Review: Condemned: Criminal Origins – Monolith – XBox 360 (2005)

As my free time over summer starts to come to an end this year, I’ve played through another game.

So I woke up in a bad mood last Friday morning, and decided that a good, short game was what I needed to do with my time. Perusing a couple of google searches for “good, short 360 games” to see what came up that I also had, Condemned (and its sequel) seemed to make many of those lists, which reminded me that I had this game, tucked away in a shelf. Choice made, then!

Condemned: Criminal Origins, is a game that I had bought shortly after purchasing my XBox 360 back in 2007(?) It had garnered good reviews, but as so often happens with these things – both miniatures and videogames – it’s often easier to buy something with the best of intentions to get around to using them – and then taking years (or worse) to actually do so.

I dimly remember buying the game, one of the games I purchased in my initial frenzy of enthusiasm when I got my 360 back in the day. Even back then it was already in the XBox 360 “Classics” selection. While this meant that the game had sold well, over whatever the minimum was at the time, more importantly the game had garnered positive reviews across the board. At the time I’d done that thing where you put the game on, look at it for 45 seconds/play for 3 minutes and think “Yeah, this looks cool. I’ll get back to it soon!” So now – a decade on from release and 8 years from buying it – I’ve finally actually played it! Does this count as a retro-review?


Condemned was developed by Monolith Productions, who were also the people behind titles I’d enjoyed such as No One Lives Forever (NOLF), NOLF 2, Alien vs Predator 2, Contract J.A.C.K. (essentially NOLF3), F.E.A.R., F.E.A.R. 2 and much more recently – Shadow of Mordor. That’s a pretty good selection of hits over a good selection of years. So far so good!

So how does it look in 2016?

The game is dark and grainy – appropriate for a survival-horror kind of game. The graphics aren’t beautiful 1080p with ultra-detailed models, but I’m not a complete graphics whore, and the game’s setting still looks good enough to me and works well enough to be fit for purpose. Enemies and your weapons are a fair bit less attractive, looking a bit blocky at best. Your character on the other hand, along with those in cutscenes looks pretty bad. I can’t fairly recall what FPS graphics looked like back 10 years ago without rose coloured glasses, but to be blunt, the character and many of the weapon models look like arse today.

Audio fares better. A nice touch are your own heavy footsteps – there are any times you’re not sure if a sound was you, or someone else, stalking you. The audio design overall isn’t bad and is one of the stronger points of the game, even today. The exception to which is the voice acting.

I dub thee: Arseface.

I should mention the story: – only the slightest of spoilers here – You’re a federal agent. Framed for a murder you didn’t commit, you set out on a quest to prove your innocence by wandering through an endless series of dark tunnels, rooms and abandoned buildings, murdering everyone in your path.

Occasionally with firearms, but typically with improvised clubs, shovels, axes and sledgehammers. Does all that sound like a fair enough way to prove your innocence from murder?

Anyhow, there’s some serial killer stuff and the story is pretty bad, even for a video game. I’m usually happy enough to gloss over video game stories if the gameplay is good, and oftentimes for games, less is more. This game attempts to have depth and layers in the story, and while it’s not quite the nonsensical mess as Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance was, it’s still pretty bad. The plot and script is like a police/serial killer story – as written by a teenager whose only knowledge of police procedure, serial killers or the way that human people actually interact with one another has come from bad TV shows in those genres.

I state this because it’s terribly written and voice acted. There’s a “twist” at the end, but I’d liken its surprise and impact to looking at the bus timetable, then walking around the corner at the allotted time and watching the bus slowly meander its way down the street towards your bus stop.

Mechanically, I found early on that a few things we take for granted in modern times are a fair bit different in Condemned. There’s no mini-map. Indeed, there is no map of any kind. Nor is there any “guide” through the levels other than the fairly linear nature of the levels. I’m not horrified at the loss of the modern stalwart “Follow”, but when the environment starts to look very much the same where ever you wander in a level…

The game’s pacing is extremely slow as well. I found the controls to be unresponsive and sluggish, right down to it feeling like I needed to press down twice as hard as in other games on the stick to sprint – which is also limited by a stamina bar.

Amazingly (for a videogame), your flashlight seems to (mostly) work like an actual flashlight and the batteries don’t die after a few seconds. Which is handy, since – as mentioned – for the entirety of the game you’re navigating an endless series of (linear) dark hallways and rooms. Credit where credit is due there, though whether you have the flashlight on or off doesn’t seem to make any actual difference in terms of conflict, as enemies spring into existence and are aware of you as soon as you come near, so stealth doesn’t seem to be a thing at all in this game.

You can’t carry two weapons, even when it makes sense – such as a holstered firearm and a melee weapon in hand. Oh, you also have a taser, which gets upgraded partway through the game into pretty much a man-killer. Maybe that’s considered your offhander and therefore the reason you’re unable to carry a pistol in your empty cop-holster?

A man and his piece of conduit.

Similarly, despite the bag that you apparently carry your gear in or you bulky jacket, you can’t carry health packs at all. But that’s okay, since you can use them right off the wall. Yes, 2005-era design, so there’s no regenerating health or any of that guff. Just lots of medical cabinets conveniently located in all manner of decrepit and long-abandoned locales. Seems like a good choice to gulp down some of whatever you find in a pill bottle in places like that, amirite?

The building you start in seems to be an odd combination of old and condemned while also being a construction site. But abandoned and filled with psychotic junkies armed with 2x4s with nails in them, or bits of conduit or pipe. You lose your service pistol pretty early on, though – after having shot a guy or two to death.

Naturally, after killing a man and then having your gun stolen you do what any (videogame) cop would do. Instead of pulling out, calling for backup, or for a coroner’s meat wagon you just keep on going further in, only now armed with a makeshift club you picked up off the floor, gleefully beating perps to death as you go. Even the other cops with you at the time merely throw you a Fire Axe and tell you to pretty much keep going. Because videogame cop logic.

The game is very melee heavy, with firearms making only sporadic appearances throughout the game. As you’d expect, they’re more often seen in the latter stages, but even then still don’t make up the majority of enemies or encounters. There’s a simple block and counterstrike mechanism in place for melee combat, but it seems to be a combination of unresponsively slow while requiring pretty exact timing to effectively parry.

You have choices of various improvised melee weapons that you can rip off walls (conduit, pipe, rebar), furniture (2x4s) and so forth with sightly different stats: damage, speed, block and reach. Looking at a different weapon to the one in your hand will display either + or – with regard to each of the stats – but without numerical values. This lets you make your choices at a glance but in doing so without any way to really know the depth of the various trade-offs. There are also a few tools like the aforementioned fire axe that can be used as melee weapons as well as to open specific doors. Apparently using makeshift weapons scavenged from the nearest wall was supposed to feel visceral. It just feels like nothing.

In terms of movement through the game, there’s no duck, no jump and no climb outside of when the game very specifically tells you that you can climb through a window or up a ladder or jump down a hole. By pressing A. Now. I bumped over a chair and couldn’t get out of a room for 30 seconds. That old videogame trope of impassable chest-high walls is used to the extent of impassable knee-high junk on the floor here.

Most of the game pretty much looks like this.

The game has collectables because of course it does. At the end of the first level, I was informed by the stats page that I’d found/collected 1 of 6 dead birds, and 0 of 3 “metal pieces”. These appear to have no purpose whatsoever aside from achievement hunting and unlocking secret out-of-game dossiers that neither you nor I care about. And frankly – walking around, barely able to see while searching for them (or even doing so with the aid of a walkthrough) seems like a complete waste of time. A few points of gamerscore and a few pretty pointless X-Box achievements that are neither fun to get nor affect gameplay in the slightest really aren’t a worthwhile use of my (or presumably, your) time.

