Narrative Recursion

There are certain narrative devices that I’m a sucker for. One of those is the time loop. Alan Wake’s American Nightmare takes the time loop and runs with it. As this review covers a sequel, expect there to be spoilers about the previous game: Alan Wake.

American Nightmare picks up after the two DLCs for the original Alan Wake. Wake is still lost in the Dark Place and attempting to find his way back into the real world. To do that, he has written himself an escape plan. Of course, as with the original game, the act of calling upon the world-shaping narrative power of the Dark Place has mostly destroyed his memory of what he actually planned to do.

The complication this time, though, is that his foe is no longer the large and unknown dark place, but a sentient, and clever at that, doppelganger. Wake’s opponent has trapped him in the work that Wake created to escape the Dark Place and simply keeps looping him through it, making this more difficult each time.

In gameplay terms, this comes together as playing through each of about 4 or 5 areas three times each. Though the levels are the same, the other characters in each place slowly become aware of their situation and help Wake more on each pass.

The game plays much like its predecessor, but has become somewhat more actiony with the introduction of a greater variety of enemies. In keeping with that, this iteration, unlike the original, doesn’t periodically confiscate your equipment.

I think that, as a bridge between Alan Wake and its eventual sequel, it is pretty solid. What I really want though, is Alan Wake 2.

Alan Wake’s American Nightmare: 1

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Revolving Indians

The Assassin’s Creed series has a problem. That problem is the yearly release schedule. Unfortunately, Assassin’s Creed III is the result of a schedule that is untenable.

Producing a continuous series with an iteration every year is a monumental effort. Even more difficult, though, is ensuring that each entry into the series is fresh and interesting enough to pull players in. I don’t think Assassin’s Creed III has managed that.

From a gameplay standpoint, little has changed about the Assassin’s Creed games since Assassin’s Creed II. Equipment, weapons, and tactics all remain virtually unchanged. Yes, there are now firearms, but they mostly don’t matter. Their damage output isn’t extraordinary and most enemies only ever fire once.

What has changed, however, is uniformly for the worse. Enemies now seem to spawn endlessly and to be nearly unshakable once alerted; it is common to spend several minutes escaping from a single bad exposure. Double assassinations–a great feature that was added in Assassin’s Creed II–are gone without any explanation. The countering system has been made even more finicky with combo assassinations now failing randomly. Worse yet, the “rock-paper-scissors” of the countering system has now been replaced with “rock always works” as  long as “rock” is either a gun or the bow and arrow.

If the system changes weren’t bad enough, they’ve also brought in a wonderful smorgasbord of general bugginess. I was once attacked in the middle of a cutscene. The attack wasn’t part of the cutscene, the game just didn’t properly disable the logic to prevent me from being attacked. On many occasions, I had enemies fail to die because the air assassination technique just failed to hit. I had to redo many an optional objective because the game decided that I simply wasn’t killing correctly enough. And of course, I spent countless hours filling in the “Encyclopedia of the Common Man” because an NPC decided to repeatedly do the same action without ever switching to one that I hadn’t seen.

I could probably have taken the bad gameplay changes and the general bugginess if there had been a worthwhile plot underlying it.  There is not. The whole game seems disconnected and random. Connor’s motivations are rarely clear and often entirely bizarre, especially when coupled with general gameplay. He seems to flip back and forth between being a cold-blooded killer and a man trying to take no life. It seems like he has no narrative inertia. Whatever is convenient to the plot is what happens without anything really tying it back to the character development or existing narrative.

I don’t know who at Ubisoft greenlit this game, as it is. I do know that that person should be fired.

Assassin’s Creed III: 0

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What is a level 24 cleaver?

I have long been a fan of the survival horror genre and zombie games in particular. Though I’d heard mixed reviews of Dead Island, I decided to give it a chance nonetheless.

This was a poor decision.

The premise of Dead Island is that a hopeless git wakes up in his hotel room after a night of alcohol, randomly taking drugs he found lying on the floor of the women’s restroom, and attempting to woo women who were entirely uninterested in him. In between last night and now, zombies have taken over the island resort where he is making an idiot of himself. A voice over the radio entices him with the promise of rescue in exchange for his help.

Gameplay wise, Dead Island wants to be Boarderlands: it is a level-based action game with randomly generated loot and auto-scaling enemies–Diablo with guns and zombies. The whole thing takes place from a first-person perspective and features both melee and firearm combat…sort of.

Despite having a character who specializes in firearms (the one that I picked), ammunition doesn’t ever seem to appear until almost a quarter of the way through the game. Worse still, even when firearms are unlocked, ammo is scarce and the weapons themselves do far, far less damage to the zombies than the melee weapons–even when using head shots.

But then, maybe that doesn’t matter, the game’s only penalty for death is a 7 second respawn timer, 10% of your money, and being randomly relocated to a nearby respawn point. Once you’re back on your feet, you can rush blindly into the enemies again with full health and little in the way of repercussions. In fact, on at least one occasion, I completely subverted a difficult area filled with enemies by dying inside of it and then respawning in a place I hadn’t yet reached–the room that I was trying to get to.

