sobota, 7 maja 2011

Short Review #25: Kingpin - Life of Crime

Having just finished this after a few hours of gameplay, let me share my thoughts.

The game opens with one of the most unforgiving levels in a game, ever. Even on the lowest difficulty (on which I played), I had to attempt getting through it several times. You start off virtually unarmed, while your enemies are armed. Deal with it. It gets better later on, but the difficulty is still rather punishing - if the lowest difficulty wasn't a breeze, and it wasn't, that probably means the game is a bit hardcore. Either that, or I'm actually devolving in my FPS skills.

Outside of being a specifically themed (gangs, the city, street violence) game, Kingpin has three mechanics which have been rather innovative at the time of its premiere (1999). The first of these is the fact that you can have up to two companions who will help you out, and you can issue them limited orders (Follow or Guard, essentially). This would potentially work, if not for the very high mortality rate of the companions and their limited combat abilities. Sure, they can stand their ground, but a lot is down to chance. Sometimes they defend themselves for several minutes, sometimes they fall down right at the beginning of a battle. You can never know. This isn't a very innovative mechanic because Half Life did something similar before this game, but I figured I could mention it.

The other two mechanics are connected to weapons. The first one is the fact that if you do not have your weapon holstered, NPCs will react to a drawn weapon - either by cowering, or being aggressive, more often the latter. In itself, this is an ok idea, but the implementation is terrible. There's only a handful of situations when it pays to not have the weapon drawn, and the later you are in the game, the less sense it makes. Also, all it takes is to hold a crowbar or lead pipe out - so whenever I wanted to crack open a crate or box next to an NPC, I was attacked by that character. And putting the weapon down doesn't solve things - they will attack you until you're dead. I had to kill more characters than I wanted to because of that.

Finally, you can buy weapons, ammo, armour and upgrades at shops called Pawn-o-Matic. A good idea, but unfortunately, again, poorly implemented - there's not too much stuff to buy in the end, and the upgrades make no sense: there are 5 (or so) for the Pistol, another single one for the Heavy Machine Gun... and that's it. Why did no other weapons receive upgrade options? Why can you upgrade the Pistol, the weapon which gets useless pretty much after you get any other weapon? No idea, but it's textbook bad game design.

The weapons aren't anything special. The most interesting one is the Flamethrower, but unfortunately, despite being very impressive visually (same goes for rocket and grenade explosions, those look great despite their age), it's a weapon which ends up being insanely overpowered when the enemies use it (get hit and you lose around 50% of armour and Hit Points, no randomness here), but rather shit when you use it. I could never get the range right (it only hits at a certain distance), and while I was trying to douse an enemy in flames, there was always someone else pounding me to the ground with different weapons. Most of the weapons are criminally inaccurate, which makes fighting at long ranges rather tedious.

The level design is interesting because, and this is mostly true about the initial levels, and becomes less so the further you go, it's somewhat open-ended. There's a certain thing you have to do to progress, but you can navigate the location at your own leisure, of course taking into account the enemies. So you'll get some absolutely optional room or buildings to explore, and some alternative paths to take. Don't be fooled though, this is no Deus Ex.

The graphics engine has aged poorly, though I still have a certain fondness for the Quake 2 engine. As mentioned before, fire effects (explosions and the flamethrower) are quite impressive and nice to look at, but the character models are pretty much ugly and blocky. The environments are all kept in the same vein - brownish-grey streets and factories, with some overtones depending on the location.

Sound is alright, though nothing in any way worthy of mentioning. There's a lot of swearing, including phrases such as "F*** You, You F***!" etc. The music is all taken from a Cypress Hill album (or so I think), and it fits the setting, and some of the songs are even nice to listen to. However, the choice of tracks is very limited, so it gets boring rather quickly.

All in all, Kingpin isn't something I'd recommend. It was enjoyable enough, but just doesn't offer anything that other titles don't have, and has many flaws which most modern games don't anymore. Comparing this game to the terrific Soldier of Fortune, which was released only a year after Kingpin, it shows that the authors mostly wanted to hype the game with the unpopular theme and controversy. The gameplay doesn't offer enough to be very enganging, but I guess that if you're an FPS fan like myself, you might want to check it out. You can get a digital copy from Good Old Games ( Regular players and people who don't generally enjoy FPS games have nothing to look for here.

