Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Review // Alice: Madness Returns

If you were to make a game about Alice exploring a twisted, violent version of Wonderland, what kind of game would it be? A standard platformer and brawler? I'd hope not, though that's exactly what developer Spicy Horse chose to make. But what's done is done, so what's it like to hop around their dark, demented Wonderland?

It's so boring.

Can I Return The Madness Without A Receipt?

As I see it, there are two big reasons for that. The first is the complete lack of imagination in what, exactly, you're doing in Wonderland. Every action you'll take can be broken down into one of three categories: Platforming, combat, and puzzle-solving, none of which the game does particularly well.

The platforming is pretty dull by modern standards, and quickly falls into a very mechanical routine. You'll jump from one floating platform to the next, sometimes riding air currents up, until you get stuck and have no clue where to go next, but the solution is always the same: find a lever to pull or a switch to hit. Then you keep going. There's nothing particularly interesting or fun about it, and it feels like a chore most of the time.

There's nothing particularly interesting or fun about it, and it feels like a chore most of the time.

Fighting against angry playing cards, ghost pirates, and samurai wasps fares a bit better than the dusty platforming, but it suffers from being a little too mindless, a little too button-mashy, and a little too imprecise. The fact that it's also more difficult than you'd want it to be only compounds those problems. Pretty early on, I turned the difficulty down to easy so I could just burn through it faster. I don't even really understand why it's thematically relevant to turn Alice into Kratos Jr. in the first place; it's as out of place for Alice to be engaging in a typical hack-and-slash as it was last year for Dante.

And the puzzle-solving, if you can call it that, is just so mind-numbingly easy that it becomes nothing more than busywork to do between platforming and fighting. Sometimes, you'll have to rearrange a scrambled picture, but only after you arbitrarily collect the parts first. Other times, you'll move pieces on a chess board. They're more tedious than anything else, but as a break from the rest of the game, they're passable.

The second reason why Alice is so boring is that it just goes on and on and on. After the first couple hours, you'll have seen pretty much everything Alice has to offer, but Spicy Horse had no grasp of when enough was enough. It doesn't matter what crazy, visually distinctive backdrop the game has you moving through, you'll be doing the exact same stuff on all of them. There are enough ideas in Alice to make it a unique and quirky six to eight-hour experience, but instead, Spicy Horse spreads those ideas thin for over 20 hours, forever cementing the argument that a game's length has no bearing on its value; it's the quality of the experience that matters, and Alice: Madness Returns is absolutely dreadful.

Mad As A Hatter? If Only

It would seem that the draw, then, would be Alice's unhinged sense of style. And sure enough, that's probably the only redeeming thing about the game. At times, when Alice's world opens up and gives you a crisp, colorful vista to look at instead of a dim, featureless corridor, Wonderland can be a strange and alluring place. The scenery I enjoyed most, for example, had me jumping along giant playing cards in the sky that appeared out of nowhere, leading me through the clouds to floating castles of cards.

And yet, that section was over after about 10 minutes, representing the one and only time the game didn't wait until I had already been sick of an environment for at least an hour before finally refreshing the scenery.

Alice's story moves at a snail's pace, and suffers for it.

Truth be told, since so much of the game had me trudging through banal, monotonous caves, without the Cheshire Cat popping in every once in awhile, I probably would've forgotten that it was set in Wonderland at all. It's the loosest of associations, defined mostly by brief cameos from gnarled caricatures of faces you'll recognize. So for me, Alice's humdrum version of Wonderland was not a draw at all.

The tale woven in this Wonderland is far less interesting than it should've been, again crippled by a severe lack of creativity and a misguided need to stretch the game's length well beyond reason. Alice's struggle to remember her repressed memories of her family's death by fire, forcing a mental retreat into a Wonderland in shambles, should be fascinating, and at times, it is. But it became much harder for me to care when every time I'd meet new character, the first thing he'd do is send me on several hours-long fetch quests at once. Alice's story moves at a snail's pace, and suffers for it.

