Friday, 22 January 2010

Dark Void -> Review

Originally posted on Game People

There's a moment in Dark Void when the mythos of the Void world, the history of the Bermuda Triangle and the shadow of World War Two come together and create a brief instant of epic storytelling. Unfortunately, that fleeting moment is buried under generic gameplay and a lurching narrative that led towards an unsatisfying and disappointing end.

It's easy to dismiss Dark Void as a derivative 3rd-person shooter with a single gameplay addition that distinguishes it from its genre bedfellows. The lazy sound bite that constantly echoed inside my mind for the first few hours was 'Uncharted with jetpacks'. Not only would that be unfair on Naughty Dog's masterpiece but it would also be unfair on Dark Void. Not that the vertical cover mechanic or jetpack addition elevates this game anywhere near the level of Uncharted, but it does share a similar Matinee-film feeling.

Set in 1938, you're on a routine courier flight that just happens to cross into the Bermuda Triangle and before you can say 'Nolan North is voicing the lead character again', you crash-land in another dimension. It's wonderfully corny stuff and taps into the same Buck Rogers or The Land That Time Forgot style that makes for a light-hearted Hollywood yarn. But this is Dark Void's high point - the voicing of Will Grey by the most Han Solo-esque actor in recent years gives Dark Void that same roguish charm that worked so well for Nathan Drake.

For the first four hours Dark Void never felt like it was going to be any more than a simple variation on the cover-to-cover, 3rd person shooter genre. The ability to hover and later fly mixes up the gameplay and suitably changes the pace of the experience so you're never slogging through levels of the same flavour. It's all pretty neat stuff and although the transition from ground-based combat to full-on flying is a little awkward, it fits the 40's sci-fi nature of the setting and adds a bit of variety to the core of the game.

This gameplay variety doesn't make Dark Void particularly interesting though. That epic-like moment I referred to earlier comes purely because the game tries to blend the fascinating fiction of the Bermuda Triangle, 30's sci-fi and the onset of World War Two. The world you find yourself in houses the malevolent Watchers - beings that have shaped human affairs from creation and seek a way back to Earth to continue their dominion. Your aim to return to Earth and close the portal that would allow The Watchers to follow you.

I loved this premise but Dark Void woefully underuses the myths at its disposal and the figure of Nikola Tesla is far from the central lynchpin the game says it is. The other figures from the Bermuda Triangle legend are even more undersold with Amelia Earheart and Flight-91 reduced to text journal entries that are filed out of sight in the menus and have no impact or importance in the game. Reading them gives a little more colour to the fiction Dark Void is trying to create but they feel more of an afterthought and badly implemented to carry any weight. Audio diaries are fast becoming a narrative cliché but if they are well voiced, as in Bioshock and Batman: Arkham Asylum, then they can enriched an experience and help to create a living, breathing world.

Without this the world of Dark Void feels empty, too clinical to carry the meaning or impact the game wants to achieve. At a certain point you come across a factory packed full of weapons and vehicles destined for Earth and the insignia on them carries huge significance as to why The Watchers must be stopped. Yet the visual design of the game at that moment is so cluttered that I couldn't make out a single symbol that was being pointed out to me. The breathtaking and chilling vista that the game needed at that point was absent and the impact of that crucial moment was next to nothing.

Similarly the enemies you face are painfully dull as well. A cross between the Trade Federation troopers in The Phantom Menace, the Geth in Mass Effect and the machines in Too Human, there's no explanation given as to what they are, how they came into being or why they talk and act like humans. Only The Watchers themselves are given a face and aside from the typical Roswell alien-look their motivations and implied effect on humanity was something I would have like to see more of. In a similar fashion the inhabitants of the Void world, both incidental and important characters alike, are badly underwritten and give little weight to the overall world.

Why this gets to me in Dark Void and why I don't dismiss the entire game as a play and forget, popcorn-thriller, is because it could have been more. I feel there's a depth here that the developers didn't have time to flesh out or didn't feel they needed to create. The Tesla technology that's underused, the obfuscation around the main plot and the way the game suddenly lurches to its anti-climatic conclusion gives me the impression that time ran out on a number of levels.

As a result a lot of the narrative and wider story feels set up for a sequel, but the climatic stages of Dark Void lack any kind of urgency and drama that make it worthy of a follow-up. It's a paper-thin experience that might be entertaining for a few hours but the awkward flight controls, the untapped potential of the story and setting mean that Dark Void is a crushing disappointment.


Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Bayonetta -> Review

Originally posted on Game People.

