Thursday, November 4, 2010

Graphic Horror: Game Reviews

By Brian M. Sammons

Hey guys, gals, and ghouls, it’s right after Halloween and that means I have a glut of spooktacular games to tell you about. Yeah, remember a few months back when there were no new games and I told you just wait? Well, the wait is over. So, without further ado, let’s get to it, starting with the add-ons. I love those little things. For a few bucks more you can get more fun out of your old game. What a deal!

ALAN WAKE: THE WRITER, by Remedy Entertainment & Microsoft Game Studios, Rated M, Xbox 360.

One of my favorite games this year has been ALAN WAKE, but have you listened to me about it? No, because if you had it would have sold a lot better than it did. Now maybe it had less than stellar sales because it was released against the 2 ton gorilla that was RED DEAD REDEMPTION, or because this game was in development hell for far too long, but it didn’t sell nowhere near as many copies it deserved to. So if you have yet to play this amazingly well written and thoroughly creepy game, what are you waiting for? Get it already, it’s amazing.

But Brian, I hear you say, I’ve already played and beat this game. Well that is what’s great about DLC; it takes great games and can make them greater. Not all of them do that, but the best do. So is this, the latest and reportedly last extra “episode” of ALAN WAKE one of those good ones, or is it a forgettable and sad end to a great game?

Well, I can’t tell you much about this game No, no, don’t beg, I’m not going to do it. Why? Because ALAN WAKE is all about the story and the mystery and I’m not going to ruin that for you. So because of that, I’ll dispense with the usual reviewer teasing and just come out and say it; THE WRITER is a great expansion to this great game. It plays much like the previous DLC and is set in a weird, warped dream world where reality is what you make it (literally). As the author of your own nightmare, you’ve got great power and that’s good because you’re going to need it. The dark power that has been haunting you for the entire game is back and badder than ever. What’s really cool is the set design of this game and how you really feel like you’re trapped in a nightmare. Few works of fiction, be they film, book, or video game have ever pulled off the rubber reality of dreams this good. No, the game’s not very long, you can play through it in one sitting, and in fact you get an achievement for doing so. But it’s not expensive and well worth the meager price they are asking for.

The one gripe I had with the previous DLC expansion was that it was a bit too combat focused. This one focuses more on the story (the best thing about ALAN WAKE) and less on the guns and ghouls action. That is a very good thing in my book. It also ends things pretty well. No, not all answers are given, but enough to satisfy and things are set up nicely for a sequel. That is a game I very much hope comes out some day. If not, I’m blaming all you punks that didn’t go out and get this game. You really missed the boat on this one.

I give ALAN WAKE: THE WRTER 5 flashlights in the darkness out of 5.

BIOSHOCK 2: MINERVA’S DEN, by 2K Games, Rated M, PC, PS3, Xbox 360.

I never review DLC (Downloadable Content) that’s just map packs and the like for the online multiplayer addicts. While their merits can be argued what can you really say about them? Oh, in this one we’re in a ruined factory? Hey, this one has a different desert level then the previous two desert levels, cool! Wow, this map has snow in it. Snow! So because of that, and the fact that most games that have multiplayer only release DLC in support of that mode and nothing else, I initially dismissed the previous expansions for the very good BIOSHOCK 2 game. After all, all the previous DLCs were just multiplayer junk food, so why should this be any different. But then I gave it a try and boy howdy, was I surprised. MINERVA’S DEN is a new chapter in the evolving story of the doomed underwater city of Rapture. While it has no direct connection to either the first or second game, it does have many interconnecting threads and appearances, if only by voice, by many old friends. As such it is a completely standalone game experience, but it does offer the same great fun as BIOSHOCK 2.

Once more you are playing as a giant, diving suite-clad “Big Daddy”, but you’re a different daddy then the one from the full game. I guess using preexisting game architecture just makes things easier. Well at least there’s a pretty good back story, and a bit of a mystery, behind this new daddy. Speaking of story, this time around you’re on your way to explore the massive central computer that ran Rapture called “The Thinker.” Unfortunately like everything and everyone else in the rusting, leaking utopia gone to hell, The Thinker is not only dying, but more than a little bit mad. To complete your quest and save the super computer from the clutches of an insane genius, you’ll have to battle through three new levels of psycho splicers looking to do you in. Luckily for you there’s a cool new laser weapon called the lance, and an excellent new plasmid (think near magical psychic-like power) that allows you to summon mini black holes to torment your foes. To bad there’s no new baddies to blast, just some variants on the preexisting ones like a flaming brute splicer, a cold based Houdini splicer, flying robot drones with lasers and rockets instead of the normal machineguns, and the like. While such minor changes do add some variety, I really would of liked to have something new to rip apart with my spiffy new laser gun. Oh well, a missed opportunity.

