Friday, August 19, 2011

Mirror's Edge review

Several years ago, a group of my friends were trying to think of game ideas. One idea I suggested involved a first person shooter where you jump between rooftops (the idea involved playing around with gravity or something - this was a long time ago and it was far from fully formed). Not a terribly original idea, but the point was it was the kind of thing that sounded cool to me. So when, years later, I heard about Mirror's Edge and saw the videos, it genuinely felt as if someone had finally made the game I always wanted to play. And it looked amazing; somehow they had taken the first-person perspective, which everyone knew was awkward when it comes to precise movements and positioning, and made it control perfectly for platforming. It was like playing Prince of Persia as the Prince.

So obviously I rushed out and bought it. But for various reasons I never got very far before. I'll not list my excuses here, what's important is that this was my fault, not the game's. But being on holiday this month, I decided to go through and try to finish the old games in my collection that fell to the wayside. So a few days ago I finally put Mirror's Edge back in the 360, and started a new game.

Mirror's Edge, developed by DICE and published by EA, is a game about free running or parkour. It may be considered a first person shooter as you can shoot guns in the game, but I believe it's more appropriate to call it a first person platformer. Even if there were any earlier first person platformers, of which I know none, I think it would still be fair to say that this game is the first of it's kind. Which is why I find it surprising that it's so well designed and finely polished. Many games, when trying to implement an ambitious new system, will have some rough edges, some compromises - all too often a game is released which doesn't live up to the potential of the core idea. Or a game tries to shoehorn too many ideas in while simultaneously "ticking the boxes" (implementing elements of previous successful games), and the result is an unfocused mess.

Mirror's Edge successfully avoids these pitfalls. Everything about the game is designed from the ground up to work with the core system of free running, and it all comes together perfectly. The simple, clean graphics make it easy to judge distances and figure out what you can interact with, without making ledges and pipes and other items stand out like sore thumbs (referring back to Prince of Persia, if there was something you could grab or interact with in a special way it often looked out of place). The simplified nature of the graphics also means that the colour coding and "runner's vision" don't look out of place, allowing them to direct you more naturally than more obtrusive directional markers many games place in the HUD. The story and setting support both the gameplay and the graphics. The combat takes advantage of the player's speed and mobility, and the player's vulnerability encourages avoiding confrontation - which again supports the free running and fits with the story. Even the music fits well with the high-rise environments and helps create a feeling of lightness and freedom.

The free running mechanics are very well executed. The unusual control scheme takes a little getting used to, with the left trigger representing downwards movements (ducking, sliding, rolling, dropping) and the left bumper used for upwards movements (jumping, climbing), along with the right bumper spinning the player 180 degrees. Depending on the situation, these few buttons can be used to achieve a variety of moves. It all feels very natural once you've had some practice, and running along chaining a number of moves together to bypass a series of obstacles feels very rewarding when pulled off correctly. This is perhaps the game's greatest strength; just moving around the environment is fun. Considering the fact that the game is based on free running, it pretty much had to be. In comparison to third person platforming games (the foremost of which I consider to be the Prince of Persia: Sands of Time games), you can achieve just about all of the same moves and a few more, such as sliding under low obstacles, which is quite impressive when you think about it. Additionally, I felt that the moves chain together more smoothly, and coupled with the more realistic role of speed and momentum, Mirror's Edge just feels more natural.

This is also true of the environments; in Prince of Persia many levels don't look natural, appearing more like a series of recognizable objects (pillars to climb up, poles to swing from, edges to grab) than an actual room or building that someone would build. While it's still easy to tell exactly what you can interact with and how in Mirror's Edge, surfaces and items that you can climb or jump off sit in the environment better and the levels just feel a lot more believable; which makes it feel less like you're jumping through a series of hoops that someone has laid out for you and more like you're forging a path where one does not exist. And since these items look like they belong the levels are filled with them and you can interact consistently with anything in the level, unlike Prince of Persia or Uncharted where practically every climbable ledge and pole is necessary to pass the level, or traditional shooters where typically the only places you can climb are the ones where you need to. Interestingly, the environments have more variety than you might expect; in addition to the rooftops players have to navigate a range of indoor areas such as warehouses, subway tunnels, ventilation systems, offices, car parks, and construction sites. The differences are not just visual; different levels present different challenges. Many rooftop segments, for example, are about speed as you are often being chased, while interior sections are about figuring out how to pass obstacles - it's not always obvious thanks to the more natural levels, which don't necessarily highlight a path for you.

Combat is interesting. To overcome the main problem in first person close combat, that is your tendency to move right past the enemy while trying to close to melee distance, Mirror's Edge uses a subtle "lock on" when you get in close. Basically this helps you point directly at the enemy so that when you walk forwards you walk right up to them until you collide and stop, rather than slipping past. That's not to say it's impossible to get past them, far from it, only that it usually won't happen by accident (at least once you've had a little practice). It is subtle enough that you normally won't notice it, and it won't interfere if it's your intention to run past an enemy, but effective enough that close combat works better than any first person game I've played before. There's two combat buttons: a strike and a disarm. The disarm takes down an enemy with a single button press, but requires very specific timing on stronger enemies and it will take a fair bit of practice to learn to pull off consistently, but they do look pretty cool. The strike button triggers a simple punch or combination, but can be combined with the jump and duck buttons when you have some forwards momentum for flying and sliding kicks, which are pretty cool. The flying kick is powerful and fun, but the sliding kick is typically easier to land and stuns opponents for long enough for you to land another combination, making it your best bet for dealing with tougher enemies.

You can also trigger a brief period of slow-motion. This can be used to help deal with difficult enemies or jumping sequences, or just make particularly cool jumps feel even more dramatic. It recharges when you run, but you always start with it charged so you can always use it when you get stuck.