This problem is endemic of something that permeates the game. That is, the game feels like it hasn’t really been thought through. You’re tasked to run from objective to objective– all too often through the same few areas–but the objectives seem arbitrary and unrelated to your ultimate goal of escaping the island or even saving survivors. Zombies start inexplicably carrying weapons about halfway through the game which seems bizarre given that they are never shown to have anything like intelligence. Whole plotlines are just dropped on the ground as soon as your characters get more than 100 yards away from their participants.

Eventually, I decided to skip all sidequesting and just run down the main quest path as quickly as I could. This made the problems of the main quest all the more glaring as I wasn’t spending time doing other things that might make me forget about the idiocy of it all.

This game is irredeemable. The only way to win is not to play.

Dead Island: 0

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Locked In

Before I beat Mass Effect 3, I had actually beaten Assassin’s Creed: Revelations. Revelations is the third, and hopefully final, game in the story of Ezio Auditore, a Renaissance era assassin. Like the previous 3 Assassin’s Creed games, Revelations is a third-person, free-exploration game.

Mechanically, Revelations has very few gameplay changes beyond what its predecessor AC: Brotherhood had on offer. Though they’ve added a “hook blade” which effectively increases climbing speed and maximum reach and a mildly complex bomb creation system, neither of these additions fundamentally alter the game. Careful planing, stealth and precise application of the hidden blade remain the easiest way clear most missions.

From a plot standpoint, Revelations feels like it could mostly have been replaced by a few cutscenes. Most of the game isn’t spent on a great struggle against an unassailable enemy, but instead on an extended fetch quest. The best parts of the game are the short sequences in which we see bits and pieces of Altaïr’s life post Assassin’s Creed 1 and those amount to perhaps 6 scenes scattered over the length of the entire game. Of course, I hadn’t had lingering questions about Altaïr’s life before playing Revelations, so it is difficult for me to say that this was necessary information.

It doesn’t help that Revelations removed both the ability to interact with the “real” world and the interesting (if not terribly fun) puzzles that lead to true revelations about the game universe. The first game’s “subject 16” data were puzzles layered on top of puzzles. The lack of something similar is a real disappointment.

Though the game is solidly constructed, Assassin’s Creed: Revelations feels a bit too much like Ubisoft just phoned it in. It certainly isn’t terrible, but from a franchise with the consistent level of quality that Assassin’s Creed has brought to each game, this feels like an expansion pack in the clothes (and with the price tag) of a full game.

Assassin’s Creed: Revelations: 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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Kim’s Ending is the Best

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

I played Scott Pilgrim: The Video Game on the 360. This made me nostalgic for The Simpsons Arcade Game which is a fond memory from my youth. I thought it played very well, but the game was a bit unstable. I suspect that Adobe Flash is to blame for this. Regardless, it was solid and I’d recommend it.

Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World: The Game: 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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The Power of Metal

Originally Published 31 August 2010

Last week, I finished my playthrough of Brutal Legend. Brutal Legend is the Jack Black heavy metal game from late last year.

Brutal Legend begins with the Jack Black character (Eddie) as a roadie for a band consisting mostly of characters who are expies of characters from Psychonauts. He is quickly smashed by a portion of the band’s stage and apparently dies. Upon waking, he is on an alter being worshipped by cultists who seem disappointed to have found him rather than whatever they were attempting to summon and begin to attack him. A few moments later, he has found a guitar and a literal axe and is cutting them up. Eddie quickly finds some freedom fighters who are trying to overthrow the evil cultist power structure and he signs up. The game thereafter follows the progression of their rebellion.

The main distinguishing feature of Brutal Legends is its setting. The game is set in a sort of post-apocalyptic future (incorrectly recognized by the protagonist as the past) where music has been forgotten. Of course, the whole point of the game is the Metal, so the game features a soundtrack almost completely filled with it as well as characters who are designed to look like (and often voiced by) famous Rock and Metal artists. Ozzy Osbourne is the Guardian of Metal–a mystical shopkeeper of sorts–for instance.

Unfortunately, the gameplay of Brutal Legends is rather disappointing. The game has two main modes. The first is an uninspiring free-exploration type game mode. In this mode, you play as Eddie and have the ability to do sidequests, search for power-ups, and the like. Despite my normal tendency to wander in open worlds, I found myself completely disinterested with such a proposition, primarily due to the lack of much to do in the world near the beginning of the game and the relative ease of dying.

The second game mode is the real core of the gameplay–real-time strategy. Unfortunately, this game offers up a real-time strategy model that is mostly untenable. Firstly, you still can only directly control Eddie (who acts somewhat like a Hero unit from Warcraft III), so you spend most of the time in any given RTS encounter by running around the map relaying orders. Secondly, it is difficult to impossible to deliver fine-grained orders or to control troops tactically. Instead, you often are forced to control units en masse and hope that your unit mix is successful at defeating the enemy. The whole system tends to encourage an attitude of “rush first; restart if you stall” since enemies are almost always better able to manage their troop mix.

I had initially been somewhat interested in the plot of the game. The writing was generally decent and the characters somewhat interesting, but the quality tended to fall over the course of the game. Eddie began to show knowledge that he had no business having (since he wasn’t from this time period) and the last third or so of the game is actually revealed to be an idiot plot right before the final fight.

Taken together, I can’t say there was much to like here. The music is decent, but that should be expected of a game that gets to choose the best metal of the last 30 years as its soundtrack. Luckily, the game is very short–perhaps 4-6 hours if you only do the main plot.

Brutal Legend: 0

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