Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Adventures in Aion - Easier to pull teeth

When I first dived into Aion I had hoped to keep a journal of my time there to best explain its world and the mechanics behind its operation. I'd also hoped, above all things, that Aion would actually be a good game. Sadly both of those hopes of mine turned out to be false as Aion is anything but a good game and writing about dull and boring experiences would be just as boring as every moment I spent in the game.

Twenty five hours of my life I put into the MMO and it's hard for me to be anything but negative about my experience with it. I will say that the visual quality of the game is exemplary and the vibrant colours it brings to the screen certainly give it a unique style that helps to cover the poor gameplay. But that gameplay is woeful and the thought of logging back into the world makes me shiver in repulsion.

Aion takes all the systems, all the mechanics and all the structure I despise so much about the MMO genre and happily presents them as if I'm to expect and enjoy such things. The opening areas for both races are structurally identical and the grinding procedure is so painfully obvious that I wondered if the game was missing some part of the front-end to conceal its dull inner workings.

I'll save my specific complaints for the imminent review, but Aion fails because the first 25 levels are so excruciatingly dull that I couldn't care less about the world, characters or poorly executed narrative that held it all together.

The winged combat and the thrill of getting wings at an early stage was quickly shut down by the game's needless constrictions. It doesn't do anything remotely interesting with the unique aspects it has and lacks the finesse I was expecting and hoping an Asian MMO would deliver. Even the free to play MMOs of Shin Megami Tensei or Free Realms offer a much more coherent experience in their less-than-stellar looking worlds.

This experience showed me that I was right to stop playing MMos two years ago and I can only hope that Fallen Earth, my next review project, will offer something different to take the sour taste of Aion out of my mouth.


Monday, 21 December 2009

Adventures in Aion - Breaking my 2-year MMO absence

Returning to MMO games after an enforced two year absence was something I never intended to do. But the ethereal nature of Aion and its Eastern aesthetics initially sold me on breaking my silent vow never to log back into a game after Lord of the Rings Online.

Yes, Lord of the Rings Online and not World of Warcraft. If there's any snobbery I have with videogames and fantasy settings then it’s how British they do (or don’t) feel - Turbine did such an excellent job with Lotro that I couldn’t stomach the more American-influenced nature of WoW.

This is what drew me to Aion in the first instance – the way it would be different from both of those games in its setting and environment. It seemed from the marketing that its Eastern roots would give the game an exotic air, reminiscent of Guild Wars and I hoped that this would mean Aion was something unique with a richness and individuality of its own.

My thoughts so far aren't that positive though. Bear in mind that I have barely begun to get out of the starting area and I'm well aware that I've barely begun to scratch the surface of this game. That being said it's pretty clear that the starting area in Aion is a very traditional take on the genre. Most of the quests are simple fetch or carry variations with a large amount of rat-killing strewn in-between to assist with the levelling up of my character. The way the game presents its story and the environmental minutiae feels really generic at this stage and I have to confess that I wasn't disappointed to log out of the game at the end of the night - coming across the Ent-like beings in the started forest were a bit of a breaking point for me.

It's slightly disheartening as the immediate premise of Aion, with its light and dark sides and the Abyss in-between them, sounded great before I started playing. Part of my problem has to be the baggage I carry over from Lotro and once I get over this maybe I'll find Aion opening out into its own unique experience. At the moment though, Aion simply doesn't have a rich heritage or a sufficiently interesting back-story to hold my interest even though the stunning visuals and verdant landscapes are pretty impressive.

Despite my negativity I'm still looking forward to seeing what lies ahead in Aion (honest!). The promise of wings and the aerial combat is still something I'm very eager to see and get firsthand experience of - as long as I keep my finger away from reactivating my Lotro account I'm sure I'll be fine.

Saturday, 19 December 2009

The Saboteur review

Using World War Two as a backdrop for its story, The Saboteur left me divided about whether its technical shortcomings obscured the dramatic setting of Nazi occupied Paris. I loved the vengeance-driven narrative and the use of colour to depict the city's oppressed state, but I found the game falling short of the epic open-world environment the first two hours had expertly setup. Those heights were never reached again but despite The Saboteur's many failings in execution and technical competance, I couldn't help but enjoy nearly every moment of this different World War 2 game.

Thanks to my personal interest in all aspects of World War 2, The Saboteur was already a game that piqued my interest before I even started to play it. The premise of playing as Sean Devlin, a vengeance-seeking Irishman based on the real-life war hero William Grover-Williams, in the streets of occupied Paris was a fascinating concept.

Using World War Two as a backdrop, rather than the central focus of the story also made a big difference to how I treated the setting. The absence of a clichéd Call of Duty-esque narrative was refreshing and the way the main plot wove into the rise of the French Resistance was an interesting twist. Even some of the unnecessary supernatural British Intelligence missions gave the game a bit more variety and Sean’s attitude towards his plummy English contacts was hilarious coarse. The only aspect absent from this setup was any mention of the collaborationist Vichy Government - a series of missions involving assassinations and pursuit of collaborators would've been really exciting.

It was this use of occupied Paris as the backdrop for the game that really made me fall in love with what Pandemic Studios tried to do. Cruising around in period cars, stopping at Nazi checkpoints and generally getting a feel for the city in-between missions gave me a similar thrill to that of GTA IV. The little touches, like German soldiers randomly interrogating groups of suspected resistance members, gave the city a sense of reality that complimented the authentic street layout and architecture. However, this feeling of immersion never lasted long enough for the game to carry as much meaningful weight as it could. Far too often the technical glitches and shortcomings took me out of the experience and exposed the inner workings of an open-world game.

