Thursday, February 26, 2009

Review: Warhammer 40,000 - Dawn of War 2

The highly anticipated next entry into the Dawn of War franchise has finally hit, and I must admit I've been looking forward to it. I had my misgivings, though. A lot of the press leading up to it rubbed me the wrong way. Only 4 factions? Fewer units in a squad? So it was with cautious hope I dove in.

While DOW1 (and its many, many expansions) was no graphical slouch, it was starting to look ever so slightly dated thanks mostly to models that didn't age very well. While incredibly detailed for their time, today they have comparatively low polygon counts and some of the movement patterns left them a little cartoony. DOW2 is very pretty to look at and needs some horsepower to make it so. Unfortunately, there's a very limited number of locations to the game, and so it is very easy to get bogged down in visual monotony even in a lush jungle of millions of colors if it's your 15th trip through that exact same jungle.

Similar to previous DOW titles, the auditory experience for DOW2 consists largely of yelling, battle cacophony and status updates over a backdrop of grim martial musical scores. It is capably handled.

This is going to be a long one.

Dawn of War 2 feels very different from DOW1's legacy. By its last expansion, DOW1 had 9 factions and myriad different unit types. The first thing you notice in DOW2 is that the factions have been whittled back down to 4, although one of them never made it into DOW1: the Tyranids.

In the single player campaign, the player takes the role of the Space Marines (the Blood Ravens chapter again, of course), dealing with an Ork uprising in their home subsector. It is revealed that the Orks are being subtly incited by Eldar, and conflict is joined with the space-elves as well. Then, the reason for the Eldar's abetting of the Orks is discovered when a Tyranid hive fleet descends upon the sector and starts raining fanged, taloned death on the planets there.

The game then becomes one of repeatedly deploying to the same 10 or so locations repeatedly, balancing efforts to stall the Tyranid invasion while simultaneously trying to attack Ork and Eldar targets of opportunity. It quickly starts to feel like "Warhammer 40,000: Whack-a-Mole edition." Exacerbating the repetitive nature of the game is the fact that there is almost no variety between each mission; they all consist of "make your way across the map to where you have a boss fight with an artificially tough enemy boss." Seriously. Boss fights in an RTS, complete with big "boss battle life bars" right in the middle of the screen.

The method of progression across each level brings me to another change from the previous paradigm - there are no bases. You are initially dropped with your full complement of troops in a drop pod at one end of the level, and you never get more than you start with. To reinforce troops killed in battle, you must either return to the drop pod or take a strategic point on the map, around which you can reinforce. No buildings, no tech tree, nothing.

Furthermore, your "full complement" of troops consists of never more than 4 squads (including your commander character, counted as his own squad), of never more than 4 units per squad including squad leader (and usually less). The squad leaders gain experience through combat and slain enemies drop loot for you to pick up and equip: more powerful bolters, chainswords, armor, etc. Yes, you heard me right. DOW2 has taken a hard right, exiting the RTS freeway and circling around onto the RPG express loop.

Another important change is that the rudimentary (you could even call it slap-dash) cover system from DoW1 has been replaced with the more obstacle-focused cover dynamic used in Company of Heroes. But this doesn't stop the game from feeling less the excercise in strategy and more the RPG session. If I had to compare the feeling I got playing it to any other game, it actually reminded me more of Baldur's Gate or Neverwinter Nights 2 than any RTS title. Just with less cutscenes and dialog.

The multiplayer side of the game alters things a little bit. There, there IS a base, but it is a single building from which you requisition units and you never build any other buildings or defenses. The units all feel "down a man" because the squad leaders are not present, although you can at least get more than 4 squads.

There are some positive changes, however. Melee units are now a much more viable option than they were previously due to changes in the nature of combat and collision, as well as improvements to the jump pack mechanism. No longer simply a method of moving across terrain marginally faster or jumping obstacles, jetpacking into combat is now an excellent tactical move. It is quick and devastating, because landing on top of your target now knocks them over/down/back for a few seconds, giving your assault marines/storm boyz/whatever time to start carving them up, and they tear stuff up really well. In fact, the plain old vanilla space marines with their bolters and whatnot actually start to feel kind of low damage by comparison. Of course, it's rather hard to melee from behind cover or from the inside of a building.

So basically, rather than the sequel to DOW1, it feels more like Company of Heroes and World in Conflict got together, had a baby, sent it to school at RPG academy, and somewhere along the line it got hooked on Warhammer 40k. All in all, it's not a bad game, but to be honest I was rather expecting Dawn of War 2 to feel... well, like a Dawn of War title, not an RPG where you slog the same ground over and over. The plus side of this however is that it does actually come across as a decent proof of concept that the 40k universe CAN make the RPG transition, and therefore, the MMO transition.

