Things you should see.

Archive for April, 2011

Here we are again…

…it’s always such a pleasure. And now I feel dirty. For lack of anything more insightful I’ve stooped to rolling out the most cliche of internet / gaming tropes – the Portal reference. The truth is while trying – in vain apparently – to recall what has happened since the last two weeks or so since my last post nothing terribly important comes to mind. Sure I dallied with Crysis 2 and endured to varying degrees of unpleasantness Fast Five and Thor. But all I really did that still bears any meaning was labouring through Portal 2. How lame is that? This is why these catch-up posts after periods of inactivity are so hard for me.

Twitter’s general sentiment has led me to believe that I’m not alone in shying away from Portal 2‘s co-op. For me, most my friends are on XBL and none of the friends on Steam I’d want to have such a confrontational 1-on-1 with have the game. Then there are those poor souls cutoff from the world on PSN. Shortly after release I was feeling a bit silly buying the full-priced Steam version instead of picking up the PS3 disc and redeeming a PC copy for free. Not anymore. So anyway like so many other solely single players, I’ve finished Portal 2 and just bought an iPad. Guess what happens next?

I picked up Geoff Keighley’s $2 iPad app ‘The Final Hours of Portal 2′ of course. Really I could go on and on about how those traditional publishers crying bloody murder over the declines in circulation and digitising of media could learn more than a little from this brilliant piece of digital journalism. But I won’t. Suffice to say that I think it was worth the cost – like the game itself – and while short did manage to leave me with a smile on my face afterward. The takeout I’d like to pull out form this is that Portal 2 had a surprisingly fraught development process. Gameplay / puzzle mechanics (there were no portals at one point…), sure, but mostly on the story front. The game went through a few iterations and the more I think about it that really shows in the finished product.

Spoiler alert, but the revelation that GLaDOS was once an ironically stupid human was novel enough. Novel, but not organic. Or believable. The whole thing was rushed and unbelievable. The exposition is laid out on a platter and with no subtlety at all, there’s an ‘oh no!’ moment when she – at that point in potato form – figures it out. Hours after we have, mind you. For a super-intelligent AI whose character is premised on being smart, that slow reaction wasn’t thought out properly, the fact that she was in a potato notwithstanding.

Not to turn this into a review either, but I will say the game was short, but brilliant. Just how I like them. There were moments where I was flabbergasted with the quality of storytelling and often at the same time as being blown away by what Valve still manages to squeeze out of its almost-decades old Source engine. While the telling was exceptional, the story itself was just good. Stephan Merchant’s Wheatley outshined everyone’s favourite homicidal AI and that came from behind for me.

What now for me then? Crysis 2 has failed quite miserably in keeping my interest, despite the praises I continue to sing for its predecessor. Shogun 2: Total War and Civilization V both arrived but between lapsing back into Call of Duty: Black Ops and attempting my 5th expedition into Half-Life 2 I didn’t have much time for then. And my biggest grievance after all that would be the fact that my copy of Mortal Kombat did not arrive before the very long Easter weekend (and still hasn’t arrived). Until it does turn up I’ll just drift along in this zombie-like state. Probably stopping to give Brink a go if it gets here first and maybe even accord some attention to my PSP or iPad. Too bad none of them sound terribly exciting for a mid-Friday morning with a weekend coming up.


[Review] Bulletstorm

With a title like Bulletstorm you know what you’re in for. Lots of shooting, a heap of violence and probably a game that doesn’t take itself too seriously. On this basic premise Bulletstorm delivers in spades but beyond that seems to have an identity crisis. There’s no one area in which it really excels and it even commits the cardinal sin of shooters (there’s no competitive multiplayer). Between juggling an innovative campaign, an unique scoring system and a co-op multiplayer mode thrown in just for good measure Bulletstorm seems to have taken on too much and failed to really deliver on anything.

There’s no mistaking the point that Bulletstorm is primarily a single-player affair and the cornerstone of any single-player game is its single-player campaign. Emphasis on the ‘single’ part. While I can praise the campaign for its length (about 10 hours – above average these days), it is curiously missing any form of co-op, which is particularly odd given how similar it is to Gears of War (but more on that later). Even in the game’s ‘Echoes’ mode, which seems purpose built for multiplayer, the option is mysteriously absent. That aside, the campaign comes and goes without much of note actually happening. There’s no dramatic build up, no noticeable climax and a set of protagonists who you really have to struggle to care about. There were also boss fights, and yet no final boss and that’s something that always annoys me. It’s sad to say, but by the end I was just thankful that the experience wasn’t nearly as crass and juvenile as People Can Fly PR might have had me believe. Small graces.

