Monday, October 17, 2011

Singularity review

Seeing Singularity on the shelf the other day, I vaguely remembered reading that it was an FPS with some time manipulation mechanics (to be honest, I think I was confusing it with Timeshift in my mind), and I decided to give it a go. I was not expecting much, a basic modern-day sci-fi FPS with bullet time and some other gimmicks that would keep me entertained for a weekend. What I found was something rather special.

I am sorely tempted to walk you through the start of the game to try to explain what surprised me about it, but I'll save that for the spoilers section. Instead I'll just say this: I was probably twenty minutes into the game when I finally picked up a gun. Up till that point the worst I had done was stab a couple of wooden boards into submission with a knife. But I had saved a life, and in doing so broke the world.

This initially slow pace is because Singularity has quite a strong story. It's not as deep or elaborate as more RPG-like games and the supporting characters aren't very well developed, but it still gives a you a much better reason for what you're doing than most shooters. Personally I found it engaging and one of the game's strong points.

Speaking of the plot, one of the pivotal moments has you carrying a man to safety. I found this to be really engaging, because this was one of the few times I could remember in a shooter when I had a chance to actually save a life. If you're the hero, how come all you're supposed to care about is killing people, and you're never supposed to care about saving all the civilians or friends who get gunned down in front of you?

I remember in Half Life 2 I would always order my squad mates to hold their position so I could take care of the enemy without them getting killed - that's what heroes are supposed to do, right? Well, it generally doesn't work - certainly the game never cares if you've saved a few grunts or hid in the back and let them all die. But Singularity actually gave me a chance to save someone, and even though I knew it was all scripted, it was still an intense experience.

I think one of the things that helped draw me in was that the main character is almost a silent protagonist, so it feels more like the consequences are of your actions, not his. I say almost because the mold is broken in a few ways, but mostly these work well for the story rather than detracting from it.

Unfortunately the supporting cast just don't engage with the player. At one point you're saved by a woman called Kathryn who is apparently a British agent but dresses more like she belongs in Mirror's Edge. She basically plays the role of Alyx Vance, but she's just not very good at it as her presence makes less sense, she's less useful, and generally behaves less like a person and more like a set of player instructions. Your other source of directives, Victor Barisov, is even less interesting despite being far more integral to the plot. The main villain himself has his moments and is quite villainous, though it sometimes feels less as though he is the main threat and more as if time itself is your opponent.

As mentioned, the game centres around time-travel. While this is used to good effect in the story, and leads to some very atmospheric and visually impressive scenes, it doesn't really do very much in gameplay terms. You have a handful of abilities, such as the ability to age or renew some objects, slow down some enemies or prevent them from teleporting around, but these are so specific and context-sensitive that they never amount to much more than fancy switches.

For example, you can age or de-age some objects, but only specific objects and there's only the two extremes. So essentially it's nothing more than a visually interesting switch some objects have. There's a few puzzles that rely on this, but they're generally not very taxing and have very little variety. You can levitate and throw some objects, like barrels, but that's hardly related to time-travel and actually serves to highlight the static nature of the environment - in any given area they may be a handful of boxes or barrels you can pick up, and lot of boxes, lamps, telephones, chairs, and other small objects that may as well have been carved out of the ground you're walking on. It feels artificial and makes the environments feel less realistic than they would if you couldn't move anything at all.

When using your time powers on the enemies, the effect depends on the enemy, so some will slow down, others turn around and attack their friends, while one type of enemy jumps up and chases you for a few seconds then explodes. Again the lack of consistency is annoying. If all the enemies reacted the same way it would make sense and feel like time manipulation, but instead it feels like the enemies themselves have some sort of switch you can flip.

Speaking of enemies, there's a fair variety, especially when compared to the ubiquitous modern military shooter. There's solders with a variety of armaments, and a range of monsters with different abilities and appearances. While none are terribly visually impressive or imaginative, in gameplay terms they're nice and varied and some are quite scary, others are dangerous enough that you have to figure out the best weapons and tactics to take them on.

One interesting thing about this game is that it doesn't follow the modern trend of regenerating health. Instead you have a health bar and can carry a few med kits. Here's the thing: you're health bar is short. Seriously, it only takes a three or four attacks from most of the monsters to kill you, and if you let yourself get caught out in the open against soldier you lose most of your life in the few seconds it takes you to get to cover.

