Where is the Atom Smasher?

Sometimes, it takes days and days to play through a game and get a feel for its strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes, however, it takes hours. Usually, as in the case of Atom Zombie Smasher, this is a bad sign.

In this middle of an alternate history version of last century, zombies have sprung up. As the leader of a society, you must try to save as many people as possible while fighting off the zombie threat.

The “meat” of Atom Zombie Smasher is the rescue/attack portion of the game. In it, you are given a handful of “squads” with which to repel increasing hordes of zombies. While you’re trying to kill the zombies, you must also try to evacuate civilians. If zombies (represented by purple dots) run into the civilians (represented by yellow dots) then there are suddenly more zombies and fewer civilians. This is, obviously, not a good thing.

There are a fair number of different kinds of squads which allows for somewhat interesting interactions. Squads themselves level up in various ways, becoming more useful as the game goes on. Although the zombies are the primary enemy, the game also has a constant ticking clock in the form of a day-night cycle. During a mission, whenever a day ends, a huge wave of zombies inundates the map. This is usually a tactically intractable situation making the day-night changeover a hard cutoff for missions.The game also has a strategic component to go along with the tactical one. This part of the game allows you to choose which territories to attack. As the game progresses, more and more zombies spawn on to the strategic map. This forces you to choose your battles to try to mitigate the spread before any particular area becomes overrun.Although AZS has lots of interesting ideas, the game itself seems to suffer from cripplingly bad balance. In the basic gameplay mode, squads are assigned (seemingly) randomly. This might lead to you having to try to carry out a mission using only barriers, a couple of landmines and maybe an artillery piece. Worse, while the game does allow squads to level up and become more useful (and thus make the higher level missions more possible), the speed of leveling up in incredibly slow and the progression doesn’t carry over from one game to the next. Of course, since the squads are assigned randomly, you might not even be able to use them once you’ve leveled them up.

The biggest problem though seems to be the strategic map. The whole progression of the game is based on a scoring track. Evacuating civilians and capturing towns get you bonuses. The issue is that, every turn, the zombie faction gets more free units than you can reasonably be expected to deal with. This gives them more points which makes it harder and harder to keep up.

Now, it may be that extended practice and experience might help mitigate these problems. It might also be the case that I might just not be a solid enough tactician to make the game tractable. I’m willing to accept that either of these might be the case. Unfortunately, the frustration that the perceived (if not actual) balance issues cause mean that I have no interest at all in exploring these possibilities.

Atom Zombie Smasher: 0

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Capitalism, ho!

Some time ago, I decided to pick a game at random from my Steam games list to play. In a moment of ennui and with a desire for something different, I decided to play Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale. I had picked up the game long ago during a Steam sale, but like so many other items picked up at Steam sales, it had been forgotten.

There is a term, defined on TV Tropes, called the “widget series” — the Weird Japanese Thing (WJT). If ever a game qualified, I believe Recettear is the exemplar. In Recettear you take on the role of Recette, an air-headed, happy young girl who has suddenly been saddled with the debt taken out by her missing father. In order to save her home, you must earn a great deal of money to repay the debt which is coming due in less than a month. On the urging of her fairy companion/creditor, she decides to open an RPG-style item shop to provide equipment to the local town as well as the burgeoning adventurer community who search through nearby ruins.

Just a bitThe core of the gameplay is straightforward. You buy items from wholesalers and then display them in your shop where people will come in and buy them from you. The selling of items is itself a haggling mini-game wherein you attempt to ascertain what each particular customer is willing to pay. As customers become regulars, they start carrying larger amounts of cash and can buy more expensive items. Buying and selling items levels up Recette as a merchant and allows access to better items, bigger shops, and new interactions such as taking orders. The main weakness of this system, however, is that once you’ve figured out what people are willing to pay for items, the process of buying and selling becomes uninteresting. For instance, the character called “Man” will always buy an item at 125% of its value. Once you know this, there is no real reason to haggle. Finding these sort of statistics for every character (which other people have already thoughtfully done in FAQs and wikis) removes most of the mystery and suspense from the shop.

