Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Graphic Horror: Game Reviews

By Brian M. Sammons

Well another month of no good horror games coming out, but no need to despair. There were three games of note, all three of which could be described as “genre”, and two out of the three are, in a word, oh-my-god-totally-freaking-amazing! As for the third…well not so much. But let’s begin with the best first.

PORTAL 2, by Valve Software, Rated E 10+, PC, PS3, Xbox 360

Set firmly in the sci-fi genre, PORTAL 2 is an example of taking a deceptively simple idea and polishing it until it gleams like the sun. That idea is that you play a woman with a gun that makes holes. Well, all guns make holes, but these are special holes. One hole you go in to and the other you come out of, space and time be damned. Like I said, a simple idea, but how it is used is nothing sort of awesome. You see, you’re stuck in the labyrinthine Aperture Science complex and at the whim of an insane computer who controls the whole place. Said computer loves nothing more than doing science. Unfortunately its idea of science is to put you in deviously complex testing rooms where death is an acceptable conclusion to the test.

Now if this all sounds familiar to you then you must have played the first PORTAL game, but like the old saying goes, if it ain’t broke then don’t fix it. Well, baby, this game certainly ain’t broke. While the basic premise of the game remains the same (overcoming increasingly complex puzzles) it’s all the extra bits that makes this game a winner. And no, that’s not in the ironic, Charlie Sheen sense.

Beginning with the story, PORTAL 2 takes place some untold years after the first game and your character, Chell, is still the prisoner of a very pissed off super computer named GLaDOS who was thought to be destroyed at the end of PORTAL. Luckily for you, you’ve got a computer buddy of your own named Wheatley to help you escape the deserted, mostly ruined Aperture Science testing labs. The bad news is that not only is Wheatley a moron, but the labs are beyond huge (oh and as a nice bit of trivia, they’re located in Michigan, so yay for my home state). However that does lead to some more good news as while you’re trying to escape you uncover a wealth of history behind the world the game is set in. That leads to the second high point of the game; the writing.

The situations, history and characters in this game are fleshed out like never before and taken to a level that few games, or hell movies or books for that matter, reach for. Hmm, come to think of it there is one more game on this list that has an equally compelling story (I told you we had some great games this month) but more on that in a moment. But the point remains, most games give you a gun and tell you to go kill. PORTAL 2 could have just as easily said given you the portal making gun and told you to figure things out, but the fact that they wanted to make a fully developed world for you to explore and play in really pays off.

An offshoot of the story that P2 also handles perfectly is characters and humor. While your portal placing heroine, Chell, is the clichéd “silent protagonist” and there are only three other characters in the entire game, those three are amazingly well written and voice acted. They will easily be contenders for the most memorable characters of the year in game, book, or film. Yeah, I’m serious about that. And one of the main reasons for that is the humor. PORTAL 2 is drop dead funny and far funnier than the last dozen or so new comedy movies I’ve seen. Again, I’m being totally honest right now and I don’t know if that is a testament to the greatness of this game, or a sad commentary on the crap Hollywood passes off as comedies these days. Either way, it’s true.

Last, but certainly not least, are the stars of the game; the brain twisting puzzles. The game designers do a good job starting you off with easy puzzles and slowly ratcheting up the difficulty until you’re amazing your friends and family with your mad puzzling-solving skills. At the same time they introduce new elements spread over the course of the game, like colored gels that change how you interact with the world drastically and tractor beams that push or pull you along. The puzzles, while complex, are fair and can all be solved with some careful thought and man, when you do solve a particularly perplexing puzzle you feel like a super genius. This is Great Game Design 101 right here and something all would-be game makers should take a look at before starting their own projects.

Oh, and I didn’t even mention the two player co-op which has its own devious puzzles requiring teamwork to overcome, two great robot characters to play as, and its own storyline and jokes to enhance the experience. It is also very lengthy and well thought out, unlike many games that shoehorn in a multiplayer component into their games to keep the stockholder happy. Simply put, this is how co-op, multiplayer, or whatever you want to call it should be done.

So for being pitch perfect in all possible ways, and giving gamers something to do other than shooting bad guys in the face, I give PORTAL 2 a richly deserved 5 potatoes (you’ll know what I mean when you play this) out of 5.

L.A. NOIRE, by Rockstar Games, Rated M, PS3, Xbox 360

Whatever you’ve heard or seen about this game is wrong, forget about. L.A. NOIRE is not what you think it is. It’s much better. And like the previous game I reviewed, this title from Roskstar has firmly secured a place on my year end Best Of list, despite it just being May. So if you’re a busy person, save yourself some time and grab this baby NOW! It is simply amazing. If you have a bit more time on your hands, please keep reading, because talking about great games is why I suffer through all the mediocre ones.