Verdict: B. Ok, it's fun and all, but it feels kinda wrong... and where's my damned Imperial Guard? I'll definitely be looking into the expansions when they arrive.

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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Zero Punctuation Reviews: F.E.A.R. 2 - Project Origin

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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Review: F.E.A.R. 2 - Project Origin

When the first F.E.A.R. came out, I liked it pretty well. It was an interesting mixture of FPS with horror elements. Pretty novel stuff, and the first game I remember playing to incorporate at-will time distortion (though I now know Max Payne did it first, I didn't play it). It's been almost a year since they had a contest to name the sequel, so I'd really forgotten all about it coming out.. until it did just last week.

Nothing to complain about here, for certain. The Lithtech engine (with the Havok physics engine) is certainly up to par for latest gen games. Environments are incredibly detailed, the special effects (especially on slow-mo bullets, ghosts, that sort of thing) are absolutely top shelf. Really, it's the sort of production values that I'd expect from a high budget movie. The only blemish on the otherwise flawless visual experience is the movements of your allied AI characters, especially the female commander. Their ambulation seems artificial, perhaps contrived. While the movement is smooth, it still gives the impression of being stiff and mechanical. But it's a small gripe, and as you will be alone (so very, very frightningly alone) for the vast majority of the game, it doesn't detract very much from the overall experience. The enemy AI models are spot on. And the graphical representation of psychic phenomena and "ghosts" (for lack of a better word) are incredibly adept at making the surreal... uncomfortably real.

If you are going to build an atmosphere conducive to fright, you can't scrimp on the auditory angle. F.E.A.R. 2 definitely does it right on this one. The voice acting is top notch (the aforementioned female commander is also voiced by the same voice actress who voiced Cortana from Halo, Zoey from Left 4 Dead, and Cate Archer from NOLF 2... she kinda sounds like a bossy Zoey). The music is good at setting the tone and is high quality stuff, and the ambient noise really helps the atmosphere. There will be times where you'll hear whispers or laughter or crying that will set you on edge. There is definitely more than one "I think I just felt a little pee come out" moment in this game, and the audio plays a big part in that.

The old F.E.A.R. game had good gameplay, and the new game mostly improves on it. It's still a FPS with freaky paranormal interludes, but the psychic bits feel a little less contrived this time. There's less of the "oh look, a blank hallway, this will certainly have a paranormal cutscene in it" thing going on, though there are still plenty of little paranormal jolts to go at you. It's just you can't tell one is going to happen as often/easily as you could in the first, so they're more effective at unsettling you.

The old familiar "reflex time" mechanic is back, and just like before you really need to use the heck out of it to stand a chance. The enemy AI in this game is very good at hiding behind stuff and keeping you distracted while other enemies move to flank you.

There's also a bit of a different dynamic here. In the first game, your character spent much of his time chasing creepy little Alma... but this game picks up at the end of the first one with a different protagonist who sends most of his time being chased BY a now even creepier grown-up Alma. And while in the first, you weren't particularly sure you wanted to catch her... here you definitely know you don't want to be caught.

There's also some new things to toy with here. The laser weapon is kinda neat, and the armored mech levels are fun too (if a bit easy). The environments are much different than the first, which was mostly limited to the insides of office buildings. Here, there are city streets, industrial levels, underground tunnels, and yes, office buildings too. The action tends to pendulum back and forth between "this part is for normal fighting of groups of enemies" and "this part is for freaking you out with the supernatural" with the two rarely overlapping. What gets you is you can't tell when there's a transition until it's already made. There's a little warning sometimes about paranormal activity by way of flickering lights and failing hi-tech electronics, just like in the first one.

The only bad thing I have to say about it really is you can tell it's a "console FPS." It's difficult to put into words, but a dedicated PC gamer can tell, can just sense when a game was developed with a console in mind. It just feels different to play it, like it's on a leash. This feeling is also sharpened by other game devices - the game saves exclusively on a checkpoint system completely removing the player's ability to save (which also has the side effect of ratcheting up the tension, but I still don't like this dynamic), there's more weapons and armor lying around than in the inside of most military armories as well as enough first aid to heal you 5 times over what is necessary, and the game relies too much on fast-clicking quicktime events. It made me think of the "test your might" interstitial minigames from Mortal Kombat.

But, for the most part, It's a very engrossing experience and a fun game. I've tried not to spoil the story, because it's an integral part of the game as much as the action.
Verdict: A-

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Thursday, February 12, 2009

Zero Punctuation Reviews: Thief: The Dark Project

Another trip down memory lane here...