This is brilliant, because it means that combat is scary again! It's not about walking forwards until you get shot then hiding for a few seconds, in this game you need to move carefully, against monsters you will run like hell while firing like crazy, against soldiers you will need to use cover and advance slowly, pulling tricks like ageing their cover to destroy it and de-ageing objects to hide behind yourself, or using some of the more interesting weapons.

The weapons are a bit of a mixed bag. Unfortunately you can only carry two, though there's plenty of opportunity to swap as needed. Also all the regular weapons can be upgraded, but this doesn't really work as well as it should because every weapon has exactly the same upgrade options, none of which have any visual impact, and upgrade modules are hard to come by. As a result the system feels tacked-on and lackluster, failing to instill the kind of sense of ownership that some games do.

While the standard weapons are underwhelming, but some of the special weapons are brilliant, and just incredibly fun to use. The first weapon you get is an impressive (if ugly) looking revolver that's surprisingly pathetic. I had to empty almost the entire cylinder on the first enemy in the game. The fact that it was weak made sense from the perspective that a pistol should be weak and you get more powerful weapons later, and also in terms of establishing the enemies as credible threats (and in this case as scary monsters), but that's what small semi-auto pistols are for, not revolvers

Large revolvers are supposed to be powerful and slow, not weak and slow. Take for example the magnum in Half-Life, which will kill a soldier in a single shot but takes skill to use because of the massive recoil. Or better yet the revolver in Resistance 2; not only will kill standard enemies with a single shot, it also has a secondary fire mode that detonates the bullets you've fired, allowing you to kill an enemy then blow up the bullet when another is running past the corpse for multiple kills with a single shot, making it great fun to use. The Singularity revolver in contrast is very disappointing, neither fun to shoot nor effective in game, and simply not worth using.

The assault rifle was powerful and effective, and basically the best all-round weapon to use when you have the ammo, but it was not really fun to use due to excessive muzzle-flash and camera shake. The shotgun was powerful at close range, but damage dropped off so quickly with range it was just silly, basically it was only really worth using when running low on assault rifle ammo. There's also a rocket launcher, which has the advantage of being a 'special' weapon. This means that you can carry it in addition to your regular two weapons, but you drop it if you try to use a regular weapon. This works perfectly for a limited-use weapon like this, and the rocket launcher itself works well.

The sniper rifle follows the Resistance model, and allows a few seconds of "bullet time" when zoomed in. Great fun to use thanks to the game's damage system (I'll get back to this later), and it's power makes it a great choice against most enemies, but as you would expect limited ammo capacity and supplies greatly restrict it's use. That's not a bad thing, it makes it more of treat when you do use it, but if you could carry more than two weapons so you could afford to carry it and only use it when needed would have been nice.

There's a minigun that puts out a hell of a lot of firepower and actually has a pretty decent ammo capacity. The main problem is that you cannot move very fast when firing or spinning the barrels, and if you walk around without spinning the barrels it will take a moment to start spitting out bullets. This makes it unsuitable for standard use as you may get surprised and killed before you actually get it firing, but extremely useful in intense fights.

Now for the more unique weapons. There's a weapon that fires powerful spikes, but you have to charge it up before firing. I find it annoying and very difficult to use, and only bothered with it in one single section of the game where you fire at large unmoving targets.

Then there's the explosives launcher. This either lobs grenades in typical grenade-launcher fashion, or drops a remote-controlled explosive sphere that you drive around and detonate at will. You cannot move when using this alternate fire mode as the thumbstick controls the movement of the grenade instead, which works surprisingly well. You can see an outline of the ball through objects, and it has a pleasing weight and momentum, which makes rolling it behind enemies cover and blowing them to bits surprisingly easy and fun. There's even a couple of Overall a very powerful and effective weapon that's quite unique and a lot of fun to use.

Perhaps the most entertaining weapon in the entire game is the 'seeker' rifle. This is another special weapon, so you only get to use in a few areas in the game, but it is incredibly fun to use, as well as being insanely over-powered. Basically, it's a powerful rifle which fires exploding bullets that can easily kill all but the most powerful enemies with a single shot. The big deal though is that when you hold the aiming button when firing, you can guide each individual bullet in slow motion right to the enemy, "Redeemer-style". It's easy to wipe out whole armies from behind cover, slowing homing in each shot to it's doomed target. Not only that, but you get a second after the impact to watch them die in glorious slow motion. For example, you will come across soldiers carrying ballistic shields that are proof against most of your weapons. With this gun it's not a problem, just guide the bullet under the shield and watch their legs go flying off.

