Sunday, September 4, 2011

Graphic Horror: Game Reviews

By Brian Sammons

Finally a couple of true blue horror games and a game that while not horror is one of my favorite subgenres; cyberpunk. Ok without further ado, let’s get to it.

DEAD ISLAND, by Deep Silver and Techland, Rated M, PC, PS3, Xbox 360

If you’re a fan of zombie movies, stories, comic books, or whatever, then this is the video game for you. Go ahead and stop reading now, that’s all you need to know. Zombies have never been done so well and completely as they have been here. Nor have they looked and sounded so amazingly disgusting. So zombiephiles, stop wasting time here and go get this game now, preferable on the Xbox or PS3, but more on that later.

What, you’re still here? Well then, you either must not be a zombie fan, and if that’s the case then I have nothing more to say to you, or you’re one of those people that require more proof. I can understand that, so it’s for you that I review this game more thoroughly than the paragraph above. Because if you miss out on this game, then that will be dying…sorry, crying shame.

In DEAD ISLAND you play as one of four characters trapped on a tropical island vacation resort in the middle of an unexpected zombie plague. You get your choice of two woman, two men, each with their own specialty (like bladed weapons, guns, etc.) and each with a fleshed out background. Right there, this game gets an edge over the other big zombie video game; LEFT 4 DEAD, that also gave you four characters, but with no background or specialty skills whatsoever. Furthermore, unlike the majority of the zombie games, D.I. actually gives you a full story, complete with a pretty good reason as to why the dead started to get up and bite people, whereas most other games (and moves and books, for that matter) just go, “ah, zombies, run!” and leave it at that. So again, the edge goes to DEAD ISLAND.

As for mechanics, DI plays in first person, but while there are some guns, it is far from a shooter. Up close, dirty, and desperate melee action is the focus here, and DEAD ISLAND does that very well. You get a wide range of stuff to smash and slash with, and these can be made even more deadly with a number of mods like fire or poison. So if the idea of smacking a zombie upside the head with an electrified machete, or even the good old baseball bat with nails in it, sounds like fun to you, then this is the game for you. But like they say, that’s not all. In this game you can target specific body parts for a bunch of gruesome effects, like the ever popular beheading, or my favorite; cutting off or breaking the bones in the arms. When this happens, the poor zombie’s arms just flop about uselessly while it still tries to bite your face off. Sure it’s gross, but it’s still kind of funny and the fact that this game gives you that option, I thought was amazing.

Combined with that first person beat-‘em-up game play, there’s a robust RPG element to this game. As you wander this open world you will bump into many quest givers and have the option to complete side quests galore. Each successful quest, and undead killed, gives you experience points that allow you to level up your survivor. With each level you get a skill point to spend in one of three skill trees to help you kill more effective, or survive the horrors more easily. While not reinventing the wheel, or doing anything even remotely new, the system works pretty well.

Let’s talk about location for a second. DEAD ISLAND juxtaposes the horror and grossness of zombie mayhem with beautiful scenery and more importantly (and rarely in any form of horror media) setting the majority of it in bright, cheerful daylight. This reaffirms that while it may look all nice a pretty aroudn your character, gruesome, violent death can happen to them at any time. Further, your survival adventure goes from a luxury hotel, to a beachside cabana resort, to a squalid shanty town, through claustrophobic sewers, into the sweltering jungle and beyond. So you end up with a nice variety of locations to fight, and run from, zombies.

On to the meat of the game, the zombies. In a word, they are awesome. Not only do they look the best in this game than they have in any other, but they also sound the best. They gurgle, moan, scream, and more importantly die with a great amount of squishy, wet sounds. In addition to the audio and visual ascetics, this game makes both shades of zombie fans happy by having in it both the classic shambling undead of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and the hyperactive infective murder machines of 28 DAYS LATER. Further there are a few special undead, like the exploding suicide bombers, and the hard hitting brutes, poisonous zombies, and more. So no matter what kind of zombie you like most, this game has got you covered.

Now to be sure, DEAD ISLAND is not perfect. It’s got some of the jankiness common to all open world games, but that’s to be expected with such a large game. In this game’s favor is the remarkably few load screens, and when they do occur, they are mercifully short. However I have heard from a lot of players all about various bugs, crashes, and other technical foibles. Also a lot of people out there are saying that the PC version of this game is all but broken with glitches and bugs. However I did not play the PC version of this game so I can’t comment on that, and as far as bugs in general, I had very few. Now maybe I was just very lucky, or maybe the bug problem with this game isn’t as bad as some are making it out to be, I don’t know, I can only comment on my personal experience with this game, and that was pretty trouble free.

