Friday, December 4, 2009

Graphic Horror: Game Reviews

By Brian M. Sammons

SAW, by Konami; 2009; Rated M; PS3, Xbox360
From the series of movies that just won’t quit, despite its main star, the insidious genius called Jigsaw dying three movies ago, comes a most unlikely videogame. As anyone seeing the movies knows, most of Jigsaw’s playmates don’t survive a single trap, let alone the multiple traps a game of any length would require. Then there’s the game’s place in the chronological order of the movies and its choice for the playable protagonists. In the game you play as Detective Tapp, the same character played by Danny Glover in the original movie that died at its end. This means going in you know your character will make it through the game but will still die later on. Or do you? Does the game dare to change things to such an extent that the film would then not make any sense? Hmm, maybe, but this also means the game takes place during the time span of the first film. Because of that you’ll encounter other characters form the first two films that fans of the Saw movies, the same people most likely to play this game, will already know all the secrets and fates of. While on one hand these can be great shout outs for the fans, it also means there’s little sense of mystery or surprises.

But then characters were never the stars of the films, so why should the game be any different? No the stars of SAW have always been the crazy deathtraps and that is something the game excels at. There are famous traps from the movies like the reverse bear trap that shatters jaws, the iron maiden face mask, and nail bombs. There are also random hazards scattered about like tripwires that trigger shotguns and glass strewn halls you must cross over barefoot. Random tests of pain must also be endured, such as toilets filled with dirty, used drug needles you must dig through and barrels of acid you’ll have to plunge your arm into if you want to survive. Last there are the set pieces, large scale traps where you must solve a series of puzzles in order to free the victims, all people connected to Tapp in some way, before a timer runs out and they die a gruesome death.
In addition to the traps, the game excels at atmosphere. Detective Tapp and dozens of others are being held in an abandoned insane asylum with its own diabolical history. The rundown, poorly lit halls just ooze creepiness, and stumbling upon other Jigsaw victims that have failed their own tests and died only adds to it. But unfortunately those halls have lots of other people roaming through them, people that have been abducted by Jigsaw and told that inside Tapp’s body is the only key that will free them. That means everyone else in the game wants you dead and you must fight them to survive and that is the game’s biggest failing. The combat is largely unresponsive, to the point that there is sometimes almost a delay between pressing a button and Tapp throwing a punch. Add to that a none-too-great targeting system and an in-game camera that sometimes hates you and you’ll have a pretty good idea of how fights take place in SAW. That means combat quickly devolves into button mashing and gets repetitive fast. Thankfully battling others really is only a small part of this game.
Lastly I must say that the game is on the short side. I completed it entirely in about six hours and there is very little reply value to it, except for a choice between two slightly different endings. That being said, if you are a fan of the SAW films and would like your own interactive experience with Jigsaw, then this will do that for you. For a devious puzzler with a pretty good story, even if it deviates somewhat from the film’s canon, it gets high marks. If you like puzzle games, spooky atmosphere, and most importantly, lots of devious traps then you’ll dig this game.
I give SAW 3 severed feet out of 5.

DRAGON AGE: ORIGINS, by BioWare and EA; 2009; Rated M; PC, PS3, Xbox360
Before I get into this review let me pose a question. Let’s say you have a huge, hulking man, no something more like a drooling mutant, and that guy has an axe, an appetite for human flesh, and his only desire is to chop you up into tiny bite-sized bits. Now if that guy appeared in a story it would surely be a horror story, right? Well if that guy is called an orc, or in the case of DRAGON AGE, a Dark Spawn, then they story is called fantasy. What’s the big difference? One axe-wielding, man-eating psychopath is horrifying, the other plays with elves. Luckily I’m not the only one that thinks the two monsters have more in common then they don’t. Thinking along similar lines, the game makers over at BioWare decided to merge the two in something they call “dark fantasy”, but is that label just some clever PR spin or is it the real deal? Well let’s say that this game covers more dark, and mature themes than most other stories, be they novels or movies, horror related or not. Murder, rape, demonic possession of children, war, revenge, black magic, sex, werewolves, these are just some of the topics covered in this game. So is it dark? Oh yeah it is. But is the game good?
Oh hell yeah it is.

DRAGON AGE: ORIGINS is a fantasy role playing game far unlike any other. While on the surface it may seem similar it is far from it. Yes there are elves, wizards, and warriors uniting to fight a dire threat. There are also dragons, magic, swords, and tons of epic battles and exotic locations. But then there’s the story which is as vast and sweeping as any you may find in a novel, and better than most in print. The characters are so thoroughly fleshed out, well voice acted and animated that talking to them, or just listening to them talk among themselves, is not a chore like it is in most games, but a joy. This major difference cannot be stressed enough. The characters in this game are amazing and come off as incredibly believable.
Now without giving too much away, the story in DRAGON AGE concerns an army of twisted, tainted creatures called the Dark Spawn following the lead of a demonically possessed dragon called the Arch Demon. As if this threat is not enough, power hungry nobles look to use the turmoil to further their political power grabs no matter what the cost. Into this chaos comes you, a new member of the Grey Wardens, a mystical order of knights sworn to eradicate the Dark Spawn. Along the way you’ll have to assemble a group of adventurers, each with their own personalities, motivations, and perhaps even hidden agendas. Will your group gel enough and put aside any personal squabbles in order to save the world? Only time will tell, and by that I mean a whole lot of time. Even a “speedy” play through of the game will still take well over forty hours to finish. So if you’re after a dollar per hour of play investment, you’ll be hard pressed to beat this title.