What also made it difficult to appreciate the story were the between-level cutscenes that, while gorgeous and gleefully aberrant, had such awful sound mixing that I had to turn subtitles on to hear anything that characters were saying. Weird technical issues like that cropped up throughout the game and really detracted from the experience, like getting stuck in the level geometry and needing to restart the game. Or odd hitches where the game would freeze for a moment whenever I'd pick up one of Alice's collectable memories. Or the inconsistent framerate that made the few music-based timing challenges almost impossible.

It's stunning to me that a game set in Wonderland can be so unimaginative. What should have been a delightfully bizarre and psychedelic experience ended up being an all too sobering example of why games shouldn't be padded out.

Alice: Madness Returns / $59.99 / PS3 [reviewed], 360, PC

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Review // Mortal Kombat

Wow. I know it's a bold statement to make, but I think Mortal Kombat might be the most fun fighting game ever made. Well, offline, anyway.

Two Sides Of A Very Bloody Koin

Now, I'm sure fighting game purists could say that my bold statement is also a foolish one because Mortal Kombat isn't as deep or technical as [insert fighting game here], but that's precisely what works for it. It's immediately accessible in a way that not even Street Fighter has been able to nail despite two decades of "quarter-circle forward, punch" being burned into our brains. Inputs are simple, fast, and easy to string together, so you don't need to a be a pro to feel like one. It's incredibly refreshing.

That doesn't mean that Mortal Kombat lacks depth, though. It borrows the familiar super meter mechanic from Street Fighter IV, but swaps Supers and Ultras with X-Ray attacks that look awesome and are smartly effortless to pull off. And hey, if you really want to hop into the training mode and work out long combos and mess with damage percentiles, by all means, go ahead; it's super satisfying to finally nail that ridiculous combo you've been working on and bring it into a real match. That depth is there if you want it; you just get out of it what you put in. The game treats both casual and high-level play with equal respect, and is all the better for it.

So, when we're talking about sitting on the couch with friends and lots of trash talking, Mortal Kombat is phenomenal. On the flip side, the online multiplayer experience is one of the worst I've ever had. If you're lucky enough to connect to a match, prepare for an unplayable, unresponsive mess. Lag pervades every aspect of the experience, even the character select screen. The developers keep promising some magical patch to fix everything, but it's already over two months too late for me. As far as I'm concerned, Mortal Kombat doesn't even have online play.

In A Klass Of Its Own

Even though it completely drops the ball for online multiplayer, Mortal Kombat makes all other fighting games look incredibly lazy when it comes to the single-player side of things. First, the game totally reinvents how to present a fighting game's story in such a logical way that it's baffling to think it took this long for someone to do it right. It plays out like a movie most of the time, until a fight naturally breaks out, then the camera just spins around to the familiar perspective and the announcer says, "Round 1. FIGHT!" The story being told isn't exactly high art, but the way it's presented is nothing short of a revelation for the genre. All future fighting games need to follow suit.

Next, the sheer amount of content is staggering. That story mode will take you around eight hours to finish and is entertaining enough, but there's also the classic arcade tower for every character, the introduction of tag team battles, a ridiculous amount of bonus unlockables, and the Challenge Tower that has 300 creative, increasingly difficult challenges for you to work through. Personally, I got burned out after about 50 of them, but I'm still glad it's there. Regardless, I've never seen a fighting game with this much content.

What I love most about Mortal Kombat, though, is just how much heart it has. Everything in it comes across as a labor of love for the developers, from all the inside jokes and references to its long legacy, to the imagination in the Fatalities, to crazy modes like Test Your Luck that lets you end up with matches where you might have no arms, or the screen is upside-down, or you have no arms. The game recognizes and embraces how absurd it all really is, something I wish more games could do these days.

I fell in love with Mortal Kombat when I started playing it, then out of love with it, hard, when I tried to play online. As an offline experience, it can't be matched, completely worth every dollar and every hour. But online? What a missed opportunity.

Mortal Kombat / $59.99 / PS3 [reviewed], 360

Friday, June 17, 2011

Review // Homefront

Talk about your severe disappointments. Homefront's developers promised a bold, emotional first-person shooter that would tug on your heartstrings, but instead delivered a bland, half-hearted shooter that learned its best tricks from other games and feels like it should have been released 5 years ago.

