Thursday, March 4, 2010

Graphic Horror: Game Reviews

By Brian M. Sammons

BIOSHIOCK 2, by 2K Games; 2010; Rated M; PC, PS3, Xbox 360.

If you have never played the original BIOSHOCK then STOP RIGHT NOW and go and play that game. Yes, right now, it is that good and you are really depriving yourself of an amazing gaming experience if you have yet to play it. In that game you were in the wonderful, if rundown, underwater city of Rapture. It was the 1960s and you were in the middle of a power struggle between two powerful men. Along the way you found lots of weapons and tape recorded journals, mostly from people now dead, that slowly unraveled the truly baffling mystery you were wrapped up in. Then there were the new, strange, and almost magical abilities, called Plasmids, you gained such as throwing lightening bolts, causing people to burst into flames, and summon a deadly swarm of bees from your outstretched hand. Oh and did I mention the army of psychotics called “splicers” hell bent on killing you. BIOSHOCK had one of the best, most original stories in any game, set in an original location, with a great twist at the end that people still talk about today.
So naturally making a sequel to a game as well loved and respected as this was going to draw some groans from the gamer community. “Oh, it won’t be as good as the first one,” they said. “There’s no way they’ll top the original story,” they cried. And the one to top them all (and admittedly one that I said a few times myself), “Why the hell do they have a Multiplayer?” So ok, let’s plunge back into the depths and tackle those questions one at a time.
Is BIOSHOCK 2 as good as the first game? Game play wise it’s actually better. The shooter controls are tighter and more accurate. The enemies are smarter and tougher. The plasmids are more versatile and the weapons seem boomier. Even a simple thing like being able to “dual wield” both guns and plasmids at the same time, whereas before you had to switch back and forth, seems like a simple idea but it greatly enhances the game.

As for the story, well the sequel just can’t match the original there. The first game had the wonder of exploring Rapture for the first time and the characters were new and fresh. This time around you enter new areas of the sunken city but they are just variations of the same theme. It’s all just leaks, rust and rot. Same goes for the characters and the monsters you encounter and face. Example, in the first game when you first bumped into the hulking, diving suit-clad “Big Daddies” it was both awe inspiring and a little creepy. This time around you get to face “Big Sisters” which are just faster moving, female versions of the same baddie. They are a nice upgrade I guess, b tut far from original. Lastly there was the great head-spinning twist that the first game had. Wisely part two decided not to do another twist in the story and instead played it straight with a more conventional, but still satisfying story. One neat thing, this time around you play as one of the Big Daddy behemoths, which is interesting, but there is one thing that’s bad about that; in order to keep the game challenging you are the weakest, most easily breakable Big Daddy ever made. Every time some punk walks up and nearly kills you with a single hit from a rusty old wrench, the illusion of being a big bad Daddy is shattered. Oh well, that one little boo-boo aside, it is fun being the moaning, drill-armed hulk for the most part.

Lastly, there’s the multiplayer game. My first thought upon hearing this was the same as everyone else’s, “Why?” Not every game made needs, or is made better by adding, a multiplayer component. Worst yet, implementing a multiplayer portion meant taking people away from working on the single player experience and therefore the best part of the game could suffer. Thankfully that didn’t happen. The single player game is still very good and surprisingly, so is the multiplayer. It’s fun and fast with a good variety of game styles, weapons, and plasmid powers. It also has the leveling up reward process that MODERN WARFARE perfected.
So in conclusion, is BIOSHOCK 2 as good as the first game play wise? Yes and better. How about the story? No, but it’s not all that bad either. Last there’s the multiplayer game which is a fun, worthwhile addition and not just blatant pandering to the “hardcore” gamer crowd. If I gave half points for score then I’d just deduct a half point for the overly familiar setting and slightly lesser story. But since I don’t do half points…

I give BIOSHOCK 2 4 (and almost 5) Big Daddies out of 5. Now go play this game.

DANTE’S INFERNO, by EA Games & Visceral Games; 2010; Rated M; PS3 and Xbox 360.