Which leads to my next point: the hit reactions are not only very well done, they're also quite gory. Limbs get blown off, monsters explode in a shower of bits, and you can even freeze and shatter enemies using barrels of liquid nitrogen (in addition of course to blowing them up with the exploding barrels). I have to say, freezing a soldier then shattering him in slow motion with the sniper rifle creates a rain of glittering shards of ice that's quite impressive, as well as very morbid.

I think one of the most interesting things about this game is that I experienced so many memorable gaming moments that weren't large set pieces, but more subtle in-game affairs. The gameplay is great fun thanks to the use of non-regenerating health and some great weapons, and will perhaps appeal to more old-fashioned gamers for the same reasons. Finally, the story is engrossing and well presented, with some genuinely unique moments.

Overall I give it a 9 out of 10: while it has a number of shortcomings, these are more than offset by some genuinely great moments.

Some may find that Singularity starts too slowly, that it takes too long to get to the action. Personally I felt it worked extremely well - a hell of a lot happens before you even get to pick up a gun, including what I consider one of the game's most memorable moments (for me, it was probably one of the most memorable gaming moments I've experienced). If you don't want that spoiled for you, please stop reading now!

The game starts with you in a helicopter, so obviously it's not long before you crash (but not before you're treated to the view of a giant hand holding a sickle rising from the sea). Exploring the crash site, you find a visitors centre featuring a large statue of Stalin's head in the lobby. There's plenty to see here, including a scale model of the island and an orientation video for new arrivals. If you take the time, you'll get an idea of what the island was for and how it worked. Suddenly there's a bright flash, and everything has changed. The broken down walls are back up, there's people everywhere. Oh, and the building is on fire.

You see a man fall as the ground gives way beneath him, managing to grab on to the edge with one hand. You lift him up and start to carry him to safety. There's fire everywhere, people dying left and right, but eventually you carry him to the relative safety of the lobby where survivors have gathered, and place him in front of the statue where a medic is waiting. A moment later the light returns, and you're back in the present.

But suddenly it hits you: the statue has changed! Stalin's head has been replaced by a statue of... the man you just saved? Crap.

One moment I was happy, proud even, that I had managed to saved someone, the next I was hit by the realisation that my actions had far greater consequences than I had imagined. Yes, I know it was all pre-scripted so they weren't "my" actions. And yes, even as I carried the man to safety I knew that I was changing things. But while the thought occurred to me, while I was expecting to be confronted as some point with the information that I had changed history somehow, I was busy playing and was certainly not expecting such an immediate and impressive display of how large the changes were. What's more, it's not read out, explained to you as if you're some sort of idiot, rather it's there in front of you and you are left to come to your own realisations.

As the game progresses you move back and forth in time and make more changes, and each time the world seems to get stranger. The second time I screwed with the timeline, I jumped back to find strange glowing plants had taken root all over the island. The third time, I stepped outside, looked up and saw a flock of luminescent ethereal microbe-like creatures gently floating across the sky, like a cloud of other-worldly dandelion seeds. At that point I actually stopped for a moment and said to myself "What the hell am I doing to the world?". And that was something special.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Jurassic Park review

Jurassic Park was just re-released in the cinema. It's my understanding that it was exactly the same movie, just the print was restored or something of that nature. Now, I saw Jurassic Park in the cinema when it was originally released, and have not seen it since. I vaguely remember enjoying it at the time, but then I was probably 10 or 11 back then and my tastes weren't terribly refined, so I wasn't sure whether I would enjoy now, or my overly-critical adult self would spend the whole movie wincing at obvious flaws, cheesy acting, and poor effects.

As it happens, I did not wince. Even though I haven't watched the movie since it's original release (at least not in it's entirety, I may have caught bits on TV now and again, not sure to be honest), I could still remember a lot of scenes. That alone is an indication of how good the movie is, but what's more telling is that I pretty much knew who was going to live and who was going to die, I was watching scenes that I remembered a little, and yet still my heart was pounding, I was glued to the screen, completely engrossed.

As I watched I started to wonder how come, when movies had achieved such a pinnacle so long ago, we've so rarely managed to produce anything of such caliber since? Surely we've got it figured out by now, if Jurassic Park is any indication? But then I tried to figure out why it's so good, how it succeeds when others fail, and realised I could not arrive at any concrete conclusions. Perhaps that's the problem; movies are an art form, it's not simply a case of sticking to a set formula, and very minor nuances can sometimes make all the difference. And I suppose most movie productions are driven by business these days, so the art gets pushed to the side a little.