Final rating: 5/10. Very average game overall, but enough to be somewhat enganging if you're in the mood for some shooting.

Short Review #24: Call of Juarez

I won Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood last year at a convention, and so I reminded myself that I haven't played Call of Juarez, the first game. Found it in the local entertainment exchange and started playing it Thursday evening, completed it today afternoon. Short version: Call of Juarez is not without some unpolished, rough edges, but it's an all-around good game, verging on very good in certain ways. Read on for the long(er) version.

The game follows the story of Billy Candle, a young man finding himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, and Reverend Ray, who pursuits Billy after going through a major breakdown and deciding it's time to become God's justice, not just his shepard. You play as both characters, often going through very similar or identical locations you first visited as Billy, and then as the Reverend. The two heroes work completely different - Ray is an armoured gunslinger who can take a lot of punishment and deal even more due to his good marksmen skills, while Billy is an agile lad who has to sneak his way out of tough spots more often than not.

As both characters, you will traverse the beautiful world of CoJ, vast, spacious locations including forests, mountain ranges and towns. However, here's my first minor gripe with the game. The locations are big, that's true, but their size does not serve any particular role other than being pretty. What I mean by that is that a) the levels are still linear and there are rarely two or more ways of reaching a goal, and b) the extra space is basically wasted because you can explore it, but there are no secrets to be found in the nooks and unoccupied rooms, no item stashes etc. So it's basically there just for laughs, I guess. That was a bit of a disappointment.

The strongest part of the game is definitely the story. It's truly gripping, the finale is very tense and the plot comes together very nicely. There are no loose ends left by the end of the game, you witness a full, realised story line - and I have to commend the writers because of that. However, this great storytelling is a bit tarnished by the uninspired screens when you fail to do something. You just get a black window saying "You are dead." or "Time has ran out." or something to that effect - this is a lost opportunity for throwing some more character there.

The game has a really nice theme. Not only is it the Wild West, it's a warped version of it, grimmer and less idealised I guess. Everyone's a bastard in this game, in some way or another, and some plot twists really give you a serious feeling that this is not some black and white "The Good, The Bad and The Ugly" setting. Plus, the Reverend is such an over-the-top character, balancing a certain strangeness and a real menacing aura with pure awesomeness. The guy wears a piece of plate armour, and confuses enemies by reading excerpts from the Bible for god's sake!

The music is also good. Not stunning in any way, it won't stay in your head for long or anything like that, but when it plays, it fits wonderfully. There are separate themes for tense sneaking, crossing indian country, frantic gunfights and everything else you'd expect from a game.

I've had a lot of fun with Call of Juarez. The length of the game is just right, and the balance of the levels is pretty good - even the sneaking sections were quite bearable for me, though at two or so points they were becoming frustrating. If anything, Call of Juarez is not perfect because of the different elements which are simply not polished enough - but as a game, it stands by itself and is very enjoyable. CoJ gets a very easy, and strong, 7/10, with a tendency toward 8/10. A highly recommended game, which, if polished enough, could have been a truly epic experience. As it is, it is simply very good, a definite must-play for FPS or Western fans.

poniedziałek, 2 maja 2011

Short Review #23: Shadowgrounds

Shadowgrounds is a short indie game by Finnish developer Frozenbyte. I got it as part of a Humble Indie Bundle, which I bought mostly because it had Trine. Shadowgrounds sounded interesting enough, but ended up being a study in generic-ness.

The game has a generic plot, generic characters, generic gameplay, generic weapons, generic enemies... I've played the exact same game developed by different people under a different name many times before. Shadowgrounds has enjoyable (though again, generic) graphics, two elements which are somewhat interesting (the flashlight, which is severly underplayed and not that important to the gameplay in the end - and an upgrade system for the weapons, but that one isn't as good as it could be) and a good twist ending, though that one you can kind of see coming.

It's an enjoyable enough game despite being a poster child for a top-view camera action game, but I have to say, if I paid any serious money for this, I'd be seriously disappointed. My short recommendation is - get it only if you can get it for free or for a dollar or something like that. It's really not that great a game, unless you're a fanatic of the genre - in which case go for it. But for your regular gamer, Shadowgrounds really isn't anything worthy of a purchase.