For a game from the makers of Painkiller, Bulletstorm isn’t all that frenetic either. You’re never swamped by legions of enemies and combat plods along at a deliberate pace. It could even be played in 3rd person and not much would change. I’m left wondering if the clunkiness it shares with Epic’s Unreal Engine 3 poster franchise isn’t more than just coincidence. The one difference is the ‘leash’, a lasoo-like arm-mounted contraption that lets you yank objects and enemies across the field in slow motion. Given every second object in Bulletstorm explodes, this sets up a lot of cool scenarios and in some cases allows for genuine creativity in demolishing a group of foes. The downside is that killing people more often involves environmental hazards than bullets, which is odd given the game’s namesake. You certainly don’t have the rounds to take everyone down the old fashioned way and some of the more intriguing weapons (Bouncer, I’m looking at you) can’t hold enough ammo to make much of a difference on the battlefield. While I’m all for encouraging the player to be creative, I don’t like being denied the option to go at the game Doom-style should I so choose. Surely there could have been a happy medium?

Speaking of Doom, where is the rocket launcher? Ammo issues notwithstanding, Bulletstorm has some damned cool weapons. The mounted chaingun is suitably devastating and the Flail Gun and Bouncer are interesting new toys for jaded FPS’ers. Hell, Bulletstorm even manages to make the sniper rifle useful. So why then is the quintessential Quake weapon missing? Even the enemies get their hands on them over the course of the campaign. As for how this oversight managed to get through development I have no idea. Maybe it wouldn’t have gelled with the game’s Skillshot-oriented design. But seeing how much fun Bulletstorm has with the other FPS mainstays I’d love to see its take on the good ol’ rocket launcher in a sequel. Fingers crossed for that one.

In fact what seems to underline every aspect of Bulletstorm is the focus on score and Skillshots and it’s something I think the game got very wrong. Scores are great and trying to perform every Skillshot on the list is fun, but otherwise the system just serves to undermine everything else in the game. Rather than providing a currency for performance, Skillshots ensure that the most contrived ways of taking out an enemy - not necessarily the most creative or most skillful – are the ones used. If simply kicking someone into a fan nets more points than, say, leashing them into the air and shooting them in the ass, which do you think you’ll end up doing more often? The score attributed to each Skillshot is seemingly arbitrary and in any of the modes based on points things get very boring, very fast. Overall the system comes off as being slapped on top of near-finished gameplay in a shortsighted attempt to add depth and cohesion to the disparate elements of an otherwise generic shooter.

The next such element, Echoes, lets you run through short segments of the game in hope of achieving the highest score and highest star-grade possible. The key to success in this mode is pretty much summed up with ‘if you see anything red, make sure it blows up’. That co-op is not allowed in this tailor-made game mode is just bizarre and it also renders Echoes a bit redundant. Why run through these cut-down segments instead of replaying the campaign chapter they were pulled from? By now you’ve likely summised there’s no Deathmatch, Capture the Flag or the like. That leaves us with Anarchy as the only other non-campaign mode and the only one which involves other players. The mode itself is flawed – groups of four players survive against waves of enemies trying to reach point-base targets each wave (although ‘survive’ is used loosely as its almost impossible to die) – and so is its implementation. It uses Games for Windows Live P2P matchmaking so expect wildly variable pings. And while there is an unlock system calling it inconsequential is an understatement. Anarchy has no weapon unlocks or any meaningful character customisation. You can change your skin (not your model) and that’s about it. Perhaps the most differentiating aspect for players – different leash colours – has been relegated to pre-order unlocks. Even at max level you’ll just have just have blue and white to play with, while the average Joe who pre-ordered with EB will have every colour of the rainbow ready to go on day one. I really have to question what sort of longevity this one-dimensional mode will have with no worthwhile rewards for playing.

Of course there are also things Bulletstorm gets very right. It is absolutely gorgeous and, for all that has been said about Unreal Engine 3 over the years, the visuals stand at least should to shoulder with anything else out there right now. Further to that, Bulletstorm boasts some of the largest areas and biggest baddies you’ve ever seen in UE3. Character models are plain but outside of those hamfisted story segments it never really matters. And even though the story sucks, writing off the campaign completely would be doing the game a disservice. Although uneven and ultimately unsatisfying, there more than a couple of moments during the single player game that will make you sit back and think ‘oh shit’. Being chased by the giant wheel, remote-controlling a giant robot and shooting a giant lizard off a building are just some of the campaign highlights. Emphasis, definitely, on the ‘giant’ part.

These spots of momentary brilliance sadly do little to conceal what Bulletstorm really is; an unfocussed shooter promoted solely by the smokescreen of Skillshots and ‘dicktits’ PR marketspeak. It has no particular strength and no real staying power once the curtain has closed on the campaign. The FPS genre is cluttered today moreso than any other genre in the history of gaming and so I begrudgingly regurgitate the overused argument that, today, being an average shooter is not good enough. And with all its deficiencies Bulletstorm is just that; average.

