Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Review: Homefront (PS3/360)

There was a tremendous amount of hype leading up to the release of Homefront (THQ, Kaos Studios).  Since it first was mentioned, many were wondering, possibly even hoping that it could be a Call of Duty killer.  Not since 1984, with the film Red Dawn had there been so much yearning to kick some foreign butts on our home soil.  Surely not by coincidence, John Milius, writer and director of Red Dawn, also worked quite closely on Homefront.  

If you totally missed the media blitz surrounding Homefront, it takes place in the not too distant future, 2027.  Due to quite a few calamitous circumstances, North and South Korea have united and basically invaded and started occupying the United States.  Well that doesn't sit too well, with some of the people, so they form a grass roots kind of rebellious group, called of all things ..... the Resistance.

Beginning in Montrose, Colorade, you play as Jacobs, a former Marine pilot, the strong, silent type,  (who was obviously a former stuntman, given the amount of falling he does) along with your prototypical teammates:
  • Connor, the foul-mouthed, agitated, gung-ho, brash, leader wannabe.
  • Boone, the African-American representative, who is the brains behind the Resistance in Montrose
  • Rianna, the token tough-chick, who knows how to handle a weapon, and
  • Hopper, the Korean-American, tech-savvy member.

Now there is really not any backstory for the main characters, which is what I was craving.  Why is Jacobs so sought after he's worth a daring rescue?  What made Connor so angry?  How is Hopper dealing with this invasion, being of Korean lineage?  None of which were really answered through the story gameplay, which is a shame.  Now that the price has dropped $20 (or more), does it deserve a look?

Beginning with a cutscene that looks and feel like actual news footage (some of which is), you're kind of thrown into the action.  No shooting or anything, but you're pulled from your home, and placed on a bus, on your way to a detention center.  The scene, for me, was reminiscent of the beginning of Half-Life 2, which was a good thing.  Eerie, bleak, and caught my attention.  There are a few instances where the developers push the envelope and it earns its M rating.  Instead of shooting your way out, it set the tone, and made the occupation feel more real and the experience a bit more intense.  While the Call of Duty games are very cinematic, the single-player game still feels like it's missing something, like an atmosphere that feels dangerous.  There's lots of running and gunning but I don't feel all that invested in the story (sorry "Soap").  If I die, I know I can always restart.  Homefront gave me a different feeling.

That's not to say that Homefront doesn't feel predictable at times, but there are a variety of missions to undertake.  Jacobs is a pretty well-rounded soldier and is called on to do the obligatory gunning down, but also defends areas, snipes, sneaks, flies copters, and remote controls tanks.  While a few of the protagonists have military training, Homefront gives you the sense that most of the Resistance are made up of regular men and women, possibly picking up guns for the first time.

Once the action starts, it seems like North Korea transported their whole population over here.  Enemies will respawn infinitely until you reach a certain checkpoint.  It was early on in the game, and I was playing at the hardest difficulty level,  and I wanted to pick off all of the troops in order to move safely.  However, after about 15-20 minutes, I figured something was amiss.  I decided to run up ahead a bit, and  the troops stopped coming from the area there were spawning from.  Interesting.  Also, hit detection can be quite capricious at times.  I was sure I was making contact, but to no avail, they kept firing at me.  I also was able to fire through my teammates to hit enemies, at times.  Ammo, at least on Hard mode, was not plentiful, and you really had to conserve, to be prepared for the enemy onslaughts.

The gameplay itself is quite linear.  Invisible walls really put a downer on many missions.  The setting sometimes look expansive, but you can only traverse through a small corridor, or go so far until your teammates catch up.  My team was running through some suburban backyards, and I wanted to run through a swing set, but wasn't allowed.  From a game that wanted to be, and occasionally feels, epic, this was a huge step back.  I wasn't looking for a total sandbox experience, but I wanted to be creative in the setting.  As for collectibles, there are newspapers scattered throughout which broaden the scope of the story.  The trouble was that when in the midst of battle, I didn't really want to stop to read a newspaper, but there is no other way to access them.  Of course I didn't realize this until pretty late in the game.  Seems like a waste, considering a lot of time was put into the articles, they should be available to read in an extras section of the menu.

The campaign is pretty short, and the pacing is off at times, but luckily there is online multiplayer, which can support up to 32 players.  While there are only two modes (the obligatory Team Deathmatch, and Ground Control, basically CoD's Domination), online multiplayer really saves Homefront from being a total disaster, and tries to shake things up a bit in the process.  During matches, you earn Battle Points, which are then to be used in-game, for upgrades and purchases for yourself, or to help out the team.  No more waiting until the match ends, you earned them, use them when you want.  They can be used for some pretty cool things, too.  From controlling ground and air drones which can mark players, to different bomb strikes and driving large vehicles like Humvees, along with tanks and helicopters.  As a side note, I will say that I played for a couple of hours straight, and did not get disconnected from a match once, which is something that is rare for CoD.  The online multiplayer is actually fun, and does not feel just tacked on.

Graphics:  The graphics in Homefront are not exceptional, but get the job done nicely.  The  environments are especially well done, as you get the sense that since the invasion, things have really gone to hell.  The NPCs have this strange quality, where it looks as if they were cut out and placed in the locales, as they have a kind of outline around them which was distracting at times.  There are also instances where your teammates will get stuck in doorways or once I witnessed a Korean soldier doing the "Running Man" on a rooftop.  There is quite a bit of product placement in Homefront, which I actually didn't mind, as I thought it gave more of a realistic feel to the setting, even though some of the choices were interesting.

