Friday, June 4, 2010

Graphic Horror: Game Reviews

By Brian M. Sammons

ALAN WAKE, by Remedy Entertainment & Microsoft Game Studios; 2010; Rated T; Xbox 360.

From the creative minds that gave us the MAX PAYNE games comes this new horror mystery adventure that’s been stuck in development hell for far too long. How long? Well MAX PAYNE 2 was the last game these guys did and that was back in 2003. So was it worth the wait, or is this title just another over hyped, long promised, dream game destined to be a huge disappointment? Well grab a flashlight and be very afraid of the dark, because we’re delving into the shadows with ALAN WAKE.

Right from the start this game tells you exactly what you’re in for with a quote from Stephen King. If that wasn’t obvious enough, the titular character, and the guy you’ll be playing as, is a famous author suffering from a multi-year bout of writer’s block. How much more King-ish can you get? Well you haven’t seen anything yet. Alan and his wife, Alice, travel to the sleepy, coastal town of Bright Falls somewhere in the Pacific Northwest (Washington, I think). What starts off as a getaway becomes a nightmare all too soon after Alice goes missing and Alan wakes up after a car crash with no memory of the previous week. Oh and the quaint little cabin on the island where the Wake’s were staying? Well that’s completely gone and has been gone since it sank into a volcano’s crater during an eruption back in the 70s. Yeah that’s weird, but the weird has only just begun. Did I mention that Allan keeps finding pages of a new book that he can’t remember writing? Or that what he reads in those pages has either come true or will come true, and that includes the gruesome bits.

Alan is now in a race against time to find and save his wife from advisories both human and inhuman. He’s hunted by the FBI for reasons he doesn’t know, stalked by a threatening kidnapper who seems to be looking for a fight, and when night falls, that’s when The Taken come for him. The Taken are lost souls both covered in, and filled with, darkness. They have a fondness for axes, crowbars, and chainsaws, not to mention appearing out of the shadows when you least expect it. Now the good news is that our hero gets a nice selection of guns to help him fight The Taken, be they possessed lumberjacks, flocks of shadowy ravens, or murderous farm equipment looking to turn poor Alan into compost. The bad news is that he first has to burn the darkness surrounding his foes away with light before guns can even hurt them. Thus begins a beautiful dance of light and dark where you must move Alan from one tiny island of illumination to the next through vast oceans of darkness, all the while praying that the batteries in his flashlight don’t die and that the benighted things relentlessly chasing him are just a tad bit slower than he is.

Now if that run for your life, shoot the shadowy spawn in the face, kind of action was all this game had going for it, it would still be a fun thrill ride. However the real strength of ALAN WAKE is twofold. The first is the atmosphere and that’s evident from the very start of the game and lasts until the end credits roll. More importantly, the story this game has to tell is a damn good one. Few games are written this well, have characters this fully developed, and make you want to play them into the wee hours of the night like this one. It pulls of that last trick a couple of ways, the most obvious being that the game is broken up into TV like episodes, so that after every couple of hours there’s always a nice cliffhanger to keep you glued to the controller. To further cement that classic TWILIGHT ZONE feel this game pulls off so well, there are mini episodes of a T.Z. inspired television show called “Night Springs” that you can watch from time to time. More than just time killers, these hilarious horror shorts are a real treat and watching them soon becomes habit forming. Additionally there’s a strong supporting cast, with the standout being your best buddy Barry, who’s more than just comic relief and someone you can’t wait to see what he does next.

If you are a horror fan, and I’ll assume that you are because you’re here reading this, then you’ll absolutely love this game. The story and characters are very good, the mystery Alan finds himself in is intriguing, and the atmosphere is properly dark and moody. The graphics are beautiful, with admittedly some lip sinking issues in a couple of cut scenes, and the sound design is great. The gameplay is solid, if nothing revolutionary, and it lasts a good length of time (about ten to twelve hours) without overstaying its welcome. If you find out that’s not enough ALAN WAKE for you then don’t worry, there’s already some DLC lined up to come out soon. If you are not a horror fan then don’t worry, you’ll still enjoy the hell out of this game, but maybe not to the extent that I did. And how much did I like it? Well…

I give ALAN WAKE 5 creepy episodes of Night Springs out of 5.

MASS EFFECT 2: KATSUMI’S STOLEN MEMORY, by BioWare & EA Games; 2010; Rated M; Xbox 360.

This is the first non-free mini-expansion for the amazing space role playing game, MASS EFFECT 2. As such, it will cost you a few bucks, seven to be exact, but is it worth your hard earned dollars? Well for that, let’s talk features.