 

Grade: B-


DLC it is for SSF4AE

Was there any doubt? I posted a while back that leaked shots of achievements for a supposed Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition on the 360 suggested the update was coming. The only questions at that time were 1) will it be a disc or DLC update and 2) were any features outside of 4 new characters coming? Captivate has brought about answers to both those questions.

The trailer below leaked out ahead of Captivate’s media embargo until the 12th. Basically, yes, we are getting Oni, Evil Ryu, Yun and Yang and yes there will be new features in terms of online and replays.

What we’re not getting is any further addition to the roster (Alex and Urien fans, like myself, are crying their eyes out now) and there are strangely enough no new stages. To top off the oddity, SSF4AE players will be able to match up against regular SSF4 players so no idea how they’ll manage the rebalancing issues there. 2 versions of the game coexisting perhaps?

My gut feeling is just that this is too little too late. Simply because, like with the original release of Super Street Fighter IV, the community has been aware of these additions for way, way too long. Even now we still don’t know when this will actually hit the XBLA or PSN. I’d written about Capcom’s PR strategy on this topic before. I didn’t agree with the approach then and I don’t now. This had obviously been in the works since at least November. Stringing us along all this time comes off seeming callous at best, downright malicious at worst.

It’s a shame since a release which would have wildly excited me not too long ago has instead left me a tad too indifferent for my liking.

Anyway, check out the SSF4AE DLC Trailer at Metacafe. Most other media outlets seem to have pulled it already, probably at the Capcops’ behest.


What to make of Prey 2

There was a lot on the internets recently about Dragon Age 2 being rubbish. I wrote some of it. The point most conceded to, however, was that it would not have copped the flak had it not been the sequel to Dragon Age: Origins and that point opens up a messy debate. Do game makers and content creators at large owe us anything? More specifically, can players / viewers / end users rightly expect something specific from a brand or a franchise if it puts out a direct sequel? Should new ideas and new ‘innovations’ relegated to side-stories and new IPs altogether?

Bioware doesn’t think so. To hell with epic storytelling, hours of gameplay and actual narrative choice says Mr. David Gaider. I would like to tell a greatly concatenated ‘frame-story’ and quickly shuttle players through time (certainly not though space- the whole game takes place in one fucking city) to a contrived and meaningless conclusion. Oh we were pressured by those lovely chaps at EA, and this approach was both foolhardly and blatantly indulgent from the beginning, but fuck it. Dragon Age is ours and we can do what we want with it. Right?

It’s no secret that id Software and Bethesda are close to my heart. I recall circa 2003, in the lead-up to the hotly anticipated release of Doom 3, id’s Todd Hollenshead appearing on Icons to discuss how the IP was close to their hearts too and how players have some level of ownership over the new product. Given they’d been the ones sinking hundreds of thousands of hours into it.That comment earned a bunch of my respect. Of course Doom 3 turned out to be different from its predecessor in every way imagineable, but at least they acknowledged they had a duty to the fans. And I loved Doom 3 so who knows.

It’s funny then that my main beef of the day is with a franchise that has more in common with Doom than Dragon Age. Prey, that title in dev hell for the best part of a decade at 3D Realms, and that can be summed up as ‘red indians vs. aliens’, is now getting a sequel that openly flaunts its departure from what made the first so great. Namely, portals, puzzles involving portals and geometry / gravity tricks of all kinds. It was otherwise a pretty bland shooter but those things made it unique, if not great.

Prey 2 basically shits all over Prey. No portals? No gravity tricks? And what are these stupid looking aliens? Did they even watch this trailer? There’d been rumblings about this sequel for a few years now but nothing concrete until recently. Having seen what I’ve seen written about it so far I’m left wondering what’s the point. Does this world really need another mediocre run ‘n gun with tacked on multiplayer, ageing technology under the hood and one-dimensional gimmick? What’s that? Prey 2 doesn’t even have a gimmick? Oh.. well in that case..

So who’s at fault here? The developers, Human Head, for stripping out the more ‘puzzly’ aspects and making a straight up shooter? Or the players for having expectations that set them up to be disappointed? Given the ‘Prey franchise’ (I never thought I’d come to that, honestly) is built on a single trick, if you’re going to throw out the gimmick then you might as well ditch the name too. Because players are naturally going to expect things from a brand and this approach is tantamount to outright deception. People reading the interviews and keeping on top of the news will know this but the vast majority of gamerdom will not.

In a world where reviews below 80% break games, and, if anything, Dragon Age 2 has taught us this kind of bait and switch whips the Metacritic hordes into a frenzy, I’d say they’re making a losing bet doing this with Prey 2. But hey, what do I know.


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