If you’re a BIOSHOCK fan and want more but you just cant wait until 2012 for BIOSHOCK INFINITE to come out, then this will give you the plasmid, splicer, Rapture fix you need. It was a fun and enjoyable addition, but sadly had none of the good creepy bits that the other games had and that was a disappointment. However it is a good length and a pretty good value for the price.

I give BIOSHOCK 2: MINERVA’S DEN 4 splicers getting sliced in half with my big shiny laser out of 5.

BORDERLANDS CLAPTRAP’S NEW ROBOT REVOLUTION, by Gearbox Software & 2K Games, Rated M, PC PS3, Xbox 360.

The last DLC for BORDERLANDS was supposed to be just that, the last DLC for it. Well three cheers then for this all new and pretty unexpected expansion. As one of the characters in this game says, “it’s like Christmas!” But is this a present worth unwrapping or re-gifting?

Well for starters it’s very funny. Remember the little, comical, boxy robots you’ve seen all over the game called claptraps? Well they are mad as hell and they’re not going to take it anymore so they start an uprising. This means that you’ll be blasting away at the robots but also old enemies that have been given the claptrap makeover. This basically means you’ll be fighting psychos, skags, and other baddies with vacuum tubes sticking out of their heads. You’ll also have to face some of the memorable bosses you’ve already laid waste to as they’ve been reborn as cyborgs. Remember general Knoxx? Yeah he’s back and more robolicious than ever. There are also some new Claptraps to take down. The kamikaze Divine Wind will definitely keep you on your toes.

There are also some new areas to explore and of course tons of new guns. A whole slew of quests also await and they seem a bit more fleshed out this time with some more backstory behind them as opposed to the old, “go here and do this” kind of thing. Also, once a new update comes out this DLC will allow you to raise your level to 69 (tee hee). As of this writing it’s not yet out, but it is due out on 10-12, so you might want to wait a little on this. Why do quests when you don’t get rewarded for it, right?

Last, but certainly not least, this DLC sort of wraps things up for BORDERLANDS with a pretty satisfying ending. So if another expansion never comes out, at least the game goes out on a high note. But hey, who knows, the guys and gals over at Gearbox might just surprise us again with another unexpected present sometime down the road. Until that happens, or until the inevitable sequel, this DLC is a great way to say goodbye.

I give BORDERLANDS CLAPTRAP’S NEW ROBOT REVOLUTION 5 crazy, funny, homicidal little robots out of 5.

COSTUME QUEST, by Double Fine & THQ, Rated E, PS3, Xbox 360.

If I had to use one word to describe this game, that word would be; charming. If I had other words to choose from they might include cute and kid friendly. In short, they would be words that you wouldn’t expect to find describing a game for a column called GRAPHIC HORRORS, and yet here they are. Why is that? Because while COSTUME QUEST, the new game from Tim Shaffer and Double Fine, is all of those things, it’s also fun , very funny, and set in the high horror holiday of Halloween. But is this smallish downloadable game a nasty trick or a sweet treat? Let’s find out.

You play as one of two brother and sister twins going out for a night of trick or treating. But before you even get your first piece of candy, you sibling is kidnapped by a weird goblin-like monsters. Why? Because he (or she) was dressed up like a big piece of candy and the monsters are out tonight looking to steal all the sweets for themselves. The dimwitted ghoulies, thinking your twin is the biggest piece of candy ever, has whisked them away and it’s up to you to save them. How do you do that? By getting some friends together and using the powers of costume, of course.

Through the magic of imagination, I guess, when you must do battle with the monsters you become whatever you’re dressed up as. If you are wearing a robot costume you become a giant battle bot. Dress up like a ninja and you become a fierce, stealthy, sword-swinger. Don a french-fry costume and you become a weird, crab-like-thing made out of french-fries. Yeah, they don’t always make sense, but each has their own strengths, attacks, and special powers that aid you both in and out of battle.

