Friday, 26 November 2010

The Top 5 Games of 2010

Five - Red Dead Redemption

After the lacklustre GTA IV, Rockstar really pulled out all the stops for its Western take on the sandbox game.
Playing through John Marston's reluctant tale of revenge and, as the title makes abundantly clear, redemption was an incredible experience. The huge amount of stuff to do throughout the game was mind blowing, with stranger missions, hunting, plant collecting and many other pursuits, the game more than made up for GTA IV's empty Liberty City.
The story itself was wonderfully told and the voice acting was excellent throughout, with interesting characters and genuine emotion on display via some impressive animation.
And with the recently released Undead Nightmare expansion, Red Dead Redemption just keeps on giving – a sure fire bet for many “Game of the Year” awards.

Four – Enslaved: Odyssey to the West

Heavenly Sword's combination of amazing storytelling, wonderful animation and extremely talented voice actors is something most studios have yet to match, which is why Ninja Theory is still one of the top developers in the action adventure genres.
Enslaved is another showcase of Ninja Theory's talent.

The visuals are stunning in the retelling of Monkey's story, his escape from a prison ship and eventual protection of his captor, Trip – the greatest character the game has to offer and one of the most believable in gaming history.
It may not have much in the way of replay value but the game is strong enough that you will not forget it, nor the wonderful characters.

Three – Darksiders

A Zelda game with a darker edge, this game had potential right from the start. The story of War being wrongfully accused of setting off the apocalypse is one that will stick with me for a long time.

The art direction and general design of the game is inspired, the artwork of comic artist Joe Madureira is very striking and will remain instantly recognisable for years to come.
The story itself may be linear but the world has so much to offer beyond the main story that you will be kept going for hours and hours and still will not have found all that the game has to offer!
War's steed, Ruin, is the perfect image for a game that is truly the dark horse of 2010...

Two – Medal of Honor

While the rest of the world waited for Call of Duty: Black Ops, EA's new Danger Close studio released, with a fair bit of controversy, a game based on the struggles in the ongoing Afghanistan war.

Whereas Activision's franchise has become synonymous with the bravado of Hollywood's big budget action movies, Medal of Honor took a different path and focused on the struggles of a select number of soldiers with no overarching “dictator intent on world domination” plot or similar, the result is one of the most emotionally charged shooters ever created.
And, unfortunately, one of the most criminally overlooked games of the year.

One – Mass Effect 2

Bioware's space epic started with one of the most stunning scenes in gaming history, followed later on by another of the most gripping and emotional scenes in gaming history, then ending with yet another mind blowing revelation.
The game literally never lets you go.
Even the dullest part of the game is addictive: the planet scanning. Slowly scanning the surface of every planet in order to gather materials for upgrades to both squad and ship, in order to survive what should be a suicide mission.
There is no escaping the drama as you gather your team to take on the Collectors, a race of aliens that have been abducting entire colonies of humans, getting to know each team member individually and then possibly losing them during the final battle is an experience that very few games can come even close to replicating.
The quality even shines through in the downloadable content, with a particularly moving episode in the form of Overlord, not to mention the more integral episode in Lair of the Shadow broker. Every single DLC released has had a massive impact on the game and its fanbase.

Notable Mentions

Alan Wake

A great take on the horror genre, with some very atmospheric moments and an amazing episodic structure, something Alone in the Dark tried - and failed miserably with – in the past.
Unfortunately its DLC was unnecessary and did not reflect the quality on offer in the main game, something that unfairly tarnished the game's reputation.

Battlefield: Bad Company 2

The original game was one of the most intelligent, amusing and innovative shooters ever made, so the sequel had a lot to live up to.
It took away some of the innovation and replaced it with a more streamlined gaming experience, replaced some of the humour with a darker storyline but never really compromised the integrity of the game proper. It made for a very intense experience and it was more than a match for Modern Warfare 2.
Add to that the fantastic and varied multiplayer and Bad Company 2 becomes one of the best online shooters this generation has to offer.

Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit

Criterion's take on the Need for Speed franchise is something to be admired. The game combines the fun of Burnout with the real world cars that EA's racing series is known for, then goes back to the roots of Need for Speed: the illegal street racing and the police chases that follow.
The result is arguably the most fun racing experience this generation and the true sequel to Burnout 2: Point of Impact.

Halo Reach

Despite knowing the end before it began, as Microsoft was so keen to advertise, the resulting campaign was a great experience. True, the story itself was fairly generic and Noble team's fate ended up being quite disappointingly revealed, but the strongest point of Halo's past – the shooting action – was just as strong as ever.
And let us not forget that stunning, post-credits conclusion...

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

God of War III

Kratos is a very angry man, let’s get that out of the way now. He has been very angry with Zeus and the other gods of Greek mythology, not to mention having quite a thing against anything living or dead. So it is rather fitting that his games have been largely about pounding the proverbial out of anything and everything, with as much violence as possible.
    After two fantastic (and obviously violent) games on the PlayStation 2, Sony’s Santa Monica Studios finally set its sights on the latest behemoth: the PlayStation 3. The previous games were epic in every sense of the word, with stunning vistas, complex puzzles and some absolutely massive boss battles, all the while butchering everyone and everything from the tomes of Greek mythology.
    This third games picks up directly from the end of God of War II, with the promise of an epic battle alongside the colossal Titans as Kratos takes his quest for vengeance to the very peak of Mount Olympus, hell bent on killing Zeus and any other god that may stand in his way.
    Sounds exciting, does it not? It is at first, too. A sweeping battle with Poseidon kicks off the action, a massive water horse (complete with giant crab legs) pounds its way across the face of Mount Olympus, crushing both your enemies and titanic allies as your fight rages on. After a few moments, the action switches to another familiar staple of the series: the QTE scene. It’s a much-maligned facet of the gaming industry today, but one that is used fairly well throughout Santa Monica’s series and is no different here - other than turning the violence up to eleven.

    The violence has always been present in Kratos’ adventures: tearing wings from harpies, hacking off the heads of Hydras, pulling out the eyes of Cyclops and so on, but never has it been so vivid as it is here. Tearing out the eyes of a Cyclops, seeing the juices and the gore dripping and spurting from the socket, or tearing heads off beasts and seeing individual tendons rip away as more gore pours forth - this is a game that really deserves its 18 certificate.
    At heart though, this game plays no different to its predecessors. The control scheme is identical, with only a couple of minor additions as you unlock new items during the game. Make no mistake, this is not a game for newcomers, do not be fooled by the ‘catch-up’ sequence during the intro. We visit old areas from previous games, fight familiar enemies and hear the same music alongside Kratos’ usual angry growling and shouting.
    This familiarity is what makes the game such a disappointment. The potential shown at the end of God of War II (and the beginning of III) is never lived up to as the player is treated to almost exactly the same formula seen in both previous games, having to earn Kratos’ powers once again and work your way back through familiar block-pushing puzzles and time-limit arenas - all the while throwing in whatever Greek mythology figures that Kratos hasn’t already killed. Though they all find themselves dead enough within a short time.

    The two prequels (three, if you count the PSP’s Chains of Olympus) all flowed nicely with functional stories that made it possible to visit the expansive environments within the source material. God of War III does not continue this pattern, instead being a mishmash of seemingly random environs as you follow the flimsiest of plots that only seems to serve the purpose of bringing in names like Hercules, Hades, Hera and Pandora with no real reason other than to demonstrate that Santa Monica knows who these people were.

    With gameplay that keeps the player engaged and some nice visuals, the game plods along at a decent speed at least, running up around 5-6 hours of game time and also offering plenty of challenges for those who finish the game. It is just a shame that, after being a milestone in the hack ‘n’ slash genre for so long, God of War III shows just how far the rest of that genre has come, leaving Kratos to stew in his anger instead of unleashing it on a new generation.


Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Dante's Inferno

After Dead Space became a global hit, Visceral had the world at its feet. When EA announced that it was making a game based on the significant poem  ‘Inferno’ - part of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy - many scoffed, possibly with good reason, but when Visceral’s name was attached to the development some of those people relented, knowing it was in good hands.
    The decision to make a hack ‘n’ slash game from this poem was still met with criticism though, as many believed it needed to be deeper than basically mashing buttons for a few hours. Visceral ploughed through these criticisms and carried on with the idea, using God of War as the template. Problems began to arise there however, as it was putting Dante up against one of gaming’s biggest franchises of the past decade and, worse, ended up putting itself up against arguably the biggest part of said franchise: God of War III. This put Dante’s Inferno in a tough position before it had even been released.

    What becomes apparent upon playing the game is that Visceral did not just use God of War as a simple template, it copied the whole thing from control scheme to move set to game mechanics and design - not taking into account the problems within Sony’s franchise, instead copying all the best and worst bits of Kratos’ original PS2 adventure.
    The game itself starts well, throwing the player into a harsh world of violence during the Crusades. Dante finds himself  having to fight innocent prisoners (basically a small tutorial on the combat system) and, upon being stabbed in the back by an assassin, comes face to face with Death himself. This triggers a somewhat half-hearted attempt at a boss battle, with Death using his trademark scythe to attack Dante with preset routines and, in true God of War style, ends with a QTE scene (press the button shown on screen at the right time) as Dante steals the scythe and kills Death with it before heading home to his beloved Beatrice.
    Beatrice is a name you will hear a lot during this game, as upon returning home Dante finds her slain (and bare-breasted, for some reason) and her spirit is taken captive by Satan, prompting Dante’s quest into the Underworld.

    The original descent into Hell is impressive as a church building falls apart to reveal the fiery depths below, leading the player downward on ladders of flesh and bone to fight the various demons. This involves a lot of pressing a heavy or light attack button quite a lot, or using Dante’s Holy Cross - something not really explained at any point during the game - to despatch the legions of Hell. There is also the option to condemn or absolve the various creatures, as for some reason the Holy Cross has enabled Dante to judge the damned as he sees fit. It is a nice mechanic though and offers a reward in either good or evil points to spend on upgrades.
    During your stay in the hot climes of the Inferno, you will find yourself travelling through the Nine Circles of Hell, each circle coming with its own unique set of foul creatures - Lust and Gluttony are obviously the ones that come with the most interesting and disgusting creations - but these unique enemies are not the problem, the frequently-recycled standard creatures are the things you will bludgeon most often and you will quickly tire of them.

    Considering Visceral’s Dead Space is one of the best looking games to come out of this generation of consoles, it may come as a shock to learn that Dante’s Inferno is pretty weak in the visual department. The resolution is suitably high and the lighting effects are stunning at times, but the textures are bland and uninspiring along with some very average creature design on the standard beasts. The whole package feels almost as if Visceral had no real passion for this project and just put the work necessary into it and nothing more.
    There are no real puzzles to speak of throughout the game either, instead replaced by timed arenas and, in one inexplicably awful design choice, a series of challenge rooms that only serve to artificially lengthen the game time while simultaneously frustrating the player with challenges the game has never prepared you for.
    The story is also poorly told which is odd considering the source material, with the majority of the story revolving around Dante shouting a lot about wanting his Beatrice back and whining like a teenage boy about how unfair the situation is. The cross that Dante sews into his own chest is never fully explained either, yet serves as the main focus point for the game’s flashbacks into Dante’s sins, which usually revolve around sex and violence and incredibly unsubtle pot-shots at the Church.

    This all makes for a fairly unsatisfying experience as your journey through the fiery depths seems to be for nothing more than chasing a naked woman whilst repeatedly bludgeoning demons with a large blade. The story goes largely unnoticed until the last half hour of the game and even then it makes no sense as Visceral did not bother to tell you anything else in the previous five or six hours of game time.
    All in all, there is an irony present throughout a game based in Hell wherein the player is constantly killed unfairly and frustratingly, after being lead there by promises of something greater than they received.
    If you really want to spend time in the company of Dante and his beloved Beatrice, do yourself a favour and rent the anime movie instead - you will get twice the enjoyment, twice the story and none of the frustration, all wrapped up in 90 minutes.


