piątek, 11 marca 2011

Short Review #19: FEAR - Perseus Mandate

Perseus Mandate is the second expansion to the original FEAR, and one that is considered to be the weakest part of that first part of the FEAR franchise. Let's get this out of the way - yes, Perseus Mandate isn't as good as either the base game, or Extraction Point, but I don't think its as bad as some people are inclined to think. Let's see what are the games strong and weak parts.

Starting with the good stuff, Perseus Mandate is an ok tie-in with both of its predecessors. Some stuff which happens is directly linked to those previous games, which gives a nice feel of a coherent timeline. The plot itself is so-so, its main shortcoming being the fact that it doesn't really explain much. After two games you would expect another expansion would shed some light on what is really going on, perhaps give some background to the paranormal side of things (I still don't know the origins of a certain type of enemy, for example, and it feels like it's high time they addressed that) or give the player some new knowledge. Technically, it does that, but only by reinforcing directly something that has been implied indirectly before - and as much as important, it's not a groundbreaking twist in the end.

The new weapons are somewhat cool. On the other hand, the new type of enemy, the Night Stalkers aren't really that different from the Replica Forces. Also, for some bizzare reason, the enemy AI has taken a noticeable plunge in Perseus Mandate. I was playing on easy, true, but I did the same with Extraction Point and in that latter game the enemy would still behave as ingenously as in the basic FEAR. Here I found that I often enemies would just casually walk into my line of fire, and I could basically fight most of them using melee attacks - something I wouldn't even try in previous games because I wouldn't want to lose the time which could be spent on covering fire. The enemies also kind of stand around until you start shooting or come REALLY close. At certain times I would almost walk past an enemy, not seeing him, with no reaction whatsoever from that character. Also, there's an old-school boss fight at the end of the game which doesn't fit into these games in the slightest.

There are some good scares, but they are scarce. They seem to have focused on the combat bit of the game more this time around. What is there is cool, and one particular scare is very impressive, but sadly it's being overused a lot, which makes it a bit lame by the end of the game. However, most of the scares seem to lack that coherence they had in the previous games. Here it seems like the designers just thought 'Well, he had his fighting section, throw in a creepy scene now.'. They seem forced, artificial in a way, a 'whatever works' kind of thing. Also, none of them really surpass what has already been done before, though I have to admit, some stuff comes pretty close.

On thing that has to be addressed is that both the main character and some enemies can use that bullet-time ability from the previous games. Understandable, since combat can still be pretty cutthroat and without that ability it could end badly very quickly. But I thought it was well established that the main character from the basic FEAR and Extraction Point had this ability for A GOOD REASON, and it doesn't really make any sense that this nameless operative would have it too. Oh, and by the way, after getting through all three of these games I'm pretty sure that a silent protagonist is not the best solution for a horror-like game. Some radio chatter goes unanswered by the protagonist and that is just weird. In some other situations it would really pay well to add some commentary from the character to make the player even more scared.

Like in Extraction Point, some locations seem very much reused, which is rather lame. It isn't as bad as in the basic game (which is the biggest offender out of the three in that regard), but still deserves mentioning. On an unrelated note, the game offers some special timed missions after you finish the campaign (which is around half way between the length of the basic game and Extraction Point, so pretty good), but those are just more fighting and seem ill fit and rather pointless.

Summing up, Perseus Mandate is definitely the weakest of the three games, and is a fare which should be considered only by people who enjoyed the first two games and feel like they'd like more of the firefights and a tad more of the horror. I bought this as a separate game while I got FEAR + Extraction Point in a single pack and so I feel a bit cheated on this side, as the latter has a much higher value than Perseus Mandate solo. But hey, that's how it works. I had my fun, for the money I spent on this I enjoyed myself rather well, so there. 6/10.

wtorek, 8 marca 2011

Short Review #18 & #18.5: F.E.A.R. + Extraction Point

Not a very short review, but here we go...

As you probably know by now, since I had to mention it at some point, I am easily scared. I wasn’t able to finish Dead Space because of that. I was a bit scared of Doom 3 because of that, and that’s not a very scary game. I had to postpone playing The Devil Inside several years because of that, and from today’s perspective, that game is hardly scary at all! It was my decision to best this small problem of mine. To try and beat it into submission by experiencing scary games. Last summer I bought many different games at a very good price from one of the Polish electronics supermarkets, among them The Suffering, Condemned… and F.E.A.R., along with the Extraction Point expansion and the Perseus Mandate solo expansion (as two separate boxes). Having just finished the basic game and the first expansion, here are some of my thoughts.