She shoots 8 arrows at once.

In addition to running the shop, Recette can also try to cut out the middle man by diving into the nearby ruins with an adventurer and finding items for free on monsters or in treasure chests. In this part of the game, it is more of a Zelda or Dark Cloud endeavor. Dungeons are randomly generated and come in five level chunks with bosses at the end of each set of five levels. Unfortunately, this is one area where Recette’s Japanese RPG origins shine through. Most of the bosses qualify as Nintendo Hard and the penalty for failure is quite steep–the forfeiture of all items found in that particular dive save one or two.  Of course, level grinding is a necessity for success in these ruins as well.

Kill the ones in front and behind, simultaneously, with our special bows.

Even with the ultimately robotic merchant experience and the frustratingly difficult dungeon bosses, I still feel compelled to recommend this game for one reason which counterbalances all of those problems: the writing. The translation of the game is brilliant, hilarious–sometimes intentionally, sometimes not–and clever. Dialog is almost universally witty and the characters’ quirkiness gives it a charm that many games lack.

Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale: 1

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I’m Still Batman

A few weeks ago, I finished up my runthrough of Batman: Arkham City. I was torn about it and so it took me a while to finally get around to reviewing it.

Arkham City is a direct sequel to Arkham Asylum and lifts most of its design and play from its predecessor. The developers have managed to tighten things up a bit, this time around–combos ear easier to pull off and are smoother, for instance. Rather than being a relatively linear game like its predecessor, though, Arkham City went with a sandbox design. At first, this seems like an obvious path for a game about a superhero fighting crime. Unfortunately, though, Arkham City manages to feel very small in comparison to its predecessor.

Though there are many things to explore, the main plot–finding out the secrets of the asylum/prison/post-apocalyptic-hellscape that is the game’s namesake–feels short. Worse yet, the side missions dealing with other characters feel more like the “collect the token” games from the Nintendo 64 era rather than anything deep or richly connected to the rest of the experience. Compounding it further, some of the side quests don’t even get real conclusions. The worst offender ends up with a villain walking out of the city and Batman saying that he’d “deal with him tomorrow”.

What there was of Arkham City, I mostly enjoyed, even with its flaws. Nevertheless, I don’t think that I can recommend the game. It just leaves you wanting more in a way that a game of its pedigree shouldn’t.

Batman: Arkham City: 0

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They Were Warned

Over the weekend, I finished up my play through of Mass Effect 3. Being a blockbuster franchise, I’ll be dispensing with the description of what it is. Now, the real trick in reviewing Mass Effect 3 is that, based on murmurings that I’ve heard round the Internet, the game may be vastly different to different players. Given such, anything I say about the plot should probably be taken as just one view into a multifaceted work. And finally, before I finish my disclaimers, I should say that there’s going to be plot talk about the two predecessor games and some about this final one. You’ve been warned.

For me, Mass Effect 3 began with Shepard under house arrest on Earth, after the events of the Mass Effect 2: Arrival DLC mission pack. The Reapers have finally invaded and decided to hit Earth first and hard. Honestly, given that the only person in the galaxy to kill a Reaper was a human, this seems a fair way to get started. With the fight on Earth hopeless, Shepard is sent off world to find some way, any way to fight back against the seemingly unstoppable Reaper threat.

After locating the plans for a MacGuffin capable of defeating the Reapers, Shepard instantly launches into a galaxy spanning campaign to recruit allies to both build it and hold back the Reapers advances to give time for said MacGuffin to be built. This section of the game is where it really shines. Unlike many other “save the world” or “save the universe” games, Mass Effect 3 manages to give the struggle real weight. People who matter die and decisions have real consequences. Most notably, the game often forces you to choose between having the best possible force now and trying to ensure a stable post-Reaper galaxy with the caveat that winning with anything less than everything (or even with everything) isn’t assured.

