Sunday, July 31, 2011

Review // inFAMOUS 2

No game is perfect, right? There's always something that could've been done better, regardless of the game you're talking about, even if it's just a minor flaw. Sometimes it comes down to personal taste or play style, but you can almost always say, "Yeah, that part of the game wasn't so great."

A prime example is the first inFAMOUS. I absolutely loved it. I've played through it at least three times, gotten every trophy, and came stupidly close to buying a second copy once it became downloadable on PlayStation Network. You know. In case I ever want to play it and don't have the disc with me. Yeah.

But you know what? Parts of inFAMOUS were just not very good. I wrote pretty extensively on its flaws back in 2009. The characters were unlikable, the moral choices were clumsy, and the game in general was a little buggy. And yet I still opened my review with, "inFAMOUS is a game that does so many things right that the things it does wrong cease to matter." I stand by that statement now just as much as I did when I wrote it. That game was fun.

That said, I expected inFAMOUS 2 to be bad. Really bad, actually. Why?

Well, every time Sucker Punch announced something new about it, like Cole's revised character design, his replacement voice actor, the inclusion of zombies with giant lobster claws for arms as enemies, or how the two latest women in Cole's life — Nix and Kuo — would represent the new moral choice system, I got the distinct impression that they were systematically trying to ruin their own franchise. One of my most anticipated sequels ever had turned into one of my most dreaded.

So you might be surprised when I tell you that inFAMOUS 2 is one of the most perfect games I have ever played.

Here's what I think happened: After inFAMOUS, Sucker Punch sat down and listed every single thing that they didn't like about that game and every single thing that fans didn't like, dead set on fixing every last complaint. Their gruff protagonist Cole turned out to be more polarizing than they had anticipated, so they overreacted, throwing out his original design and starting from scratch. They designed a trendier Cole, one created solely to be more likable. Ironically, all that accomplished was angering the fans who liked Cole in the first game (or at least didn't mind him) and forced Sucker Punch to publicly eat crow when they finally changed him back.

The result, however, was totally worth it. inFAMOUS 2 is exactly, and I mean exactly, what I wanted out of a sequel to the first game. It opens with more than just a bang; the stellar intro wastes no time, practically reaching through the screen to punch you in the teeth. You see, like Cole, now a seasoned hero/villain, Sucker Punch returns beyond confident. inFAMOUS 2 swaggers through its explosive opening, Round 1 of the match fans have waited two years to play: Cole MacGrath vs. "The Beast."

And just like that, in no more than 10 minutes, they've got you hooked.

What follows is an intensely charged race to juice up Cole's powers before the Beast can catch up to him, something inFAMOUS 2 never lets you forget. It periodically reminds you precisely how many miles away the Beast is and how many more "Blast Cores" our boy needs to absorb before he's ready to dance with the Devil again. The pause screen is especially effective, happily volunteering a map of the East Coast and just how much of it the Beast has already obliterated on his trip down to New Marais to say hi. Especially later in the game as the gap closes and you really start to wonder whether or not Cole can power up in time, this framing device proves sheer brilliance.

Every time the game reminded me how far away the Beast was, I could practically feel the guys at Sucker Punch grinning. They knew they had me, and they just wanted to make sure I knew it, too. Yeah, Sucker Punch, I knew. Go ahead and grin. You earned it.

They earned it by taking a witheringly hard look at the first game and recognizing not just what needed to be changed, but what needed to stay the same. At first, playing as Cole feels familiar but fun, as pleasantly surprising as driving your first car again for the first time in years and realizing it's still as nimble as ever. By the end of that game, though, Cole is capable of things you wouldn't believe.

That's what makes inFAMOUS 2 — and its predecessor — so special. Playing as Cole is pure, even refreshing. He's not bound by realism the way so many modern video game characters are. There's a rhythm to controlling him, that sought-after quality that makes the controller melt away and lets you really inhabit the character. It's why it's just as satisfying to keep Cole skating along the power lines above rooftops without falling as it is to to launch an electrically charged tornado at a helicopter.

Something that defined my time with the first inFAMOUS was that "just one more" feeling. You know the one. "Just one more mission." "Just one more collectable." I was constantly making deals with myself; deals that were always broken. I felt like an addict, and loved it. inFAMOUS 2 made me relapse, hard. Even after I collected every last "Blast Shard" in the city, I was still clicking in the left stick to search for more. It was a habit I simply couldn't shake, and a testament to how exceptional the game really is.