The core of COSTUME QUEST is that of a basic RPG. As such it is perfectly serviceable, if a bit light and fluffy. What makes this game is Double Fine’s usual great story telling and sense of humor. Simply put, this game is just plain fun to play. Moreover, it can be enjoyed by the whole family. Provided that the whole family can read, that is. The one thing that I thought could have been improved would be the inclusion of some voice acting. As it stands, all the dialog in this game is delivered in text and sometimes the words zip by pretty fast. If you have a child who isn’t the best reader, this could be a problem.

That little trick aside, COSTUME QUEST is a great game. It’s sort of on the short side, but that means that it doesn’t overstay its welcome. It is also well worth the price to download it.

I give COSTUME QUEST 4 pieces of Halloween candy out of 5.

FALLOUT NEW VEGAS, by Bethesda Software & Obsidian Entertainment, Rated M, PC, PS3, Xbox 360.

Ok, time for the big one. One so big, I’ve got to place is smack dab in the middle of this article so it doesn’t tip the whole thing over to one side. Yeah, it’s that big. But is it good? Hell yeah! But also, sadly, kind of no.

FALLOUT 3 was one of my all-time favorite games. It was a huge, sprawling RPG set in the post-apocalyptic Washington DC area. There was a ton of quests, bad guys, weapons, well written and (mostly) well voice acted characters, and a hell of an engaging storyline that literally started with your character’s birth and would most likely end with his or her death. Sure it had a few bugs. With a game that ginormous, I could forgive the odd boo-boo now and then. In all ways, shapes, and forms, FALLOUT 3 was amazing. So here comes FALLOUT NEW VEGAS and it takes everything that was FALLOUT 3 and supersizes it. But does that necessarily make things great? Well, kind of… Let’s tick off the differences between this game and the last, one by one.

Quests: FNV has a whole lot more of them than F3, but they are noticeably shorter and less evolved. Depending upon your tastes in RPGs this will be good or bad. Those of you who like to do more, get things done quicker, and want faster XP returns for finishing quests, will dig this change. If you want more in-depth, better written quests that take a lot more work but seem to have better payoff, character and story wise, then you might find many of these “to-dos” a bit shallow.

Bad guys: This is something FALLOUT NEW VEGAS does wholeheartedly improve upon from the previous game. They have almost all the critters from F3, with perhaps with the exception of the mutated bears, and add a whole lot more. If you enjoyed stalking the wastes in FALLOUT 3 and killing a wide variety of baddies, then this game will give you a nerdgasm.

Weapons: This game has enough guns and things that kill to make any gunbunny happy. But honestly, they might have a bit too many. Let’s talk shotguns for an example. In F3 you had a sawed off shotgun and a pump shotgun. There might have even been another variant I’m forgetting. In NEW VEGAS you have sawed off, pump, single shot, lever action, automatic, “caravan” shotguns, 12 gauges, 20 gauges, and I could be forgetting one or two. Then you have the ammo which also comes in different flavors like shot, slug, and magnum. While variety is great, the question of “why?” should be asked. Having that many weapon and ammo types really makes things confusing and remember, that’s just shotguns. Honestly, this game may have more weapons in it that any other I’ve ever played. Well, not more than BORDERLANDS, but still, it has a lot of guns. So if you love the hell out of some guns, then this is the game for you. If you like things more simplified, then FNV may overwhelm you.

Story: This time out you’re not playing a survivor from the Vaults. Instead you’re a courier who gets shot in the head for a little platinum chip you were transporting by a Rat Pack wannabe. Luckily for you, you don’t die and so begins your quest for answers and revenge as you explore the desert wastes around Sin City. Eventually you get to Las Vegas which has, amazingly, remained untouched for the large part despite a full blow nuclear war. While I thought the new setting wasn’t as post-apocalyptic cool as the burnt out capital was in the last game, I liked the variations of feel from the wastes to the still bright lights of Vegas.