So lets try to talk about why it's so good (although this will be more of a list of good points than any real analysis of them), starting with the special effects: a few of the CGI scenes look a little bit low-budget by modern standards - as in, if you saw this quality of animation in a modern summer blockbuster you'd be a little disappointed, but if you saw them on a TV show you'd marvel at the high budget and quality of the effects. And that's only maybe 2 or 3 scenes out of a movie that's full to the brim with dinosaurs. There were times when I was frankly stunned, the T-Rex scene being a prime example. The movie also used animatronics, which were brilliant, and most of the time I struggled to tell the difference between the two. This really was a ground-breaking movie that still holds up very well almost 20 years later.

The characters were interesting and likeable. Alan Grant (Sam Neill) starts of with a bit of a 'grumpy old man' vibe, more comfortable around books and bones than around people, but when it all goes wrong he doesn't hesitate to risk his life for others, and steps turns out to be surprisingly capable. And he grows as a character as well, initially having a strong dislike of children but then bonding and caring for two.

Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) is likewise tough and capable, facing danger head on when necessary, but in her case it's arguable more impressive from a writing standpoint because the character is incredibly upbeat and positive. What's impressive about that you ask? Well, most of the 'tough' female characters I see in media have a bad attitude. I can only assume that most male writers feel the need to have their "femme-fatale" show how tough she is by delivering constant one-liners and verbally putting down all the "macho men" around her. Personally I think the need to put others down speaks of a lack of confidence, and find such characters un-likeable. Ellie doesn't need to criticise people around her, rather she's quietly confident, but never the damsel in distress.

Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) is entertaining, not silly or slapstick but light-hearted. His presence helps balance the movie, the fact that he's somehow able to make you laugh in the middle of a T-Rex chase without ruining the tension is impressive.

John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) is positively charming, a millionaire who isn't a complete jerk - what a concept. And while generally mild-mannered and almost child-like in his enthusiasm, he's certainly no pushover; from the first moment he steps onto the screen he has his way and everyone else is simply swept along.

I loved Robert Muldoon (Bob Peck), not for anything he did or said, but just because of how he carried himself: the hardened professional hunter who's been places and seen things, things he'd rather not talk about and you probably wouldn't want to hear. Just a fun character who I wish we had seen more of.

The character of Lex Murphy is perhaps not developed much during the movie as she spends much of the time being terrified and running for her life, but Ariana Richards does an absolutely amazing job - I have never seen such absolute terror portrayed on screen in my life. She's not forcing screams out at the top of her lungs as she claws at her face, nothing so melodramatic. No, she honestly seems to be so terrified that her mind and body have simply shut down, completely unable to deal with the situation. She sits there, completely petrified, her eyes so wide it must hurt, and just shakes. I honestly believe part of what makes the dinosaurs so scary in Jurassic Park is her reaction to them. Her naked terror is one of the most vivid things I remember from the movie.

Joseph Mazzello, as Tim Murphy, also does an impressive job as an annoying but inquisitive young boy. I think I was subconsciously relieved that it wasn't me he was pestering as I watched him chase Alan between cars, apparently oblivious to the fact that he wasn't wanted. His performance is very natural, unlike some children I've seen on screen who are basically just led around by the adults, stopping to woodenly deliver lines when called for.

Donald Gennaro (Martin Ferrero) is a lawyer who's out of his element, and while he sees Jurassic Park as license to print money, he doesn't fall into the trap of being an outright slime-ball. Dennis Nedry (Nerdy?), played by Wayne Knight, is entertaining without overdoing it. And hey, look! It's Samuel L. Jackson back before he became Samuel! El! Jackson! Never seen without a cigarette in his mouth, he somehow manages to make the role of computer engineer a dramatic one.

The fact that all the characters are well written and acted is a big part of what makes this such a good movie. We care about them, we see the wonder and fear in their eyes and we feel amazed and terrified. The other part is that it's not an action movie, or a horror movie, but an adventure movie. When we finally see dinosaurs on screen, they are shown as majestic, fascinating creatures. We stare at them with a sense of wonder, and even at the end when we fear them, we don't hate them. And that's something special.

Jurassic Park is full of memorable moments and brilliant details. The waves in the glass of water as we start to hear a deep booming sound, the sight of a Tyrannosaur's gigantic eye staring in from the car window, the sudden moment that the leaves part and there's a raptor RIGHT THERE... you won't forget this film in a hurry. One of my favourite moments is when a raptor is peering in through a glass porthole, suddenly it snorts and the glass fogs up. It sounds like a small thing, but somehow it just stayed with me, perhaps because it was one of the moments that made them more real.