Even more tedious – when I happened to restart the second level to go back and check out an areas I’d missed, I found that the birds you collect in one “playthrough” don’t stay collected – as they often do in other games. So you’ve got to grab all of these collectables in a discrete run of each level. Nice.

Also – head bob. I know this game is a decade old now, but someone really needs to tell the makers of FPS games that HUMAN EYES DON’T WORK THAT WAY GUYS. Seriously. Go walk to the kitchen and tell me if your vision is smooth or bounces around like a yo-yo. We have millions of years of evolution that have taken care of that. You know what does bounce around and give a jerky sense to your vision? Cameras. So unless we’re controlling drone-style robots by remote control or playing Blair Witch: The Game, there’s no need for goddamn head bob in games. This includes you too, Gears of War. At the very least give us the option to turn it off.

Every so often there’s a navigation “puzzle” in the game. This usually equates to you needing to wander around a series of areas where everything looks the same with your flashlight until you find the Fire Axe/Sledgehammer/Crowbar/Shovel (yes, really – shovel) so that you can open a specific door. They each have their own specific doors that they can open, and don’t work on different door types – just like real life, a fire axe or a crowbar is useless when confronted by a padlock because you need a fucking sledgehammer for that shit.

Similarly, sledgehammers are only useful for padlocks and can’t smash their way through doors or wooden barriers. Because that’s what fire axes (and only fire axes) do. Ahem. Anyway, once you’ve found the CORRECT door-opening implement, you then wander around with your torch until you find the macguffin (switch, valve, etc) then you’re done and can move on – which may or may not involve more backtracking. This is invariably about as interesting, fun and exciting as I’ve made it sound here.

So yes, these different types of weapon are essentially a form of “you need the BLUE key” game design, grandfathered in from Quake with a light coat of paint on it.

Any sufficiently advanced science is indistinguishable from magic.

There’s some “investigation” throughout the game. This investigation is performed when the game pretty much tells you “INVESTIGATE NOW” and you press a button for the appropriate one of your investigative tools to come out. You’d need a decent sized bag to lug these things around, actually. I’d usually let that go as videogames tend to all give their characters a bag of holding, but it feels a little more odd here in a game that pretty much has you running around with nothing but a flashlight and a 2×4 or piece of electrical conduit as a makeshift weapon for much of the game. So yes, it’s as interesting and “intuitive” as finding the correct “key” for the correct door type.

For those rare-ish times when you do manage to acquire a firearm, you can check the remaining number of rounds in the magazine, but once they’re empty they merely become sub-par makeshift weapons that quickly break. There’s no ammo or reloading in this game. At one point this led to the amusing(?) situation where I had 3 rounds left in my .45, and killed an enemy armed with an identical .45. His pistol also had 3 rounds left, but the game did not allow me in any way to combine those 6 rounds into the one weapon, so I had to leave one on the floor with bullets in it – because one weapon, no carrying. Needless to say – “horror” game or not – this felt very artificial.

Naturally, this led to that classic immersive videogame trope of backtracking for a 3-minute round trip to pick up the gun that was left on the floor once I’d emptied the one I was carrying.

Combat in general can be summed up in one word: Bad. If you’d like some more words, take: Sluggish, Unresponsive, Slow, Unsatisfying, Unfun.

That last one is a pretty good descriptor of the whole game, actually. Unlike something as frustrating and actively annoying as Metal Gear: Revengeance, this game is merely tedious and boring – so I was actually able to finish it. I’m not sure which is worse actually, a bad game that is so bad that you put it down after an hour or so or one that’s bad but not so bad that you can’t make yourself finish it.

You might ask why, if the game is so tedious and boring, did I continue to play it?  A fair question. The answer is a combination of my own bloody-mindedness and the fact that it’s listed as a short game – average of 7-10 hours, so doable in a couple of days of play at my own speed. In practice, I played through 2 levels in one day, and the other 7 in a rather bloody-minded waste of a day split over several sessions of 2-3 levels each time.

Is this what a bloody mind looks like?

While at first the game feels like you’re on a murder-rampage through the oddly-agressive homeless of “Metro City” (yes, really), after awhile it starts to feel more like a zombie game, right down to having several “types” of “zombie” with different attack patterns, etc. Rarely, you’ll come across a bunch of zombies that fight one another. If you hang back in these encounters, you can simply mop up the survivor(s) instead of wade in and take a bunch of damage for no real reason.

Mostly you chase “the suspect” deeper and deeper down into the bowels of the city’s subway system and through a collection of discrete buildings that each level is composed of. Occasionally you’ll stop to “gather evidence” as noted earlier – which you transmit to Rosa, a friendly researcher back at base via your simply adorable 2005-era mobile telephone who is then able to look up DNA results, check databases and create full 3-D models from photos of shoeprints – all in seconds. Remember, this is before modern smartphones, so it’s got buttons and a little screen on top, yet it seems somehow more capable than the latest of 2016’s phones and has no problem whatsoever with a signal about a kilometer underground under a maze of concrete, brickwork and heavy industrial machinery.

Source: Cracked

There’s a complete and utter dearth of interesting weapons in the game – and while fans of the game might argue that it’s somehow realistic, or that the game’s strength is in it’s story or investigation, the fact is that the majority of gameplay is walking in dark rooms with a flashlight, and the next most common part of gameplay is beating the homeless/criminals/zombies to death with clubs and axes.

There’s far more of that than story or investigation.

This game was an interesting experience in one way. I started out impressed and enjoying myself, and you could clearly see the shared DNA between this game and F.E.A.R. in the environments and atmosphere, but the horrible, sluggish controls, tedious gameplay and godawful story led me to go from impressed, to bemused, to bored, to really very unimpressed. As I’ve noted, the game got overall excellent reviews for gameplay and even story back when it was released. I guess time has simply moved on and unlike a bottle of fine wine, this game hasn’t aged well, and in the decade since release has become corked instead.

Verdict: Avoid.

 

Review: Max Payne 3 – Rockstar Vancouver – XBox 360 (2012)

Another day, Another Videogame.

I first played Max Payne in 2001. Marouda and I were staying in town for the weekend, and during a bit of a browse at a now-long-closed PC game store I picked up Max Payne on impulse because it looked pretty cool on the back. I didn’t buy a whole lot of software back then – if you know what I mean – but I did try to when I could afford it. I bought Max Payne 2 pretty much as soon as it was released. I enjoyed both games immensely.

Max’s traditional look – as he appears in the flashback levels…

Up until this most recent PC (ok, it’s 5 years old now), I’d “christen” my new computers by first playing through Max Payne and then Max Payne 2 on them. Windows 7/widescreen/Steam issues killed that when I got this one, but point remains that Max and the sequel have been probably my most replayed games. I never bothered with New York Minute or any of that stuff, but it was always fun to play through them again with the graphical settings turned up to max, as I always found them to be detailed and good looking games for their time.

So why has it taken me so long to get to part 3? A combination of leaning towards dumping large amounts of time into on-running, MMO or MMO-lite-type games, whether it’s Rock Band or WoW or Titanfall or LotRO or WoT or Destiny – and an insane tendency to “save” lots of my “better” games for “later”. I would normally have purchased and played this on PC, but all of that Rockstar Social Club additional-DRM bullshit was off-putting – so in the end I purchased Max Payne 3 when it hit discount status on the console instead. Anyway, this summer I finally put Max into my list of prospective games to play, and after a few games that I didn’t find amazing, one that was fuckawful and one that was merely decent, it was time to give myself the chance to play something I knew that I’d enjoy. Right?