Replay Value:  After the campaign is completed, there really isn't much reason to revisit it, unless you're a trophy or achievement hunter.  The online multiplayer while fun (there are a couple of DLC packs), with only two game modes, does not have the diversity that today's players crave, although I could still play with full teams.  

Score: 7.25

There are memorable, as well as shocking moments in Homefront, but the brevity of the campaign is a big distraction.  Even if they had only doubled the length of the campaign, I wouldn't have been as critical.  Just when you start getting into it, the campaign ends.  This makes Homefront feel rushed and incomplete.  I definitely would have felt ripped off, when this game was $60.  While it will probably spawn a sequel, without fixing some of it's downfalls, it will have a difficult time competing with the Modern Warfare or Battlefield games coming out shortly.

Homefront is currently available for MSRP of $39.99.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Review: Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet (XBLA)

These days, if you're going to put out a Metroid or Castlevania style platformer, there has to be something unique about it.  Games like those are often imitated, yet rarely surpassed.  Fuelcell games, along with artist Michel Gagne (The Iron Giant, Ratatouille, Clone Wars) hope that Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet (ITSP) has that something special.  Since it is part of Xbox Live's Summer of Arcade, it's gotten plenty of exposure, but will that win acclaim or just drive sales?

The story for ITSP is made up of short animated pieces without any narration whatsoever.  Collecting artifacts throughout the game will unlock more animations, but they're only a few seconds long.  Basically, you leave your own planet in a spaceship that looks like the archetypal UFO and head to the Shadow Planet.  There are six different areas of the Shadow Planet: 
  • Homeworld
  • Organic
  • Ocean
  • Ice
  • Mechanical
  • Electrical
Each is identified by a different background color, and have different enemies that need to be disposed of, although some of the enemies exhibit similar features but with slight differences from previous areas.  All of the areas are connected via regular tunnels, or special warp tunnels, so backtracking may be tedious but not difficult.

Your spaceship does have it's array of tools at it's disposal, which are used for combat and puzzle solving.  There are a total of nine apps, if you will, for the ship, and they are introduced in increments:
  • laser gun (for shooting)
  • claw (for grabbing/picking up)
  • scanner (tells which tool you need)
  • shield
  • drill (for digging through certain areas)
  • missiles (can be guided to hit targets/areas)
  • light laser (to heat substances, conduct electricity, or even fry enemies)
  • tractor beam 
  • electricity
Four of the tools can be programmed to one of the controller buttons for quicker access, or the right bumper will bring up a wheel where any can be selected.  The map is obviously available with a touch of a button, and will be accessed frequently, as areas already explored will be visible, and areas not yet seen will be blocked out.  Once you've got that under your belt, it's time to head off.

While combat plays a part, puzzle solving is the more prominent feature of ITSP.  It is quite possible to traverse the whole area and reach the boss with only a minimum of shooting, which is a far cry from most in this genre.  There is no point system in place, as exploration is rewarded instead.  The spaceship effortlessly floats through the caverns and passageways at your control, and is able to use it's acquired equipment in a 360 degree arc.  Shooting kind of reminds me of the classic arcade game Asteroids.  When damage does occur, the spaceship shows it through a deteriorating appearance, instead of a health bar.  When you see your ship literally falling apart in front of you, it's tame to take evasive action.  Luckily, save points are amply provided with the added benefit of complete health regeneration.

In ITSP, the map is one of your closest friends as the areas to be navigated are quite large, and in places, intricate.  Scanning certain areas that are not yet available because you don't have the correct tool, can be marked for a return trip later.  Unfortunately, when something is marked, there is no way to remove that mark later on, after you've revisited.  This leads to quite a bit of doubling back and trying to remember if you've already visited that area.  This can be combatted if you immediately go to those areas after you receive the proper tool.  Getting the player to achieve 100 percent of the map explored seems to be more of a goal of the developers than racing through, battling boss after boss, and finishing quickly.

What really struck me and endeared the game to me, was it's old school feel.  I'm not talking about the Metroid similarities (the first one, not Super Metroid).  Since there is no narrative (even how to use the controls is just shown in pictures), sometimes it becomes confusing on what needs to be done to progress.  However, when the correct solution hits on which tool to use, and how, it's like a revelation followed by admiration for the game.  Of course that was needed to be done, why didn't I think of that sooner?  Many games today force-feed the player on where to go and what to do.  The games of the NES era were vague and there was no to immediately check for walkthroughs.

The boss battles are not all that difficult, as the Final Boss seems to be appropriately the most difficult.  It's a real pain in today's games when the difficulty gets revved up several notches just because it's a boss battle.  ITSP does not have that problem, which lends to it's charm.  Boss battles in ITSP are an extension of the area you just traversed, not some super pumped baddie with hyper-effective weaponry.

There is a multiplayer mode, called Lantern Run, which is a more intense experience than the single player mission.  In Lantern Run, you and up to three others, each have to drag your own lanterns through various obstacles, keeping in mind that a huge monster is chasing you.  Given the fact that your primitive ship can only utilize one feature at a time, sometimes the lantern must be dropped in order to drill through, or shoot enemies.  Luckily you've got teammates that can help you out should you need it, but it is a great test of one's mastery of many of the tools acquired.

Even if the art style hadn't been created by an acclaimed artist, it is still something to marvel at.  Excellent use of colors in the specific zones really make you feel that you are in different places.  The worlds were colorful and modern, yet not overly done.  The Ice world is bright and white, while in the Ocean area, the deeper you go, the darker it gets.  Although it is technically a 2-D shooter, there is so much movement and activity in different layers of the background that it feels 3-D.  Enemies, although not a huge variety, are impressive.  Some are slow and methodical, while others fly at you quickly or home in on you wherever you move.  