After a review like that, I can't possibly give it anything less than a 10 out of 10. I've never been particularly fond of dinosaurs, but even so I enjoyed this movie immensely. If you haven't seen it yet, you should, and even if you have the chance to watch it on a big screen is worth jumping at.

Priest review

I just saw Priest. Let me start by mentioning the setting: a vampire infested post-apocalyptic world with a strong gothic theme. As a fan of gothic sci-fi I appreciated this, and thought it was a combination rarely seen in movies. And while the action was not ground-breaking, it was more entertaining than what I see in most movies. The plot itself was serviceable; or at least it could have been if a little more intelligence had gone into it. And that's pretty much the problem with the whole movie.

The character design was stylish and appealed to me, but the characters themselves never caught my interest. Priest has probably the worst dialogue I've ever heard in a movie; there wasn't the slightest hint of subtlety or, for that matter, intelligence. In every scene the characters say the most the basic and obvious thing possible. Take for example the oft-repeated church motto: "To go against the church is to go against God". OK, we get it, The Church Is Bad, you can stop hitting me on the head that a hammer now.

Nowhere is this more apparent than with the protagonist, "Priest". He's a "troubled hero" with a "troubling past", so obviously he spends the entire movie looking constipated and says as little as possible. Except when he breaks his silence to deliver truly terrible tough-guy dialogue and one-liners, like "There are always two points, A and B. Know them both, and you'll kill a vampire". Um, what? No, really, what the hell was that? The worst part is that I actually like Paul Bettany, I consider him to be a good actor and I have seen him play both dramatic and comedic roles very effectively. But here, trying to deliver macho dialogue in an American accent, he just seems to be the wrong man for the role.

It doesn't help that his "American" just fails sometimes. Although in all fairness, he's not given an intelligent line of dialogue in the whole movie. Having said that, I was surprised by how well he handled the action scenes and even some of the "tough-guy" moments when he wasn't hamstrung by the scriptwriter. By the way, Maggie Q was good in both action an character scenes, while no-one else really managed a performance worth mentioning.

It feels as if we are watching the first efforts of an amateur script-writer trying to piece together a script, and the dialogue was tacked on later. So we need the the vampire hunter to pick up his weapons again and go searching the post-apocalyptic wasteland (which is actually referred to repeatedly in the movie as "the wasteland") for vampires? How about if the took something important to him, like a family member? Great! Now it's all personal too! But now we need to raise the stakes (haha) near the end? OK, they actually have a master plan to take over the world, and only our hero can stop them! Want to show how tough the villain is? Have a good guy put on a (completely out of place) show of martial prowess, only for the bad guy to kill him easily with a single blow.

If this sounds no more cliched than every other movie out there to you, then it's because I'm not doing a good job of conveying just how simple and by-the-numbers everything is. Take for example the vampire's master plan to wipe out humanity: attack them. No devious trick, no acquisition of some new weapon or technology to tip the balance of power, they just hopped on a train and started attacking villages. It seems they've been spending the last few years reproducing, building up an army so they can attack us. Isn't that, you know, kinda natural behavior for every single creature on earth anyway? Reproducing? How come, after literally hundreds and hundreds of years fighting vampires before Humanity got the upper hand, no-one considered the fact that if you don't keep an eye on them, they might repopulate? Never mind how the hell they managed it when they live in a wasteland with no food other than possibly humans, and we normally notice when people start disappearing en-mass (I'm not even going to ask what humans eat when there's cities so full of us that the smoke permanently blocks off the sun for miles around, but not a single plant seen in the whole movie).

The vampires themselves are, well, not really very vampiric. They are completely inhuman, there's no real suggestion that they drink blood rather than just devouring the whole body, and infecting humans just... makes them kind of weird, rather than turning them into actual vampires. Priest uses shiny chrome weapons that might be silver, Priest carves small crosses into the heads of Hicks' bullets, and we do catch a glimpse of a weapon that looks like it fires silver stakes, but overall the traditional tools and aesthetic of the vampire hunter are somewhat missing from this movie - surprising when you consider that the world is ruled by the church and the protagonist has a cross tattooed across his face. Not that I'm saying the film should style itself after any traditional notion of vampires and vampire hunters, only that in a setting that seems to have such a strong gothic base, there's so little of the expected gothic stylings and imagery. Or maybe that's just what I personally would have liked to see.