Taking the base structure of Devil May Cry and turning it into a kaleidoscopic fruit basket of exorbitant gameplay, colour and style, Bayonetta is the ultimate videogame. The sheer indulgent delight of sampling its intoxicating mix left me breathless with adoration for its balletic combat, fantastical characters and intriguing plot.

I must admit the very mechanics that Bayonetta works from has never previously interested me. The action/adventure combat system nearly always defeats me with it complexity, difficulty level and the manner in which it often obscures the game world. But Bayonetta has changed all that. With its camp and overblown presentation providing the lustful eye-candy, the actual combat is as graceful and cathartic as the Kirov ballet.

I never felt like I did anything as mundane as walking or running with Bayonetta. In the same way as every movement in her cutscenes is deliberate yet beautifully smooth, the merest action within the game is like gliding through silk. Combat is easy - not in the ‘press one button to win’ way but due to the ease with which I found myself moving through opponents, mastering the wide variety of moves and relaxing into the game’s flow. That’s not to say it isn’t challenging - at times it felt like I was riding down a chaotic river and retaining control by the seat of my pants.

The difference between this and other action games is the progression of the enemies you face; they are all bursting with unsettling creativity and dispatching them into Hell becomes increasingly more satisfying. The mini boss fights have an allure about them, especially when more powerful attacks result in Bayonetta shedding her hair-made cat suit, and are a tease for the full-on end boss.

It’s easy to put this ‘feature’ straight into the male titillation box that many might feel the game deserves. Is it pandering to a largely male demographic to have a character that gets gradually unclothed according to her combat status? Probably. Is it empowering to women to have a strong female lead in the game. No. But Bayonetta is not an overblown, highly sexualised object that’s merely been dropped into male players hands. She’s a fantastical avatar, an artistic icon that isn’t to be taken in a literal visual way - not long legs and big breasts but a graceful and confident character that fits the world created around her. The truth is that none of those issues really matter in this instance. There are many other games that portray men and women in a stereotypical light, with no hint of irony or humour - Bayonetta just ices its incredible mechanics with camp and sexy goodness - and no malicious intent at all.

As a result each boss fight that concludes a chapter has a pace and pleasure that’s akin to another stage in the process to a world-ending sexual climax; Each fight has its own stimulating ending but each minor encounter becomes a tease, a deliberate delay to the ultimate climatic conclusion that leaves you breathless with pleasure. Does this sound fanciful? The kind of fantasy that's 'typically Japanese' and 'bat-s*** crazy'? That would be a clichéd and lazy appraisal of a game that doesn't just pour insanity around merely for the sake of its own visual effect. The world of Bayonetta is fantastical, like the inside of Terry Gilliam's head, but it makes sense within its own extraordinary boundaries.

The tumultuous story that barely contains all these features could similarly be dismissed as nonsensical; a melting pot of Japanese paradoxes and narrative circles that only serves to give Bayonetta more opportunities for cheesy dialogue, achingly stereotypical characters and yet more vagina shots. But while those charges could condemn Bayonetta, it’s actually very clever with what it does. Boil those combat scenarios away and you’re left with a story about the constant battle between light and dark; the Lumen Sages and Umbra Witches. With its fiction involving the brutal Witch Hunts of European history and using such distinct architecture to put faces on the enemies you encounter, Bayonetta is far more than just the crazy brawler many will describe.

Skewing the conflict of Heaven versus Hell closer to that of Phillip Pullman's The Dark Materials trilogy rather than biblical sub-text, it's clear that the concept of good and evil in this world is deliberately muddied. Even the defeated Angelic beings are carted off to Hell with blood-red demonic arms bursting into reality and dragging them into damnation. It’s an uncomfortable portrayal of Paradiso (Heaven), Inferno (Hell) and Purgatorio (Purgatory) if you stop and think about it. With so-called heavenly creatures having such a grotesque form - who really is the enemy in this universe? The answer, which comes at the end, is a lovely knock against organised religion even if the videogame wrapper blunts its meaning and intent.


The darkly religious overtones fade perfectly into the background when you don't pay attention - and many will gladly revel in the beautiful and balletic display of fighting that the game delivers with aplomb - but it’s there to add a canvass to the sensible insanity of the game. If you love your fighting games along the Devil May Cry route then Bayonetta works in delivering the pinnacle title that the series could never itself achieve.

The beautifully uncomfortable world the game portrayed was the magical key that made this title something special - as was the gameplay that came together in a perfect alignment of accessibility and challenge. This is more than the best action game I’ve ever played - the sense of awe, fear and elation that I experienced meant that every moment of play and subsequent replays has given me more pleasure than I could have thought possible.