I also liked that there were varying degrees of force.  When your claw picked up a large rock, the ship moved slower and you could almost feel the extra force being applied from when smaller pieces were moved.  Drilling through rock had just the right amount of tension to seem more realistic.  Bullets shot in water went less far than those shot in the atmosphere.  These little touches really helped set the stage.

The soundtrack varies from strong orchestral melodies, provided by Dimmu Borgir (a Norwegian Heavy Metaler), to more modern beeps and boops that are typically in space games.  Never overpowering the setting, the simple tones help set the stage for being the lone being in a hostile, unknown planet.

Replay Value
There is quite a bit of grumbling about the game's length.  I personally, did not find it too short, as I was all about 100 percent exploration.  Unfortunately, once that is achieved, and the final boss beaten, the only thing really left to do is Lantern Run.  This title begs for DLC, opening up newer areas, and I hope that to be the case in the future.

Score: 9.25

Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet is my favorite Summer of Arcade title.  While there will be comparisons drawn between ITSP and Outland, the former is far superior.  It's not always about length, but consequently the experience a gamer has.  The pacing is wonderful, even if the last few levels seem a bit shorter, and I never felt like any area lasted too long.  With an amazing art design as an added bonus, life is good on this planet.

Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet is part of Xbox Live's Summer of Arcade promotion, and is currently available for 1200 MSP ($15).

Friday, August 12, 2011

Review: From Dust (XBLA/PSN)

Ubisoft has been on a hot streak of downloadable titles dating back from Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, all the way up to current titles like Outland, Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes, and the HD reiteration of last generation's Beyond Good & Evil.  Now, they've set the XBLA record for highest one day sales with their current release, From Dust.

Once I heard it was a 'playing god' game, I immediately thought of the 2001 PC game, Black & White, but apparently its closer to Populous (1989), which I've never played.  I tried to spend a lot of time with Black & White, but for some reason, my brain does not work well with real-time strategy games.  I enjoyed it, but was not that successful with it (or any other RTS since).  From Dust seemed like a fresh start for me and my RTS phobia.  I mean, how complicated could an it's an Xbox Live Arcade title be?  

From Dust begins with you the player controlling The Breath, which is kind of a mini-smoke monster, from the television show, LOST.  While you do have the powers of destruction, you are mostly in the business of production.  That is, producing avenues of travel through various topographical features.  As The Breath, you can gather water, sand (earth), and lava and drop them anywhere that you desire.  The challenge of the game comes in the fact that you must make areas habitable and accessible for the tribe people through the constantly changing environments.

The mask-donning tribesmen (and women), need to get from one area (world) to the next through portals.  They accomplish this by settling villages, not just anywhere, but around huge meerkat-resembling totems.  This is where The Breath comes in.  Piling up sand creates landforms (which can be washed away through erosion or grow vegetation, which in turn brings animals), cooling lava creates rock (which the sand can be piled upon, but also eroded more slowly) and water can be siphoned out of areas to accomplish tasks.

The areas around the totems are not always accessible and are usually quite susceptible to natural disasters.  So, passageways need to be created, but at the same time important areas (villages, totems) need to be protected.  When 5 of the tribespeople safely reach a totem, (which is sometimes a lesson in head scratching at the route they try to take) a village is created, unlocking a special aptitude that can be used.  However, once it's created does not mean that it's perpetually safe.  Herein, lies the essence of the game: battling the forces of nature along with the strange decision of your lemming-like tribespeople.

When you first begin to pick up earth or water, into those magnificent spheres, I'll admit, you do feel somewhat powerful.  The introductory levels are quick and relatively simple, just to get you going.  Before you know it, giant sea swells and active volcanoes are introduced.  The disasters run on a timer, so there isn't much time to marvel at the setting.  You can see the seconds ticking down until the next disaster, but are pretty much helpless.  They're going to happen, you just need to be prepared for the fallout.  

In one instance, I had spent over 30 minutes on a level, finally coming to the realization that I was going about it all wrong.  There was a very slim chance that I was going to be able to complete the level, even if I, in a sense, started over doing what needed to be done in the first place.  I spent another 40 minutes doing what I thought best, but felt like I was playing catch-up the whole time and not making any progress in between disasters.  Spending that amount of time on a task and having it come up short was ultimately frustrating.  You really need to make quick decisions and prioritize what needs to get done before the next disaster.  Plus, the camera isn't the best with zooming too close at times, leaving some of the tribe burned because you tried to make a rock wall protecting a village or accidentally drowned as you mistakenly sprayed water on them.

When members of the tribe begin moving towards their newest destination, the game shows you the ways they will take, either a white pathway (good) or a red pathway (bad).  I'm not sure how educated these tribespeople are, but on more than a couple of occasions, I had built, what I thought of, as a perfectly good land mass to carry them to an island, but many forsake and went another way, basically drowning themselves in the water.  There's a way you can zoom in to the villagers and get an extremely sparse bio about them (one sentence), but there is no way to select which villagers you want to make the trek to the next totem.  That, coupled with the sometimes bizarre AI of the tribe, leads to annoyance more often than not.  Why can't they see that huge wave coming directly at them?  Why are they just standing in the path of that lava flow?  I kind of wished that the men and women actually did something, like had different roles or talents.  Otherwise is got repetitive just sucking the elements from one area and depositing them in another.

Ultimately, at the end of the game, it becomes the experience I was kind of hoping for, as you finally get the chance to play sandbox-style.  Sadly, by then I had experienced all I had wanted out of From Dust.  If you do end up liking the gameplay, there are challenges that can be unlocked which involve much more of a specific task, and prolong the game.

cutscenes are well done and look gorgeous but really didn't enthrall me with an entrancing story.