Perhaps the most surprising example of the lack of depth is the priests themselves. First we are told that vampires are faster and stronger than humans, then that the church "found" the ultimate weapon: Priests, warriors with extraordinary powers. And that's all. What these powers are or where they come from is never really discussed, and although it's mentioned that they manifest and there's a suggestion that they are inherited, it's basically just swept under the rug. And when the wars are over? This world-dominating Church, which refusese to tolerate any dissent from it's people, takes these devastatingly powerful, highly disciplined Priests and... tells them to bugger off? Really? Not one of these guys considers using the Priests to continue to enforce the Church's will (we know they have enforcers, we've seen them - big guys with heavy armor and shotguns)? Or worries what will happen when these unstopable murder machines find themselves with no guidance, direction or purpose in a world they don't know how to live in?

To be fair, the film has it's moments. If anything, there's enough that I liked about the movie that I wanted it to be better. It felt as if all the elements were in place for a decent action movie - interesting settings and stylish character designs, good actors, good action and visual effects, - but someone just didn't know how to use them. Probably the script-writer, if the mindless dialogue and A-to-B plot (see what I did there?) are any indication.

Overall I give it a 6 out of 10 because I liked the unusual setting, and because it can be entertaining despite it's flaws.

If you're interested in the style of this movie there's a few things you could check out. Trinity Blood is an anime in which vampires have taken over half the world and the church rules the other half, it has a much more 'period' look though there's some pretty advanced tech running around. A personal favorite of mine is Darkwatch, an old videogame where you play a vampire-cowboy in an undead-infested Old West. This game had brilliant designs that were truly a fusion of western and gothic themes.

As a side note, I have to ask: why does the church have to be portrayed as being bad? I'm not even Christian, but I don't understand why absolutely no-one is willing to show any religious organisation as being anything better than a corrupt hierarchy of mindless devotion to rote learning at best, and an evil power-hungry juggernaut at worst. In Priest, humanity has been fighting vampires for ever, and the Church is what has kept humanity alive and finally found a way to defeat them, and there's a suggestion that the character's faith is a good thing (certainly it's never shown as a bad thing). Yet the church is still portrayed poorly, not even as something evil, just as an organisation that's so stupid it's behaviour practically guarantees it's own extinction.

I mean, here's one of their best Priests asking for permission to investigate a possible vampire attack, but they completely refuse to even investigate the possibility that bestial man-eating creatures that have been eating humans for all of recorded history might be eating people. And they would rather imprison or kill him than allow him to wander out into the desert and have a look for himself.

I'm not blaming Priest for the modern portrayal of religion. Priest is so mindlessly written that it's just following the pack, and doing a poor job of it at that; the Church's actions aren't so much sinister or corrupt as just plain stupid and nonsensical here. But I thought it worth special mention since it's actually called Priest and the hero has a crucifix tattooed across his face.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Space Marine review

I finally got my XBox set up again. First thing I did? Finished Kill Team. Second thing? Finished Space Marine.

I'll just quickly mention that Killteam is a decent 2-player top-down shooter, but the dark visual style and cluttered levels makes it more of an effort to play than some. The inclusion of both shooting and melee, however, makes it a little different to most that I've played. The classes work well and their special abilities can be fun and useful. Worth mentioning: take the Sternguard with a missile launcher, pick up a quad-fire power-up, then trigger his rapid-fire special for a veritable sea of missiles!

Now, Space Marine. This might actually not be the best time to release a game called "Space Marine"; the term has come to be used, in gaming at least, to refer to a generic overly-masculine, over-armoured jar-head in a sci-fi setting, and it's use in gaming press is typically negative, indicative of an over-used wish-fulfilment cliche. However, while that description may fit the Warhammer space marines, they differ significantly from the standard gaming mold.

While a standard space marine is much like a modern day soldier dressed in military sci-fi apparel, the Warhammer versions are more like Knights Templar dressed in gothic sci-fi apparel. When they're sitting around in a transport on the way to the mission, they're not talking about how many alien scumbags they're going to waste and what they're going to do to the local hotties when they get there, they're praying to the Emperor to give them the strength to purge the foul Xeno filth. They don't yell random nonsensical noises like "hoo-wa" in the middle of battle, they recite scripture.

In fact, the setting of the whole game will probably feel very strange to players unfamiliar with 40K. Why are there orcs in space? What's an "Adeptus Mechanicus"? Who are these inquisitors, and why are they such jerks? What's this 'chaos' stuff? And why do these guys have such massive shoulder pads? The game makes no effort to explain any of it, and it may be off-putting to some. Veteran 40K players, on the other hand, will feel right at home.