The debate about the central characters sexual nature, the constant focus on her crotch and the suggestive dialogue that runs through the entire game will rage on regardless of critical success and adoration. But Bayonetta is a game that deserves to rise above that unnecessary dialogue and be enjoyed for the unashamed 'videogame' that it is.

Explaining my hatred for Darksiders

Nothing that's what. Absolutely nothingOver the past few years I've noticed, along with other old-man stuff, that I've grown increasingly more intolerant towards certain mechanics or designs that games use. It started with the tendency of Halo games to make you replay a level backwards or put you through ever-increasing waves of enemies - for no reason other than to lengthen the experience of the game. Back-tracking is one of my pet hates and I feel it’s a hangover from ages past – a dinosaur of design that should be put in its coffin and buried six feet under.

My gradual career shift from gardening to videogame writing has meant I’m obliged to finish games I write a review for – that’s why this isn’t a review of Darksiders and more an explanation as to why my heart is filled with such bitter hatred towards it. Fortunately for me and fortunately for Darksiders I didn’t get a copy for review and I couldn't imagine a more excruciating assignment than making my way through this game. Maybe I should review it, maybe I should man-up and just get over my biased hate and figure out why it’s been given such glowing reviews from IGN and Giant Bomb.

But in many ways I don’t want to be constructive and fair. Darksiders gave me such a negative reaction that I want to try and figure why I had such a negative reaction to it. And the reason for this, I believe, comes on several levels. One is the art-style (or lack thereof), one is the gameplay and the other is the insistence of reviewers to compare it to Zelda and God of War.

Firstly, the game's presentation. There’s a certain visual style/quality that some games have that causes a negative reaction from me. From the very start I found the graphics to have a certain sheen, a metallic look and feel that felt totally wrong to me. It reminded me of Prototype and Legendary. I never felt my character in Prototype was connected to the world and the movement style and presentation just felt a

Unremittingly blandThe same visual cues seem to be present too – there’s something about both those games that hurts my eyes. Not in an allegorical or metaphysical sense but it practically makes my eyes hurt to look at the screen. Not because of overly vibrant colours but because the palette feels so flat. The colours all have the same grey or metallic hue that makes the world feel utterly dull and unwelcoming to be in. It’s a bizarre paradox but if the world had more grime, more dirt and greater sense of ruin and disaster then it might be more appealing to me.

The other comparison to Legendary is the fantastical array of creatures and demons that now inhabit the earth. In both games the depiction of these creatures is nothing I can fault technically. They are both creative, with Darksiders obviously having the greater degree of fidelity and detail of the two. But I simply can't 'get into' these creatures at all. I don't like fighting them because they're so outlandish and generic at the same time; they are completely typical Demonic designs. Fire, horns, forked tongues and deep rumbling voices are all used in a text-book way that leaves no room for originality.

I know how ridiculous that must sound, especially after my gushing review of Bayonetta which features some very unique heavenly/demonic entities. The main difference in this instance is Bayonetta's art style. Many will call its creatures over-the-top or fantastical, but the truth is that they work within Bayonetta's world by actually being quite understated. They are taken from classical architecture and the stone-gargoyle or angelic reliefs give the creatures an air of austerity and sadness to them. This the polar opposite to those in Darksiders which takes the classic demon interpretation and slaps fire, claws and blood all over it. That's probably the best explanation I could give about my aversion to the visual style of Darksiders - it's not particularly clear but I'm still figuring out why I dislike it so much.

So onto the gameplay and back to my origianl point about backtracking within Halo. In the short period I played Darksiders the repetition had just started to creep in and it's clear from what I've heard that the game only increases this mechanic as time goes on. Simply put - I hate it. The arbitrary nature of having to go back to a previous point in order to progress feels wrong to me. In an open-world game like GTA, Red Faction or The Saboteur it makes perfect sense to revisit the same areas or go back through a level. But when it’s a game that is built to be linear then I don’t' want any sort of - collect that, take it there, go back to that portal/door/dog kennel - in order to move forward.

Darksiders also has a difficulty curve problem and the first few levels after the prologue are just far too awkward when it comes to combat. Unblockable attacks by some of the mini-bosses or the huge sweeping blows that they make are simply inexcusable in a game like this, especially when it’s within the first hour.

