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[Review] Darksiders

I’m sitting here wondering what my counterpoint to the glowing review I’m about to give Darksiders could be. It’s a stretch but maybe the art direction? Might that be a bit too cartoon-y for my taste? Maybe that playing the horseman of the apocalypse who goes most of the game without a horse is illogical in the extreme?

These would all be straws to grasp at since as far as I can tell Darksiders is the perfect game, or at least as close to perfection as can be reasonably expected. Core gameplay is satisfying, there’s solid exploration and replayability, production values are astronomical and it’s just the right length. I honestly can’t think of a place where development misstepped and so if this ‘review’ reads more like a list of things that the guys at Vigil Games got particularly right let me apologise in advance.

Bosses

Sucker for a good boss fight as I am, this game had everything I needed. The Jailor and Tiamat, the first bosses in the first world set the tone for those to follow; big in scope, multi-phase battles that rewarded knowledge of the mechanics you’d been using in the lead up to the encounter with an admirably minimal amount of QTE. Take a look at this and you’ll see.

Combat

One button combat. I thought you couldn’t really cull it down past the two-button ‘light and heavy’ approach every title and its dog uses today but Darksiders found a way. Direction buttons and timing are what dictate the attacks and admittedly there’s a retinue of secondary weapons accompanying the awesome ‘Chaoseater’ but you can mostly forget about them when cutting throught he rank-and-file. And hell if it’s not satisfying.

Exploration

Collectathons and the like that have crept into every other game have never been my favourite ways of padding length. Luckily, although there is a retreading fetch quest in the game’s final act, all the new abilities War has obtained let you see the world in new ways using that great design template Metroid pioneered (not a certain other Nintendo title I won’t deign to mention).

Story

While every new IP goes to some length to establish its world and backstory (gravitas and all that) Darksiders appears to have gone an extra mile. It manages both to establish a deep canon and mythology with a greater looming conflict while also making the self-contained story in the game also feel like the war to end all wars (pun intented?).

Now here’s where I might surprise you. The truth is, despite all its achievements, I wouldn’t pay top dollar for Darksiders even had I known how good it was going to be. I said it wasn’t too short and wasn’t too long – about 10 hours. The perfect length. And yet is that worth an $80 asking price? Not that I intend to quantify games by how many hours it takes to get from end to end but I really think this kind of experience is grossly overpriced as is.

That’s why I feel a new IP like this one is such an odd proposition – clearly no expense was spared in this delightful production and yet, even for perhaps their target audience, there was never any real opportunity for a massive return. Sure they pulled in enough to greenlight a Darksiders II, but  it wasn’t on any top 10 lists for revenue. As I said in my review for Splatterhouse I’m more than happy to pay $20 for these games and indeed I’d reckon Darksiders is worth more than that game was. How much more, I couldn’t say, and that’s the problem.

I’ll close by saying Darksiders is a phenominal breakthrough title that lays foundations for what is no doubt going to be a cracking sequel come June. And for that reason I’m glad someone is buying games like these at release for full RRP even if that person isn’t me.


[Review] Splatterhouse

Along the same lines as all those articles that suppose that, if TV shows were more accessible down here, there would be less piracy, I got to thinking about the $20 game. No one sells games for $20 games at release. It’s either the full $100 or $1-15 for something downloadable. There’s no in between. And that’s a terrible shame because if games like Splatterhouse came out at that price they’d A) sell a lot more and B) let the the people feel less cheated. The sad truth is this particular title will hardly feel like value to anyone at full price. But is that such a bad thing? Do all releases need to be worth $100? Is it really a case of go AAA+ or go home? And if so what kind of a future does that leave this industry? More Fruit Ninjas and less PS Vitas by the look of things. But enough on this tangent and more about Splatterhouse.