First and foremost you get a new character to join your motley crew of intergalactic badasses. This one is, surprise, surprise, a young Japanese woman named Katsumi who is the galaxy’s greatest thief. Now Katsumi is handy to have in a fight. She has the ability to turn invisible and sneak up behind bad guys to deliver a fatal “back stab” like sneak attack. Too bad she doesn’t offer much more than that. Her dialog options are very limited, and unlike the other space hotties on your ship, there will be no nookie with this comely rogue. Along with Katsumi you’ll get an extra side mission for your Captain Shepherd to help her on, and the good news is that it’s a pretty cool heist so it plays a lot differently then other missions in MASS EFFECT 2. There’s also a slew of in jokes and comedic winks sprinkled throughout caper to keep you smiling. However this adventure is kind of on the short side and can be completed in under an hour. So for the price of seven dollars, or 560 Microsoft points, you can get a new character, a less than an hour long mission, a new weapon, and some spiffy new casual duds to wear. You will have to decide if that’s a bargain for you. For me it was worth every penny.

I give KATSUMI’S STOLEN MEMORY 4 way out of place vault statues (you’ll know it when you see it) out of 5.

NIER; by Square Enix; 2010; Rated M; PS3, Xbox 360

Square Enix is the great granddaddy of JRPGs (Japanese Role Playing Gamers) in many parts of the western world. They have cemented that fact with the numerous FINAL FANTASY games, not to mention the metric ton of other, lesser known titles they have put out over the years. A new addition to that list of forgotten games is this one called NIER. While it does some new things and has a good style of its own, it is sadly very “meh” and I think doomed to be forgotten all too soon. That is, unless Square Enix fixes some of the problems plaguing this otherwise unique and deep game in a sequel. But I guess you want more than my word for this, so let’s grab a sword, a couple of goofy companions, oh and don’t forget the talking spell book; it’s time to jump into NIER.

The strange title of this game is actually the protagonist’s name. And no, he doesn’t have an evil twin brother named “Farr” or anything like that. Despite what is depicted in this game’s box art, Nier actually comes from a future world that has elements of the modern day and those of the ye old sword swinging times meshed together. This world is ravaged by strange monsters called shades and a mysterious sickness that unfortunately Nier’s daughter contracts. So begins papa Nier’s quest to save his dying daughter and to slice up any shade that gets in his way.

Now on to specifics, and since I try to be a positive kind of guy, I’ll start with the good stuff first. The gameplay is delightfully varied. As opposed to the traditional turn based battle that most JRPGs offer, NIER gives you action packed hack n’ slash fighting, side scrolling platform jumping, block pushing puzzles to figure out, and a few great looking (if all too easy) boss battles. There is a huge world to explore (perhaps too huge) and to help you along the way you get a few companion characters that are fun, often funny, and nice to have around in a fight. There’s a sexy, scantily clad swordswoman who swears like a sailor and a freaky, floating skull-headed guy who’s just odd as all hell. Oh, and let’s not forget your best buddy, and easily the best thing in this game, a floating, thinking, and talking book of magic named Grimoire Weiss. Good old G.W. allows you to cast spells at enemies, enhance your weapons with magic “words” (think of runes or symbols), and generally adds some smartass comic relief to the game.

But as good as a character Grimoire Weiss is, your main character of Nier is dull, and painfully uninteresting. Another dichotomy this game has is with what you see and what you hear. The music in NIER is truly great and imparts that epic feel that is so important in RPGs. On the other hand, the graphics seem a generation behind and are rather bland and lifeless. Oh and if you think this is the part of the review where I discuss the bad things about the game, you’re wrong. This is the “middle ground” section. The really bad stuff is below.

First and foremost; NIER is just boring, boring, boring, with a heaping helping of repetitiveness tossed in for good measure. There are way too many tedious fetch quests where you have to run out into the world, grab some mushrooms, and then run them back to town to give them to Farmer A. Next you have to run back out, pick some flowers, and bring them back to Little Girl C. Then there’s the old lady who needs… Trust me, this gets old fast and succeeds at nothing but grinding the game to a halt. What makes things worse is that there are too few new environments to explore, so you will be doing all this in the same looking places over and over and over again. But perhaps the single worst thing this game does is recycle the same kinds of enemies again and again. While there are lots of bad guys to kill, they are all slight variants of the less-than-a-handful collection of enemies. In big, sprawling, epic RPGs it is essential to give the player new foes to face, not just re-skin or change the color of the same monsters they’ve already been thrashing for the past 30 + hours.

