Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Graphic Horror: Game Reviews

By Brian M. Sammons

Well it’s another slow month for horror gaming. While there is an upcoming title that has a pretty good pedigree of ghoulish gaming goodness on the immediate horizon, this month was mostly fright free. But that is not to say that there aren’t good games out there with at least a tangential link to horror. In fact, the first one I’m going to discuss this month has a whole passel of demons in it, that’s got to count for something, right? Anyway, on with the show…

DRAGON AGE 2, by EA Games and BioWare, Rated M, PC, PS3, Xbox 360

First let’s get this out of the way, I am a BioWare fanboy. In my opinion they have never made a bad game, their titles are the ones I always have the highest anticipation for, and most of their games I’ve played through multiple times. Considering that the typical Bioware game is usually a 40+ hour affair, that’s saying something. However if you think this this is going to be a glowing praise-fest, you’re wrong. I’m too honest for that and besides, no one hurts you as deeply as the ones you love when they betray you.

A bit melodramatic? Perhaps, but no more so then the vitriol I’ve seen on both the pro and con sides of this seemingly divisive sequel to a very good fantasy RPG from a year and a half ago. But I promise to give you the straight poop on this game, at least how I see it, and leave all the rhetoric at the door. So without further ado, let’s get too it.

Starting out with the elephant in the room: DRAGON AGE 2 is a very fun, meaty role playing game from the company that makes the best RPGs out there. I enjoyed my time with it, but it is easily the weakest BioWare game I can recall in a very long time, if not ever. It actually pains me to say that, but it’s true. What is also true is that weak for BioWare is still miles better than most games, but from a company that has set the bar so high for how games should tell stories and has given gamers some of the most memorable and fully fleshed out characters ever, this one is a pale shadow of former glories. It is NOT horrible like I have heard some of the dreaded internet trolls claim, but it falls fall short of the usual BioWare high standard. The question is, why?

Well I don’t know for sure, I have no connection to BioWare, but I can guess. First it was released incredibly fast. 18 months is a very fast turnaround for a Triple A game no matter what company is doing it. However if you take into the fact that the company in question is also bringing out two more huge titles this year (or early next at the latest) with MASS EFFECT 3 and the MMORPG Star Wars title that has all the online gamers and sci-fi fans drooling, THE OLD REPUBLIC, and some questions come to mind. Did BioWare pull people off of this game to have them work on those other two titles? Was they wallet starting to empty out by funding three big games at once and something had to be sacrificed? Did they rush this game out fast to get a much needed infusion of cash? While I, and anyone outside of BioWare, will never know for sure, I have my suspicions.

Now I’m not going to go into the story or characters of this game. At least, not too much. Such matters are good things to debate over as their merits, or lack thereof, all comes down to personal taste. I will say that I found both not as well developed as the first DRAGON AGE game, but neither was horrible. If you played the first game, then sadly most of what you did there won’t matter here. Yes, a few token mentions of your previous character’s exploits are sprinkled throughout this sequel, but all they really amount to are winks and nods and nothing more. You compare that to MASS EFFECT’s ongoing story arc with Commander Sheppard it just comes off as hollow and forced.

This time around you play as a guy, or gal, named Hawke. You can be the traditional Big Three of fantasy: warrior, rogue, or mage. Here’s a hint, a conflict centering around the magic using mages is central to this plot, so if you want the story to revolve more around your character, best to be a spell slinger. Besides, wizards rock! Anyway the story is told in a pretty innovative way, that being split into three chapters with each part being separated by a couple of years and largely self-contained. However what is missing is the over-arching emphasis of a truly epic tale. In the first DA you had to save the lands from a dark spawn invasion. In MASS EFFECT you have to save the entire universe from the horrors of the Reavers. In JADE EMPIRE, a criminally overlooked BioWare title from a few years back, you had to stop the machinations of an evil emperor. In DA 2 you’ve got to go to a new city after fleeing the dark spawn, start a new life for yourself and…well that’s about it. Sure, there’s some stuff with the mistrust between the mages and the Templars that watch over them, a group of horn-headed guys that may be up to something sneaky, and an expedition to some ruins to find some coin. All three are fine adventures, but they seem like they should have been side quests to a much greater story instead of the sum total of a game. So are these quests bad? No, but do you get that epic hero feeling that all good fantasy books, movies, and games should deliver? Sadly the answer is also no.

