Monday, October 27, 2008

A Far Cry from Fun

We're in the midst of the October deluge, where the last three weeks has seen a plethora of big triple-A releases across all the major platforms. Fable 2, LittleBigPlanet, and Fallout 3 have all made the beach-landing in this Normandy invasion of holiday titles.

Unfortunately, even in this treasure trove of entertainment there must be the soggy leavings of games that don't quite manage to make that big splash. Holding company with this inauspicious group is FarCry 2, Ubisoft's pseudo-sequel to Crytek's sci-fi shooter.

Where the original FarCry had you taking on the role of Jack Carver, mercenary cum half-animal superhero, FarCry 2 instead lets you choose one of several soldiers of fortune. To help you select, you get a little dossier for each character complete with a photo and a minimal backstory.

A cool little twist is that the mercenaries you don't select will show up in-game as recruitable buddies who will help you earn a bit more cash out of missions, or bail you out when you get in over your head.

FarCry 2 opens with one of the longest and least interesting first person preludes I've ever seen. During the drive, you get little peeks of what the game has to offer. Impressive visuals, fire propagation and random wildlife are all on display during this drive, but the dialogue quickly turns it into a snooze fest.

FarCry 2's story is bland and uninteresting. It probably had the potential to be great, but the game presents it to you as an after-thought. The gist of the plot is that you're dropped into an unnamed African country to hunt down an arms dealer known as the Jackal, who has been supplying both sides of the civil war currently ravaging this part of the continent.

The voice acting is pretty heinous, too. Everyone delivers their lines in a rush, as if the actors were called in a week before the game went to production. All the characters speak in a bland monotone which makes paying attention difficult. Were it not for the subtitles, I would have completely glazed over during all the cut-scenes. As it is, the game does little to hold you attention during any of the speaking parts.

Before we launch into FarCry 2's faults fully, let's take a minute and examine what it does right.

The environment is beautifully crafted, ranging from thick jungles to the edges of a vast desert. Sunlight streams through the trees and makes the white sand glare brilliantly in the noon sun. At night, you can almost feel the African wilderness getting colder as the sun drops beyond the horizon and the deepest reaches of the jungle become as black as tar.

The day/night transition is done very well, and it looks especially impressive when you view it during your sleeping periods. The time speeds up, and the camera shows you a view from outside your hut as the clouds flash past and the day slips into night.

The game presents itself as an entirely first-person experience, and for the most part pulls it off brilliantly. Opening car doors, checking you map and fixing your wounds is all done through your character's eyes, and it all looks correct. Nothing feels out of place in this perspective, but it does have some strange faults. We'll get to those later.

The fire propagation system works really well in this setting. Almost anything can be lit on fire, and the tiniest spark can ignite a huge conflagration. The fire effects are impressive, and the sound scales well with the size of the blaze. A small ember will sound like a tiny sizzle, and a large brush-fire will roar and snap as it leaps from brush to tree, consuming everything in it's path.

Having NPC mercenaries as your buddies helps with the immersion, as well. When you get in too deep, one of your friends will rush in, guns blazing, and pull your dopey ass out of the line of fire. This is done from first person as well, and you'll flit in and out of consciousness as you're dragged away from the hot zone. You can turn the tables and pull rescues for your buddies as well. The only difference is where your friends will always help you out, you have the option of using a syringe to heal them, or use your pistol on them to ease their passing. It's a pretty brutal choice, but having buddies is always preferable to being out in the African wilds with no backup.

Now that we've given FarCry 2 some praise, let's dive right into where it falls flat on it's face.

The setting. While I praised it above for being lush and beautiful, it's ultimately a detriment to game play. The area is huge(over 50 square kilometers) and most of the time you're confined to jungle roads. Trying to venture off the beaten path will often result in backtracking because, more often than not, you'll end up going backwards as you've run into an impassible cliff face. Besides a bus travel system, there is no way to get across the map quickly. That's a huge annoyance as the buses are usually nowhere near the important areas, and the missions are often on the other side of the map. Driving is the only real option, but even that has it's short comings.

To navigate while driving, you have to pull out your map. Not bad in itself, but you can't set a way point. Might sound minor, but it becomes a major hindrance when you have to drive all the way across the jungle with a map constantly open to guide yourself. When you're looking at said map, the game has an annoying tendency to focus your view upwards onto the road. When you're trying to divine which fork to take and you look up before you can figure it out, it leads to some course-corrections.

Every car is also extremely fragile, and bumping it into too many trees will necessitate either a road-side repair or the acquisition of a new vehicle. Bullets will also put a stop to your travel plans fairly quickly, and every guard at every single checkpoint is only too happy to chase you down and riddle your poor car with lead.

As explained earlier, the first person view is well done, but with only one major hitch. You can do everything from that perspective, but when you look down, you don't have a body! For a game that's trying to be immersive, having you look down at your floating gun will take you right out the experience.

