Friday, May 28, 2010

Review // Heavy Rain

I don't think I've ever played a game before Heavy Rain that so skillfully straddles the line between intensely captivating and mind-numbingly boring. But the foundation laid here is exciting and should definitely be explored further.

The Most Uncoordinated People

Let's get it out of the way right now: The worst part about Heavy Rain is actually having to play it. Even simple tasks like walking from one room to another can be a huge pain with the cumbersome controls. You hold the R2 button to walk and can look around with left analog stick. It sounds easy enough, but combine that with too much character momentum and the game's jarring tendency to switch camera angles on you for "cinematic effect" and you've got a recipe for wasted time as you constantly fight to get your character to go where you intended. But the real problem is that it doesn't just feel awkward, it looks awkward, too. For a game that relies so heavily on its cinematic presentation, it's surprising that basic movement is so counterintuitive.

As for what you actually do in this game, typically you'll just walk around triggering little cut scenes of your character talking to people or opening drawers or shaving or other inconsequential actions. If that sounds like it could get boring, it's because it does. Face it: Most of the things you do in real life are extremely mundane. Well, in Heavy Rain, you do a lot of extremely mundane, realistic things, but it helps put you into your character's shoes. If you like playing the role of a character, you'll probably enjoy how refreshingly boring it can be. It attempts immersion in a much more ambitious way than most games do. But if helping your virtual kid with his homework before making him dinner and sending him to bed doesn't sound like your cup of tea, then this isn't the game for you.

While the majority of Heavy Rain plays out like an adventure game, with you calmly walking around trying to figure out which part of the environment will progress the story, that calmness is punctuated by moments of intense action. Where these moments differ from typical quick time events is in how natural they feel. Rather than appearing in the same place every time, becoming a visual distraction, the icons here appear directly over whatever they correspond to, letting you keep your eyes focused on the action. Most of the inputs usually make sense in the context of the scene instead of just being a reflex test, all resulting in quick time events that look and feel like a true evolution.

An Eight-Hour Film

The plot revolves around a father trying to rescue his son from a serial killer, boiling down to a slight twist on SAW, and three other characters also trying to bring the killer to justice. It's certainly absorbing enough that I was never really bored, but it definitely has flaws. There are whole sections of the game that are completely irrelevant and make it feel like a film that needed better editing. In fact, the female character, Madison, probably should've been cut out entirely since she doesn't really add anything that worthwhile to the plot, yet ironically, she was the only one of the four playable characters that made it to the credits alive for me.

Persistent character death is just one of the ways that Heavy Rain makes you feel like your experience with it is unique. My favorite moment in the entire game occurred in the first fifteen minutes when, playing as the father, your wife and two sons come home and you get into a play sword fight with one of the boys. It's ultimately just a scripted moment, but I felt more in control there than any time outside of the quick time events. I gave the kid a good fight but purposefully lost in the end because, well, it was his birthday. It actually felt pretty good. I talked to a friend who had also played it and he had just slaughtered his virtual son without thought. Little moments like that helped immerse me in the story.

Unfortunately though, a lot of little moments are ruined by the game's presentation, which is decidedly mixed. Sometimes, everything comes together and the game impresses with lots of interesting camera angles, stunningly detailed people and environments, and a realistic sense of style. Other times, characters look decidedly fake, the animation is unconvincing, and the voice acting sounds unnatural. The only thing that makes poorly delivered voice acting sound worse is poorly written lines of dialogue, of which the game has plenty. It doesn't get frustratingly bad or anything, but some lines occasionally stand out.

Heavy Rain is a very engaging game and a very interesting step in trying to evolve how video games work that is hopefully followed up on by other developers, but it has enough problems that I'd only recommend renting it.

Heavy Rain / $59.99 / PS3

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Review // God of War III

While it definitely drops the ball in a few key areas, God of War III is still so packed with exhilarating, memorable moments and extremely satisfying combat that the flaws are easily forgivable. It may be the weakest entry in the trilogy, but it still completely crushes all other competition.

By The Gods...

Easily the best part of any God of War game is the brutal, visceral combat, and God of War III gives you the best version of Kratos yet. His basic moves remain unchanged, just as fluid and responsive as ever, but his new tools for eviscerating foes absolutely change the game. The best of these is the new grapple where Kratos throws his blades into an enemy and launches himself forward, allowing you to get back into the fray much more quickly and move from one enemy to the next without breaking combo. It's improvements like this that make replaying the previous games much more jarring than I had expected.

A problem with the prior games is that any alternate weapons given felt so lackluster compared to Kratos' blades, but here, the new weapons finally feel like fun, worthy additions, particularly the Claws of Hades, purple hooks on chains that operate like flashier versions of Kratos' standard blades. Switching between these weapons has been simplified beautifully, making it incredibly easy to change mid-combo and get creative with your kills. The problem with all of these tools is that you're not really challenged to utilize everything in your arsenal often enough, so it's up to you to keep things fresh for yourself.

Too much of a good thing is the least problematic issue with God of War III, though. Pacing, level design, and backtracking are all a step backward from God of War II. Different environments don't feel as connected as they used to, with portals leading back and forth across the world, giving the whole game a feeling like it was loosely stitched together. There's also more backtracking than ever before which, rather than making the world feel more connected, only serves to make it feel more disjunctive as you hop back and forth through radically different environments.

...What Have I Become?

However, the biggest problem I have with God of War III is how inconsistent it feels in terms of quality and how much it rehashes from the first two games. There's nothing wrong with the premise here, that Kratos is out to kill Zeus, but the game treads such familiar ground in exploring that premise that it nears the point of mockery. Kratos is sent to the underworld for the third time, has to find Pandora's Box for the second time, and is still getting help from Athena even though he killed her at the end of God of War II. Simply put, Athena should not have been in this game and is only a drain on the story.

But almost all of these issues melt away when you're actually playing. God of War III has flaws but by no stretch of the imagination would I call it disappointing. This game is filled to the brim with some of the most exciting and impactful sequences I've ever played in a video game. In particular, some of the boss fights here are beyond epic and each ends in such a spectacularly violent and gruesome way that I couldn't help but enthusiastically describe each kill to friends, all of whom then demanded to see it for themselves. I'm not exaggerating when I say that I often had an audience when playing.

The moment-to-moment encounters with enemies and bosses in God of War III are easily the best in the genre thanks to Kratos' new moves and some very smart refinements, like completely revamped combat while climbing. As a result, even if it doesn't surpass the previous games in the trilogy in the quality of the overall package, it's often the most fun entry in the series. It's also unbelievably gorgeous both in terms of fidelity and artwork, and I frequently stopped just to ogle the amazing environments. This game is just impressive in every sense of the word.

It's unfortunate that God of War III makes the mistakes it does, but at the end of the day, those mistakes won't prevent you from having to pick up your jaw at least once per hour. It's a stunning game completely worth purchasing.

God of War III / $59.99 / PS3