Story elements aside, let’s get to brass tacks; the big problem with this game and that is this; it feels rushed and cheap and I say that for a couple of reasons. First there are the bugs. Sure, now days it seems that almost every game ships with a few bugs, but I don’t remember previous games from BioWare having this many bugs, or ones this severe. There are bugs in this game that stop quests cold. Thankfully not the main story quests, for that would break the game, but I could not complete three different side quests due to bugs and that is just sad. Then there is a “slowdown bug” that I, and it seems lots of other players, got hit that slows the actions of you main character to a crawl in combat and makes the conclusion of the game not thrilling or exciting, but an exercise in frustration. Come on, BioWare did you do any quality testing on this title? Everyone I have talked to had that bug and that’s just inexcusable. Oh and I won’t even go into the game achievements that don’t pop when they should as such things are largely insignificant, but still; sad, sad, sad.

The second way this game dropped the ball so completely was the repeated use of the same dungeon and landscape maps over and over and over and OVER again. Every warehouse you enter is exactly the same, as is every mansion, dwarven ruin and as for the ever popular dungeons, you will have to revisit the same three or four cavern maps again and again for different quests. Never have I seen a BioWare game do this and even other game companies with a far less history of excellence would be ashamed to try to pull this off. It feels like a quick and easy (and cheap) way to do things and worst of all for gamers, it’s boring! Fantasy games are meant to have strange new places to discover and explore and bold new worlds to play in but none of that is found here. Hell, 90% of DRAGON AGE 2 takes place in the same city. Sure, it’s a kind of big city, but after a dozen or so hours in it, you’ve seen all it has to offer and there still a good 30 some-odd hours left to go through the same back allies and marketplaces you now know by heart. Wow, what fun!

Again I must ask BioWare what the hell were they thinking when they did this. It is so clearly not how good games are made so there had to be some reason behind it. Did you guys run out of money, talented people or time? What was it that caused you to release a game so far beneath you usual quality standards?

Man I’m already 1500 words into this review and there is still a lot to cover. I could go into the change in art style that a lot of fans seem to hate, but I for one am neither offended nor inspired by. I could mention that some of the dear old RPG tropes, like equipping your NPCs with new armor, have been “streamlined” and by that I mean largely done away with completely and that is something I’m not happy about. I should mention that perhaps the best thing about this game is the interaction between characters and the robust dialog system that is some of the best in any game I’ve ever played. But then I would have to tell you about how the combat has been more than slightly dumbed down and speed up for the A.D.D. generation , with the more tactical combat of the first game taking a far back seat to button mashing. Then there is the overall feel that this DRAGON AGE sequel has been MASS EFFECT-ed in many innumerable ways. Now that alone isn’t all that bad, as the MASS EFFECT games are great, but I’m not a big fan of the homogenization of games where they all have to be like each other and uniqueness seems to be a bad thing to the game designers. Or more likely, to the money men that sign the checks. No, I can’t get into all that and I had better wrap things up or I’ll be here all day gnashing my teeth in disappointment.

As I said, DRAGON AGE 2 is fun, but not BioWare fun. It’s good, but not Bioware good. I do so very much hope this is not a sign of things to come from the company. Maybe they are spread too thin over too many big games? Maybe it is the evil cooperate overseers from EA medaling with the magic that made the company so damn good in the first place? Maybe they have just lost their way? Whatever the case may be, I hope they get their act together. Simply put, DRAGON AGE 2 is beneath them.

I give DRAGON AGE 2 a score of 3 deeply disappointed dragons out of 5.

TORCHLIGHT, by Runic Games, Rated Teen, Xbox 360

The shorthand for this game is that it is a DIABLO clone. That is not a slight against this game, it’s just a highly accurate comparison and by me saying that you should know exactly what kind of game this is. Also, since the people who made this title also worked on the original DIABLO, it is excusable, If anyone has the right to clone DIABLO, it’s these guys. But is this game any good? Well if you’re a fan of the original DIABLO then that’s a big “hell yeah” as it followers the predecessor’s handbook to the letter, but that means typos and all.

