September 23, 2011

Uncharted 2. Is It Really That Grand?

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves - what a treat of a game, what a grand adventure! It's packed with explosive Hollywood action and visuals that never stop to amaze. At the moment, I find it hard to think of another game that looks as gorgeous.

It's not all action and glitter though, Uncharted 2 features a captivating story and, probably, the most interesting female character in the history of gaming. Nah, I'm not talking of Elena, the main character's unfortunate choice for a love object (the second time around). She looks and sounds very generic and is so dull, I would rather not see her included in Drake's story at all. I was referring to Chloe. Not only this girl has very distinctive looks, she also has the sexiest and most memorable voice I've heard in a while. Not only that, her character is the most realistic of the lead trio. She is neither too good or evil, she is very practical when appraising a situation, unlike Drake and Elena who, way too often, appear as if characters from a fairy tale - brave to a point when it looks plain dumb.

Even a highly captivating adventure, Among Thieves has way too many flaws to be perfect. I'll mention a few of them.

The greatest downside of the whole Uncharted series might be its unoriginality. I can't think of a single thing found in the game that I haven't already seen some place before. The game consists of two parts - performing an array of acrobatic moves in order to travel from point A to point B and shooting your enemies. The acrobatics bit is clearly inspired by Lara Croft's adventures. Drake imitates almost every move Lara has ever done. Sadly, he is not that good at his imitations. When I look at Drake making one jump after another, I don't see the same fluidity that Lara can boast. He looks rather clumsy in comparison. I'll talk more on that subject. There are several video interviews included with the original Uncharted. On one of them, some person from the development team speaks in great length about how they wanted to make the main character appear as a regular guy, not a Rambo-type fella who does everything perfectly. To show that Drake is not your typical action hero, he is animated in such a way that not all of his moves are executed to the A. For instance, sometimes he can have a rough landing after a long jump. That sort of thing. The matter of fact is, no one in their right mind would mistake Drake for your every day sort of guy. Even though we constantly see him screw up a bit, in the end he makes every jump and catches every ledge. He also single-handedly kill, what, several hundred heavily armed professionals. In the end, he comes off as bad-ass as Commando. If not even more unbelievable. Oh yeah, and the way Uncharted's protagonist looks every time he goes for another leap, he should have fallen to the death most of the time. I prefer Lara Croft approach more - she doesn't pretend to be a typical girl and she looks incredible while doing her acrobatics. Looking her mount a a cliff is a big part of the game experience.

Also, to make things casual, the developers decided to minimize the possibility of their hero to screw up - it's impossible to make a wrong jump. If Drake can't leap in the direction you are pointing him at without grabbing an edge or landing safely, he'll simply refuse to move.

to be continued

September 19, 2011

The Next BIG Thing. A 2D Adventure That Falls Flat.

The Next BIG Thing stands out among other few point-and-click adventure games that are still being made by being absolutely gorgeous! Namely, this game features full high def 2D art of amazing quality. I've never seen an adventure featuring that amount of detail and crispness in it's art. Oh, and by adventure I don't mean those mindless action games which are labeled "adventure" nowadays, I'm referring to the point-and-click ones, obviously.

I couldn't be more excited when I first launched the game and saw all its beauty before my eyes. That excitement couldn't have survived for long though. Despite being a total eye-candy, this sequel to the Hollywood Monsters fails to offer anything else of value. The game starts rather tediously and, to my biggest surprise and disappointment, fails to become even remotely captivating. The story is told unevenly with characters just jumping between the six chapters. There's no fluid connection between those chapters and most of the time it feels like you are transported to a totally different story every time you reach the new chapter. The whole plot is so plain unoriginal, it just hurts to see it "unfolding". In and out, there's not a hint of excitement in the adventure Pendulo Studios conjured.

There isn't any satisfaction coming from the puzzles either. Most of the puzzles consist of finding an object or two and, well, using them. Seeing that every new chapter takes you to a totally new location, the amount of explorable screens is always kept to a minimum. Finding anything is a matter of a few minutes. Realizing what to use the newly found objects on is even easier - there aren't really that much hot spots available either, most of the them are story related. There are a few dialogue puzzles which require you to use one of the dialogue options in order to move on. Hardly even a puzzle as you don't have to go through a branched dialogue tree in order to find the right thing to say, usually the important line is available from the start of the dialogue. Way too simple.