Sunday, 9 May 2010

Mass Effect 2

 With the original Mass Effect being my favourite 360 game, Bioware had a lot to live up to when creating its sequel. The original was epic, a galaxy-wide adventure that created a truly astonishing and masterfully-crafted array of characters, worlds and species - all brought together in a fantastic blend of RPG and third person squad shooter.
    Sure, it had its faults but that is where the sequel comes in - it totally revamps and revitalises the entire system, streamlining the inventory by giving you full access to your weapons without restricting your inventory space and introducing a new ammo system that genuinely makes the player think strategically before entering a potential battle zone.
    The combat system has also been refined, with a tighter control system and some advanced AI (though it sometimes gets itself into trouble) it becomes a tense affair as you are flanked by opponents of varying specie and armour type, some even having ‘kinetic barriers’ that need to be taken down with biotic powers - these are easier to use too, with the improved power system that allows you to slow the action to a crawl and line up your teams’ powers on specific targets, bringing a far more tactical nature to the combat this time around.
    The story itself is the main draw however, continuing Sheperd’s battle against the Reapers and starting with one of the most explosive introduction sequences you are likely to see for a long time. Anyone could be forgiven for being disappointed with the less epic nature of Sheperd’s second outing, but this is down to it being a more personal story that is more about bringing out the characters in the new squad and really cementing them as some of the greatest and most realistic characters ever to come from a game - and really forcing the player to make some extremely tough decisions as the game progresses.
     The excellent dialogue wheel from the first game makes a return here, with a new ‘interrupt’ system that becomes available at certain points in the game, allowing the player to make a quick decision (both good (Paragon) and bad (Renegade) options are available) that can have serious repercussions on the story, or simply make a bad situation worse. The voice acting is even better than the original too, with stars such as Martin Sheen, Keith David, Tricia Helfer and Seth Green bringing that extra quality to an already fantastic script.
    The visuals have been given a huge makeover as Sheperd and his team are stunningly realised with superb textures, animation, lip-syncing and one of the most gorgeous lighting systems seen in gaming today.
    There are problems, such as the dull (but strangely addictive) planet scanning element, the AI sometimes being a bit silly and getting itself killed, and some harsh difficulty spikes, but these become minor inconveniences as they are snowed under by the many good points.
    From the explosive opening, through the myriad twists and turns in a script that puts most movies to shame (not to mention one terrifying and heart-wrenching scene that really must be seen), all the way to the mind blowing conclusion, Mass Effect 2 will be a game remembered fondly for years to come and, quite possibly, be crowned game of the year.


Saturday, 8 May 2010

Left 4 Dead 2: The Passing (Downloadable Content)

The long awaited first DLC campaign finally arrived with scenes of flying pigs and Satan skating to work, as Valve actually delivered it within reasonable time - for 560 points on Xbox Live or free on PC via Steam.
    The Passing sees Rochelle, Ellis, Coach and Nick meeting with the survivors of the original Left 4 Dead, in between leaving the mall at the end of the Dead Centre chapter and breaking down at the beginning of Dark Carnival. This new campaign also sees the introduction of a few new bits and bobs such as the M60 and golf club weapons, a new bride variation of the Witch, a new uncommon common infected: the Fallen Survivor - who drops items upon death, and new item caches that spawn randomly throughout the new maps.
    The action remains totally unchanged from the main game - you work together to survive the zombie apocalypse, all the while blasting and hacking down zombies and various mutated freaks - but the addition of the original survivors (controlled only by AI) giving you a hand in the finale gives a sense of what direction the series may take in future.
    There are niggling issues with servers that are causing issues upon release but otherwise the online is still solid and definitely the way to play, though perhaps not the best way to enjoy the somewhat sparse storytelling on offer as you’ll likely miss some conversations as you talk with your team mates.
    This is the biggest problem with The Passing, as the main focus of the chapter is the story surrounding what happens to your old friends, Bill, Francis, Zoey and Louis, yet there is barely any real story told at all. Valve’s usual exceptionally subtle storytelling is nowhere to be seen and the matter of the climactic reveal is barely even acknowledged and can actually be easily missed if you aren’t careful as Valve’s talent for visual cues is, again, strangely absent.
    Since this is more of a multiplayer game these story issues would normally be fairly minor but since Valve put quite a bit of emphasis on the possibilities of the story when advertising this chapter, the issues do become a bit of a sticking point. Not enough to ruin the game experience, as it stands it still handles the gameplay masterfully with the AI Director keeping the players on their toes, but it does add an element of disappointment to what could have been an astounding piece of downloadable content - perhaps Valve’s promise of the flipside to the DLC, for the original L4D (telling the story from the other team’s perspective), will erase the disappointment seen here.


