Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Zero Punctuation Reviews: Wii Sports Resort

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Friday, July 24, 2009

Review: Call of Juarez - Bound in Blood

I had a bit of a soft spot for the first Call of Juarez. Well, at least for the parts where you played Reverend Ray and not Billy Candle, because I liked playing as the aging ultimate badass bible-verse-spouting invulnerable gunslinger and not so much the stealthy weakling. This game is really a prequel, not a sequel, focusing on the earlier lives of Ray and his brothers, Thomas and William.

Despite having heard bad things about my old nemesis "unlockables" showing up in the multiplayer, I was really looking forward to getting my hands on this title because the "western" genre FPS is such a rare thing. Unfortunately I was a bit let down by this one. I'll just go down the list of gripes here -

1) The Control
CoJ1 had some issue with control, but Bound in Blood makes it worse. Clearly the game was written with console control sticks in mind, which is a terrible thing because there's no worse control for an FPS than a console stick. Yeah, that goes for Halo, too. Well, I take it back.. the only thing worse than controlling an FPS with a console stick is trying to control an FPS that was designed for a console stick... with a mouse and keyboard. The pinnacle of this annoyance is in the "boss fight" showdown sections, where the mouse movement is so divorced from the onscreen effects that it becomes infuriating. You have to move your mouse down and to the left to move your hand close to your gun.. but not TOO close or else you'll suffer a penalty. If you stop moving your mouse, though, the hand will also drift slowly away from where it needs to be. When the churchbell rings in the distance, you're supposed to quickly complete the down-left movement with the mouse to grab the gun and then shove upward to unholster and aim it, and the whole mess is just so counter-intuitive that often it almost made me just give up on the game in disgust, even when I got it right and won the shootout on the first try.

2) The Graphics
Maybe this looks a lot better on console, I don't know, but on PC, the creators of Bound in Blood have accomplished something amazing - they took the beautiful sweeping vistas and rolling wilderness of the american southwest and made them painful to look at. Playing this game for more than a couple hours made my eyes cross and my head hurt. I couldn't quite tell if it was the watery postfiltering, the industry-pervasive abuse of bloom, the impossible to miss mutation of polygons at a moderate distance (even on the highest settings available), the mannequin-ish rigid quality of the models (especially during cutscenes)and their unfocused, soulless eyes, and the overall clutteredness of every level where it becomes hard to distinguish one polygonal construct from another. There's a lot of that going around these days too, CoD:WaW was chock full of it.

3) The Level Design
Even apart from the eye-stabbing quality of much of the scenery is the fact that every bit of the action in the game is linear, if not scripted. Feels almost like a rail shooter at times. There are never multiple solutions to an obstacle, and you can forget running around to flank someone. It gets kinda old. Also, like the first game, it involves a lot more stomping about in caves and the wilderness than gunfights in towns, which goes against my personal preference.

4) The Paradigm Shifts
As part of the console-tardification of the property, Bound in Blood also starts heavily relying on aim auto-correction. It's not even subtle. Often your crosshair will just move itself for you to center on your opponent's head or something. It is at one both disorienting and insulting to the PC FPS player who is used to doing all his own aiming, thank you very much. Additionally, the dynamic of "concentration mode" (also known as bullet time) has changed; before, you needed only holster your weapons for a few seconds for it to become available, and then when you clicked you would invoke bullet time and be able to shoot with both guns independently. It worked very well in the first game. Now, that "independent gun slow motion" bullet time is reserved only for certain scripted events that happen 3 or 4 times per chapter that involve the brothers kicking in a door simultaneously. Two NEW concentration modes have been foisted upon the player (one for each brother), both requiring little to no skill in execution and also irritatingly limited. See, in order to earn a concentration mode, now you must kill multiple enemies within a short span of time to fill your concentration meter, and then you have 60 seconds to use your concentration mode before the meter falls back to half again. This means that whereas there were multiple perfect opportunities in the first game where you got to use concentration mode to awesome effect, in the second game concentration mode often goes to waste by being used on only one or two enemies, or by not being used at all. Also, the new concentration modes (as I said above) require no skill to use. Once slow motion is engaged, Ray's new concentration mode simply involves you dragging your cursor (no clicking required) across every enemy in sight, and when the timer is up ray will simply automatically kill every tagged enemy. Thomas' concentration mode is even worse... invoking it simply guarantees every enemy in view will die because you don't even have to target them, you merely have to shove the mouse forward and back to repeatedly shoot them all. I think this was because in console controls this would translate to someone holding their controller like a gun and strumming their whole hand across the stick as if it were the hammer on a 6 shooter. A perhaps clever gimmick that is entirely lost on the PC version.