Hearing the tidal wave approaching followed by the yelling tribesmen as it hit, also got to me the first few times, but my ineptitude with the game lent that to happening quite a bit.  The background music is fitting with the theme, kind of tribal beatish vibe.

Replay Value
Between the story and all of the challenges, I'd say you get your money's worth (or MSP worth) in terms of length.  I have to wonder how many purchasers will actually see the story to completion and turn to many of the challenges.  There are rumors that there are plans for expansion like a map editor and multiplayer.  Even though my experience wasn't the best with From Dust, I'd be willing to give it another look if that actually does happen.


From Dust does not really give you enough power to be or feel god-like.  From someone who is terrible at and usually shies away from this type of game, I gave it my all.  I never felt connected with or appreciated by the tribe people who I was doing all this work for.  Maybe that really is how a Supreme Being feels, after all.

From Dust is the 2nd offering in Xbox Live's Summer of Arcade.  It is available for 1200 MSP ($15).  Coming soon for PC (August 17) and sometime in the fall for PSN.

Review: Bulletstorm (PS3/360)

First Person Shooters tend to take themselves very seriously these days.  It's getting more and more difficult to tell every Battlefield Ghost: Fall of the Modern Rainbow Company from the others, and they're getting so precise.  I'll admit I had basically zero interest in playing Bulletstorm (from EA, Epic Games and People Can Fly studios) after reading and seeing previews for it.  It seemed crass and vulgar, just for shock value.  I expected a slim story with just lots of blood and guts.  Basically, all for show with little substance.  Video games are still getting a bad rap from mainstream media anyway, and I felt Bulletstorm was just adding fuel to their fire.  But something happens to me when a game falls below that $40 price point.  My standards relax a little and I'm willing to give a chance to something I'd previously written off.

During Bulletstorm, you play as Gray(son), a self-imposed leader of a band of mercenaries working for an elite, top-secret group, Dead Echo, which was in charge of protecting the Confederation of Planets (which has a symbol curiously similar to Halo's energy sword).  Gray is basically Marcus Fenix's baby brother with Han Solo's thirst for adventure (and wisecracking) and Duke Nukem's sensibilities.  A mission goes horribly wrong and the team is exiled and become the hunted, due to a large bounty on their heads.  Gray then becomes paired with Ishi, a fellow team member, who has undergone a bit of a transformation, which makes the pairing more unconventional than you might think.  The two set out, each with their own reasons, but willing to work together.  Gray is out for revenge, but also redemption.

Gray and Ishi crash-land on the planet Stygia, which looks like a cross between Pandora (from Avatar) and Coruscant.  There are warring factions and mutants galore, which obviously leads to a fair share of combat.  The thing that separates Bulletstorm from other FPS, is the skillshot.  Anybody these days can just gun down countless enemies, one after the other, but skillshots take imagination and ..... skill.  Each skillshot warrants a point value (skill points), depending on difficulty and ingenuity, which can then be used to upgrade your weapons.  Simple kills, the old-fashioned way, only garner 10 points.  Traversing through the game that way would leave your weapons and ammo at a minimum.  

There are 131 different skillshots to master in Bulletstorm, and more than half of the fun is figuring them out.  Sure some are basic like kicking an enemy into an electrical source (Shocker), cactus (Pricked), or sharp metal object (Voodoo Doll), but the enjoyment comes from some of the more complex ones: Attaching an explosive to an enemy then kicking him towards a group before exploding (Homie Missile), killing an enemy with a shot to the throat (Gag Reflex), or snipe an enemy with a shot to his crotch (Nutcracker) or behind (Rear Entry).  I can just imagine the round table discussions that were being held coming up with the names alone, and pretty much every time I discovered a new one, I ended up smiling and the name.

Gray also inherits another potent weapon, an Energy Leash, early on in the game.  The Leash is basically an electrified whip that can pull enemies that are far, closer to Gray.  When they get leashed, the enemies also slow down for more precise skillshot action.  The weapon selection in Bulletstorm gives just enough variety and spin-off from typical FPS, that it felt fresh and new.  When first playing, I felt uncomfortable not having any grenades to throw, but eventually got used to it.

Bulletstorm plays extremely cinematically.  As you would expect, loads of action and everything seems larger than life with explosions, blood, colors, sweeping cameras, etc. galore.  The story mode is divided into 7 acts, with 2-3 chapters into each act.  The pacing is excellent and most sections don't seem too long or too short.  I played the game on 'Very Hard' mode and it seemed like another FPS 'Normal' level.  That's the point of the game, it's supposed to be fun, not necessarily complicated or grueling.  

The first two-thirds of this game are really excellently done.  The eight available weapons (introduced slowly over the course of the game), especially The Leash, feel different enough from little tweaks here and there, and the variety of enemies (some fast, some charge, some stay back, etc.) really hooked me in using the full assortment of firepower available.  Pulling a pilot out of a helicopter instead of just shooting it down feels more bad-ass.  Guiding a sniper rifle bullet into an enemy's head is always enjoyable.  Kicking enemies into solid objects, with stuff splattering everywhere is always gratifying.  Adding to Gray's swashbuckling bravado, there are bottles of alcohol hidden, and if he takes a swig, the screen turns to double (or triple)-vision and the walking controls don't work as expected.  Being inebriated and dispatching of bad guys adds even more skill points.  

The gameplay is broken up once or twice an Act, with more scripted sequences such as rail-shooting, or eliminating waves of enemies, but is the action is unfortunately quite linear.  The pathways are all marked by invisible walls, so there is not much exploring, and if you're hunting collectibles, new checkpoints usually close previous areas.  My favorite part of the game was when I got to control a Godzilla-type creature, causing havoc with each step and shooting fire out of it's mouth at helpless thugs.