Let me address that fear thing first, I mean, it’s in the title so I guess it should be the first order of business.Is FEAR scary? Well, yes, it is. Is it as scary as I thought it would be? No, not at all. See, the scary stuff is there, and sometimes shows itself in moments when you don’t expect it. But I thought it wasn’t nearly often enough for the game to be a true horror-themed shooter. Don’t get me wrong – I was happy that it wasn’t overdone, as I probably wouldn’t finish the game. But from different videos around the web, from how the game was regarded, I honestly thought I would have to play in small doses to make it bearable, while I didn’t have any trouble at all (well, ok, some, but nothing major) with getting through the game.

The atmosphere is built by using lightning – you’ll see many a long corridor with flickering lights and completely dark areas which only your flashlight will unveil. The sound design also adds to the creepiness, with ambient music and the fact that pretty much all you step on can roll or slide on the floor which makes the ‘silence’ even more unnerving. It’s more of the Doom 3 / Bioshock school of scary – stuff will jump out at you, you’ll get some sound cues which mark that something eerie is going to happen and all that… but it’s not ‘Dead Space scary’ (even though, as you probably know, Dead Space also uses those cheap scare tactics). The atmosphere in FEAR isn’t as smothering as in that game and this is actually one of its shortcomings.

See, in Dead Space or Bioshock, the eeriness and thick atmosphere go hand to hand with the fights. They are two sides of the same page, they compliment eachother. In FEAR it doesn’t feel like it. The two elements work together, but its not a match made in heaven. Something’s lacking, something’s not connecting exactly right…

The combat itself is terrific. Its very fast, very brutal and rich in environmental effects, such as explosions, smoke, and pieces of walls or furniture. You really feel these weapons do real damage, and shooting them is a lot of fun. You get to duck into and out of cover, use grenades, and try to defend yourself while the AI attempts to encircle you (all you’ve heard about the FEAR AI is true – they are crafty, sneaky bastards). You can use melee attacks of different types, though to be honest I haven’t done that much, preferring to use the game’s bullet-time… oh, right. That.

See, here’s the thing. This bullet-time mode (which the hero can use supposedly because he has very keen reflexes) is a feature of the game in a large extent. I dare anyone to get through this game without using the option once. I guess it could be doable, but VERY hard. Slowing down the action is about the only thing which gives you the edge over the enemies when you are outnumbered. If you don’t use it, you get shot down very fast. But I didn’t really think it really befitted the game. Here you have a SF/thriller/horror game, and the protagonist can do stuff straight from the Matrix? When Max Payne did it, it has sense in a way – it was a meta-mechanic, something that was there and wasn’t really explained, more a sort of a cosmetic solution than a plot one. Here, the explanation gives it sense, but theme-wise, it still doesn’t quite fit.

The theme in general is quite disjointed. Not as bad as in a certain game I played recently (ekhemhaloekhekh), but still. Get this – its obviously a modern setting, or if it’s the future, it’s not very distant. But you’ve got an army of clones telepatically commanded by a special individual… that’s the premise and by itself, it asks a hell of a lot of suspension of disbelief. But even when you accept that as a given, why are there robots in this game? And several types of them as well. And lasers. LASERS. I don’t know, it struck me as odd to match a modern setting with a SWAT-like special unit, add horror elements to it and say ‘You know what we need? Robots and lasers!’… I have the feeling that FEAR would work much better without those elements.

I have to mention something which is also a gripe many reviewers pointed out. The level design in FEAR is rather boring. You will spend the majority of the game going through very same-ish looking office spaces, unfinished buildings and warehouses. When the game throws you into a derelict building style location, it doesn’t keep you there long and the underground base you explore is pretty much a more high-tech rehash of the previous locations. If anything, this was a bit lazy – though it fits the story, and makes sense. At least this game doesn’t reuse the exact same locations as that * other * FPS did…

As for other stuff – the graphics have aged pretty well, though obviously stuff like Unreal Engine 3 blows this one out of the water, music is forgettable (some tunes are cool, but you can’t really recall them after you’ve finished playing), the sound design is good, but not ‘Company of Heroes good’ or even ‘Call of Duty good’… Voice acting was ok, some naughty swearwords added to the mature atmosphere of the game and fortunately weren’t overdone… it’s really refreshing to hear a solid ‘f**k’ in a game from time to time. There’s not a big choice of enemies, but the AI works wonders and keeps stuff interesting - while in other games fighting the same guys over and over again can become a chore, here it never becomes dull because of how ‘intelligent’ they are.

