Monday, January 4, 2010

Graphic Horror: Game Reviews

By Brian M. Sammons

LEFT 4 DEAD 2, by Valve; 2009; Rated M; PC, Xbox360

Last year game developer Valve released on PC and the Xbox 360 an amazing, cooperative, multiplayer, first-person shooter with zombies. The story was simple and straightforward; play as one of four survivors stuck in a zombie apocalypse and try to make it through different settings to the rescue point so you could make good your escape. Along the way you’ll have to blast through hordes of fast moving zombies (a la the DAWN OF THE DEAD remake) and a number of “special infected”, such as the fat, bile-spewing boomer or the sneaky, leaping hunter. However what really made the game was the multiplayer where eight people, divided into two teams of four, would play as both the survivors and the special zombies in alternating turns, one side trying to survive and the other trying to kill the survivors. These games were fast, fun, and hilariously brutal. I would be hard pressed to name a better multiplayer experience for 2008.
But then word came that Valve was making a sequel to their smash hit and the big surprise was that it would come out almost one year to the day from the original game’s release. And thus began the drama.
“A sequel just a year after the original is too soon,” some people cried, and I could never understand that argument. I mean, if you have something good and would like more of it, getting it sooner than later should be a good thing, right? Now I guess the fans might have been worrying about the quality of such a “rushed” game, and they had a right to be, but some were condemning the game long before anyone had the faintest glimpse of it. In any event their fears were all for naught because the gameplay in part two is every bit as solid as the original. The core mechanics have remained virtually unchanged and the other bits, such as graphics, sound, set design, and so on, have also either remained the same or have been improved.
“This shouldn’t be its own game, it should just be extra content for the first game,” and “This game won’t be a real sequel.” Were two more arguments that went hand in hand and they may have had merit if LEFT 4 DEAD 2 was just a few more levels, but L4D2 is in every way a true and worthy sequel. Whereas the first game had four lengthy chapters, part two has five. Moreover, they feel more connected as they appear in chronological order, the first beginning in the afternoon and the others running throughout the dusk, night and finally back to morning. Additionally the game is set in the American south, a location often overlooked as a setting, and the levels are very different from one another so each offers unique challenges and gameplay. There’s the classic “zombies in a shopping mall”, the wet and dirty “zombies in a swamp”, and even “zombies in a hurricane” to really keep you jumping. Oh and did I mention zombie clowns can be found in the Dark Carnival chapter? Yes, zombie-freaking-clowns!

In addition to more, varied levels there are new special infected, like the hard hitting charger and my favorite, the crazy, tiny jockey that pounces on people and steers them into hazards and other packs of zombies. There are also new weapons, so you’ll now have a choice between which assault rifle to take, or if you want to stay with two 9mm pistols for rapid fire, or switch to a massive automag for a slower, but much harder hitting pistol. Also for the first time there are weapon mods like laser sights and exploding ammo, not to mention new equipment options such as switching out your first aid kit for a portable electric defib paddles to bring fallen friends back to life. Then there’s the best addition to your zombie fighting arsenal; the melee weapons. While they are a simple enough idea they are utilized very well in the game. Yes there’s the fan favorite chainsaw, but I prefer the machete, or even the frying pan. There’s nothing quite like the deep “bong” sound the pan makes when you smack it upside a zombie’s head.
Lastly there’s what made the first game so great, the multiplayer. So how does that fare in the sequel? Simply put, it’s better than ever. The new weapons, equipment, and zombie types add new challenges and opens up new tactics for both the human survivors and the undead infected. There is even an exciting and fast paced new mode where the survivors must gather gas cans to keep a generator running and the infected are out to stop them and kill the generator at all costs. This, combined with the countless hours of fun you can have with the normal four against four multiplayer and the five story chapters that you can do alone, or better yet with up to three friends, should kill all the arguments that L4D2 wasn’t a worthy sequel. It is that by far and so much more. If you loved the first game, you’ll love this. If you missed the first one, this is a great place to start. Basically if you love shooting zombies then this is the game for you, as no other game out there does zombie shooting better.
I give LEFT 4 DEAD 2 5 zombies eating my brains out of 5.