Now when I recently played Metal Gear: Revengeance, I hated the constant interruption of gameplay for the endless cutscenes. I found them to be badly written, badly acted, and worst of all, incredibly jarring. After all, when I play a videogame, I’m doing so because I want to play the thing – not watch it.

All I knew about Max Payne 3 was that the developers were no longer Remedy, who had gone on to make horror-flashlight simulator Alan Wake for Microsoft, and that Max’s third outing was now a Rockstar Vancouver project. Sam Lake hadn’t been used as Max’ likeness since the first one anyway, and we all know Rockstar’s pedigree- though that mostly comes from Rockstar North (DMA Design! – GTA) and to a lesser extent, Rockstar San Diego (Red Dead) – all separate dev houses under the R* publisher banner.

The only other thing I was aware of was that some people disliked the radically different look that Max had been given. Bald, paunchy, beared, sunglasses. None of that was the Max that we’d all played. I was willing to put all of that aside and give the game a chance, but (spoiler alert) I avoid reading much about games I own in my (digital) pile of shame, so I wasn’t aware of anything else about it.

…a transitional shot from another level…

Imagine my surprise when I played, and found that instead of the “animated graphic novel” to introduce chapters, the game had not only cutscenes to intro each section, but constant expository and plot-driven cutscenes throughout. Constantly. Interrupting gameplay.

The biggest surprise then, is the fact that I found myself really enjoying the story and …well, the experience. The gameplay is pretty much standard Max Payne, but due to the consolised controls, I found it a bit difficult to play. I’m fine with FPS and even third person games like Saints Row and GTA5 with a controller, but for some reason I found I just sucked at Max Payne. So restarting on Easy I found it to still be awkward, but playable enough that I played for a solid couple of hours, making it to the start of Chapter 5 (of 14) before taking a break from my first session when I noticed that it was almost 3pm and I really should do something else for awhile.

As you might have guessed, I have an affection for Max in terms of having really enjoyed the previous games, and I found the story and characterisation – while filled with tropes – to be entertaining and well-written enough to hold my interest solidly. It’s certainly better written and acted than any number of action movies that seem to do decent box office without the nonsensical, illogical crazytown of that bloody Metal Gear game that gave me the shits last week.

The gameplay, as stated, is pretty much standard Max Payne. Bullet-time (awkwardly placed for me as a right-stick click), shootdodge, and basic cover shooter mechanics – all wrapped up with a version of the slow-mo killshot that Sniper Elite took to it bloody and gruesome conclusion, taking it to its bosom as the Sniper Elite raison d’être. I have to say that Max’s game is also pretty gruesome in terms of headshot decals, with a bit of disturbing imagery here and there. It comes across as a fairly mature title, rather than gratuitous – but then I guess the whole thing is pretty gratuitous.

If you want to talk immersion breaking or annoying, there’s an urgency to the game – both from Max’s narration (as the game is narrated/told in a series of flashbacks as with previous entries) combined with your mate urging you to hurry up. The immersion-breaking part is that there are a large number of “golden guns” broken into three parts which are scattered around the levels. So the game actively encourages you to search out and magpie these parts (that upgrade your weapons) while wanting it both ways and telling you to hurry up. When you do certain things such as kill the last guy or walk near the doorway that leads to the next section, it often triggers a cutscene – which hides the load for the next section of level but also can lock you out of the opportunity to search out or even pick up a piece of gun.

…and a significantly different look later in the game.

This is due to the common design element of games of the PS360 era – due to the memory that it takes to hold the whole level, well, in memory – so you have a whole lot of doors that automagically close and lock behind you. Sometimes it’s explained story-wise, or it’s the usual long drop down – but mostly the doors just close behind you.

My solution to this was to play through the 4 completed chapters with a “find ‘em” walkthrough the following day. The next day I played through 2 more chapters immediately following up by doing the search-a-thon. So having just finished the game today – a good week after I started it, I’ve actually played through twice in this last week or so with a couple of days not playing any videogames. The game didn’t feel short or overlong. I was ready for it to finish just a little earlier than it did, which is pretty good, in my opinion.

About the most unbelievable part of the story which involves Max gunning down hundreds of mooks and jumping forward as things explode behind him in the Action Movie Hero style is that neither he nor his sometime partner have mobile phones. Actually, it’s kinda believable. For Max. In the flashback scenes. But not in the later scenes where he’s working private security.

Several of the missions are told in flashback form, so you get to play as Max through his visual evolution from the look that we’re familiar with from Max Payne 1 and 2 to the bald, bearded look. It’s actually quite well done.

There are some annoying niggles, though – through the magic of cutscenes, Max will occasionally run from a great piece of cover to an awful, exposed bit of cover, before giving you control (and you may then want to run right back where you came from – getting hit in the process!) It took me until the final level to work out how to turn off things like flashlights and laser sights on weapons. Actually, the flashlights are fine, but the laser sights are awful and seem to take away all my accuracy, so that’s what prompted me to see if you could turn the damn things off.

Yes, there are sniper sequences.

One of the missions has you tasked with a form of escort quest. Now the woman you’re escorting through it can’t get killed through the usual AI stupidity, and is basically out of your way 100% of the time. However, the devs apparently couldn’t resist making her hysterical half of the time and fucking annoying all of the time. Seriously, I was talking to my television saying things like “Shut the fuck up, you stupid bitch.” (and far worse) for most of the level. I mean, I get what they were trying to do, and hysterical is probably a quite natural thing for someone in that situation – and not everyone can be, say Mona Sax – but all it did was annoy me, because she basically won’t shut the fuck up and everything she says is hysterical and annoying. Or to put it another way – I’ve always enjoyed the Max Payne games, I regret not playing this one much earlier since it’s been sitting in my pile of shame for years, but I’ve enjoyed the hell out of it, yet I can only ever see myself skipping this particular level in any future playthroughs.

There’s a little bit in the ending that also rubbed me the wrong way, especially after all that Max (and you) had been through – and why. I felt it was both out of character and disappointing.

Throughout the game to mix things up there are a few sniper sequences. Also a couple of on-rails shooting sequences (that thankfully give you unlimited ammo). Almost all levels have a cinematic bullet-time sequence to kill some guys or save someone by, erm, killing some guys – and I have to say that all of these (except for two) managed to work for me – just a couple of the on-rails shooter sequences fell down for me, while the others were fine.

Graphically, I found the game to be very good in the same way that I found the previous entries very appealing – not that the graphics are photorealistic, but the levels are very, very detailed with lots of small minutia – virtual set dressing in what is clearly a very carefully handcrafted world. That sort of thing always really appeals to me – in the same way that it does in miniatures painting or scenery building. Having said that – I found the graphics to be pretty bloody good anyway, which is a good thing considering how much the game relies on its in-game assets for the numerous cutscenes. In fact – some googling seems to indicate that the game features 3 hours and 15 minutes of cutscenes. Good thing that the script, though cheesy in points and trope-ridden is well done, and having James McCaffrey reprise his role (instead of just getting Troy Baker or Nolan North to do the character) really makes all the difference.

The shooting mechanics… well, having played on the 360, and not being a l33t console shooter player by any means, I played on easy as I mentioned before with the targeting on hard lock (think quickscope FTW). If I were playing on PC I’d have probably played on Normal – but either way we’re not talking about amazing shooting mechanics by any means – even with bullet-time added in. I mostly hid behind cover popping out to, well, pop them – often using bullet-time to line-up headshots rather than shootdodge my way through the combats.