So yeah, FEAR is a solid shooter, but somehow it ends up being less than the sum of its parts. The scary sections are creepy and scary, if not outright terrifying (not much of them here, but they’re there), the atmosphere is great… and the shooting, action and combat are great as well, but the two don’t work that well together. I think it’s a matter of pacing – most of the game is fighting and after you’ve become somewhat tired of the Replica chatter, you get a scene or two to keep you on your toes, followed by more shooting. Those long action sections in the uninspired locations can become somewhat dull. However, the story is interesting and well told, and generally speaking the game holds up very well. This is a solid 7/10, a shooter all FPS fans should check out, though I’m not sure if it’s a good suggestion for people who are not fans of the genre, even if they like the horror atmosphere. Maybe it would be better if those people sat beside the FPS fans while they play this. This way, both parties can leave satisfied (as long as the horror fan goes to the kitchen to get a coffee or sandwich during the longer shoot-out sections).

What about Extraction Point? Most of the stuff I already said about the basic game applies, obviously, but some things are different. Most noticeably, the atmosphere. It is more scary and actually threatening than in the basic game, but it is different, more in your face, and less focused. There’s stuff happening which has you more interested in the plot, and some crazy stuff does happen – like when you can see a person basically being smashed around the room by an unseen force and then apparently devoured by some strange creatures. Extraction Point mixes stuff up, but unfortunately it’s not very good in telling its story. Some stuff isn’t resolved, though everything suggests that it should, and more questions are asked than answered. The story simply doesn’t add up in the end – you get a terrific, moving and autentically riveting final scene with Alma (seriously, I don’t remember being that moved by a video game for some time now), but when you try to track why that thing actually happened, you can’t – there’s no real sense to it, it just sort of happens. There’s also a certain type of enemy which is there for some reason, but you don’t really know why – it doesn’t seem to have any alliegance, but is blatantly supernatural, so * somebody * has to control it…

You get more types of locations here, so it's not only offices and warehouses, thought there is a good number of locations 'borrowed' from the base game. The scares here are better constructed than in the base game. They are also shown to you more often – not very much more often, but somewhat. If the basic game had this level and intensity of creepy stuff going on, it would be that little bit better. There’s still some strange discrepancy in the theme (you get to you a minigun and a laser rifle and fight against new types of robot enemies), but some stuff works very well. That Alma scene I talked about above is complimented by a great music background which makes it really cool. Some other tracks, however, are not that atmospheric and as far as they set the pace for the skirmish, they don’t really work for a wannabe-horror game. The game is also pretty short, at only around 5 hours. I guess that’s good enough for an expansion if you get it in a single edition with the basic game, but if I bought it solo I would probably be a little disappointed.

Anyway, Extraction Point deserves a 7/10 as well. It improves on some stuff which wasn’t quite as good in the base game, has an interesting story which actually has you invested in why certain things happen – even if it fails to deliver an answer in that respect, it’s still very enjoyable to watch its journey there. And the new scares are really spot on.

I actually didn’t enjoy FEAR that much when I started playing it, but once you get into the right mindset, it becomes a really good experience. Which is why I’ll attempt to get through Perseus Mandate over this week as well, just to get the first FEAR out of the picture. I’ll probably save Project Origin (FEAR 2) for another time – no point in forcing myself to play something if I can do it pretty much anytime. Still, I can’t say I’m particularly invested in the franchise – I know FEAR 3 is coming out, but I don’t think I’ll buy it before it gets really cheap.

niedziela, 6 marca 2011

Short Review #17: Grand Theft Auto - Vice City

After playing GTA3 I was somewhat disappointed with how many problems the game had. It was fun and all, but my enjoyment of it was hindered time and again by overly difficult missions, chance screw ups and, in the end, the general blandness. I was very hopeful toward GTA: Vice City, if only because of the terrific theme, taken straight from the cult TV series Miami Vice. This time around, I wasn’t disappointed.