I was, of course, also disappointed in the unlockable aspects of the multiplayer, which is a shame because the multiplayer part of the first Call of Juarez was a fun-as-hell casual experience all in itself.

Now, it's not all bad. I do like the genre, I do like the shootouts, and I like the story (especially the origins of characters we came to know "later" in the first game, such as Calm Water and Billy Candle... though it never does give you the story on how or why Ray came to wear an iron conquistador's curiass with a huge cross on it, which apparently far predates his Reverend Ray days). I also REALLY like that they got rid of the "gun takes damage until it blows up from normal use" mechanic, allowing you to spend money to upgrade your weapons to suit your taste as the game progresses. I also like very much that it gives you a choice of which brother to play as in each chapter, letting you decide the dynamic of the level (Ray is tough and slow, best for direct confrontation, while Thomas is quick and nimble, working best with "finesse"). Maybe the problem is that they wrote a western screenplay and then tried to turn it into a game, and we all know how games based on movies usually turn out.

Grade: C-. I want to like it, but it's too irritating to ever play again.

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Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Zero Punctuation Reviews: Red Faction Guerilla

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Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Zero Punctuation Reviews: Overlord 2

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Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Review: Street Fighter IV (PC)

It's been out for console for a while, but it just recently hit the PC, so it's new to me!

Street Fighter 4, which unintuitively enough is actually something like the 10th Street Fighter (and that's only if you don't count the puzzle fighters or the marvel/snk crossovers), continues the somewhat annoying tradition of attempting to inject plot into a game where the only REAL plot is "I'm this guy and I have to beat up everybody else." Of course, sometimes it's fun to check out the backstory of what fighting game characters are up to, to try to learn their motivations... but any such inquisitiveness is quickly bitchslapped right out of any casual gamer who isn't looking to spend hours decoding the temporal mishmash which is the street fighter release order vs chronology. See, First there was Street Fighter, Then Street Fighter 2, which then had 2 "revisions" of itself, then the third street fighter series was Street Fighter Alpha which actually is set BEFORE Street Fighter 2 (I shit you not, I did not know this until today when I looked all this mess up, because frankly the art design in the alpha games turned me the hell off, not to mention I got tired of having to listen to unwashed teens at the arcade creaming their jeans over whatever the hell this "Akuma" thing is), which then had a revision and a sequel. Then came the fourth trilogy, Street Fighter 3 and its revision and sequel, which came after Street fighter 2, so at least they were trying to maintain the numeric progression. But then they had to go and muck THAT up as well by having Street Fighter 4 happen BETWEEN 2 and 3!

Trust me, just forget the plot. The plot is "You are this one guy and you have to beat up everybody else." I should have stuck with that.

Alright, mindscrambling plot-knots aside, the game is actually fun as hell. The last street fighter game I tried was Capcom Vs SNK 2, which made me want to murder people because SNK refused to port capcom's control scheme into their gaming system. Don't even get me started on the retardation that ensued with multiple "grooves" available for characters, ugh. That could be its own article right there.

I digress.

I was immensely relieved to be able to pick Ryu and find all his moves and buttons exactly right the hell where I expected them to be. It felt like slipping on an old, comfy pair of gloves that fit your hands perfectly. The controls feel like Street Fighter 2 but even more natural and smooth. Of course there were one or two little learning stumbling blocks, like I had to figure out that throws are now accomplished by hitting both "light" attack buttons at once, instead of just being automatic when you get close. There's also a new "focus attack" ability (both medium attack buttons) that seems to be some kind of DOA-esque fake opening with a counter attack, but I can't quite get the hang of it. They've also got buildup guages that have come to be standard in the fighting game industry nowadays, divided into two meters, one for supercharging normal attacks and a "revenge" gauge that lets you unleash "ultra combo" type moves which builds up by you getting beat on. For those of us who have forgotten (perhaps voluntarily) their childhoods, there's also a built in list of moves available for you to peruse at any time.