With only two buttons and a limited number of moves, you may think that combat is simple. And it is a little, but that doesn't make it easy. When you're busy dealing with one opponent you'll be taking fire from any others in sight, even disarm moves take too long and you probably won't survive if you try disarming an enemy in front of his partner. Thus it's essential not to attack groups directly, but to use your maneuverability to draw them out and split them up so that you can tackle them one at a time. You can also pick up a downed enemy's gun (or steal it with the disarm) and turn it on the rest. This is especially useful when you face multiple enemies in smaller areas, which starts to happen more frequently later in the game.

The actual shooting mechanics are simple and lack the refinements of a dedicated shooter such as aiming assist or a targetting / zoom mode (with the exception of the sniper rifle), however the AI is not designed to keep moving and make use of cover the way it would in a true shooter, allowing guns to be used effectively with a little effort. I do not consider this to be a shortcoming of the game; Dice is after all a very experienced developer of first person shooters such as the Battlefield series. Rather these elements were simplified in order to support the free-running gameplay (as well as the tone of the game and the plot); the player is encouraged to rely on speed and agility to try to overcome or bypass enemies rather than picking up a gun and shooting his way out. The fact that weapons only have a single magazine of ammo and cannot be reloaded, and also that the player cannot climb (or even move quickly) when holding anything larger than a handgun further supports this.

The story is something that may not appeal to everyone, but I feel it's not only suitable but relevant. Obviously inspired by Orwell's 1984, the game is set in a city where the government control is absolute and non-compliance is not tolerated. The game does not go into detail about the rights and wrongs of it; probably a good idea as doing so may come across as dry or preachy or possibly alienated some potential players. It simply goes into enough detail to create a plausible reason for people to run across rooftops: since all communications are monitored, some people need non-conventional means of getting messages and packages around. That's where the runners come in; carrying packages across the rooftops, they maintain their client's privacy (I assume there's some reason why they can't carry packages on street level, I guess Big Brother watches the streets?), thus making them valuable to people who don't like the government knowing their business.

Not only does this justify the gameplay, it also fits in perfectly with the graphics; the clean visual style fits the idea of a tightly controlled futuristic city where everything looks perfect on the surface and the 'rough' elements are pushed out to make people feel safe. But there's might be more to it than that. This is just conjecture on my part, but I suspect the intention was to appeal to youths who feel constrained by the safe, boring sensibilities of society at large and enjoy the excitement of edgier living. The runner's themselves are certainly 'hip' (so far as I can judge these things, which is not very far); not exactly gang members but certainly not safe, mainstream citizens.

You play as Faith, a female runner trying to find out why her sister was framed for murder. The mystery element of the plot creates rather more interesting mission goals than the standard "blow that thing up so that you can get to the next thing you need to blow up" seen in many shooters. It's not particularly deep, not that you would expect it to be, but it does seem to lose it's way just a little bit in the middle. That's not really surprising; as you design a number of missions to fill out a game and give it a decent amount of variety and length of play time, most games see their plot meander back and forth to accommodate those levels. Perhaps it's because the plot in Mirror's Edge is a little more focused that this becomes more noticeable than in many games where the plot is less cohesive. Overall the story does tie in to the setting very nicely and I personally enjoyed it. The end was not a neat conclusion with everyone living happily ever after, but it was a certainly not the kind of dark, doom-and-gloom depressing nonsense that I'm seeing in many games these days. In fact it was completely suitable both in terms of the story and as a game; a victory, but not the end of the war, satisfying but leaving plenty of scope for a sequel.

Strangely, there are in-game cut-scenes which take place in first person, but also between levels there are animated cut-scenes in a different visual style and traditional perspective. These are pre-rendered in a stylized 2D which I believe (but can't be sure) is actually a really well cell-shaded 3D. I believe these were shot from a normal camera perspective in order to show Faith so we can get familiar with her as a character, which we cannot do from the first person. I'm not sure why the particular visual style was chosen, I suspect pre-rendered video was necessary to give the characters more natural movement and expression than the game engine could provide, and the 2D style was chosen as being more interesting. Perhaps it was done because a slightly different style would feel a little strange, while a very different style wouldn't have that problem - I believe slight differences can sometimes be more unsettling that significant ones, but this is pure conjecture. At any rate it works well enough. I did feel that more time spent fleshing out the supporting cast and their relationships with Faith, or just describing the world of the runners in general, would have been time well spent. As it is the city feels a little underpopulated and the runners don't have much presence.

If the game has a flaw, it's that it can feel a little drawn out at times (though this is probably subjective); you will spend an entire level running and jumping, watch a brief cut-scene, then go right back to running and jumping - after a few levels it can feel a little repetitive. These days most games break up long sections of shooting or fighting with different activities such as exploring, puzzle solving or driving. And while this becomes much less of a problem nearer to the end where there is more combat, you might find Mirror's Edge feels a little drawn out around around the middle and may prefer to play it in shorter sessions. But if you do start to feel a bit bored halfway through I recommend that you persevere; the game does pick up again.

Overall I give it a 10 out of 10: the game sets out to do something new, which it does almost perfectly, creating a unique and highly enjoyable experience. Furthermore, it shows great potential for the future of first person games.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Less spoilers from here on

I've decided to try to make my reviews a little more "professional" - that means (hopefully) less rambling and some form of warning before I drop any spoilers (I'm thinking of saving spoilers until the end, a sort of post-script for people who have read/seen/played the subject of the review).

So if you're one of the zero people who've been following this blog, from now on you'll have spoiler warnings. If on the other hand you're reading this blog top-to-bottom (i.e. newest to oldest post chronologically), then older posts than this one will throw spoilers around without warning, so read at your own risk.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Call of Duty: Black Ops review

I played some multi-player on the PS3 a few months back, I was OK (about half my games I wasn't in last place). A few days ago (right after finishing Killzone 2) I started the single-player campaign on the XBox 360, I finished it in a couple of days. I'm not going to talk about the online-multiplayer, instead my review is focused around the single player campaign.

