Saturday, December 4, 2010

Graphic Horror: Game Reviews

by Brian M. Sammons

SPLATTERHOUSE, by Namco Bandai Games, Rated M, PS3, Xbox 360

Back when I was a young pup and real life arcades were still in existence; one of the machines I sacrificed the most quarters to was SPLATTERHOUSE. Now it wasn’t a great game, in fact it was a pretty basic side scrolling beat ‘em up. However two things made it stand out. One, it was gory as all hell (thus its name) and two; you played as Jason Fricking Voorhees! Ok, you really weren’t Jason from the FRIDAY THE 13TH films, but you were a huge, hulking psycho wearing a hockey mask who hacked, slashed, and bashed your way through monsters with machetes, meat cleavers, 2x4s with nails in them, and all sorts of other wicked weapons. Later in SPLATTERHOUSE 2 & 3, the mask changed looks slightly (probably to avoid a lawsuit) and more of the hero/killer’s backstory was given, but I didn’t care; he would always be a baby Jason in my heart and that was just way wicked cool.

Now many, many, oh-way-too-many years later, SPLATTERHOUSE has returned in all its dripping, sticky, red glory. But now that I’m older and wiser, not to mention games having become much more sophisticated, can this title deliver the gory goods like it used to? Well grab you hockey mask…er…I mean “terror mask” and lets find out.

This time around the action has changed for the most part. There are still throwbacks to the old arcade games with side scrolling levels, but the majority of the time you’ll be splatting baddies in a third person view. The good news is that this game thoroughly lives up to its name. The whole thing is almost comically bloody and gross, like an early Sam Raimi flick. In addition to the usual first (or sword, shotgun, 2X4) to face button mashing fun, when you beat down an enemy bad enough you can enter a special quick time event where you can get up close to the action and rip of arms, crush heads, to tear out the rectums (no, really) in slow motion gory glory.

The bad news is that however cool such over the top murder methods are, and they are if you giggle during slasher flicks like I do, they never change and get old pretty damn quick. Worst, the same can be said about the whole game. You can learn a few new moves by spending blood (experience points), but SPLATTERHOUSE lacks the combo-rific combat of many of the other modern brawlers. You essentially got a quick attack, a heavy attack, a dodge roll, and you ping pong back and forth between enemies to keep your hit counter up and sadly, that’s it.

SPLATTERHOUSE is not without its charms, however. For one, the story is delightfully campy. You play as rick, a college nerd from Miskatonic University in Arkham, who goes up to a big spooky house with your girlfriend, Jennifer. You’re there to meet up with the admittedly odd Dr. West, who turns out to be an ageless evil madman bent on resurrection his dead girlfriend even if he destroys the world in the process. This villain has his monster henchmen gut you and abducts Jenny. Luckily for you, a psychotic, powerful, and very profane mask just happens to be next to you and starts whispering in your head that if you just slip it on, not only will it save your life, but it will help you get Jennifer back. Having no other choice you do it and BANG, you become a roided-up masked murder machine. Oh and if reading the previous description had you going, “hey…” then you must be a fan of H.P. Lovecraft like me. The good news is there are Lovecraftian name drops aplenty to be found in this game. The bad news is that all you get, name drops and the occasional fishman which could be a Lovecraftian deep one if you squint hard enough. To further plan fan service to the “typical” gorehound, the soundtrack is blistering heavy metal and the collectibles (as every game now days simply must have collectibles) are nudie picks of you missing girlfriend. So if hands thrown up in the metal sign and carton boobies do anything for you, you’ll have a grand time taking a walk through this house. Sure the gameplay is nothing new and tends to get stale, but it is a solid button mashing experience with crude humor, a good soundtrack if you’re into metal, and more gory gags than you can shake a freshly ripped out rectum at.

Oh, and did I mention that all three of the old SPLATTERHOUSE arcade games can be unlocked and played in this one? Yeah, I loved that blast from the past and thought it was great that Namco Bandai put all three of them in here as a bonus. I wish more game companies would do stuff like that.

I give SPLATTERHOUSE 3 machetes to the face out of 5.

FABLE 3, by Lionhead Studios and Microsoft Game Studios, Rated M, Xbox 360

This third chapter of venerable fantasy role playing series promised many things and it had a high quality pedigree to live up to. Strong story, well fleshed out characters, engaging yet simple combat, and the trademark, off-kilter British humor. Those are some mighty big shoes to fill, so did this game manage to pull it off?

