgiving enough that minor control issues are unnoticable.

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves: 1!

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