I wouldn't lie saying the game didn't provide me with a (very) few laughs. I did find myself giggling from time to time. Still, most of the dialogues are plain weird, not in a good way either. I had a constant feeling that the game lost a lot of sense in translation. On one hand, the sentences are constructed correctly, on the other - it feels like they just don't sound right.

Overall, the whole game felt like a drag. It wasn't that long of a drag though. The Next BIG Thing is ridiculously short and easy. I've played on "high" difficulty level (this one doesn't have hotspots and help available) and never got stuck. Considering the amount of activity each chapter has to offer, I don't see how anyone can have any problems with the game. All the objects which are not in your face can be easily found with a couple of mouse swipes. Sadly, I can't tell how much time exactly I spent on the whole affair (I could have finished it in one sitting but was getting bored with it fast) as my Steam counter got screwed when the game failed to quit properly, continuing to run almost the whole day and night in the background. The timer kept on ticking. Now Steam is sure I've played the game for 30 hours. Ridiculous.

I feel like I wasted my time and money on the game. The art alone doesn't do much for this game as it has absolutely no substance. I had much more fun reading the game reviews - they are overall positive. Quite a few reviewers mention that the game offers a good story. Common, really? In comparison to a shallow plot of Gears of War it might appear somewhat interesting. Otherwise, the story in The Next BIG Thing is the most unoriginal stories I've heard in a very long time. It could have been written in an evening, too. There isn't even much happening there. Even more surprising is that a decent amount of reviewers agreed that the game is a good challenge. It appears the console generation is brain-dead beyond any hope for recovery. I would really like to stand behind a person who finds this game challenging and see him play the game, find out what exactly is he doing and how. I really would love to do that.

September 16, 2011

Alan Wake. Running with a Flashlight for Hours and Hours.

Finally, I got around to playing the game that about every Xbox 360 owner has played a long time ago - Alan Wake.

In all honesty, I don't get what the fuzz is about. I was very excited during my first two-three hours of the game. After that, it just got pretty boring gameplay-wise. For the whole duration of the game you do pretty much the same over and over... and over again. And what you do is run ahead following the always-present objective marker, meet a bunch of bad guys to either soften them up with a flashlight and shoot them dead or to just run past them to the next Safe Heaven (that's how a well-lit spot is called, usually from a street lamp). Sometimes you have to find a key or to start a generator, which hardly adds any freshness to the whole experience. In a short while your amusement with the light and shadows interplay, no matter how well executed, will grow  thin. After that there's almost nothing left to enjoy. Well, except maybe the story.
The objective marker. It's an always-present part of the game that points you towards the next objective. If you have to find some key in order to open a door and proceed, it means that you just have to run from where you are to where the marker is pointing you. It's impossible to get stuck or to get lost. Just think about it, what is the scariest thing about darkness? It's that you don't know what it may conceal, it's that you don't see anything... it's that you don't know where to go and you get lost. Getting lost is always scary. Remedy decided to castrate the darkness. It's almost always dark in Bright Falls, but you don't even have to use a flashlight to find your way. The biggest disappointment is that the developers had an urge to add such an aid as the objective marker to the game that is already extremely straight-forward.

The darkness and all the fights get boring really-really fast. The darkness is boring as it is not scary in any fashion - even if enemies come out of it, they always announce themselves - it's either a sound or a slow-mo cinematic moment showing where exactly they are appearing from. It's close to impossible to get scared. At the very start the combat experience does come at you as a slightly original experience - every fight consists of a two-step mechanic. First you cleanse the protective shield of darkness from the taken with a flashlight, only then you can finish them off with an array of bullets. The problem is, that's all you will ever have to do to your enemies (aside from just legging it and leaving them behind). The variety of enemies is present but is hardly noticeable at all - as already said, everything the darkness throws at you can be taken care of in one and the same manner. The fighting affair becomes boring fast.
While on the matter of the forces that ate thrown against you. There's really no feeling that some major force is trying to stop you.

Collectibles. There's a lot of different collectibles in the game. They make the Alan Wake experience even more tedious. At first, I was trying to find at least those collectibles which were expanding the story (the manuscript pages, TV shows, radio shows) but after a while it became extremely boring. I mean, the game is repeatable enough without you trying to look inside/around every shack and rock.
The story was the only thing that I found interesting up to the very end. It's the only thing that kept me going through the second half of the game, where I just stopped looking for any collectibles and got so bored of fighting, I was just doing exactly what the object marker was telling me to do.