As a fan of the 40K universe myself, I really appreciated how faithful everything was to the 40K universe. All the weapons, vehicles, characters, architecture, and dialogue, as well as setting and story, were true to the source material (in fact the game is arguably closer to the fluff than the tabletop game itself in that a single Space Marine can actually take on a horde of orks here). I have to admit I found it rather gratifying that the game didn't feel the need to explain itself to people who don't know 40K; it felt like the game was made specifically for the fans (as opposed to many movies adapted from comics and games, but that's a rant for another time).

The protagonist, Captain Titus of the Ultramarines, was well written in my opinion. He does not display very much emotion, in fact he may come across as flat and lacking in personality. In my view, however, the fact that he is reserved and not given to theatrics or outbursts of emotion is fitting for an Ultramarine Captain. It might be argued that his writing is more subtle than is the norm in games; his personality is revealed through his actions rather than his words. And, unlike too many video game 'space marines', he doesn't growl and act angsty all the time, he simply accepts whatever challenges come and meets them head-on.

The support characters also have a more depth than in some games, such as the young Leandros, who's rigid adherence to the Codex Astartes is a continuing theme. Actually, as I mentioned in my review of the Ultramarines Omnibus, that's something of an issue for the Ultramarines in particular, both in the fluff and in how players feel about the chapter. Speaking of, some people had evidenced disdain for the fact that the game is about the Ultramarines, seen as the most boring chapter. But they are the 'standard' marines, while many other named chapters are more themed, so it makes sense. Ideally later games or DLC can star other chapters (plus I believe you can play as others in multiplayer, which I haven't tried yet), though that is easier said than done to be honest.

Gameplay is fun. It's uses the Gears of War style over the shoulder 3rd person viewpoint, but unlike most modern third person shooters it doesn't have a cover mechanic and instead has a strong (arguably God of War influenced) melee element, as many enemies prefer to run up and hit you than to shoot you - if that doesn't make sense then just go with it, it's a wargame thing. Furthermore, you have motivation to get in close because of the way the health mechanic works.

You have a shield and a health bar. The shield regenerates itself given time, but that does not translate into regenerating health as your shield won't last long and you'll find yourself losing health in your very first fights. Health can only be regenerated in three ways: dying and respawning, triggering Rage mode (think God of War), and performing executions. Enemies, when weakened and stunned, can be executed God of War style. This regenerates some health depending on the level of the enemy. The problem is that other enemies don't just stand back and watch, trying an execution while surrounded by enemies (typically when you need it most...) is risky as you may die before you finish.

This makes fights strategic as you try to create space to tackle enemies in smaller numbers and pull of executions mid-battle, and try to tackle both the hitty enemies who are in your face and the shooty ones that are hanging back firing at you. The different balances of close up and ranged power of your enemies makes fights play out differently depending on who you're fighting and what weapons you're carrying.

Speaking of weapons, a large selection of weapons from Codex:Space Marines are here, and they all do pretty much what you would expect. The basic bolt pistol has infinite ammo, but that's the only good thing that can be said for it. It soon gets upgraded to the plasma pistol, which is more powerful and can be quite useful against some enemies thanks to it's charge mode. You also have a boltgun (assault rifle), that later gets upgraded with more powerful kraken ammo. You always have the bolter and pistol, but you get two other guns that you can swap out. The stalker boltgun is a fast medium power sniper rifle, and the storm bolter is inaccurate but has a very high rate of fire. The Vengeance launcher fires grenades that are manually triggered. The lascannon is a much more powerful sniper weapon with a better zoom but very limited ammo and a slower fire rate. There's no flamethrower or shotgun, but the latter at least will not be missed thanks to the extremely powerful meltagun - you can only hold ten rounds but this weapon will incinerate whole mobs of enemies up close, it's great fun to use. There's even some heavy weapons that you can rip from their moorings, Halo 3 style; the heavy bolter, plasma cannon and autocannon, which are again great fun.

Close combat weapons are more limited, with the choice of chainsword, power axe, and thunder hammer. I'm not sure about the differences between the chainsword and power axe, based on the fluff I had assumed the power axe was the more powerful of the two but now I suspect that chainsword had advantages as well, possibly in speed? The thunder hammer at least is very powerful, especially in conjunction with the jump pack, but it's slow to swing and you can only use the bolter and pistol when carrying it, so it's not always the best solution. Speaking of the jump pack, Space Marine makes much better use of this than in Halo Reach, and the jump pack segments are good fun, especially the last one thanks to the somewhat surrealistic setting.

