Sunday, January 31, 2010

Review: Left 4 Dead 2

In part 2 of "Gas Bandit's Way-Behind-Schedule" review series, we come to the sequel to one of my hands-down-favorite games of recent years. The original Left 4 Dead is a masterpiece of setting, style, gameplay, character and fun, which I completely flaked out on and only gave a measelly paragraph to describe just over a year ago, when it deserved a glowing review. Now, I take a look at Left 4 Dead 2.

Left 4 Dead 2 was born in a small whirlwind of controversy. There was a badly conceived internet boycott because L4D fans thought that they were being gypped. The original L4D felt a little on the short side, with 4 "movies" that each take about an hour to complete (though with excellent replayability). Expectations had been set (especially by the prolific update precedent set by Team Fortress 2, which continues to receive a meaningful content update every third nanosecond) that to make up for the game's brevity, more updates would be patched in over time. At the time of the controversy, only one such update had occurred, adding the new "survival" game mode (however, close to L4D2's launch, a second update did materialize with a 5th "movie" to play). Also, during this time Australia was really starting to ramp up its "ban everything that's fun" phase (of which they're still in the throes), and declared a ban on L4D2, leading the developers to have to make a special "sissy" version so the delicate flowers of Australia would not be crushed by the very same visual experience you get from a PG-13 movie these days. Throw in a few hurried code patches week of release to fix some crippling glitches.

Well, that's all very informative, I'm sure you're saying, but what about the game itself?

Let me get this out of the way first, because I'm going to be harping on some shortcomings alot after this, and I don't want to lead you the wrong way: L4D2 is a good game. Ok? It's a good game. But... you remember that there have been some ill-advised attempts to relaunch certain intellectual properties as an "EXTREME!" version? Extreme ghostbusters, extreme looney tunes, extreme this, that, and the other? It feels a little bit like what they're trying to do here.

More blood, more zombies, more boss zombies, WAY more blood, more weapons, more danger, more panic events... everything's just trying SO hard to be cranked to 11. "THIS AIN'T YER DADDY'S LEFT 4 DEAD" screams L4D2, "I'm on SUPER EXTREME ELECTRIC STEROIDS!" Never mind that a lot of the new weapons seem entirely rendundant - for example, I found practically no functional difference between the combat shotgun and the chrome autoshotgun, or between the uzi and the autopistol. The differences seemed entirely cosmetic, which I guess can appeal to some people, but it just seems to be a missed opportunity here. Also, you're now given more "fallback" weapon choices.. there's the old dual pistols everybody knows and loves, or you can swap them in for a single desert eagle or a melee weapon.

The big pistol... how can I put this? Something's wrong with it... the model for it, the place in front of the camera where the model is placed... just, it feels artificial. Maybe it's because it feels like your character is holding the pistol level with his or her eyebrows, or something like that. It just seemed a little distracting to me, but it does punch through zombies better than dual pistols, though it holds fewer rounds. But just try a melee weapon and you'll find yourself a convert. It's nice to be able to gun from a distance with no ammo concerns, sure, but a good melee weapon will turn you into some kind of zombie-chopping berzerker ninja juggernaut. There have been times in every L4D player's life where he got surrounded on all sides by a dozen zombies clawing at him and the pistols, or even regular weapons, just couldn't cut the mustard. However, a katana or bat or even a sturdy electric guitar will grant you your freedom if wielded with even mediocre skill. With melee weapon in hand, I managed to fight my way through oncoming hordes of common zombies to an objective (more on that later), and if you do it right, you can even take out a Tank zombie in about 6 seconds with the proper melee weapon (the nightstick, if you're wondering).

So that's got some things to the plus, but there's a lot more that L4D2 seems to be doing "just to be different." Of course there's the whole "southern" feel to every level, but it manages to pull that off pretty well. I'm not so sure about most of the levels being set during the day, though. It takes something from the experience... in L4D1, it being dark was part of what built the tension, whereas in daylight's unlimited visibility, they're forced to increase the number and difficulty of the zombies to compensate for the fact that most of the time you'll see them coming hundreds of feet away. They have to give you more zombies to shoot and more bosses to toss you about so that your increased visibility doesn't make the game a turkey shoot, headshotting every zombie with a sniper rifle before you even get close enough to smell them.