The technology. I wouldn't say that the technology behind Alan Wake is overall impressive. The lights-and-shadows stuff is, indeed, very cool, but... sub-HD resolution does make the game look really bad (for instance, I played Uncharted 2 right after Alan Wake and the former looked so crisp in comparison). My biggest beef is not with the game running on lower resolution though, it's the facial detail and animation. It's probably the biggest experience-breaker I've seen in a past few years. A lot of cutscenes feature characters' close-ups, only the animation looks unbelievably ridiculous. Alan Wake, for instance, no matter what emotion he is going for, looks like a wooden puppet moving his mouth up and down. No kidding, that's about the only thing he does throughout the whole game. I just don't understand Remedy... All the movies are pre-rendered, which means it was possible to give any amount of detail to the virtual actors. Damn, some other games released around the same time manage to have 10 times more believable emotions using the game engine.

I was quite relieved to finally finish the game and see the conclusion to the captivating story. Naturally, I decided to check the DLC, hoping the developers coughed up something new and original (like Crystal Dynamics did for the Tomb Raider: Underworld). The Signals is basically the same stuff all over again. This time though, the story completely failed to capture my attention. After about 30 minutes of playing the DLC, there was nothing to keep me going. I started playing Uncharted 2 instead. That game, even though a mindless action, manages to keep things fresh all the time.

As a matter of fact, theses two games, Uncharted and Alan Wake, are a perfect illustration of the difference between the exclusive content on the rival platforms. PS3 might be getting the worse end of the multi-platform games, but it surely receives better exclusives. Uncharted series is just one example, there are also inFamous, God of War, Little Big Planet, Killzone, Resistance, Heavy Rain against Gears of War, Halo and Fable. I know, both lists are much more extensive but I tried to mention the biggest and most popular titles. Little Big Planet and Heavy Rain deserve the special attention as there's nothing like those games on the Microsoft's console.

September 13, 2011

Tomb Raider Trilogy. Comparison: PC vs Xbox 360 vs PS3

The Tomb Raider trilogy I'm going to talk about includes the following games (released in exactly the order I have them listed):

Tomb Raider: Legend
Tomb Raider: Anniversary
Tomb Raider: Underworld

There are a few things that appear to be worth mentioning.

First, even though all the games in the trilogy were built on the same game engine, namely Crystal Dynamics engine, they use the different versions of that software. It looks like the versions of the engine are not actually mentioned to the public and a whole bunch of games use the same engine title. Deus Ex: Human Revolution and the 2012 Tomb Raider game both are powered by the same tech. Nonetheless, Legend and Anniversary appear to be sharing the same version of the Crystal engine (even if the engine was updated for Anniversary, the changes were minor). Underworld, on the other hand, is a whole new breed of beast. The visuals and, most importantly, performance are completely different from what is seen in the prior two games.

to be continued...

September 12, 2011

Red Faction: Armageddon. PC vs Consoles.

I've been hearing about the Red Faction series for a very long time already. The series has been around since 2001 and became famous for the level of wreckage a player can cause, with practically every structure found in the game universe susceptible to destruction. It's pretty surprising that I haven't played any of the four games in the series up until now, on the other hand, I haven't played a myriad of other games I always wanted to play. A lot of random things are to blame for that. Anyway, it's never too late to start anything and I did start with the very last (and final) entry in the series - Red Faction: Armageddon.

It's a beauty on PC, even with crappy hardware!

I did come to a tremendously stupid purchase decision with Red Faction: Armageddon and ordered both, the PC and Xbox 360, versions of the game simultaneously. I'm not made of money and neither am I particularly stupid. It's just that the price for both was utterly ridiculous, considering the game was only two months fresh out of the development oven (released in June). There was no way to fight the temptation.

There's a through PC/X360/PS3 comparison article at the Digital Foundry which crowns the PC version as the better of all three. Being aware of that fact, I still wasn't all that sure that my outdated hardware wouldn't choke on the game with all the bells and whistles. In the end, I went for X360 version for an immediate enjoyment and thought the PC release would be fitting for the future use (on a side note: one of the selling points for me was the ability to activate the retail game on Steam - I love both, having a case on a shelf and being to access the content digitally).