There has been a ton of ads about this game on TV, the internet, the radio, billboards, sent up via smoke signals, posted by skywriters in biplanes, sent telepathically by MK Ultra, and written on scraps of paper, stuffed into bottles, and then tossed into the ocean. And one thing all the ads have in common is macho guys with guns. Now you combine that with Rockstar’s previous blockbusters like GTA 4 or RED DEAD REDEMPTION and you might get this game thinking it’s going to be a third person, crime based, gun fest. Well it’s not. To be sure, it is third person, there’s plenty of crime, and lots of guns, but shooting people is only one small part of the very big picture that NOIRE gives you.

At its heart, L.A. NOIRE is an adventure game. No, it’s not the typical point and click adventure game like the MONKEY ISLAND games. It is the closest a game has come to a great, gritty crime novel I’ve ever seen. If you’re a fan of 40s style, noire films, pulp fiction, police procedurals, mystery novels, or just well written stories with great characters, then rejoice for that’s what this game is all about.

You play as a former U.S. Marine fresh home form World War Two who gets a job with the LAPD. You start of as a lowly beat cop but all too soon you become a detective and that’s where the fun really begins. Once you’re a dick (tee hee) you will have to clear cases involving vice, arson, and everyone’s favorite, homicide. Each case is presented as a standalone chapter in a much larger book with a thematic intro before each, like episodes of your favorite TV crime dramas. To solve the crimes you have to search for clues, interview eyewitnesses, follow people, integrate suspects, and yes you sometimes get in a gun or fist fight. But the heart of the game is the clue gathering and interviewing, so let me tell you more about them.

Clues are what you find at crime scenes or in the homes of suspects. They can be the bloody knife tossed in the garbage, the accidently dropped pill bottle, or from examining the carnage like blood, gore and dead bodies. You can also get clues from interviewing witnesses. However, clues are often hidden, so thorough searching will be required. Also, not every clue you get will pertain to the investigation so you’ll have to use your smarts in order to know what’s important and what’s not. Play the right clue at a key moment and you can slam shut the case. Doing it wrong and you might let the guilty slip free.

However, the big thing this game that this game does better than any other is character interaction. To successfully interview or interrogate a person you have to ask the questions (duh) and then gage their reaction and decide if they’re telling the truth, lying, or you can doubt their story if you think their lying but don’t have the proof to back it up yet. Such subtle and engaging gameplay as this has never been done before. Attempted, maybe, but never pulled off. What sets L.A. NOIRE head, shoulders, chest and bellybutton above the rest is the amazing motion capture animation they use to show off the performances of the many talented actors they got to play the characters in their game. This technique and the graphics it produces set a new, very high standard for facial animation that must be seen to be believed. Yes, that sounds corny, but it’s true. There’s no way I can describe it adequately enough to do it justice, so take my word that it’s amazing.

While the investigation and integration are the one-two punch this game delivers so well, what holds it all together is the amazing story. It twists, it turns, and it pays off in an amazingly satisfying away, but would you expect anything less from Rockstar? Now being by and large a mystery, there’s no way I’m going to give anything away. I will say that there are aspects of action, adventure, humor and yes dear friends, even a heaping helping of horror added to the mystery. There’s a lot of sick people in L.A. doing horrifying things and as a cop, it’s up to you to clean up the mess. So while there are no zombies, vampires, ghosts, or other supernatural monsters in this game, there are enough human monsters to make any horrorhead happy.

Lastly, while great story is almost a given from Rockstar games, good play control usually isn’t. I mean no one played GTA 4 because they actually enjoyed the driving in that game, it was awful. While L.A. NOIRE does use the patented Rockstar style of play, everything about it has been improved and streamlined. From the driving, to the shooting, to even just walking around, it’s all better here than in any of the previous Rockstar games. Case in point, the first time I was chasing a perp up a fire escape I said to myself, “oh man, this is gonna suck”. But no, my detective was able to follow the felon with ease. Try doing that in GTA and you’d rather chew on tinfoil. So it has a great and original story, unique gameplay, and solid and reliable game controls. What’s not to love? Literally in this case, I can’t think of a thing.

L.A. NOIRE is a masterpiece and it does something that is sadly too damn rare in video games these days; it does something new. For having the guts to try that, and then having the skills to pull it off so wonderfully, I easily give L.A. NOIRE a bloody score of 5 corpses left on the dark streets of Hollywood out of 5.

