Sunday, June 30, 2013

Call of Duty: Black Ops and The Merit of the Excessive Loud Noises

     I never played Call of Duty until I borrowed Modern Warfare 2 from a friend, so I'm quite certain I missed the point when this series was respected by more than just online gamers. I feel like after MW2, the story was just tacked on to subsequent entries that focused more on the multiplayer side of things.

Black Ops doesn't have a tacked on feeling to the story, but the gameplay doesn't feel new and everything is too linear.

It has a nice polished look, satisfying sound direction, and top-notch voice acting. I mean, Gary Oldman? F*ck yeah! The soundtrack is appropriate, with plenty of loud songs to score the loud action.

I understand that volume can be used to convey the enormity of something, but does everything have to be so loud in this game?

When the game lets the atmosphere kick in, it works. The mission where you're driving a boat through a river in the dead of night, and The Rolling Stones "Sympathy for the Devil" kicks in, it felt appropriate. It fit.

I don't even like The Rolling Stones all that much, but I smiled the whole time the song was playing, though I couldn't help but feel the tiniest bit guilty as I mowed down scores of Vietnamese, blowing up their barracks, bridges and creating general mayhem.

But far too often, there is too much shooting, exploding and yelling to appreciate the atmosphere.

The gameplay isn't bad, just nothing spectacular. The selection of weapons is limited by the period, and more often than not, the attachments are more important than the actual weapons, especially when you realize there's practically no difference in the weapons other than their appearance.

Yes, smaller guns make smaller sounds, some guns fire at different rates, but when you get down to it, a shot in the face from the python works as well as a shot in the face from a distance with a Dragunov.

If you're looking for a game with guns, explosions, Ice Cube and an unimportant plot twist, CoD BlOps is the game for you!

About that plot twist...

So you spend the game controlling Alex Mason, who is being interrogated because he knows the secret to a bunch of numbers implanted in his brain that will be the key to an attack in the future, which we are ultimately led to believe may have been the Kennedy assassination.

But the plot twist is that, throughout the game, Mason fights side by side with Viktor Reznov, who played a role in the World at War entry in the CoD series.

Reznov leads a prison break with Mason and is presumably killed, but he returns later at various points to aid Mason.

Plot twist!!! Every appearance of Reznov after the prison break is a hallucination. After Mason had been brainwashed and programmed with those numbers and a mission, Reznov slipped in some programming of his own that told Mason to kill someone else.

So when Mason and Reznov stealth into the base at the end, and we see Reznov yelling at and ultimately shooting the important scientist man, it is really Mason losing his sh*t due to the effects of the brainwashing.

After the reveal, Mason is cured, set free and brought along on a mission to kill Dragovich, as Reznov had wanted. Dragovich is the one who hints that Mason was programmed to kill Kennedy, and he had a hand in it, but overshadowing that plot point with the Reznov thing dulls the ending quite a bit.

Upon completion of the campaign, you are immediately tossed into the zombie mode of the game that is difficult to handle alone, and offers next to no guidance as to how to complete the damn thing.

Long story short, solid game, nothing spectacular. It was cool to see a different take on the history of the period covered in the game, but it didn't do much to make the story memorable. I just hope I don't develop PTSD from all the Vietnamese folk I killed in cold blood... Because that would really suck.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Hitman: Absolution and Why Stealth Never Works

     As much as I wish I was, I am not a stealth gamer. I have always been intrigued by the possibilities of wading through a dense crowd of people in a lively marketplace, quietly eliminating a target and slipping back into the crowd and towards the exit before anyone knows the guy is dead.

When I played through Hitman: Absolution, I started off every mission with every intention of ghosting through an area, completing a mission and ghosting back out, but I was often discovered, ran out of instinct or just didn't have the patience to be careful enough to preserve stealth.

More often than not, I ended up leaving a pile of bodies in the most secluded area each level had to offer, then briskly moving to the exit before a third, fourth or fifth patrol made their way to my location.

I recall completing one mission, very early on, exactly the way I wanted. It involved navigating a market square, killing a target and leaving.

Looking back, I didn't take the time to explore the area enough to get a good enough grasp on all of the possibilities, but I was in love with the option I chose and was hell bent on seeing it through to the end.

There was a building overlooking the square where some two-bit drug dealer is, and he gets a phone call that draws him out of the room, where you can knock him out, take his clothes and then go in the room, after storing his unconscious body somewhere out of sight of course.

It is almost too perfect a setting to be true, but it was an early mission, so I get it.

