Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Graphic Horror: Game Reviews

By Brian M. Sammons

DEADLY PREMONITION, by Ignition Entertainment; 2010; Rated M; Xbox 360.

With a no thrills game like this I’m going to cut right to the chase; this game is a mix bag at best. Being the nice guy that I am, I’ll start with the good. First it’s a budget title which means you can pick it up new for about twenty bones. In these harsh times, that’s a very good thing indeed. Next, it’s a straight up horror game, so that automatically garners some good will from me. It is a rather sizable and lengthy, so if getting a new Xbox 360 games for twenty bucks wasn’t good enough, you get a lot of bang for very few dollars. Good point number four, it was made by fans of classic 80s films in general, and horror films in particular, and since I was also a child of the 80s that made me happy. It is also a pretty funny game and more than a few times I found myself chuckling. How is it funny, I can hear you thinking right now (didn’t know I was psychic, did you). Well its funny is a very weird way and that brings us to the absolutely best thing about DEADLY PREMONITION, it is freaking weird and I love it! Drawing heavily from the seminal bizarre TV show, TWIN PEAKS, this game is about an FBI investigator/profiler named Francis York Morgan sent to a small northern town called Greenvale to investigate a gruesome murder where a woman was gutted, had her tongue bit out, and then hung naked on a tree. Francis “just call me York” is an ace at tracking down psycho killers, but maybe that has to do with the fact that he’s insane? His coffee gives him premonitions of the future. Worse yet, he’s always talking to himself. Wait, check that, he’s always talking to Zach, the imaginary friend that lives inside his head, and that’s where you come in. You play as Zach, the voice inside Agent York’s head telling him what to do and where to go. It is a clever, and weird, way to acknowledging the game mechanics of you controlling York’s every move. It also makes for some funny moments as obviously no one else can see “Zach” and York will help pass the time during long drives by talking to you in depth about some of his favorite flicks from the 80s. To add to this weirdness is a town full of slight off kilter characters for you to interact with, a very strange mystery to uncover, some decent puzzles to solve that are a bit too easy, and an eerie, shadowy other world York often finds himself in unexpectedly filled with strange zombie-ish bad guys that walk backwards at you and mumble things like “don’t kill me” as they try to rip your face off. All of this work to varying degrees but easily the stranger and more bizarre the game gets, the better it becomes. However wonderful weirdness alone can’t completely overshadow some glaring shortcomings that plague DEADLY PREMONITION throughout.

First, it is a god awful ugly game. Its graphics are akin to PS 1 standards. That was fine in the mid nineties, but its 2010 and that’s just unforgivable now. Oh, and for the record, the pics I chose for this review are some of the best looking ones I could find. The majority of the game looks far worse then what you see here. Next the controls are also very antiquated. Think of the first RESIDENT EVIL game, only more stiff and less responsive. Honestly, controlling York in combat, or just doing something as mundane as having him move from point A to point B, is an exercise in frustration. Third, remember when I said this game was “rather sizable”? Well it is, but it is in open world (i.e. sandbox or GTA-type) game and while an open world horror game sounds great on paper, DEADLY PREMONITION executes it so poorly that it’s mind boggling. Missions will often take you from one side of town all the way to the other side and the first thing you’ll notice is that this game has no GPS system. Every sandbox game made in the last oh-I-don’t-know-how-many years has had a way to set up waypoints to your destination so you can easily deduce where the hell you need to go. Trying to navigate without one in this game is just no fun at all because you constantly have to stop everything and bring up a slow loading map to check where you’re going through the maze of confusing, and identical looking, streets. Worst yet, there is no fast travel ever and not even any radio stations to play in your car. That means that you’ll be spending lllooonnnggg stretches of time driving with nothing to listen to, nothing interesting to see, and only the constant aggravation of having to bring up you map every thirty seconds to break up the monotony. That is just lousy game design people. Were the designers trying to punish people for buying their game? You want to know what else was a bad idea? The car always travels at a steady 50 MPH, if you press the turbo button in an attempt to cut down on the long, boring drive time, the car tops out at 53 MPH. Wow, why even have the turbo button at all? Oh wait, I forgot about the wonderful combat that consists of shooting zombies, shooting zombies, shoot another zombie, oh yay, grab a steel pipe to bash zombies until pipe breaks then go back to shooting zombies. The very definition of both uninspired and repetitive? You betcha. This “thrilling” combat is broken up from time to time by the faceless, axe wielding, raincoat killer (who for some reason you never even try to shoot) popping up, causing you to run away like a little girl with a series of quick time events. Wow, be still my racing heart.