Sadly no. While it didn’t miss the mark by much, it had such potential but seems to fall apart as the game goes on and that makes things all the more upsetting. So gather round, boys and girls, and let me spin this fable for you.

The game starts with some links to the last one. It is a few years after the events of FABLE 2 where your character became the king, or queen, of fantasy world of Albion. This time you play as the youngest of a pair of children from the last game’s hero. Your older brother has inherited the throne yet you have inherited your famous mother’s ability to be a Hero (with a capital H) and do things most can only dream of. That’s fortunate, because your brother, the king, is a real jerk. Worst yet, he seems both crazy and bwah hah hah evil. The kingdom is ready for a revolution and just looking for someone to lead them. Enter you.

To be sure, FABLE 3 does many things right. The graphics are vivid and gorgeous. They still have the trademark FABLE look, but they have been buffed and polished to a blinding sheen. The combat is more fun and fluid than ever with a much improved magic system. Speaking of great improvements, the multiplayer is much better this time around. In part 2 of this series it barely worked and was aggravating as all hell. This time around it works and is actually enjoyable. The humor is as sharp and funny as ever. Many times I found myself chuckling and more than a handful I actually laughed out loud, a rare thing for me to do while playing video games. To further bring the funny to a needle point was the great decision to have John Cleese do the voice of your dry, sarcastic, yet very loyal servant. The world of Albion has aged nicely since last we saw it. While sword and sorcery still exists, the world has thoroughly embraced the steam age. The quests and adventures are well thought out with a highlight for me being an optional side quest where you are magically shrunk down and have to play a DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS like game for real. Everything works very well and FABLE 3 fires on all cylinders…at least for the first half of the game.

If you have seen any ads for this game then you know it was heavily pushing the revolution angle. While things start off well, with you having to prove to various possible allies that they can trust you and you should be king, there is a very clear line when things just seem to get really rushed. Case in point, you go to this desert kingdom to get them to back your revolution. You walk up to their leader and she pretty much just says, “ok, we’ll follow you.” Now up to that point you had to jump through a bunch of hoops, that is do many quests (you know the meat and potatoes of Role Playing Games) in order to get people to sign on to your revolution but here in this cool new Egypt-inspired lands you get none of that, just “ok, we’ll follow you.” When that happened to me I was left scratching my head going, “huh, that’s it?”

Then comes time for the glorious revolution, you know; the thing this game was all about. Well that basically amounts to one very quick and easy battle without so much as a boss fight at the end. Again, I was left thinking, “huh, really, that’s it?”

Then you get the crown and all you do is sit on your throne, listen to two various people pitch complaints at you than need your royal ruling, with one option being the obviously good option and the other the obviously evil one. Oh you do get to do a handful of story related quests once you become king/queen, but these usually amount to going to one location, fighting a few baddies and that’s all.

Then there’s the big, epic, world saving final battle with the Big Bad Evil. Unfortunately this climax is piss easy, takes a total of ten minutes, and has a limp and sad “boss battle” (yes, those are ironic quotes).

If it seems like I’m rushing through this review, well I am, but I’m doing so to stress a point. The biggest problem with FABLE 3 is the last half of the game seems rushed, half thought out, and happy to just go through the paces. I don’t know if Lionhead Studios ran out of money, talent, or just came up against hard deadline that they had to meet no matter what, but the end result is very disappointing. The first half of the game is so good, better than the previous game with much improved graphics and gameplay, but all that is ruined by the hurried and uninspired ending that leaves a bad taste in your mouth. Very rarely have I ever been this disappointed with a game. I would have almost preferred the game to have been bad from the start rather than starting off strong, getting me to really like it, then ripping my heart out and apathetically tossing it on the floor with a yawn.

Because FABLE 3 really is half a game, I must give it half a score. As such it gets 3 could of, should of, wish it would have been greats out of 5.


CALL OF DUTY: BLACK OPS, by Activision & Treyarch, Rated M, Nintendo Wii, PC, PS3, Xbox 360

Here comes the 800 pound gorilla, get the hell out of its way! Now I can’t remember if this game sold the most copies of any game ever, or if it sold the most in the quickest amount of time, or if it did both, but suffice to say, this game is huge. You can play it on any game platform; even a few that I don’t cover and possibly never heard of. The TV commercials run 24/7. Ads for it can be found in every corner of the internet. And what must be a first for video game cross promotion, even Jeep made a special edition automobile for this game. But is all this hype and hoopla warranted?