The slight problem I had with Bulletstorm is that about two-thirds through I had pretty much discovered all of the skillshots I was going to discover (I think I ended up in the low 90's out of 131).  I began to rely mostly on the same few weapons (as you can really only equip two, as the basic machine gun always has to be equipped) and the same handful of skillshots.  Towards the end, I also didn't really use The Leash all that much in combat.  The enemies grew a bit stale as after a certain point, there was not much novelty.  I also thought that an online co-op mode was greatly missing, as my CPU controlled partners were never that much help.  

In addition to the story mode, there are a couple of extra experiences to be had.  First, are the Echoes, which are bite-sized pieces of the single player campaign in which the goal is to score as many points as possible using different skillshots.  The Echoes are timed, which factor into the score, but are a great way to try out different techniques with different weapons.  They are graded from zero to three stars depending on your score.

As for online multiplayer, there is what's called Anarchy mode, which up to four players competing together to eliminate up to 20 waves of baddies, some with bosses and mini-bosses, culminating in the Blood Symphony skillshot, if you're lucky.  Initially, I was saddened by the lack of online competitive multiplayer, but the more I thought about it, I really would not want to be humiliated by some of the skillshots, via human opponents.  There have also been 2 DLC packs since launch, which bring more multiplayer maps, Echoes, and Leash colors.

The graphics in Bulletstorm are definitely a selling point.  Bright colors mixed with the decayed steel of the city landscape really gave it a look of it's own.  The field of vision when Gray is running or sliding really puts you in the action and make the game more engaging.  The enemies are detailed, and amply filled with blood, guts, puss, etc. to make their demise a sight to behold.

Bulletstorm proudly uses just about every curse word in the English language, but only occasionally does it feel like too much.  Sometimes a couple of curse words are put together in ways I had not heard before.  The soundtrack is appropriate ranging from heavy metal guitar riffs when you die to sweeping orchestral melodies that set the stage for the upcoming action.  The voice acting is top-notch as well, as the actors must have been cracking up at some of the lines they had to say.

Replay Value
For under $40, you get quite a bit with Bulletstorm.  The campaign should last 10-12 hours on the hardest mode then throw in the Echoes and co-op multiplayer, and you have yourself something worthy of your gaming dollar.  You probably won't go back and play the campaign again, but trying to get three stars on all of the Echoes is quite challenging.

Don't go into Bulletstorm hoping for a Mass Effect story or even a Call of Duty shooter, as you'll be disappointed.  I went in with an open mind and got something that had been done before, yet fresh and exciting at the same time.  Skillshots are extremely humorous and simultaneously gratifying, and a twisted, adult sense of humor kept me amused throughout.  The game is crass, vulgar, graphically violent, and way over the top, but I smiled or laughed quite a bit and enjoyed it immensely.

Score: 8.8

Bulletstorm is currently available for $29.99 from Amazon, and $39.99 from Gamestop.

Gamefly - 1 month Free:

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Review: Alice: Madness Returns (PS3/360)

It's been eleven years since Alice Liddell began her descent into her deranged Wonderland, in American McGee's Alice, which had earned quite a cult following.  Now, haunted by the death of her family in a tragic fire, that only she escaped, Alice travels to Wonderland once again in Alice: Madness Returns (EA, Spicy Horse Games).  After her release from Rutledge Asylum, Alice still maintains quite a bit of guilt and confusion about the calamitous incident that has turned her life upside down.  Regular sessions with her psychiatrist using hypnosis, seem to be having adverse effects on her thoughts and dreams.  As in the past, Alice retreats to Wonderland to escape, but finds it has drastically changed since her last visit.  Will she be able to unearth the secrets and clues that have led to her "Madness?"  Do the vibrant atmospheres exceed the gameplay?

While technically labeled an action-adventure title, Alice: Madness Returns is basically a 3-D platformer with slight bits of combat thrown in.  Alice has a host of people concerned about her, but who are her friends and who are out to harm her?  Additionally, the familiar cast of characters return, but in limited roles.  It's Alice's Wonderland, it's demise is her doing and she must be the one to repair it.  The story will not be rehashed here, to remain free of spoilers, but it was intriguing and kept me going when some aspects of the game became monotonous.  I kept playing little by little to unravel more and see what was around the next bend.  Before we get to the important stuff, I liked this game, I possibly really like it.  Initially, I was enthralled when I first set foot in Wonderland and that feeling remained with me, almost, to the final screen.  The problem was that the game's repetition in level design, not ambiance, kept it from being Alice's Excellent Adventure.

What would Wonderland be without conflict?  Luckily, Alice has a bevy of weapons (by the end, a total of 4) in her arsenal, all of which have some thematic significance to Wonderland.  These are split into melee weapons, like her Vorpal Blade and Hobby Horse, and ranged weapons like her Pepper Grinder and Teapot Cannon.  The Clockwork Bomb, finds itself somewhere in the middle.  Although I had seen the weapon types in games beforehand, this new twist make them seem fresh and engaging.  Unfortunately, once all of Alice's weapons had been upgraded to the max, I found myself really only using one of the weapons in combat, as it seemed to do the most damage.  