‘Fucking carpentry

That is how your lovable mask, the one who provides the superhuman powers your boy Rick enjoys (and who is apparently an Aztec god of death), refers to beating the shit out of monsters with a 2×4. There are pipes and chainsaws too and it all hearkens back to a time when you walked from left to right, picked up whatever you could find, and bashed legions of enemies over their heads with it. Splatterhouse doesn’t pretend to be any more than that and apart from a few collectibles when you’re done, you’re done. Combat is the standard fare of recent years too with light and heavy attacks and a QTE finishing move that pops up from time to time and a Devil Trigger-esque ‘berserk’ mode is thrown in because why not?

Splatterhouse wasn’t developed in a vacuum, clearly, and I was shocked at how self aware it ended up being. I have to plug Jim Cummings’ amazing performance as the nameless mask – that character made the difference between a mundane trek through action gaming’s litany of overused conventions thrown mercilessly at the player one by one and that also wears out its welcome. It’s amazing what a few well-placed quips can do to turn the tide on monotony after entering the umpteenth room you have to clear before being allowed into the next.

Too bad the developers didn’t have the foresight to see that adding 2D sections to the game would turn out to be its greatest downfall. And why would they? Titles like Mega Man Re-loaded and Bionic Commando Rearmed from Capcom have shown that good old 2D platforming can work just as well with a new coat of 3D paint. But this isn’t the good old platforming. This is putting a 2D coat of paint on 3D mechanics and giving your entire QA payroll the week off. Less game and more fanservice, every time the camera moved to setup one of these sections I cursed the dickheads in suits who thought including this on the design document was a great idea. Just the world needs more of – damnable fanservice. They probably thought all the elements extracted from previous Splatterhouses would elicit chuckles when they only really served to grind my shit to a halt.

Self-indulgence is a good thing… sometimes

Normally I’m the first to call something a big wank when it seems to be having too much fun with itself. The mask partner of yours seems to be there only to take the piss out of everything, there’s more blood in Splatterhouse than I think I’ve ever seen in anything, and those pictures of your girlfriend that you have to assemble… oh boy. My criticism here is not that these were poor design choices, but delightfully ballsy ones.

There was one point where it crossed the line though and that was when this became a quasy-Cthulhu mythos extended universe kind of deal. Wait, what? It’s as though Splatterhouse clutched in and shifted from 4th to 1st at some point in its narrative and the result was needlessly jarring.

While there is some semblance of a story going on before this point it was not terribly compelling and relegated itself to the background. Half the problem is that you can’t take the demon-possessed mask seriously at any time and trying to force an overwrought supernatural revenge story into proceedings during the final act and then attempting to ground it in someone else’s universe just adds insult to injury.

Sure, some might see stapling this game to the wall of tenuously Lovecraft-inspired dross would be fittingly playful, or even irreverent, given how little this game aspires to to begin with but I’, not among them. It felt too cheap. Or at least cheap out of step with how cheap everything else was.

I had my fun

I feel like I’ll be retreading a lot of what I said regarding the one-size-fits-all pricing model of games when I come to reviewing Enslaved: Journey to the West because it’s a legitimate problem and pretty much the only thing preventing me from experiencing these two remarkable games when they were still new and relevant. At the end of the day, though, Splatterhouse is a genuinely entertaining 10-or-so-hour trip that I’d heartily recommend to anyone who played the original titles or anyone who can appreciate a game has fun while not aspiring to be the next God of War.

And that person had better have some godly patience too, what with those early 2D sections driving me to the brink of insanity and all.


[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-


[Review] Dragon Age II

Dragon Age II is an average game. Let’s get that out of the way first. Normally I wouldn’t go out of my way to rag on an average game, but DA2 systematically strips out all the promise, mystery and depth that Dragon Age: Origins went to great lengths to establish. In every way but one this is an inferior title to its predecessor and it’s just baffling. Clearly there were budget and timing issues at work but the drop in quality and quantity in this sequel is so brazen and so staggering it leaves me little choice but to chalk up this mess as possibly the biggest disappointment of 2011. And it’s only March.