The room offered a clear view of the entire square, and featured a readily available silenced sniper rifle, as well as a small window to conceal yourself from the crowd below.

It was just so easy to knock out the thug, slip in, take the gun, find the target and whisper a shot into his brain from across the way, then slip out of the building, walk the length of square and out the exit, splitting the police who had gathered near the exit.

Another fairly satisfying mission involved navigating a crowded fight venue, loud noises, dark environment and all the focus is on the cage holding the fighters, one of which is the oversized bodyguard for the main antagonist.

It is pretty easy to find a disguise, access the back areas, get up to the catwalk overlooking the cage and drop the light bank hanging overhead onto the showboating fighter. With everyone distracted, getting out is no problem.

My thinking is that it should be clean or be clean and look like an accident. That's the satisfaction I was looking for in the rest of the game.

Such a perfect execution is everything I had hoped for in the game. It would seem that I love only some part of being a hitman, because this game was quite frustrating, particularly later on, when the stealth aspect wasn't quite so cut and dry.

I love the simple get in, do the job, get out type of missions, but those were scarce in Absolution.

There is something to be said about the patience necessary to complete missions and navigate areas, but it isn't always clear what you should do, what you can do, and who you should be focusing your efforts on.

One mission later in the game features multiple targets, gang members, and too many options.

My goal was to eliminate the targets and make it to the exit with as little collateral damage and chaos as possible, but I ended up having to KO a bystander just so she wouldn't run screaming from the building to raise an alarm.

It isn't a critique of the complexity of the actions necessary to ghost through a single level, let along the entire game, but my apparent lack of patience and capacity to sit, wait and observe the area to find the most efficient way to kill people.

Chalk that up to the self-contained areas the game favors instead of the larger, more sandbox type worlds of previous entries. It challenges the player to be more careful in the more confined spaces, but removes the aspect of creativity and limits the personal stamp a player can put on a kill.

I'll say it is a pretty game, specifically the environments, though the facial animations aren't top notch.

My critique comes in when you take the gameplay and find it at odds with the story.

The game plays out like a search and rescue story with heaping spoonfuls of revenge throughout. Even the calm, cool, collected Agent 47 doesn't seem suited to the task.

Though stealth is the ultimate challenge, some of the areas seem built for running and gunning, or at least tactical assaults.

The story itself is engaging enough. Agent 47 must rescue a young girl who has been bred to be an assassin much like he himself was. He's been betrayed by his former employer, so not only is there the threat of whatever party is interested in the girl, but the people that created her in the first place.

It is sort of the same thing that has happened to John McClane in the Die Hard series.

He starts out as a normal, guy, a cop with problems just like everyone else. He's cynical, sarcastic, and not exactly a people person when it come down to it. Most importantly, he's not some over-the-top hero.

He's a cop who finds himself in some uncommon situations and does distinctly human things to uncover the plot, save the day, etc.

You get a bit of it in Die Hard With a Vengeance, but particularly in the last two entries, he has morphed into an almost absurd caricature of an action hero. The first three movies featured some crazy things, blowing up a jet, surviving a massive explosion, leaping from a bridge to a freighter below and somehow not breaking any bones.

Die Hard 4 saw McClane drive a car into a helicopter as well as leaping onto a fighter jet in mid flight.

John McClane should not be doing these things the same way Agent 47, and the Hitman gameplay, should not favor so much open gunplay and cramped, linear environments, many of which are devoid of ACTUAL assassinations.

When I think of being a hitman, I think of an anonymous collective dishing out assignments across the globe. Eliminate this dictator, silence that senator, quell the uprising in country X. No names exchanged, no relationships.

Take a contract, complete it and get paid.

I do NOT want to control a hitman who has lost his taste for blood, or at least blood he's handsomely paid to spill. I don't want a disillusioned contract killer as my primary protagonist.

Even if you're willing to overlook the average gameplay and so-so story, you can't help but be disappointed in the payoff.

You're out to rescue a scientifically engineered weapon of a girl, and only once do we see all of the hype put on display. To be fair, she positively wrecks a large squad of guards in impressive fashion, but I wanted more.

How can you justify spending an entire game where the primary issue is this girl, what she is capable of, and what she could do in the wrong hands, only to have her show it all of once in a brief cutscene, and just move on to the next chapter of the story?

I had played Hitman 2: Silent Assassin before, and I still have Blood Money to play through, so I know what I expected going into this game.

Absolution is a solid game, but doesn't do anything to show the series is back in force after a six-year hiatus between titles, or show any substantial innovation in the principal mechanics of the series.