From a gameplay perspective, Mass Effect 3 follows very closely on Mass Effect 2‘s model. Nothing of great substance has changed, though weapon modifications are back from the original Mass Effect. Of course, the gameplay in Mass Effect 2 was extremely solid, so this isn’t a major issue. Given the nature of the story, however, there seemed to be less diversity in enemy opponents this time around. I wonder if that might make certain classes weaker this time around than previous.

My main irritation with the game was the available endings. I didn’t dislike the choices themselves–I’ve written a large analysis of them elsewhere on the site–what I didn’t like is that I was forced to make a choice and then was not shown the implications of that choice. This same problem appeared in Deus Ex: Human Revolution, though I would argue it is worse here.

Nevertheless, the sheer strength of the story in the mid-game largely makes up for the lack of denouement, at least to me. It is rare that a game can make me feel real emotion about it’s characters, but Mass Effect 3 did. It may also be the only game in which a forced loss didn’t feel like it can from stupidity being the only option.

Mass Effect 3: 1

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I Drink to Forget

Over the weekend, I played through the rest of Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Amnesia was made by the same people who created the Penumbra series and shares many traits with it. Amnesia is another first-person horror/suspense/adventure game but shares only a game engine–rather than a continuing story–with its predecessors.

Amnesia begins with the protagonist suffering from (wait for it) amnesia. He quickly finds a note from himself, to himself instructing him to go deep into the depths of the castle and murder Alexander. Who Alexander is and what, precisely, he has done to warrant murder is slowly revealed over the course of the game as the protagonist finds pages from his own journal.

Like its predecessors, Amnesia largely builds itself on its atmosphere. The entire game attempts to instill a tense, uneasy feeling. Darkness is ever-present and being in it the sanity meter to fall. Failing sanity then causes the protagonist to undergo both visual hallucinations–in the form of extremely exaggerated motion blur and a surprisingly unnerving undulation effect on the world–and auditory hallucinations–themselves often relevant to where you are (for example, the sound of dogs howling, just on the edge of perception in the room where you find a dissected dog).

Several people that I talked to about Amnesia, before playing it, had very strong feelings about the level of fear that it induced. Whether due to my extended history with horror/suspense games, the fact that I had recently played the Penumbra games, or my general jadedness, I tended to not react to the game with fear. It certainly managed to startle me on several occasions, but the enemies–themselves a common thread that others mentioned as something that made them quit playing–I mostly saw as an aggravation.

The sudden arrival of an enemy as a rounded a corner tended most often to mean that I would die another pointless death. Since Amnesia follows in the footsteps of the second Penumbra game (Black Plague), there are no weapons and the enemies themselves act primarily as things to be avoided. Unlike Black Plague, however, enemies could be defeated in a somewhat meta sense. I realized, rather quickly, that dying at the hands of a given enemy would cause that enemy to not respawn when I died (or at least to respawn somewhere far away). This meant that, in general, my method of dealing with an enemy was to flee in the direction that I wanted to move anyway and to shrug if I died.

One can argue, perhaps reasonably, that in assuming the above strategy, I was ignoring the game’s admonition, given before it even started, to “not try to win”. I would, of course, respond that such admonitions are an attempt to alter player behavior without bothering to make the gameplay (or meta-gameplay, in this sense) jibe with the authorial intent. Put more succinctly, I’d call it developer laziness.

My main complaint with Amnesia is that it feels incomplete. Although the journals, notes, and small bits of dialog work well in reconstructing what the protagonist knew before losing his memory, it seems as though the greater world–and the real motivation of the very small number of other characters–is left as a under-explained. For a game so heavily built on its storytelling, I felt like the third act didn’t provide the resolution that was necessary. Too many vital questions were left unanswered.

Amnesia is another game that I wanted to like. It is certainly one of the better done pieces in the horror/suspense genre that I’ve seen lately, but I think the endings (all of them) left me disappointed and unfulfilled. And if there’s one thing I can’t abide, it’s a game that drops the ball at the last second.

Amnesia: The Dark Descent: 0

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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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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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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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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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