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.