As for the drama, it’s kind of lacking here. FALLOUT 3 was all about you and your dad, finding him after he’s gone missing and figuring out what your place in this new strange world would be as you were fresh from the giant Vault bunkers. This time you just some guy, like everyone else, who got screwed over by a bad guy, again like everyone else. There is not one thing unique or new about your character or the story. Well, at least not until the back half of the game. At that point things pick up a bit and pretty good tale starts to unfold, but until then nothing really stood out. Is that bad? No, not necessarily, but it is also not good.

The last thing tied to story that I want to talk about is the characters. NEW VEGAS has some great ones. There are three very different factions vying for control of the glittering prize that is Vegas. Here the writing really shins as all of the sides of this conflict are incredibly well fleshed out. They all seem real and believable and while there is a side easily identifiable as more evil than another, the so called good guys aren’t perfectly good and the bad guys, who do some really heinous things, aren’t just “Muw-hah- hah-hahing” for no reason other than they are supposed to be evil.

In addition to the factions there are the wonderfully written supporting characters, some of which you can befriend and have travel with you. Others you’ll have to put a bullet in their face, but even they are better developed than many characters in movies. Also most, but not all, are better acted. Quite a few recognizable talents do voice work for this game, but I’m not going to namedrop here. Half the fun comes from meeting a character for the first time and going, “hey, I know that guy.”

Now for the truly, undeniably, and almost unforgivably bad thing about this game; the bugs. Oh dear weeping baby Jesus does this game have bugs! This game crashed on me six times during my play through and I have heard enough tales to know I was one of the lucky ones to get so few. Sometimes your V.A.T.S. system (the slo-mo targeting combat system that really sets this game apart) just doesn’t work. You can fall through terrain (thus dying) or get stuck on obstacles (thus requiring a restart). A friend of mine got locked out of New Vegas for some unknown reason and could not continue to play his game, so the 20+ hours he had invested in FNV were all for naught and he had to start over from the beginning. One of the best NPC followers in the game doesn’t advance past level 12 so she is always dying in combat. Important key characters such as followers, quest givers, or characters you need talk to in order to complete a quest, will just vanish and never reappear ever again. If the quest in question was one you needed to complete in order to progress the game, guess what; you’re screwed! Really, I could go on and on with the bugs that I saw firsthand and the horror stories I’ve heard from others, but I have neither the time nor space to list them all. While FALLOUT 3 had its share of bugs, FALLOUT NEW VEGAS has far more and worse yet, far more game ending ones. This is inexcusable. While some of the other minor grievousness could be chalked up to stylistic choices, this is just bad game making and nothing else. What’s really sad is that they keep this very good game from being truly great.

That said, I had a ton of fun with this game, when it worked properly. I do highly recommend it and hope that the developers continue to bring out patches to fix the game’s many problems. The good news is that as time goes one, those problems should be fixed, so who knows, maybe in a month or two this game will be perfect? But as it stands now…

I give FALLOUT NEW VEGAS 4 Nuka-Colas out of 5.

SAW 2: FLESH & BLOOD, by Konami & Zombie Studios, Rated M, PS3, Xbox 360.

In all honesty and brevity, if you are a fan of the endless stream of SAW movies then you might like this game. Now you probably already knew that, so that’s why I’m starting this review off this way. Why mess about? If you have no interest in the films then you will have no interest in this game so feel free to skip this and go to the next review.

Still here? Ok, so you like the SAW movies, or perhaps you’re like me and you kind of dug them in the beginning but now just wish they would go away? Regardless, you’re keen on the idea of matching your wits against the macabre mastermind, Jigsaw and to see if you have what it takes to survive. Or perhaps just not fall asleep. Yeah the sad truth here is that this game is less about gruesome horror and more about two things; puzzles and quick time events.

The first SAW videogame got a lot of flak for a shoddy combat system. Taking that to heart, the developers decided to fix it how? By getting rid of combat altogether and replacing it with quick time button mashes. I am not a fan of quick time events, or at least not a fan enough to want a whole game of them. I would much rather of had the lackluster combat mechanics from the first game than this. Or here’s an idea, maybe have the developers actually fix and improve the combat or write it out of the story completely. After all, no one goes to the SAW movies for the fisticuffs. No, they watch them for the traps and thankfully, that’s something this game does so right.