Ok let’s get this out of the way. Once there was a game called GOD OF WAR and it was a very good and very popular button mashing, combo mastering beat ‘em up. So popular was this game about a Spartan death machine that many copycat titles were soon taking over the game shelves. So with that in mind, yes DANTE is a GOD OF WAR clone, but this is a fact that the designers never tried to hide. Quite the opposite, developers Visceral Games, the same minds behind the amazing DEAD SPACE, have embraced the new subgenre and are proud of their game’s roots. But that leaves one big, angry elephant in the room; is DANTE’S INFERNO as good as GOD OF WAR? Well sadly, the answer is no, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad game. So get a crucifix and grab some holy water, we’re going to hell.
You play as Dante Alighieri, but no mopey poet is he this time around. No he’s an ass kicking knight sent to butcher in the name of the church in one of the Great Crusades. While in the Holy Land Dante does many naughty things that not only damns his soul, but the soul of his beloved Beatrice as well and the devil himself comes to take the fare maiden away as his unholy bride. Well Dante isn’t about to sit still for that, so the first thing you do in the game is to kick the crap out of death itself when it comes for Dante and steal his dreaded scythe. If that wasn’t bad ass enough, Dante next jumps into hell with the intention of marching through all nine levels of the abyss, killing anything and everything that gets in his way.
Now let’s start with the good. The game looks simply amazing. Not only are the graphics sharp as scalpels but the art design is beautiful in its hellishness. Each level of the inferno has its own distinctive look and plenty of gruesome denizens of the damned to populate it. The first time you see one of the unbaptized babies crawl out of the darkness to come toddling at you with murder in its eyes, you’ll feel chills. And I won’t even get into the level of Lust. Eewww. Honestly, while icky, hell has never looked this good.
Now for the bad news. While the combat starts off fun, it soon becomes the dreaded “R word”: repetitious. The variety of monsters you face all too soon runs its course and in short order poor Dante is slashing far too many familiar fiendish faces. Then there are the quick time events that sadly become boring very quickly. Want a hint? Every time you hijack a big-horned demon to go on an abyssal joyride, if you are playing it on the Xbox 360 just hit X, Y, B. It’s the same three button presses every single time. Oh, and the animation, while always pretty, never changes once in these events. Come on guys, a little variety would have gone a long way.

At its heart, DANTE’S INFERNO has a good story with a great ending and an interesting main character. The game looks spectacular and has loads of style to spare. There are memorable bosses such as Cleopatra, Cerberus, and even Dante’s daddy dearest, not to mention a multipart fight with big bad Lucifer himself, (who appears to want to beat you senseless with his giant devil dong…no I’m NOT kidding about that) but there’s not enough variety in the rank and file adversaries keep the majority of battles from getting stale. Dante only ever uses two weapons, his stolen scythe and a light-blasting cross, which only further limits diversity. Worse yet, the game can be won with just simple button mashing as the combos often comes down to “press X X”, “press X X X”, and “Press X X X X”. Lastly the game is rather on the short side but there are tons of collectables and both a good and evil path to follow as you play, so there is some replayability to it.
DANTE’S INFERNO is a good start but there is plenty of room for improvement for the sequel, which the ending of this game out right tells you is coming. If Visceral Games can just add more variety to the fights, weapons, and monsters then they’ll truly have a great game. Unfortunately as it stand now, this game suffers too much from the unforgivable sin of just being “meh” to be a must own title.

I give DANTE’S INFERNO 3 creepy unbaptized babies out of 5.

ALIENS VS PREDATOR, by Sega and Rebellion; 2010; Rated M; PC, PS3, Xbox 360.

Once upon a time there was a game of similar name that garnered much fame…and that’s where my mad rhyming skills end. Anyway, some years back there was a FPS (that’s First Person Shooter for you nongamers) on the PC called ALIENS VS PREDATOR. In it you took turns playing the titular 20th Century Fox owned critters as well as human colonial marines first made popular by James Cameron in his awesome sequel. The game was very innovative, giving you three unique characters and game styles to play, not to mention some mind-bending, and sometimes vertigo inducing, wall-crawling fun as the deadly Alien. A few years later a sequel came out and it was also a very fun, fast, and sometimes frightening game. Then there was a series of comic books that were, for the most part, very good. Then in 2004 a feature film called AVP: ALIENS VS PREDATOR at long last came out. Sadly, it kind of sucked. In 2007 they tried again to bring what should have been a no-brainer fun, action-packed grudge match to the big screen with ALIENS VS PREDATOR: REQUIEM, and that movie, while better than the first, also stunk for the most part. So can this new remake, reimagining, re-whatever of the first legendary videogame escape the downward spin the franchise seems to be in? Well grab your pulse rifle and body heat-shielding mud bath; we’re going on a bug hunt.
And speaking of bugs, let’s start there. This game is full of them, and no I don’t just mean the Xenomorphs, but they are easily the most bug ridden. In the single player game, when the AI controlled critters come at you, more often than not it will freak out if it tries to climb a wall, ceiling, or approach you in any way other than stupidly running headlong at you. That’s not scary or challenging; it’s just silly and sad to see in a modern made game. Worse yet are the scripting issues. What I mean by that is at certain points in the story something is meant, or “scripted”, to happen but for whatever reason it just won’t and the game can’t progress until it does. That means you’ll have to reload from a previous save file, try again, and hop that this time the Game Gods take pity on you and allow the story to progress. Again, like the alien wall-walking, this reeks of either poor or rushed game making and neither is a good thing for a title costing sixty bucks new.
Now let’s get into the three warring factions you can play as. The humans offer the most basic, familiar run and gun play style. Nothing, and I mean NOTHING, new is done with these guys. From the choice of weapons to the all too overused corridor-crawling has been done many times before. I will give the Marines portion of the game this: there are a few good jump-inducing shock scares as Aliens come hissing out of the darkness so that is nice, but there’s no reason other than that to play these guys so let’s move on.

