Sunday, October 24, 2010

Review: Dead Space: Ignition

Dead Space: Ignition is a downloadable game (available on Xbox Live and Playstation Network) and serves as an introduction to the events of the upcoming sequel Dead Space 2. You play as an engineer on a ginormous space station called The Sprawl during a necromorph breakout. The events start innocently enough as you start your day repairing various engineering problems around the city accompanied by your law enforcement partner/lover. However, all hell breaks loose once the monsters come out from the closet and you start receiving communiques from a mysterious stranger that twists the plot at the end and closes with a great segue into the beginning of Dead Space 2.

DS:I is more accurately classified as an 'interactive comic' by the developers, and this is right on the money. The majority of your time is spent watching animated comic cels and watching the story unfold. These 'cutscenes' are interspersed with 3 different mini-games which serve as a representation of your engineer's attempts at repairing various systems throughout the Sprawl.

Trace route is essentially a racing game which pits you against other programs in a race to get to the finish line first. You have several different weapons at your disposal: speed boost, blocks that slow your opponent and viruses that invert either yours or your enemies controls.

Hardware crack is your typical 'guide-the-colored-light-to-the-node' game that gives you several different types of refractory tools to change the direction of lasers into the same colored goal point.

System override is a tower defense type game, except in this instance you are the attacker. You have a few different types of 'viruses' to infect the computer program and win the game.

The mini games are all well done, but aren't anything that hasn't been seen in other, better games. The best part of DS:I is the fleshing out of the events that lead up to Dead Space 2. You also unlock a unique suit for Isaac in DS2 by completing the game.

Repeat playthroughs are encouraged as there are several points in the game that force you to make a decision as to which place to go to next. Once you make that decision, the non-chosen branch is closed off for the remainder of that playthrough. Thankfully, a playthrough is relatively short (there's an achievement for completing on in less than 25 minutes), so playing through 4 times shouldn't be too much of a chore for the completionists out there.

The design of the game is average at best. While the art is not the greatest, it didn't offend me as much as other folks have been reporting. You can see from the attached pics that it's definitely going for a very stylized comic look, which is okay when the images are still, but when they 'come to life' as it were, they tend to look a bit like Major Arnold Toht.

There's not much to talk about gameplay as it's very straightforward. I will say that the Trace Route mini-game was the most angst-inducing of the 3 for me as it really requires fast reflexes and some memorization of the best routes in order to beat your enemies to the finish line. One of the early ones got me to shut down the game and forget about it for a couple of days before returning to finish it. Strangely enough, the following trace routes were much easier, and I can't decide if the difficulty spiked in the early portion of the game and tapered off, or if I just got accustomed to the game play and improved my own performance.

Dead Space: Ignition is not a great game, but is a fun way to expand your experience in the Dead Space universe. Much like No Known Survivors, Dead Space: Downfall and the Dead Space Comics, this serves to give fans a deeper story behind the events of the main game. If you're planning on getting Dead Space 2 no matter what, I would say pre-order the game to get a free copy of Ignition included and save yourself the space bucks it would cost to buy it stand alone.

Score: 5/10

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Review: Castlevania: Lords of Shadow

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is the newest iteration of the beloved franchise. This outing is a reinvention of the game with a whole new protagonist and storyline. You are Gabriel Belmont, a member of the Brotherhood of Light on a quest to avenge the death of your wife. A quest that requires you to kill a lot of vampires, werewolves and other creatures of the night. Pretty standard setup for your average puzzle/hack-n-slash game.

The core gameplay in C:LoS revolves around the use of your chain and light and dark magic. You have basic light, heavy and area attacks that you can upgrade using credits earned from banishing hellions back to whence they came. While the combat is extremely deep in the variety of attacks you can purchase, I did find that the more complex moves were rendered totally useless in boss battles as they required too much time to execute, and the bosses are able to interrupt your attacks at any stage. So I ended up relying on a few tried and true moves throughout most of the game. That's not to say the attack combos aren't worthwhile - they definitely are - but they are better suited for the minions rather than the bosses.