Looking at the large scale of the game, the overarching narrative blows. Is 15 hours enough time to make a fair judgement of something like this? If not, it should be. There is nothing driving the momentum of DA2′s plot and characters are shifted up so often that it’s hard to establish any real camaraderie. There were many significant plot threads and narrative cliffhangers that Origins and Awakening left us with, and, while I may be wrong, this game has no apparent desire to address them in any meaningful way. Thedas was positioned as an epic world with a rich history and the bulk of its mysteries yet to be discovered. It’s probably less charitable than the game deserves to say this, but DA2 essentially pisses all over the mythology that was built up for all those years that DAO was incubating in development.

The much talked-up ‘frame narrative’ is also a concession on the writers’ part. As far in as I am I feel confident in saying it doesn’t add anything except the ability for the developer to jump around a timeline recklessly and relieve themselves of a lot of expositional and continuity concerns. It also offers a get-out-of-jail-free card in the sense that any detail in DA2 can be written off as exaggeration or discarded Usual Suspects-style as an en masse fabrication and pave the way for future retcons that might be necessary. Also a talking player character and shift in visual style? Gives me the feeling that this may have been originally intended as a further expansion or spinoff, rather than a full sequel, but more on that later.

On the small scale of things the dialogue and witty banter between teammates that I loved so much in Origins is gone. Well, not gone, but certainly stripped down to a bare minimum. And even then it’s never as witty as the lines written for Alistair or Anders. They were gold. Nothing approaches that quality in DA2 and while it’s never an overt shortcoming, it does detract something that series veterans are in their rights to expect.

Although it’s not all bad. For those decrying DA2′s new take on RPG combat, I rather like it. I found the implementation in DA:O mired in its supposed reverence to Baldur’s Gate and not nearly fluid enough for the year in which it was released. That said, I would never have wanted them to take out all the tactics and actual thought that went into surviving one of the chaotic brawls in Origins, but that’s exactly what happened. Skill trees are stripped bare and outfitting and AI behaviour has been taken down a notch in complexity. Surely between the two approaches there’s a happy medium, but DA2 just goes too far.

The worrying thing about DA2 is that it seemed crafted in a such a way that it could cut corners from the beginning, not as a last-minute ditch effort to get the game out on time. Being centred around a single city? Being told through its ‘frame narrative’? These are all conscious core design choices made with the apparent intention of getting a sequel to DAO out the door as soon as possible. Promises of 2 years’ DLC support for that game be damned! Or could this all be a hint? Could the game now known as Dragon Age II originally been a DLC release for DAO? Although the hackneyed new combat system suggests otherwise, the production’s deliberately narrow scope suggests so. Otherwise could it have been some manner of spinoff? The new combat supports this theory and its decidedly console-esque stylings suggest this could have been a console-only affair at one point. Both disc size and the subsequent hi-res download for PC both point in this direction…

But this is all idle speculation. The harsh reality is that we have an RPG that’s not bad but is an utter letdown considering what came before it. I just gave up on the appalling Infinite Undiscovery – which was magnitudes worse than DA2 – but it was a new franchise and the dirth of shocking titles Square-Enix likes to publish didn’t exactly temper expectations for much more. I wouldn’t waste the time condemning that garbage. DA2′s difference is that its predecessor setup a game and a world with so much potential that 2 years ago there were few things I was anticipating more than a sequel. Now that sequel is here and it doesn’t even maintain the set standard; it falls short. It’s unacceptable for a great game’s sequel to be anything less than greater, and to be categorically worse is unconscionable.

I’ve tried not to let this be a knee-jerk reaction to all the changes and really don’t want to jump on the Dragon Age 2 hate bandwagon but I have no motivation to pick up the game at this point and press forward. Comparing this to the all night DAO marathons from 2009 it’s just sad. I don’t know what was happening at Bioware when this was being made but they have a lot of work to do if they hope to kindle any interest for a Dragon Age III.

Grade: C


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