And also like the first game, right after I finished my first playthrough as a hero, I immediately restarted to play again as a villain. It was a truly cathartic experience to finally unleash after exercising such unyielding restraint for so long. Don't mistake that as an admission that playing the boy scout is boring, though. The inFAMOUS games encourage roleplaying in a way few can, managing to reward you for staying in character and punish you for straying without being overly judgmental or at the cost of having a good time. Switching sides is fun, but staying within the boundaries of your chosen role can be even more so.

But "no game is perfect, right?" Right.

Regarding the first inFAMOUS, I wrote that "playing as evil was a breath of fresh air. But not as much as I thought it would be." Well, for as far as they've come, Sucker Punch still struggles to make playing as evil a compelling, or even coherent, experience. Cole indecisively paces through cutscenes like a dog being called by two different masters at once, and the narrative suffers for it. I understand Sucker Punch's desire to wrack the player's conscience with two equally weighty decisions, but their current system doesn't allow for it. The game's need to label your actions as "good" or "evil," with no logical reason to deviate from your current path, cripples the potential emotional weight of any choice they could throw at you. Not that they even bother trying to present you with anything as beautifully agonizing as choosing whether to save your girlfriend or a team of doctors like they did in the first game, though.

That said, the evil path is still infinitely more affecting here than it was in inFAMOUS, largely thanks to the powerful ending that only works because of Sucker Punch's newfound ability to make characters actually worth caring about. It also helps that its conclusion is wildly different than the good path's, something inFAMOUS didn't even attempt.

inFAMOUS 2 is one of the finest games I've played in years. It's the kind of sequel that's so extraordinary, it makes you see flaws in the original that you didn't even know were there. It's the kind of game that reminds you why you play games in the first place. You'd be a fool not to play it.

inFAMOUS 2 / $59.99 / PS3


Monday, July 25, 2011

Review // Earth Defense Force: Insect Armageddon

Alone in the center of a desolate city. Skyscrapers loom from all sides, glowering downward. I feel small. There are plain, empty cars scattered on the street around us. Two men in futuristic armor stand near me, silent and waiting. No one else in sight. What happened here?

A small group of people tumble out of an alleyway a few blocks from us, their faces twisted in an unnatural expression that I guess is supposed to represent fear. They scramble along the road as dozens of grotesque, elephantine wolf spiders scuttle and pounce over the horizon behind them. Figures.

I'm having another nightmare about spiders.

Years ago, I'd have these every couple of weeks. A dream interrupted by an onslaught of feral spiders, all gnashing and spitting. I'd wake up, alone, sweating and shaking in the dark. And though I was awake, the dream would continue. Spiders would crawl from every shadow, forcing me to turn on the lights and leave the room. Eventually, I stopped sleeping there altogether, opting for the couch downstairs instead.

The two faceless men in armor rush forward, but I can't move. I thought I'd gotten over this fear. I did. But staring into the cold, unfeeling eyes of a wolf spider three times my size as it rears up and lunges towards me makes my stomach turn. I want to run away; I want to wake up.

But I can't, and instead, I realize that I'm holding a rocket launcher. I have my own futuristic suit. I can fly. As the spiders get closer, I hover above the street, out of their reach, and rain rockets down upon them. They flip and spin in the air, legs frozen, before disintegrating into nothingness. One catches on and climbs the skyscraper next to me. I notice just before it can spring off and knock me out of the air. I panic, firing blindly, wildly. The building crumbles, and the spider falls. I feel like a god. This is no nightmare. This is catharsis.

A voice crackles into my ear — something about "saving the world" or whatever. This isn't about "saving the world." It's about saving myself. So I drown it out with a-ha's "Take On Me." It colors everything differently; there's no terror here anymore, just a brilliant, rotoscoped power fantasy. I'm smiling, even laughing, as I confront an adolescent fear. I'm flying, soaring, ripping apart buildings with reckless abandon and a childlike sense of wonder, tearing down any semblance of structure or civilization around me.

No one is telling me to be more careful, or stop. Or maybe they are, and I'm just not listening. I don't care.

I slaughter wave after wave of these spiders until there's nothing left but my two interchangeable allies. We press forward, into a cheap facsimile of a neighborhood. No one has ever lived here; it's nothing more than a cardboard arena meant to be destroyed. Huge, mechanical ants swarm us. UFOs zoom overhead, lasers firing wantonly. An enormous spider spewing acid from its swollen, bright orange abdomen crashes through a house. A 50-foot robot stomps ferociously through the street, striding through buildings with ease. My dream has become a 1950s-era sci-fi flick.