How did I end up enjoying something with so damn many cinematics?

The game is very linear – just as others in the series (and most shooters) are. There are some much larger areas scattered around, but there’s no getting around the linearity of the game – it is what it is. There are a few callbacks to previous entries in the series in a few of the levels – a train station, an abandoned skeleton of a high-rise building – they’re not presented with a nod and a wink, though – and it’s the better for it. There’s no “baby nightmare” stages here, either. Probably worth mentioning.

I didn’t even bother trying the multiplayer, because fuck bothering with tacked-on, bullet-point multiplayer designed to sell DLC maps and Season Passes. Think anyone is playing this over CoD or Battlefield or CS or TF2? Especially now, almost four years on? Yeah, exactly.

So what we have here is a game with a 12-hour campaign where three of those hours are cutscenes. The shooting is decent, but not much more than average. On paper, this is a game that I should have completely hated, yet it’s one that I really enjoyed. More than any campaign I’ve played for quite some time in fact. The rotten underbelly of São Paulo more than works as a substitute for the rotten underbelly of New York, and the flashback-narrative nature of the game means we get a couple of levels set in New York and other locales to boot.

Clearly the reasons are because I like the character and I enjoyed the story – which ultimately fits into the “Action Hero” category with a touch of noir added in. For a videogame, this is an exceptionally well-written story, and to be frank, the storyline here is better than a lot of actual action movies’ plot. I never thought I’d write those words, as usually the very best videogame plots (think Mafia II) are a pale shadow of their inspiration. Max instead aims for a much lower-quality genre, and more than meets the mark. Will I now have to brave the Max Payne film, featuring Marky Mark?

A future worth risking?

So would I recommend Max Payne 3 to the curious? Do you need to be familiar with 1 or 2 to play and enjoy the story? Well, the game does a good enough job of introducing and explaining Max as he is “today” to not need to play the previous entries. With the caveats/warnings about the number of cutscenes and shooting quality, I say…

Recommended.

Review: Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance – Kojima Productions/Platinum Games – XBox 360 (2013)

Let me preface this micro-review with the information that the only Metal Gear game I’ve finished to date was the first MGS on PS2 (or was it PS1?). While I think Konami’s recent treatment of Kojima is terrible, I don’t hold him in reverence or even care for him as a writer, as everything I’ve read within and about MGS games is a badly-written clusterfuck that compares to terrible fanwank fiction combined with the overblown contrived and over-complex ridiculousness of the Star Wars EU or Marvel Comics of today. Disagree? Just go through the terribad background to Ground Zeroes and that should be more than enough. Also, I already know that Revengeance isn’t a word.

Still, I’m not too fussed about terrible videogame storylines if the gameplay is good enough, and this thing got decent reviews – so I decided to jump in, buoyed by the fact that it’s supposed to be quite short. I enjoy short games as a nice counterpoint to the huge open-world games and MMO-ish games that I like to spend much of my time in.

Raiden. How could you *not* like someone who looks like this?

So anyway. You play as Raiden – a character that some people apparently dislike quite a bit but I started – and ended – with complete indifference to – through a title which may as well be called “Cutscenes: the interrupting exposition game.” I say this because after every couple of minutes (or less) of frantic, spastic, gameplay, the game takes control off you for seemingly just as long or longer so it can play nicely animated but overlong, terribly written cutscenes at you, or even worse, play terribly written exposition and instructions at you via the ingame codec (essentially the radio where you get told what to do). I know that the codec and such has been a longtime part of MGS games, but ouch, this is pretty fucking painful. Seriosuly, I can’t emphasise just how bad the writing is. I’m sure lots of other games are just as bad, but this game takes great delight in shoving it’s terrible story down your throat at every opportunity – which means constantly. There’s also some heavy-handed political allegory, and there’s even a bit where the game attempts to point out the humanity of the guys you’ve been merrily slaughtering to this point, which in turn makes Raiden sad.

One particularly ridiculous example: I ended one boss battle by covering the boss in liquid nitrogen, freezing them, and then bisecting them from the top of their head to their crotch. (Because the game is so cut-scene-y, it’s less cool than it sounds – the whole thing felt pre-planned rather than something cool that I did). Anyway, while their dismembered, frozen-solid corpse laid on the ground in a number of pieces, they still somehow managed to have a longish, tedious “deathbed conversation” with their boss while I sat there thinking What the Absolute Fuck?

Gameplay is essentially Japanese-styled score attack gameplay – which is fine for those who enjoy it, and are prepared to learn the nuances of the system, but it’s just button-spammy bullshit to me. I guess I should be grateful that it allows scrubs like myself to essentially spam the attack buttons and get through the encounters, but it sadly doesn’t really feel like there’s much more to it. Not for me, at any rate. The whole thing is made more spastic as – in a word – the camera is awful. No camera-target lock, enemies running around like headless chickens while you do the same, it’s really not well done at all. While writing this review I noted that Platinum Games also made Vanquish, which played somewhat similarly, received similarly positive reviews, and similarly, I also disliked due to mindlessly spammy gameplay.

Combat *looks* like *much* more fun than it is to actually play.

As I played through I unlocked various things like VR mode levels and such, but sadly I was simply not having enough fun with the base game to have any kind of willingness to go through it again on either a higher difficulty or wade through VR missions either. I guess it’s at least partly something that comes with age – when I was young I did play through some of the VR missions in MGS. Now I’m older and have way too many games – I don’t have time to waste doing extras in games I don’t enjoy. In fact, I wonder why I make myself play things like this that I’m clearly not enjoying. Am I really going to be willing to put 8 or 10 hours into this thing for the sake of nothing but sheer bloody-mindedness?

Blue locked boxes apparently need to be attacked in blade mode to open them. Which isn’t explained or even implied anywhere. How did I find out? Googled it after awhile and found a bunch of dickheads on GameFAQs talking down to others about it like it was the most obvious thing in the world.

Anyhow, while the combat can occasionally be mindless, spammy fun, the way the game keeps interrupting the gameplay for long, boring, overwrought and terribly-written cutscenes sapped my interest. Finally, I got to the boss fight at the end of section 3 – so just short of halfway through the game (it starts with Section 0 and ends with Section 7). The boss in this case is called Monsoon, and unlike the previous ones, comes entirely from the “cheap bosses” store, being entirely out of whack with the difficulty of all of the mobs that you fight beforehand and – even more fun – featuring long sections where he cannot be hit or damaged at all, while naturally continuing to whale on the player. After a couple of goes, getting bored and eventually killed each time (on easy) I decided that to be blunt – I don’t have time for this shit, and so I ejected the disc and uninstalled. From what I read, this fight ends with a QTE, and I think that tops it all off perfectly.

Not the boss that I gave up on.

So.

Basically, if you’re into this genre of score-attack game, you like Platinum games’ “style” and are willing and able to put the time in to learn the intricacies of it’s combat – then the gameplay might be quite good. If you like Kojima’s writing, then the story might appeal.

As someone not invested in Kojima’s writing or stories, I found the plot and characters awful and painful pretty much from the beginning. Made even worse with constant interruptions and non-skippable non-interactive cutscenes. The backlash against Sony’s The Order 1886 based on similar issues makes me wonder how well this game would have been received if it were released now – and 2013 wasn’t that long ago. Kojima seems to have an inordinate amount of goodwill for his awfully written stories, though – even moreso with Konami’s recent shenanigans. To me, this game is an excellent example of style over substance. If I want mindless spammy fun with a collection of choppy blades and without an awfully written, intrusive story, I can play Dynasty/Samurai Warriors instead.