A 6/10 all the way. 5/10 for being a standard, generic game, and +1 for actually being fun.

Short Review #22: Dark Forces II - Jedi Knight

I'm a big Star Wars fan, and I count Jedi Knight II and Jedi Academy among my favourite titles. I remember playing the Dark Forces II demo to death in my pre-Pentium days, loving that one level and loving the lightsaber. Jedi Knight + Mysteries of the Sith (the expansion) was one of my charity shop / entertainment exchange buys, but I couldn't get it to run on my laptop for some reason, so I only played it recently on the "main PC". And I have to say, I'm a bit disappointed.

The FPS action bits of the game are quite enjoyable, though there are some weapons which are pretty much unusable (grenades which can't be thrown away for shit and proximity mines you plant RIGHT UNDER your feet and they are instantly armed), and others which are way better than others (there's no reason to use the pistol once you've got the rifle, and no reason to use the crossbow at all once you have the Repeater). But yeah, those bits, generally fun. However, once you get the force powers and a lightsaber, the gameplay starts becoming rather frustrating...

This is because this game was obviously less capable than the designers thought it was. Using the lightsaber feels clunky and clumsy, leaving little reason to use it at all unless you need to. The choice of Force Powers is very weird, some of them are useless (like Pull), others are really hard to use efficiently (Jump doesn't work nearly as good as it should), and generally I tried to avoid using them... which seems strange, considering how this is a Star Wars game with "Jedi" in the title. Worst are the lightsaber duels with the many Dark Jedi you encounter. You just can never know if you're going to hit the guy or not, and if yes, if you're going to damage him in any significant way. It's a total crap shoot.

The plot itself is pretty mediocre, you've got a group of Dark Jedi (where did they come from is anyone's guess), led by a guy named Jerec, who finds out the location of the fabled Valley of the Jedi and goes there to power up. Kyle Katarn's father is killed by Jerec, and so the ex-Republic Commando comes into action. The plot is presented via movie-like cutscenes, and boy, the term "ham & cheese sandwich" gains a new meaning with these! The acting is almost universally TERRIBLE. The delivery, expressions and dialogue is plain crap, sometimes so bad it hurts. Virtually all the characters are over the top, the only one being roughly ok being Jan Ors. Even Katarn is played with a lot of trying too hard, and the actor himself doesn't look right...

I haven't completed the game because I got stuck on the final boss fight and decided I just don't care much. I have the expansion, but don't plan on playing it. I could give a pass on all those previously mentioned flaws, but there's one other thing which drives me crazy about this game - the long, complicated and sprawling levels. I got stuck on a regular basis, having to resort to walkthroughs to continue playing. I think this is just a symptom of the broader problem - the game was simply on a historical threshold, a boundary between the old FPS games like Doom and Quake (and the first Dark Forces which was basically Doom with a Star Wars setting) and the new ones, the ones that wanted to innovate. Another game released the same year was Quake 2, and it was great because it didn't try to innovate, but instead went for improving the formula it knew and fell comfortable with. I have to congratulate Jedi Knight for trying, but ultimately, it's a pretty (not beautiful) failure.

My final rating is a rather weak 6/10. A game which I would only recommend to die-hard Star Wars fans. Nobody else should really care enough to play this game at this point.

czwartek, 28 kwietnia 2011

Short Review #21: StarLancer

For years, I remembered playing a demo of some kind of a space shooter game, which I remember I loved. The named escaped me more often than not, until I finally remembered the name, and remembered to keep an eye out for it - StarLancer, Microsoft's/Digital Anvil's predecessor to Freelancer, a very flawed, but still rather awesome game. Once I had the chance to buy it off Amazon, I did - old carton box, original CD's, the manual and a reference sheet in the deal.

My first somewhat sad surprise was that the game needed a joystick - no mouse support. Well, I thought, I was planning on getting one for Mechwarrior games, so why not, I'll play this once I have a joystick. And lo and behold, where I work they had a spare, a dusty old thing, hardly used by anyone. I started playing the game using that. Two weeks ago, my girlfriend got me my own joystick (in a rather depressing thought, I realized that by now the joystick is pretty much a dead peripheral - among the tens of different pads and several different steering wheels, there were only four joystick models) and so I was able to enjoy the game "on my own" as it were. How was it?