I switch to "Blood Sugar" by Pendulum.

Everything shifts again, just as radically as before. It's not silly or light-hearted anymore. It's manic, a frenzied double shot of adrenaline to the heart. The pounding beat acts as an electrifying war drum, commanding me to fly faster and farther, and shoot with an urgency I hadn't felt before. It's intoxicating.

And yet, now I find myself getting bored with how repetitive everything is — the same objective over and over, the same environments over and over, the same enemies over and over. I find myself getting frustrated by how my weapons reload; for whatever reason, they share energy with my jetpack, so I'm often left both unable to fly or reload for long periods of time. I find myself wishing I could tell how much life the bigger enemies have left as they can take forever to kill.

Everything keeps ramping up. At first, the piling on of bigger enemies is just annoying, but soon we reach a point where there's so much going on that I can barely keep up. Now it's absurd and awesome and dumb in the best possible sense. And then it all ends in the most anticlimactic way imaginable.

It was like being woken up by the world's most inopportune alarm clock and getting cheated out of a real ending. Earth Defense Force: Insect Armageddon is too short, too repetitive, and too tame, but it was therapeutic enough that I'm glad I played it at least once.

Earth Defense Force: Insect Armageddon / $39.99 / PS3 [reviewed], 360


Monday, July 18, 2011

Looking For That Special Something: The Uncharted 3 Multiplayer Beta

The Uncharted series and I have had a pretty, uh, complicated relationship in the past. I thought Drake's Fortune started strong, but went completely off the rails about halfway through, piling on unbalanced enemies and eventually ludicrous zombie/monster/things. I went into the multiplayer beta for Among Thieves not expecting much, and didn't find much. There was potential, for sure, but there were still "some significant issues to fix."

Mind you, none of that stopped me from beating Uncharted 2's mostly stellar single-player campaign in one ten-hour sitting later that year, but the multiplayer never managed to hook me. It had its moments, but eventually, I got bored and moved on. But that was two years ago. I just finished playing the multiplayer beta for Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception for two weeks. And you know what?

There are still some significant issues to fix.

The first thing I mentioned in my impressions of the Uncharted 2 multiplayer beta was how it took "far too many bullets to kill other players."

"Guns just don't feel powerful," I said, "and when there's as much cover as there is in the two maps included in the beta, it's too easy for opponents to slip away after taking half a clip." The game's developer, Naughty Dog, never quite fixed that in Uncharted 2's full release, and it's an issue that persisted even in Uncharted 3's multiplayer beta.

I understand the thought behind it, that making the guns do more damage would mean quicker deaths and potentially wouldn't be as fun. It's something that Twisted Metal director David Jaffe has spoken extensively about in regards to designing his upcoming game's multiplayer. He wants players to develop a relationship with their opponents before one prevails. He wants a chase. And that's a noble, applaudable goal in a car combat game.

But these are dudes running around in t-shirts we're talking about here. Time and time again in Uncharted 3's multiplayer beta, I found it far too easy to dash away and recover all my health in a few seconds if I felt outmatched. Having enough health to have the opportunity to dash away is great, but it recovers far too quickly; the game shouldn't completely reset the relationship between you and your attacker (or prey) automatically.

This is a problem that Jaffe and producer Scott Campbell seem to have nailed down for Twisted Metal. Here's what Campbell had to say about the subject to Game Informer:

One of the core mechanics that has made the franchise successful is the pickup game. When you’re running low on health, that becomes the mother of all pickups. Part of what many players will do, myself included, is explore the level and create kind of these high-speed battle circuits that incorporate where the health pickups are and just the satisfaction of getting in that circuitry and going into battle and going out to repair your car. I don’t know, I still find a lot of fulfillment when I’m a couple pixels of red away from dying and getting that last health pickup. I think it’s just such a core mechanic to the game.

Medal of Honor: Allied Assault from 2002 remains my all-time favorite multiplayer experience — a game without regenerating health. It forced you to kill other players to earn health pickups. Allied Assault was such a tense, yet balanced multiplayer experience, one where skill reigned and every encounter felt special. You didn't need "Perks" or "Boosters" or "Medal Kickbacks" to keep the experience fresh and exciting. It just was already.

I'm not trying to sound like Cranky Kong here, though. I just got a strong sense that Uncharted 3, like its predecessor, is caught somewhere between the classic style of having a health bar and pickups like Twisted Metal or Allied Assault, and the newer system of regenerating health that works best in fast, frenetic multiplayer shooters where you already have almost no health, like Call of Duty.