The first Call of Duty game I played was a demo for Call of Duty 2. I enjoyed the demo; the controls were good, graphics were fine, and most importantly you started off with the Lee-Enfield Number 4. With full 10-round magazine and authentic reload animation using two stripper clips (or just the one if you had 5 rounds or more still in the magazine - how cool is that?). I then played the first Modern Combat, and I loved it. Then of course came the second Modern Combat. I despised it.

If it hadn't been so popular and literally broken world sales records, I would merely have hated it. If I had played on normal rather than hard, I probably would have simply not liked it very much, who know?. But as it was I hated it. It's relevant to this game to mention the main reasons why I disliked it, the biggest would have to be the "red-screen-of-death". I call it that not because your screen goes red when you're dying, but because when your screen goes red you can't see anything and this generally causes you to die. It's not just a light uniform red, the screen goes dark and is covered in blood splatters, making it even harder to see. And like in Killzone 2, the red screen made it hard to see the red directional damage indicators, though I feel it wasn't quite as bad because the damage indicator was a bar rather than a tiny blood splatter. Playing on hard difficulty, as soon as you get shot the screen turns red and you lose the ability to see the enemy shooting at you. In many if not most levels the enemies are wearing camoflage and hiding behind cover. Typically the instant you step into their line of sight you get shot, so now it really is impossible to tell where they are and where you were shot from, so you have to backpedal and hope to reach cover before you die. Then you have to cautiously step out and hope to catch a glimpse of movement or muzzle flash before you're blinded and have to duck back into cover again. Now you have to try to roughly line up the shot before you step out, leave cover and quickly try to line up the sights on the few pixels of exposed enemy before you're blinded again. Now, after you've recovered again, step out and fire blindly in the hope that you've hit him, ducking back if you're not on target properly. Repeat until the enemy dies. Now repeat the whole process for the next enemy, ad infinitum.

Then there's the constant loss of control. In the first Modern Warfare there was a level where the only control you had was to look around. Your character was driven across war-torn streets then executed. It was a very powerful scene, and I was impressed. There were also a few moments when you had no or very limited control, most notably in the ending sequence. This also worked very well and had a powerful impact. Modern warfare 2, however was so full of scripted scenes where you're helpless and someone has to save you that I grew absolutely sick of it. Taking control away from the player is a big deal, you have to be careful about doing it. They were not careful. It seems they saw it as one of the reasons the first was so successful, so they crammed in as many sit-back-and-watch-yourself-be-a-wuss moments as they could.

The strange thing is that Black Ops has many of the same problems as Modern Warfare 2, and yet I enjoyed the game far more. Some of it may be just me; I was expecting a lot of scenes where I wouldn't have any control so I had resigned myself to it, and I was playing on medium difficulty so I wasn't instantly blinded by the very first shot that my near invisible enemies made. But I think some of it was caused by the fact that I just found the plot far more enjoyable and the characters more interesting.

I can't say conclusively, but I do feel that the red screen effect was toned down slightly. At any rate, I found it to be far less troublesome than in Killzone 2 - certainly the environments were far, far more colourful and the enemies stood out better (and had more variety) which just made it much easier to see when wounded. Plus I think they spent less time behind cover and more time relocating and even charging the player than in MW2, which not only solved the problem of trying to shoot camouflaged enemies behind cover, it made the game more dynamic.

Concerning the loss of control, Black Ops was even worse than Modern Warfare 2 - I actually believe that a good half of the playtime involves you having no or little control (I am however including the cutscenes in this estimate). Furthermore, the game alternates between scenes where you can only look around and scenes where you can't even do that, which I find perplexing and consider to be a mistake - especially when it moves smoothly between these scenes so one moment you have no control and the next you have a little but you don't realise it because there was no indication, or one moment you can move your head around and see what's happening but then it focuses in on someone's face and you have no control at all.

But somehow it all works better. Perhaps it's the fact that the game starts off with you tied down, and keeps coming back to it between levels, so it sets the mood right from the bat - you're not in control of your destiny here. Maybe it's something to do with the greater variety in these set pieces - you're not just falling and being caught and pulled up over and over, or the way that they felt less like a result of your failure for not jumping far enough and more a result of events that are truly out of your control. Perhaps it's the fact that the story is interesting and many of these scenes are in fact important story points, so you want to watch and find out what's happening. Maybe it's the fact that the game jumps back and forth in time, so many scenes feel like playing out memories and we intrinsically accept that things are going to turn out a certain way, making it less frustrating when we lose control. In fact, while jumping between characters in MW and MW2 sometimes broke the flow of the plot and made it feel a little disjointed, in Black Ops when it does this it is describing events that have already happened (and it jumps between characters that we know and have fought alongside rather than someone completely different on the other side of the world) so not only is it more interesting to finally play as this character, it also flows better and feels more like filling in the gaps.

As I mentioned before the story is more interesting, it's told in a more engaging fashion, keeps you guessing the whole way, escalates nicely to create a real sense of menace near the end, and in fact I just found it more plausible than that of Modern Warfare 2. The characters are interesting and likable, maybe it's thanks to all the time spent on exposition rather than gameplay that we get to know them better. Perhaps there's something to be said for how it manages to get across to the player the sense of obsession and confusion that the protagonist himself is feeling - honorable mention goes to the scene where numbers start flying out of the walls. And the Fight-Club bit worked well too, especially as you actually play through the events, sometimes from different viewpoints.