Well, StarLancer is definitely a mixed bag. It does some stuff really well, other reasonably well, and fails in other still. I think its best to present this as a short list.

- the dramatic feel of the game. This is probably its biggest strength. You fight a losing fight. There's a lot of losses you cannot help but take - capital ships, team mates, legendary pilots will die around you. And somehow, despite giving all of them minimal characteristics, you feel sorry even for the anonymous bomber pilots. They will scream while they die, they will call for help, they will curse you with their dying breath for not defending them. What is VERY important in this, the game doesn't arbitrarily finish when you flunk an objective. No, usually it continues. You hang your head in shame as the landing control tells you "What the hell were you thinking?" and the debriefing tells you how much of a failure the mission was. Sure, you can restart the level... but would it be as dramatic an experience?

- the fighting/flying. Yes, the game does that part pretty good. It's not as annoying as in Freelancer (which turns half-way into the game to an "I hope I have enough countermeasures or else the next missile that hits me will kill me" affair), it's not as impressive either, but it's solidly implemented. So the main part of the game, really, the "game" part of the game, delivers. It isn't mindblowing by any rate, but is decisively above average.

- the background elements. By this I mean the in-between-missions stuff. You get to walk from your bunk to the briefing room in a pre-rendered cutscene (one of several each time around). You can read up on the enemy and see debriefings of your missions. When you finish a mission, your performance can be seen by the reaction of the pilots in another cutscene. Sometimes they will cheer and high-five one another, or they can throw their helmets on the ground because of they despair and anger. You get TV reports on how the campaign is going which also give feedback on your actions. Most of these get old pretty quickly (especially the short "walking" and "running to fighters" cutscenes because they are only a few of those), but it's a very nice touch, making the game a little bit more than just fighting. Personally, I thought that if this was taken to a more RPGish level, this could be ever cooler. Sadly, 2000 was not a year for this idea to catch on, the trend came much later.

- the music. It's alright, nothing spectacular, but nice to listen to and sufficiently dramatic/combat like.

- the story. What little there is, really. There's a conflict between the Alliance and the Coalition (talk about original names, huh?). The Alliance are the good guys, Americans, English, Japanese, Germans, Italians etc., while the Coalition are the evil Russians (is anyone suprised?), Middle-Easterners and Chinese. The Coalition attacked the Alliance in a treacherous blow, starting the conflict, and from a losing position you're slowly gaining ground. There are some stronger parts of the plot, and some weaker ones. One GREAT scene is really underplayed later on - you are informed that two enemy ships carry prisoners of war, but if they are allowed to get close, they will endanger a crucial operation. The hard decision is made, the 20-odd captured Alliance soldiers die with the crews of the ships. There is a short commentary on that... and you'd expect a shadow falling over the rest of the plot, but no, this incident is NEVER mentioned again. Seriously. Not one mention. It's not even in the god-damn debriefing...

- too many systems. Seriously. This game has virtually all the keyboard keys covered with different options. Out of these, you only every use 10 or so (at least on Easy). Some of them are possibly useful, but not very. Others are completely useless, the biggest offender being the Eject button. Get this - if you get badly damaged, you can eject, and in theory that's to allow a Nanny ship to pick you up and save you. I've done this a few times, three, maybe. EVERY SINGLE TIME a pre-defined cutscene had me killed. This option, therefore, is clearly a cheap trick. The same goes for asking you to give the order to engage your Jump Drive every time, as if the game couldn't do it itself in a cutscene - especially since jumping out is ALREADY a cutscene. And landing. Seriously, you've got a com-link which has four options - two are useless (connected to your mates), and out of the two other one is used every mission (Permission to Land... again, nice of you to have me immersed in the game, but it could have been done automatically...) and the other (call for reinforcements) is NEVER used, and I think for a good reason. I have a gut feeling it's like the Eject button - technically does something, in practice, does absolutely nothing.