Alice is also quite nimble.  In fact, get ready to jump.  A lot.  Alice: Madness Returns utilizes jumping, double jumping, and floating more than quite a bit.  She also has a power, called Shrink Sense, at her disposal.  When activated, it allows Alice to find hidden doors, platforms, or receive clues on what was ahead, etc.  She cannot do anything but walk, while accessing it, so in the case of hidden platforms that involve jumping to, you kind of have to jump to the memorized spot (although it does leave a brief glowing residue).  As you can imagine, this leads to a multitude of unsuccessful leaps.  I didn't get too frustrated with missing a platform, as Alice's demise is so peaceful and lovely.  When expired, Alice's form morphs into a cluster of butterflies flying away.  Additionally, when she does die, the place that she restarts is quite close to where she met her downfall, so it wasn't too much of a penalty, and surprisingly no loss from her health meter.  I think that the developers might have put those touches in, as they may have noticed that the game was a bit flawed, and their inclusion would reduce frustration

If you've read my other reviews, I've mentioned my affinity for collectibles.  If done the proper way, I don't mind spending extra time on levels, in fact I enjoy it.  This game really does collectible hunting wondrously.  There are multitudes of collectibles, but in this case memories, to hunt for.  The majority are not right out in the open and involve using some crafty contemplation.  Each memory, when located, reveals a little bit about Alice's thought processes or past and delves into her mind, revealing the clues essential in resolving her inner conflict.

The level design starts to get a bit stale on the third (of 6 total) chapter.  While the vistas and locales change, it's essentially jump from and onto platforms, pull levers, fight a few enemies, slide, fight a few more enemies, and repeat 1-2 times more until the end of the level.  The levels, or chapters, are also quite long.  Initially, it threw me, but didn't bother me too much by the end.  While they are broken up into smaller bits, or sub-chapters, they are inaccessible if you need to restart an area (missed a collectible), until the whole chapter is completed.  While I was collectible hunting, chapters could take a couple of hours, or longer to complete.  Obviously less, maybe by half, if you just rushed through, but then again you would be missing key clues to the story, by not accessing memories.

Within each large level, are a few scattered mini-games.  I thought these were well done, as they typified the level they were in.  In fact, I think they should have figured more prominently throughout Alice: Madness Returns.  My favorites were where Alice turned 2-D and had retro side scrolling adventures.  In the underwater levels, she commandeered a ship and had to blast fish and mines, Defender-style.  Alice actually climbed into paintings in the Far East levels and navigated her way around (more jumping!).  Others had you guiding a macabre doll head Super Monkey Ball style, rearranging blocks, pressing musical notes, and even playing rudimentary chess.

American McGee certainly has a unique creative vision.  I marveled at the contrast in styles which were exemplified in each level.  Since the Chapters are so long, the same graphical design does not stay constant, thankfully.  The first introductory chapter begins in a lush, psychedelic tropical environment vibrant in color, yet ends in a semi-monochromatic, steampunk kind of metal-infused world.  The creatures and inhabitants, also have taken steps towards the grotesque, as Alice's damaged psyche portrays them.  It's quite evident that Wonderland is in decay.

The storytelling uses a mix of different types of cut scenes to convey what's happening.  Some are what you'd expect from a video game in 2011, but others are influenced by storybooks, with what looks like, 2-D paper cutouts.. The effects are this mix of nostalgia infused with today's technology.  Even in London, the other characters Alice meets have exaggerated features, and look like they could be creatures from Wonderland.

The voice acting in Alice: Madness Returns is excellent, which makes Alice's story so much more believable and helps you form an attachment to Alice's circumstances.  Music throughout the game is the appropriate mix of violin and/or piano to make the adventure seem a little more creepy.

Replay Value
While there is a New Game + feature available, I can't see much use in it.  Any collectibles missed can be accessed through the sub-chapter level selector.  I do recommend purchasing the DLC outfits and weapons pack for the game.  They make the game a tad easier through various bonuses you get while wearing, and it's only a couple of bucks.  Plus, they look pretty cool.  I played through using them and I think that added to my lack of frustration experienced.  For buyers of the retail copy, the original American McGee's Alice is available to download through a code included (Or available for $10 through PSN or XBL, if you purchased the game used)


I enjoyed my time in Wonderland much more than I thought I would.  I expected a run of the mill third-person action adventure and got much more.  A little more of the mini-games and a little less jumping should be in order for her next game.  While the game at times feels a bit rushed and incomplete, I am definitely up for Alice's next adventure.  Alice: Madness Returns is a pleasant change of pace, and some of the sequences and experiences have stayed with me, even after I've moved on to other games.  A good deal now that it available for $40, and definitely worth a look when it drops below $30.

At the time of this review, Alice: Madness Returns is available from Amazon for $39.99, for both PS3 and Xbox 360 versions.  

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Review: Bastion (XBLA)

Who wants to kill some scumbags? No, you read that right.  I'm not even talking about Nazis or terrorists either.  Scumbags, Squirts, and Windbags, to name a few.  They all can be battled in Xbox Summer Arcade's first offering, Bastion.  Bastion is a 2D action RPG with hand-painted artwork, that is the product of Supergiant Games (their first game, but have some former Infinity Ward and EA's Command and Conquer vets on the team) and published by Warner Bros. (who appropriately tailored their logo to fit the art style of the game---a good sign that they were supporting this game).  

The game begins with the game's protagonist, The Kid, rolling out of bed and finding that something called The Calamity, has thrown his and the whole world into disarray.  This is ascertained through the raspy utterances of The Stranger, whose narration follows The Kid's actions.  If you start destroying things looking for hidden items, he'll tell you if you're wasting your time or not.  You fall or lose a life, he'll have some sardonic comment about your plight.  I kept waiting for the comments to start becoming repetitive, but surprisingly, they didn't.  At least not through my first playthrough, which is understandable, as Supergiant claims to have recorded around 3,000 lines of narration for Bastion.