If the Wii does one thing well, it does rail shooters well. Except now they don’t like being called rail shooters, they are “guided” shooters. Whatever they’re called, they are the games where you can’t control the movement of your character, you’re seeing everything through the first person perspective, and all you do control is the floating sights of your gun that you must use to blast nasty things repeatedly. The reason the Wii does these games so well is because of its wireless Wii remote that substitutes for the traditional light gun so well. So the mechanics for these types of games are well established for this system, but is this game any good? Let’s find out.
First let’s start with the good. In this game you shoot zombies in the face, and as I’ve said in past reviews doing that is always fun. Moreover you also have to tangle with some genetically altered beasts of various types including some fun Big Boss Battles from time to time. Story wise, DARKSIDE reunites two old favorites from the Resident Evil universe; Leon S. Kennedy and Jack Krauser and the game gives some new background for both. Additionally the action is set largely around two other RE games from yesteryear; RESIDENT EVIL 2 and RESIDENT EVIL: CODE VERONICA. If you’ve played those games before then you’ll recognize some of the areas and set pieces. If you’ve never played those earlier titles then you won’t lose much as Leon, the man character of the game, usually gives a brief recap of Resident Evil history as you go along. As for game play, you and your partner wander through spooky environments, blasting baddies with unlimited ammo pistols, occasionally collecting more powerful weapons like shotguns and machineguns, and as a nice bit of character progression, collecting gold bars so you can upgrade your weapons in between chapters.
Now your partner, unfortunately he’s pretty hit or miss. If you play the game with a real live buddy the fun factor is increased, as is usually the case. A good co-op mode can make any game better. However if you are a poor friendless soul and have to rely on the game’s AI partner then you are in for a world of frustration as the computer-controlled partner is all but useless. Worse yet, you have to continually babysit the second character because he is stupid and likes to let zombies chew on him, and if he dies from his own ignorance then the game is over for you too. Hmm, can you sense that we are coming up to the bad parts of this game? Ok, let’s do it.
First and foremost, the worst thing about this game is the “shaky-cam” video style. While DARKSIDE gets points for going with a unique look, that of an old, VHS camcorder and a first person experience much like THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT or CLOVERFIELD, it makes aiming a real chore, especially for the headshots needed to quickly drop zombies. Then there are the zombies and how they are utilized in the game. If DARKSIDE CHROLICLES misses a chance to pull off a light-gun-shooter cliché then I’m a brain eating ghoul. If, while on your adventures, you see a pile of dead bodies, you know that within seconds they’ll be up and capering towards your yummy bits. If you come to an empty room, you’ll character will look over his should for a quick second at some noise, and when you turn back around the room will now be magically packed full ‘o zombies, with at least one hungry undead guy teleported directly in front of you, reaching for your face. While all the well worn shock moments don’t necessarily make the game bad, they do keep it from being really good as they fast become repetitive, unintentionally funny, and worst of all, boring.
RE:TDC is a competent shooter. If you are a fan of the Resident Evil games then you’ll like it more that most just for the amount of fan service paid. If you just want to spend a couple of fun hours shooting dead things in the face, then this game will do that for you. However it offers nothing new outside of filling in some holes in the established RE fiction and trying to aim precisely is an exercise in futility.
I give RESIDENT EVIL: THE DARKSIDE CHRONICLES 3 chunks o’ meat out of 5.

SILENT HILL: SHATTERED MEMORIES, by Konami and Climax Studios; 2009; Rated M; Wii, PlayStation 2

I love the Silent Hill series. No other games are continually as creepy, atmospheric, and nightmarish. Even the last game, HOMECOMING, which got a lot of flak for being way too combat oriented, was still a fun, spooky romp. But yes, even as much of a Silent Hill fanboy that I am I have to admit that combat is the last thing that makes horror games good. Oddly enough the folks over at Climax Studios must agree with that because in SHATTERED MEMORIES there is no combat. That’s right, no guns, knives, hell not even a stick to whack the monsters with. All you can do is run, hide, and hope the nightmarish freaks chasing you don’t catch up or find you. Are you scared yet? Well you should be.
SHATTERED MEMORIES is a remake, or in today’s Hollywood-ese, a “reimagining” of the very first game, but with enough new things (like a completely different story) added to make old fans of the original sit up and take notice. First there are the technical updates, such as improved graphics, and thankfully some better voiceover work, but that’s to be expected. What wasn’t expected is just how well the designers of this game made it fit the quirky controls of Nintendo’s Wii. The game is largely set in the third person perspective and with one hand you control a flashlight, often your only source of illumination, and the other you use to walk around and interact with the world. And that trademark Wii interaction is perhaps handled better in this game than in any other Wii title before it. Unlocking doors, picking up beer cans, and finding clues just feel right. The only minor complaint I had was that sometimes when running from the monsters were just a tad off, but even then the controls were tighter than most games I’ve played on the Wii. All in all the game handles very well.
Before I get to the best part of this game, let me hit the few down points SH:SM has. First it’s really short, but it also has tons of replay value (more on that in a moment) so that’s a wash. Perhaps my biggest gripes with this game come from the “other world”. In previous SILENT HILL games from time to time your character would leave the “normal” scary world of the small town of Silent Hill and enter a nightmarish, filthy, dark, rusted, and diseased world where the real horrors lurked. This other world was captivating in its disgusting horribleness and gave the SH games a signature look and feel. In SHATTERED MEMORIES, the other world is represented by extreme cold. Everything just gets covered in ice and snow. While this game should get credit for trying something new, I have to say it wasn’t very effectively implemented. Making everything look like a winter wonderland on steroids does impart a lonely, isolated feel, but it’s far from freaky or creepy. Then there are the monsters, or serious lack of them. Now this game is not a combat game, and that’s great, but after just a short time playing you’ll come to realize that the critters only ever appear when you are in the frozen other world. The effect of that is that it lessens the fear factor of the game considerably whenever you’re not in ice world. In the other SH games, while the other world was seriously creepy and dangerous, even the “real” world had threats and that put you on edge because you never knew when bad things would happen to you. That is sadly missing this time out. But really, are minor quibbles at best. If those are the worst things I can come up with then the rest of the game has to be pretty good, right?