If you particularly like and enjoy this game, genre, Kojima or Platinum, that’s fine. I guess the problem comes when someone with little experience with those things only manages to read reviews written by fans and fan-reviewers (and I’m counting IGN and Eurogamer here as well – seriously, listen to this guy gush about it) and gets the feeling that the game would be worthwhile for them as well when it’s a lot less cut and dried than that.

For me, this game was ultimately awful. As I really enjoy action games and melee-centric games, I was hoping for something I’d really enjoy based on the reviews. As it is, I’m not even interested enough to YouTube the ending cutscenes. Unless you’re already invested in this genre, Platinum Games’ style and/or Metal Gear, my recommendation is:

Avoid.

Review: Singularity – Raven Software – XBox 360 (2010)

Last week when I played through Fracture, it was with an eye to playing through a game quickly, and specifically a FPS that would be short enough for me to plough through in a day. As it happened, it was a 3PS instead, and, well, not very good. Right down to one of those disproportionately difficult end-boss fights that really reduce the fun factor of whatever game they’re tacked onto.

Singularity was a second attempt at same. Though this one got more positive reviews, and the devs in this case are Raven Software – developers of quite a number of games I’ve enjoyed through the years on a number of platforms: Soldier of Fortune II, Star Trek Voyager Elite Force, Jedi Knight II and Jedi Academy, X-Men Legends 1 and 2, Marvel: UA, Wolverine, 2009’s take on Wolfenstein… and these days they’re part of Activision’s Call of Duty sweatshop. Still, it’s a solid pedigree of games I’ve personally enjoyed, and a dev house that I respect. getting through it was supposed to (hopefully) take 1-2 days but took a week to play through, a bit each day.

The intro-premise of this game actually seems pretty reasonable and well thought out for a videogame, and would probably work for a work of literary work of fiction. There’s some cold war, Soviet research gone wrong, a bit of time manipulation and of course divergent timelines that go with that sort of thing. I won’t go into detail here, but I found the plot here actually quite decent for a videogame.

One of the horror-themed mobs in the game

Details is where Raven do well throughout the game – though I’m a little dubious on the USAF markings on a crashed US Black Ops chopper, and you’d think that the Soviet Union seems to not have collapsed – but the banners located throughout the island you play through are just leftover from the 1950’s when it was abandoned. I guess they must be made of some fucking durable cloth as the game is set “now” and they’re in locations as diverse and weather-friendly as  docks at the edge of the sea, burnt out buildings, abandoned refineries… They’re not even sun bleached! Speaking of that, there are even mummified corpses on the sea’s edge? I just can’t see that happening.

The early game is concerned with setting the atmosphere, setting the scene. It does a really good job for the most part – The game does well in leveraging the atmosphere for a nice little horror vibe. Because linear FPS videogame reasons, your highly trained spec-ops black-ops character isn’t very good at climbing walls or debris that even I can traverse without a hassle. It also uses the trope/memory-saving method of arbitrarily locking doors off behind you and one-way jumps in order to load the next bit of game and drop the last section out of memory. At one point when you’re inside an abandoned schoolhouse, discarded milk cartons are scattered around the cafeteria. I thought молоко was the Russian for “Milk”, but nope, these cartons have MILK all written on them. Still, the game gives off a pretty cool hybrid of a Fallout/FEAR vibe in these early film reels.

Judging by the number of projectors stuck in a loop, the still-working microphones with pre-recorded messages and the reel-to-reel tape recordings – all of which work, those Soviets really had some durable technology to go with their mysterious source of unlimited power. The movies from the projectors early on are also amusing, with Cyrillic-style Roman characters so we can read them, and many references to “Mother Russia” despite the Soviet iconography all over the place. Whole we know that the Soviet Union was very Russo-centric, it still seems odd to hear the Union referred to as “Mother Russia” in an “official” propaganda film. But yeah. It’s more than a little odd that the lights and power are still on in a partially burnt-out, abandoned for 60+ years building. Those are some damned reliable incandescent light bulbs!

There are lots of E99 devices like this throughout

Niggling silliness aside, Ravensoft have done a nice job with the Soviet propagandist atmosphere, though – and interactive elements like notes stand out well enough against the background without seeming out of place. The many posters scattered around make me wish I could read Russian. I’m assuming that the accented Russian dialogue from the recordings is simply representative of our protagonist being fluent in Russian – but not too hot at reading it, apparently! – at least until later on(?) On the other hand, quite a bit of signage as you move through the game is written in Russian with a useful English subtitle underneath. Just like signs in American and British Military/Research bases helpfully have subtitles in Russian on their signs – gotta stay helpful to any enemy infiltrators, after all! I was impressed to see an older-style “hole in the ground” European toilet at one point. The game does details very well

In the hall early on dominated by the cool-looking bust of Uncle Joe, there’s also a nice diorama of the island, featuring button-press explanations of the various facilities on the island. I wondered if these would correspond to the game’s levels? No prizes there!

I have to give credit, though – the first part of the game you’re unarmed, and it’s all about exploration and still managed to do a good enough job that I enjoyed myself. Even at the point where I’d only shot 4 mobs, the game was fun. The game really has much more of a horror-shooter feel to it than I was expecting. It’s much closer in tone to FEAR than to Call of Duty. Even the first kind of mobs that you might have a weird, loping gait that makes lining up headshots quite tricky (with a controller, anyway) which just raises the tension when one is coming at you while armed with the starter pistol.

A videogame Russian. You know what this means. Why do we never shoot faceless American soldiers outside of Spec Ops: The Line?

The game took a foreboding turn towards dudebro, though. Firstly, when you get the Sci-Fi-Soviet Assault rifle, the mutant mobs instantly become much less scary, and then you run into your old bud, Devlan (last name Mud?) Shortly afterwards, you have a semi-auto shotgun, and the game become much more of a generic dudebro shooter. Devlan even tells you to “stay frosty”. Just like guys in the real military always do! The game’s flirtation with Call of Honor thankfully ended pretty quickly, though – and the game was allowed to find its own identity.

Gameplay wise, I’m not terribly fond of upgrades being tied to pickups that will often be hidden around levels. It means that in order to level up “properly” and not be horribly disadvantaged in the later game, a player is often tied to using walkthroughs and such to make sure they get them all. This is the main reason that my playthroughs of both Shadow Warrior Redux and Advanced Warfare both fizzled out. I just want to be able to play the fucking game without needing to be on the constant lookout for meeples. After the first “freebie” meeple, the game hides several hundred more units (points?) worth in the next 20 meters of the location, in luggage and dumpsters and so forth. It also means that in a modern “update” of that horrid adventure game trope/feature of moving the mouse over every damned pixel onscreen in the hope of picking the right one, the player here needs to run up to every bag or bit of abandoned luggage, box, dumpster and container in the game in the hope of more upgrade points. /sigh. I did a pretty good job of it overall, but realised that I’d forgotten to keep looking in anything that looked like a dumpster after awhile, and I know I definitely missed out on a whole lot of drops/upgrades as a result.

The game goes for a horror-shooter vibe, with some success.