The gameplay is classic Modern Warfare - quick and brutal, well-polished (other than the red screen nonsense). The game was set in the time of the Vietnam war, which alone is unusual in games. Fortunately it meant that most of the weapons we are familiar with were available. There was vast range of submachine guns, assault rifles, machine guns, pistols, sniper rifles, shotguns, and a few special weapons available. What it really translated to was the standard modern-day FPS weapons, but in a number of configurations that created a little variety. All were well executed, although I found red-dot and reflex sights were not clear and preferred iron sights, in contrast to the original Modern Warfare. Honourable mention goes to the SPAS12 with incendiary ammo, which is an absolute beast - just wave it in the enemies' general direction and they die in droves, it's just insane really. Levels are varied and well designed, directed but not "narrow". They are also quite colourful at times. This is a big deal actually; it helps buck the recent trend towards everything being coloured in shades of grey and brown. The vibrant greens and blues of the forests are a welcome change.

There's certain things about the Call of Duty games that aren't always to my tastes, namely the squad-based gameplay. It creates a very dramatic experience, it really feels like you're in a real war, there's a strong sense of importance and urgency. Which is sometimes the problem. I always feel I have to rush forwards and carry my weight, after all I can't let my friends do it alone. But this inevitable leads me to run forwards carelessly and get killed, I have to force myself to move forwards slowly, stick to cover, be methodical and careful even if that feels contrary to the tone of the situation. Another thing is the way that you start every level with a specific weapons loadout, personally I've always preferred it when you had some control over your weapons so you can stick with (and perhaps even upgrade) your weapon. But it makes sense in the context of the narrative, and you do get your own weapons to upgrade and dress up in the multiplayer, so I can't complain.

Although, I will complain about the fact that you have exactly two weapons, whether they are pistols or longarms, even though there no logical reason why you would need to drop your backup pistol to pick up a rifle. I know it's a gameplay issue, but it gets on my nerves a little. Especially since there's times when you pull out a pistol anyway even though you clearly didn't have one before (or even pull out a knife, when at other times a knife is a selectable weapon). In fact there a set piece where you pull out a pistol that's empty - I never used it, so why would I be carrying an empty pistol? It's not a bid deal, but it's just one of the things I like to point out.

In my review of Killzone 2 I complained about receiving orders while taking fire. In Black Ops you still receive instructions verbally in mid-level, but it's usually when you're not actually engaged in a firefight and more often the action would stop for a set scene that keeps you in the loop, so I didn't find it a problem (and it maintained the advantage of mid-level instruction, that is to keep things varied and engaging).

I will take this opportunity to mention that the AI sometimes get in your way and wouldn't move, and when a character had a scripted path or position they would simply walk in a straight line and push you out of the way - a little outdated compared to many modern games. There's quite a few differing gameplay sequences that help break up the action, including an interesting level where you alternate between direction a squad on the ground from inside a plane and actually controlling that squad. I quite liked the bit where you're crawling through tunnels armed with a revolver and flashlight - and you can turn off the flashlight.

While I don't want to talk about online multiplayer, I will mention the "Zombie" mode. It supports two player split screen, which I think is a very good thing (though personally I think all games should have a split-screen campaign so I don't give it that much credit), and it's an interesting diversion but it has serious balance issues. Up till the third wave it's still quite easy, but then the zombies suddenly start appearing faster that you can board up entry points and they're suddenly much tougher to kill - as you backpedal while frantically reloading and firing you always, always, always get killed from behind as the zombies suddenly start breaking through multiple entry points simultaneously. Because of this the games are always about the same length and it's very hard to make any progress. One tip: take the time to aim for the head, it makes a huge difference.

Overall I give it an 8 out of 10: fun, varied gameplay and a good story successfully overcome the game's few weaknesses.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Killzone 2 review

Finished a couple of games in the last few days. I'll start by talking about Killzone 2. I only played the single player so I can only talk about that. I will make frequent references to Half-Life 2, because in many ways that game to me was both the last of the old first person shooters, and the first of the new (a topic for another time?).

First of all, let me discuss the original Killzone. It has been many years since I played it, so all I have left are vague impressions. That's not necessarily a bad thing, though, because those impressions are obviously of the things that stood out to me.

Lets start with the weapons: I remember there being two variations on most weapons; the ISA version and the Helgast version. For example, you start with an ISA assault rifle but will probably end up grabbing a Helgast assault rifle before long. I don't remember them being significantly different, I think the ISA version had a grenade launcher but the Helgast rifle had a larger magazine. That meant there were a lot of weapons that played very similar, but it did flesh out the world. There was a reasonable variety, especially with the character-specific weapons. Personally I thought the weapons looked like actual weapons would in the real world while being significantly different than anything I was familiar with, so overall I give it good marks here.

The game had a rather strange health system, where your health bar was split into segments. If you were injured then you stayed out of the field of fire for a moment, you would regenerate the current segment of your health bar. That meant that if you took enough damage to deplete one segment and drop down to the next, you would not recover that lost segment without a health pack. A compromise between the old health systems and the modern Wolverine healing factor, it encouraged careful shooting from cover (take a couple of hits and duck down to recover before you lose a bar) but still for the most part acted like an old fashioned health bar. While a little strange, I think it worked.

I'm afraid that I don't remember very much about the level design in the old game, I remember fighting in ruins, across mountain paths, in fortified buildings, on a dock at one point, in a forest or at least a wooded area, and on a spaceship at the end. There wasn't much variety in the enemies, there were guys with guns, guys with grenade launchers, and that's it as far as I can remember. I suppose that's not unusual, I didn't think it was a big deal at the time, but compared to even very old games like Half-Life it's quite poor.

My favorite thing about the original was the characters. Over the course of the game you played as a group of four different characters - each mission you played as one, sometimes you could chose which (your choice could affect the path you took through that level, but not the plot). Each character played differently. I vaguely remember one guy having some very heavy weaponry, and a girl who had an interesting gun and who could access areas others couldn't (she could climb or crawl or something).