In all honesty there's a certain amount of technical problems I'm willing to look beyond in order to have a good experience with a game. STALKER: The Shadow of Chernobyl was a game beset with critical bugs and errors, but the atmosphere of the abandoned city of Pripyat and its surroundings overcame all those problems to deliver a very unique experience. The Saboteur almost gets away with such deficiencies but the staged dialogue, floating enemies and the sight of characters and vehicles suddenly dropping into the world occasinally made the experience difficult to enjoy.

It also has a very stereotypical portrayal of its characters which oddly, feel entirely right for a game like this. Playing it too serious or with a sober perspective would no doubt of made the experience very boring and pretentious, but Sean is a walking Irish cliché complete with a 'top of the morning' greeting that is guaranteed to make any Irish native cringe. Every resistance member sounds like a variation on Pepe Le Pew and the Germans also have such thick accents that I was half-convinced dialogue had been taken from 'Allo 'Allo. But all of this stereotyping feels remarkably effective in painting a caricature of the occupation of Paris - it gives those darker moments a bit more impact amongst the jollity and showed me that the game was capable of some (admittedly lightweight) pathos.
One aspect that I appreciated the most was the use of colour. Occupied areas of the city within the game would be drained of all colour save for an unsettling red hue around the Nazi's and their crimson-blood armbands. These sections in black and white would only have colour restored to them after completing a series of story missions or subquests, like destroying a Zeppelin factory or assassinating a senior Gestapo officer.

Although the game promised that bringing colour back into the city would have a tangible effect I found it worked better as a visual statement of Nazi control than a gameplay changing feature. Being in those black and white areas for a period of time became depressing and uncomfortable, making the moment when a shockwave of colour blasts out over the city all the more meaningful.

This feature's greatest impact came in the game's prologue and showed a glimpse of the adult drama that The Saboteur infrequently delved into. In fact, the first two hours of The Saboteur contains some of its greatest moments and showed that beneath its goofy surface, a melodramatic story was at its heart. Showing the shadow of World War 2 in these beginning sequences was an excellent touch that gave the game a sense of deep foreboding. Going from the entertaining hi-jinks of running the German race-winner’s prize car off a cliff to a gruesome torture scene was handled well and it’s at this point, literally when the trigger of a gun ends the life that Sean once knew, that the colour drains out of the world.

The game never reaches those dramatic peaks again and even though echoes of melodrama occasionally crop up along the way, they don't quite scale in comparison to those first two hours. So I'd be lying if I though The Saboteur portrayed an occupied Paris in a truly dramatic or authentic way, but it still did enough to entice me into the world and enjoy my time there.

It would be very easy to criticize the game for its technical flaws but my own personal fascination with WW2 and the love I have for this setting means none of those concerns mattered in the end. The Saboteur shows that World War Two still has many epic and dramatic tales to tell if the narrative is spiced up and the setting is right. With its combination of melodrama and whimsical humour I was willing to look past The Saboteur's failings and enjoy its rogueish, open-world charms.


Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Borderlands - The Island of Dr. Ned

I haven't been more surprised this year than with my compulsive love of Borderlands on the Xbox360. It just goes to show that despite my adoration for deep and meaningful videogames, I still enjoy the cathartic process of blowing stuff up (see Red Faction: Guerrilla) or shooting bad guys with a multitude of different weaponry.

This first instance of downloadable content - The Island of Dr. Ned - condenses much of the 30+ hour experience of the original game into a four hour romp through some very different landscapes and environments. It even addresses one major flaw of Borderlands by actually including a narrative to the experience, complete with an introduction and conclusion narrated by Ivan, Pandora's seemingly omnipresent weapons seller.

The premise of this expansion is excellent B-movie fodder - you arrive at Dr. Ned's island and find out that the good doctor has 'accidentally' created a never-ending stream of the undead. It naturally falls to you to help him correct his mistake by putting various bullet-shaped holes into the zombies and going on the typical stream of quests that Borderlands has at its core.

Gone are the bleached-out visuals of the Arid Hills around Fyrestone and instead you have the gloomy swamps and heavily wooded environments that bring a sense of claustrophobia and unease into the game.

This DLC adds around 50 of those new quests, but the biggest change I experienced was how different the look and feel of the game was. Gone are the bleached-out visuals of the Arid Hills around Fyrestone and instead you have the gloomy swamps and heavily wooded environments that bring a sense of claustrophobia and unease into the game.

Let me be clear, this isn't suddenly an early Resident Evil or Silent Hill, but I found the change dramatic enough to feel uncomfortable fighting against the zombies for long periods of time. The evil red eyes of the infected ravens and the way the zombie midgets fling themselves around in such a savage way started to get under my skin a little (although zombie midgets are pretty hilarious when I think about it). The game doesn't shy away from pitting a lot of undead enemies against you at the same time either. I frequently found myself overwhelmed and surrounded - a situation completely unfamiliar from the rest of the game.

Playing a lot of the content for laughs with several winks to the camera and a certain Brothers Grimm design aesthetic, I thoroughly enjoyed this add-on content for Borderlands. Changing the mood and the environment of the game completely gave me a much visually darker and, at times, an uneasy feeling when trudging through the zombie-infested swamp-lands. Even after release Borderlands continues to be my surprise hit of the year and this content furthers my adoration for its atmospheric setting and simple mechanics.