It's probably worth mentioning that the whole game has only one quick-time event (to my recollection at least). Without getting in to the argument concerning their use, I felt this one was quite cool visually, though some people might find it a let-down, but I can't go into that without spoilers so I'll leave it there. On the subject, the game does have slightly less set pieces to break things up than some games - there's no driving sections at all, for example, so the game is arguable more repetitive than many, though I personally didn't find that to be a problem. The bosses, however, were slightly annoying as they did not differ much from regular enemy fights.

Graphics are pretty good, but the environments suffered from 'one-colour' syndrome. The characters were better, and they remained true to the miniatures without looking funny - that's actually a lot harder than it sounds since the minis are modelled in 'heroic scale', which means everything is exaggerated to make it easier to paint and to make detail stand out on such tiny figures, especially when viewed from a distance across the table. By the way, that's why they have such massive shoulder pads - to make it easier to paint chapter markings on the models (try it some day and you'll understand). To be honest, there wasn't as much variety in setting or enemy as I would like, but that was at least partially dictated by the story so I'll let it slide.

I'm going to have to give this game two scores, one for the newcomer and another for the 40K fan:
For newcomers I rate it 8 out of 10: a well executed 3rd person shooter that differentiates itself from the pack in gameplay and setting.
For fans I rate it 10 out of 10: the best action 40K game ever, both true to the source and fun to play.

I have heard some mild criticism of the game from 40K fans that I would like to discuss. People mention it's ridiculous that a Space Marine captain would rush into combat with nothing but a pistol and combat knife, not even a chainsword much less a power sword. I see what they mean, but it can be excused in my opinion by the fact that he wasn't initially planning to jump out of a space ship in a jump pack, so he was not properly equipped. I know it's a weak justification at best, but the point is that as far as sacrifices made for gaming reasons it's not so inconceivable as to break immersion.

Another point is that poeple have a hard time accepting Leandros criticising his Captain. Again, I agree that it's unlikely given the way Astartes are meant to be supremely disciplined, but we need to remember that they are still human and do still have different personalities, a Space Marine who's not good with authority is not common but not impossible. In the Crimson Fists novel Rynn's World, for example, both a young scout and a seasoned veteran captain show signs of insubordination. Leandros is a new marine who fresh from his indoctrination, so he's having a hard time dealing with what he sees a disregard for the rules. Without it the cast wouldn't have had very much to talk about:
"Where should we go next?"
"Let's go kill some orks over there."
Not very interesting is it?

Just one thing: it's a Daemonic invasion, right? So why just the one type of daemon? I'm not terribly familiar with the Chaos codex, but surely Bloodthirsters aren't the only daemons of Khorne? Also, some people might argue with the whole chaos power source sub plot, but it's no worse than most 40K novels I've read - there's always an insane doomsday device that threatens to shift the balance of power if the good guys can't get to it first. It's a big universe, just go with it.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Drive review

I saw this yesterday at the cinema. To be brief: the plot was nothing special, the dialogue was not particularly intelligent, and the end could have been stronger. BUT! The cinematography was brilliant. Everything had impact, the action was tense, the violence shocking. You might not remember very much of it the next day, but while you're watching it you'll be totally engrossed.

To go into a little more detail: you might say it wasn't a plot driven movie, but a character driven one, although the protagonist always remains something of an enigma. No-one spoke very much, the movie driven more by action than words, but I feel that when they did speak the dialogue could have used more wit or flavour. Nevertheless, the cast's body language told you all you needed to know, and did a better job of conveying some things than trying to put them in words would have.

The protagonist's reasons for his actions are not explicitly explained, which is not necessarily a bad thing, except that near the end I really didn't understand his thinking. It left me personally feeling that the end didn't make very much sense.

As I said before, the movie really drew you in. While other movies will have a VTOL jet fighter chasing down a truck and blowing the hell out of a highway, Drive has no need for such theatrics, and the simple act of waiting outside a building, or driving slowly down a street with a patrol car going in the other direction, are tense moments that have you glued to the screen. And when violence does erupt, it is simply shocking.

The actual violent content is not high; in terms of volume it is far less than a typical action movie, and in terms of content it is not any more gory or offensive than a lot of things I've seen, and yet in this movie a single slap, that I was expecting no less, made me start. You might say it makes violence actually feel violent.

So overall, I give it a 9 out of 10. Not a great story, but a great piece of cinema.