Every hero needs a quest, and The Kid's is to rebuild the destroyed Bastion and return it to it's glory days.  This is accomplished through visiting different places, defeating enemies and collecting bits of shards and cores, which are then placed on The Monument, which leads to the reconstruction of the Bastion.  When this occurs, buildings can be placed and later upgraded, to aid in the quest for total rebuilding and progressing more easily through the story.  The story is purposely vague at the outset, and each level or area, adds a bit more to the legend.  Is the art style complemented with solid gameplay or is it just style or substance?

If you've heard the phrase 'may the road rise up to meet you,' you'll get a sense of how navigating through the levels works in Bastion.  The majority of the gameplay takes place on floating pockets of land, but when The Kid starts walking the correct route, the terrain magically appears out of thin air.  If no ground appears, that's not the way to go to get to shard and to the end of the level.  I did find that it wasn't always perfectly clear where I could and couldn't go, as I would see an enemy and try to melee them, only to find out that it wasn't accessible because of my tumbling death.

Armed with his trusty shield and a two weapons, our white-haired hero sets off to right what has been wronged.  I liked that there were only two weapons available at a time, as it added some strategy.  Sometimes, I really didn't have the best weapons for that particular level, so I either had to head back to The Bastion or see if I could find an in-level Armory.  Additionally, one special skill could be equipped that would give a weapon some special potency.  Weapons also varied from swords and staffs, for a more close combat effect, or ranged weapons such as guns and bows.  Since The Kid cannot run, rolling needs to be used effectively, in order to survive many situations.

Initially, I thought I would just be fighting the same enemies over and over until  had collected all I needed to collect,  but there is quite a bit of variety of enemy types, as well as in the environments traveled, covering all of the archetypes: flying, poison-spewing, charging, etc..  Just heading in to a herd of enemies and button mashing, usually lead to a quick loss of health, or even death.  Your shield could also be used to deflect unwanted advances, but only did damage to your opponent if you timed it just right.  I also preferred that the enemy's health was not shown in the prototypical bar above their heads, but a more modern wheel, around the creatures that would lose pieces when damaged.  Weapons, of course, could be upgraded (up to five times) for maximum effect, when certain items were found or challenges met on the Proving Grounds.

There are a couple of specific areas that are added in, to give you more exposure with certain weapons, as well as practice with different weapon combinations.  The Proving Grounds are areas specific to one weapon.  You can only use that weapon noted, although you can use any upgrades you've purchased.  If certain conditions are met (time-specific or number of enemies conquered), you earn a special token, depending on whether you earned third, second, or first prize, that is useful later on.  Initially, I thought that just getting third place was sufficient, but finding out the specific tactic that earns you first prize, is usually beneficial in the game levels.  There is also a place called Who Knows Where, in which wave after wave of differing combinations of enemies you've met come after you.  Not only do you earn experience points to help you level up, and some of the game's currency, but you also get a good sense of which weapon loadout works best for your style, and the types of enemies you'll be facing.

Bastion is a graphically enriched game.  The colors are vibrant and lush, yet still manage to remain appropriate for this wasteland of a world.  Jen Zee deserves any accolades she earns by bringing the team's vision of Bastion to life.  There were many times I wished the characters were larger so I could see them better in more detail.  The variety of creatures and the details in areas are amazing.  I would see that it was time to stop playing, but would want to see what kind of creatures I would come across, if I experienced just 'one more level,'

As was previously mentioned, the narrator's Tom Waits/Clint Eastwood voice, coupled with his instinctive comments, really add to the game.  When he's not giving a play by play of your actions (I would still chuckle, even when I had played over 5 hours into the game), the snippets of the backstory he's divulging are a nice touch.  Typically I tend to block out a lot of the extraneous chatter from game announcers/narrators, but you really do have to pay attention to what he's saying while you're playing.  The narrator pushes Bastion over the edge from your basic RPG.

Replay Value
The main game most likely will take somewhere between 8-10 hours of your time, which seems reasonable for a game with this price.  I rarely had it feel tedious, but I didn't sit for long periods and play.  it was more like an hour here and an hour there.  Once the main game is finished, there is a new game + mode, if you're interested in continuing your adventure with The Kid.


I'm not a fan of the trend of more and more Xbox Arcade games breaking the 800 MSP barrier, but Bastion is treading that fine line.  While it's most likely worthy of my $15, I think my score would have been a bit higher, if it had stayed at that 800 MSP line.  Overall, though, a fun adventure with outstanding art direction, and an innovation narration system, which is certainly worthy of your time, kind of like if The Legend of Zelda games had stayed 2D

Bastion for Xbox 360 Arcade is priced at 1200 Microsoft Points ($15) and is available now.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Review: BRINK (PS3/XBOX 360)

What do you get when you try to cross MAG or Team Fortress 2 gameplay with the look and feel of Borderlands and a futuristic Mad Max?  Bethesda Softworks (Fallout 3, Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion) and Splash Damage (Enemy Territory: QUAKE Wars) hope its the next big franchise to hit consoles.  The impressive art direction in the advertising campaign originally drew me to this game, but does it translate to tengaging gameplay?  Now that it has dropped in price almost universally, is it something you should pick up now?  Is it even worthy of it's all CAPS moniker?

The premise in BRINK is not anything we really haven't seen before, but it centers around a man-made, eco-friendly, floating city, designated The Ark, that is on the brink (get it) of Civil War.  Since the oceans of the world have begun to rise to unsafe levels, The Ark has become a sort of haven for people affiliated with its original inhabitants, as well as other displaced people looking for a better life, who have to live on the outskirts.  It's basically a bunch of Haves versus Have Nots.  One group wants to break free of the overpopulation and desecrating conditions for the outcasts on The Ark (called The Resistance) and leave the floating city to see what the world is like beyond its walls, while the other group wants to keep the refugees in control and living in continued squalor, while they continue to benefit in The Ark (called The Security).