BRINK, by Splash Damage & Bethesda Softworks, Rated T, PC PS3, Xbox 360

Last, and unfortunately certainly least, is the new first person team based multiplayer shooter, BRINK. Now BRINK isn’t a bad game. It plays well, each of the four character types (solider, medic, engineer, and operative) feel unique and have their own skills and tricks to bring to the team, has an original art style and offers something new to the ever popular multiplayer shooter genre with its quick, parkour system of movement. And yet with all that said, its failings far outweigh its strengths. So before you buy your copy of this highly anticipated game, please read this and maybe I’ll be able to save you some cash.

Set in a dystopian WATERWORLD future, that is a world covered by the oceans, humanity has a single floating city left called The Ark. Naturally everyone wants to control the Ark so you get two opposing forces, the Security and the Resistance. They fight each other for control over and over again and well, that’s it for the story. So it gets no points for original story writing, so let’s get on to game play.

The entire game is played like an online multiplayer game, even if you’re playing it solo, and here is the start of the many missteps BRINK unfortunately takes. If you are playing the single player “campaign” (yes, those are ironic quotes) then you’re fighting bots and you have seven other bots on your team as your only backup and dear sweat baby Jesus is the AI in this game HORRIBLE! Sometimes they stand around doing nothing, sometimes they get in your way and directly run into your line of fire, most of the time they will ignore the most important objective to go after a far lesser important secondary objective and leaving you to do it on your own, most of the time they don’t defend objectives, sometimes they will run in place behind you if you’re capturing the objective in an attempt to capture the objective too but failing miserably, and I could go on and on, but I think you get the point. However in the AI’s defense, they do frequently buff you and if you’re down the medics will revive you, which is more than I can say about many other multiplayer games with real people at the controls, so that’s something I guess. However, that one little ray of sunshine aside, if you’re going to play BRINK then do yourself a big favor and play online with real people.

But wait, there’s more bad ahead. There are only eight maps to play and the campaign is the same eight maps as the multiplayer, just with the most shoestring of story tying them together. In the campaign there are two sides to play but each just plays the same maps and missions, only you do things from the other side. What all this means is that you’re not getting a whole hell of a lot for your $60. In most games purchased mostly for online play but with a solo component (such as CALL OF DUTY or the BATTLEFIELD games) the single player story is at least different than the multiplayer. That’s not the case here. So you essentially get the multiplayer component of any other game, with no real single player experience to be had. Therefore you’re getting only about half the game. Therefore shouldn’t the price of the game also be half? Hell, I’d even go as high as maybe 45 bucks, but 60? That just seems a bit too rip-off-ish for me.

However not everything is bad in BRINK. There are dozens of guns to choose from and each can have multiple attachments added to them like scopes, silencers, slings, extended magazines, improved grips, and more to tweak the stats to your liking. Bbbuuuttt, most of the guns feel pretty much the same and you can’t compare them on a one to one level , so finding your favorite bang-bang out of the bunch is long trial and error experience.

There is a RPG-light feel to the game as you get experience to spend on your little killer to modify his abilities just the way you want. And as I said at the start, each of the four classes not only feel different from one another, but each has a vital role to play in the game, That means there’s no one “go to” character, like the medics in most other games.

And then there is the much touted parkour system that does and a bit of uniqueness to BRINK. It is easy to use and more importantly, pretty fun to jump over railings, slide under obstacles, vault over walls, and various other extreme sports tricks. However they don’t really factor into the game all that much. BRINK tells you often, “it is better to move than to shoot”, but really, whether you’re playing solo against the bots, or online against real people, pretty much all fights are exactly like any other firefight in any other shooter. Namely, you get a group of guys on one side of the map shooting at a group of guys one the other side. That’s it. So all the jumping, sliding, sprinting parkour amounts to nothing more than a slightly more speedy way to get back into a fight from a respawn point. While it’s a novel idea and implemented well mechanically, it nonetheless feels like a pretty big missed opportunity.

BRINK could have been great, looked like it was going to be great in all the previews leading up to it, but ultimately is a pretty shallow disappointment. While it does what it does pretty well for the most part (except AI) there’s just not enough of it or enough new to it. What new they do have, they don’t utilize to its full extent. Its biggest flaw is it’s dearth of content. Eight battle maps and that’s all does not a full game make. While I would recommend this game for a rental, trying to justify spending $60 on this would be beyond me.

I give BRINK 3 running, jumping gunmen out of 5.

--Brian M. Sammons