But it wasn't just the variety in gameplay between the characters that I enjoyed, it was the interaction, their differing personalities and histories, the banter and arguments. At the time this was not common in first person shooters (or at least I rarely saw it done well), it fleshed out the story and really gave me a feeling of purpose and direction when playing.

So what about Killzone 2? Let me start by saying that at no point in the entire game did I actually enjoy myself (well, OK, perhaps I derived some degree of pleasure from the sheer overpowered-ness of the lighting gun for the brief period that I had it). As far as I could tell the only improvements from the original were in the technology used in the engine. There's no doubt that it has a very powerful graphical engine, it's a real shame then that it was only used to render grey walls, grey floors, grey roofs, grey skies, grey smoke, and grey people wearing grey clothes and carrying grey weapons.

In fact it's my understanding that a lot of effort went in to making the game so grey - I recall reading about how they applied post-processing filters on the completed, rendered scene to further reduce the colours. Well congratulations, you succeeded most admirably in making the game completely boring.

The game uses the exact same enemies, same weapons, and even the same environments. Well, a few of the same environments; there's only three different types of scenery in the whole game (dark grey ruined buildings, light grey spaceship interiors, brownish grey rocks). I get that it was a continuation of the original, but come on.

So what was actually new? Let's see... there's a pretty good cover mechanic, I suppose that's an improvement, although personally I wasn't too fond of it - but that might have been caused by the controls, or might be a matter of taste. There's some absolutely rubbish bits where you have to physically rotate the controller to turn valves and the like; frustrating the first couple of times as you get used to it, after which it becomes merely tedious and pointless. It's worth mentioning that this game was (or at least was supposed to be) an early PS3 exclusive - it's the first PS3 FPS I had heard of, I believe it was the first PS3 exclusive FPS at any rate. As such it was expected to serve as a showcase of the system's abilities, and Sony was still trying to push their completely rubbish look-we-have-motion-controls-too sixaxis controller. Personally I have never seen a good use of the motion controls on the damned thing. Which reminds me, physically tilting the controller during the loading scenes slightly tilts the view. Ooooooh. In practice it just means that the loading scene jitters annoyingly when you take the opportunity to adjust your seating position or something.

And... that's about it. I can't actually seem to think of much else that's new. There's a couple of flying drones and a heavily armored trooper you fight two or three times, for what little that adds to the game. You do pilot an exo-suit. Once. For about 10 minutes. I suppose the different perspective and level of power in the exo-suit weapons adds a little variety, but really the game is still 99 percent shooting the same guys over and over and over. Even the last boss battle mainly involves gunning down waves and waves of the same enemies you've been fighting for the whole game.

So how does it play? Not very well in my opinion. When I first bought the game the controls were absolutely atrocious. I tried adjusting the sensitivity every which way, I even tried playing it with a PS3 mouse, it was just awful. It's just shocking that the game could actually be released with such obscene controls. How could an entire development company AND publisher allow it to be published like that? There was a patch that fixed the controls (I didn't know about it at first because my PS3 wasn't connected to the net - there was nothing I needed online), that fixed the controls so they were decent. Personally, however, they still felt a little off to me - I still had trouble lining up my shots, it still felt a little like aiming started slowly then picked up speed. I'm going to allow that it might just be that it was my first FPS in several months, though I'm not convinced. Perhaps the apparent absence of any sort of aiming assist is part of the problem?

Controls aren't the only gameplay issue. Killzone 2 replaces the damage system of the original game with the recharging health system that's so in vogue today. And, like every other game that uses it, it replaces the traditional health bar with an on-screen visual indicator, namely you see blood-splatters on the sides of the screen as the view goes red then darkens. Personally I have come to hate this system (at least when it's used so heavy-handedly); anything that interferes with your view annoys me, and the fact that you lose the ability to differentiate the grey enemies from the grey background they are hiding behind exactly when you need to see them so you avoid dying is quite frustrating. And to make matters worse, for some reason when you're manning a fixed gun or turret, your health indicator changes so it's not obvious if you're getting shot or what - a few times a died because I didn't even realise I was getting shot, at first I thought I was being electrocuted or poisoned or something because the screen was going dark but there were no blood splatters (and I think the joypad wasn't rumbling either).

The game also uses directional damage indicators. The first game I can remember that told you which direction you were taking damage from was Half-Life 2. Half-Life 2 came out in 2004, that's before the first Killzone. Since then virtually every shooter, first and even third person, has used some variation on the damage indicator. And with good reason; it just makes the game better. Now, in Killzone 2 the damage indicator is a subtle blood-splatter on the side of your screen. And as I just mentioned, the indication that your health is low is blood splatters on all sides of your screen. Can you see the problem with this? As soon as you get hit by more than one single bullet (which is pretty much always the case since your enemies use automatic weapons), your damage direction indicator is hidden by your health indicator.

One aspect of the game that I really hated was the fact that nearly everything, from mission objectives to plot elements, would at times be "explained" by dialogue spoken WHILE PEOPLE WERE SHOOTING AT ME. I'm sorry, but when people are shooting at me, I'm not listening to radio chatter, I'm scrambling for cover as I try to pinpoint the enemies' locations (which can very difficult when they're behind cover that's the same colour as them and my screen is red and I can't see the damage indicators) while checking my ammo and slapping in a reload. As a result, not only did I often not know (or care) what I was supposed to be doing, I really started to hate my "friends".