The use of light and dark magic adds another layer of depth that really makes you think about your strategy. Using dark magic increases the damage your attacks deal, helping to take down more difficult enemies with ease. Using light magic during combat will replenish your health bar. It's a great dynamic and very easy to switch between the two, providing for some very interesting magic choreography during the more challenging sections of the game.

As you progress through the campaign, you are awarded with upgrades to your combat mechanics. These range from adding functionality to your chain to secondary items such as holy water, throwing knives and even your own cadre of fairies which act to stun enemies and make them vulnerable to your direct attacks.

There is also a good amount of platforming and some exploration as well. Similar to Enslaved your clamboring routes are highlighted so you know where to go. Unlike Enslaved, only the starting point of a platform section is highlighted. So if you get lost, you at least get a starting line, after that it's up to you to figure your way around. You also can miss jumps and fall to your death, which ramps up the gravity of your gameplay quite nicely.

There are also several puzzle elements peppered throughout the game. While they tend to lean towards the banal (rotate these cylinders to align them, find a colored gem to match the colored door), the majority of them are designed in a way that fits nicely within the storyline and make perfect sense within the universe the developers have created.

This. Game. Is. Fucking. Beautiful. There, I said it. The environment design is truly staggering in C:LoS, on par with the likes of the best that this current generation has to offer. It's no Mass Effect 2, but it's pretty damn close. The range of color palettes is awesome: you have your typical gray/brown tones for the dungeon crawling sections balanced with some amazing forest and desert scenes and topped off with clear white snow covered mountain tops. This really highlights the epic scale of this adventure.

Speaking of scale, C:LoS is LONG. For anyone who complains about short campaigns in full priced games, do yourself a favor and buy this game. It will easily take you at least 20 hours just to go through the main campaign. This doesn't include returning to certain levels to reach areas that require the upgrades you earn. Or replaying levels to complete certain challenges (i.e. defeat enemy X in under 2 minutes; complete the level with defeating X number of these enemies, etc). So not only is this game lengthy, it also encourages repeat playthroughs to earn 100% completion. The great thing about this option, is that a new game+ will start you with ALL of your upgrades from your previous playthrough. No need to hunt down all your upgrades again, because once you get them, they are yours for good.

The voice acting is also extremely well done. Outside of the narration at the beginning of each level - which veers a bit too close to over-the-top-high-school-drama-theatrics - it is very appropriate to each character and to the overall storyline. Sir Patrick Stewart lends his talent to one of the main characters that provides a great twist to the end and an amazing epilogue (hint: STAY TO WATCH AFTER THE CREDITS!!)

The one complaint - actually two - deals with control mapping. You play this game entirely with the left analogue stick and buttons. The right stick is totally unused. Usually that is reserved for camera movement, but since C:LoS uses a fixed camera, it sits alone and unused for the entirety of the game. The 2nd complaint - and this ties in with the right stick - is the fixed camera. While it heightens the cinematic feel of the game having the camera placed at just the right spot for each scene, sometimes it is poooooooorly placed for combat. So poor that one must get used to the fact that you will be attacked by enemies who are not even visible on screen. If the developers had just mapped even rudimentary panning controls to the right stick, both of these problems would have been fixed in one fell swoop. And considering how much in common C:LoS shares with Dante's Inferno and God of War, it's surprising they didn't consider this (or dashing) as an option.

As it stands though, I was able to get used to the camera quirkyness and handle myself with little to no problems for the duration of the game.

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is truly one of the great games this year. A lot of die hard fans of the series have been very vocal, complaining that this is NOT a Castlevania game. I never really played the original series, but I do remember it from my childhood. All I can say is that if you are that hung up on a re-imagination of something you love, go dig up your old NES and play the original. You can't expect a game coming out in 2010 to use the same graphics and mechanics as a mid 1980s side scroller.

That said, this game is pretty bad-ass, and it would be a shame for folks to pass this up because they are judging the book by it's cover. If you want a nice change of pace from all the Halo of Duties dropping this holiday season, do yourself a favor and jump into the tale of Gabriel Belmont.