Personally, I can easily give DEAD ISLAND a score of 5 severed heads out of 5. It’s not a perfect game, but it is a huge bucket of zombie fun and at the end of the day I’m a huge zombie fan. If you’re not quite as big a zombie fan as I am, then perhaps knock that score down by 1, and if you get it for PC then it might be lower still, but for me it was a very fun and satisfying survival horror game and I couldn’t not have asked too much more from it.

DEUS EX: HUMAN REVOLUTION, by Square Enix and Eidos Montreal, Rated M, PC, PS3, Xbox 360

Some years back, cyberpunk was THE flavor of choice for sci-fi fans. It has the great vision of a dark dystopian future where out of control corporations virtually ruled everything, untouchable by police and the governments they were in bed with. It was a world where humanity was driven to the point of willfully replacing flesh and bone with wire and metal to get some sort of edge on the competition, becoming something both more and less than human, and repeatedly raising the question of just what being human actually meant. Yeah that was good stuff. While this idea was used in a variety of video games over the years, the one to do it the best was arguably 2000’s DEUS EX. It was a hardcore RPG game for the PC and the fans loved it. A few years later it had a pretty awful sequel and rightfully the fans hated it. Sadly, that looked like the end of this series and for a time it was all but forgotten. Then a few years back, whispers started surfacing that a reboot to the franchise was in the works. Understandably there were high hopes, but with memories of a lackluster sequel still in people’s minds, people were skeptical to say the least, and I was one of them. And then I got the game in for review, was my, and everyone else’s fears about the direction this franchise was taking warranted? Well grab your submachine gun, your sunglasses (even at night), and your bionic limbs, we’ve got some cyber to punk.

In this game, set in the near future, you play an ex-SWAT cop named Adam, now working for a huge corporation pioneering the field of cyber implants. This game is actually a prequel to the other DEUS EX games, so at this time people aren’t really hip to the whole chopping-off-meat-and-bone-to-replace-it-with-metal thing. So when your company gets attacked by gun-toting goons it’s really no big surprise, but when Adam gets his ass kicked by three cyborgs and shot in the face, that is kind of surprising. Luckily for you, your company specializes in rebuilding people and making then stronger, faster. When you are reborn you are as much machine as man, perhaps even more so, and you spend the rest of the game unraveling a pretty good mystery of who attacked you, what happened to your girlfriend, why is your boss looking into your past, and how do all these threads combine and tie in with a global conspiracy that will plot the very course of human evolution. Yes, this story is that involved and thankfully, it is pretty well done.

And when I say “global” that’s no joke as you begin in Detroit, jet over to China, make a stop in Canada, and where you go from there, well I’m not saying. The first two locations, Detroit and China, are big, sprawling zones with lots of NPCs and side-quests galore. While this isn’t an open world game, both of these hub zones are large enough to give you multiple hours of exploration and adventuring, with China being the standout location here, featuring a huge, multilevel city that all but oozes cyberpunk all over the place.

I mentioned quests above and that’s because DE:HR is, at its heart, an RPG, but it has far more than quests and XP accumulation going for it. It largely plays as a first person shooter, jumps into third person mode with hiding or shooting behind cover, has a huge stealth component in it, a robust dialog system, and a fun hacking minigame. Unlike many other games that try the “everything and the kitchen sink” approach, here it actually works and it goes a long way to beat back any boredom that might pop up in 20 to 30 hour game. Yeah, at that length, you know it’s an RPG, and its roots are shown when you get experience to level up, which gives you points you can spend on getting more and more chromed-out with bigger and better cyber parts.

A lot has been said about this game’s “complete the quests any way you want” element, and by and large this game does that in spades. For example, the first major job you’ve got to do after getting your shiny new metal arms, legs, and other bits is to save the day when anti-cyber terrorist take over one of your company factories. Not only do you have to find out what they’re doing there, but saving the hostages would be a bonus too, but not completely necessary. Now you can do that by going in, guns blazing and waste everyone in your way like 80% of other games out there. Another option would be to use no-lethal means like Tasers and tranquilizer darts (you are an ex-cop, after all) and you even get an XP bonus for doing things this way. Or you can avoid confrontation all together but sneaking past guards and finding many hidden paths to the same objective. A lot of games say they offer the player a choice on how to play their games, but few pull it off as well as DEUS EX does. But that doesn’t always work…

Perhaps my biggest grip with this game is the boss battles you are forced to participate in. Now if used the XP you got along the way to make your guy the big, tough, kill everything death machine, that’s fine. But this game says time and time again; play how you want, but that only gets you so far. You could be the stealthiest guy ever, the world’s best hacker, or the smoothest of smooth talkers, but time and time again you will come to a part in the game where you will be locked into a small room with a more-robot-than-man murder machine. In these boss fights the only way to win is through combat, period. No amount of sneakiness, computer savvy, or an incredible gift for gab will do anything for you here. That means if you totally went for the hacker or stealth kind of character, you’re pretty much screwed. I thought that was a huge bummer and something should have been done to make sure that no matter what your specialty skillset was that you could have done something to overcome the bosses. If not, then why have all those “different paths” in the first place?