Did I mention that following newer shooters example, you can only hold two weapons (including pistol) but like old-school shooters you don’t have auto-regenerating health, and instead need to use health packs? That’s right! The worst of both worlds! After awhile, you pretty much know your weapons – Assault Rifle, Shotgun, Sniper Rifle. There’s a cool homing-sniper rifle that turns up every so often and is one of the most fun (though overpowered) weapons in the game, though it doesn’t become part of your normal arsenal. You can upgrade weapons, though the opportunities to do so are rarer than I’d like. Later on you end up with a railgun and an autocannon. Hope you didn’t waste upgrade points on the pistol or assault rifle! Oh, you did? Well, you’re never going to use most of those again. I have to say that the weapons are fine, but the execution of allowing the player to actually access, upgrade and use them is a real miss.

Likewise, you get given a Techno-magical glove – the TMD (Time Manipulation Device) after the first chapter, which gets upgraded at various points – which I just referred to as my Nintendo Power Glove. The game’s various gimmicks/USPs all revolve around the Power Glove’s ability to manipulate objects in time – such as aging or un-aging stairs, barrels, containers, and even your enemies! The game came out a year before Red Faction: Armageddon, as well – though the repair-destroy gimmick had already been well established for years in Red Faction. The Power Glove also allows you to equip other augments that you can buy from the occasional vending machines – quite a few augments in fact. Sadly though, in my careful playthrough I’m now just shy of halfway through the game and still only have the one slot – so there’s little point in having any but the one that gives you more “money” (E99) from pickups. It wasn’t until much, much later when I realised that the game only limits you to one slot from the first category of the glove upgrades. Of course the game neglects to tell you any of that, so I ran through literally 90% of the game without using any of the second or third category of upgrades, which you can have multiples of. Nice work, Ravens.

The funny thing, as the game goes on is that I found the actual shooting is pretty mediocre – yet the game itself was somehow fun and entertaining enough to keep me interested. Not enough to play it for long stretches, but it’s a rare game that I can keep powering through (not sure how I did it last week for Fracture. I guess it was pretty short.) Despite the silliness, I found myself examining every note and listening to every audio log – things that usually bore me senseless in these games. It wasn’t until I got to the last couple of acts when they started to really wear thin and get tiresome.

Pew! Pew! Pew!

While there aren’t a huge variety of enemies in the game, the atmosphere is pretty well done, and to be fair, you never really know what kind of mob is around the next corner. The h̶e̶a̶d̶c̶r̶a̶b̶s̶ ticks are really fucking annoying. Just thought I’d throw that in there. The kind of mob that makes you sigh because you know the next bit of game isn’t going to be fun. Proper HL2 headcrabs were much more fun. In a nice touch, once you finish the game it allows you to “continue” and by doing so you have a chance to see all three endings, with only the unskippable dialogue from the final encounter making it a little tedious.

Overall, I’m glad that I played through Singularity. It’s a decent game and in it you can really see that with a bit more work, and better shooting mechanics it could have been something really special. Perhaps if they were allowed to skip the tacked-on, pointless multiplayer it would have been that much better as a single player game.

Verdict: Actually a decent game. If you see it cheap and have time, feel free to give it a runthrough.

Review: Fracture – Day 1 Studios – XBox 360 (2008)

On my Christmas breaks for the last few years, I’ve tended to play a few “fast games” in the interest of a slight cull to my pile of (videogame) shame. Sadly, these games are often not that great, though I do start out hopeful that they might be at least decent. Since I just haven’t been feeling a desire to paint much yet, I’ve started the gaming reviews!

This year, I’m starting out with Fracture, (stylised as Frac\ture on the cover art). The premise of which is that global warming physically divided the east and west coasts of the USA, who then had a bit of a tiff over differing views of genetic modification of humans. The gimmick here, though, is terrain deformation. And killing Californians, apparently. Sorry, “Pacificans”. Who are “no longer fully human”, and more importantly – rebels to the Federal Government, backed by “Asia”. Meanwhile the US Government forces that you play as part of are backed by “Europe”. Uh-huh. Because Asia is east and Europe is west, I guess… This is all told in faux “news reports” from the US Government/East side’s perspective with a really heavy propagandist slant that makes even Fox News sound Fair and Balanced. So maybe all is not as it seems? Not that we get to see or experience any of that

The tutorial is a tiny bit trippy, with flashbacks of Bullfrog’s Populous, and really a bit of a new way of thinking about navigating terrain in a shooter. Until I fired up the game, I had thought that it was a FPS, but it’s instead a 3rd person shooter. Probably worth mentioning that.

Visual design of the main character’s armour is quite reminiscent of Halo and looks decent enough. I like the little thing they’ve done regarding the HUD being a hologram projected outside the suit, but his lack of helmet is more telling than the average Warhammer 40k Space Marine Hero’s lack of same. Your character is the same generic white guy that seemingly all of these games use. I think his name is BaldyStubble McSpacemarine, and as Outside XBox said about him when he appeared in Sniper Elite 3, (because it’s the same bloody character over and over) he “may as well be an animated bag of gravel.” Ha! Better yet, it turns out his name is Brody. No confirmation on whether his first name is Dude.

Dude Brody. Not terrible design, but so, so generic.

The game also comes with a generic black guy who is your immediate superior officer (and shares your haircut!) He’s supposed to be a colonel or general or some such, and he’s clearly supposed to fit into that Sergeant Apone/Black superior officer trope, but without the scenery-chewing or entertainment value of Al Matthews. Instead we get completely forgettable. Much like out protagonist himself.

Visually, the game isn’t bad for something from 2008 (I think?), but it doesn’t hold up in 2015 either. Graphics are a bit too dark which feels like grainy, with too much use of black and (dare I say it?) not enough use of browns, which would make the game less hideously dark. I know, brown games. But there’s colour theory around avoiding or minimising the use of black, and I think that would have been a good move here, since there’s just too much here. Basically, the game looks and feels like a failed “Gears of Halo” kinda game.

The AI is pretty bog standard, with an extra special helping of bog. (A mook just blew himself up with a grenade as I’m playing through this right now). Aaaaaaand another one, 30 seconds later.

Most importantly, though – the shooting is bad. Aiming is poor, you can only hold 2 weapons at a time, and the grenades are pretty useless since the main two that you have for the course of the game don’t explode bad guys, and instead deform terrain – just like your unlimited-charge deform-gun. You get some AI squadmates at certain points, but they’re about as useful as your mooks in an episode of Dynasty Warriors – that is to say that they stand around near the enemy comparing notes with them. Well, they get in the way, so perhaps they’re worse than the useless ones in DW. But yeah, the shooting and aiming in this title is shitful.

How shitful, you ask? Well, let’s put it this way: After less than an hour of gameplay, I found that the “best”/most efficient/least unfun way to kill the endless hordes of generic faceless enemies in this third person shooting game was to melee them to death. Not because the melee is awesome or anything, either. It’s basically an incredibly pissweak little punch. However, given how bad the shooting is, I’m finding that charging in, whacking the mooks a bunch of times, and then hiding behind cover before repeating is the “best” way to get through the combat quickly and easily. That ain’t a real good outcome for a game which is supposed to be a shooter.

Yes. I would have preferred if this game was even Browner.

I was kinda hoping for a game I could play in a day or two and get some satisfying shooting out of, even if the game was short and as bit subpar. I certainly haven’t gotten that….