Score: 8/10

Monday, October 11, 2010

Review: Enslaved: Odyssey To The West

A retelling of the Chinese novel Journey To The West, you play as Monkey: an acrobatic survivor in a post apocalyptic future 150 years from now. The journey begins as you make your escaped from a slave ship, only to be shackled to a young girl - Trip - who enlists your help in getting her back to her home.

Drawing comparisons to the Uncharted series due to it's mix of clamboring and combat, I personally would pair it closer to the likes of Dante's Inferno as the combat is all about hand-to-hand versus gunplay.

That said, the gameplay isn't terribly deep on this title. But that isn't necessarily a bad thing, as this is a game that is more focused on the story and characters. There are skill based games and there are narrative based games (and of course ones that fall inbetween) and Enslaved clearly falls into the latter category.

What gameplay elements there are: clamboring, parkour style acrobatics mixed with button mashy combat and collectibles, only serve as a tool to keep the story moving along, and guide the player along the extremely well written plot. The platforming is 'no fail' - you won't accidentally fall to your doom if you miss a jump because you CAN'T miss any of the jumps. Your only options are to jump or not jump. On the one hand, this may frustrate rabid platformers as being too easy, but on the other, it allows the player to focus on drinking in all the gorgeous scenery and invest yourself into sympathizing with the character's motivations and personalities.

The combat is very straightforward with light and heavy attacks, coupled with explosive and stun projectiles to handle ranged enemies. While many action/adventure aficionados may poo-poo the lack of complexity, this suits my button-mashing playstyle perfectly. Not all games need to have a deep combat system that only fidgety fourteen year olds with spastic reflexes can master. You can upgrade your health, shield and combat moves, but they are mostly increasing damage and ammo capacity types that don't require learning a whole new set of multi-button combos to execute.

In short, if you are looking for a challenging gaming experience, look somewhere else. This game is about character.

The design and art direction is where this game truly shines. The world they have crafted is the most beautiful post-apocalyptic vision since...ever. There is still the whole 'destroyed beauty' aesthetic going on, but it seems that Ninja Theory took copious notes from Life After People and I Am Legend. Gone are the smoggy skies and dark and drab cityscapes. Instead we have ruined metropolises (metropolii?) covered with lush plantlife with the sounds of the jungle echoing in the background. It was also great - having lived in NYC for the last 10 years - to scramble around iconic NY monuments and wonder "Just what the hell happened here?" Whether I was finding a way out of a demolished Grand Central Station, or picking my way across a dilapidated Brooklyn Bridge, I was continually in awe of how fantastic the gameworld looked.

The character design is of particular note here as well, especially the facial animations. I once read an interview with some Bioware developers, and they were talking about how much time they would spend on getting the eyes just right. The reasoning behind this, for them, is that we tend to focus our attention towards the face and eye area when listening to someone speak. So it led them to really focus on making those areas of their character design especially realistic. Ninja Theory apparently read the same interview because I have never seen facial animations as elegant as in Enslaved. A furrowed brow, a scrunched up mouth, a knowing look all convey so much more emotion and information than any line of dialog can. I suppose that Andy Serkis serving as the director of the game - as well as being the voice and motion capture artist for Monkey - had a lot to do with these excellent theatrical touches to help make the characters that much more believable.

A nice touch the developers did is that they tell a story by artifacts left around the environment. We are never outright told exactly what happened on Earth to leave it in such a dismal state. Instead we see old billboards that have been painted over with revolutionary style slogans and piles of 'ancient redundant technology' that allow the player to create their own backstory about the fall of man.

There have been some rumblings about the length of the game being a tad short for a full $60 price tag. But I counter that with this argument: how much do you pay for a movie these days? At least $11 for an adult ticket. And if you want snacks, you can look at upwards of $20-25 for a 1.5-2 hour experience. Clocking in at around 8-10 hours, Enslaved more than gives you your money's worth. Especially considering the cookie cutter hero plots that most games employ.

If you're looking for a well crafted adventure that focuses on story and character over skill and mechanics, then Enslaved is the game for you. Lush, beautiful environments, endearing and believable characters, and an engaging and mysterious plot all add up to an experience that is more like a movie than a game, further blurring the lines between passive and active entertainment.

Score: 8/10