This dovetails nicely into my next item - the difficulty. Part of the new EXTREME L4D is that everything is more and harder. Zombies? More and harder. Bosses? More and harder. Panic events? More and harder. Climax events? More and harder. Also, they give you the hardest "movie" first, for some reason. There was a point in the third stage of the first movie (on NORMAL difficulty, mind you) that in the middle of a panic event, the game decided to spawn two tanks, a boomer, a jockey AND a smoker on me AT ONCE. All while the normal zombies were swarming over us like a kicked beehive. Also, where the first game mostly had "push this button and defend it until it's done doing its thing" events, L4D2 favors "push this button which starts a neverending panic event with lots of bosses, and run THROUGH them to push this other button a long way away" events. Anyone can tell you it's much easier to fight a numerically superior horde from an entrenched position of tactical superiority, and much harder to have to move through said horde without any of the advantages that setting up a defensible position grants. It didn't take long for me to decide that "normal" was too frustrating, and I found that "easy" difficulty is actually pretty close to what L4D1 was on "normal." It just confuses me when, why there were already a "hard" and "expert" difficulty level in L4D1, they had to go and bump every level up a difficulty factor AND throw in a new optional "realism" game mode to make it even harder. Are there really people who are so very damn Rambo that they needed the difficulty set 5 orders of magnitude above what a "normal" person finds an enjoyable time? And I'm no slouch when it comes to FPS difficulty. Back in the day, I played Doom on Nightmare frequently. But the harder settings on L4D2 blow that out of the water. There's just no chance. This is also all exacerbated by the strange fact that the bots have gotten dumber since the last game. They're slower to pick up people who get knocked down (especially if that downed character is a human player), they're more likely to get separated, and they aren't as alert to the presence of zombies or as accurate in shooting them as they were in the first game... at least it seemed such to me.

The Left 4 Dead series is big on the "horror movie" angle... each separate campaign is a "movie," complete with movie posters, movie cliches, climaxes and credits. Well, the transition from L4D1 to 2 feels like a genre shift... from horror suspense (a la The Ring, Friday the 13th, or the Amityville Horror) to torture porn (a la the Saw franchise). It's bloodier, more visceral, more frenetic and more action oriented. Remember how the scary thing about Jaws was how you practically never SAW the shark? Well, in L4D2 they try to make up for the fact that you can see the shark by adding 700 more sharks.

Speaking of the characters, that's another gripe I have. In L4D1, the personality of the 4 survivors added a lot to the game. Louis and his "peelz" are a full fledged internet meme. People couldn't get over all the things Francis hates. Zoey practically had a full fledged (and somewhat pathetic) fan club, and Bill managed to pull off the grizzled old vietnam vet very well, even if he didn't stand out particularly. There is one shining star in L4D2, and that star is Ellis. It made me laugh every time he'd start in on a story about how he and his buddy Keith "this one time" would go and do something egregiously stupid and Keith would end up with something "over 90% of his body," only to be cut off by one of the other characters. Coach puts in a lovable big teddybear presence too, although next to Ellis, he's kind of the "Bill" of the group... he's there and in character but that character doesn't particularly stand out. Then there's the other two - Nick "the Gambler" and Rochelle the token female. Nick is practically a non-entity, not even really managing to fill the "asshole" shoes left vacant by Francis... and really, how hard is it to be an entertaining jerk these days? Rochelle is just... well let's put it this way - usually the worst thing you can say about a character in a story is that it is "one dimensional." Rochelle doesn't even seem to have that ONE dimension. She's just there. She's not funny or badass, smart or goofy, helpless or helpful, nothing. If this were a star trek movie, I have no doubt she'd have been the first red-shirt offed by the aliens. She's a cardboard standie with a gun. No personality. I miss the chemistry, the group dynamic of the survivors from the first game.

Now, even with all the above gripes - L4D2 *is* a fun game, and I will play it for many years to come. Albeit, it will be in conjunction with L4D1, because it does not adequately replace L4D1. Sure, I'll wish the first game had melee weapons, but the feel of the game is indispensable. But L4D2 is welcome to share hard drive space with it. Even after all my complaining about it, I like the added action, it's something a little different. But I'll always go back to L4D1 as well for my "dark and creepy suspense" fix. I would also be remiss if I did not extoll the virtues of L4D2's crowning achievement - the Hard Rain movie campaign. The setup is that the boat you're traveling on needs fuel, and you have to go on land and into town to get the diesel, then backtrack to where the boat dropped you to get picked up again... the problem is, just as you get to the fuel...a hurricane hits, adding a new wrinkle - the wind and rain that whips debris around you and periodically makes the aforementioned visibility range shrink to near useless dimensions. It really adds to the tension and challenge, but in a good way - through a clever game mechanic, not through "even more of the same."