Now lets talk weapons. First of all you can carry a long gun and a hand gun. Good, that makes sense; I never liked being told that I could carry either a pistol or a rocket launcher - surely the pistol is tucked into a holster or my belt while the rocket launcher is slung across my back? Your default handgun is a very nice looking revolver with infinite ammo. Now I like revolvers, and I won't complain about infinite ammo, but I do have an issue. The revolver felt under-powered. It had a very slow rate of fire, took a significant amount of time to regain accuracy when shooting off the hip (that is, the reticule that shows the bullet spread expands to encompass half the screen after each shot and takes a moment to tighten in again), and was rather weak. It took at least three shots to kill a normal enemy, and since you would normally be firing it as fast as possible at close range (where you don't use the sights) you'll most likely miss at least one shot even if you're aiming right at him, so it will usually take four or five shots to put down an enemy at close range. While this isn't a problem against a single enemy because the impact staggers them enough that they can't fire back, it means you don't have enough ammo to kill another enemy without reloading - a big problem when your faced with multiple enemies. Compare this to the Half-Life 2 revolver, which kills most enemies with a single shot and can be fired in quick succession (although firing too fast is still inaccurate, to my recollection it regained accuracy faster than in Killzone).

There's at least two assault rifles and a submachine gun which all feel the same. There's a shotgun which is quite easily the worst shotgun I have ever used in a FPS - it's both weak, slow, and unsatisfying. There's a couple of machine guns which are actually significantly different: one works very well when firing normally (and is very accurate when the sights are used), the other is God-awful when fired normally but works very well from cover (for some reason it's unbelievably inaccurate normally, but very accurate when fired from cover). There is a sniper rifle, but it's quite useless. When zoomed in scope fills well under a quarter of the screen and is filled with glare, combined with the slow rate of fire, poor controls, lack of aiming assist, and the fact that your view jumps around like crazy whenever you get hit makes it very, very difficult to hit anyone with it. The only enemies I managed to kill with the sniper rifle were guys with rocket launchers (they take a while to line up their shots, and even after they shoot you have time to finish aiming, kill them, then dodge the rocket) and perhaps a few enemies who where looking the wrong way - and that was with great difficulty and I could probably have done almost as well with the standard revolver. There's also a flame thrower that I didn't like very much, a Helgast pistol that I never actually used, a standard rocket launcher that's only available when you need to take out tanks, and then there's the lightning gun.

The lightning gun is so over-powered it completely changes the whole game. It deals a lot of damage and it seems to seek out the enemies on it's own; you simply needed to wave it in their general direction and they keeled over dead en-masse. Plus, it had infinite ammo! When you had that weapon the whole game suddenly dropped a half-dozen notches in difficulty as you casually sprinted forwards and mowed whole armies down. It was only available in one level, but in that level several weapon racks carried it, which begged the question: why the hell didn't more Helgast use it? They would have won the bloody war ages ago.

All in all I wasn't impressed with the weapons, they were lacking in variety compared to other sci-fi shooters and lacking in impact compared to modern-day shooters. In fact, most sci-fi shooter weapons have more impact and many modern-day shooters have more variety.

I mentioned before that the original Killzone's characters and story were my favorite part of the game. Perhaps ironically that was what I hated most about this game. Let's start with the plot. What is the plot? The Helgast are spouting nationalist rhetoric - not in itself and evil act - and the ISA (or "we", if you wish) invade them. Wait, why are we invading? I'm not fond of invading other people's homelands. Can we give diplomacy another try? Right from the start I have an issue; I don't know why we're invading, and I'm not convinced it's justified. In most games you're on the defensive, at least at first, so you have a good reason to fight, the reminders of their evil is all around you in the form of abandoned homes and ruined buildings. In killzone, the homes are abandoned and the buildings ruined because of you. In the later stages of the game, Helgast soldiers even yell things like 'Repel the invaders' and 'Protect our home!', or things to that effect. I don't want to be there, killing them, and if I don't want to be there what's my motivation for playing the game? Perhaps it would make more sense if I remembered exactly what happened at the end of the first, or if I had played the PSP Killzone? Either way they should have set it up better in the beginning. Actually, it reminds me of Gears of War - you start the game, it's a war, shoot things, pick up the plot as you go along - what there is of it. The difference is in that game we were clearly defending against an alien threat, you didn't really need to know much else to be invested in the game.

Like the original, Killzone 2 follows a band of 4 soldiers. Sort of. This time you always play as the same character; Sev. Not only is the variety in gameplay lost, Sev himself has no personality. He barely ever talks. The other characters are not constant; sometimes you'll be carrying out a mission with one, sometimes with another, occasionally four of you will hang out for a bit. The group doesn't feel cohesive, they don't feel like friends or even a unit. In fact they all sound the same and even look the same. The only thing differentiating them to me was how much they swear, ranging from often to non-stop. Compared to the original four, I didn't give a damn about any of these guys, not even Sev.

Speaking of the original four, I'm not sure why they decided to ditch them. Two of the original characters are still in the game, though I didn't recognise them - I only started to suspect it was them near the end, when a character who we had barely seen died and one of my 'mates' seemed to be feeling a little too much grief. After checking Wikipedia I figured out that they were two of the original cast. And the one who dies is Jan Templar, arguable the main character of the original four (based on the fact that you start as him). And his death is lame, he doesn't even put up a fight.

In fact the only guy who doesn't die, other than Sev, is the one character I liked least. His dialog was nothing but endless swearing. I guess some people still believe that the key to a good video game plot is to make the cast annoying jerks who swear as if their lives depended on it. Story not good enough yet? Add more f-bombs.

I also think it's worth mentioning that the "token female" (yes, every game has one) in the original Killzone was a smart, tough, intelligent soldier who was very capable in battle and in making decisions, but also had her unique personality and flaws (a balance that I so rarely see anywhere, especially in games). In Killzone 2, the "token female" (yes, quite literally the only female in the whole game) has a total of 3 scenes and maybe 5 lines of dialog. During this brief appearance she displays no more personality than a stone, but does manage to get kidnapped, rescued, then killed. I was not impressed.