That one misstep aside, and the fact that some of the enemy AI can be downright stupid at times, DEUS EX was a fun and engaging game from start to finish. The art style was striking, the cyber parts of you made you feel like a total badass, the choose your own path game mechanic worked most of the time, the story was well written, the voice acting ranged from good to passable, and if you’re a punk for cyber like me, then this game will give you what you’ve been jonesing for.

DEUS EX: HUMAN REVOLUTION easily gets 4 out of 5 wetwired cyberpsychos doing wetwork for “The Man.”

RISE OF NIGHTMARES, by Sega, Rated M, Xbox 360

Up to now, Xbox 360’s motion sensing, camera controller-thing, also known as the Kinect, was all but dead to me. The only titles for it were kiddie games, which I guess makes sense, as Microsoft was gunning after the same market as Nintendo’s Wii and that entire system has, by and large, been devoted to “family games” and thus has also been dead to me from the start. Sorry, fanboys, but it’s true. Anyway realizing that just making games for ten-year-olds will never get anyone to take their fancy new toy seriously, it now appears that they have okayed some honest to goodness games, other than the jump now and pet the cute virtual animal variety they’ve been putting out so far. That game is RISE OF NIGHTMARES and it looked bloody as all get out when I saw previews for it, but would it be any good? Well let’s find out.

In this game you play as an American tourist with his share of demons, but only of the alcoholic kind (for now) traveling through Romania on a train filled with various European types. Suddenly a hulking freak in an iron mask slaughters a whole slew of people, kidnaps your wife Kate, and manages to totally trash the train when he leaves. Now on foot, you follow the trail of your missing honeybun through the deep, dark woods to a spooky castle, complete with dungeons, graveyards, and torture chambers. This is the home of a crazy-on-many-levels mad scientist who likes to abduct people, chop off some of their body parts, and replace them with brass, steampunk-looking add-ons. While he has other nasty plans for your wife, this is the fate that will befall you if you don’t hack and slash your way through waves of cyber-zombies with a nice variety of melee weapons.

Now NIGHTMARES is a first person beat ‘em up, and funny, but now that I write that, and considering the paragraph above, this game seems like an odd blend of the other two games I reviewed this month. Hmm, that’s weird, but also totally off topic, so sorry for mental wandering. Because this is a Kinect game, you will have to flail wildly at the screen to beat up the enemies, and surprisingly, it works very well, most of the time. Sure there’s the occasional hiccup but they are few and far between enough to not be all that annoying. But when it works, it works well, so if you slash high you can hit a monster on the head, slash low and you get them across the belly, and up and down can have you attack their center mass or limbs. This becomes an important tactic as many fearsome foes have metal parts that can take a lot more damage than their fleshy bits so learning to aim with your knife, axe, or what have you will save you a lot of time, and perhaps just save your character’s virtual hide.

Less accurate was the moving around in the world part of the game. While most of the time you can just hold up a hand and have the game auto move for you, at various times you will have to do this for yourself, like sneaking past a big baddie who’s blind but can hear really well, or dodging huge saw blades in the floor. In these instances your results will vary greatly. Sometimes it will work fine, others not at all, and you won’t know what you did differently, if anything at all, from one time to the other. I can only assume that such things were a limit of the hardware (the Kinect) and not the software (the game) but it was none the less frustrating.

Mechanics aside, I through this was a really fun game with a neat story chock full of funny bits, with just the right amount of crazy that I like so much. Seriously, the mad scientist in this game is really cuckoo for Coco Puffs and watching bounce off the walls was always a highlight. And then there’s the dog with a…well I won’t say, but you’ll know it when you see it. In addition to random insanities and WTF moments, there are a few twists and turns of the plot here that actually work well, or at least better than the last four M. Night Shyamalan movies combined. While nothing all that groundbreaking happens, what this game does, it does well, with the only downside, other than the somewhat iffy controls, is its length; the entire game can be beaten in about five to six hours.

RISE OF NIGHTMARES was a fun, kind of short, sometimes frustrating, very bloody, and surprisingly funny and enjoyable game. If you have the Xbox 360 Kinect and you’re a horror fan then you should certainly give this one a play, if for no other reason than to help justify your purchase of the Kinect. It’s a one of a kind jump around experience and I hope that it helps spur on the making of more grownup games for Xbox’s weird little add-on.

RISE OF NIGHTMARES gets 3 zombie cyborgs out of 5.

--Brian M. Sammons