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.