Cut to a few hours later, and I’ve stumbled onto the final boss fight. I fight him for a good while, before pausing the game to see WTF is up – is he healing, or am I chipping away at him? This is especially relevant, since I don’t have many grenades and only have a shitty gun. I find a walkthrough that recommends that you have a powerful weapon, so that you can kick the shit out of him straight off the bat, since he regenerates every so often, and you’ll also want to be able to destroy the spires that allow him to regenerate. Oh. Good. /eyeroll

So anyway. Game is uninstalled, the disc is back in its case, and the game will probably be an (unpleasant) gift for some poor unsuspecting person in the future. Basically, Fracture isn’t worth the time it’d take to try and grind through that last, bullshit, out of proportion to the rest of the game boss fight. (Reminds me of last year and Heavenly Sword – why do devs pull that kind of shit?) In this instance, I was playing on Easy so I wasn’t in any danger of dying from the final boss – more of developing RSI in my wrist. (I started on normal, then restarted on easy during the first mission when I found the game controlled like shit.)

So anyway. I’ll probably YouTube the ending to see what happened, just for completeness’ sake. The fact that I haven’t actually done it yet is telling with regard to how much/little I actually care about the story. Because it’s a shitty, generic, forgettable story. In a shitty, generic, forgettable game.

Verdict: Avoid.

How Generic? How Forgettable? THIS much.

 

Thoughts and Reflections: Mad Max (PS4)

This will be more of a reflection than a true review of this title. I’ve not yet finished the game, but I’ve put a good few hours into it so far, and  I’ll just give my thoughts on my experience with the game. I figure that if some people think it’s unfair to give an opinion after 30+ hours of a game, then they’re the ones with a problem, not me.

Graphically (on the PS4) it’s pretty good. Not amazing, but there’s an awful lot to see and a lot to render, so it’s all acceptable. It runs smoothly and there are some nice, small touches. Max’s upgraded armour features a bit of military gear in Auscam camoflague. I’m not sure why Max’ back is uniformly bloody all of the time, though (except in the final armour upgrade). That just looks bad. It’s got some interesting locations but while being unique, they also feel very samey as well. There are only so many skeletonised shells of aircraft and small ships you can scavenge through before they just blend into each other. This is exacerbated by the fact that there is so little variation in the sandbox palette. The lighting and shadows are well done, particularly the environmental lighting as part of the day/night cycle, making for some very nice sunsets and sunrises within the game. They did an exceptional job here of creating an atmosphere.

I enjoyed the game a great deal at first, but before too long, the tedious grind began to show its face. I’ve just about finished the first couple of “kingdoms” completely and have unlocked and marauded in all but Gastown, though I spent a lot of time exploring and doing the side activities and have little left to do for those, so I haven’t rushed through at all. It’s certainly feels much grindier than Mordor, and the gameplay isn’t as nearly as smooth or refined. The combat is a poor shadow to Mordor’s combat (see what I did there?) and the driving is decent but not best-in-category. The tiny number of shotgun shells Max can carry (even upgraded) is just silly, and while I’m totally happy to ignore the silly “how can he carry all this scrap?” issue that Gamespot had, the ammo thing is less easy to handwave away to me. There’s also a sniper rifle (also with ridiculously limited ammo) that can only be used from the back of the Magnum Opus and never carried. Because Reasons.

I’ve spent way too much time trying to collect all of the things, but that’s my own OCD-based issue, rather then a result of the collections being particularly fun in any way.

The game has a number of significant missteps in my opinion. The mine defusing stands out as particularly awful and I don’t see how something this bad could have gotten through concept or “fun” testing. I’ve got nothing more to say about it. It’s shit, and deserves to be called out on it.

The melee combat is ropey and seriously flawed – The combat animations and executions – while nice enough – are uninterruptible. Well, I say uninterruptible, but they’re only uninterruptible for the player, not for your enemies. The result is that I keep getting pounded by enemies while Max is in the midst of these animations and executions, and the parry function is also sub-par. It’s also not helped by the camera’s pretty bad whirling around, making it incredibly difficult to see what’s actually going on around you, particularly during multi-combatant fights in tight spaces and during execution animations. Combat in Mordor was a far more smooth and refined variation of the same Arkham system, and it was a year ago now. It feels like the melee either needed more time or better quality QA feedback (or the Devs being willing/allowed to fix it). When it’s such a core part of the game, and the same things still annoy more than 30 hours in while using the same style that felt smooth as butter in older games, then there’s an issue.

Much of the game looks pretty much like this.

The “Balloon” variation of the Assassins’ Creed tower climbing is fine in theory but physically painful in practice. Seriously, blurry shitty binocular-vision actually makes my eyes hurt and once again I don’t know how this made it past QA. A much better solution would have been to emulate Assassins Creed’s pan-o-rama-vista more closely, “unlocking” all spots in range and then allowing the player to look around some more with the binocs. Or just making them less horrible to use and look at. As it stands, it’s not only tedious, but a physically unpleasant experience.

Car combat seems amazing at first, but before long becomes pretty samey. I’m hoping that with more unlocks it’ll be less tedious, but I’ve clearly got to blast through a bunch more story missions to unlock more car parts in the hope that it re-funs the car combat. There also seems to be little to no point to collecting all of the minor variations in War Boy and Bandit cars, and no way (that I can find?) to check if the car you’ve just jacked is one of the ones you need. But they’re all obviously shit compared to the Magnum Opus anyway. Still, the Car Combat is the best thing about this game (aside from the lovely skyboxes) and it does manage to provide some real white-knuckle moments when you’re trying to take down a convoy – enough to make you forget the silly nature of the game’s convoys (they patrol in very large circles on preset road tracks. forever – so they’re not actually conveying items from one place to another or anything. That kind of “random encounter” takedown is provided by “Scrapulances” which you need to take down and then drive to one of your bases in order to make a pile of c̶a̶s̶h̶ scrap. Still – it’s the strongest part of the gameplay.

When attacking enemy bases, there’s often a back door you’re able to (potentially) sneak into, but given that there are no real stealth mechanics in the game – no crouch/sneak/move slowly – and the enemies seem to (mostly) spot you immediately, there’s no real point to it. It almost seems like there may have been a “sneak” mechanic planned that was removed, given the design of some of these environments and the meaninglessness of trying to stealth them. I usually enjoy sneaking around and backstabbing people in games, but here’s it’s a non-starter.

Lovely environment and lovely skyboxes.

The other thing that’s particularly annoying is the voice acting. Starting from the get-go with the (mis)pronunciation of “Dinky-Di” being laughably and jarringly wrong (it’s Dinki-DIE, not Dinki-DEE, for fuck’s sake!) While people from outside Australia guys might WTF who cares on that one, it’s an incredibly well-known Australian expression of the “ocker” type, and while people don’t really use it all that much where I live, everyone who I’ve played that bit of audio to has laughed at how painfully awful it is.

Other voice issues include Max’s Aussie accent being overdone (yeah, I know the (new) voice actor is an Aussie, but he’s overdoing it), and the number of characters with redneck hillbilly accents in post-apocalyptic Australia is also jarringly bad. Some American accents are fine to have, and both Entity and Furiosa provide precedent in the films – and hell, I’ve worked with Americans here, many Canadians, constantly with Brits, and SO many Europeans that fewer clucking hillbillies and a few British and European/Mediterranean accents would have been much nicer to hear and more realistic for the game’s world. At least they did change Max from the initial, American voice actor – but it really does feel very lazy and sub-par in terms of voice acting. Most lines are delivered “as written”, which turns out wooden and unnatural to my Australian ears as well as incredibly stiffly. Sadly this includes the readings by Max’ voice actor – the only real exception to all of this being the Mystic character who seems to be channelling Bruce Spence, which is a good thing.

Ahem.