Stuck In The Past

In every way imaginable, Homefront looks and feels like a last-generation game. It shamelessly steals what it can from the Call of Duty series to modernize itself somewhat, but it never shakes the feeling that it's a relic from a bygone era. Everything from the underwhelming sensation of firing a gun to the brain-dead enemies that act like robots only serves to remind you that, ultimately, all you're doing is shooting pixels at other pixels and it's a complete waste of your time. Unlike the better games it steals from, it completely fails at basic immersion.

A big reason for that is how amateurishly scripted the game is. Having to wait for your AI buddies to open every door for you is archaic and annoying, but bearable. Waiting for half a minute while they stand at the door doing absolutely nothing because their scripted door-opening animation still hasn't been triggered for some reason, however, is not. And therein lies the problem: half the time, not only are the scripted events uninspired and unnecessary, but they're completely broken to boot.

It doesn't help that you're constantly being funneled down artificially linear levels that box you into your path with invisible walls and out-of-place scenery. Regardless of whether the world of Homefront is believable, it's just not fun to fight in. So even though the game has a surprisingly competent set of multiplayer modes, clearly demonstrating more design foresight than the single-player, I just had no desire to keep fighting.

Home Is Where The Bore Is

That last-generation feel isn't limited to the action, though. The game's story is clumsily told, taking an interesting premise and doing nothing interesting with it, focusing instead on a cast of wholly unlikable, one-dimensional characters as they mindlessly shoot people for about five hours. Then the game ends abruptly. A united Korea invading America could be a super gripping, very personal tale if done right, but here, nothing they throw at you has any impact whatsoever.

Homefront shows you plenty of brutal atrocities happening in a neighborhood the developers hope you'll relate to if they lazily throw a White Castle or a Hooters logo in there occasionally. But that world just never feels like people actually lived there, even when they painstakingly force you to walk around the idyllic rebel hideout, begging you to talk to people who have nothing relevant to say. You're simply thrust into the story too late in the timeline to be able to relate to their wartorn America; you have nothing to compare it to.

From top to bottom, Homefront is a miserable experience. The action is hollow, the characters are insufferable, and the story has all the subtlety of trying to scratch your nose with a blowtorch. I can't recommend this game to anyone.

Homefront / $59.99 / PS3 [reviewed], 360, PC

Friday, June 10, 2011

Review // Crysis 2

(NOTE: This review was originally written for and published by the UMW Bullet newspaper.)

Even with a suit that lets you turn invisible Predator-style or become nearly invincible, Crysis 2 doesn’t do enough to set itself apart from every other first-person shooter game out there.

One of the most indicative qualities of Crysis 2 is a message that appears in the middle of the screen during cutscenes, letting you know that you can skip the story and get back to the action. If the developers didn’t care about the story, why should you?

Honestly, there’s no reason not to skip the cutscenes. Crysis 2 weaves a tale that’s altogether generic, confusing, aimless, and incredibly boring. If you thought that an alien invasion of New York City would be exciting, you’d be wrong in this case.

You start the game as a Marine named Alcatraz, who gets saved from an early death by some guy from the first Crysis named Prophet, who gives Alcatraz a crazy suit called the Nanosuit 2.0.

And on an adventure you go, wandering around New York like a tourist without a map, shuffled this way and that way, as you try to stop some weird aliens with tentacle dreadlocks that invaded Earth in the original Crysis.

If you think I’m referring to the first game dismissively, rest assured that I’m giving it the same amount of respect that Crysis 2 does.

Alcatraz never really seems to have a mind of his own, being told to go meet this person or kill that person at will. There’s never any cohesive structure to the story, and it ends up feeling like the developers were just making it up as they went along. The game finally comes to a screeching, anticlimactic halt, but there is zero resolution. Instead, it leaves the door open for potentially infinite sequels, none of which sound at all interesting.

That Nanosuit is interesting, for sure, but it’s not enough to save Crysis 2 from feeling shockingly bland. You’ll fight against humans and aliens throughout the campaign, but neither feel too different from each other. When fighting against humans, there’s at least good opportunity for experimentation in your strategies, even if all you ever really need to do is hit the cloak button and walk past everyone.

Fighting against the aliens is no different from fighting against humans, except that you can’t take them out with a single headshot. Instead, if you want to stay stealthy, you’ll have to sneak up behind them and knife them in the back.