The tortures and deathtraps you must survive and help others escape from are as cruel and devious as any from the films. You can marvel and their sick ingenuity, if you’re into that, and when things go wrong you’re treated with a suitably gory death. Since seeing the splatter is a big part of what make people into SAW fans, it’s almost strange that you have to fail the puzzles to trigger the traps to see them and that just goes against the grain of almost every game ever made. You get rewarded when you fail? How novel.

Speaking of those puzzles, they are easily the best thing about this game. Some are the same switch-flipping tests of wits from the previous game, but even those have been upgraded and improved upon to make them more of a challenge. Sure they get a bit overused, but what game mechanic doesn’t? However it was the environmental puzzles that I really enjoyed. They are far more subtle and clever than the ones that disable the traps and they give you a good sense of accomplishment when you figure them out. Provided you’re not a big, dirty cheater and look up the solutions on the internet.

Another check in the “win”’ column for this game is the mood, atmosphere, and environment. The game takes place in a huge abandoned building (where does Jigsaw keep finding these places and how does he rig them up with a ton of traps and still find time to study and abduct people?) and the whole place reeks of rot, decay, and death. All over the place are the bloody remains of Jigsaw’s past victims so you’ve got the gore covered for those with weak stomachs, and the use of sound and darkness is very well used for a good sense dread. If horror games sometimes give you the willies then chances are this game will deliver the goods.

Sadly the story isn’t much to write home about. It’s not terrible or anything, just not all that original. But hell, that hasn’t stopped the movies from being made, right? In this game you play mostly as a young man named Michael Tapp who is the son of Danny Glover's character from the first film. You run around the afore mentioned booby-trapped building, quick timing crazies to death and solving puzzles. There are one or two neat twists, and I won’t ruin them by giving them away here, however none of them were amazing or jaw dropping and you might see them coming before the game springs the “a-ha” moments.

In the end, SAW 2 is a middle of the road diversion for gore fans. In that respect it is one of the most faithful translations of movie to game as that exactly what the films has degenerated into.

I give SAW 2: FLESH & BLOOD 3 severed feet out of 5.

CASTLEVANIA: LORDS OF SHADOW, by Konami, Rated M, PS3, Xbox 360.

Hi, elephant in the room? Oh what’s that? Yes, this game is a “rip off” of GOD OF WAR. But if you really want to get specific, it’s more a rip off of DANTE’S INFERNO which was, it self, a rip off of GOD OF WAR. So yeah this game is a copy of a copy. Boy, I’m really selling this title, huh? Well I’m not here to sell games, only to tell the truth about them and yes this game plays just like those other two games. That is undeniable, but the question is; is this one any good? Well let’s swing into action. Ha, get it? Because CASTLEVANIA games always had whips in them…and you uhm…swing on whips, so…yeah. Moving on…

In LORDS OF SHADOW you play as Gabriel Belmont and you have a whip-like weapon. Sadly those two things are all the links this game has with the CASTLEVANIA series, but more on that is a second. Let’s start with our best foot forward. This is a long game, so you’re getting a lot of bang for your buck. It also has a nice epic feel as Gabriel is on a quest to slay the titular lords who have somehow locked the world away from the grace of heaven. That means anyone who dies, even if they were saintly, can’t reach heaven. Along the way you’ll do battle with all sorts of werewolves, goblins, vampires, necromancers, and a whole slew of other baddies. To help you along the way you get a handy chain weapon that is as much tool as it is killing implement. Sure it handles more like Kratos’ Blades of Chaos than the Belmont family whip, but it’s fun to use. In addition to button-mashing, combo-heavy fighting, there’s some platforming and exploration to change things up a bit and some very light RPG elements as you get experience to buy new killer moves.

Easily the two best things about this game are the amazing graphics and the satisfying boss battles. Starting with the pretty pictures; man does this game look great. Not only are the monsters cool looking and the kills good and visceral, but the backgrounds look breathtaking. As for them bosses, they are big, they are bad, and they take a good long time to defeat. The epic battles you have with towering titans or a hulking werewolf lord that just won’t die more than make up of a bit of same-same grinding that a lot of the other battles sometimes fall into. Yeah, that’s not a good thing so get to the bad of this game.

First and foremost, as I just hinted at, while this is a big long game, there is a lot of repetition to it. Honestly, it almost feels too long, something I never thought I’d ever say about a game. Some of the boards felt like padding and offered nothing except the chance to kill more of the same monsters you’ve already been killing for the last four levels. That’s not fun, that’s killing time.