Anyway, Mad Max is a decent game. It’s not a great game and while the world is huge, it’s not nearly as good or fun in terms of gameplay as Mordor was this time last year, nor as diverse, alive and entertaining that Far Cry 4 still manages to be for me. I’ll definitely manage to finish it, but once I do I doubt I can see myself firing it up again to do races or whatever.

Will I do a follow-up post on the game? I honestly don’t know, but my thoughts are that it’s not all that likely. I don’t foresee any major plot twists, or interesting bits of characterisation.

……..

Postscript: All of the above was written over three weeks ago now, and then I took a break from the game. Since I took a break due to Destiny: TKK, I haven’t had the slightest urge to play Mad Max since – and the original Destiny didn’t hold my interest past the story quests and level 22 when I gave it away completely until picking up TKK a couple of weeks ago, so Max isn’t competing with a game I was deeply invested in. Mad Max was a film I enjoyed at a young age, Mad Max 2 is a classic for the ages, and I also quite enjoyed Fury Road, so really – I’m far more invested in Mad Max than I am in the Halo-esque background of Destiny. (I have no interest in the lore for Halo or Destiny, I’m afraid).

The fact that I’ve felt no pull to go back and finish the game says it all, I think. Worth a purchase on the cheap, but it’s not something that’s got a strong hold.

Thoughts and Reflections: Lords of the Fallen (PS4) – and other “Souls” Games

First up, an admission – I’ve never really played any of these “Souls” type games. I bought the SE of Dark Souls on PS3 years ago but couldn’t handle what I felt was the “loose” controls and put it down forever after less than an hour of play. Turned out later that the “loose” controls were simply the crappy DualShock3 sticks when compared to the superior 360 controller that I was so used to (I played most of my last-gen stuff on 360, due to it being the better console of the two – just as this-gen I’ve moved over to the PS4 – and yes, I own all four and no, I have no fealty to either faceless multinational company.)

So Dark Souls 1 on PS3 went back into the backlog pile, and has been there ever since.

Still, in the intervening years, I’ve read an endless stream of people praising these games to the high heavens and always kept one eye open towards having a go again at some stage. I tend to play games on easier levels these days – and that’s basically because I have a lot of video games, can afford to buy lots of video games, but between work, painting models and my other interests, I simply don’t have huge blocks of time to play video games any more like I did when I was younger and in school. I also have eclectic tastes, and like a lot of different stuff (as you can see with the model collection) and tend to like to buy too many games, so I like the idea of playing through a game to see and experience it, then moving on to the next one. I generally don’t have the time or inclination to spend 50 or 100 hours on one game when there are so many others around to play, so from that perspective, easier (or at least not brutally difficult) tends to be better.

The guy who killed the game for me.

So with this as the background, I picked up Lords of the Fallen late last year. It looked very pretty in all of the pictures and previews. It was on sale for a good chunk less than it’s release price, and happened to be the Limited Edition pack with a few extras, and it turns out that it had sold well (!) enough that months later I even got the pre-order bonus code for another extra. Reviews of the game tended to talk about how it was a kinda-“Souls-lite” and “a bit too easy” – and while that tended to be a criticism, it was usually written by people who clearly played a shit-ton of Dark/Demon’s Souls and were well-versed in these games. I figured that this might be a good entry point for myself to this style of game, so I picked it up and onto the pile it went.

Now I have some time off work, and so I decided to install it and give it a run.

Well. I lasted less than an hour. When I turned off the PS4 I was tempted to eject the disc and snap it in half. Instead I put it in the case and threw that across the room, where it bounced off the couch and landed next to me, unharmed.

Basically, I loaded it up, fought the first tutorial-guy. Started to figure out how to play by killing a half-dozen blind “trainer” mobs, killed one “warrior” mob, then was thrown into battle with a Boss: The First Warden. My character, who controls ponderously got the living shit kicked out of him, over and over. I had already wanted to save the game to get back to before I’d even gotten to him (I often play games in small 20-min chunks, going back and forth between a game and my paint desk), so when I found that I was essentially in a death loop, I became more and more frustrated and eventually cracked up and turned the game off.

Another view of the guy who ended the game.

So what’s my point?

Basically, it seems that unless you’re already one of the converted, or love being brutalised by games and have an awful lot of free time to spend getting good at this genre, there’s no real entry point to these games for the rest of us. The usual internet feedback by the moron classes would tell me that I’m just butthurt because I’m bad at games. I’d partially agree. There are lots of games I’m not good at. I’m no RTS wizard, and never got into Starcraft properly. I don’t have the skills to rank up high in AoEII. I never learned to fly particularly well in any of the Battlefield games, and I’m no twitch-headshot master in CoD.

But other games and aspects I got bloody good at. Sometimes easily, but usually after a non-frustrating chance to develop my skills. In Lords of the Souls, I’m not good. And I am butthurt. I’m further annoyed by the addition of two sets of paid DLC: The Foundation Boost and The Arcane Boost – at three bucks apiece, their description states: The DLC package contains 2 special resource cards which can be redeemed for a small boost to help Harkyn get started. The resource cards are of course consumed on use, so if you decide to go for a second (or third) playthrough, you’d theoretically need to buy them again. I just feel that it’s quite dirty, expecting new and inexperienced players (ie the ones who will most likely need these boosts) to pony up an additional three/six bucks to get started.

Especially in light of that DLC, I’m rather pissed off that as a new player, there’s no opportunity to learn the game a bit more by fighting “normal” enemies, and that it’s going to take me an hour or more of ponderous, un-fun gameplay to get past the first boss, and I’m probably not going to bother investing that much time into something that’s not actually fun, so ultimately it’s been a waste of my cash.

And if this is the “easier” cousin to Dark/Demon’s Souls… well, I’m simply not ever going to bother with trying this genre again. And that’s the shame.

 

Edit – I’ve gone back to the game and given it some more time… and… well, I still stand by everything I wrote earlier. I killed and killed and re-killed one of the few guys that were upfront before the boss over and over before going back in to fight him after each death, and he dropped a fancy Bardiche (I think the game calls it an axe of some kind). With the additional reach, and the additional of cowardice and running away I eventually defeated the first, cheap boss. Not until after watching a YouTube video where the YouTuber went on about how easy it should be for everyone playing the game for the first time to defeat this first boss without being hit at all. /sigh

Shortly afterwards, I figured out how the exp system works in the game and spent some time going back and forth between the game and my goblin fanatics – essentially treating the game almost like a Roguelike. Kill some mobs, get some exp, buy a skill or stat point. Kill the same mobs, get some exp, buy a skill or stat point. Die a bunch, but essentially killing resetting and farming the mobs in the initial area (and the hidden cellar) like the bad old days when we used to claim multiple camps in EverQuest for an old-fashioned exp grind. Only instead of auto-attack doing the work, it’s a chop, chop, dodge instead. With a bunch of slow healing throws in for good measure. Just like caster soloing in EverQuest and meditating, come to think of it.

I’ve just gotten past the second boss, and did it in the super special sekret way (no blocking) to get the special reward of a better version of his shield. Not sure how much “skill” is involved in auto-lock and circle-strafing the boss to get a few whacks in when his guard opens up and quaffing the odd potion. While Marouda wouldn’t be able to do this, I’m not sure it’s an especially good marker of being “good at games” or “bad at games” – not that those titles are an especially useful marker of anything.

So at this point, my opinion has changed slightly. The game is awful to start with. I’m also not convinced that a throwback to EQ-style mob grinding to level up is an ideal mechanic, though. For those unfamiliar with EverQuest and mob grinding. Check out the South Park World of Warcraft video instead. It’s the same thing.