Bayonetta's formidable bosses are far more meaningful and uniqueThe final part of my tri-force (oh the lols) of hatred aimed at Darksiders comes from the reviews I’ve read. This isn't some conspiracy-laden accusation that many tin-hatted fools on the internet like to make, but I honestly struggle with understanding some of the viewpoints offered by many reviewers. Nearly every review I've read has drawn comparisons between this game and a multitude of others. Some say the combat is taken from God of War and the structure from Legend of Zelda. Well, I guess it’s time for real internet honesty here and I admit that I've only played about eight hours of Phantom Hourglass and not a single second of any other Zelda. I've only just started playing God of War as I came from an exclusively Amiga and PC background when growing up. Whether or not this invalidates my opinion I'm not sure but the combat to me feels awfully un-like God of War so far. It feels heavy and unresponsive with a very limited number of moves from the start and clunky system of blocking or counterattacking that frequently left my dead rather than alive.

As for the Zelda comparison - I'm frankly at a loss. Irritating companion, tedious repetitive gameplay with arbitrary quests that require X amount of X to progress for no legitimate reason why? I know enough about Zelda to realise that Darksiders lifts gameplay conventions from Nintendo’s flagship series. But my problem is... why is this a good thing? These conventions appear to work because of Zelda’s endearing nature, the archetypes Link and Zelda represent and the history of the world the series has created. Transferring those mechanics into this setting highlights how antique they are and that modern games can’t rely on old methods to make them into ‘classics’

I know I’m in the minority with Darksiders. I know most people who see it through to its conclusion come back saying it’s a fantastic game and that it out-Zelda’s Zelda with its climatic end and dramatic narrative. But those three and a half hours felt more dull and painful than Shellshock 2 or the entirety of Lord of the Rings: Conquest. Just like the praise and accolades that Prototype and Crysis received on their releases, Darksiders will forever remain a mystery to me.

I'm sorry Darksiders... it's me not you.


Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Fallen Earth -> Review

Originally published on Game People

Taking a familiar setting and building a compelling world is just one of Fallen Earth’s many successes. I was blown away by the depth and attention to detail this post-apocalyptic MMO portrayed and the manner with which I was drawn into its world. For a long time I have argued that online games cannot give a deep and meaningful experience due to their very nature - but there’s more heart and soul here than in many other recent games. Whether I was delving deep into the crafting system, following the story or simply taking in the haunting environments, Fallen Earth took me on a journey into a world I’ll never forget.

Bleak wastelands, nuclear fallout and zombies are some of the most overused settings in videogames and other modern media. For every highly original drama or existential art-piece there’s a thousand Mad Max clones and Fallout tributes all vying for the same space. That was the attitude that I went into Fallen Earth with; that no amount of unique gameplay or well-conceived online structure could rescue the game from painful and familiar mediocrity.

What a fool I was - because Fallen Earth drew me into its post-apocalyptic world with its atmosphere, gameplay, deep crafting system and coherent story. All within an MMO template that turned my preconceptions about what online games are capable of on their head. Not only is Fallen Earth a tremendous MMO, but it’s a stunning single-player RPG that’s as deep and involving as anything in recent memory.

What worked so well was how the game covered up most of the usual MMO conceits in a completely logical and coherent way. You can survive death because you're a clone and the multiple cloning factories will happily spew out replacements when you fall in battle. This does wonders for making the world feel believable. Though that’s an odd statement to make about a game that's played exclusively online - it shows that Fallen Earth has a quality that surpasses even my anti-social gaming habits.

The main reason for this is simply the environment of the world. Starting off in an instance set within the Hoover Dam complex and attempting to escape from an insurgent attack serves as an excellent tutorial and as a compelling jumping-off point. I'll admit that the first hour isn't perhaps as thrilling as it could be, but the final moments of this section when you realise how well death is integrated into the game is awesome.

It was only when I stepped out into the wider world of Fallen Earth that the environment truly hit home. The attention to detail in every location is just as amazing as the wasteland from Fallout 3. Abandoned airports, villages pieced together from the rotting remains of civilisation and the general sense of an old-west frontier town purveys the game in a tremendous fashion. The biggest different between this and Bethesda's masterpiece is how the sense of bleak loneliness doesn’t overcome the experience. I struggled with Fallout because despite its black humour, its despairing vision of the future was so depressing to play in. That same environment and humour runs deep in Fallen Earth, but the world feels far more alive and much more compelling to play in when you can see and interact with other human players.

That last statement is important because I find interacting with other players a sure-fire way to take me out of any experience I'm having. Nothing ruins a perfectly crafted fantasy environment by being messaged 'Get ur Gold 'ere, PM HaxorrX for cheap gold' all the time. But I found my experience heightened and improved by the active community that resides there. Why? Well, similar to Eve Online, Fallen Earth operates within a single server - you’re all logged into the same world all the time. While that leads to some technical problems in highly populated areas it gives a real sense of existence and uniqueness to the world.