DEADLY PREMONITION had so much potential and promise that it is sad to see it for what it ultimately is; a very poorly made game. It is a horror/mystery open world game with an interesting story, memorable characters, and lots of weirdness in just the right places, but it is crippled by out dated graphics, horrible controls, and very bad design decisions across the board. If you are a diehard TWIN PEAKS fan or just someone that loves really bizarre stuff, then you might want to give this game a try. After all, it is only twenty dollars. Everyone else should probably avoid this giant example of what a missed opportunity looks like.

I give DEADLY PREMONITION 2 Pepto-Bismol bleeding, backwards walking zombies out of 5.

DRAGON AGE: ORIGINS – AWAKENING, by BioWare and EA Games; 2010; Rated M; PC, PS3, Xbox 360.

If you’ve been reading this column from the start then you know that I absolutely loved BioWare’s old school dark fantasy RPG. It did everything right to give me that fondly remembered BALDUR’S GATE feel. How appropriate then that the mad doctors at BioWare (no really, the company was founded by a couple of honest to goodness RPG-loving doctors) have put out a very old school expansion pack for DA:O. In this age of small expansions sold as bite-sized downloads, AWAKENING is a chunky addition to your favorite Dragon-smiting game that comes on a disc all of its own. Yes, you can download it, but really where’s the fun in that? So once more, dear friends, grab your swords and spell books and let’s go kick some Dark Spawn ass!

This game picks up right where the other left off, that only makes sense as it is an expansion pack. Now while there were multiple endings in DA:O, including one that left your character very much dead, this expansion does a slight bit of retconning to get all players of the first game at the same starting point. Yeah that’s a bit of a bummer, but only a slight one and one I could easily live with. When things begin in AWAKENING your character is now the leader of the Gray Wardens in the area and even though the Arch Demon is dead, the threat of the Dark Spawn remains. Worse yet, the enemy have evolved. They have broken off into two camps, one lead by someone called The Architect, and the other by The Mother. Worst yet, the Spawn are beginning to talk, think, and act for themselves whereas before they were puppets of the Arch Demon. This makes them more unpredictable and dangerous than ever before. Uncovering how this is happening and how to stop it is your epic quest this time around. Along the way you’ll run into a few old faces, make a bunch of new allies, gain access to new and powerful abilities, spells, specialty classes, skills, levels, and equipment. And yes, there are plenty of new places to explore and fierce, new creatures to do battle with, and all this will take you about twenty hours to complete, so this expansion is meatier than many stand alone games.

DRAGON AGE: ORIGINS – AWAKENING is the perfect expansion pack. It takes everything that was great in the original title, refines it, and adds lost more content. If you loved DA:O then you will love AWAKENING.

I give DRAGON AGE: ORIGINS – AWAKENING 5 weirdly sexy lust demons (mmmmm) out of 5.


JUST CAUSE 2, by Eidos Interactive and Square Enix; 2010; Rated M; PC, PS3, Xbox 360.

First let me get this out of the way, you don’t have to have played the original JUST CAUSE in order to play and enjoy this game. I didn’t, and I loved this crazy ass, high action, slightly dumb but in a good way game. As far as I can tell the two games have nothing to do with each other, save for sharing a protagonist. If you are looking for mindless fun, want to blow up lots of stuff to smithereens, and love to perform insane stunts and tricks with the help of an auto-retracting grappling hook and parachute, then this is the game for you.

JC2 has you playing the role of Rico Rodriguez, a Latino CIA operative who specializes in regime change. You do this by going into a country not friendly with the U.S. and causing as much chaos and mayhem as possible until people rise up against the old government and you can hand pick the new, pro-American government. Man, where do video game makers get their “crazy” ideas from? In any event, this time around Rico goes to the fictitious tiny Southeast Asian island nation of Panau, which is run by a Kim Jogn-Ill impersonator complete with diminutive stature, enormous ego, and bad hair. Once there Rico has a few story missions to follow and three different rival factions of revolutions and criminals to buddy up with, all of which hate the current leadership of Panau. Now the story behind this game is admittedly weak sauce, but who cares? It only exists as a feeble excuse so you can go buck wild and do anything you want to in this third person shooter/adventure, over the top sandbox romp. This core element is easily the game’s greatest strength, and strangely something of a weakness as well. But first, the good.