The Predator parts fare better, but only by a little bit. As the universe’s greatest hunter you can turn invisible, see body heat, and new to this game, use the predator’s mighty strength and agility to jump from tree to tree. However the Predator’s most signature weapon, the shoulder mounted cannon, is so severely weakened in an effort to balance game play that it’s all but useless. You can basically kill two things with it if you’re lucky before having to track down some sort of electrical source to recharge it. This means playing the predator is largely a melee stealth game were you have to use your claws to kill foes. Now while this can offer some great and gruesome pre-rendered kills even this gets hit with the Nerf bat. First off, trying to sneak up on an unsuspecting human only works when it seems like the game wants it to do so. Hey, I thought I was invisible? And yeah, don’t try sneaking up on aliens; that never works. Worse yet is that you are woefully underpowered. The first time I took on a simple Marine in hand to hand combat I hit him with my twelve-inch-long serrated death blade and he just turned around and beat me to death with the butt of his gun. Yeah, nothing says “ultimate bad ass of the universe” like getting “owned” by a guy three feet smaller than you whacking you with a stick.
If the poor Predator gets wussified then the Alien gets all but declawed. They are meant to be the terrors of the universe, but instead they are just terrible to play. They have absolutely no range attacks so they have to get up close to do anything. Thankfully they are wicked fast, and that’s good. Unfortunately the wall and ceiling climbing often just doesn’t work well. I’m not just taking about the “which end is up” confusion either, but the transition from one plane to another is clunky. The original game’s wall-skittering seems a far more elegant and that was from a game made in 1999. But then. Maybe that’s just rose colored memories so I’ll move on. What is inexcusable is the Alien’s weak attacks. One swipe of your fearsome claws should split a human scientist in two, not the three or four it takes in this game. Lord help you when you try to face down anything other than the pocket protector squad. Also, just like the Predator the Alien can perform quick stealth kills if it catches its prey unawares, but again this only works part of the time despite the dark death machine’s sneakiness and amazing speed.

There is a multiplayer aspect to the game and it really feels like that was this title’s focus as the single player campaign is, at most, six hours long. However even that is “ok” at best and largely forgettable at worst. The three classes aren’t well balanced and with two out of the three essentially being melee classes the hand to hand fighting is rather shoddily done. If you do venture into AVP PVP (that’s Player Vs Player) then stick to the Marine. His guns are good and easy to aim. The predator is too woefully underpowered and the Alien is actually too fast for its own good, often overshooting it’s intended target by accident and getting it’s totally-not-phallic head blasted off as it turns around to take another pass. Lastly good luck trying to find people playing this game online. On Xbox Live I often had to wait up to fifteen minutes before getting enough people together to play a single game.
The new ALIENS VS PREDATOR is in a word, disappointing. It is a far cry from its predecessors, often seems broken or rushed to market, and offers nothing new with the exception of jumping Predators. I had high hopes for this game and to the last one, those hopes were crushed.

I give ALIENS VS PREDATOR 2 flaccid chestbursters out of 5.


(NOTE: Back in January I reviewed this game for the Nintendo Wii. Most of this game is a direct port so instead of completely repeating myself you should first go read that review here:
Now that you’re back, let’s discuss how this game differs from the Wii game and I can do that with two words: motion control. The Wii’s trademark Wiimote waggling is the only difference between these two games, and since the original was a great game, that’s a good thing. While this does lessen gameplay a bit, as specific tasks and puzzles were designed in the game for the Wiimote, the puzzles still remain in this game, only now you have to use a more conventional thumbstick and buttons to do the job. And that’s really about it. The graphics look very much the same, which says something about the Wii’s lack of processing power and most importantly the story is identical and that’s the important thing. The tale this game had to tell, and the innovative way in which it told it are the real stars of the show. The lack of weapons which forces your character to fee from monsters rather than bashing them is still there. You still get the creepy phone calls from time to time and see ghostly apparitions in the periphery of your vision. And the endings, which were some of the best, darkest, and sometimes surprisingly subtle climaxes in any horror game, all remain untouched.