Verdict: B+. And that's the word from Bandit Camp.

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Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Zero Punctuation Reviews: Bayonetta

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Monday, January 25, 2010

Review: Batman: Arkham Asylum

I know I've been remiss in my review duties. Can't be helped, the day job comes first. At any rate, I've got a backlog of games I need to review, and first up to bat (no put intended) is Batman: Arkham Asylum.

Now, I have to say I didn't have high hopes for this game, especially since it was hyped so much and usually hype is an indicator such that the quality of a game is inversely proportional to the quantity of hype it receives. I have to say I was pleasantly surprised to see this law broken. Not to jump to the end of the review early or anything, but it's my opinion that Batman: Arkham Asylum is probably the best game of 2009.

It just gets so much right. First, the treatment of the Batman intellectual property is spot on - the mood and atmosphere are just the proper mixture of grimdark and badassery. The graphics are excellent and yet still high framerate, with lots of little artistic touches such as the progressive "roughing up" of the batsuit as the game continues.

The sound, the music, ambiance and voice acting are absolute aces - especially the voice acting. They've gotten the voice actors from the best and latest iterations of the animated DC universe to voice their characters - Kevin Conroy has been the voice of the Batman since 1993, same with Arleen Sorkin for Harley Quinn, and of course Mark Hamill reprises his role of the Best Joker Ever (though I have to say Heath Ledger did come close). Throw in heavy hitters like Steve Blum (the guy is damn near everywhere, and for good reason), Tom Kane and even Adrienne freakin Barbeau, and you have a real auditory treat.

But most importantly, the game itself is fun as hell. Don't listen to the people who whine about the action being repetitive... these people would complain about a flight simulator being repetitive because you never get out of the plane. The game mostly consists of combinations of stealth and combat sequences with some climbing and jumping mixed in. There's also a secondary "riddler" line of objectives for those who want an added challenge or just have a completionist streak in them.

It's usually the case where good stealth games have bad combat sequences and vice versa, but what makes B:AA really shine is that it does both pretty well. Both stealth and fighting ability are important - you need stealth because Batman, who refuses to use firearms himself of course, would get mown down by multiple bad guys with machine guns, but combat is also important for when there's nowhere to hide and 5 thugs with pipes and chains come charging at you. In many cases if you do it just right, it'll be a movie perfect scene of the bad guys wandering the halls and catwalks with Batman taking out the last one in line again and again, with the remaining baddies getting ever more freaked out as they find their unconscious comrades lying on the floor or suspended from the ceiling. There's also permutations in many areas that make it more challenging. For example, in some areas, the baddies wear special collars that monitor their heart rate so that when they're rendered unconscious the collar makes a lot of noise, bringing everybody else running.

Defeating enemies and completing objectives gets you experience, which then in turn can be used to buy upgrades to Batman's equipment or add special moves to his fighting. You'll end up getting all the upgrades and abilities well before the end of the game, but the progression does add to the playing experience. Examples of such upgrades are better armor in the batsuit (giving you a larger health bar), the ability to throw multiple batarangs, etc.

As you progress through the plot, particularly noteworthy fights and scenarios get added to a "challenge mode" where you can revisit them to try and chase the "perfect run" through them, racking up seamless combos in massive brawls, or eliminating enemies stealthily and in the most entertaining ways the computer can request (such as yanking them off catwalks with the batclaw, or exploding weakened structures around them, etc).

The majority of the rogue's gallery from the batman comics are included, many having their own subsections of the game for you to navigate. The Scarecrow's section is especially well done.

No game is absolutely perfect, but the gripes about this game are small and few. Some of the ragdoll physics look a little stiff and unnatural, some of the "bat-vision" attachments are a little gimmicky, and if you want to collect all of the little trophies and secrets it involves a whole lot of doubling back through areas you've done already, sometimes more than once.

But on the whole, the game is definitely a classic and a keeper, to be revisited often. It's been a long time since I've been firm in giving an A+ to a game, but Batman: Arkham Asylum has definitely earned it.

Verdict: A+.

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Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Zero Punctuation Reviews: Darksiders

Gargals! Slykiks!

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Friday, January 15, 2010

Zero Punctuation Reviews: Torchlight

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Thursday, January 07, 2010

Zero Punctuation Reviews: 2009 Awards

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Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Zero Punctuation Reviews: Saboteur

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