With the help of your grappling hook, parachute, lots of guns and explosives, and a wide variety of boats, cars, tanks, and attack choppers, JUST CAUSE 2 lets you create non-stop craziness in countless antisocial, but admittedly awesome ways. The basic idea behind the game is to blow shit up, such a buildings, water towers, propaganda trucks, and oil pipelines belonging to the government to gain “chaos” which is used almost like currency to unlock missions for the three competing factions and to advance the overall story line. But how you go about gaining that lovely chaos is all up to you, as is just how much crazy fun you want to have along the way. In this regard, Rico’s amazing grappling hook is his greatest tool of hilarity. You can use it to grapple an enemy solider to your car and take him for a drag, or string one up to a ceiling and beat him like a piñata, or tag another to an explosive barrel, then shot the barrel and watch it take off like a rocket dragging the solider with it. Sure it’s all a bit sadistic, but it sure is fun. Other crazy highlights including hijacking anything that moves, even while its moving, and that includes helicopters and planes, jumping on top of the roof of your car during high speed chases to shoot at bad guys, or jumping over to their car to take it over, or using your grapple to tie two pursing cars together and then laughing your butt off as they mock physics and go flying off the road to explode beautifully. Really, this is one of the few games that will give you as little or as much fun as you want, provided you go looking for it.

Now JC2 isn’t without a few drawbacks. The story, as said before, is pretty lame and the voice acting is simply painful to listen too. There are also more than a few janky bits, by that I mean times where the game controls hiccup, but nothing happens that is too bad or that breaks the game in any way. Lastly JUST CAUSE 2 is the very essence of a one trick pony, whose trick just happens to be blowing stuff up and being crazy. While this is great fun, it can start to be repetitive if you sit down for a long play session. However it also means that this game has a great pickup and play vibe so you can keep coming back to this game again and again for a very long time indeed. Whenever the mood strikes you to do some crazy stuff, pick up JC2 and within seconds it will seem like you never left. That’s how I played the game and it is one of the things I loved about it most. Oh, and the fact that it has amazingly beautiful graphics, a huge game world to play in, and total nonstop insanity from start to finish.

If you want to play a game that is just plain fun then JUST CAUSE 2 is the game for you. It’s not deep, it’s not perfect, but it’s got big explosions, nutty stunts, a wonderfully warped physics engine, ninjas, and an OMG ending that Slim Pickings would have approved of. It’s also got lots to offer. I’ve put about thirty hours in this game and just now hit the 50% completion milestone, and that’s after beating the story campaign. And yes I’m still playing this game from time to time even after all that and that very fact alone should be seen as a glowing recommendation.

I give JUST CAUSE 2 4 crazy, physics-defying, antisocial, “Oh my God, did you see that?” moments out of 5.

FINAL FIGHT: DOUBLE IMPACT, by Capcom; 2010; Rated T; PS3, Xbox 360.

This blast from the past comes from a time when arcades ruled, every kid had a pocket full of quarters, and most characters in videogames walked from the left side of the screen to the right, punching any fool that got in their way. FINAL FIGHT was one of the original, and best, side-scrolling beat ‘em up games that debuted way back in halcyon days of 1989. It was simple in concept but fun, addicting, and sometimes devilishly hard. You played as one of three he-men butt-kickers, Guy, Cody, and the massive ex- pro wrestler turned mayor, Mike Haggar. Mayor Haggar’s daughter gets kidnapped by a criminal mastermind and it’s up to the three towers of power to get her back. How do they plan on doing that? By starting at one end of the city, walking their way to the other, and beating the hell out of countless punks, thugs, gang members, psychos, crooked cops, and even a tranny named Poison.

If you were a child of the 80s or 90s and ever set foot in a videogame arcade then you probably saw this game or one of the sequels or various clones that ripped it off. If you were lucky then you actually played it. For me, this game is good childhood memories wrapped up in a bow, and thankfully the folks over at Capcom has dusted this title of, slapped a new coat of paint on it, but essentially left it unchanged from its fist-to-face perfection. It is now available once again for a very reasonable price, and you can download it for the PlayStation 3 and the Xbox 360.

But, as the annoying infomercials always say, that’s not all!

Including with this game is another side scrolling battle fest, although this one is more hack n’ slash than beat ‘em up, and is set in a mystical world of magic, brawny warriors, and lots of monsters just waiting to be sliced and diced by you. This game is MAGIC SWORD and in it you and an axe wielding friend storm an evil wizard’s tower, gather powerful weapons, spells, and allies, and fight your way through over fifty levels of dragons, orcs, skeletons, and all other manner of fantasy cannon fodder.

That’s two fun fighting throwbacks for one low price. If you’re a nostalgic gamer, or a youngster that didn’t get to experience the joy of playing these classic games in a real arcade, but one that can appreciate history and truly fun game design, then get this two for one goodie pack now.

I give FINAL FIGHT: DOUBLE IMPACT 4 of Mike Haggar’s trademark piledrivers out of 5.

--Brian M. Sammons