Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Review // The Saboteur

I'll say this--The Saboteur is an ambitious game. It tries a host of different gameplay mechanics, none of which it does particularly well. In fact, The Saboteur often feels like it's trying to impress you with how flawed it is in every way, with each new mission highlighting why a particular mechanic fails miserably.

Just A Clumsy Assassin

I've always wondered what being a saboteur would feel like, but if this game is anything to go by, it just feels like being a very inept and clumsy assassin. In a world where Assassin's Creed exists, the acrobatics of The Saboteur are simply embarrassing both to watch and play. Controlling Sean Devlin as he tries to climb buildings, jump small gaps, or simply go down a ladder is consistently nerve-wracking in a "get ready to retry this mission for the fourth time" kind of way.

Even if he can't go over the opposition to get to his objective, Sean can at least try to sneak through it. Well, maybe if he wasn't so terrible at acting like a Nazi. Every single Nazi you come across while in uniform can out you if you do anything remotely suspicious, like hop over a small fence, go for a jog, or just stand there. Somehow they can just tell. What this does is make any task that you'd think should be easy for a guy dressed up like a Nazi, like passing another Nazi on the street, a chore.

Therefore, most missions in The Saboteur play out like this:

  1. The game tells you to play it stealthily.
  2. You spend about ten minutes trying to figure out how the hell that's even possible given how good the Nazis are at spotting you.
  3. You spend half an hour trying and retrying to execute carefully orchestrated plans to play it stealthily.
  4. You realize that by "play it stealthily," the game really meant "just shoot everybody."

But it turns out that not only is Sean terrible at moving on foot, he's not very good in a car, either. Which is ironic what with him being a race car driver and all. Cars just don't handle very well, so while you speed away from trucks full of pissed off Nazis, you're inevitably going to run into another car or a pole or a leaf. Most of these barely budge when you plow into them, giving the Nazis plenty of time to catch back up. It doesn't help that there's nothing offensive to do to shake them off since apparently the concept of the drive-by hadn't been invented yet.

No Driving Force

I'm a sucker for a good story, so I'll usually be willing to slog through a bad game as long as I've got enough motivation. The Saboteur offers no such motivation. What could have been a gripping story of revenge, redemption, and whether you can put aside a personal vendetta in favor of a greater cause is promptly shelved in favor of a bland, paper-thin excuse to blow stuff up. There are only about three story moments in the game I would classify as "good" or "interesting" or "not awful," and they all involve Sean's nemesis, Dierker.

Unfortunately, you only run into Dierker about three times in the entire game, one of which is almost completely ruined by the sloppy controls and poor execution of basic gameplay mechanics. The Saboteur does, however, have one of the best endings in years, completely sidestepping the video game tradition of a shoehorning an unnecessary boss fight at the end, trying so hard to be climactic that it does just the opposite, by opting instead for a satisfying narrative conclusion. Imagine that.

The only other good thing I can say about The Saboteur is that its art style is brilliant, even if it is shamelessly ripped from Sin City. It's just too bad that they didn't set the whole thing in black and white since it's the single best aspect of the whole game. It's a little difficult to see where you're going sometimes, but for the most part, it works well and looks really good.

There's a permeating sense of mediocrity in The Saboteur that's only ever interrupted by moments of frustration and missed potential. It's a shame to see a game with this much style and at least a couple good ideas fall so far below its promise. Don't waste your money.

The Saboteur / $59.99 / PS3 [reviewed], 360, PC

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Hannah Montana: The Movie Review

If you're an achievement or trophy whore like myself and have a healthy appreciation for crap, then Hannah Montana: The Movie is definitely worth a rental. Otherwise, I can only presume that you're a sane person and therefore, this game is not for you.

Even when considering that this is your typical licensed kid's game, it's still surprising that Hannah Montana: The Movie's story is as shallow as it is. Playing this game makes the Wikipedia summary to the movie it's based on feel like Shakespearian literature, full of internal strife, betrayal, and overarching themes about the nature of happiness. What's even more surprising about both properties though, is the awful message they send to the kids they market to.

Rather than teaching kids that trying to be something you're not will only lead to despair and hurting the people you love, they completely reverse that message in the final moments by having Miley's entire hometown pressure her to continue on with her double-life. But I guess that's to be expected from a game that has its main character, after ruining her relationships with everyone she cares about, whole-heartedly deliver the line, "Maybe shopping will make me feel better!"

As far as what you actually do in this game is concerned, the on-stage performances are where you'll have the most ironic fun. The game makes a valiant effort to map Hannah and her band's actions to the controller, to varying degrees of success or failure. With Hannah Montana's infectiously cheery songs about shoes and being a small town girl blaring while you match her ridiculous poses with the controller, it's hard not to smile, at least to recognize that yes, this is what you're doing with your spare time.

The off-stage stuff doesn't fair as well, usually amounting to fetch quests, boring mini-games, or shopping. The most tedious part about the whole experience is that Miley can't run. I'm convinced that this was a conscious decision by the developers to ensure that the whole game couldn't be beaten in an hour or two. But, and maybe this is just me, I'd be willing to accept the trade-off.

If you're the kind of person that wouldn't mind friends seeing that you got the platinum trophy in Hannah Montana: The Movie, then give it an overnight rental. But if you're looking for a good game for your kids to play, keep looking.

