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[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-


Steam Recommendations: Black Ops & New Vegas

Call of Duty: Black Ops and Fallout: New Vegas

Steam, that digital delivery system for games from Valve that I have this curious love / hate relationship with, rolled out a new feature overnight – recommendations. Now you, and the rest of the defenceless internet, are set to be subjected to my unadulterated thoughts on games new & old and potentially in such a barrage that you’d think I was on Valve’s payroll. And hey, wouldn’t that be nice?

What I like about this system is that there is a character limit of about a 1000, which demands brevity. It also allows me to be shit lazy and not bother writing real reviews. If you’re a glutton for more punishment visit My Recommendations Page. I’ve decided to start off with two new games Steam prompted me with

Black Ops is an odd beast in that it takes steps forward and steps back from last year’s Call of Duty: Modern Warefare 2, all with the haughty confidence of a title guaranteed to ship 5 million or more without much effort. However when you have half the internet playing something online how can you pass it up?
The campaign still provides a high you just don’t get from other shooters. The story is ambitiously different, but I’m still deciding whether that difference paid off in the end. Technology wise, the game used 2008’s CoD: World at War as a codebase instead of the more recent MW2. Odd choice. It looks good, but not great.
Multiplayer is a winner for one reason: Dedicated Servers. 20-50ms pings instead of 60, 70, 80 upto 200 or so in MW2? Hell yes. So far weapons aren’t memorable like those in WaW and MW2, but we’re still in early days.
Sad that I have to mention this but hardware performance on PC is not fantastic. In fact it was practically unplayable at launch. Black Ops is too CPU intensive and if you’re not packing a Core i5 or i7, expect 2-5 second stutters, and a generally frustrating experience ahead.

 

Not as good as Fallout 3. That out of the way, buy this game. Fallout: New Vegas is probably the world’s most bloated expansion pack – most every asset here is recycled from its predecessor. Not to say it doesn’t excel in any areas- gunplay, writing and party interaction are all done better here. At the same time VATS, Special and general balancing are done worse.
If it weren’t for all the bugs in the game this would be easier to recommend as a follow up to 2008’s masterpiece. As it stands the game is a lot of fun, but a lot of patching is in order.
Of course if you haven’t played FO3 yet, get the GOTY of that before you try New Vegas. More content, less bugs… is there really much of a choice to make?


Black Ops Beta Blues

Call of Duty: Black Ops

The tech press has been preoccupied with Call of Duty: Black Ops over the last 24 hours and yet the proportion of articles addressing the release’s disgraceful PC optimisation, given the volume of coverage overall, is not as great as I think the issue warrants. The game runs awfully- worse than it should on my GTX 470-equipped desktop machine and unplayably slow on my M11x. Neither World at War nor Modern Warfare 2 gave either of these systems any problems. Wouldn’t this game have benefitted from an open beta test? I get the feeling more and more that day-1 PC releases are beta tests these days…

After Fallout: New Vegas, Black Ops is the second game in the last month to ship in a terribly optimised state for the PC. I’ll join the legion of other ponderers in wondering if this isn’t a multiplatform consequence- get the 360 version running ok and all will be right as rain. And try as I might, looking at statistics on what % of Modern Warfare 2 sales were for PC, I guess I can understand where the developers priorities were in getting this out on time…

Still what happened to the good old days of things working at release? Patches are not a new concept in the PC gaming world but have never been the crutch that they are today in ages past. I could rattle off a list of games that have shipped in an utterly crippled state and then fixed up to good working order down the track, but that is sidestepping the issue. Why should anyone buy a game on launch day at full RRP if they’re going to have to wait weeks or months for a stable patching? Not to mention DLC support that will only come later (or, in those perverse, business-minded circumstances, deliberately withheld from the beginning). This is the treatment I’m coming to expect as a primarily PC gamer and I deserve better.


Nulreview: Medal of Honor

Medal of Honor

Medal of Honor (2010) always had a bad ring to it. This game was so clearly a knee-jerk reaction to the snowballing success of Call of Duty that it made you wonder: how does one knock down a rival that has hit its stride with 3 consecutive super-successful titles, which commands an incredible following across all platforms and whose most recent entry is the best selling game of all time? Also, why would you even try?

EA has its own Battlefield series that fills a separate niche to CoD. A bit larger in scale and a bit more tactical, BF is about different things to the twitch shooting carnage of Activision’s series. And it is good because it is different. The real tragedy is that it seems the publisher, scrambling for the scraps of Modern Warfare 2, railroaded its otherwise respectable studio, DICE, into stalling its upcoming Battlefield 3 to match the competitor on its own terms with a pale CoD-wannabe. And it shows in Medal of Honor.

Reviews are in, and EA share price dropped 6% because of them. The single player is passable, but buggy, and its poor AI is propped up by an overuse of scripted sequences. Its multiplayer is flat in every way and fails to live up to the progression-whoring and prestige-enticing MW2. While its clear that money was sunk into this, the only take out from what I’m seeing is that it was money better spent elsewhere.

Have a gander below.

In any other genre, a stellar single player experience would be enough to garner a whole-hearted recommendation. But it’s impossible to ignore the importance of multiplayer, especially when Medal of Honor’s primary competitor tends to excel at both. Medal of Honor’s campaign is an exceptional experience, but the total package simply doesn’t beat Call of Duty. – Joystiq (4/5)

Medal of Honor has some strong moments, but overall it feels like a game that could have been a lot better. Most of the issues I experienced while playing feel like things that could have–and should have–been avoided. But all of those scripting bugs and boring unlockables quickly add up, death-of-a-thousand-cuts style. In the absolutely ruthless world of online shooters, there’s little room for weakness. Medal of Honor alternates between its derivative style and its annoying technical glitches way too frequently to rise above the crowd. – Giant Bomb (3/5)

As a game about the Afghanistan war that does its absolute utmost to avoid being about the Afghanistan war, Medal of Honor is arguably just a shooting gallery spliced with a fairground ride and a solid multiplayer accessory which owes a lot to Bad Company 2. It certainly does little to advance the theory that videogames are responsible enough to tell stories within sensitive contexts. – Eurogamer (8/10)

Medal of Honor fails in making an honourable return to the frontline. It’s an inconsistent package that doesn’t fully deliver on the single-player, nor distinguish itself enough in multiplayer to make it an Xbox Live contender. A real shame. – OXM UK (7/10)

MOH is a robust, if seldom surprising, rebuttal to MW2’s dominance, and its measured tone and diligent observation of military patter make it a marginally more meaningful representation of modern warfare itself. It’s an idealised one – going by the book, telling only part of the story. But it’s only because MOH makes a brave move away from the ludicrous extremes of other shooter fantasies that its failure to seize reality entirely becomes so palpable. – Edge Magazine (7/10)


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