Saturday, September 4, 2010

Graphic Horror: Game Reviews

By Brian M. Sammons

Hi gang. Remember last month when I said summer was the dry season for games and there wasn’t much to talk about? Well chalk down a big fat ditto here. At least as far as horror games go. However there were a few non-terror titles released recently that I will talk about. Hey, better than nothing, right? So consider this one big Genre Break and hopefully, with Halloween just around the corner there are sure to be some new horror games to play soon. But for now, let’s tackle three crime dramas, shall we?

KANE & LYNCH 2: DOG DAYS, by Square Enix and Eidos; Rated M; PC, PS3; Xbox 360

A few years back the first K&L game came out and it was a middle of the road third person cover based shooter with one twist; you played as a couple of criminals, one the typical gangster type and the other a stark raving psycho. This time around the action moves to Shanghai and the story revolves firmly around the said psycho, Lynch. Set a few years after the events in the first game the pair team up once more for a run and gun, fast paced action game. However, when I say fast, I should really say quick, but I’ll get to that in a moment. Right now, lets cover the good points.

First, I like the characters of Kane and Lynch. I like their gruff chemistry and their grim, gallows humor. I like that they are thoroughly, unapologetic bad guys. The kind of thugs you’ve seen in many movies, but hare rarely, if ever, played as in a video game. The gun play action is very workman like, it’s fun but does nothing new. However one very innovative thing the designers tried was the overall look, visual style, and in-game camera. The whole thing is shot as if some invisible camera man with a cheap video camera were following you around, documenting your criminal exploits. The video is grainy, jumpy and shaky, full of graphical glitches and pixilation, and generally often looks like hell. Realistic, sure but it looks like hell. I really enjoyed this effect…for about half the game. After that it got old fast, so I turned it off. However I applaud the designers for trying something new and different, yet making it optional so that if we didn’t like it we could play without it. I wish more games would try to be innovative instead of just going with what’s safe, or worse, copying someone else.

Ok, enough praise (for now) let’s get to the bad. First and foremost, when I hinted that he game was quick, I meant really damn short. The single player story of this game can be completed in about four hours. Yes, four hours. Now there has been a long running debate over how much game play someone should expect for their $60, and that has always been a hard thing to judge. After all, I’ve played some great shirt games and some truly awful long ones, so length alone isn’t he best way to judge the value of something. And yes, you can insert your own penis joke here if you must. That being said, it is incredibly hard to justify making a new game and charging full price for something so short. I mean, I’ve played expansion packs that were longer than four hours. So if that was all this game had to offer then it would easily walk out of the Graphic Horrors zone with a 2 out of 5. Luckily, KANE & LYNCH 2 does have a little extra to offer.

The “extra” comes in the form of a surprisingly enjoyable multiplayer component. As with the camera work, once again the designers add something new in the form of an undercover cop mode. In these games, one member of your online criminal crew at random becomes the undercover cop who’s job it is to bust (read as: kill) all the rest of the players to stop their evil doings. However, the cop has to be sneaky and make it look like he’s shooting at the AI controlled civilians and police so as to not draw attention to himself and then wait for the best time to pick off the crooks one by one less he get outnumbered and outgunned. I really enjoyed this aspect of the game, and again I love it when game designers try new things and they actually work.

The final question has got to be this; is a four hour game with a pretty good online multiplayer worth your hard earned bucks? Well if you don’t play games with others then I would have to say no. If you are an online game junkie then I would raise that to a maybe. So for me, it’s a maybe, and you can’t sum up maybe any better then with…

I give KANE & LYNCH 2: DOG DAYS 3 times Lynch forgets to take his meds and becomes a mouth-foaming murderous maniac out of 5.

MAFIA 2, by 2 K Games; Rated M; PC, PS3; Xbox 360

This game looks like one thing, but turns out to be very different. Some people will like those differences, other will not. Me, I kind of dug it. What I’m talking about is the fact that this game looks for all intents and purposes as an open world, sandbox gangster game in the mold of the GRAND THEFT AUTO but in reality it’s not. True, you get a big playground to run around in, in this case it’s a New York stand in called Empire Bay, but the game is surprisingly linear and there’s really not all that much to do in the big city. The entire game is pretty much wake up, do a job for some mafia type, go to bed when that’s done, and that marks the end of a chapter and the start of a new day tomorrow. Ok, the game is not that cut and dry, but it nearly is, so is that a bad thing? I think not. I’m not one of those people that thinks “linear” is a dirty word in videogames. For me, game controls, story, and characters are far more important. However I did think it an odd choice for this game, and one that I wanted to point out right away so people don’t get the wrong idea about MAFIA 2. Now that I’ve mentioned it, let’s get into those other three, more important aspects of videogames that I mentioned.