Hannah Montana: The Movie / $29.99 / PS3 [reviewed], 360, Wii, DS, PC

Thursday, December 24, 2009

ModNation Racers Preview

If its beta is any indication, ModNation Racers might be the first kart racing game in a long time that's worth getting excited about. It's definitely not trying to innovate on how kart racing games actually play during races, but everything else is shaping up to be pretty amazing. The only thing that could hold it back is the plethora of technical issues to fix before the game's release in a couple months.

The most important part of any kart racing game should be whether or not it's fun to race, and ModNation Racers doesn't try anything risky here; it sticks very close to the tried and true Mario Kart formula. You can press X to hop and launch into a powerslide. You can pick up power-ups like boosts or homing missiles. And even if you feel like you're comfortably in first, something can always go terribly wrong to send you straight into last place, so you need to keep on your toes.

To its credit, it executes on all of these mechanics very well, so that important core foundation is there. It's just personally a little disappointing to see that the changes to the kart racing formula have been so minimal since Super Mario Kart came out in 1992. Thankfully, everything outside of races is so radically different that it would be difficult to criticize ModNation Racers for not being innovative enough.

One of the most interesting and least discussed aspects of the ModNation Racers beta is called "ModSpot." When you load up the game, it dumps you into ModSpot with other racers. ModSpot is the central area to access all the different features of the game while interacting with other players. Most people seem content to spend their time powersliding circles around the ramp in the center of the area, but I've already seen a lot of good interaction going on. Players talk about the game, their latest creation, or compliment each other's characters and cars. ModSpot feels a lot like a less boring PlayStation Home.

The Creation Station of ModSpot is where all the user-created content is made and distributed. It's also the driving force in convincing me why ModNation Racers could turn out to be a really cool game. You can make your own little racer (called a "Mod") and a car to accompany him, and design tracks from scratch. Creating Mods and cars has easily been the most fun part of the beta.

Most of the customization options are locked out right now, leaving a scant few options to toy with. Yet even with the limited set, it's still very possible to make iconic and recognizable characters. I made The Riddler with a matching car and a MotorStorm logo guy all pretty quickly, but the surprising part is that I'm happy with the results. Browsing through the user-created Mods is my new addiction though. What people have been making is absolutely insane, and I've included some of my favorites at the end of this article thanks to the game's photo mode.

The problem with LittleBigPlanet's level creator was that it was so in-depth and powerful that it intimidated a lot of people. Personally, I had a lot of ideas for great levels, but my ambition far outstripped my time and patience. ModNation Racers avoids that by making track creation so streamlined and easy that you can make good tracks within minutes. You just drive along and the track will be laid down as you go, and then the game can auto-populate the track with power-ups, boosts, and scenery if you so choose. For track designers that want to delve deeper, however, the option is there to make shortcuts, add specific set pieces, and otherwise exert more control over their tracks.

As this is beta software, it is not without technical issues. While this is to be expected of any beta, it helps highlight some very important issues that need to be fixed. By far, the biggest of these is the long load times. Being able to jump into races quickly is key to this game's success, so United Front Games needs to work hardest on achieving that. As well, the frame rate needs to be smoother because dips are extremely noticeable in this game, along with lag. Again, this is a beta, so expecting it to be perfect is silly, but it definitely helps identify the areas they need to work on most.

So far, the ModNation Racers beta has been pleasantly surprising and very promising. Racing seems pretty standard for the genre, but every single other aspect is incredibly refreshing, especially the character customization. It's crazy to think that a kart racing game can be this innovative.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Gravity Crash Review

Remaining true to its old-school roots while benefitting immensely from new-school innovations, Gravity Crash seamlessly marries two disparate game design sensibilities to become simultaneously nostalgic and refreshing.

What I enjoy most about retro remakes is seeing how they update their presentation to fit the modern age. The art style in Gravity Crash is downright stunning, with gorgeous backgrounds, an excellent color palette, and really cool designs for landscapes, enemies, etc. Everything comes together spectacularly well to create one of the most visually appealing games I've ever seen. However, while the soundtrack is decent, it lacks the kind of magic that made, for example, Shatter's amazing soundtrack so great.

It's when actually playing Gravity Crash that you can clearly see its triumphs and failures. The levels are a lot of fun to blast through, but I enjoyed the quicker, simpler early levels much more than the long, complex later levels. A very new-school feature is the level editor and online sharing, so there will always be more content to play, which is great; it's just disappointing that the level editor lacks a good tutorial and actually browsing user-created levels is a mess.

While it's not perfect by any means, Gravity Crash offers so much value and does enough cool things to update its core gameplay while staying true to its roots that it's definitely worth checking out.

Gravity Crash / $9.99 / PS3

Friday, December 18, 2009

ModNation Racers Beta Giveaway [updated]

[Update: And the winner is... Twitter username "Bruknam" -- thanks everybody who entered! I get my hands on extra beta codes every now and then, so expect this kind of thing to happen again.]

As luck would have it, I just got a second ModNation Racers beta code. I have no use for this extra, so I'm giving it away.

Entry is simple: All you have to do is throw "@whatisdelicious" and "#ModNationRacers" into a Twitter status update between now and this Sunday at 8pm EST. I'll randomly select someone that has both of those tags and send them a direct message with the beta code in it. Then I'll update this page with the winner.

One simple status update and you could be playing ModNation Racers this Sunday. Get to it!