Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Zero Punctuation Reviews: Guitar Hero World Tour

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Thursday, November 20, 2008

Zero Punctuation Reviews: Fallout 3

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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Zero Punctuation Reviews: Fable 2

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Gametrailers' Warcraft Retrospective Part 3

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Monday, November 10, 2008

Review: Command and Conquer Red Alert 3

Well, I have to say that my expectations going into this were not very high. Whether or not that had some kind of buoying effect on the final outcome, I'll leave to you to decide.

The reasons my expectations were low was because of my disappointment in the Wrath of Kain expansion for C&C3. Now, granted C&C3 itself was an ok game. Maybe not spectacular, but not terrible. RA3 doesn't make a whole lot of improvements over C&C3, but it slathers on the kitschy alternate-timeline jingo cut scenes and really amps up the amusement factor, transforming a mediocre RTS into an enjoyable show (if for not all the right reasons).

The single player campaigns, however, are unforgivably gimmicky. Only in the last mission of each campaign do you actually get unfettered access to the whole tech tree and every other mission also gives you dozens of little hoops to jump through (some admittedly fun, some aggravating in the extreme). Some missions, the gimmick is a simple tech handicap (only lowest tier vehicles, or no tanks, etc), and others it's the C&C signature "you have 1 unit and 1 unit only and if it dies before you pass all the scripted checkpoints you LOSE" horseapples. It makes the game not feel like quite up to being called an "RTS" in the same way you can't quite really in an unqualified manner call a Zelda or Final Fantasy game an RPG. Perhaps I'd better explain that before I upset triple the fanbois in one sentence.

See, in most of the Final Fantasy games, which are billed as "RPGs," you don't actually pick a role and play it. The role is already defined, you just step into control of a brooding spikey-haired protagonist with an oversized sword and set about advancing the plot in the exact same sequence of events every single time with absolutely no open-endedness whatsoever. Compare this to a true RPG such as Baldur's gate, which has so many sidequest diversions and such freedom of exploration that the multiple methods of advancement are absolutely staggering. Not to mention that you roll your protagonist completely from scratch, with an appearance and development path entirely customized by you. This is a similar feeling to RA3, which obviously falls into the RTS category but doesn't actually let you do any strategizing - there is usually one and only one solution to the obstacles set before you, and it becomes more of a point and click action game. The single player campaign experience is practically on rails, as opposed to RTSes such as Dawn of War or Supreme Commander where the entire array of tools is set before you and it is up to you to decide how and when to accomplish the mission (which is invariably destroy the other guys). Though, it is a nice touch to be given the option to play the single player campaign cooperatively with another player. Perhaps it should be classified as a Diet RTS, RTS lite, or to take the opposite metaphor, McRTS (as in the MacDonald's reference to indicate something is lacking substance and overloading on visual appeal, a la McMansion).

The campaign issues can be largely alleviated by simply playing in skirmish mode, but that deprives you of the cut scenes, which really ARE the Red Alert experience. If you're a fan of bad cinema, you'll love this stuff. Scads of second string actors hamming it up while half-dressed infobabes carry on the transition of cutscene to playfield, delivered with groanworthy dialog in hilarious accents. If you put a gun to my head right now, I couldn't describe Ivana Milicevic (the Russian infobabe)'s face to save my life. They also include more cheesecake shots of the RA3 girls on the quick-reference cards provided in the box, so I guess it's pretty obvious who their demographic is and what they think about them.