I beat it, but I didn't feel completely fulfilled with my experience. Moving on...

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Dishonored is Pretty Good and Other Things I Didn't Think I'd Say

     After initial disappointment, and problems getting immersed in the experience, I finally finished Dishonored and... I'm in a weird place right now.

I can't outright retract everything I've said to this point regarding the story, the setting, the characters or the gameplay, but I would amend some of them to reflect the fact that I've finished the game.

Maybe I'm in the minority on this, but I just don't see enough in this game to warrant a rating of 8 or higher. Dishonored is a good game with inventive gameplay and a lot of potential, but the story and characters fall flat, as does the largely forgettable world.

I love the fact that the way you play the game affects the world. If you play with reckless abandon, raising every alarm and littering the streets the bodies of any and everyone you cross paths with, the world reacts, particularly with the ending.

I chose to play in a decidedly bloodthirsty manner while still saving Emily from death. But then her path to and reign as empress will be forever tainted by the pile of corpses you leave in your wake.

The alternate endings are great, but they don't make the story any better.

As previously mentioned, the story and characters just don't stand out in any way.

First, the characters.

No effort is made to hash out their motivations, why they're important, or make it so you can distinguish one from the others. Aside from Pendleton, I don't know that I can recall any of the character's names. The game seemed more interested in the titles of Lord Protector, High Overseer and Spymaster without giving any importance to the people occupying the positions.

I think it would have been wise to give the player reason to believe Corvo was as important as the game makes a point of telling you in the first five minutes rather than all but shouting, "CORVO IS IMPORTANT."

Seemingly all at once, we're given brief and vague introductions to Anton Sokolov, High Overseer Campbell,  the Empress and her daughter Emily.

The player is supposed to care about the Empress and Emily without knowing a single thing about either one, like how Corvo came to be in service of the crown, or possibly give him some back story of his own.

I get the idea of giving players the freedom to mold Corvo's personality through their own actions, but it is impossible to feel any connection to him without knowing the first thing about him. If the character didn't have a name, perhaps it would be easier to forgive the lack of back story, giving the player the chance to really feel as though they are the one in the thick of things.

But the lack of real introduction to the world or the characters leads to a disconnect between player and experience from the jump.

The story lacks cohesion. Yes there is a single narrative, the Empress is killed, Emily is taken, Corvo is blamed and a group of rebels break him out of jail and use him to topple the people who profited from the upheaval of the Empress's death, blah blah blah...

That narrative is needlessly broken up by a mission progress screen that details the coins you picked up, the bone charms and runes you collected as well as the level of chaos based on the playing style, side missions completed, alarms raised.

After each mission, you're taken back to a sort of hub world, a pub and a few surrounding buildings that work as a rebel base of operations.

I understand the purpose, the function, of a clandestine location, but there is no connection to the rest of the world. You return after each mission and depart to another location.

Rather than build familiarity with a place that will be important later in the game, it serves as a frustrating lull between action, whether it be stealthy or brutal.

Maybe open world games have left me jaded, but freedom is supposed to be the point of the game. So why limit players to separate, segmented locations that feel like individual levels rather than a cohesive world?

I don't want to repeat myself with this retrospective, so I'll move on to the point of it all.

Even though I was largely disappointed with the overall game, I found myself wanting to start over and play again with the knowledge of the progression of powers, as well as the way the world progresses depending on the approach to enemies, whether it be killing them all or just knocking them out.

With no segue whatsoever, I'll mention one of the bigger gripes I had with the game.

I honestly didn't know what to expect in terms of enemies. There are the standard guards, which come in various shapes, sizes and abilities, ranging from standing sword and gun guards, to better sword and gun guards, to guards with things that prevent use of abilities.

All of them were okay, but the big draw was the tallboy.

I was expecting the tallboy to be a sort of random encounter type of enemy that would come out when an alarm was raised as sort of a final solution to crimes and misdeeds. Instead, they became their roaming patrol of frustration.

Combat can get a bit frenetic, and the tall boy provides a frustratingly small target being perched on those cyber-stilts with shields on all sides. Avoiding their attacks while fighting back can sometimes be difficult, and not in the way that provides a sense of accomplishment when it's over.

The closest comparison I can think of is the Big Daddy from BioShock.

Big Daddies were a threat alluded to throughout the beginning of the game building up to the first encounter. There was no build to the tallboy. You just enter a level and it happens to be there.

Felling a Big Daddy is rewarding, both in overcoming the beast as well as reaping the benefits of Adam taken from the Little Sisters and whatever ammo and loot he drops himself.

