Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Graphic Horror: Game reviews

by Brian M. Sammons

Welcome to the first installment of Graphic Horror where spooky games come to play. If you are a fan of both horror and interactive gamming then this is the place for you. On the other hand if you are a fan of horror but haven’t given video games a second thought since the days of Pac Man then perhaps these terrifying titles will tempt you to pick one up and give it a try.
Here you will find reviews of new horror or darkly themed games, maybe some classic creepy games from yesterday, and perhaps even a non-horror suggestion or two for those wanting to cleanse the terror palate. So without further ado, let’s start things off with the most recent ghoulish games to hit store shelves.

WOLFENSTEIN, by Activision, id, & Raven; 2009; Rated M; PC, PS3, Xbox 360.

The first Wolfenstien 3D came out in 1992. The game was set sometime in World War Two and you played as B.J. Blazkowicz, an American agent trapped in a Nazi infested castle, trying to shoot your way out. As you traversed the maze-like corridors you blasted the expected Nazi soldiers, but soon you were fighting horrible zombie-mutant things that the Nazi scientists had created. At the end of the game you even fought Adolf Hitler in a robotic power suit. With this odd bit of historical, sci-fi, supernatural shooting fest, a new genre of video game was born; the First Person Shooter, a category of game that has become insanely popular and is still going strong today.
Nine years later and Return to Castle Wolfenstein came out in 2001. The game was more fast action, gun blasting fun, albeit with much improved graphics and an online multiplayer mode. Once again you were B.J. shooting Nazis in the face, but this time the supernatural and occult undertones were made even more prominent. Sadly there was no zombified robo-Hitler to fight at the end of the game.
Now, after eight more years, the third game in this venerable series has arrived. Simply titled Wolfenstein, you are once again agent Blazkowicz, and you are once more shooting Nazis and strange creatures during World War Two. So, what is new in this game? Sadly, not much, and that is this game’s one and only flaw, it brings nothing fresh to the genre it created over fifteen years ago. But is that such a bad thing? No, not really, because it’s still a whole lot of fun shooting Nazis in the face.
This time out the supernatural is even more present in the form of a magical amulet that you get to use. I t allows you enter another, ghostly dimension called the Veil that exists parallel to ours in a very From Beyond kind of way. Entering this place allows B.J. to move faster, see the “mostly” harmless creatures that live in that world, and to access hidden, secret areas only accessible through the Veil. As the game progresses, you will also attain special Veil powers, such as the ability to slow time or raise a bullet-stopping shield around you. The strange Nazi creatures are also back, along with soldiers in jet packs, sorcerers chucking green fire at you, and S&M frauleins complete with whips. This time around, more of the real world occult influences are present in the form of two secret societies; The Golden Dawn and the Thuel Society.
As for frights, sadly there’s not much here. Horror videogames usually rely on two tactics to scare; loads of creepy atmosphere (Silent Hill) or jump scares (Resident Evil), but unfortunately Wolfenstein employs nether of these methods. This means that diehard horror fans may be disappointed, but passing on this game just because it’s not all that scary would be a huge mistake. It is loads of fun, has a pretty good story, and the multiplayer will provide as many hours of entertainment as you’re willing to sacrifice to it. Besides, everyone knows that the only thing more fun than shooting Nazis is shooting monsters and in Wolfenstein you get to shoot Nazi monsters. It just doesn’t get any better than that.
For nonstop run a gun fun, and for allowing me to once again shoot Nazis in the face, I give Wolfenstein a 4 out of 5.

DEAD SPACE EXTRACTION, by EA Games & Visceral Games; 2009; Rated M; Nintendo Wii.

Last year one of the best, most terrifying games to come out in a long while was Dead Space. It was an original tale set in the cold reaches of space concerning an alien artifact, creatures that reanimate the dead into horribly twisted creatures called Necromorphs, and a main character battling his own demons. The game was a third person shooter drenched in atmosphere with plenty of shocks, jump scares, and animated gore to make any horror fan happy. Lastly it was released on the current gaming powerhouses, the Xbox 360 and the Playstation 3. The Nintendo Wii, with its focus firmly set on family friendly fare, was sadly left out of the dead alien goodness.
That is, till now.
This game, released solely for the Wii, is a first person rail shooter. That means you, as the player, controls the gun sights of the character but not his movement or even where he’s looking. All that is handled for you so you can focus your attention to the task of blasting your reanimated friends into quivering, bloody bits. This odd turn of game play actually works out well for the Wii. It plays to the platform’s strengths, with its point at the screen Wiimote waggling, while minimizing its weaknesses, such as lower end hardware when compared to its competition.
As for the story, this second installment to the series is prequel to the events of the first game. So those that played the original will recognize certain locations and characters, but this time around they’ll be seeing them from a different perspective and will learn a few secrets along the way. You’ll also be playing a number of different roles instead of a single character and don’t expect them all to make it out alive.
Extraction is a surprisingly bloody (for the Wii anyway) and action packed shooter that drips with atmosphere and has plenty of shocks to make players jump. It is also easily the scariest and most adult game on the Wii to date. If you own Nintendo’s little wonder box and you are a horror fan then getting this game is mandatory. It’s not too long, but it sure is a thrilling ride, and with co-op play both you and a friend can tackle the terrors together, which is good just in case you get too scared and need someone to hold your hand.
Dead Space Extraction gets a very creepy 4 out of 5.