Upon starting the game, you have to first select and customize a character.  While the customization options are ample, they aren't exactly endless.  The character design is similar to Gears of War, with overexaggerated features and bulging muscles.  There are four different classes of characters: Soldier, Engineer, Medic, and Operative.  Obviously each has their own strengths and weaknesses and in this game you will be switching classes a lot during each level or mission, to complete objectives.

To move around, BRINK also uses whats been classified as SMART (Smooth Movement Across Random Terrain).  In this, a button can be assigned to to quickly traverse across different environmental obstacles.  Think of it as parkour influenced climbing, jumping, and sliding, reminiscent of Mirror's Edge.  The diagram below shows the various ways something like this could be accomplished.  Unfortunately, much of the time, I kind of forgot about SMART and did the regular old climbing and jumping, except for the occasional slide.

I've spent quite a bit of time with this game, beating both campaigns (a total of 16 missions, but they are long missions, which turns out to be a blessing and a curse), and utilizing both solo play, as well as completing levels online with human counterparts.  I get that the online component was designed to be a major selling point for BRINK, but the online community is pretty stagnant at the moment.  When starting a level online, I would say that only about 25% of the time did I have another human joining me.

This game is quite frenetic when you first jump in.  There is a lot of action going on around you and quite a bit of chatter from your teammates (which I liked initially, but then grew to hate).  Initially, only one or two classes will have an objective that are pretty basic (hack this, defend this, escort this person, etc.), but the objectives increase (both primary and secondary), as you progress through the game.  Just find a (or take over an opponent controlled one) command post, and you can switch classes.  There is an objective wheel that is easily accessed at any time, that highlights the objectives and classes needed, so it's not too confusing.  Select an objective and it'll point you in the right direction to complete it.

That's not to say that BRINK isn't fun because at times it really is.  Shooting people and is almost always fun... for a while.  Having the missions broken up by each side seemed like a really interesting idea, but they basically turn out to be the same levels, but just opposite objectives of each other.  If the Resistance was trying to destroy something, when you play the mission as the Security, you're trying to defend the same thing you were previously asked to destroy.  This doesn't flesh out the story as much as I would have hoped for, and really didn't make me pick a side I was rooting for, as if they had added totally different levels for each side.

There is a major problem with your teammates AI in the game.  They are basically worthless (but every now and then surprise you with a well-placed turret), and you constantly feel like you are the only one that is able to do anything.  For instance if you have to repair something and are playing solo, without human teammates, it seems like you are the only one of the class you selected that can get anything done.  You have usually around 10 minutes to complete the objective, but it usually takes all 10 minutes because your teammates don't help at all.  When they do decide to help, it's like a mad rush in the final minute or two.  The opponents know where to congregate to protect what's needed, but it seems as if your team gets bored rather easily and leaves their mark.

Which leads me to my next problem with the game.  If you die, or I should say when you die, because your opponent's ammo tends to be much more powerful than your own, you have to respawn

There are a few "what if" missions tacked on at the end, but they seem as more of an afterthought, than a critical part of the story, and are some of the shorter missions of the whole game.  I recommend playing through some of the Challenge levels early on, as by completing them, you earn some upgrades for your weapons.  There are 3 different types of challenges: fulfilling objectives, moving around with SMART to certain areas in a time limit, and defending, each with three levels of progressively harder levels.

There are two distinct setting for the missions in BRINK.  One is the futuristic Ark, which kind of reminded me of something out of Mass Effect.  Lot's of plexiglass, neon, etc.  Once the action moved away from The Ark, to Container City, I became re-interested in the game again.  It's a totally different kind of look that really made me push through to finish my first half of the Campaign.  There are lots of little crevices and creative shortcuts to find.

I didn't really experience any lag, when playing online, but only really connected with one other person at a time when playing the campaign.  The multiplayer was solid and much more fun than playing with bots, but by the time I tried multiplayer, I was kind of burned out by the game.  Sometimes when enemies died, parts of their body would be underground, or if they were standing on something and killed, seemed to be floating in mid-air.

Throughout the game you have a Commander basically talking in your ear the whole time.  He gets very frustrated when things aren't going the planned way.  Considering that you feel like you are a one man show on many of the levels, it get very annoying quickly.

I did find the chatter between teammates amusing.  When you give supplies to another teammate, they always respond with some form of thanks.  Additionally, when you have some supplies and they are needed by someone nearby, they will let you know.

Replay Value
There is a planned DLC coming soon (free for the first two weeks), which may increase the number of people playing online.  Currently, there are 8 maps available for multiplayer skirmishes.  I fear, however, that most players originally interested in the game have either moved on to something else or sold/traded in their copy.

Once the campaigns are completed, there is not much incentive to return to those missions.  Especially the ones where your teammates seem clueless.  There are some audio logs to collect, which supposedly add more to the story (or unlock a trophy/achievement when all are collected) but I didn't have an interest to find more.

There is a cap at level 20.  When I finished both campaigns, I was at level 16, so I played multiplayer and replayed missions to reach the cap.  There are bonuses for completing missions online (which I didn't know until about halfway through the game)

Honestly, I really wanted to like BRINK.  Blending solo, co-op, and multiplayer into one somewhat seamless experience seemed innovative and intriguing.  However, in the end, it wasn't done well enough to grab my interest for extended periods.  Each mission is quite long, and if you don't succeed, feels arduous instead of energizing at the challenge, that you have to relive 15-20 minutes all over again.


I spent over 15 hours with BRINK, completing both campaigns, including what-if  missions.  I also completed all three 1-star challenges, two 2-star challenges, and one 3-star challenge.  BRINK is currently available for $34.99 from Amazon and $39.99 from Gamestop.