Tallboys seem to be devoid of useful items, even though they wield explosive arrows. I think it would have been cool to have been able to knock the guard out of the tallboy and then be able to drive/use the stilty things yourself.

Now for the part where I don't sh*t on the game!

The shining feature of the game is the freedom the powers provide.

By the end of the game, rather than feeling overpowered, there is a sense of opportunity. Depending on your approach, you can either become a master of stealth or devise wickedly creative ways to dispose of guards and enemies.

It is a bit of a pain to track down the runes that allow for leveling up of abilities, but it is definitely worth it to create the perfect killing machine or shadow.

By far the best ability is Bend Time. It is precisely as it sounds.

At first, you can only slow time, but level up and you can stop time altogether, albeit for a shorter period of time.

There is something so satisfying about activating the ability just as an enemy fires their gun, giving you the unique opportunity to step out of the way of the bullet, then (assuming you've unlocked the ability) possess the firing enemy and move him into the path of the very bullet he just fired.

Or the ability, via purchased device, to rewire electrical fields to disintegrate enemies rather than have them disintegrate you, or rewiring the security towers to fire on enemies rather than you.

I've spent far too much time thinking about this, but I feel like I've said most of what needed to be said.

Big picture: I would absolutely recommend the game, particularly to anyone who didn't have it on their radar. I wish I had been one of those people, so my high expectations wouldn't have played such a big role in the overall feeling of the experience being incomplete.

I wouldn't mind a sequel, but I don't know that I'd be so keen on picking it up on release day.

The problem I have now is the weird compulsion to replay with a ghost approach to see how much different the world is when I'm not jamming a sword into everything.

I won't be doing that anytime soon though. Too many other games to play...

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Superhero Games and Why Aquaman Will Always Suck

     Batman: Arkham Asylum and Arkham City, X-Men Legends, Marvel Ultimate Alliance, Incredible Hulk Ultimate Destruction. These are examples of video games based on big-name superheroes that succeeded in making gamers feel like they were at least controlling their favorite hero or heroes.

More often than not, however, you get Superman 64, Aquaman: Battle for Atlantis, Uncanny X-Men on NES, Iron Man.

It is difficult to take a hero, powers, personality, universe and all, and create an experience that conveys the weight of being a superhero as well as the awesome powers that go along with it.

Superman should not be relegated to flying through rings in a world of green fog, occasionally stopping to throw a car or something.

Superman should be flying around, fighting Darkseid, Braniac, General Zod or the latest Lex Luthor scheme. He should have heat vision, x-ray vision, super speed, flight, all that sh*t.

But how do you take an alien who becomes a supreme being under Earth's sun and make a satisfying game?

You can't have him relegated to saving Metropolis from twisters or repeated rocket attacks spearheaded by Luthor. You can't make him so invulnerable that the game is broken due to being OP.

So how do you do it, at least with Superman?

I think you have to integrate his alter ego into it somehow. It would be a little hollow to just be Superman all the time. Part of the allure of Superman, beyond supreme power, is how he carries on as the average man, building connections with the people of the planet.

Approach it RPG style starting on Krypton. I want to experience Superman start to finish. Learning abilities as a kid in Kansas, having short missions and a story that could branch off to being Superboy and later becoming Superman.

Leveling up dictates available paths and possible story directions, as well as alterations to the Superman costume.

When fully upgraded, you get the Superman Prime look. Stuff like that. How you upgrade your Kal-El dictates the game you play.

It would also be cool to see a Superman game where collateral damage adds up, which gives incentive to fighting smart, which could be luring an enemy away from the city, or taking it to space.

But if necessary, you have to fight among the buildings and it changes the world. I don't like invincible, unchanging cities, and comics seem to gloss over any and all damage done to cities, or avoid it altogether.

If I'm flying around and hit a building, I want to see that building react in some way. Smash through the windows, terrify the people inside, and changing the way the city approaches or thinks of Superman.

One of the greatest Superman lines ever was in the Justice League Unlimited fight against Darkseid.

It conveys the idea that Superman has had to take great care not to simply obliterate the world around him. He's been in complete control the whole time.

A game should find a way to get this across. You can fly around recklessly, pummeling villains through tall buildings and streets, tossing cars around and creating havoc in the name of saving the city, but the city will change because of it.

If not Superman, Iron Man, Green Lantern, X-Men or Incredible Hulk. They may be difficult to build worlds and game mechanics for, but part of the fun is the challenge.

I like the idea of another X-Men Legends/Marvel Ultimate Alliance, except I also want the experience of having an individual character to control from start to finish.