Yes, yes it is.

Now just in case you don’t eat, breath, and sleep video games like some of us, here’s a bit of history. The CALL OF DUTY games have always been made by two different production companies for the parent company, EA Games. On company, Infinity Ward, was everyone favorite darling and seemed like they could do no wrong. Their CoD games were always highly lauded by critics and fans alike. Then there was Treyarch, the other maker of CoD titles, who was usually treated as the redheaded stepchild. While their games were great and sold well, there were some who would always say, “well, they’re just not Infinity Ward” as if that alone meant that their games had to be inferior somehow.

Then came the faithful day when EA and IW had a big blow out and parted ways. Treyarch would now be the “big name” handing the CoD games and boy did that make people nervous. Most of the press had, at most, a skeptical “we’ll see” approach but the legions and legions of Infinity Ward fanboys gnashed their teeth and proclaimed the death of their beloved series. And you know what? Team Treyarch not only knocked the ball out of the park, but also made the best CALL OF DUTY game ever. Yes, I’m serious. Suck on that, fanboys!

Granted, they were building upon the very solid foundation first laid by Infinity Ward, but the game they put together is, in a word, amazing. First, the multiplayer, the only reason many get this game, has been sharpened to a razor’s edge. While there are no major changes, many small fixes have corrected some of the oversights in the previous CoD games and have made the already addictive multiplayer frag fest even better. CoC:BO is now the high water mark for online completive play.

Since this is a horror site, let’s talk about Treyarch’s much beloved “Zombie Mode” they first introduced in their last game. Well it’s back and better than ever. How so? Now you can play as John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, and Fidel Castro banding together to battle wave after relentless wave of the undead as they assault a Washington DC war room. Trust me; you just haven’t blasted a zombie in the face with an assault rifle until you’ve done so as Tricky Dick.

Wait, why do you play as historical leaders battling zombies, you ask. Well that’s because this time out the game’s single player story is set in the 60s. Further, instead of focusing on one conflict, you jump around to multiple battles. While some of those dust ups are well known, like the Vietnam War, others are murky, like the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, and still others that are completely unknown, like a squad of US commandos infiltrating a Russian base to sabotage the Ruskie space program. That’s where the term “Black Ops” comes from, they are the secret, dirty wars highly trained Special Forces fight that can be denied by the government if anything goes wrong.

In BLACK OPS you play as one of those elite shadow warriors named Alex Mason in the most compelling single player story yet to appear in a CALL OF DUTY game. It walks the fine line of being believable and being just slightly over the top in the tradition of the best Hollywood war/espionage thrillers. I won’t give any of the twists and turns away, this story is just too good, but I will say that you start off tied to chair with electros attached to your sensitive bits. The missions you play through are largely Alex’s memories of the black ops he went on over the years. The reason Alex is talking about them, beside the aforementioned persuasive electors, is that some shadowy people are integrating him about a string of numbers. They are convinced that the numbers hold a terrible meaning and that Alex knows what that is. Unfortunately the secret soldier doesn’t know what they’re talking about or anything about the numbers…or does he? That is the central mystery behind this game and it’s one that works well. Truth be told, it should work, as it has been used in other thriller books and films. In fact, if I mention any of them right now you might guess the secret behind this game, so I’m not going to. Yeah that means this story isn’t all that original, but damn if it’s not a ton of fun to play through.

CALL OF DUTY: BLACK OPS is a blast from start to finish with enough action and style to make any action junkie happy. Whether it’s battling through the highly entertaining story, blowing your friends up with RC cars, strapped with C4 explosive in online multiplayer, or basting away at zombie faces, this game does it all well. Furthermore, there are lots of secret bonuses to be discovered. One in particular, a top down, arcade style, dual stick zombie shooter is a lot of fun and I’ve seen games of its caliber selling for $15 as down loadable titles on Xbox and Sony’s online marketplaces. Here you get it for free and as everyone knows, free is good.

I give CALL OF DUTY: BLACK OPS 5 richly deserved pimped out M4 assault riffles out of 5.

--Brian M. Sammons