In this high fantasy, monster infested, hack-n-slash loot-fest, you play as one of three typical heroes. There’s the big guy with a sword, the quick girl good as shooting things, and the little guy with spells and pets to bolster his littleness. You head to a small village that was a way-too-big mine right next to it that is infested with all sorts of demons, undead, spiders, and monsters of all shapes, sizes, and sorts. Into that very deep dungeon you go, slicing, shooting, or magically blasting everything in sight to gain experience to level up and lots and lots and LOTS of equipment to outfit your character with to enable him or her to continue to adventure on. And pretty much, that’s all there is to this game. While simple is story and structure, it is always fun to bash baddies into bits and loot their bloody corpses afterward.

However, since that is literally all that you do here the game does start getting repetitive pretty fast. The monster types do vary slightly over time, and there are a few boss battles to handle, but your environment is always just a slight variant of “underground mineshaft”. Again, I really can’t fault this game on that too much for that’s exactly what DIABLO one did. It wasn’t until that other game’s first sequel that they started to diversify the aeras you explored to add some much needed variety, so here’s hoping that TORCHLIGHT 2 follows that trend as closely as they followed the original game.

Now less you think that I’m picking on this game, I’m not; I’m just stating some undeniable facts. But what are equally undeniable are all the things this game gets right.

First, this review is for the port of this game to the Xbox 360. TORCHLIGHT was first released on PC, but unlike most ports of OC games to consoles, this one works incredibly well and is actually fun to play. While the PC game was a mouse driven click-fest, this one give you direct control of your character and while you do lose a few abilities without a toolbar, you can map eight special abilities to your controller which is more than enough if you specialize in areas and try not to be a Jack of All Trades. The innovative pet from the PC game is still by your side in this Xbox game, fighting for you, acting as a pack mule, or going back to town to sell your junk so you can continue questing on. That one little thing was a great idea and something the DIABLO guys could learn a thing or two about for their next game.

With a cartoonish but good looking art style, amazing music, functional game controls, a great pet buddy to be your lackey, hours of monster mashing action, and millions of weapons and pieces of equipment for the loot whores out there, TORCHLIGHT is a solid, fun, if somewhat predictable and not all that fresh game. I enjoyed my time in TORCHLIGHT and if your friending for DIABLO 3 to come out, this game could tide you over nicely.

I give TORCHLIGHT a score of 3 dead monsters to loot shiny things off of out of 5.


BEYOND GOOD AND EVIL, by Ubisoft, Rated Teen, Xbox 360

This cool, original adventure game came out some years back…and quickly died an ignoble death. While it was highly praised by critics, no one bought it. This led to the few people who did own this title most upset as it all but guaranteed that there would be no sequel, and this game really needs a sequel, if for no other reason than to help explain the rather abrupt, confusing, Deus Ex Machina ending. Yeah, I’m not a real fan of how this game ends, but everything up to that point is aces and luckily for you, if you missed BGaE the first time, you can now download the spiffy new High Def version of it for your Xbox 360 for just $10. Ten Bucks! That is a steal, now let me tell you why.

BEYOND GOOD AND EVIL is the type of game they sadly don’t make anymore, or at least don’t make a lot of anymore. It is a third person exploration adventure game, sort of like the ZELDA series, but with a truly unique world and far more mature (but not “adult”) feeling and themes. You play as Jade, a young human female reporter and guardian of several orphaned kids. Traveling along with you is your human/pig uncle Pey’j and before lone you two get involved in a mystery of alien invasion and possible governmental cover up. But in addition to the usual “go from Point A to Point B and beat things up along the way” gameplay, Jade is a photojournalists and she must snap pics of baddies and critters around her to make money and expose the truth behind the nefarious deeds plaguing her planet.

So there’s fighting, exploration, adventuring and picture taking, but as they say; “Wait, there’s more”. You get a cool hovercraft to ride around on that you continually upgrade and later you get a spaceship. There are races to do, a few decent side quests to complete, a couple of mini games, and some stealth levels to make your way through, which honestly wasn’t my favorite part of BGaE, but I didn’t hate them either. The story and characters are well done and memorable, but as I said at the start, I thought the ending was pretty bad. However this is a highly entertaining game, with a great sense of style, good sense of humor, and it now looks better than ever. Also, IT’S ONLY TEN BUCKS! Come on, for the price of a pizza you can get a slice of good gaming history and who knows, if enough people get this through Xbox Live, Ubisoft might finally get to working on that long awaited BEYOND GOOD AND EVIL sequel. So what are you waiting for, get this game today.

BEYOND GOOD AND EVIL gets 4 fart powered rocket boots (no, really) out of 5.

--Brian M. Sammons