Build a game that has an overarching threat that everyone must tackle, but allow for different starting points that follow different parts to the same story, with interactions along the way, as well as being able to play as one hero throughout the entire experience, with the ability to follow one starting point to the climax, or spiraling through the other paths to creating a more complete experience.

This all just wild imagining, and I'm sure it is all a bit lofty and unfocused, but I know I want more than has been done with many of the superheroes out there.

I'm not even opposed to games approached with team-up mentality, like Ultimate Alliance and Legends.

Though not as satisfying as playing as one hero from start to finish, they are solid experiences that allow players to create teams of their favorite heroes, recreate actual teams, deck their heroes out in their favorite costumes.

If only DC would get their sh*t together. Honestly, who in their right mind OK'd THIS?!?

Legend of Gods: War of Portals

     So I finished Darksiders, and while I found the experience to be okay overall, I don't find myself really clamoring to play Darskiders II. I was excited for the first game, and just never got around to buying it.

At this juncture, having played it from start to finish, I'm glad I didn't pay the full price of the game.

I don't know how, but I've spent a great deal of time gaming without paying attention to much of anything beyond the playability, general graphics and story. Now I find myself caring that a world isn't as detailed as I think it could be, or a character is bland, or a story is pointless.

Darksiders is a good game that lacks lasting appeal because of the shameless borrowing from other games and lack of attention paid to a rich tapestry of storytelling that something like the Apocalypse offers.

So you play as War, who jumped the gun on the whole breaking of the seven seals thing, and is the only Horseman to have been summoned to Earth in what is an unscheduled Apocalypse.

I don't know if you've seen War... But I have, and I hate him.

He looks like an idiot, talks in a cold, monotone, and has very little personality. One could easily say, "Well what do you want? He's war? He's not a person..." Which is true. But this is a video game where, ideally, the player should sympathize with War, and War should convey some of the anger he should feel for being pegged as the fall-guy for this Apocalypse.

Nope. He just glares with his glowing eyes, grits his teeth and says something that's supposed to be vengeful and strike fear in the hearts and minds of his enemies.

As if that wasn't bad enough, controlling War is a bit of a chore. He's slow, and there are limits to where you can use his horse, Ruin, which you don't acquire until late in the game when it doesn't really matter anymore.

They give a neat dash move that proves useless in terms of expediting travel because war has to recover from it for a brief moment before moving again.

Not that I'm jaded by fast travel, but the barren nature of the world makes traveling from one area to the next tedious, and the addition of Serpent Holes doesn't really help matters much. The world feels apocalyptic enough, but it should be crawling with denizens rather than remaining empty and refilling only when revisiting during specific quests/tasks later in the game.

I should also mention that I don't even know what to call the things you have to do. Are they quests? Tasks? Missions?

No matter what you call them, they're boring.

You start with all your powers, then get annoyingly de-powered and have to then traverse a large, but unpopulated world to recover those powers on the road to clearing War's name as the perpetrator of this false Apocalypse.

The items War wields along the way are completely original and in no way taken from other games.

There's the Abyssal Chain, Crossblade, Mask of Shadows, or hookshot, boomerang and lens of truth from the Legend of Zelda series. You get wings to glide, not unlike the Icarus Wings from God of War.

Toward's the end of the game, you get the Voidwalker. Which is a just an apocalyptic Portal Gun.

The combat is clunky, and none of the items or secondary weapons you get can be used seamlessly as part of combinations or used to enhance abilities. The dash ability and dash attack make combat all too easy, and the enemy types don't evolve or incorporate the abilities and items you have.

They just get stronger, and require more hitting to defeat, as opposed to using the Tremor Gauntlet to break a shield, dashing to the side to catch an enemy off guard or in a blind spot, or anything to make it less like "Press X repeatedly to win."

The story is lackluster, though it had potential. I think the game design hindered the direction of the story. It tried to combine dungeon crawling with hack-n-slash gameplay while trying to incorporate a semi-open world.

I thought consorting with Samael was going to lead somewhere, but it didn't. I half expected him to turn on me and present himself as a secondary threat in addition to the Destroyer.

Instead, you beat four bosses and bring their hears back to Samael and he just sends you on your way.

I could really go on a long time about the problems I have with this game. And not that it is an outright bad game. It just doesn't do anything I thought it would, or probably could.

Luckily, I was able to break up the uneven gameplay of Darksiders by also playing Hitman: Absolution. Which I'm also coming to the end of. Maybe I should mention that before I one day just post, "I beat Hitman: Absolution" and not say another word about it.