The second misstep of this game is that it is NOT a CASTLEVANIA game. At least, not like any CASTLEVANIA game you’ve ever played. As such, I really wish it had been called something else. I guess it’s a “reboot” but it kind of seems like blatant cash in on the good name of that venerable game series. That’s too bad because, other than that, I kind of dug this game. Sure it’s not all that original, but it was still fun. So if you are expecting the usual whip-tastic, platforming fun of the classic CASTLEVANIA games, you will be disappointed. However if you are looking for a big, long, beat ‘em up with cool monsters and more combos then you can shake a silver dagger at, then this could be the game for you.

I give CASTLEVANIA: LORDS OF SHADOW 3 whip cracks out of 5.

Genre Break:

MEDAL OF HONOR, by EA Games, Rated M, PC, PS3 Xbox 360.

First person shooter are all the rage in videogame land, but only if they are set in modern times and have the latest high-tech guns and military toys. This was a bitter lesson for the MEDAL OF HONOR guys and girls to learn. While they were once lords of the FPS world with their series of games set in World War 2, it was the CALL OF DUTY upstarts that really changed the game, not to mention raked in the big bucks, with their MODERN WARFARE series. Wanting a piece of the oh-so-lucrative MODERN WARFARE pie, MEDAL OF HONOR has decided to leave the glory days of kicking Nazis in the teeth for the sands of Afghanistan and putting boot to Taliban ass. Can these game makers recapture some of the magic that made their old games so good, or is this just a cheap cash grab? Well grab your M1 and grow out your epic beard, it’s time to find out. Oh, and yes there’s going to be comparisons between this game and that other modern shooter. I usually hate doing that, but in this case it’s all but unavoidable so why pretend?

The beard crack above comes from all the Special Forces guys, or as they are called here, “Tier One Operators”, who grow facial hair to blend in with the locals in the wilds of Afghanistan. These elite warriors play a big part in this game. Not only can you play as them in many of the missions, but reportedly a few of them acted as consultants to the designers and influenced the action and story in the game. So if you are expecting over the top crazy set pieces like in that other modern day shooter, you will be disappointed. This make the game more realistic, but also a bit less exciting. After all, working 9 to 5 is very real, but who would want to play a game about that?

That is not to say that the game lacks action, far from it there’s lots of run and gun goodness to be found here. As the player you will jump back and forth between the small group action of the Tier One Operators and the large scale action of the equally lethal U.S. Army Rangers. While the Special Forces guys play how you would expect them to, it’s the Ranger parts that seem a bit off. In that other game you participate in huge battles with lots of guys on your side doing battle with lots of enemies. Here, while you’ll start off with a large group of fellow Rangers, they always seem to go away at the start of every battle, leaving you with just yourself and maybe a few close friends. So much for realism, huh?

But maybe a lack of battle buddies is a good thing because in this game, man are they annoying. In these type of shooters there is always some questionable AI. Your computer-controlled friends always seem to get in your way, but in MEDAL OF HONOR they take that to a whole new aggravating level. Twice they would get in my path and not move to such an extent that I had to reload a check point and try again to finish a level. Yes, they blocked my path, either by walling me in a room and standing in the only door out, or standing in front of a door I had to go through to proceed with the game. That’s just sloppy game design and does nothing but to really aggravate the player.

As if horrible AI wasn’t bad enough, there were several bugs, both just simply annoying and those that broke the game. In one instance I had completed a level, called all the terrorists I could, got to the point I was told to get to, and nothing happened. I looked all over searching for something I might have missed. Once again I had to reload a checkpoint, go through the end part again, but this time a door was open for me to go through. Nice.

Glitches aside, the worst thing about MEDAL OF HONOR is that it’s kind of humdrum. Sadly this also goes for the game’s multiplayer. It follows all the usual tropes that modern competitive shooters use but it never tries anything to make it stand out from the pack. That is the final word on this game. It is a perfectly fine shooter, when the bugs don’t get in your way, but it’s never mind blowing or exceptionally memorable. That doesn’t make the game bad, but it keeps it from being really good.

I give MEDAL OF HONOR 3 very fine but not great headshots on Taliban baddies out of 5.

--Brian M. Sammons