So let's talk about Sev. Most of the time he says absolutely nothing, people (by which I mean everyone) yells orders at him and he says nothing in return, you're just expected to do what you've been told. This may sound much like a blank "everyman" character like Gordon Freeman, albeit more annoying (MUCH more annoying at times), except that they don't stick to it. You see, initially he says little, and most of the story points are from the first person perspective, but near the end of the game (by which point you've gotten used to the idea of him being a blank avatar), we start to see his face and he starts to talk more. So he doesn't have the personality of most game characters (such as those of the first game), but at the same time he's not a fully immersive avatar who we always occupy. It just doesn't work.

The bad guys are also boring. It seems there's two of them, one who's notable only in that he doesn't wear a helmet and talks a lot, but he's not actually very menacing. The other is somewhat more menacing, but looks almost exactly like every other helgast in the game.

And while we're on it, the end is stupid as well. I believe I've talked about the fact that games these days seem strangely reluctant to have a happy ending. In this case it seems to be the desire for a narrative hook for the next game in the series. The thing is, it's not really a cliffhanger. Rather, it seems to be saying that you haven't actually achieved anything - congrats, all those hours of work you put in were for nothing. It doesn't even promise more; the game just ends on a low note.

Poor writing is something that doesn't normally surprise me in video games, but Killzone was one of the games that awoke me to the fact that a game can have a really good plot and storytelling and interesting characters. So for the sequel to be so terribly written is not only extremely disappointing, it's quite perplexing. What's even more confusing is how the developers could have made so many amateurish mistakes: character and environment design so boring that it defies belief, controls so awful you'd think they'd never played a console shooter before, an invisible damage indicator, inconsistent health feedback, no aiming assist, weapons that aren't fun to shoot... have these guys ever made a game before?

And all this despite the fact that the game is so technically accomplished - the game uses rendering techniques that I believe were never done before on the PS3. In fact, it's rather bizarre - the game looks amazing when you see it running. It's only when you play it that you realise that it's not actually any fun. Perhaps the graphics are the problem? Long before the game came out a video claiming to be in-game footage was shown to the public. It was later revealed that it was not in-game, and there was a great deal of anger and disappointment. Perhaps they spent so much time and effort trying to match the quality of that initial video that they neglected other elements? As in, all other elements?

I don't know. I've heard people say they liked Killzone 2. I find that surprising. Perhaps the elements that I listed that bother me don't bother them? But what exactly did they like about it? Perhaps I'm getting too hung up on a few gameplay elements that are to taste? I don't know. I suppose it's all subjective in the end, ten years ago I probably would have thought this game was amazing, thought that might have been just because of the graphics.

Overall I give it a 4 out of 10 - a pretty skin hides a game that's mediocre in every aspect.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Ultramarines Omnibus review

I considered posting this on my main blog, but I decided to keep the reviews and rants in one place. Warning, lots of spoilers.

I recently finished the Ultramarines omnibus. This is a Black Library collection of 3 novels and a short story about the Ultramarines chapter written by Graham McNeill. Black Library omnibuses probably have the best value of anything in a Games Workshop. But I suppose that's subjective at the end of the day. But I digress. The book follows Uriel Ventris, captain of the fourth company of the Ultramarines. I shall review each story individually.

The initial short story,'Chains of Command', essentially introduces us to Uriel Ventris, telling us something of his character and how he became captain. I liked this story, it dealt with a relatively small yet important conflict (if it was not important then it is unlikely that any Adeptus Astartes would have been involved at all) allowing it to focus on the characters themselves. The themes it dealt with, rigid adherence to established methods and dogma versus free thinking is a central theme in Warhammer 40K that is a driving force behind many of the different factions and indeed the history of the 40K universe.

But perhaps more significantly in this case, it is actually a real issue for the Ultramarines themselves. Not so much in the fictional universe, but rather in the perception of hobbyists towards the Ultramarines chapter. Ultramarines are seen as the 'default' 40K Space Marines. The Space Marine codex always refers to them first, even featuring them on the cover. Most of the non faction-specific Space Marine miniature figures used by Games Workshop for advertising purposes are painted as Ultramarines. Many of the miniatures actually have Ultramarine iconography molded in.

All of this, coupled with their simple but appealing colour scheme, makes them in effect the 'starters' Space Marine army. The hobby of miniature painting and modeling (if perhaps not the actual wargaming aspect) draws a lot of people with a creative nature. They want to experiment, create armies that appeal to their own tastes and are as unique as possible. Therefore the idea of a 'standard' army or colour scheme is naturally of-putting to them. This makes the Ultramarines unpopular amongst long-term hobbyists, they are seen as boring and unimaginative.

So the idea of an Ultramarine who doesn't always follow the rules, doesn't always do things by the book, is important. In essence he's breaking the Ultramarines stereotype. This makes him interesting, which is significant because it helps make the Ultramarines interesting again. They're no longer the faceless standard. For those who can see past the gimmicky Space Wolves and Blood Angels, the Ultramarines have hidden depths. At least that is the idea that I believe the Author wanted to convey, and which he has spoken about in interviews (see, I'm not just making this stuff up).

To sum it all up, a good story that does a good job of establishing the protagonist and is especially significant to the Ultramarines themselves.

The second story in the book, Nightbringer, is in fact the first full-length Space Marines novel. This a good story, and it complements the first in that it picks up soon after and continues the evolution of Uriel himself. However, it has some significant flaws.

Surprisingly, it seems spend more time following characters other than the Ultramarines themselves. This is not really a mistake if you consider that the novel was initially published on it's own, at which time it may not have been planned as the first of a trilogy, in fact it's title doesn't relate to the Ultramarines in any way, but it does make it feel a little out of place here. The story does a good job of describing a planet suffering from rapidly escalating internal strife, split by internal politics. Unfortunately in this scenario Space Marines are of little help, and in the first half of the book they are somewhat peripheral to the story. It's only when things come to a head and all-out war erupts that that Ultramarines start to have a real influence on proceedings, and even then the book continues to follow a number of non-Marine characters as well.