Dead Space: Extraction

Dead Space was amazing on 360, PS3 and PC, a survival horror dripping with atmosphere and striking a tremendous balance between action and long periods of tense loneliness. The idea of a prequel, telling the events surrounding the fate of the Ishimura (alongside those of the Downfall anime movie), was always going to be an exciting proposition.
    When Visceral announced that prequel was to be a light gun game, almost everyone scoffed at the idea. Light gun games are traditionally silly affairs that have no feeling of atmosphere or story, and its new platform - Nintendo’s family-friendly Wii console - just seemed like such an odd direction for this young series to take.
    When Extraction loads up for the first time however, these negative thoughts begin to drift away. The visuals are beautifully moody, with stunning animation, realistic head-bobbing in the first person viewpoint and some intense lighting effects, throwing the player into a believable scenario that goes a long way to building the tension for what is to come.
    The story begins almost as a prologue, as you play Sam Caldwell, part of the team sent in to remove a ‘marker’ from the planet Aegis VII. After the extraction starts to go awry, Sam and his team are forced to defend themselves against a monstrous horde of creatures and this sets the tone for how the game will play - acting as a very interesting tutorial too. The conclusion to the opening prologue also highlights the incredible storytelling on show in Extraction, something that has to be played to be believed.
    The action then moves to a second character, Nathan McNeill, along with his old friend Weller as they investigate the strange goings on around the Aegis VII colony. This is where the story really kicks off, with creatures popping up left and right, survivors coming and going and increasingly worrying visions creeping in as Nathan attempts to survive the massacre and make sense of what is happening to the colony - and the Ishimura.
    The Ishimura is where the majority of the game plays out, in instantly recognisable areas from the original Dead Space along with many new environments unique to Extraction.
    On the surface this is a straight forward light gun game - you shoot the enemies on screen to progress - but thirty minutes in and you soon realise that the small additions of exploration points (where the player is given a moment of free viewing, to pick up whatever weapons and ammo are lying around), a huge arsenal of upgradeable weapons, melee attacks and, unusually for a Wii game, clever use of remote-based mini-games all add up to create an incredibly engaging experience. Add an intense storyline into the mix and Extraction becomes one of the most thought-provoking shooters available, something no light gun game has ever achieved before.
     It isn’t all sunshine and lollipops though, as the enemy design suffers from the same problems the original game had, recycling the same few creatures throughout the entire game. You will find yourself more tense during the quiet exploration rather than the frantic battles with the Necromorph creatures, where it is easy to switch off and automatically fire at the appropriate spots before moving on.
    Some of the story points are a little stiff too, with some hammy voice acting that does not reflect the quality of the animation on-screen. Though the majority of the story scenes are fantastic (Lexine is a tremendously realistic character), especially those few that involve playing as a character other than McNeill.
    The shooting itself can be problematic sometimes, with the remote not always being completely accurate and the constant head movement can often lead to shots going astray and either missing that vital kill shot or, in many cases, missing grabbing that text/voice log.
    These logs are what ultimately renders Extraction’s faults irrelevant, telling more of the back-story of the Ishimura’s fate, how the marker extraction came about in the first place and the consequences of finding it. A game like this never really comes with a story and yet this one sucks you in right from the immensely clever opening, all the way to the ending you may never see coming.
    This may be a simple light gun game at heart, it may have its bugs, control issues and the odd poor scene, but with such entertaining gameplay and an incredibly tight story with very memorable moments, Visceral’s ‘silly affair’ with the world’s most family-friendly console might well belie one of the cleverest games of the past decade.