The developers of the game took an interesting approach - in a world where games are making ever more and more strenuous demands for more polygons, higher resolution textures and arbitrarily incremented shader models, SF4 has opted for a reasonable amount of polygons, fairly low resolution textures that are then run through an industrial strength post-processing routine a half dozen times that actually makes the whole affair rather pleasing to the eye when it's in motion (but makes screenshots look a little like ass warmed over). Many of the more powerful attacks also cause graphical effects reminiscent of brush strokes or ink spatters. Really, it all feels halfway to being cel-shaded but still retains the depth of the third dimension, and framerates are easily maintained very high, which is important in a game that relies so very much on reflexes. You can also tell the model designers and motion coders had a lot of fun with what they were doing and were not just going through the motions like that other set of 3D street fighter games that we all agreed never to speak of again 10 years ago. It should be noted, as well, that while everything is rendered in 3D, the gameplay is still limited to a two-dimensional plane, so there's no dodging to the sides and whatnot a-la Soulcalibur.

The game features 27 characters to choose from (though 10 or 11 or so have to be "unlocked" by doing the funky chicken dance at midnight on the south side of a spruce tree or whatever the hell passes for "reasonable expectations for unlocking requirements" these days), and contain a good number of old favorites as well as a handful of newcomers - a mostly grapple-based MMA fighter named Abel, a business-suit bitch with a wierd uniboob named Crimson Viper, a spastic luchador-come-gourmet-chef named El Fuerte, and my new favoritest character in the whole wide world, an extremely obese kung fu biker named Rufus.

Rufus is just awesome in a can. Or rather, in an oversized yellow spandex biker's jumpsuit. I love the character design, the unconventional attacks, and I especially love how they chose to wobble his belly. Mai Shiranui and DOA's breast physics have got NOTHING on Rufus' belly wobbling. It makes me laugh until I cry. The writing on his dialog (especially his meandering, stream-of-consciousness victory quotations) is just hilarious. There's no "You must defeat sheng long to stand a chance," here. No, you get to hear about this one crazy time he put bananas in his peanut butter sandwich and was like "whoa."

The standard Arcade mode doesn't take that long to beat, consisting as it does of 6 random matches, a "rival" fight, and the boss battle. Playing by yourself you'll probably be ready to play something else in 2 hours or less, but you'll come back some other time. As with every other fighting game, the real joy is in getting some friends together and beating the snot out of each other in versus mode. And since the PC version supports Windows Live, if you really want to you can subject yourself to playing against random sugar-injected 14 year olds around the world.

All in all, I found it a very enjoyable game worth owning, particularly if you game with friends who also like fighting games. It also makes me salivate for a potential Marvel vs Capcom 3 written with this engine, which if they can take the custom tie-ins from MVC1 and the incredible number of characters from MVC2 and combine them with the artistry and control scheme of SF4, I am fairly certain would constitute the most incredible thing to hit the fighting game scene since Mugen.

Grade: B+ Also, is it just me, or do Chun Li's thighs get bigger and bigger with every single game? I swear, her hips are like 3 feet across now.

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Thursday, July 09, 2009

Mechwarrior 5 Announced

Via Kotaku

Surprise, Mechwarrior fans! That teaser from yesterday was indeed for a new Mechwarrior title, which is in development at Piranha Games, who worked on the latest Transformers title.

So at least you know they have experience with giant robots! Then again, it also means they have experience with making crummy games based on giant robots.

Though, let's give them the benefit of the doubt on this one. They only helped develop Revenge of the Fallen. And being a movie tie-in, it had a deadline to meet. Something they won't have to worry about with Mechwarrior, what with Battletech being 25 years old and all.

This new game is called simply MechWarrior, and will serve as a reboot of sorts for the franchise. You'll still be piloting mechs, but the developers reckon that current console technology will for the first time let you feel like you're really behind the sticks of a giant fighting robot.

They're also shooting for a "dynamic battlefield", and rather than feature a food chain of mechs, instead want to let players choose a style of mech and then upgrade that to suit their tastes as they progress through the game.

MechWarrior is coming to the PC and Xbox 360, with no details yet on either a publisher or a release timeframe.

