Tuesday, 8 November 2011

The Witcher 2 review

Polish developer CD Projekt RED does things differently.  As far as I'm aware, The Witcher and its sequel, The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, are the only games they have developed, but for those two alone, the studio deserves great praise.

Both games are an anomaly in the world of gaming.  They push the envelope in terms of what's 'socially acceptable' in media these days, portraying an incredibly grim and dark world where violence, sex and extremely coarse language are all part of everyday life.  They also both offer the player some shocking decision making options.  When it comes to morality and decision making, Bioware tends to be king, but CD Projekt RED approaches it from a slightly different angle.  Most of the time you're making these decisions, morality does not enter into it, you may not immediately understand the ramifications or consequences of your decision, and finally (perhaps most importantly), these decisions can greatly affect the way the game plays out.  And I'm not just talking about different endings or unlocking special 'dark side' powers.  The Witcher 2, along with its predecessor, throw away the rulebook in pretty much every regard, instead creating something that is both curiously fascinating and unequivocally unique...and that's a wonderful thing, especially in today's world of gaming.
The game is dark in tone, but the world can be as beautiful as the story and characters are grotesque.

So just what is The Witcher 2 all about?  Well, it continues the story of the first game, albeit in a slightly unconventional way.  Oddly, CD Projekt RED must have been fairly confident about the success of their first game, as it ended with many unanswered questions, and capped everything off with a development that leads directly into the subtitle of the sequel, 'Assassins of Kings'.  A risky move, considering The Witcher was and remains a PC exclusive; a platform that continues to lose ground to the much easier alternative of console gaming.  The Witcher 2 curiously was also developed as a PC exclusive, though will soon be ported to Xbox 360, a move which I fully support and I want to see this development team and this series continue on and prosper in every way possible.  It seems as if the gamble has paid off though.  

Fight big baddies like the kayran in spectacular manner.
The story once again follows our soft-spoken hero, Geralt of Rivia, a witcher.  Witchers are monster hunters and experts on curses and the paranormal in this world.  Effectively, they're mutant humans, trained in all sorts of martial abilities as well as magical tricks known as 'Signs'.  What's quite fascinating about this series is that it's actually based on a series of books and short stories by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski.  This is something that's all but unheard of in gaming, especially when you consider the incredible quality of the games; this is no cheap cash in, and the books themselves have little more than a cult following to begin with.  The story itself involves much more politicking than the first game.  Geralt is now King Foltest's personal witcher, after our hero saved his ass in the ending sequence of the original game.  The way the game opens up is brilliant and captivating.  Geralt is in prison for reasons we can't explain, and very quickly, during a well played-out interrogation, he unveils the events that lead up to his imprisonment.  This prologue is nothing short of breathtaking, as you partake in a massive siege of a large castle, come under attack by a dragon, and perform an incursion behind enemy lines.  It puts Hollywood to shame in the spectacle department.

I will say that the game is not perfect, certainly not on release, as with the first game.  Most of these flaws are technical or bizarre oversights.  One of my biggest gripes is the way the graphics customization works.  Bafflingly, the only way to change them is through the launcher menu; once you're in-game, your only graphics options are brightness and gamma.  It's strange and irritating, and on top of that, the graphics options themselves are numerous and overly complicated, leading me to recommend that you search online for a better explanation as to what your ideal setup would be for your computer.  Because this is a damned demanding game.

The comabt is much more like an action RPG than the first game.  Generally speaking, this is a good thing, but it can
feel a bit unfair or unforgiving at times.
Another oddity is the difficulty curve and the way you're introduced to combat.  The gameplay has changed massively since The Witcher.  In the original game, combat pretty much boiled down to timing your mouse clicks and knowing the correct counter style to your opponent.  In The Witcher 2, combat is much more active, and arguably much better, but it's also less forgiving.  The way they throw you into it with effectively zero understanding of the changes can be jarring, especially if you're just coming off the tail end of the first game as I was.  Luckily, it seems they've now introduced a tutorial of some sort into the game, which was certainly needed.  The game has changed in many other ways as well.  You've still got a large and complicated talent tree, something RPG fans will squeal with joy to see, though it barely resembles anything about the tree from the first game (most of the weird/overly specific/useless talents are gone).  Alchemy, a major component of the series, has also changed, mostly for the better, though the way you are forced to meditate in order to consume potions is frustrating, as you won't always be able to anticipate when fighting will break out.  Overall, I would say the vast majority of the changes to gameplay are an improvement, some of them significantly so.

Gameplay is well and all, but what makes The Witcher so unique is the matter-of-fact thematic style it exhumes.  This is a world where racism is a fact of life; humans, for the most part, are a bunch of prejudice assholes that want to lord over or eliminate non-humans, which consist primarily of elves and dwarves, though there's plenty of negativity to go around for witchers, sorcerers and sorceresses as well.  The hatred is certainly not one sided however; elves and dwarves fight as terrorists, massacring innocents in an attempt to tip the balance of power back in their favour.  Racist, derogatory and offensive comments accompany outbursts of violence against those who are different.  All-in-all, Lord of the Rings this is not.  This is not a nice world to live in.

Now, onto the subject of visuals.  My god is this a beautiful game.  Even with a more modest rig like my own, this is head and shoulders above other RPGs, both in terms of art and technical prowess.  If you have a machine that can max out the graphical settings, your eyes may explode with joy.  The first game was no slouch in terms of graphics back in 2007, but its sequel is one of the most advanced looking games available to date.  Animations are incredibly fluid, character models are unbelievably well detailed, and the environments are nothing short of breathtaking.  True, some modern FPSs like Crysis 2 and Battlefield 3 look gorgeous, but those games use a lot of hard edges and static, rigid models.  It's difficult to think of a game that is this organic while also managing to look this good.

I just want to stress how good looking this game is.  This is in-game.  Seriously.  In-game.

In the sound department, things have massively improved as well.  I loved the music from the original game, but one of the things that always took me out of it was the voice acting.  It wasn't exactly awful, but it generally sounded wooden and shaky, and to top it off, the quality of the recordings wasn't amazing.  Geralt in particular was rather off-putting, often sounding like he was speaking directly into your ear, and as if he was reading off a script.  It should be fitting, then, that Geralt has some of the best voice work in the sequel.  He now manages to sound rough-around-the-edges, yet doing so with a soft and almost foreboding voice.  Pretty much all the voice acting is bang-on now, including returning friendly faces like Triss Merrigold, Zoltan Chivay, and the previously rather irritating Dandelion.  All of them sound great, and you get some really great four-way interactions and conversations that do a wonderful job of pulling you into the experience, making you feel like a genuine part of a band of friends, adventurers and freedom fighters in this dark and brutal world.  The conversations themselves, while perhaps not quite up to the standard of Bioware's masterful writing, are extremely believable across the board.  They just feel natural, and do an infinitely better job of conveying the story than the first game.

You should also know that this is a very long and meaty game.  Perhaps not as long as the original, especially if you power through it, but many of the optional quests and contracts have multiple phases and layers that will be unlocked by fighting monsters or exploring in general.  This is a very unusual style of questing for an RPG as well, and I find it incredibly refreshing when compared to the very cut-and-paste style presented in something like Dragon Age 2.  Gone are fetch quests, and you can forget about feeling completely complacent in your safety with finishing quests.  You can absolutely fail quests, and in multiple ways.  And on the subject of failure and consequence, I must go back to the subject of choice.  Some of the choices you make will change the way the story plays out.  You will take sides, sometimes unknowingly, and there's no morality meter to tell you if it was right or wrong; that's up to you and your own moral compass.  

One choice in particular will actually completely change the later two of the game's three chapters entirely, giving you different allies and in some cases, different goals.  I can't stress how incredibly rare this is in gaming, especially these days where developers want more and more control over their players, and where they're terrified to include content in their game that many people may never see.  Personally, I will probably never see that alternate path in The Witcher 2.  I'm certainly curious, but it's a very long game, and there are many great games coming out in the coming months.  But that's so great.  CD Projekt RED doesn't care that I've missed out on some of their game; they felt that the decision to offer choice and provide very different experiences for different players was more important than making sure everyone who plays through their game sees absolutely everything it has to offer.  I can only wish that more developers would show this mature and enlightened philosophy.

So how does one sum up The Witcher 2?  Well it's not perfect, as I've said previously.  Some technical issues and head-scratching oversights keep it from breaking into my top 10 list (if only just), and sadly will probably prevent it from gaining Game of the Year accolades.  However, it's a game that I see as roughly 5-10% flawed, and about 90% brilliant.  It's a much more rich and unique experience than you'll get from just about any RPG these days, and it will open your mind to some of what the gaming industry turns a blind eye to.

Story/Presentation - Not on Bioware's level of writing, but it sucks you into this rotten world and makes you see both the good and the bad as if experiencing it firsthand.
Gameplay - Much more action-oriented than the first game.  Alchemy has been largely refined, and the talents offer more interesting choices.  Choice, in general, plays a huge part of the game, and the consequences are great.  The erratic difficulty curve keeps it from achieving near-perfection.
Visuals - Good lord...this game is unbelievably good looking.  Even on my mid-to-mid-high range rig, it looks damned gorgeous.  On a top end machine, I can't think of a game that would look better.
Sound - Terrific voice acting, wonderful music, and nice crisp combative sound effects.
Value - As with The Witcher, this sequel offers a ton of content.  The main story is fairly long, but there's many side quests and places to explore as well.

In summary, The Witcher 2 is something that any RPG or fantasy fan must experience.  If you're a PC gamer, you owe it to yourself and the PC community to buy and support this piece of PC exclusivity gaming and enjoy it to its fullest.  It's a rare and unique experience that you won't soon forget.

Overall - 9.3/10

Geralt is the man.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Forza Motorsport 4; Early Impressions

Forza Motorsport 4 is not a racing simulator.  Forza Motorsport 4 is a car lover's simulator.  It takes everything we petrolheads love about cars, and crams it into one, complete package.

True, the game is not actually massively different from Forza 3, arguably the game that took the mantle of 'racing sim to beat' from Gran Turismo, a title which Forza 4 defends and further entrenches itself.  However, it's in the details where Forza 4 really falls into its predecessor's slipstream and fires itself ahead.  Great additions like Autovista, a mode that is devoted entirely to exploring the details of 25 wonderfully unique cars complete with commentary from Jeremy Clarkson, that really make the difference.  Somehow, everything about the game looks, sounds and feels different.  If smellivision was a real thing, no doubt the burnt tire smell would be all the more real in Forza 4 as well.  I've played a lot of games, and precious few of them do as good a job of suspending your disbelief as Forza 4.  You will really believe you're sitting in the cockpit of that McLaren F1; you'll really believe you just tore up 11 other, more well-equipped racers in your Citroen DS3; you'll really believe you're competing against The Stig's time on a genuine recreation of Top Gear's famous test track.

The Top Gear collaboration:  yes, it's as awesome as you think.
Indeed, the Top Gear collaboration with Forza is something worth mentioning.  As a massive fan of the BBC automotive series, I have to say that this partnership is nothing short of amazing.  Combining the greatest racing simulation with the greatest automotive entertainment program in the world results in something incredible.  Having access to their iconic track in Dunsfold is nothing short of fist-pumping awesomeness.  Hearing Jezza's take on the likes of the Bugatti Veyron, Ferrari 458, and even the M12 FAV Warthog from Halo, ranges from incredibly cool to utterly hilarious.  Forza 4 knows what car enthusiasts love, and they tap into it.

Not just in the Top Gear association, but in the graphical and sound department as well.  Never before has a racing simulation game been this lifelike, this believable.  I can't speak for GT5, but my god is Forza 4 convincing.  True, the Xbox 360 is beginning to show its age, but the people at Turn 10 have really worked their magic with the car models here.  Some of them look...pristine.  At certain angles, in certain lighting, I'd challenge anyone to point out the pixelated car from the real deal.  And the sound...good lord.  You can't truly appreciate the savage roar of a V8 or the relentless scream of burning slicks until you've played this game.

Do you want to drive this incredible car in Forza 4?  Well,
if you were a sucker like me and bought the regular edition,
you're S.O.L.  Unless of course they release it as DLC.
That said, it's not perfect.  Not far off, actually, but I do have a few complaints.  First is the lack of weather conditions.  You can pick sunny or overcast...what?  No night options?  No rain, snow or ice?  PGR4 had this, and that game is several years old, and was never even entirely devoted to simulation at that.  Second is the whole preorder/collector's edition bonus car ordeal.  Good lord, cut this crap out developers.  I get it; you want preorders, and you want people buying your overpriced collector's editions.  Stop giving tangible benefits for either.  The collector's edition comes with an exclusive key for, wait for it, the Bugatti Veyron Super Sport.  Are you kidding me?  The fastest production road car in the world is excluded for suckers who only paid the 'meager' entry fee of 60 bucks?  Go to hell.  The rest of the preorder/CE crap is mostly generic, though keep in mind that the 'first wave' of Forza 4 copies will get access to 5 unique cars, including the rather insane (if not so insane as the Veyron SS) Koenigsegg Agera (not the Agera R, sadly).  Fairly irritating, but I suppose this is the world we live in.

Aside from those relatively minor points...what else is there to say?  Forza 4 is the definitive racing, car-loving, virtual experience of our time.  If you like racing, get it.  If you like cars, get it.  If you like both...why are you debating this?

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

First impressions: Gears of War 3

Just like every other Xbox 360 owner on the planet, I picked up Gears of War 3 yesterday and started playing it.  I'm roughly 1/3 through the game now, based on estimated length according to different websites and the number of acts/chapters, but I have some thoughts, seeing as how I tend not to do first impressions.  And first impressions matter, they really do.

So, Gears 3 has finally arrived.  Is it any good though?  Well, if you found Gears 1 and 2 enjoyable, then there's no question you'll immediately get sucked into part three.  It's great fun, there's no denying it, both in terms of gameplay and the entire feel and atmosphere of the game.  It really does feel like a great (albeit slightly over-the-top and occasionally cheesy) 80s action movie, only with the shine and polish of a modern film with all its glamourous CGI special effects.  In truth, Hollywood could really do worse than to use Gears of War as a template for how to make a proper action movie these days.  All the special effects, explosions and dynamic lighting in the world means little when your movie lacks heart.  And for all of its faults, that's something Gears never lacks.
Do my eyes deceive me?  Is that...another Carmine?  Rejoice fans; yes it is!

In terms of gameplay, it's business as usual.  You'll stop and pop, blow up and chainsaw to death literally hundreds of baddies in all manner of ridiculously gruesome and laugh-inducing, jaw-dropping ways.  Epic seems to enjoy upping the ante on every Gears game in terms of sheer violence, and Gears 3 is no exception.  Remember how a regular, vanilla gory kill was in the first game?  Remember how they decided there needed to be more creative ways to plant your revving chainsaw into some Locust's back in the sequel, and then added in bloody executions?  Well, both of those have been expanded to hilarious lengths.  One of the coolest new weapon additions is the Retro Lancer, basically like the standard Lancer, only instead of a chainsaw, it has a massive bayonet.  Not as cool?  Arguably true, but try not smiling when you perform a bayonet charge into the back of an unsuspecting Locust or Lambent, lifting them off the ground in a completely unnecessary and totally awesome way, before smashing them into the ground.  Better yet, nothing can prepare you for the sheer savagery and hilarity of a chainsaw-to-the-face style of execution.  You do not know gory until you know this game.

When we come round to the sound department, again, things are looking very Gears-like.  As with the previous games, Gears sounds absolutely incredible.  The soundtrack is like an explosion of audible ecstasy inside your brain, the various horrible monsters all roar and bellow in equally horrifying manners, and never before has there been a sound effect more satisfying in the game that the combination of a revving, screaming chainsaw meeting squishy, explosive flesh.  And say what you will about the cheesy dialogue, but these voice actors pull it off;  goofy as they may sound, they sound and feel exactly as you'd expect and hope from the best of the 80s action flicks, witty one-liners and all.  Damn near perfection.

So what about story, presentation, and whatnot?  I feel this has always been an underrated point of Gears of War.  The story is, as with the voice acting and dialogue, exactly what you want in this sort of game.  I mean, come now, do you really want some Shakespearean drama in a game that is exclusively about killing subterranean aliens in the most grotesque ways imaginable?  No, no you do not.  Or if you do, seek mental attention.  Gears strikes gold on simplistic, yet effective storytelling.  Innumerable action games get it so very wrong (looking at you Ninja Gaiden) that it makes you wish they'd just left the story out completely.  This particular Gears game focuses on the theme of a sort of 'Band of Brothers' style last stand.  And while I'm not that far through it, I really like it, and I do buy it.
Delta Squad returns, with a few new faces.  One-liners and bromantic dialogue commence!

Times have never been tougher for the people of Sera, and the game's darker tone reflects that.  Sure, sometimes Epic uses cheap conveniences to strike a chord with emotion, such as Dom's dead wife, Marcus' daddy issues or Cole's silly-yet-sobering midlife crisis.  And yet...somehow it works.  Somehow...I just buy these big, meatheaded buffoons, because as cliche and they can sometimes be, Epic just manages to pull it off.  Much in the same way that the normally extremely cliche and two-dimensional mercenary team from Predator manages to work.  It just does.

In regards to the meathead remark, well, attention female gamers:  Epic has forgotten you not.  Well, truth be told, that's about as patronizing a comment as one can make.  Yes, there are several new additions to Delta Squad, two of which are women, and one of which (Anya) you're already familiar with.  The other addition is Sam, a mouthy, prickly, yet witty sort of gal who is basically the female version of Baird...which frankly makes for some pretty great exchanges.  Strangely enough, this all works as well.  Patronizing though my comment may be, there's none of it thus far in the game.  The female characters feel like they belong, and thankfully are never held by the hand in some ridiculous "what the hell are you doing here" sort of way.  They never break a nail or twist an ankle or need help firing their oversized rifles.  And I like that.  All they do is bring some diversity to the already-colourful group of pals known as Delta Squad.

So...all around pretty remarkable praise.  Am I saying the game is perfect thus far?  Well, no.  There's not a whole lot to pick at (unless of course you're not a fan of Gears or games like it), but if I had to make a few comments, I would say that it's starting to look dated (although this is true for all console games of this generation), the AI, while generally good, still has some bugs in it, and the pacing just doesn't feel quite as smooth as it did in the past two games.

But overall...I'm really enjoying Gears of War 3.  It proves that there's still a few exclusives to the Xbox 360 that are worth a damn, and that Epic hasn't lost its touch after all these years.

Friday, 12 August 2011

Flashback Friday!

Yes, excessively clever title out of the way, let's take a look at an old favourite of mine.  Hailing from all the way back in 2002, exclusive to Nintendo's silly little purple box, it's Silicon Knight's...

And let me just get this out of the way before I begin with my trip down memory lane.  This game is not just great; it's a bloody masterpiece.

Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem is one of those games that, at the time, I didn't exactly play to death, but now, 9 years later, I constantly think back to as something rather special.  And it really was; few games today are this original, this immersive, and this disturbing.  Now, don't mistake my use of the word 'disturbing' for something blood-smeared with adrenaline-pumping, in-your-face moments of terror like Dead Space or Amnesia.  True, Eternal Darkness has its fair share of blood, gore and violence, but that takes a backseat to something really unnerving.  And that, ladies and gents, is the way this game messes with your head.  The 'Sanity's Requiem' subtitle is not there just for show; sanity plays a crucial role in this game, both on a mechanical level, as well as how it affects you in real life.
Pretty much sets the tone perfectly.  

But just what am I on about?  Is it supposed to be so scary that you lose your mind?  Well no, and it isn't.  Truth be told, at a glance, it's not the scariest horror game out there (technically this is more adventure horror rather than survival horror).  Enemies rarely tread into Silent Hill or Resident Evil level of scary, it's not nearly as atmospheric as modern horror titles, and you're generally well equipped for combat, unlike most survival horror games where you're forced to conserve ammo and health fastidiously.  The real disruption of your brain cells comes from the sanity mechanics within the game.

See, sanity is one of the three bars you have within the game, alongside health and magick (mana, effectively). I honestly cannot remember how you regain it (likely through killing enemies), but as you lose it, you become more susceptible to the game's numerous 'sanity effects', and the game becomes much creepier, with added ambient sound effects and relentless audio and visual trickery.  This is where things really get interesting, and where Eternal Darkness starts to separate itself from the pack.  These effects are effectively hallucinations of sort, which can cause the character you're playing to spontaneously start walking on walls and ceilings, or have their limbs start falling off for no apparent reason in a bloody display, or...well...I don't want to ruin some of the really great stuff if you've got any notion of trying this game.  But, for those of you who love spoilers, there are some examples below.

You've got your fairly tame sanity effects...

And then you've got the stuff that will cause your grasp on reality to slip far more than you'd think a video game had any right to do so.

Now, just watching the effects in succession, or reading about them, might make you think that they're nothing special.  So they throw in some shock value, who cares?  Thing is, it works; it really really works.  You need to play the game to truly understand, but the long and short of it is, when you're this immersed in a game (and Eternal Darkness is that immersive), these randomized sanity effects hit you like a hammerblow.  It is, so far as I know, still to this day completely unique in the world of gaming.

The cast of characters really is impressively diverse, and the
story...the story is unlike anything, in gaming or otherwise.
But the brilliance absolutely does not end with these jarring moments of confusion and fright.  No, because Eternal Darkness has an incredible story to tell.  A story spreading out over the course of 2000 years (that is the correct number of zeros), and tells the story through the eyes of 12 characters, all of which play somewhat differently.  All these characters are as interesting as they are diverse, ranging from a Roman soldier to an Indiana Jones inspired explorer, from a young squire from feudal Europe to a Canadian firefighter cleaning up after the Gulf War.  It's a really great cast of disturbed characters, but what's greater is how their stories intertwine and connect over time, and how it all concludes.  The story is actually extremely complex and mind-bending.

Sure, it's 9 years old, so it's quite dated...but actually, it
rather holds up even by today's standards.  Imagine an
HD version.
Perhaps as fascinating as the story is the gameplay.  While the combat is certainly good, it's not the focus of what I'm talking about here.  What's so interesting is that a relatively blind decision you make very early in the game determines how the rest of the game will play out for the next 15-20 hours.  No seriously, of the three choices you have, enemies will be entirely different, the story will be told in a different manner, and your strengths and weaknesses in combat will be altered.  It's a sort of 'rock paper scissors' system, basically meaning the three choices you have represent the 3 pillars of gameplay and combat; health, magick and sanity.  Whichever you chose, you will suffer the most in that area.  It's just so...mind-blowingly different from games of today.  The fact that the game branches so drastically immediately is telling of just how much more gutsy game developers used to be.  I'm not saying there are 3 different games here, but in terms of replay value, it's one of the most compelling for a single player game that I can think of.

So, although this title was not a blockbuster, and although I did not actually play it beyond one playthrough (albeit fairly meaty at 20 odd hours), it's one of those that has really stuck with me over the years.  Much more so than many more 'big' games of the time.  I mean, if game publishers and developers are so insistent on 'remaking' games into HD versions, for the love of god, turn your attention to Eternal Darkness.  Even if this game was just ported to XBLA or PC digital distribution like Steam, I would be ecstatic to play it again.  Not only that, but I would be excited for others to be able to experience it, no doubt for the first time for many of them.  It's brilliant, it's stunning, it's captivating...it's classic.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Moral Fibre; Now Only $4.95 From Blizzard Entertainment

Apparently, according to the people at Blizzard Entertainment and Activision, you can indeed put a price on anything, including your own ethics.  Yes, while many may arduously defend the continuously declining business practices of the once-great game developer, the truth of it is that Blizzard Entertainment has shown its true colours.  And they are ugly indeed.

Just what am I on about?  Well, if you've had even a passing interest in Diablo 3, chances are you've already heard about the extremely controversial 'real money auction house' system.  This story is available on just about every gaming website and blog out there, so finding out the details on it should not require much digging.  In brief summary, however, the idea behind it is that this player-driven auction house will allow players to literally sell their own virtual items for real cash.  I am not kidding.  The ramifications of such a stunt are a bit dizzying.

I told you I wasn't kidding.
How this works is that Blizzard will host the auction service, upon which you will pay a fee for every item you put up on the auction house.  You set the prices, and yes, you make real money if your item sells, albeit after Blizzard takes a percentage cut on your profit.  And yes, I am aware that apparently you will get a set number of free auctions per day or per week.  However, first off, I can't imagine the number will be very high, and second, the biggest point to keep in mind is undercutting.  If you've played World of Warcraft or any other MMO, you'll know what I'm talking about.  You set a reasonable price, and Johnny Jackass comes along and undercuts you by 1 copper, 1 credit, 1 ISK, or in this case, 1 cent.  Best case scenario, you've just lost one of your 'free' auctions for the day/week because of undercutting; worst case scenario, you've just paid real money to feel cheated.  Oops.

Now, even if Blizzard prevents undercutting through some technological witchcraft, the fact of the matter is that the BIGGEST problem with this system remains.  What?  Potentially losing money and feeling the fool on a virtual auction system isn't the worst bit?  No sir.  The worst thing about this system is that it breaks the game on a fundamental level.  It allows the most disgusting thing imaginable in an online game; players can BUY power.  It's as simple as that.  Buying gear in an RPG like Diablo makes you more powerful; period.

So this is where obnoxious teenagers and idiots with no understanding of how game development or indeed competition is supposed to work come in and raucously yell and scream about how Blizzard is in the right on this.  Some slightly more logical people may also bring up the point of how people bought items in Diablo 2 anyways, only indirectly through 3rd party websites.  But even those types are missing the point.  The point here is that Blizzard is not just accepting this behaviour, but endorsing it.  They are saying the competitive nature of the game does not matter.  Why doesn't it matter?  Because the gamers with more disposable income have a huge advantage over those who do not.  That should never ever be a factor in any sort of competitive scene.

Take this image, replace World of Warcraft with Diablo 3, and you have
the future vision of Blizzard Entertainment.
Some arguments can be made against this.  The first, and no doubt the first for Blizzard fanboys to run to, is comparing it to World of Warcraft.  In WoW, gold selling and gold buying has been a known entity for a very long time.  It is, however, illegal and immoral.  In the case of that game, Blizzard constantly and consistently stood by their notion over the last 6 years that gold selling and buying is completely unacceptable, and they will never allow players to buy their way into a tangible advantage.  Of course, silly nonsense like the mounts and pets available from the Blizzard store are not tangible advantages; they are vanity pieces for people with too much money and too little sense.

Anyways, back to the point at hand.  Why is it that Blizzard has suddenly changed their mind?  Just what the hell happened to turn them from stoic, anti-cheating do-gooders into seemingly lazy enablers of this bad attitude toward game design philosophy?  To most people, the answer would immediately come to them in the form of Activision, everyone's favourite game publisher to hate.  But don't be fooled.  While it's indeed possible that Activision may have had a hand in corrupting Blizzard's once-pure motives, they also claim that they have an entirely 'hands off' approach with their Blizzard partners, allowing them to, in their own words, write their own cheque.  And while that may not be entirely true, the real point here is that what better opportunity did Blizzard ever have to start performing shady business practices than when it was taken under the wing of the world's most hated publisher?  Naturally, every idiot who can't see through the shroud of ignorance they've encased themselves in will automatically assume Activision is at fault for any shenanigans performed by Blizzard.  Nonsense.

Blizzard continues to dazzle with their exuberant
understanding of their gaming customers and what
they do and do not appreciate.
And don't think this is all Blizzard has in store for you when it comes to less than good ideas.  Here's a real winner in the world of gaming; always online DRM!  Yes, that has certainly worked wonders in the past, treating your customers like criminals.  For those of you who don't know, always-on DRM (or digital rights management) involves you being forced to be online with a constant internet connection for the entire duration of when you play the game.  If your internet connection drops, the game stops.  Simple as that.  Now, this is obviously a real, unavoidable issue for any online multiplayer game, which is indeed the strength of a game like Diablo.  However, the game does have a single player option, and indeed there are situations where just hoping on single player for a time, while you're away from any reliable internet connection, is an attractive idea.

So why is it that Blizzard is saying you cannot do this?  Well, their argument comes in the form of something along the lines of "you should play another game offline", which is garbage of course.  Their real reason for the DRM is to prevent what some people did with Diablo 2; making sure you don't just pirate the game and cleverly find your way online with no cost to you and no profits to Blizzard.  Now, correct me if I'm wrong, but hasn't security for games these days improved enough that this sort of thing just isn't possible for an online game?  Certainly for a company like Blizzard, which requires you to sign in to your Battlenet account in order to login to the game, whether it be Diablo 3, Starcraft 2 or World of Warcraft.  I really can't see how it would be possible for anyone to pirate the game and exploit the online function.  Are they seriously only paranoid about people getting the offline, single player experience for free?  To the point where they're willing and eager to prevent their paying customers from ever experiencing such a thing?  Because here I was thinking that when you buy a game, you own it.  When you buy, say, a car, you generally don't have the manufacturer remotely cutting power to your car when you drive outside of a city.  Why is this not the case for games?  Why are developers becoming more and more paranoid, giving their paying customers the same treatment as pirates that don't contribute a dime to the development of their game?

Replace Ezio with your class of choice, Italy with the world of Sanctuary,
and the sci-fi, Matrix-esque Animus message with something infuriatingly
coddling and pandering from Blizzard, and you have Diablo 3 in offline mode.
Take a look at Assassin's Creed 2.  This is a game that grew in infamy because of its flagrant always-on DRM.  A fact, I will admit, that I was ignorant of when I played the game, since I had a constant internet connection.  However, not everyone does.  Connections may be dodgy or outright nonexistent in some more remote locations, and some people may not have the proper setup at home for connecting their console to the internet.  The latter is not doubt a much smaller issue when it comes to PC gaming, but the fact remains that it's just wrong, and Ubisoft learned the scale of their wronging of their customers.  People did boycott Assassin's Creed 2, and effectively.  To the point where Ubisoft made the decision to remove the DRM.  However, I just don't see that happening with Blizzard.  They're too stubborn, too set in their ways with their heels dug in, and above all, too money driven.  I get the feeling that this isn't something that 'old Blizzard' would have ever even considered back in the days of Diablo 2 and Warcraft 3.  Oh how times change.

And so do my favourite and most respected developers.  Blizzard may have fallen from those graces some time ago, but they're approaching the bottom of the barrel now.  Developers like Bioware, Arenanet and CD Projekt RED continue to produce extremely high quality products without treating their fans and consumers as criminals.  And don't forget Indie companies; these developers have really exploded in popularity more recently, with the popularity of games such as Minecraft, Braid and Limbo.  Some Indie games outright surpass mainstream games when it comes to quality and content, for a fraction of the price.  All the while, they maintain a positive outlook on gaming, whereas their big brother developers would rather start enforcing ridiculous DRM and selling bits of their game as piecemeal DLC on launch day.

In light of all this, I will not be buying Diablo 3 in its current announced form.  If Blizzard decides to remove the DRM and have a rethink of the auction house, I will certainly reconsider.  But I'm sorry, with amazing looking games like Guild Wars 2, The Old Republic, Torchlight 2, Skyrim and Mass Effect 3 coming out, I really do not lack for quality RPGs in the next year or so.  On top of that, the developers for these games generally maintain a positive energy for the world of gaming.  I do not feel the need to give my money to a developer that continues to degrade its moral values in the name of short term cash-ins, thus further enabling them to make more and more controversial decisions.

Where will we be in 10 years time if we continue to support this nickle-and-diming nonsense from the likes of Blizzard?  Will we be spending 60 dollars on an incredibly basic, shell of a game, then be forced to fork out cash for any meaningful content?  Will the concept of the offline game become a relic of the past?  Will competition in gaming devolve down to who has the most spare cash floating around, and is the biggest consumer of virtual items?  I find it to be a bleak future.  That's why I'll only support developers that continue to maintain a positive attitude toward the industry as a whole.  I encourage you to do the same, if you have any objection whatsoever to the world of gaming slipping further and further away from common sense.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Dead Space 2

No.  Not a review.  More of a commentary.

So my game of choice immediately following Dead Space was its sequel...either you might consider this very boring or very predictable.  Nevertheless, I have some thoughts, but I feel like a thorough review isn't entirely necessary, since my opinions on the sequel, particularly those contrasting to the original game, can be compared to my review of Dead Space.

Right then, it's sequel time.  And I'm not talking Activision's 'herp derp let's pump 'em out Call of Duty style' idea of a sequel; this is a proper continuation of the Dead Space storyline, and is no cheap cash-in.  That said, is it comparable to the original?  Does it surpass it?  Many online reviews suggest Dead Space 2 is the superior game, if only by an overall small margin.  Personally, I'm not so sure one way or another.

See, this follows the give-and-take mentally displayed in Dragon Age 2, but in a more subtle, less detrimental way.  On Isaac's second outing, the adventure is more brutal, more difficult, and more intense.  In exchange, I found the overall experience less atmospheric, less immersive, and (generally) less scary.  Now, I want to touch on the point of scariness; Dead Space was creepy and jumpy as all hell, whereas its sequel isn't really that.  The fear factor comes from moments of insane, panic-driven chaos and an impending sense of doom.  Your standard necromorphs just somehow don't have the same terrible impact they had in the first game, but in place of that, there are moments that are genuinely heart-pounding terror, if only for your will to survive a seemingly doomed situation.  This time around, you'll find yourself ocassionally pitted against odds that range from extreme to impossible, forcing you to either run or think and fight unconventionally.  You will not be able to go toe-to-toe and defeat every enemy in this game.

Case in point is the opening sequence (if you don't wish to be spoiled, consider this your warning).  Isaac Clarke, our fearless (well not quite) hero, is found after the incident aboard the Ishimura, and immediately thrown in a straight-jacket due to his questionable sanity.  After being interrogated and simultaneously haunted by his dead girlfriend's ghost (OOPSPOILERS), he wakes up an indeterminate amount of time later and is under attack by everybody's favourite reanimated space abominations before he can even get his bloody straight-jacket off.  Yes, the 'tutorial' of the game involves you running for your life with absolutely no way to fight back (and yes, you can absolutely die within seconds).  Happily, the good people at Visceral Games are merciful and just.  Oh wait, they're not, because your first 'weapon' in the game is your standard telekenisis.  If you opted to skip over TK as a legitimate weapon in the first game (like yours truly), be prepared to unlearn your bad habit.  Thankfully, after some tough love styled learning, you will eventually be given your trusted Plasma Cutter, and from there, a whole host of interesting weapons, some familiar and some new, with variable ways to pick necromorphs apart.

This ugly bastard makes for one of my more memorable moments in recent
gaming history.
Another fantastic example of these intense, relentless sequences is a early-to-mid game boss battle against The Tormentor (dubbed "Kong" by the developers for reasons that become quickly obvious when you face this monster). The whole thing plays out like a roller coaster ride straight out of hell, while on acid, and with nothing to keep you restrained within the cart.  Admittedly, the battle crosses into the realm of absurdity, but the entire 'boss fight' is so incredibly well scripted, so cinematic, so terrifying, so thrilling, that it'll just leave you with a big, nervous, sweaty smile on your face afterward.

On top of these standout moments and events, the combat in Dead Space 2 just feels better.  The melee attack feels functional, the telekinesis has some real meat to it, the gunplay is as good or better (with some of the new weapons feeling quite satisfying), and the zero gravity sections have improved on an already cool concept by scrapping the Star Trek: First Contact-esque jumping around weightlessly with an Iron Man inspired ability to effectively fly on all axes.  Oh, and Isaac talks this time around.  I know that may not have an real direct relation to the gameplay, but it's definitely worth nothing.  Thankfully, it's well done, and while the transition is somewhat surprising, you'll almost immediately stop associating Mr. Clarke with the silent hero type.

So that sounds great, right?  How can Dead Space 2 possibly not trump the original with all this cool stuff?  Well, there are a few reasons, some nitpicky, some less so.

The first is perhaps the most glaring and most controversial.  And that has to do with this notion that the still-fledging Dead Space franchise is heading in a more action-oriented direction, abandoning (or at least reducing) its survival horror roots.  No doubts comparisons will have been drawn to Resident Evil 5, which was accused of a similar crime.  Now, while I enjoyed RE5, I won't claim for a minute that it didn't do exactly that; it is a 3rd person action game, and survival horror no more.  Dead Space 2 is not guilty of that, not to that degree.  Indeed, there are moments throughout the game (sadly these include some of the best moments, such as The Tormentor) that reflect a more gradual move in the action direction, where explosive cinematics start to become reminiscent of some of the more ridiculous portions of...oh deary me...the Modern Warfare franchise.  Now now, don't think EA is Call of Duty'ing Dead Space, because that's nonsense.  However, it is somewhat indicative of the current state of affairs when it comes to this sort of modern digital media and what the masses want.  And what the masses want, unfortunately, seems to be mindless explosions and special effects that are offensive to one's intelligence.  Again, I stress this is NOT the case in Dead Space 2, but there is a feel, perhaps only a mere whiff of it.  But the real threat is the fact that it did not exist in the original game in any capacity.  I'm absolutely pulling for a Dead Space 3, but I'm hoping that they keep the relative balance between action and horror that they managed with Dead Space 2.

Environments like this creepy church area look great, but feel out of place
in a science fiction setting.  It starts feeling very...Resident Evil-y.
Before this opinion article begins to delve further into social psyche, let me move on to reason number two why Dead Space 2 may not entirely trump its predecessor.  This one is a little more nebulous and subjective, but bear with me.  The reason has to do with story and setting.  The first Dead Space pretty much nailed it; a creepy and seemingly abandoned wreck of a ship infested with something absolutely horrible.  Perfect sci-fi horror material, firing on all cylinders.  The second game just somehow feels disjointed and confused by comparison.  I never forgot where I was in Dead Space; the Ishimura was a very well put together and memorable set piece.  The Sprawl, by comparison, sort of does as the name implies.  The variety in environments, while admirable, starts to edge away from sci-fi a bit too much for my tastes, including chapels and nurseries among more standard science fiction fare like engineering bays and bridges.  No doubt some will disagree with me, but I preferred the more traditional approach to sci-fi displayed in the first game to the more lived-in 'human' feel of some of the environments in the second.

The story suffers a similar problem, in that I never really felt like there was a clear, overarching goal.  Not to say that the original was perfect story-wise; the constant convenience of having yet another vital ship system fail immediately after fixing the previous one did get a bit predictable.  However, there was just more of a sense of progression towards something in Dead Space; you are an engineer, you are there to fix the ship, you are fixing the ship and uncovering the mystery behind what went wrong.  In Dead Space 2, there were times when I really had no idea why I was where I was, what exactly I was supposed to be doing, or why I should care.  It's not to say that the story is bad, as there are plenty of redeeming qualities, such as Isaac's constant struggle with his diminishing sanity and grasp on reality, but it doesn't fit the sci-fi horror element quite as well as the first game.  It probably doesn't help that Isaac is pulling some seriously ridiculous and reality-defying (albeit quite cool and satisfying) stunts in this game, such as going for a little swim through space at about 10,000 mph.

The third point is that of pacing and difficulty.  I did mention that Dead Space 2 is, overall, more difficult than its predecessor.  This is true, at least in my experience.  However, my issue is that it's not consistently harder.  Instead, you have periods of time where you're practically untouchable (depending on how good you are), having one or two or small groups of necromorphs thrown at you in a manner quite similar to the first game.  This is familiar territory, and shouldn't be a problem for any Dead Space veteran.  Of course, how predictable would the game be if that's all it was?  Naturally, Visceral needed to up the ante on what the necromorphs would be capable of, and they have indeed.  Does it work?  Sometimes.  Having a necromorph pop out of an elevator you've just called is something you thought yourself safe from after playing Dead Space, so it works. Having an absurd number of necromorphs pile onto you in a tiny room completely out of the blue is something that, in my mind, doesn't work.  It turns into a shooting gallery which quickly turns into a button-mashing, frustrating mess if you slip up slightly.  All this is only on normal difficulty as well.  No doubt at this point, any real hardcore Dead Space enthusiast would be looking to strangle me through the monitor at my utter incompetence with this game.  Well, I won't deny I'm not the best at survival horror games, conserving ammo and resources at the wrong times and conversely spending them in the same manner.  However, I had little issue with the first game, and felt that any deaths I experienced were my own fault entirely.  I didn't necessarily feel this in Dead Space 2.  It's not like I was dying often, but I was experiencing frustration at the notion of having too many health packs one moment, and the next discovering I have none at all.  Granted, some of this was caused by my own brashness, ignorance or lack of skill, but some encounters felt downright unfair, such as throwing unreasonable amounts of foes at you in an obscenely small area.  One particular moment in an elevator stands out.  Unless I was missing something, I was being hit by unpredictable damage.  That's not exactly my idea of good design in a survival horror title.

But that...is pretty much it.  And yes, you can make some arguments against the first game as well.  Part of the reason it was so scary was because of things like shock value and cheap scares, such as something popping out and making a loud noise.  Those are present in Dead Space 2, yes, but the adrenaline-pumping moments of panic and intensity are more unique to the sequel.  They were there in Dead Space, but they were more forgiving and more predictable.

So there you have it.  A bit of give and take.  Which game then would I side with?  Well, as a survival horror game, the original is the classic.  Everything about it just worked.  As a game overall, Dead Space 2 may well edge it out.  The big, cinematic action sequences, borderline silly as they might be at times, are just too cool and too exciting to ignore.  There's also the fact that Isaac is a much more fleshed out and sympathetic character this time around.  There's also more of everything; more guns, more suit variety, more upgrades, more ways to approach combat.  The only thing it has less of is length, unfortunately.  Though the sequel is 2 chapters longer than its predecessor, it's certainly not any longer, and if anything, it's an hour or two shorter on a first playthrough.  That said, it's still an extremely solid 10 or so hours, and if you're a survival horror buff, there's good amounts of replay value.

As for the multiplayer, well, I can't comment, because I have no interest in it.  From all I've heard, it's completely mediocre fare, and an entirely redundant addition, much like the multiplayer in Bioshock 2.  There are better games to play with your friends.  Survival horror generally works best while you're on your own.

Crikey.  My "not a review" ended up being longer than my previous review I think.

Monday, 18 July 2011

Dead Space Review

My my, we certainly are not being current now are we?  Yes, Dead Space came out all the way back in 2008, and I've only just (finally) beaten it.  See, I got it for the ridiculous price of 7 or 8 dollars on a previous Steam sale some time ago, got a little over halfway through the game, then lost my save file, making me less than motivated to retread old ground immediately.

So, after some time, I decided to jump back into Isaac Clarke's magnetic engineer's boots and blast some necromorphs into tiny, gruesome little pieces.  Suffice it to say, it was well worth going back to.

For those of you living under a rock, Dead Space is a 3rd person survival horror game that takes place in...wait for it...space.  Specifically, on a derelict 'planet cracker'; a massive ship with a very large crew that has suddenly gone silent.  You play as Isaac Clarke, the Link-esque silent hero who is sent to repair the damaged vessel.  However, quite quickly, it's apparent things have gone wrong.  Blood, guts, debris and the reanimated corpses of the dead crew litter the halls of the USG Ishimura.  The necromorphs themselves are pretty hideous creations, obviously thought up by someone with a messed up childhood.  They are essentially space zombies (if far more menacing), but whereas you dispatch zombies with headshots, the opposite is true of necromorphs; you must rip them limb from limb in order to kill or disable them.  Head and body shots, particularly on harder difficulty levels, do next to nothing.  However, there's a strange and rather grotesque satisfaction in taking enemies apart in such a manner, making the combat in Dead Space both incredibly visceral and rather unique.

So now that we've established what most gamers probably already know, let's move on to the specifics.


Since I've already explained the basic premise of Dead Space, there's little unbiased information I can add to it without including spoilers, so I'll simply say that the story, while not overly complex, has a number of intriguing twists and turns, ending up with a solid conclusion.  Isaac ends up being a great character (regardless of the fact he doesn't speak throughout the game) because he's an everyman thrown into an implausible and horrible situation.  However, he's actually believable as an everyman, and you'll likely sympathize with him as he struggles, panics and fights his way through the game.

In terms of how the game is presented, well, you're immediately treated to a creepy opening EA logo followed by a rather unsettling combination of sounds and visuals on menu.  The menus themselves are fine, but I must say that something about the PC port makes the mouse cursor overly sensitive, and yet causes it to lag slightly at the same time.  It's not game breaking by any means, but it just feels incredibly awkward and cumbersome.  A very small issue, but you'll notice it when navigating menus or saving your game.


Seeing as how Dead Space is primarily a survival horror title (albeit with some heavier action segments), you probably want to know how it handles the horror element.  To put it bluntly, very well, for the most part.  In certain sections of the game, horror takes a backseat to some seriously intense action sequences, or just plain cool moments.  But aside from those moments, the game can range from edgy, to terrifying, to panic-inducing.  Without spoiling anything, there are sections of the game where you will be forced to run while under attack.  Other parts of the game will manage to lull you into a false sense of security, making you feel safe, dropping your guard, only to have something horrific barrel around the corner and into your face.  If you're playing this game alone, in the dark, with headphones on (as I did), these segments are about as scary as I can imagine fictional horror to be.

This game is rather gory, in case you hadn't gathered.
The combat really shines as well, which is refreshing in a survival horror game.  While you may well be on the edge of your seat, eyes wide and heart pounding, you can also take comfort in the fact that you've got some pretty serious (and seriously fun) firepower to chose from.  All the weapons feel unique in their own way, all have a secondary fire, and all can be upgraded in numerous ways as you collect special items throughout the game.  My personal favourite is the Line Gun, which does what the name implies, firing off a wide line of energy, cutting a swath of gory destruction through necromorph ranks, turning limbs and appendages into ground beef.

A very interesting mechanic that is quite unique to Dead Space is the zero gravity segments.  Often you'll find yourself navigating large rooms, dealing with the sense of vertigo as you walk on walls and ceilings, all the while fending off flailing, floating necromorphs and trying to solve puzzles.

If I had a complaint it would be that the melee attacks feel unreliable and difficult to judge.  The argument to that is that Isaac is not a trained soldier, and is indeed just flailing around in a mad attempt to get necromorphs off of him.  Which is very true.  But nonetheless, it's something of a slight irritation in an otherwise great combat system.


Well, the game is now 3 years old, so judging the graphics obviously has to account for certain allowances.  That said, it's aged very well.  Sure, there are a few blurry textures here and there, but what they managed with lighting effects and environments more than makes up for slightly dated technology.  This game is very atmospheric.  I'm not sure if I'd quite put it on the level of, say, Amnesia: The Dark Descent, but then again, what game can match that level?  Dead Space is certainly in the same league, however.  There are parts of the game where you won't fire your weapon for minutes on end, but all the while you'll be sweating buckets from the tension created by your surroundings.

Everything just looks and feels like its only purpose is to make you have long, sleepless nights.
On the artistic side of things, I have to say I'm a huge fan.  Everything looks and feels unique, while still paying some homage to classic sci-fi horror like Alien and Event Horizon (yeah yeah I did just refer to Event Horizon as classic, deal with it).  The necromorphs are some of the most horrific looking creations I've ever seen in a video game, making the various monsters in Resident Evil look like playthings by comparison.  There's a great attention to detail everywhere you look, really making you feel like you are on an enormous spaceship that functions as a city for its crew.  The terrific design of Isaac's suit I believe has already allowed him to become an iconic gaming figure.


Much like the graphics, the sound design helps in molding Dead Space into one of the all time greats for survival horror.  The music in particular is incredibly creepy, perfectly fitting the sci-fi setting but also making you feel more than uncomfortable.  The sound effects range from spine-chilling wails emitted from the necromorphs or the utterly disgusting squishing of organic, dead material covering the walls and floors as you tromp over them, to the incredibly satisfying boom of the Plasma Cutter or the whining, screaming roar of the Ripper as it tears through fleshy limbs.

The voice acting is also very good, unlike certain other games in the genre (*cough* Resident Evil*ahem*), which helps keep you immersed in the (surprisingly good) story.  It also really makes you give a damn about the characters, including the ever-silent Isaac.


This is unfortunately where my review becomes somewhat skewed.  See, I managed to pick up Dead Space for a ridiculously low price (less than 10 dollars), so from my perspective, as someone who greatly enjoyed the game, it was an incredible value.  However, while that was indeed a Steam sale, I really doubt you'd be able to find Dead Space for more than 20 dollars, whether through digital distribution or physical copies in stores.  And for that price, Dead Space is still more than worth the cost of admission.  The original price of 60 dollars is rendered irrelevant here in 2011, but I will say that I still believe that original price would have been justified.  Yes, the game is not that long, perhaps 10-12 hours for your first playthrough, assuming you don't charge through like a maniac.  But the experience is so rich, rewarding and unique, that paying full price would have been completely acceptable, especially if you're a fan of the genre.

As well as if you're a fan of original IP and unique, new games, because, let's face it, in this day and age with yearly Call of Duty sequels being churned out like clockwork, fresh and new experiences are few and far between, and I do believe it's important to support games like that.  And thankfully, gamers did support Dead Space, which is why it ended up getting a sequel, and at that, a sequel that apparently edges out the original, according to many.  Indeed, a sequel that I intend on playing in the near future.


Dead Space is one of the best survival horror titles I've ever played, and is one of my favourite 'new' IPs.  Yes, granted, by now Dead Space has been around for 3 years, but new IPs are so rare these days that it still feels new.  It also feels strong, brimming with potential, and already seems to be displaying that with a great sequel as well as several spinoffs.  If you're a fan of survival horror or sci-fi, I highly, highly recommend Dead Space.  If you're a fan of both, well I have literally no idea why you still have not played this game.


Story/Presentation - Creepy from the get-go, with an immersive story and characters to accompany it.
Gameplay - Visceral, terrifying and so incredibly satisfying.  Melee attacks could be more reliable.
Visuals - Moody and atmospheric in a genuinely original setting with plenty of nightmarish terrors to populate it.
Sound - Spooky, chilling music paired with hair-raising sound effects.  Voice acting is very professional as well.
Value - A fraction of the price it was on launch is a fantastic deal; getting this on Steam for less than 10 dollars is practically theft.  Still a relatively short game with very little replayability, unless you're a vehement fan of survival horror and can handle the 'Impossible' difficulty.

Overall - 9.1/10

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Oh Steam You Devil You

Yes, yes it has been quite some time since my last post.  A fact rendered largely irrelevant by the fact that basically no one has actually visited this blog since then, due to the unfinished state it's currently in.

But worry not, for I shall soldier on.  For glory!  Or perhaps just for the lulz.

So...just what's been going on since that Dragon Age 2 review from so many moons ago?  Well, since we're on the subject of the DA2 review, I must make a (admittedly embarrassing) retcon here.  The review...well, perhaps I was seeing things through rose-tinted spectacles.  See, Bioware, up until this point, has been the untouchable, unwavering and undisputed champion of the gaming world for me.  They have never released a bad game (don't worry, I'm not now saying Dragon Age 2 is a bad game), they consistently release extremely high quality games that push the boundary of what storytelling in games can accomplish, and they (unlike certain other developers) seem to listen to their community, which reflects in the games they put out.  Exhibit A:  Mass Effect 2.  A sequel that basically improves upon the original in every single way.  With Dragon Age 2, however...well, I suppose I was convincing myself of the same thing.  Origins was just a better game.  It was longer, had more content, more polish, and clearly had a lot more time, energy and devotion put into it.  All the reused environments, rehashed quests and shorter, lesser overall story really is telling of just how rushed Dragon Age 2 must have been.  An unfortunate missed opportunity.  That in mind, I still stand by a good portion of what I said in the review, in that some of the characters are absolutely terrific, the combat is much improved, the talent trees are better, and the dialogue wheel is simply the wave of the future.

Now, with that bit of business out of the way, what else is there to say?  Well for starters, Steam has had another sale.

Ouch.  My wallet.

Yes, the Steam Summer sale has come and gone, along with a good chunk of change from me.  No regrets, however, as the sale prices ranged from great, to unbelievable, to actually feeling almost guilty for getting certain games so cheap.  In fact, I wish I had bought more.  I unfortunately missed out on a couple days, which included missing out on Dead Space 2 for $15 (admittedly I've yet to go back and finish the first game, as I lost my old save file around 2/3 through the game).

But in terms of what I did manage to get on the cheap, a real gem that comes to mind is Transformers: War for Cybertron.  Now hold on there; if you're thinking this is a terrible movie tie-in to one of Michael Bay's silly blockbusters, think again.  This is based entirely off the original series, and thus is very faithful to the source material, and as it turns out, is actually a very fun game.  Think Gears of War's over-the-shoulder shooting meets Halo's vehicle combat.  All the while you're seeing these childhood icons (if you're too young or too old to recognize the original Transformers as childhood icons then I deplore you as a human being) blast the holy hell out of each other.  I won't go into it much further, as a review in the not-too-distant future is a possibility, but I'll cap it off by saying all this came to the price of $6.70.  And to think you could spend 10 times that on new console games that aren't half as fun.

Speaking of games for that price, I picked up Mass Effect 2.  Again.  Yes, I already own Mass Effect 2 on Xbox 360, but I fancied playing it again, only on PC instead.  Less than 7 bucks seems like a fairly reasonable price for that.  What's that you say?  Your budget for gaming is less than 7 dollars?  Worry not!  Or, should I say, worry not if you managed to get in on some of these deals (and if you missed out, well there's always the next big Steam sale).  There were plenty of really great Indie games on sale for ridiculously low prices.  I bought Trine, a very unique and beautiful sidescrolling, platforming, puzzle/action game, for the absurdly price of $2.  Lots of other amazing Indie games like Terraria, Beat Hazard and Amnesia were also on for brow-furlingly low prices.

So I suppose what you can take away from all this is that there was a bunch of rather delicious deals on Steam, some of which I bought in to, others of which I unfortunately missed out on, and yet more that would have been terrific had I not already bought the game (The Witcher 2; 33% off barely a month after release...seriously).  What this means is I've now got some more games to commentate on and review.  More content is coming, in other words.  Try to contain your excitement.

Friday, 18 March 2011

Dragon Age 2 review

So Dragon Age 2 came out on the 8th of March, roughly a week and a half ago.  Since then, it's very quickly become an extremely controversial game for a number of reasons, including the massive disparity between professional reviews and gamer reviews given on Metacritic.  While Metacritic is not necessarily the best way to judge a game, it's quite a shocking variance, which will undoubtedly lead some people to wonder just what the hell is going on with this game.  Well, I completed it for the first time yesterday, and have some thoughts on it.

Let me just begin by saying I like Dragon Age 2.  A lot.  I wouldn't necessarily place it into the same league as, say, Mass Effect 2, but it's a very good (perhaps great) game in its own regard.  That said, as with Origins, the sequel has some problems, a few of which are glaring.

So what's the big deal?  No game is perfect, right?  Why have so many people, specifically fans of Dragon Age: Origins, sunk their teeth into this game, refusing to let go?  From what I have seen and experienced, the problems can be summed up into a few major points.

1.  Bioware took some liberties with the sequel, changing some of what made Origins stand out (much discussion on this later).
2.  The game was released with DLC that was neither free nor particularly cheap, leaving some people feeling cheated.
3.  Some corners were clearly cut when it comes to the environments of the game.  I think this is the most legitimate problem, something I admit I take issue with myself, and I'll be discussing it in full later.

Beyond that, sure, everyone has their minor complaints and judgements based on opinion, but I am fairly certain that this triad of concerns is the vast majority of the reason as to why this game has come under so much fire.

But enough of controversy; let's talk about the game itself.  What a crazy idea on a gaming blog!  Initiate generic game review breakdown protocol.


Well, let's get this one out in the open for anyone out there who may be blind (and yet somehow reading this blog post); Dragon Age 2 looks significantly better than Origins.  Graphics were irrefutably a weak point for Origins.  As the game was developed over the course of 7 years, naturally the technology that they built it upon was to become outdated quickly.  Texture work in particular was very out of place for a modern game, and when you compared it to similar Bioware games released around the same time (Mass Effect), there was really no comparison at all.

Character models and certain set pieces look very good, but environments are not all that varied.

In the sequel, this has been somewhat addressed.  Character models largely look great and animate in a convincing manner.  Some of the environments are quite pretty as well.  With that said, it's not perfect.  Far from it in fact.  We're still seeing muddy textures in a lot of places, and a lot of the environments are reused in many places.  This is a major complaint by many, and I can't disagree.  The constant reuse of these environments really starts to grate on you after seeing the same coastline for the 6th or 7th time, or the same mansion or warehouse for the 8th or 9th time.  Sure, those environments are usually altered in some way, but it's an extremely lazy path to take.  Surely it could not have been all that difficult to at least try to hide the fact that so much of the world has been recycled.  It really does hurt the immersion factor of the game when you're constantly being drawn out of the experience thinking "This place...again?".  It also doesn't help that you'll often run into NPCs or areas that have half solid texture work and half very ugly.  Unfortunate.

Overall, at its best, it's a very pretty, convincing and immersive game from a visual perspective, while at its worst, it is lazy and distracting.

Summary:  Good, but not the level of improvement people expected.  Not up to par with Mass Effect.  Reused environments are unapologetically lazy.


Brace yourselves; this is going to be a long one.

Simply put, Dragon Age 2 plays very, very similarly to Dragon Age: Origins.  Chances are, if you liked how Origins play, you'll like how the sequel plays, and even if you didn't like how Origins played (I can admit to this to a degree), you might actually like the changes Bioware has made.  And if you've not played Origins, well, I'll do my best to fill you in.

Origins was labeled by many as one of the very few surviving old-school style RPGs.  It favoured tactical decision making and proper management of abilities and items over twitch reflexes and button mashing.  You were given a choice of one of the three traditional RPG archetypes; Warrior, Rogue or Mage, and from there, you could customize how that character looked, played and acted, all very much in the traditional Bioware format.  Also familiar was that you would chose a small party from a larger group of companion characters, each of which would have certain abilities and personalities that would vary both how the combat and story would play out.  Seems formulaic, but what made Origins so good was that they combined the traditional aspects of a meaty and lengthy RPG (a robust amount of items, abilities, talents and customization options) with the fantastic storytelling of a Bioware game.  It's not like Origins was a complete departure from other RPGs or Bioware games (indeed it felt very familiar in many ways), but somehow the balance worked out extremely well.  Some may argue it was near perfection.

Talent trees are actually more in-depth and interesting than in Origins.

However, some others, myself included, took issue with the slow and awkward nature of the combat system. At times, it felt as if abilities were not responsive, or it would be an absolute pain to maneuver a character, specifically a melee DPS or a tank, out of a bad situation or into the fray to assist their allies.  The animations were also somewhat underwhelming, also lending to that feeling that combat was overly slow paced and difficult to get involved in.  It's a shame really, because while the concept of a more strategic, tactical RPG is a very good one, the way your characters responded in such a slow, trundling manner really made me feel disconnected and irritated with the combat at times, and I know this to be the case with friends and fellow gamers who just couldn't get into Dragon Age: Origins because of it.  I've certainly heard of those who admitted to slogging through the combat of the game just to see the story play out.  Combat should never be a drag, certainly not in a single player RPG.

So, with the sequel, Bioware retained most of the tactical portion of the combat, but then made abilities far more responsive, characters much more mobile, and animations so visceral that it borders on the absurd.  This all comes together to create a much, much more involved combat experience, and while at first it may seem to lean heavily towards becoming an action RPG, and abandoning the tactical portion, this isn't the case.  You can still pause the action to issue orders, you still have to manage your resources and consumable items and you still have to pay attention to the positioning of your group.  The game IS easier, however, and Bioware has admitted as much, stating that normal now is roughly equivalent to casual in Origins.  This is easily fixed by just moving up one difficulty level though, and if you still find, say, Nightmare too easy, well then good for you; you are RPG master extraordinaire.  Or you're just lying on the internet like everyone else, because I'd say the game is fairly challenging on Hard.  Regardless of how you think the difficulty is tuned, the core gameplay itself is relatively unchanged, just made to be more responsive and slick.

Somehow, all this directly translates to being "dumbed down" according to the various colourful people of the internet (also known as Origins fanboys).  Now this directly ties in to the first point I made of the three major issues with Dragon Age 2, and I consider this one to be largely a fallacy.  People these days have this ridiculous tendency to consider any removal of anything as a measure of "dumbing it down", which is absurd beyond measure.  Let me just make this unequivocally clear:  Complexity does not equal quality.  True, you don't want games to be overly simple (most of the time), but having unnecessary fluff does nothing but clog the inner workings of what makes the game good.  I agree with most, if not all, of what Bioware removed from Origins when making Dragon Age 2; almost all of it was crap.  The crafting system in Origins was incredibly basic and required certain characters to specialize into it; it is now a matter of collecting rare materials and patterns, then visiting a vendor.  The old skills system in Origins let you put points into crafting or minor bonuses to combat or resistances.  Honestly I completely forgot this was even missing from DA2 until someone pointed it out; it was that irrelevant in Origins.  Choice and customization is another complaint many have had, as in Origins, you could chose your race and backround, while in DA2, you are restricted to a human refugee named Hawke.  This comes down to a matter of preference, as I suppose the Origins path did give you some interesting options, but personally, I far prefer the more personalized story of Hawke to the voiceless, nameless Gray Warden you played in Origins.  It's very much the Mass Effect take on Dragon Age, in the same way that Commander Shepard is a pre-existing character in the universe, yet you can customize him/her and make decisions along the way, Hawke essentially plays out in the same manner.

In terms of the story and characters...well, it's Bioware folks.  Of course it's extremely good.  While the plot itself is not exactly exceptional, the way the story is told certainly is.  The majority of the game takes place in the city of Kirkwall, which is something of a departure from the adventuring across the world that Origins was.  It actually does work fairly well though, as you really get to know this city and how it works.  This particular character lineup is also one of Bioware's best in my opinion.  Isabella and Varric in particular have rocketed up to contenders for top spots in my list of favourite Bioware/video game characters, alongside the likes of Garrus, Tali, Morrigan, Alistair and HK-47.  Have no fear that anything has been lost in this particular area of the game.

Varric is a pretty cool guy and he doesn't afraid of anything.

To sum up gameplay then:  I think it's largely better.  I won't disagree that it's easier, or that the game is shorter and has less content (all true), but the combat is more fun, the talents are more interesting and balanced, the characters and story are just as good as you'd expect from a Bioware game, and despite the bitching and moaning of the vocal minority (some of which decided they hated the game before they even saw actual gameplay), very little is lost in the translation from Origins to Dragon Age 2 in terms of meaningful depth.

Summary:  Very fun and immersive, excellent story and characters, improved combat; sacrifices little complexity despite clamoring suggesting otherwise.


Well, much like the argument for the story and characters, this can quickly be summed up with a single statement:  It's Bioware, folks.  The soundtrack, while not as memorable as Origins, is still very moody and fitting.  Sound effects are mostly standard fare, but combat sound effects are fittingly brutal and visceral.  The voice acting is extremely good, as is the writing for it.  Banter between characters while wandering around Kirkwall ranges from amusing to fascinating to downright hilarious.  The dialogue between characters is probably the most convincing work Bioware has done yet, which is saying a lot, considering their history.

Honestly, there's not much more to say than that.  I suppose my only negative point would be that the music didn't quite stand up to Origins, but that's fairly minor indeed.

Summary:  Exceptional voice acting, great score.


Dragon Age 2 is not as long as Origins, and has less content.  It's just a fact.  That said, it's still a fairly lengthy game, especially by today's standards, if you give it a thorough playthrough.  People have said they've beaten it in roughly 20 hours, however for me, it took about 37 hours my first time through, playing on normal.  I didn't do absolutely every optional quest, but most.  But as far as I'm concerned, nearly 40 hours for one playthrough, with plenty of reason to go back for a second, is still very good value.  As far as DLC goes, so far there's nothing too significant out, and nothing that I know of that's been announced for the near future.  But looking at Mass Effect 2 and some of the amazing DLC that was produced for it later on, I would expect some similar level of quality content coming for Dragon Age 2 in the future.  Origins also got a fairly hefty expansion in the form of Awakening, so I would not entirely be surprised to see something similar for the sequel not too far down the line.

As to whether or not potential future DLC actually counts towards the lasting appeal of a game, I suppose it doesn't technically, but it is nice to know a developer will continue to develop for their games after release, even if it will cost you more.

Summary:  Not as much here as Origins, but more than most modern games.  DLC and/or expansions are almost a guarantee.


So is Dragon Age 2 worth your time and money?  Well if you were asking that question to me, my answer would be absolutely.  I've got over 40 hours of enjoyment out of it so far, and am still not remotely bored of it going into my second playthrough.  But going off the assumption that other people might have varying tastes from me (absurd a thought as this is), there are factors to take into consideration.  Are you a fan of Bioware games?  If you are, you probably didn't need to read this review to decide to buy the game; it's a no-brainer and rightly so.  More specifically, do you place Dragon Age: Origins on an impossibly high pedestal, as so many have done?  If yes, you might want to pass on DA2 from all that I've read.  Those that are deluded enough to think that Origins was a perfect game are likely to not take changes to the formula (even minor ones) very well.  

What did you say about me selling out to EA?!

But, do you consider yourself a sane, rational person?  Then chances are you will enjoy Dragon Age 2, especially if you enjoy grand stories with interesting characters.  Like other Bioware games, this plays out as if you're reading a great novel or watching a great movie...only you are a participant in that story.  Not just a participant, in fact, but the driving force.  And that's something very few games do well.

Summary:  Not exactly better or worse than Origins; it's both familiar and different at once.  Glaring problems are overshadowed by excellent storytelling and improved gameplay mechanics.  Dragon Age 2 is not to Dragon Age: Origins what Mass Effect 2 was to Mass Effect, but rather it is a game that is as enjoyable as its predecessor.