Finally, the thing that made SHATTERED MEMORIES really stand out was the way the game changed with every playing depending on the choices you made. The occasional side trips in the narrative from the terrifying town to an often equally odd psychologists’ office as he gave you test after test, that’s all here too. This evolving and personal horror story is what made the game shine on the Wii, not the Wiimote flailing. Even though SH:SM on the Wii implemented that quirky controller better than most other Wii titles, its absence in this PSP game, while noticeable, detracts very little from the overall enjoyment. So if you do not have Nintendo’s latest cash cow, the Sony PSP offers an equally terrifying trip back to Silent Hill. It’s a trip I highly suggest all horror fans should take.

I give SILENT HILL: SHATTERED MEMORIES for the PSP 4 handheld horrors out of 5.

DRAGON AGE: ORIGINS: RETURN TO OSTAGAR, by BioWare; 2010; Rated M; Xbox 360.

This is the first downloadable expansion for the amazing fantasy RPG to come out since its release. In it, your band of heroes returns to the first epic battle of the original game where the king of the land was slain. You go there to make sure the king’s body is properly laid to rest and to retrieve his arms and armor now that he’s beyond needing them. And really, that’s about it. This expansion is very short; you can play through it in one to two hours max. That’s the bad news. The good is that it’s very good, and also very cheap. You can download it from Xbox Live for five bucks. So the question becomes, is about one and a half hours of fun worth a fiver? Well if you answer no, then you must not go to the movies. Tickets at my local theater are ten bucks a pop and that’s not including the soda and popcorn you’ll have to get a second mortgage on your house to afford. Then there’s the fact that most movies today suck. This expansion, while on the short side, is very fun. If you liked playing DRAGON AGE and wanted more of that great game then this little tidbit will hold you over, at least for a little while until a huge, whopping expansion called AWAKENING comes out later this year. So enjoy this inexpensive, tasty treat. I know I did.

I give DRAGON AGE: ORIGINS: RETURN TO OSTAGAR 4 dying Darkspawn twitching on the end of my sword out of 5.


THE MISADVENTURES OF P.B. WINTERBOTTOM, by 2K Play and The Odd Gentlemen; 2010; Rated E; Xbox 360.

This is the first E (as in everyone) rated game to be covered in GRAPHIC HORRORS so you know it must be good. To call this game an “indie darling” would be slightly cliché but also highly accurate. It was made by an independent developer and it sure is darling. A smallish puzzle game with loads of style, P.B. WINTERBOTTOM can be downloaded from Xbox Live for ten bucks and its well worth it. The game is about a dapper, mustachioed pie-ophile that has the amazing ability to clone himself repeatedly. However instead of using this superpower to better the world, or even doing what I’d do with it (both go to work and stay home playing videogames and watching flicks) P.B. uses it to get the only thing he desires, lots and lots of hot, sweet pie. Oh yeah.

The game is set into fifty-one levels with one clear goal; get all the pies. However it’s not that easy. In order to get the tasty treats you’ll have to jump, climb, and float with your ever present umbrella. Moreover, there will be switches, levers, trampolines, teeter-totters, and large gaps to clear that you just can’t do on your own. That’s where your clones come in. They will hit the button that raises the platform your standing on so you can get the pies on a higher level, or you can send them falling to their death down deep holes, but also collecting pies along the way that you’d otherwise not be able to get. At first the puzzles you must overcome to get your tasty pies are pretty straightforward but as the game progresses new rules are introduced to liven things up. Examples are collecting pies in a specific order or having your clones become deadly foes the original P.B. must avoid. This means that there’s always something new to do and some new way to think about pie snatching as the game goes on.
Additionally, if over fifty regular boards weren’t enough pie pilfering fun, there are a number of unlockable bonus boards that raise the stakes by introducing limits on time and the number of clones you can use to snatch all the pies. This causes the player to think of new stratagems and pushes them to the limit if they want to be the best of their buddies on the leaderboards.

Lastly the style of this game cannot be stressed or praised enough. It has an original and charming look, truly wonderful music, and great, clever writing. This was all just icing on a cake…or pie…of wonderfulness, but such rich, creamy icing it is! So come for the fun, addictive pie snatching puzzle play, but stay for the art, sounds, and chuckles you get along the way.

I give THE MISADVENTURES OF P.B. WINTERBOTTOM 4 hot, fresh, yummy pies out of 5.

--Brian M. Sammons