Even though both versions were a part of one order, both available for immediate shipping, the PC box arrived first. If it would have been the other way around, I wouldn't have probably got to see the PC version before a major hardware upgrade (and with me throwing all the money on the games lately, who knows when will the day come). In the end, I was lucky the things happened the way they did.

No matter how old my hardware is, when I start a new game, I always crank all the possible video options up to the highest possible values and use 1080p resolution. With everything topped up, the game showed a horrible performance right from the first screen. As expected.

A huge surprise followed when I changed resolution to 720p: the game started to work smoothly. Yeah, smooth as a butter, no less. It also looked marvelous! I don't remember the last time I could run a game so beautiful with AA set to x8 and AF set to x16. Moments ago I completed the game, my PC was able to maintain a FPS between 30 and 60 throughout. By my personal observation, average being about 45 FPS. I experienced a stagger only once in the whole game. Here is the important bit: my PC is Intel Core 2 Duo E8500 @ 3.16Ghz, 2GB RAM, GeForce 8800GTX. Everything is so very old and cheap.

The Xbox 360 version of the Red Faction: Armageddon came a few days later. Obviously, I had to see, how different that version was from the one on PC. The contrast was tremendous! The console version of Armageddon resembles the PC version... as if seen through the eyes of a totally wasted person. No exaggeration whatsoever. Not only the console has a severe case of sub-HD (960x540 - ridiculous, I know), it also shows quite a few frame rate drops in the more dynamic scenes. Just FYI, there are shit loads of dynamic scenes in this game. To make things much-much worse, the controls of the PC version are indisputably better. I prefer my Xbox 360 controller to Keyboard + Mouse with most of the third-person perspective action games, but not in this case. PC controls in RFA offer an altogether better experience. I would have never had the same amount of fun with the Magnet Gun if I had to play the game using a controller.

As for the game itself, it's awesome. I think everyone capable of enjoying a game in the genre would have a great time with Armageddon. It features a very simple and forgettable plot but a truly memorable and original gameplay. The whole experience is on par with Gears of War (I use this game as an example of a product which is completely action-driven). Somehow, I got tired of monotonous action of Gears in about two hours, but I did thirst for more of Red Faction's beautiful havoc even after completion (the game is not too long though). I will certainly enjoy playing it again.

The thing about this game is it offers you so many ways of destruction. There are loads of guns, every one with its own fun destructive function. The king of guns being the Magnet Gun, of course. I spent the majority of the game using that weapon and didn't get tired of it.

I already mentioned how ridiculous the price was for all versions of the game. There's a good explanation behind it - the game was a failure. Due to poor sales, not only the price manged to drop, it was also publicly announced that there will be no more Red Faction games to follow. I was depressed to hear that.

I just don't understand the consumer. Look, everyone and their mother probably already pre-ordered Gears of War 3. There's Dead Space 3 under development, and a lot of people are going to buy it day one. It's clear as day Gears of War 1 & 2 put together cannot offer the same level of SP excitement that Armageddon has to offer. OK, Gears at least have their MP craziness (I'm just not a fan of anything MP). What about Dead Space then? That game does have a gripping atmosphere, but that's about it. I mean, they do try to unload a fun weapons mechanic on you, but do they succeed? I tried every single gun in Dead Space 1 & 2 to return to my trustworthy Plasma Cutter. Not only those other guns are no fun at all, they are also (for the most part) impractical. I mean, you can resort to them on lower difficulty levels, probably. But easier difficulties are just not fun in Dead Space. On higher difficulty levels there is no way you'll be able to survive using a variety of weapons. You actually have to stick to a couple of guns and pray you'll have enough ammunition to keep them running (one of those should most definitely be the Plasma Cutter). In Red Faction: Armageddon 90% of the available arsenal is butt load of pure uncut fun. Almost every addition has a lot of punch in it and is, in fact, very deadly. Add completely destructible/rebuildable environment to that and you have a blast of an action game on your hands. You can grab the Magnet Gun and just deconstruct a whole building on someone creature's ugly head. That looks and plays amazing. You also get to drive and fly. Who doesn't buy this game but would part with 50 bucks for Gears 3 without any hesitation? First, the consumer killed point-and-click adventures, now this.