BRUTAL LEGEND, by EA & Double Fine; 2009; Rated M; PC, PS3, Xbox 360

First let me say that this game isn’t strictly a horror title despite being set in a hellish dimension filled with monsters and demons. It isn’t scary in the least. It is, however, one of the funniest games I’ve ever played. Both the writing and voice talent is top notch and since the facial animations are very well done, it allows the characters to emote and sell visual jokes without saying a word. So the game is funny and not too scary, so what else is it? Well it’s the most metal game ever! And by metal I mean heavy metal, of course.
The story revolves around a band roadie named Eddie Riggs, competently voiced by Jack Black, who gets sucked into a vaguely medieval world that looks like a heavy metal album cover come to life. Within this weird world are found demons, battleaxes, hot chicks, hotrods, beer, and everything else that makes rock music great. And speaking of music, Brutal Legend has 107of heavy metal’s best and most memorable songs in its soundtrack. In addition to the blistering tracks, many of the metal world’s VIPs lend heir voices to the game in addition to their songs. These include Lemmy from Mortorhead, The lovely Lita Ford, Rob Halford of Judas Priest in a dual role, and the heavy metal madman himself; Ozzy as, what else, the Guardian of Metal.
The story is both pretty basic and hilariously awesome. Eddie goes to the world of metal and finds mankind enslaved by the evil, and fabulously coifed, glam rocker Lion White, voiced by Rob Halford. Eddie vows to free his people through the power of rock so he must travel the land to gather an army and teach them the ways of combat. Thick necked headbangers, hot female runaways with guns, and even Lemmy (as the Killmaster), will all join Eddie’s army after the required quests are completed.
It is this army gathering that leads to what could be the only flaw in this otherwise amazing heavy metal dream game. If you’ve seen any advertisements for Brutal Legend then you saw Eddie Riggs running and driving through the world, fighting monsters, rocking out, and exploring metal influenced landscapes. Because of those ads you might be thinking that this game is an open world exploration battlefest, and it is partially, but the larger part of the game is all Real Time Strategy, or RTS. Both Command and Conquer and Warcraft (before it became World of…) are examples of RTS games. If you enjoy playing those kinds of games then great, but if not then be warned, Brutal Legend is a RTS through and through.
That being said, this game is a blast. If you are a fan of heavy metal music then you simply must play this game. It treats the music with respect while tweaking some of its more silly bits at the same time. Horror fans looking for scares won’t find any here, but there are monsters and plenty of laughs, so think of it as Scary Movie, only as a game…and good.
I am a fan of heavy metal, so take my rating with a grain of salt if you’re not, but I give Brutal Legend a hot rockin’ 4 out of 5.

ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE, by Konami Digital Entertainment; 2009; Rated M; PlayStation Network & Xbox Live Arcade.

Remember the found yesteryears when games were much simpler but still fun? Those are the kind of games you can find for download on the PlayStation Network and Xbox Live Arcade and one of the newest games throws all the way back to some of the earliest games. The type of game is called “dual stick shooters” where one joystick (or in modern times, thumbstick) moves your character and the other stick shoots in whatever direction it is pressed towards. Two of the more famous examples of this subgenre are Robotron and Smash TV. And while those games were great fun, here at Shock Totem we have a saying, ok, I have a saying: “anything can be made better with zombies.” Luckily the game makers at Konami share this sentiment.
Zombie Apocalypse is a fast, fun, shooter with tons of different zombies, exploding teddy bears that cry out in cutesy voices; “I’m stuffed with love…and C4!”,a selection of flawed heroes to play as, and co-op multiplayer for up to four zombie blasters to play at the same time. There are a series of repeating boards, or arenas, to play in such as cemetery, airport, junkyard, and others, each with their own environmental hazards to chuck zombies into, such as crematoriums at the cemetery and a car crusher in the junkyard. Much more diverse than the locations are the zombies themselves. Traditional shambling undead are there, but then there’s granny zombies that chuck knives at you, fat construction workers that take a ton of damage, puking zombies, exploding zombies, shooting zombies, and even grotesque, pregnant zombies. To help you mow down wave after wave of rotting baddies are your ever present assault rifle and your trusty chainsaw, because what’s a zombie game without chainsaws? But these weapons alone won’t be enough to save you, so short-term weapon power ups will drop into the arenas from time to time like flamethrowers and rocket launchers.
However all is not perfect in zombie land. With only a handful of arenas they become repetitive relatively quickly. I have to wonder how hard it would have been to come up with a few more locations. Also while there are a good number of varied zombie opponents, the game pulls the cheap move of having all the zombie types become “radioactive” which means they glow green, have twice as much hit points, and seems like just an attempt to pad out the game.
But even with those few shambling missteps, the overall effect of Zombie Apocalypse is fun, especially when playing with others in multiplayer. The game doesn’t do anything new, but what it does, it does well and for just about ten bucks for both systems it’s available for it is good, gory, goofy fun for you and your friends.
I give Zombie Apocalypse 3 half eaten brains out of 5.