NIER had a lot of good things going for it, offers some unique characters, a bunch of different play styles, and an infusion of some much needed adult content and hack n’ slash fun into the JRGP genre. Too bad it keeps one of the worst things about many Japanese games, repetitive grinding for the sake of repetitive grinding. If this game did away with all the boring fetch quests, added to the variety of foes you had to face, tightened up the story just a tad, and perhaps worked on the combat a bit so it wasn’t such a one button mash, this game would have been great. These are the things I hope the game masters over in Square Enix fix if they bring out a NIER 2. If that day comes, then I’ll be very interested in giving that game a look. As it stands now, NIER might be a good game for the JRPG faithful out there, but it won’t do anything to bring new fans into the fold.

I give NIER 3 cool as hell floating spell books out of 5.

LOST PLANET 2; by Capcom; 210; Rated T; PC, PS3, Xbox 360

In 2007 Capcom released a beautiful looking third person shooter set on an ice planet where you shot giant bugs in their glowing “shoot me here” spots. While nothing earth shattering, and with a story that bordered on silly, LOST PLANET: EXTREME CONDITION was a fun enough game with the ability to pilot battle mechs and use an auto retracting grappling hook to reach out of the way places thrown in for good measure. The best part of the game was arguable the solid and somewhat addicting multiplayer game. Three years later and Capcom has just released the sequel, naturally fixing some of the flaws that hampered the first title and generally improving on the game in every way.

Or so you would have thought…

Sadly, this sequel has actually taken a few steps backward from the original. While it is still breathtakingly beautiful to look at and all the core mechanics are there (you’re still a little guy shooting big bugs in their glowing butts) the AI of your computer controlled battle buddies is, in a word; horrible. What’s worse is that this game was designed from the ground up to be a four player game. You can’t send your teammates home and just play it with your character all alone. Nope, no matter what you’ll always have at three chuckleheads bumbling around with you at all times. While that’s great if you happen to have three friends who all bought this game, and they’re all on and ready to play at the same time, but if you have to ever have to rely on computer controlled allies you will know that brain-melting frustration is in every sense of those words.

How bad can the AI be, you ask? Well the brain dead trio like to run into walls and not move around them in the least a lot. Another one of their favorite things to do is to stand around doing nothing during an important fight. Then there’s the old standby of them getting in your way any chance they can. Again; that’s just HORRIBLE! So if you plan/want/or must play this game by yourself, simply don’t do it. Trust me, it’s not worth the headache.

That said, this game does still have some good things to offer. First, the boss battles are ridiculous, and I mean that in the best possible way. The bug bosses are huge, and while a tad on the easy side once you learn their very cheap tricks, like always knocking you down or backwards, just seeing them and running around their feet like ants, desperately looking for the glowing sweat spots to shoot, can be fun with a bunch of buddies. Also the multiplayer is back and while not of the same caliber of some of the top line multiplayer fragfests, it can still be a lot of fun.

But sad to say, there’s even more bad to come with this game. Level design in LOST PLANET 2 is awful. One board featuring two trains racing along, shooting at each other was zero fun because every time anything happened even remotely close to your character, he would fall of the speeding train and you would have to start over. Good idea there, Capcom! And I won’t even go into the really dumb parts where sometimes if you touch water you die instantly and at other times wading through the wet stuff is perfectly ok. The story, while thin in the first game, is all but nonexistent here and the grappling hook, that was once fun and useful, is now clunky and unnecessarily difficult to use as the spots you can grapple to are few and prone to bugging out when used. I don’t know how many times I’d grapple up to some ledge, only to fall back down again and again. Lastly, on just a personal preference note, I wasn’t a big fan of the whole “the ice planet now becomes a jungle plant” thing. There are plenty of shooters set in steamy rainforests and so few taking place in the freezing tundra, while Capcom felt the need to change this is beyond me.

Ok, summation time. LOST PLANET 2 is a somewhat fun game if you have three real life friends to always play with. The big bug bosses are easily the highlight of this game and they look impressive. However there’s just too many flaws with AI (both with your allies and with the enemies), to make playing this game really fun. Not to mention the many cheap tactics like the aforementioned constant knock backs, or the fact that if you are in the middle of doing anything, say like healing yourself or tossing a grenade, and you take so much as a scratch, you stop everything and must start all over. The story and characters here are afterthoughts. The game play runs from middle of the road shooter, to frustrating and broken due to poor level design. But once more I should stress just how good looking this game is. So if you are looking for a beautiful shooter that plays moderately well with friends, but HORRIBLE without them, and really offers nothing new except for some towering alien bugs to blast into gooey bits, then this might be the game for you.

LOST PLANET 2 gets 2 glowing bug butts out of 5.

--Brian M. Sammons