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Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Zero Punctuation Reviews: Ghostbusters

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Monday, July 06, 2009

Review: Overlord 2

I enjoyed Overlord 2 more than I did Overlord 1, for a number of reasons. These days it seems a rare thing that a sequel genuinely improves on the original, but this one does in a number of ways - which, given that the original Overlord wasn't all that shabby to begin with, is all the more pleasing.

For those of you who missed it, Overlord is a game franchise about being evil, doing evil, and inevitably, overcoming some other evil that is getting in the way of you exerting your own evilness. You're a hulking, muscular brute with demonic glowing eyes and a suit of armor copypasted off of an artist's concept sketch of Sauron. You have dozens of little impish minions who you send to do most of your dirty work, though you yourself aren't bad at chopping and stomping either.

When Overlord 2 begins, you are put into the boots of Overlad, the 6 year old progeny of the previous Overlord and his tower mistress, who then fled the tower and abandoned you in a sleepy snowbound northern village. Called "witch-boy" by the locals and cruelly ostracised by most of the other children, Overlad is then discovered by a small handful of evil minions who were part of a large, scattered effort to locate him after the untimely demise of the previous Overlord in a mysterious magical explosion that destroyed the Dark Tower and most of the surrounding area. They help him put paid to his squabbles with the local kids and escape to the netherworld.

Fast forward through 13 years of being raised by demented goblin henchmen, and Overlord Jr. is now ready to settle old scores and claim his father's birthright.

The first and most obvious improvement is also probably the most expected one - with the increase in available graphics horsepower out there now, Overlord 2 has more visual complexity than the first. There's more dynamic foliage, the fur lining your armor wafts in the breeze, many more destructible objects in the environment that shatter and crumble in a much more spectacular fashion, more particle effects, and so on and so forth. It still abuses the hell out of bloom, but what doesn't, these days?

The second, and most needed improvement in my eyes, is the "be evil" paradigm got an overhaul. One of my larger gripes with the first overlord was that there were far too many chances to be good, and the evil that you did do was very "saturday morning cartoon" type evil, which made it really just mean-spirited slapstick and not really any kind of dark humor. While you're still not exactly peeling people out of their skins and hanging them by their entrails or anything, the evil has gotten more Darkseid and less Gargamel. For instance, your first task as a grown overlord is to slaughter 25 baby seals to harvest their life force for use in summoning minions. There's no retrieving a lady's lost freaking baggage here. There are still choices to be made, but rather than choosing "good" or "evil" like in the first game, now the choices go between enslave and dominate, or kill and destroy. The ending of the game changes as well, depending on whether you enslave everything, destroy everything, or use a mixture of both.

Just for the sake of one-upmanship as well, Junior does not share the same "one tower, one mistress" limitation that daddy did. Over the course of your rise to power you will aquire not one, not two, but three mistresses. Which of course leads them to squabble over who is your harlot-in-chief, which of course gets you out of the netherworld and doing nefarious things more often.

Another new addition is the ability of your minions to obtain mounts which improve their performance. Browns can ride wolves which increase their fighting ability, reds can ride salamanders which let them toss fire on-the-run, and greens can ride spiders which let them climb vertical surfaces. Your enemies have some new tricks as well, particularly the new human "empire" which uses phalanx formations that are hard to break up and require much strategy to overcome. There's also fun catapults and ballistae to play with, new weapons and armor to forge (as well as some of the better items from the first one... the helmet that gives you double life energy for each orb you collect is my favorite), and new spells to use. I particularly like using the "evil presence" spell to dominate the minds of local civilians and using them as cannon fodder when I confront the military that is supposed to be protecting the town. Delicious irony.

Sadly, the control scheme did not improve from 1 to 2, and we're still left trying to emulate thumbstick movements with the mouse. However, they did improve the camera angle a little bit, making it easier to see what's right in front of the overlord instead of being blocked by his body. There's also new fighting moves associated with holding down different directions while swinging.

All in all, the game improves on the first one in almost every way, and is an enjoyable experience to play through once and revisit once in a great while.

Grade: B+. If they could get more replayability into this game via dynamically generated content or something, rather than everything being married to the in-game plot, it'd be an epic game.

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Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Zero Punctuation Reviews: Sims 3

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