- the difficulty. Not the difficulty level, mind you. I played on Easy, and as far as I wouldn't call it that (more like Medium, at least... though it did allow me for some maneauvers which should technically end with my death), I had a hard time doing some of the stuff. The difficulty system is pretty much unfair because you will often receive orders which you have no influence over whatsoever - this goes for all "Defend squad X" orders. Seriously, not once did I feel that I was doing well enough to actually influence what was happening. I did a crappy job - nobody got hurt. I did a very good job - I lost the mission because all of the guys got killed. I did a so-so job, I passed the mission but with major losses. No idea what comes into play here. Some objectives also appear so rapidly, there's no chance in hell you'll be able to complete them during the first playthrough of the mission. Like when a cruiser appears right at the back of torpedo bombers you need to finish the mission, and blows them to pieces.

- you have to do EVERYTHING alone. Well, ok, not everything, but where StarLancer promised to be more than most squad-based games where the player does everything by himself anyway (Republic Commando, Call of Duty, the list goes on), it ended up being exactly that. Rarely does it happen that a small objective is completed by your mates, or that you see them killing enemies like it's not a problem. With big objectives, such as destroying a ships shield generator or engines, or defending vulnerable units - you're on your own, and it ain't a breeze to be everywhere at once, trust me. The worst offender by far is when the enemies launch torpedos at your capital ships and you can't lose them. Often there is a LOT of torpedoes. And ALWAYS I found I was the only one dealing with this threat, which is the MOST SERIOUS THREAT THERE IS IN THIS GAME. How come am I the only one doing it? Everyone else has something better, more important on their mind right now? What the hell?

- no saving during the mission. You know me. I hate this in a game. Here, at some times, I thought it was kind of fitting, it added to the dramatic struggle. But the game also had some levels where a quicksave or something was basically a necessity, and IT WASN'T THERE! There were several missions which were obviously divided into segments, with clear objectives for each one. Why not throw a quicksave there? WHY? So that, if I make a mistake and die (or the game crashes, as also happened a few times, see below) three minutes before the end of a mission I have to do the difficult 10 previous minutes AGAIN? I don't get it. Never did, never will. Oh, and also, unskippable cutscenes. Yes, this games has them. And boy, some of them just drive you nuts.

As mentioned above, I had performance problems with StarLancer. No, not the joystick issue, though I had to basically learn to use it from scratch (the last time I used a joystick was god knows how long ago, I can't remember having a joystick in my hand in the last 10 years, at least), but there's really nothing else you can do here. The game isn't very stable on modern computers. I had to exit to Windows after every mission, because apparently the game couldn't bother running longer than 30 minutes without a crash. Given the lack of a proper saving mechanic, this was a potential game-breaker for me... fortunately, the missions are short (a majority is under 20 minutes), so I could afford to finish a mission, exit the game, and turn it on again. The campaign is 24 missions long, which gives around 10 hours of gameplay, or maybe more if you count a bigger number of replays of missions. I haven't gotten the perfect ending, but I couldn't be bothered. Some of the perfectly well done missions are just out-of-your-mind hard to do.

All in all, I enjoyed StarLancer immensily, and it deserves an easy 7/10. It would have been an 8/10 at least if not for its shortcomings, and if it was even better, it could hope for a 9/10 even, I certainly saw the potential in it. As it is, the game isn't perfect, but it's definitely enjoyable, especially if you're a fan of the genre (and I'm not, not in particular). If you can find it, get it, I guess. It's goint to be very hard to obtain (as a 10 year old game which wasn't all that popular in its time), but I think it's rather worth it.

SPOILER: the game ends with a major Alliance victory, but nothing ending the conflict. I'm not sure why they decided to finish the game like that, but it works, from a dramatic point of view. I'm saying this, because in Freelancer - the direct sequel to StarLancer (at least plot-wise), it is established that the Alliance lost in the end, and had to leave our galaxy to colonize new planets... that's a very nice tie-in and it makes sense, making the struggle of the Alliance fleet even more dramatic.

sobota, 23 kwietnia 2011



As you probably noticed, I haven't been writing much in the past few months, and when I had, it was reviews. Simple reason - I started working at a video game company, and I'm pretty much rarely "in the mood" to write anything, really. I'm not closing down the blog or discontinuing it, just bear in mind that due to time constraits, I'll have to limit myself to Short Reviews and the occasional short editorial (if that happens at all). So watch the reviews amass and I'll see you around.