Oh yeah it is, and that’s largely due to the mind games. Let me explain. Right from the start you see a bright red warning screen that tells you that as you play this game it is also playing you. Before you can think too deeply about that, you are dropped into a first person viewpoint and sitting before a psychologist. He’s here to help you and as you continue through the game you’ll keep coming back to this guy for “evaluation”. The first test you must pass is a true or false quiz, asking such personal questions as, “I make friends easily,” “I enjoy role-play during sex”, and “I have never cheated on a partner.” This odd test is but one part of a unique game mechanic where the game will alter its self depending upon your answers and your actions while playing it. Whether you explore a room thoroughly or just rush through it, if you search the women’s restroom before searching the men’s, and how you react to threats and strangers all go into creating a game experience that will be very different from one play through to the next. Characters, monsters, even the geography of Silent Hill will all change based on your actions. For example in one game you might encounter a nice, comforting cop in a diner, but the next time you play the diner may be frozen solid and you’ll encounter the same cop at the local bar, but this time she’ll be dressed completely different and be cold, if not downright hostile towards you. This ever changing and evolving game play is easily the best thing about the new SILENT HILL game. It is a trick I’d like to see more games utilize.
I give SILENT HILL: SHATTERED MEMORIES 4 frozen, faceless critters out of 5.


This new part of Graphic Horrors will be a trip down memory lane for some, but I hope it’s also a spotlight for others that might have missed these classics the first time around, or for the younger horror game fans that might have been way too young to play them when they came out. If this is the case for you, and the games I highlight interest you, then by all means seek them out. Sure some may be hard to find, they are pretty damn old after all, but eBay and other sites like it will be your best friend in your search. Additionally some of these games, ok most of them, won’t play on modern computer operating systems. To overcome that hurdle I recommend a free little program called Dosbox ( that will allow you to play the old games on most modern PCs. Lastly, if all that just seems like too much work, but you’re still interest in these Throwback games, then I suggest you try looking the titles up on YouTube. Many of these games have videos of people playing through them, so if you can’t play these games yourself, at least you can watch someone else do so.

Ok, enough with the preamble, let’s get started and let’s get crazy with…

SANITARIUM, by SC Games; 1998; Rated M; PC.

This game was amazing. And fun. And amazingly fun! The old chestnut “they don’t make them like this anymore” would apply to this game. This is a third person, isometric view adventure game (if you ever played BALDUR’S GATE or DIABLO then you’ll know what I mean) that drips with atmosphere and focuses squarely on substance over style. Sadly, for many of today’s twitchy, A.D.D. afflicted, “hardcore” gamers, I would bet this game would come off as boring and thus why this great subgenre has largely died off. But if you like freaky, weird, disturbing games with a great story, then SANITARIUM would be your drug of choice. Let’s explore…
Things start off with a bang, or in this case, with a violent car crash. You wake up in a bedlam for the damned with your face wrapped in bandages and no memory of who you are or how you came to be there. Therefore you must explore this gothic madhouse filled with the insane and dangerous. You would like to escape this snake pit and discover your memories, but in order to do that you must face eight shifting worlds dreamt up by your crazy unconscious. Each of these alternate worlds usually anchor around a central theme and are populated by bizarre denizens. One psychosis-induced world may be set in the ancient Aztec time, another in a dark circus of the damned, and yet another will play out like Stephen King’s CHILDREN OF THE CORN on acid. To make matters freakier your persona in each world will change to fit the surroundings, and to no doubt disturb you. You might be a for-armed monster in one fevered dream, and a sweet little girl in another. This delirium jumping, character changing narrative will have your poor faceless, amnesiac wondering what is real and will keep you guessing until the very end of this wonderfully creative and dark game.
The mechanics of SANITARIUM are simple and effective. It has mouse driven movement, beautiful graphics that still hold up pretty well today, and voice acting that ranges from delightfully cheesy to well done. Speaking of the ears, the game’s soundtrack is expressive and lively, with each world and the asylum you are trapped in having distinct themes. Like many games in the adventure genre, this one is populated with people to talk to and to help, usually in off the wall ways. The game’s puzzles are largely related to things in your ever expanding inventory. That means you’ll spend lots of time collecting odd items like oil cans and rubbing alcohol for later use. Every so often there is the odd action sequence to liven things up, and while they are not too difficult you can die in them. But fear not, like all good nightmares death is never really the end.
I really love this game and was recently lucky to find a copy for cheap on eBay. Admittedly it was a bit of a pain to get it to play on my PC, but the aforementioned free program Dosbox helped with that. If you can’t find your own copy to play then I truly weep for you. This game really needs to be experienced firsthand. But if that’s just not possible then I know there’s at least one video of a complete playthrough on YouTube. Just search for “Sanitarium Game” and you’ll find it. If you simply can’t get this title any other way then watching these videos will at least give you some idea of this great, hidden gem. I can’t recommend SANITARIUM high enough.

--Brian M. Sammons