Whoever you’re fighting against though, bad artificial intelligence is a huge problem. I lost count of the number of times I came across enemies perpetually running against walls. They’re as dumb as they can get, and never satisfying to kill. I felt more like I was putting some of them out of their misery than engaging in a fair fight.

From what I played of the multiplayer modes in the beta, Crysis 2 was as underwhelming against actual human opponents as it was in the single-player campaign. For the sake of having an informed review, I tried getting into a couple games in the retail copy of the game, but it crashed on me both times. Oh well.

And “oh well” is all you can really say about Crysis 2. It’s the kind of game that comes and goes without any impact. Leave the Nanosuit to Alcatraz and spend your time and money on something more memorable.

Crysis 2 / $59.99 / PS3 [reviewed], 360, PC

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Review // Killzone 3

It's hard to imagine a sequel to Killzone 2 being anything less than amazing. After all, that game was really fun and smartly designed, but had obvious room for improvement. So, in a way, it's actually kind of impressive just how much worse Killzone 3 turned out to be.

If It Ain't Broke, Break It

Killzone 3 starts hot, opening with a legitimately awesome sequence that sets the rest of the game up as a flashback, but it's a slow downward spiral from there. The game feels and controls great, so the on-foot action would've been really fun if it weren't plagued by frustrating level design that uses your AI partner's unreliable revive ability as a crutch to consistently throw too many enemies at you at once. Maybe if the cover system wasn't broken, leaving you exposed to enemy fire, that might not have been a problem.

It runs out of tricks quickly, relying far too heavily on mindless on-rails shooting segments to break up the pace that are never satisfying. What I really needed a break from though, was Rico, a character so "annoying" in the last game that the developers publicly acknowledged how much fans hated him. Rather than simply give Rico a smaller role, they preferred instead to chain you to him throughout the entire campaign so he can yell in your ear and bicker with other characters. By the time the story had caught up with the opening sequence and it played out in a totally different way than it had the first time, I almost didn't even care. I just wanted the game to be over already.

But what's truly disappointing is that, while the multiplayer here manages to retain many of the best aspects of Killzone 2's excellent online modes, it's also extremely unreliable. Nothing was more nerve-wracking, for instance, than the long, inanimate pre-game loading screens where it was unclear if the game was still loading or if it had completely frozen my console. As well, the lack of Killzone 2's useful filtering options made it difficult to find matches I actually wanted to join. It's a real shame that such a fun multiplayer game is riddled by problems that even the previous game didn't have.

12 Angry Men

I don't know how they did it, but somehow, Killzone 3's story is even dumber than the previous games', and it never comes across like it was rushed, either. On the contrary, it feels like it took a lot of people a very long time to write dialogue this bad. Here's a choice quote I wrote down from a late-game speech:

Sev: "If I'm goin' down, I'm goin' to make damn sure these bastards remember my fuckin' name!"
Rico: "And that is why you do not fuck with the ISA!"
ISA Soldier: "Fuck yeah!"
Narville: "Has a way with words, doesn't he?"

There's just not a single likable character to be found, with the ISA forces (once again) boiling down to idiotic, foul-mouthed jarheads who clash at every turn, and the Helghast boiling down to idiotic, foul-mouthed bureaucrats who clash at every turn. The only difference is that the Helghast characters had talented voice actors playing them, so at least their lines are convincingly delivered. The ISA, on the other hand, couldn't be more grating and unsympathetic if they tried.

The story plays out like a goofy, bad action movie, where characters yell at each other for no other reason than to force the illusion of actual tension and emotion. Sev and Rico are thrown into so many ridiculous near-death situations that they always escape from in the nick of time that there's never any real sense of danger. The whole miserable plot just generally ignores logic whenever possible (they never address how the ISA can survive for so long on the Helghast's "uninhabitable" planet, for example) until it reaches a bafflingly stupid conclusion and, mercifully, ends.

Considering how great Killzone 2 was, it's astounding to me how awful Killzone 3 is. It'll bore you, frustrate you, and offend you to the point where you'll only be left with one question: What happened?

Killzone 3 / $59.99 / PS3