As for game control, MAFIA 2 does a serviceable job. You drive a lot and the cars handle well, a far sight better than the rides in any of the GTA games at least. Further, your character, which you see and maneuver around in third person, is also easy to control. While that may seem funny to mention, so many other games like this have clunky handling characters (yes, I’m looking at you again, GTA) that when a game gets this simple task right I feel someone should say thank you for the extra effort, so thank you, game designers. The shooting and targeting system are likewise nothing to write home about, nor condemn so once more I’ll just say that it’s serviceable and move on.

The story in MAFIA 2 is likewise unremarkable for the most part. It is a collection of scenes, ideas, and plot points you’ve already seen in dozens of mob movies. What is a nice touch is that this time you don’t play as a boss, don, Godfather, or anything like that. No, you are a very street-level gangster and I really liked that. Also, there is a part where…oh wait….

Minor SPOILERS ahead!

You get busted and sent to prison. Now in most games when you do something naught and get sent to jail the screen will fade to black, perhaps show a title card saying something like, “10 years later” and then your guys comes walking out of the joint to pick up where you left off. Not so in MAFIA 2. Here you get busted and then for the next hour or so you get to play out your life in prison complete with all the clichés, fighting off rapists in the showers, and odd bits, did prisoners in the 50s shower in their underwear or was that done to spare us fragile gamers the sight of digital penis? Not that’s I’m complaining. After GTA 4’s THE LOST AND THE DAMNED, I’ve had my fill of CGI wang, thank you very much. Hmm, that’s two reviews in a row where I managed to work penises into them. Weird. But anyway, I really liked this unexpected turn of events, so I thought I’d make special mention of it.

End of the SPOILERS!

The characters in this game are probably what I liked most about it. You play as Vito Scaletta and when the game begins it actually more closely resembles CALL OF DUTY than it does GTA as you are a GI in Italy in World War Two. Upon return home you once more take up with your shady best buddy who has made a minor name for himself in the local underworld. This guy actually seems like your good pal, and the chemistry between him and your Vito is strong and believable. Add to these two wannabe wise guys a supporting cast of fleshed out and well voice acted mugs and you got a bunch of characters that seem more real and believable than most of the TV shows now on the air.

Then there are the other odd bits that I liked. The classic cars that looked great. The early do-wop and rock n’ roll songs on the radio, while not perfectly historically accurate to 1951 or so, were still a nice addition. And lets not forget the best video game collectibles ever; vintage Playboy magazines, because looking at beautiful naked woman never gets old.

For all the things this game does well to very well, and the simple fact that it’s just plain fun to play as a mobster, I give MAFIA 2 4 offers you can’t refuse (sorry, couldn’t help myself) out of 5.

SHANK, by Klei Entertainment and EA Games; Rated M; PC, PS3; Xbox 360

SHANK is a side-scrolling beat ‘em up in the vein of the types of games they just don’t make anymore. What makes this one different is the art style, the copious amounts of blood and violence, and a story of thugs, killers, and vengeance straight out of the Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez playbook. In this game you play as the titular Shank whose wife is killed by a motley crew of very bad dudes. Now you’re out for revenge and you’ll uses chainsaws, machetes, shotguns, samurai swords, your own two fists, and of coarse shanks to cut a bloody swath through countless underlines until you find the people responsible for the loss of your lady love.

This downloadable game is of decent size, but truth be told the action does start to get repetitive relatively quickly. To vary things up a bit there’s some easy platforming and each of the several boos battles usually has a trick to beating them, but for the most part you hack, slash, blast, and bash your way from left to right. If beat ’em ups are not your thing, this won’t do anything to change your mind. If you liked the arcade brawlers of yesteryear then this plays as good as any of those but has the added bonus of having off kilter, and very adult humor, satisfying kills, and insane characters aplenty. Perhaps the one drawback to this game is the amount of damage the lesser peons soak up. Having to grind and grind and grind on them to put them down isn’t challenging so much as it’s frustrating. That one misstep aside, I did find myself enjoying the fist-in-your-face action this little game had to offer.

I give SHANK 4 chainsaw disembowelments out of 5.

--Brian M. Sammons