I'm not even saying that Uncharted 3 necessarily needs a health bar and pickups. There are modern ways of splitting the difference. Killzone 2, for example, got around this problem brilliantly by only regenerating a small portion of your health bar. In Halo, you have a shield that regenerates, but your health does not, forcing you to collect pickups. Uncharted 3 could really benefit from a similar level of forward thinking.

But that's not the beta's only problem, by any means. The melee combat system, for instance, is still the same incredibly clumsy mess it was before, sometimes allowing for really satisfying instant kills when you sneak up behind someone, but most often resulting in two players facing each other, mashing the square button, hoping to come out on top. Whoever started mashing first usually wins, but occasionally, both players end up killing each other. There's just no skill or thought to it, and I almost wish it wasn't in there at all; I'd much rather melee serve as a way to knock an opponent backwards instead.

There were a ton of different modes available in the beta, but nothing too outside the realm of what other modern shooters are doing. The most interesting mode to me was Three Team Deathmatch, a mode that pits you and one other player against two other teams of two players each.

While in the standard Team Deathmatch mode, working as a team seemed almost optional, in Three Team Deathmatch, it's the only way you're going to stay alive. When I was paired up with another like-minded player, we had no trouble cleaning up the sloppy teams who couldn't work together. When I was paired up with a player who always wanted to do his own thing elsewhere, we both got picked off easily.

The biggest change to how you actually play the game were the Boosters and Medal Kickbacks, more commonly known as Perks and Killstreaks. They really are ripped straight from Call of Duty, and while the mere sight of them when I first loaded the beta caused me to give a long, knowing sigh, lamenting the death of individuality in modern games, I still couldn't help but get sucked right back into that "only one more match and then I can buy that hella awesome Perk" mentality that defined Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare in 2007.

Of course, that means that the game faces the Big Challenge of keeping all those perks balanced so that experienced players feel like that experience is rewarded, but not at the expense of the new players. So far, I don't think the game is doing an especially great job of that. I did noticeably worse against high-level players who had objectively better guns and abilities than me than against players at the same rank. Of course, a player with a higher rank has played longer and is probably more skilled already, but why, then, is it necessary to make their bullets do more damage, too?

Where the beta did shine, though, is in showing the potential for a multiplayer game that feels as much like Uncharted's single-player as Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood's brilliant, innovative multiplayer felt like its single-player. Brotherhood crafted a cerebral experience that forced a player to think and act like a true Assassin against equally dangerous human opponents. Instead of challenging the player's twitch reflexes or his ability to get headshots, it challenged his mind. It felt unique to the Assassin's Creed universe, unlike anything else on the market. Uncharted 3's multiplayer beta showed a glimmer of that.

The game's Airfield map starts out with one team inside a cargo plane trying desperately to take off while under siege by the other team, who leap fearlessly between speeding trucks barreling down the runway. It calls back to a similar sequence in Among Thieves' single-player campaign, and is every bit as thrilling, from either side of the cargo hold. It's exactly what I wanted out of an Uncharted multiplayer experience. But there's no objective, and it's over after a couple minutes.

The plane takes off and then BAM! Now you're in a truck, smashing into an airfield. Huh? You're back to traditional, static multiplayer, and you wonder what the point even was, then, of that whole airplane sequence. Or at least, shouldn't it have been presented the other way around, so that you start in the airfield, then the team with more kills gets to start in the cargo plane?

Either way, it's an incredibly unsatisfying conclusion to a revolutionary idea, punctuated by the fact that I just didn't like fighting in that airfield. I vastly preferred the beta's other two maps, a burning chateau and a Middle-Eastern city with dizzying verticality.

The beta's Co-op Adventure mode gave that same glimmer, but then again, it showed no real evolution of the formula established in Among Thieves. In fact, all it really did was make me wish Naughty Dog would spend less time making generic competitive multiplayer modes that don't particularly feel like Uncharted to me and instead build a separate cooperative campaign. With such a fantastic cast of characters, it seems like a no-brainer to make a cooperative side-story focusing on Drake and one or more of his globetrotting pals who he always seems to have a long history with. It's a rich, interesting universe, and the current Co-op Adventure mode feels like it's only scratching the surface.

Now that the beta's over and I've had a few days to process it, I feel like the conclusion I've come to is that, unless Naughty Dog decides to delay the game and massively overhaul it, Uncharted 3's multiplayer probably isn't going to be for me. But hey, if they can iron out how they handle player health, that might be enough to reel me back in. Generic competitive multiplayer isn't necessarily a bad thing if it's also really fun.

Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception is set to release this year on November 1 for the PlayStation 3.


Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Is Anybody Out There?: The Journey Beta

From playing its beta, the biggest question Journey seemed to be asking me was, "how do you react to solitude?"

Skimming through the desolate, shimmering ocean of sand in Journey might feel familiar if you played Shadow of the Colossus, a game that cast the player as a young man named Wander as he explored an ancient, ruined land on a violent quest for love. The player often had to travel for long stretches in near-silence and isolation, nothing to keep him company other than his horse, Agro. And in this isolation, many players found a poignant and deeply affecting meaning to the increasing amount of blood on their hands.

While there's no indication that you'll be scaling 50-foot Colossi or engaging in anything remotely close to "combat" once Journey hits for real later this year, the game still struck the same chord in me that Shadow of the Colossus did in 2005.

Journey begins pretty low-key, with you controlling a mysterious, robed character standing in the desert. It teaches you very quickly that you can turn the camera with the SIXAXIS motion controls or the right analog stick and move with the left analog stick. It's not as immediately remarkable as developer thatgamecompany's last two games — flOw and Flower, both controlled entirely via SIXAXIS and one button — but it's much more accessible in return.

In its beta, the game relies entirely on camera cues to direct you where to go, reserving more blunt text directions for introducing control mechanics that couldn't really be explained otherwise. It's a smart system, but if you're opting for the graceful sweeps of SIXAXIS camera control, it can be a little jarring to have that control temporarily wrenched from you without warning.

So you'll trek from one dune to another, endlessly admiring the glistening sand that acts more like shallow water, until you come across the various ruins of some ancient civilization. It's your choice whether to go out of your way to explore, or just follow the critical path.

You'll get the ability to jump pretty early on, but it doesn't function like in most games. Here, you have to earn each jump by finding floating scraps of cloth. And if you search out collectable white orbs, your character's scarf will grow longer and you'll be able to jump higher. It's an odd system, and I'm not sure how much it adds yet.

But that's the point. At its core, Journey is a game that's all about limitations: limitations in your control, limitations in your character's abilities, limitations in your interactions with the world around you. Like Shadow of the Colossus, you're almost always deprived of any surrounding life. Unlike Shadow, though, where the player formed an active bond with Agro and an inactive one with Mono, Wander's unconscious lady love, in Journey, you're totally alone.

And that's where it gets interesting. In theory, anyway.

Journey's big promise is in how it starves you for human connection. It'll pair you up with another player — you won't know who — and you'll be able to travel with him, or ignore him completely until he's removed from your game automatically. You can only communicate with that player via a "sing" ability where your character makes a noise and briefly emanates a white, ethereal glow.

Unfortunately, in the beta, thatgamecompany was only turning on the multiplayer at certain times, so I was never able to push through the hot sands with a companion. Instead, I was left with questions of how the system will work. For instance, can you boot the other player out if you don't like him? Will he be able to trigger cutscenes before I'm ready to move on? Will we be able to reach areas one player can't? And most importantly, how will another human player, an agent of chaos in an otherwise controlled, scripted world, change the emotional experience?

Journey's big promise is in how it starves you for human connection.

What I'm sure of, though, is how jarring it is to see anything resembling a living creature in Journey. In one part of the beta, I came across a kind of red kite that came to life when I approached it. It picked me up for a moment, almost playfully, before swooping away and diving into the sand. It emerged a little farther away, swimming through the sand as naturally and elegantly as a dolphin through water. It seemed to be beckoning me to follow. So I did.

It ushered me over dune after dune, and I slid down each one, racing along to catch up. Finally, we arrived at another set of ruins, where I gave life to four smaller kites. One picked me up as the rest circled, then we all took off on our next adventure. I wasn't alone anymore, and it felt invigorating. They led me to a white upgrade orb, then we kept moving, the music picking up and getting a lively bounce. But the ground rumbled for a moment, and my new friends rushed ahead.

I panicked, watching them dart over the horizon and out of sight. As I finally reached the top of the dune, I saw little red specks fly upward into a darkening sky, and I knew I was alone again.

This is the part of Journey that intrigues me the most. That it so quickly got me to feel a connection to these odd little kites is extremely promising for the rest of the game. Exploring the cracked, dry ruins of an old civilization and making my way to the glowing mountain looming in the distance were definitely intriguing aspects in this short beta, but my relationship with the pieces of the world still retaining a spark of life was far more compelling.

Journey is scheduled to release later this year for the PlayStation 3.