The AI is fairly rudimentary and predictable. The enemy will chase you with a single minded determinism seemingly forever, and their battle tactics aren't too sharp, either. If you hide, the AI will shout out where they think you are, but only the shotgun wielding baddies seem to try to find you. The gunfights present no real challenge excepting the fact that it takes three to four head shots to down an enemy, and they will sometimes get right back up. Having a man survive a grievous head-wound and bounce back on the attack is kind of out of place.

FarCry 2's missions are rather tedious, as well. Drive to the other side of the map, and kill the enemy. Sometimes you're tasked with blowing something up, but that doesn't really change the fact that the mission set is really limited.

For everything FarCry 2 manages to innovate and experiment with, it misses the mark with a lot of basic shooter and open world mechanics. In a retrospective view, FarCry 2 can be praised for trying to mash two genres which are not paired together that often; unfortunately, it can't pull it off in an entertaining way.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

I Live the Hood Life, It's a Good Life

A Review of Saint's Row 2

Ok, I'll admit it. I was among the group of non-believers, those who thought that the Saint's Row series was nothing but an unabashed GTA knock-off. Seeing the adds in my local EB games dissing GTA IV's less appealing aspects(bowling, watching TV), I was ready to dismiss Saint's Row 2 as a "GTA for morons".

I scoffed at the add, venomous derision dripping on every syllable as I voiced my disgust to a friend. "Pah," I began, squinting my eyes "Those hacks at Volition have no idea what GTA IV is about. It's not just an open-world game, it's a skewering social commentary! The underlying politics of GTA can't be beaten by a chainsaws and a flame-retardant madman on an ATV!"

I was wrong.

Saint's Row 2 doesn't try to imitate the GTA series entirely. Comparisons can be drawn, but pound for pound, Saint's Row can stand tall against Rockstar's juggernaut.

Saint's Row 2's main strength is that it doesn't try to take itself too seriously. The main point of the game is to rise to the top of Stilwater's criminal underworld by any means necessary(emphasis on the 'any'). Ditching the over-reaching social commentary, Saint's Row 2 tries to present itself as a fun open-world game, and it succeeds brilliantly.

SR2 begins with your character waking up in a prison hospital after a five year coma. Players are brought up to speed on what has been happening in Stilwater in your absences, but newcomers to the franchise may feel a bit lost at first. Not to worry though; aside from a few references to the original the slate has mostly been wiped clean. It's a new Stilwater, baby, and you're back to take your place at the top.

After the short prologue, you're moved into the character creator where you can mold your very own gangster. For the amount of customization available in the creator, it never feels overwhelming. You can choose your sex, and pretty much take it from there. The usual customizing stand-by's of face, hair, and body shape are there, but Volition has packed a bit more into the selection.

You can customize your voice, walk, fighting style, and many things in-between. Want to be an overweight gang-banger? Go for it. A striking blond model with a penchant for firearms? The world is your oyster with the creation system. At the risk of sounding cliche, if you can dream it, you can probably do it.

After your debauched master piece is created, the game seamlessly injects your creation into the in-game cut-scenes. You can visit an in-game plastic surgeon at any time and change your look, and the game keeps up with no problem.

Saint's Row 2 starts out heavy, with your daring escape from incarceration resulting in a triple body count left in your wake. Upon gaining your freedom, you set out to rebuild the Saints and claim your throne as king of Stilwater's seamy under-belly. To accomplish this, you have to do to sets of missions: the story missions, which advance the game's plot, and activities, which gives you the respect you need to start a story mission. Respect is measured in a half-circle bar below your health, and you fill it up by doing a variety of activities, like I just mentioned.

While this might sound tedious at first read, believe me when I say that Volition really thought out of the box with some of these. You have the basic racing, drug smuggling and fight club(which is awesome) options, but you have a few eclectic choices thrown in. Whether you take control of a rogue septic truck and cover buildings in brown justice, or board an attack chopper to dominate the skies, it's very easy to overfill your respect meter by playing these activities. You can boost the amount of respect you get by increasing your style points. You can do this by wearing a vast selection of clothes, or upgrading one of the many "cribs" available for purchase around Stilwater. if you've got the cash, you can set your crew up with some pretty nice digs. It's a small feature, but it certainly adds to the feeling of being a bad-ass crime lord with money to blow.

The story missions themselves are pretty standard fare. You either blow stuff up, steal things, and usually leave a tail of bodies in your path. It never gets too repetitive, though, and the regenerating health system makes staying alive pretty easy. If you do die, Saint's Row 2 features a mid-mission checkpoint system that will drop you back pretty close to where you died so you don't have to replay the whole mission over(something GTA IV sorely lacked).

The controls are managed pretty well, too. Running, jumping and driving are all easy and accessible. Fist fighting is much easier here than in some other games, thanks to the well used implementation of the trigger buttons.