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Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Review: Mirror's Edge

In a nutshell, when you combine equal parts parkour, cel shaded animation, inane anti-establishment pap and overuse of primary colors, you get this game.

Overview/Plot -
Basically, in the future America has become a super-fascist/corporate dictatorship/police state. You know, all the conflicting babble that neo-hippies these days rant about, usually injecting the word halliburton or a slur against (now thankfully) former President Gee Dubya Bush in the mix for good measure. It's so over the top it's practically become a cartoon unto itself (a bit ironic, considering the cut scenes are all cel-shaded but the gameplay itself tries for hyper-realistic detail).

The last few pockets of la resistance can only exist because they communicate via a group of athletic young iconoclasts called "runners" who afford their daily bread carrying contraband and sedition in bright yellow and black nylon carrying cases, leaping from rooftop to rooftop.

This game is the wet dream made real for every parkour enthusiast who ever jumped an alleyway pretending he was on the run from "the man." Because that's what you're doing in this game, only the fate of the WORLD rests upon your skinny, scuffed self being able to navigate 4 blocks of shiny, glistening downtown rooftops without falling to your death, being shot by snipers or plain old beaten up by cops with sticks.

The protagonist in Mirror's Edge is a scrappy girl from the streets of undisclosed Asian origin. In the cut scenes, the method of animation, body language and voice acting makes it appear suspiciously close to as if someone had taken a certain female animated insurance spokesbabe, strapped down her chest under an ace bandage, and dipped her head in black printer's ink. That's right: Emo Esurance.

Graphics -
In the cut scenes, the world is a dark, gritty, and flat. This is a direct contrast with the gameplay which is bright, clean, shiny and incredibly detailed. In fact, I'd say the visual effects in the game are incredibly impressive. The levels are intricately designed, the models are elegantly authored, the textures are rich in color and detail. The strongest thing this game has going for it is how impressive the visual experience is. If you have an Aegia PhysX card (or an 8000 or 9000 series nVidia card), there is PhysX support which comes into play mostly in the area of flapping/tearing fabric or plastic or shattering glass, both to impressive effect.

Sound -
The voice acting is pretty good, too. There's not a whole lot in the way of background music, but the ambience is pretty good as well. One amusing note is that with all the jumping, landing, grabbing, vaulting, struggling, punching, and getting punched that is involved in this game, the constant grunts and exclamations of your protagonist might make somebody in the next room think you were playing a game of a more salacious nature.

Gameplay -
The problem is, the authors of this game were so caught up in making it impressive that they largely neglected to make it fun. The punishment for even the slightest failure is either instant death, or falling to the bottom of a tedious section you will have to repeat (making you instead WISH for instant death). The game does supply you with a handy "push this button to get pointed to your goal" button, but often it is entirely unobvious (if not unfathomable) how one is supposed to navigate there, even given your character's nigh-superhuman preternatural ability to run along and jump off of perfectly smooth vertical surfaces.

And the one area where the game decides to eschew fantasy and embrace reality is the area of how much physical abuse you can endure before loss of consciousness. Being stuck by a melee attack (which always seems to involve the butt of a large gun to the head) twice causes you slump to the floor and black out, and at best you can suffer through 3 distinct bullet wounds, the fourth causing you to spontaneously shuffle off your skinny mortal coil. The "quick push the button" quicktime event that is every single melee encounter in the game is excruciatingly unforgiving with a despairingly narrow window in which pushing the button has any effect. Think the Call of Duty 4 "press V to kill the dog before it rips out your throat" dynamic, but with the difficulty setting on "sadistic." I was completely unable to ever successfully complete any such encounter without first using bullet time.

The game is also (perhaps mercifully) short, bordering on the abrupt. Even with multiple deaths and having to repeat certain sections 20 times or more, I still finished this game in my first sitting in around 4 hours. Compounding this problem is the static, limited, and surprisingly linear (especially for a game supposed to be about the limitless freedom of parkour) nature of the levels makes the replay value of the title virtually zilch, unless you're obsessive about getting the best time on time trial, which frankly never resonated with me in any game.

I'm not one for wanting to spoil plot points either, but there's also a massively obvious case of "Curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal!" going on here that got telegraphed within the first 30 minutes of the game.

Conclusion -
Mirror's edge makes for a very impressive proof of concept, and an excellent and beautiful tech demo. The controls are even pretty good, for a console port. No, the problem here is the actual game itself. I found playing it an exercise in frustration (one that insulted my intelligence to boot), and actually sort of thankful it was so short. I can safely say I do not feel the need to ever play it again.

Grade: C
, and it only got that high on technical merit.

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Zero Punctuation Reviews: Little Big Planet

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Punch Out Wii


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