And while there's a variety of 'villain' characters, most of them are not very intimidating an, to be honest, don't really seem very intelligent. This ties in to my other real complaint about this story; there's far too many missing pieces. We never really understand how the villains learned of the Nightbringer, it's location and how to wake it, or how they came up with their plan, why they thought they could control it, or even how they met or why they didn't turn on each other near the end when they didn't need each other anymore (especially since the main factions had revealed to the reader their desire to eliminate the other when feasible). It never even explained what could possibly have possessed them to believe that the Nightbringer would give them the power they sought.

I was also somewhat let down by the end, it didn't feel like a victory when the ancient being of incredible power and evil that was so terrifying that it had entered the hereditary memory of all the races in the galaxy, essentially being the stuff that our nightmares are, quite literally, made of, was awoken and freed to roam the universe. So why was everyone acting as if they had achieved some kind of victory and everything was fine now? In fact, Uriel had an opportunity to trap the Nightbringer once more, possibly even kill it (by my logic, destroying part of the mechanism that it used to sleep through the millennia and trapping it some ten miles underground, since it's no longer in hibernation and in a weakened state, may be enough to kill it or cause it to die from starvation). All he had to do was sacrifice himself and his brothers, but he chose not to. The jerk.

Overall a good read, but it feels out of place in a book titled 'The Ultramarines'.

The third story, 'Warriors of Ultramar', was easily my favorite. I believe Tyranids are a difficult race to write. You can't talk about their motivations because they only have one: eat everything. You can't write about their history, because we don't know it. You can't show them discussing plans and arguing amongst themselves, because they are all telepathically controlled by a single hive-mind.

Graham McNeill, however, manages it very successfully. He makes them interesting by describing how they operate as a biological weapon, and by giving them a surprising degree of intelligence. Perhaps most importantly, he does a good job of making them a terrible enemy, and writing about how the heroes triumph against the odds.

This time the Ultramarines are pivotal to the story from start to finish. Uriel himself continues to grow and change, and proves to be somewhat more effective this time around, relying on both his intelligence and strength. That's not to say that we don't see anyone else; there are a number of memorable supporting characters who's presence enriches the story. In fact this is something that I feel was done particularly well; we are introduced to many characters early on, and we continue to catch glimpses over the course of the book. Some of them prove to be important to the big picture, others are tangential but provide flavor and dimension to the story.

Overall a great book, especially considering the rather difficult subject matter.

Unfortunately I did not enjoy the last novel; 'Dead Sky, Black Sun'. It seemed quite random and I found it hard to follow. I find it somewhat unlikely that a Space Marine captain would be excommunicated for making a battlefield decision to trust his men on their own and personally spearhead a dangerous yet vital mission.

But it seems that is Uriel's fate, and he is given an unlikely mission: destroy some random things that Chief Librarian Tigurius had a dream about. It's worth mentioning that Tigurius is a named codex character - the equivalent of a 40K celebrity, it would have been fitting to at least have a bit of time spent fleshing him out. But we don't get that, instead he gets a brief mention and two minimal lines of plot-driving dialogue. Anyway, in a nearly unbelievable display of lazy storytelling, Uriel is given a vague mission based on a dream. Rather than the Imperium getting hints of something happening, lives lost to bring vital information to Ultramar or some sort of actual story, some guy has a dream. We don't even get to see him have the dream. We don't even see him tell Uriel about the dream, we get Uriel reminiscing about him mentioning about the dream.

Still, the idea has potential for an epic tale. Vague hints of a growing evil on an unknown planet; they could have written whole books about the adventures he had searching for this place. Instead a Daemon (with the highly imaginative name 'Slaughterman') just pops onto their ship mid-transport, picks them up, and drops them off on right planet. I find it to be lazy and just downright bizarre (as well as raising a number of questions about how it was possible, how come daemons don't wreck Imperial transports on a regular basis if it's so easy, how the daemon knew what they were after, why this obviously powerful daemon couldn't find a more reliable group to carry out his bidding than two random space marines, etc). The story eventually explains the daemon's actions, but to be honest I failed to follow the explanation and was left somewhat lost.

Personally I found the imagery described in the book to be quite disturbing. I realise that the 40K universe is very dark and the disturbing imagery serves a purpose, but this was too much for me. And again, I found the end unsatisfying. At the words of a tortured Traitor Marine, the two former Ultramarines remove the sacred objects binding a daemon with the unlikely name of the Heart of Blood, thinking that this will kill it. Instead this frees the immensely powerful daemon (for some reason this surprises them?). After it manages to kill the Slaughterman, it is left unconscious on the floor from the effort. Now, when daemons are defeated they generally evaporate. So seeing it lying around is a pretty strong indication that it is probably still alive. It seemed logical to me that a Space Marine would want to take advantage of it's weakness to kill it, probably using the same sacred hook things used to chain it before. But Uriel just walks away. Consequently, the owner of the castle in which the Heart of Blood was imprisoned and tortured walks over, kicks it, introduces himself as the lord of this castle, and orders it to kill his enemies. Rather than ripping him apart for the agony he subjected it to, it actually does as he orders. Apart from the absurdity of that, the fact that it successfully kills an entire army of Chaos Space Marines, who were already on a war footing and had been building up sorcerous powers for weeks in preparation for an assault on the castle, begs the question: just how the hell did they imprison it in the first place?

While some may enjoy the setting of this story and the Chaos theme, I found the lazy writing and disturbing imagery, along with a number of plot devices that didn't make sense to me, left a bad taste in my mouth.