BORDERLANDS, by 2K Games & Gearbox Software ; 2009; Rated M; PC, PS3, Xbox 360.

This is a fast action, sci-fi first person shooter with a mix of role playing elements such as leveling, allocating talent points, and plenty of MMO (Massive Multiplayer Online) quests. Also in mini-MMO fashion, up to four friends can play together and there’s four diverse classes to choose from, ranging from the usual solider and hunter, to the stealthy siren, and the up close and personal berserker basher.
The game has you assuming one of the four roles and roaming all over the hostile planet of Pandora, home to many murderers, monsters, mutants, and crazies. Why would you want to go to such a place? Well to find an alien vault filled with amazingly high technology that would make you richer than your wildest dreams, that’s why. Along the way you will get to play with some of the games “87 Bazillion Guns”. That is the game randomly generates guns, no two of them alike, and the possible combinations could very well be limitless. That also means that if you lust after the always desirable “phat loot” found in such games as Diablo and any of the many MMO’s, then this game represents the mother of all loot collecting games.
But if tons of guns were all that Borderlands had to offer it would still be easy to dismiss. Luckily for all of us, the game play is great. While it doesn’t innovate the shooter genre it does polish it to a bright shine. There are many enemies to blast with your nifty guns. From alien dog-like things, to the ever present alien bug-like things, to guys with guns, to my personal favorites; mutant midget psychos. All of the adversaries, and the locations you fight them in, look absolutely amazing with a rich, colorful animation that resembles an animated movie more than it does a videogame.
Now the game is not perfect. Some of the enemy AI (artificial intelligence, or how they act while you shoot them) can be a bit dodgy at times or overly simplistic at others. One boss I defeated by simply standing in place and blasting it with rockets. Additionally there are vehicles in the game and while they handle reasonably well as transportation, in some instances you have to engage in vehicular combat and the car mounted weaponry is so incredibly underpowered and inaccurate that the battles go better if you actually jump out of your Mad Max buggy to shoot at the other cars with your normal weapons.
Those minor quibbles aside, this game is definitely more than a sum of its parts and that is largely due to the great fun it is to wander the wastelands with a real life friend (or three) at your side. The online multiplayer experience this game offers is top notch and all shades of fun. Games always go better with friends, and being able to play with friends, as opposed to against them like most multiplayer games, has always been my personal favorite. There is one minor problem with the multiplayer and that is the loot system, or specifically the lack of one. That is anyone can pick up and keep any dropped item at any time. This means that ultra rare and cool gun you’ve always wanted might drop from a boss, only to be grabbed by someone else when you’re not looking. This potential problem can be dealt with by playing with your friends or people you know or trust, but if you go into a pickup game with strangers, be warned.
As for a rating, Borderlands gets 5 out of 5! Despite its few flaws it is easily the game I’ve had the most fun with for a good long while now. If you like shooters and role playing games then this is the one game for you. This also means that the one non-horror related game on this list gets the best score, how weird is that? But that’s the reason I want to point out non-horror titles from time to time to all you horrorheads. Just because Borderlands isn’t chock full o’ zombies doesn’t mean you should pass on this fun, addictive, multiplayer romp. Oh what, that’s not enough for you? Well ok, did I mention that the first downloadable expansion for the game will bring zombies into it? There, now you have no reason to not run out and get this great game at once.

--Brian Sammons

(Brian Sammons has been writing reviews for years for such magazines as Cemetery Dance, Dark Wisdom, Shock Totem, and The Unspeakable Oath. His reviews have also appeared on many websites such as The Black Seal, Bloody-Disgusting, and Horror World. Wanting to give other critics the chance to ravage his work for a change, Brian has also penned a few short stories that have appeared in such anthologies as Arkham Tales, Horrors Beyond, and Monstrous. Some of the magazines where you can find his twisted tales are Bare Bone, Cthulhu Sex, and Dark Animus. For more about this guy whose neighbors describe as “such nice, quite man” go here: