Tuesday, 14 June 2011


When it comes to portraying a story about betrayal, revenge, and ultimately redemption, what would be the best course of action?

Making a shooter featuring more swearing than a dinner party with Gordon Ramsey and the ability to kick people into cacti for points probably isn't the preferred route.

Bulletstorm is a decidedly mixed narrative, wound around the idea of being scored on how you progress through the game. It's an interesting premise. While being an obvious extension to the XP gain system most shooters feature these days the amount of different kills, or Skillshots as they are called, is impressive. The points you earn from the Skillshots are then used as currency for weapons and upgrades at lockers called drop points. While giving the point system meaning, it also gives the player an incentive to actually expend effort in pulling off the shots.

From the outset it's evident as to what this game is about. It wants you to be brutal and sadistic while it tries to make you laugh by saying naughty words. It has a feel of self parody about it. It's like the game knows it's being puerile, that it's catering to the most base of base humour and it's fine with that. But there's always the niggling doubt behind all that swearing, that there should really be some substance to the story.

This builds up in the background until the game's climax where it bursts to the forefront, confusingly jarring the stand out themes from one extreme to the other. It felt forced and because it spent most of the time behind a façade of toilet humour, it disconnected me from the emotions I felt toward the characters to begin with.

Perplexing tonal shifts aside, Bulletstorm plays really well. I've not experienced a shooter where you feel quite this powerful close up. A lot of games tend to make you keep the enemy at a distance. Thanks to one of the strongest kicks in all gaming, you can dispatch multiple ne'er-do-wells in an instant. Coupled with the stasis effect applied after the kick, which leaves your prey hanging in mid air for a few seconds, it really is one of the most powerful weapons in the game.
A joke about Sparta would seem necessary here

The star of the show would have to be the Leash. Acquired early on, it allows you to interact with objects in the world and to pull baddies toward you, Scorpion style, to dole out some toe-capped justice. Enemies that can't be leashed can then be Thumped. A blast of energy that flings most goons 30 feet into the air and slams mini-bosses to the ground. 

There is an awkward reason it takes centre stage, however. Aside from a pretty amazing pistol and a gun that fires a sort of bolo-mine, most of the weapons are pretty forgetful. The main weapon looking like it was ripped straight from Gears of War.

Which leads me to the look of the game. I don't know if it's the engine beginning to show it's age or derivative design, but the whole game has a distinct Gears of War clone-iness feel to it. In no way does the game play like GoW, but it looks like it could inhabit the same universe.

Having said that, there is really nothing wrong with wanting to look as good as Gears of War. It tries admirably, certainly injecting more colour into the environments. Overall it looks decent, like most Unreal 3 games do, just nothing incredible.

However, the most major downside to the entire game would be how much it holds your hand throughout. Now, games need some sort of on screen help for certain events in the game world, but to have these appear as bright blue button prompts actually straight up telling you what to do is asinine. It could be dismissed if said prompts happened once, or even twice, as a means to get you to learn the game's processes, with each event thereafter having just a visual hint like a glow or outline. Having every single event have a pop-up prompt appear from as much as 40 yards away removes all thought from the gameplay. This type of thing has to stop.

In ending, it's a very fun game. The player character controls very well, the mechanics are sharp and some of the dialogue can be genuinely funny. There's also a part where you control an giant mechanical Godzilla. Need I say more?

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Duke Nukem Forever

There comes a time in the development cycle of a video game where people give up hope. The anticipation of imminent release is replaced by the bitter pill of disappointment. The one game that embodies all that built up expectancy and subsequent despondency would be Duke Nukem Forever.

First announced back in 1997 as a sequel to the massively successful Duke Nukem 3D, Forever has had the most torrid development of any video game in history. The length of time involved tells it's own story.

And so, after 14 years in a development cycle marred by lawsuits and studio collapses, we find ourselves with a final retail release of Duke Nukem Forever. From this day forth, June 10th 2011 shall be a day that will live in infamy. A day when the impossible became reality. When all the waiting and hoping would come to fruition and gamers all over the world could play the game that time forgot. We would marvel in it's magnificence and worship Duke as the Messiah of the industry.

Or not.

You see, while the point of no return came and went, the sheer amount of time the game has been in development taints the vision somewhat. Once re-announced by Gearbox Software the game could never live up to the expectation cast upon it. What troubles me is a lot of people will see the 14 years and think they will have all been spent making the game in it's current form. People will believe the team will have worked constantly on the same exact game for all that time, ignoring the lawsuits and leavers and expect a mammoth shooter with the best graphics, Oscar-worthy story and a multiplayer mode that makes Call of Duty look like a BBC Micro game.

The reason it troubles me is because Forever is a good game. The controls are a bit clunky and the game looks like it's from a few years ago, but that's because it is.

What the game represents is a throwback to an intermediate time between when shooters were four hundred locked doors between a nameless man and the end of the level and now, when shooters are a linear, story-driven, shooting gallery set-piece-athon.

Forever is bang in the middle. It's a linear, story-driven spectacle interspersed with platforming, puzzle solving and minigames. What the game avoided, by the grace of almighty God, is a lack of variety. Without trying to spoil too much, in the first 3 hours the game features standard run-n-gun, puzzles, driving, being shrunk, solving more puzzles while shrunk, driving an RC car while shrunk, on rails sections, turret gameplay and pool. That is more to do than most shooters feature in an entire franchise.

Hey, it worked once

So, what about the actual game part of the game? Well as you might expect, a complex story is not on the cards. The basic premise is "aliens bad, Duke good, babes better". Aliens invade Earth after Duke made them look stupid the first time round and start stealing all of Earth's hottest babes. This will not stand. Duke snaps into action, against the will of the President, to defeat the alien scum and reclaim the babes. Perfect, simple setting.

What I will say about the game that is better than any recent shooter release, is the lack of utterly useless handholding (so long as you turn hints off). Most games these days seem to regard you as little more than a toddler, gently guiding you through sections that require no more brainpower than that of a lobotomised horse. Forever can be tricky, but you usually know what to do and where to go through indirect direction... you heard me.

Graphics quality is always a contentious issue in games. Is visual style more important than pure realism, or do graphics even matter at all? The only thing that need be said is if Forever came out three or four years ago, the graphics would still only be considered good, not great. This is in no way to the detriment of the game. End of story.

These days, a game has to have multiplayer. If a game wants to have a successful multiplayer, you give up and realise nobody plays anything but Call of Duty and Halo. Some games try and leach some of the success from those two franchises by copying them almost exactly, especially CoD. Thankfully Forever doesn't really try and be anything amazing. It features the multiplayer fad du jour of earning XP and leveling but only to unlock items in your online pad, which is a nice change. Everything is played on an even playing field and has a discernibly old school feel to it.

When it comes to making a decision about this game, ignore the 14 years. Take it for what it is; a callback to games of old. Before big budgets and pomposity took hold. When games had less heads and more boots up asses.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

LittleBigPlanet 2

I'm going to start this review with the ending, just because I can. LittleBigPlanet 2 is awesome. So mind-bendingly, unequivocally awesome.

One thing that is not awesome, through no fault of the game, is the absolutely dreadful state PlayStation Network has been in over the past month or so. While I understand that there have been many problems, a 13MB update should not take nearly 2 minutes to download on a 37Mb internet connection. Ever.

When the game loaded up it was nice to see the old pod from LittleBigPlanet 1 again, just how I had left it. Or should I say how a friend had left it, since the last time we played together. Many a flower had been stapled on my slick, black walls leaving it looking like a goth entry into the Chelsea flower show.

Surprisingly (or in hindsight, not), my sackboy also appeared wearing the exact costume I left him in while playing LBP1. However, I thought a painted black space suit made him look too much like a dwarf wearing a gimp suit so I decided to check out the customisation options again. Ah, the vast emptiness. Having not played any of the game yet, I was stuck with pretty much nothing.

And so, I hopped gleefully into the story. One of the nicest changes to the story mode is the use of fully voiced cutscenes. In the original game, we were stuck with reading all of the story which made the game trudge along a bit slowly. While those text boxes appear again in the actual levels, the bulk of the story is driven superbly through the pre and post level cutscenes.

The use of cuscenes also had the advantage of being able to use fully animated characters. Before, we had the stiff cardboard cutouts, mumbling to themselves while bobbing up and down. While adding nothing to gameplay, it really helps you to connect more with the characters.

When it comes to the look of LittleBigPlanet 2, it really is stunningly pretty. The slight graphical update since the original has meant the game has blossomed into something beautiful. Textures are sharp, models are smooth and the motion blur has been made significantly better. Other effects like fire, water and electricity are back with added features like fire propagation and electrical currents.

What I find incredible is the amount of detail that can be achieved on just three planes of a 2 dimensional game. Some moments packed in more action into that tiny space than the latest blockbuster 3D title.

Sackboy's lonely hearts ad proved fruitful

When it comes to user created content, LittleBigPlanet is the console king. The original spawned over 2 million custom levels, all of which are still playable in the sequel. Even my pathetic excuse for an attempt should still be there.

That does lead me to a personal problem with LittleBigPlanet, as well as all games with user generated content. I can see amazing ideas in my head, but when it comes to making them, my brain turns to putty. It's like the game is taunting me with the fantastic level editor and then giving me a lobotomy before I can make anything. I guess I'll have to play other people's level and deal with being green with envy.

Speaking of the level editor, so much has been improved or added to it that now, players can create whole games rather than single levels. It does sound like an advertising hook (and it was), but it's damn true. Just a small poke around the community reveals such creativity previously unseen on console. Anything is possible from high score minigames, to multi-level story-driven epics.

With the simple idea of a character made of cloth hopping around, Media Molecule are becoming giants in the gaming industry. LittleBigPlanet has become the series to beat if you want to make a successful contender to it's crown. What's more, it's fully deserved. If you want a game that will entertain, thrill, delight and capture your imagination, get LittleBigPlanet 2 right now.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

TRON: Evolution

When it comes to movie tie-in games, there is usually only one outcome. A sloppy turd of a platformer with the respective movie's name on the front cover.

Tie-ins are always an obvious ploy to widen prospective audiences for the movie and to generate more money. This is absolutely no different for TRON: Evolution, but I find myself in the unique position of having played an OK movie game. There is the large and distinct possibility that the fact it's TRON has tainted my opinion somewhat. Having said that, the fact it being Tron gives it something unique over other movie games.

So we begin. The game serves as a bridge between the original film and the recently released sequel TRON: Legacy. The plot revolves around CLU's corruption and betrayal of the creator, Flynn, as well as his genocide of the Isomorphic Algorithms (ISOs). This is seen briefly in the movie, and is expanded upon to a decent degree in the game. Aside from some incontinuities, it works well as a bridge between the two films while not being essential to the plot of the movies.

What isn't touched upon in the movie, is the presence of a virus going by the name of Abraxas. Playing through, I felt this was a completely unnecessary sub-plot. While also being unoriginal in a TRON game, it derails the main plot of CLU's descent into corruption and what could be described as madness. It feels a bit tacked on for length and seemingly because the design team might have been bereft of ideas at that point.

It does turn out that Abraxas was an ISO and that CLU is using him as a ploy to gain support for his "purge". It seems to make sense, but the fact that CLU is already re-appropriating existing programs and turning them into an army he controls defeats the point slightly. Wait, I mean massively.

Then we have the player character. Now sometimes games can have nameless, faceless protagonists and it seems to work alright. Doom springs to mind, although I suppose he did have a face. A very angry face. In any case, you play as a program whose role is that of a system monitor called... System Monitor. Originality must ooze from every pore of the design team.

The same could technically be said for CLU, as his name is an acronym. Why do only two characters in the whole TRON universe have non-names? And why is the System Monitor so dull? It feels like you're playing a game as the Stig.

Some say he is a user...

Still, these annoyances aside, the game plays rather well. Again I was surprised by the inclusion of an upgrade and level system. Though not as clever as TRON 2.0, it adds another layer to gameplay. The one problem is you don't level up enough to get a lot of the upgrades quickly, forcing multiple playthroughs or foraying into the multiplayer.

Being a third person platformer, controls are hugely important. When it comes down to it, they're adequate. Not amazing, not horrible. I spent about as much time chaining vaults to wallruns as I did leaping foolhardily into vast chasms of expansive nothingness.

Of course, being TRON, lightcycles have to make an appearance. To be quite fair, I enjoyed these sections a lot. Yeah, the controls were incredibly wonky and you're going so fast you can barely see what's in front of you, but it adds to the fun. You also get to drive Flynn's cycle at one point. Squeels of delight were made.

Other sections included light tank battles, which looked almost exactly like the beginning of the original TRON, where the first CLU is destroying Recognizers. If it was intentional, it's a nice touch.

It was also good to hear Bruce Boxleitner lend his voice to TRON again and Olivia Wilde playing her role as Quorra. It helped the game merge into the TRON universe more easily. I was quite amazed to see that it wasn't Jeff Bridges voicing Flynn and CLU, because the replacement (Joe Tatasciore) sounds exactly like him. The same can't be said for Michael Sheen's replacement. Fingers down a chalkboard levels of awfulness.

Overall, the game is decent. A functioning platformer that doesn't really add or subtract anything from the genre. It's a little short, so maybe not worth the money but fun for a weekend maybe.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Alan Wake

Writing is relatively easy. Writing well is another matter all together and I cannot think of anything that can corroborate that statement more than Alan Wake.

There's a reason that games tend to have simplistic stories and tend not to dwell on complex storyline arcs that can capture the imagination that other media forms can. If you can write a good story, you write a book, a stage play or a screenplay. These formats have been around much, much longer than video games and are (and always will be) the preferred route for creative story tellers.

So now we have Alan Wake. A supposed, self identified, psychological thriller based around the titular best selling author, who has retreated to the idyllic town of Bright Falls to recover his creative spark. Little does he know a dark presence is waiting to use his novel to break from it's slumber and take over the town!

So, how do you stop the author from simply ending the novel with "and they all lived happily ever after"? With the most classical of classic plot hole covering devices, amnesia. After the opening scene, where Wake's wife is dragged away into a lake, he finds himself in a car accident with the aforementioned amnesia.

What follows for the next 5 hours can only be described as a seemingly never ending slog through the same wooded area fending off the same bad guys over and over. Honestly, Bright Falls looks like a very small town, possibly having a population of no more than a few hundred. Throughout the game Wake must kill at least half the town, judging by how many enemies the game throws at you. Which itself is a shame. I was hoping for a really scary, lonely experience, where the enemies would be few but incredibly hard to beat. Just from the amount of enemies and how easy they are to dispatch makes this game neither a thriller/horror or able to affect my psyche, rendering the game a simple third person shooter.

I will say, however, that the light versus dark mechanic is very nice. While the game does degenerate into a shooting gallery at times, at least there are some dying embers of originality. Using flares, for example, act as a repellent as if you were holding garlic to a vampire. It makes sense within the story and it works well. As does the lighting engine, making full use of volumetric lights like they were going out of fashion.

With great lighting comes great ambience responsibility. While the lighting looks great, there is far too much of it. For a game that relies heavily on the distinction between light and dark, it isn't half bright at night. Now, I've seen some pretty bright moonlit nights, but this is just outrageous. It completely takes away the feeling of being surrounded by the ominous "dark presence". It also degrades the flashlight from compulsory accessory to an overused weapon.

Once you have gone through the first 4 and a half episodes, the game starts to kick it's feet, get into gear and other intolerable cliché remarks about getting better. After being spoonfed the storyline in another example of utterly tedious walking and talking, Wake finds himself on a farm used by a pair of old rock stars, stage and all. I found this moment to be the highlight of the game, fending off ghoulies using pyrotechnics and a buttload of flashbangs. One reason I liked it more than the rest of the game is the presence of Wake's agent, Barry Wheeler. Throughout the game, Wake has been alone in his struggles and now we have some much needed comedic foil for Wake's dreary, monotonous tone. On that point, Wake's voice actor is truly terrible; trying to fake the awful gruff, manly delivery that seems so fashionable these days. I blame Christian Bale... for many things, but mostly that.

I'm the god damn Batman

As mentioned before, the game starts to pick up momentum but it maintains one of the most annoying traits in any story driven game. The arbitrary lengthening happenstance (technical term). There is not a single moment in the game where there is an A to B objective. It's always A to every other letter in the god damn alphabet to B for no discernible reason. At one point Wake has to get to Barry who has used a flare to show his location. He was behind a chest high railing and some parked cars and I was forced to go through several shops and onto some roofs. Seriously, why? At least put him behind a 20ft wall or something.

And so, we come to the ending. I'll not make it sound like I know what happened because I don't. I just don't. Wake manages to make it back to the cabin to write the ending to the manuscript, to defeat the dark presence. He writes an ending to save his wife. She emerges from the lake and we see Wake at the typewriter once more. He utters the line "It's not a lake; it's an ocean" and then... nothing. In all honesty, I just don't get it.

Intentional cliffhangers piss me off and in this day and age of downloadable content it's an obvious attempt to wring more money out of the consumer. Two pieces of DLC have been released to continue the story but no, I will not spend more money just to get another inevitable cliffhanger. I'm sorry Mr Wake, you're going to be stuck in that lake for eternity I'm afraid.