The only two gripes with the control scheme comes from inventory management and reloading your weapons. To access your inventory, you press and hold "B" and use the left thumb stick to select your weapons. Using the D-Pad while your inventory is open will select one of the four food slots you have for mid-mission healing(or getting high, if you're feeling bold). It's rather unwieldy in combat, you'll often find yourself putting up your dukes when you wanted an RPG. Reloading your weapons is also a problem. SR2 doesn't have an assigned button, so the game reloads for you. Fine in theory, but you'll sometimes be left standing in the open waiting for your character to reload with a few bullets left in the magazine. Not too much of a complaint, but since ammo can get rather expensive, the lack of micro-management here can lead to some pretty thin wallets along the way.

While we're on the subject of shortcomings, I might as well get my major complaints out of the way. AI is consistently a problem. Nobody in the game world is particularity bright. Aside from a few moments where the AI truly shines(like shooting an RPG correctly), you'll often be left sighing in frustration as your computerized buddies run into walls, stand in the open while being shot, or use a rocket launcher to shoot an enemy point blank. The AI for your opponents suffers from the same problems. Mowing down groups of them is never a problem, as the AI rarely seeks to get out of your way or find cover. In the rare times that they do grab human shields(one of the game's more useful-and nasty-features)it's never a determent to your wall of hot lead.

Using the in-game map is a problem. The map shows you a close up view of the city, instead of pulling back and letting you see the whole thing. Not a problem if you want to find the nearest gun store, but if you're trying to locate a mission on the other side of Stilwater, you'll have to scan the map carefully. Aside from being slightly bigger than the other icons, mission indicators don't stick out much. To be fair, I am playing SR2 on a standard definition TV, but I frequently bemoaned the lack of a "fast-find" feature.

Besides a few minor AI and control annoyances, I'm greatly enjoying Saint's Row 2. If you're looking to spend a few hours having fun, SR2 definitely offers plenty of distractions. From missions to activities, to a game within a game(Zombie Uprising) Saint's Row 2 is packed to hilt with amazing content. If you don't mind gratuitous violence or the F-bomb being dropped constantly, I recommend picking up Saint's Row 2.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Weekly Web Wrap-Wup(because four 'w's are better than three)

Hello, and welcome to a new feature on my blog, the Weekly Web Wrap-Wup. This is where I collect news from around the inter-tubes and bestow upon it my opinions and comments, and hopefully divine some answers out of the mess that is the games industry.

So, we start this week thusly:

BioWare/EA/LucasArts announce KOTOR MMO, reveal nothing at all

Yesterday at 2:00pm PST dozens of game journalists packed into what I can only think of as a massive temple, awash with Star Wars memorabilia, to bear witness to proclamations from on high. That, or they assembled in a board room to listen to representatives from the various companies talk about the new Star Wars MMORPG.

Star Wars: The Old Republic has been officially announced, putting an end to speculation and rumor about the "worst-kept secret in the industry". Besides a title and a time period, nothing significant was revealed about The Old Republic. Locations, classes and minor things like space combat and even guilds were kept under wraps.

One thing that BioWare did talk about is a new addition to the MMO archetype: companions. What this boils down to is that you have an NPC character follow you around and help you out, Han Solo and Chewbacca being the example they gave. Your companion will grow with you, and you can interact with them is various ways, such as romancing them or betraying/killing them. Pretty interesting, considering that most MMOs don't really focus on player/NPC interactions. Having to baby-sit a follower could get tedious, but hopefully BioWare will iron out some of the major AI partner bugs like pathfinding and combat before this game hits the shelves.

Besides companions, BioWare also spent some time delving in the story of Star Wars: The Old Republic. Their goal is to have a fully developed story for each class, so two people playing Jedi or Sith don't have their quests intertwined. Pretty admirable if you ask me. BioWare mentioned that they won't have any "Darth Vader rescues puppies" or "collect slug-butt" quests. Sounds good to me. I'm all about stories in games, and the stories in current MMOs are pretty thin.

Overall, I'm hopeful for this game. With BioWare at the helm this game has a chance to break the stigma currently plaguing the perception of Star Wars MMOs. The release date is still pretty far off(the game is currently pre-alpha) so there's going to be a lot more Star Wars news coming our way in the future. This is one to keep an eye on.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Highway to Hell

To my diligent readers, waiting on baited breath for my next literary masterpiece, I have good news for you. After a slight absence, the next installment of my still unnamed story will be forced into the tubes that make up the internet, bulging at the seams with witty prose and earth-shattering revelations.

Maybe I'm getting ahead of myself. The story I'm writing is starting to take shape, meaning that I have a conclusion I'm working towards. We'll get there eventually.

For our next installment, we see Dave's brilliant plan to thrust himself in the limelight begin to take shape....But will everything proceed as he foresees? Stay tuned.