The theme is Vice City’s biggest asset. Everything from the colour palette (a lot of pastel colours mixed with terrific light effects), through the character models, clothes, and cars, to architecture simply works. The great licensed soundtrack is also a very strong feature of the game. In GTA3 I found it hard not to listen to the MP3 Player instead of the radio stations, because out of the nine stations, three were unlistenable (drum&bass / trance / jungle music at its worst and bad hip-hop), four were ok but nothing special, one was a chat radio which was fun to listen but got old fast and the only one I actually enjoyed was the one playing classical music… but neither of these was actually enjoyable to listen to, which warranted a switch to my personal choice of MP3’s rather quickly. In Vice City I haven’t used this option once. Why should I, with such a great choice of listenable stations? Most of them are really great to have playing while you cruise around the city, if only because they compliment the 80’s theme so well. The choice of music is terrific. Even genres which I don’t usually enjoy, like hip-hop and pop, are so well represented, you just don’t mind it even if it’s not necesarrily your thing! Big kudos go to the rock / metal and the RnB stations. Listening to “And the Beat Goes On” by the Whispers while riding next to the beach toward the sunset? Awesome stuff. This game serves as a great guide to what 80’s music was all about, with a very good variety of music styles.

The humour in the game is also top-notch. Almost every dialogue line is funny in some way, even if it’s dark humour, the chats and commercials on the radio stations are both hilarious and, more often than not, ridicule a certain type of people or aspect of 80’s life in a very biting way. This makes the whole game a very tongue-in-cheek experience, which is good, because a ‘serious’ game about killing people and establishing a criminal empire would likely be a rather tough thing to swallow.

Gameplay wise things are also a lot better than in GTA3. There’s more stuff to do (even maybe too much to my taste, but then again I didn’t have to do all of it), and what you have to do to progress is much easier and manageable than in the previous game, which makes Vice City much more enjoyable. As you may recall, I haven’t finished GTA3 because the end-game missions are just ridiculously unfair. In Vice City they were somewhat challenging, but absolutely doable. My only gripe with Vice City on the gameplay side is that it took me ages to actually trigger the end-game, because as you get to a more open part of the game, you’re not really told what to do next. I spent time buying businesses and doing the side missions, but I then learned that I would have been better off saving that for later, and focusing on getting enough money to buy out the one location which actually matters. That, and there were some missions where a quicksave-in-mission would not go amiss, but since that’s outside GTA’s design philosophy, I can’t really hold it against the game that much (even though I still think that no quicksave or accessible saving in a 2003 game is just the designers being assholes). And yes, they didn’t exactly get rid of missions obviously based on luck (whether you get hit by a car or not, missions which are not really that dependable on your skills), but fortunately I could either get around them in some way or just don’t do them in most cases. Still, not cool, not in any way sensible.

Some stuff was carried over from GTA3 though, and one of them are the ridiculous physics. I have to admit, they have been improved from that game, but you can still spin out of control when slightly nudging another car, or end up on the car’s roof after a collision. Not to mention how you can apparently break through metal and concrete (lamps and streetlights) but not through wood (telephone line posts have you stop dead on them). The motorboats were not improved at all – they are as hard to steer as they were in the few on-water missions of GTA3 (and the protagonist STILL can’t swim). Some new additions include motorbikes, planes and helicopters. The former are fun to ride, but as little as a very slight hit on anything (and I do mean anything, maybe apart from the pedestrians, though that’s not a rule) has you ejected from the vehicle and into the air. The two latter have terrible controls which make them very hard to fly around, and take some of the real enjoyment you get from watching the city from above.

All the criticism aside, Vice City is a game very much superior to GTA3, in every way. A great setting, cast of actors, a lot of humour, terrific music and enjoyable gameplay make this game something everyone should play, even if the graphics haven’t aged that well (though they are still nice to look at). I’m not sure about San Andreas, as I haven’t played it yet, but from what I’ve seen (mostly gameplay videos), it’s theme is waaaaaay to serious to enjoy. Maybe it’s just me, but I just don’t find afro-american gang wars very appealing or funny in any way. I’m going to guess that out of the three – GTA3, Vice City and San Andreas – Vice City is going to be the one I will enjoy the most. That remains to be seen. In the meantime, Vice City is a solid 8/10 and I heartily recommend it to anyone who hasn’t played it yet. Nowadays you can find a used copy in stores quite often, or Steam has it, and it’s often on sale. The few euro / pounds / dollars you’ll spend on it will give you more than 20 hours of gameplay for sure, and if you’re the completionist type, much more than that, I would assume.