Then there’s how the game plays. There are six unique character starting points, each vastly different then the next and each with their own beginning adventure. No matter if you play a human warrior, an elf wizard, or a dwarf rogue, each feels powerful and offer different avenues on how to complete the game. The combat mechanics are simple to use, but the battles are complex enough to always offer a challenge. That being said, I should point out that this game is first and foremost a PC game. It was designed to be played on a home computer and while it handles well enough on the Xbox 360 or Sony PlayStation 3, it excels on the PC and if you have an option to play it on a real computer, I’d suggest you do so.
If you have ever played a computer role playing game and enjoyed it, then you must get this DRAGON AGE: ORIGINS. It is the best I’ve played, if not ever, then at least for a good long time. If you’ve never played a RPG but always wanted to, then this game is a great place to start. Hell, even if you don’t have the slightest interest in these types of games, I’d still suggest giving DA:O a look as it’s so good it might make you a fan before you even know you’re hooked. This game could said to be dark fantasy, just plain old fantasy with horrific undertones. What’s not debatable is how much I have enjoyed playing it.
I give DRAGON AGE: ORGINS 5 gore drenched swords out of 5.

BORDERLANDS: THE ZOMBIE ISLAND OF DR. NED, by 2K Games & Gearbox Software ; 2009; Rated M; PS3, Xbox 360
Last month I picked the game BORDERLANDS for my Genre Break. If you haven’t read that review, go do so now. No really, go read it, I’ll wait…
…ok welcome back. Now at the end of that review I mentioned that the game designers at Gearbox were planning on releasing a zombie-filled expansion for the game. Well here it is and boy howdy is it chock full of zombie goodness. That and BORDERLANDS patented off kilter sense of humor.

The short and sweet of it is this, there’s an island, on it is a doctor named Ned, and a whole bunch of undead brain eaters. To this troubled place your gun packing adventurer goes to offer help, for the right price that is. Now all that’s standing between you, your money, and living to see another day are hordes of zombies that come in all shapes and sizes. From the typical shamblers, to bile puking spitters, there are hulking, explosive-barrel-tossing Tankensteins, to my personal favorites, the hyperactive midget zombies. Oh and when I said “hordes” I mean be prepared to fight wave after endless wave of zombies. In addition to the undead, the island itself drips with atmosphere. There’s gravestones scattered about, flaming jack o’ lanterns, and swamps galore. Not to mention tons more opportunities to get sweet, phat loot.

If you played and liked the original BORDERLANDS then you have to check out Ned’s living impaired island. You can download it for you Xbox 360 and PS3 right now and it is more of what made the original game great, with zombies tossed in for good measure. I thoroughly enjoyed it and can’t wait to see what the next expansion brings to this game.
I give BORDERLANDS: THE ZOMBIE ISLAND OF DR. NED 4 zombie midgets out of 5.


CALL OF DUTY: MODERN WARFARE 2; by Infinity and Activision; 2009; Rated M; PC, PS3, Xbox360
Is it any surprise that this two ton gorilla of a game is the Genre Break this month? MODERN WARFARE 2 had smashed all records of everything ever sold, but is it as good as all that? Does its sales record smashing equal its quality? Well let’s find out.
This game is a first person shooter and as such it is at the pinnacle of such games. The game controls are tight, responsive, and most importantly fun. The graphics are scalpel sharp, with some, all hyperbole aside, being simply breathtaking. The voice acting is the best in the business and relies on good, solid performances rather than Hollywood guest stars to sell it. There are more guns in this game then the next three shooters combined, so lovers of gun-porn will rejoice. Then there are things that you do in this game that you’ve never done in others, like using ice axes to climb a mountain or scuba diving up to an enemy solider to take him out quietly and that leads to the best thing about MW: 2, it makes you feel like a total badass. Whether it’s sniping people and racing snowmobiles down mountains, or calling in UAV air strikes and creeping up behind an enemy sentry to sink your knife into his throat, you feel dangerous.
But wait, did that last part kind of upset you? If so then be warned, this game has brutal moments like that and some that are far worse. You may have heard of an “infamous” part of this game where you play a not very nice man doing some not very nice things? Well, yes, it’s in here, but the game makers has wisely given you an option to skip the scene if you so chose, so don’t let that alone keep you from this amazing title.
The last bit of praise I will heap on the altar of this game is about the online multiplayer component. You will just not find another game as fun, fast paced, addictive, and rewarding as this one. The first MODERN WARFARE was the first game to add an experience award system to multiplayer shooters and part two takes that aspect even further to near perfection. These little ego-stroking awards will have you playing this game long into the night while muttering to yourself, “Just one more game…just one more game…”
However, not everything is perfect with this game. The one and only bit of MODERN WARFARE 2 that gets a bit silly is some aspects of its single player story. Namely all the “shocking” moments the writers feel the need to assail you with. The first twist may surprise you, the second might have you going, “well hmmm”, but by the third one you’ll be rolling your eyes and wondering what other crazy stuff will they pull just in an attempt to shock you. The sad thing is that all that one-upmanship wasn’t necessary to make the game good and the worst thing is that it actually starts getting annoying by game’s end.
That being said, MODERN WARFARE 2 is still a great game and one of the best shooters to come out. If you want fast, gun blazing action and a multiplayer experience second to none then you have one choice and that’s this game. All others simply do not offer such a total game play package.
I give MODERN WARFARE 2 a well disserved 5 “oh my god, I can’t believe that just happened” moments out of 5.

--Brian M. Sammons