They seem to be using the same costume designers from C&C3 who never quite figured out how to get clothes to fit women properly, but having come to realize this, they incorporated push-up bras and plunging necklines into all female costumes to distract from otherwise mis-tailored uniforms. Gemma Atkinson, who plays the "Allies" infoblonde, has possibly the worst English accent I've ever heard on an English actress - it's like she can't decide if she's from London or Scotland. Andrew Divoff's accent also vacillates between Russian and English, which is a bit puzzling since he married a Russian girl and speaks fluent Russian, so one would think being inundated by it all the time he would have remembered to roll a few more Rs, slur a few more Ws and lift a few more As into Es. And I shouldn't have to say anything about Tim Curry's russian, if any of you has seen the movie Congo. Autumn Reeser is way too goddamned perky, but when is she not? Jenny McCarthy makes a thoroughly repulsive Agent Tanya, reminding us all that McCarthy is a sexy woman only until the instant she opens her mouth to say something. It also doesn't help that the wardrobe department has apparently bisected a golden tabby cat, cleaned out the blood and guts, and put it on her head for a wig. JK Simmons makes a chuckleworthy pastiche of J. Jonah Jameson and George Dubya Bush (and he's forced to spout off every predictable "ugly americanism" from "they hate us because of our freedom" down the list), and as everybody's heard by now, George Takei is cast as the Emperor of the Rising Sun, and does the best with what he's given. Actually the entire asian cast does a passable job as compared to the others. But don't even get me started on the atrocious acting of all the co-commanders of every faction.

It all makes for a circus of the hilariously bad, silly and (incoming saving grace) self-consciously tongue-in-cheek.

But, even in skirmish mode, there are things about the game itself that just rub me the wrong way. Whereas other RTS titles in the genre try to push the frontiers of RTS play with new paradigms, grandiose scale and versatility, the C&C franchise seems chained to just shuffling existing ideas around like cards and then dealing a new hand and calling it a new game. Everything "new" in RA3 is something we've seen in a slightly different combination or configuration in previous C&C or RA titles. In C&C3 I also felt a vague sense of "wrongness" or disconnectedness with everything I did in the game, and it persists in RA3 but I think I've nailed down what it is... nothing moves as I quite expect it to. Airborne units move a smidge too slow, tank units move a smidge too fast, and frankly the whole "strategy" dynamic takes a great big back seat to the "rock paper scissors" dynamic (which admittedly is present in every C&C RTS previous to this one, but) which is ratcheted up and feels like they're trying to squeeze the last bit of toothpaste out of this paradigm. Other games (especially the two aforementioned ones) have shown us that there's more to strategy than configuring the right mix of units in your battlegroup and going gallivanting around the map celebrating invulnerability through diversity. I also found, however, that you don't even necessarily have to do that either... Many a game I won simply by building 3 airfields, building as many Kirov bomber-blimps as I could and winning by explosive attrition.

I was also disappointed to see that the resource gathering dynamic has taken a huge step backwards. No longer are the days where you must worry about the safety of your harvester vehicles as they rumble out into no-man's land to scoop up resources... RA3 now simply allows you to build your "ore processor" immediately adjacent to the "ore mine," allowing your "ore truck" to simply drive back and forth between the two facilities loading and unloading cash-generating "ore" as swiftly as the driver can shift into and out of reverse gear. I don't see why they even really bothered with the separation instead of simply providing you with a building that you build directly ON the mine resource node, which then periodically provides cash every few seconds. And most of the levels thoughtfully provided not one, but TWO such resource nodes in each starting camp, and since your partner player/ai and you split resources (and he/she has their OWN two starting nodes), most levels I never even found the need to go out and claim more mines. You don't even have to build silos to increase your maximum funds cap... it just keeps rolling right in.

It's not all bad though (just mediocre as opposed to terrible). C&C3's brilliant interface scheme returns, allowing for quick and intuitive management of construction at multiple sites and types. The graphics are absolutely beautiful, the action is smooth, the unit models are novel and idiosyncratic, the sound and music are very appropriate and immersive (and a reminder of why some people still listen to C&C music soundtracks even without the games), and as long as you let your brain slip into neutral the live action exposition will make you cackle. The fidelity of the cutscene material is crystal clear and artifact-free.

Unfortunately, as the game emphasizes flash, twitch and (perhaps unintentional) comedy over cerebral strategy and innovation, the replayability suffers despite the skirmish play option provided. But overall I considered it a more positive experience than Kane's Wrath, and so I find myself hesitant to be too hard on the McRTS. I feel it's right on the cusp between C and B, in that I probably will come back and play it again from time to time, but only briefly and not often.

Grade: B-
And that's the word from Bandit Camp...

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Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Zero Punctuation Reviews: Dead Space

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