That same coherent logic is present throughout the areas of the game. There are horses for transport because hey, it's the apocalypse and fuel is scarce - you can obtain an ATV but looking after it includes refuelling and repairing broken engine parts. There are factions and a loyalty system because that's exactly the manner in which humanity would degrade under such circumstances.

And this is all before I discovered how deep the crafting system goes. I must admit to having a schizophrenic affair with crafting in most MMOs. Either it feels like an afterthought and a worthless pursuit, or I get sucked into the professions - a la Lord of the Rings Online-style - and end up playing as a woodcutter for the majority of the game. I was more than happy experiencing the bleak wilderness that Fallen Earth portrayed so well until I decided to change my 'Old Nag' for something more mechanical. The path to making an ATV is complicated and long, but the results are worth it and this lengthy excursion into mechanics suddenly sparked my interest in the game's crafting system.

To say its deep would be selling this aspect of the game short by several degrees. It's a massive and highly involving occupation that fundamentally shapes the way you want to play the game. Being a go-getting kind of clone I wanted the ability to make my own weapons and specialise in rifles. As well as gaining XP in the usual manner the game also gives you Action Points (AP) for spending on skills, mutations, stats and tradeskills. These points help you decide what path to take in the game - whether to be a high-damage dealer, leader, medic, trader, pistoleer, etc. All this ties into the crafting system as you level up each skill and get more proficient at your chosen craft.

Learning books and blueprints, collecting a wide myriad of junk materials and finally crafting a hand-made crossbow or rifle is an effort that leads to a great sense of accomplishment -akin to creating objects in the real world. It reminds me a lot of the early days of Star Wars Galaxies when the path to making a Lightsaber was a mystical and special process, when you could become a Beast Master or an Entertainer because it fitted the feel of the world rather than being an arbitrary system for earning more money and XP.

All these various systems and points blend seamlessly together in Fallen Earth and I'm finding it hard, even after spending so much time in its world, to stop playing. It's kept me from writing this review because I've become so embroiled in my character and living out a frontier existence in the post-apocalypse. What I've touched on has already elevated Fallen Earth to become one of my most compelling games I've ever played, but its overall presentation and sharp visuals deserve a mention too.

When I first started the game the edges were definitely rough and the initial instanced tutorial was a shaky affair that had me worried at first. But taken as a whole, this grimy start fitted the style of the game and the fidelity of the outside world makes a tremendous and deliberate contrast when you finally step out from the cloning booth. The distinct lack of stylised graphics and models, like those found in World of Warcraft or Borderlands, helps to support that sense of reality and has been recently bolstered by an upgraded grphics engine.

Fallen Earth has been a revelation to me; not only has it been an MMO that's encouraged me to stay within its world due to the environment and setting, but it’s also shown me that the genre is far from the stagnant mess I thought it was after playing Aion: Tower of Eternity. Fallen Earth has come out of nowhere to become a game I can recommend whole-heartily, whether or not you're after a multi or single player experience. It has a depth and environment that most other usual releases simply fail to achieve; it's addictive, immersive and an experience I can't wait to get back to.

Thursday, 7 January 2010

Aion: Tower of Eternity -> Review

With the promise of a visually beautiful online experience and the unique ability of flight enticing me into its world, Aion: Tower of Eternity looked like it could be the MMORPG to bring me back into the fold after a two year absence. Unfortunately the excruciating banality of the first 25 levels meant that any promise of uniqueness was crushed under exasperation and boredom.

There was something magical about hearing the hype regarding Aion: Tower of Eternity. Its success in Asia and the distinct visual style evident in trailers and screenshots gave me the same buzz I experienced when waiting for Lord of The Rings Online (LOTRO) to release.

It’s that game which set the standard for MMORPGs in my mind. The balance of strong story-based quests and the right mix of additive game mechanics meant I came away with the same feelings a single-player RPG would elicit.

But my first impressions of Aion were not great - the initial cut-scenes were immediately confusing and the story-based dialogue and quest structure left a lot to be desired. When it wasn’t descending to generic fantasy trope #3 it was being nonsensical and doing its best to muddy the narrative completely.

Granted, the visual appeal of Aion is amazing and I was constantly amazed at how wonderful the world looked; whether I was gallivanting in the Elyos opening area with its oversized exotic creatures and verdant landscapes; or questing in the Asmodian areas with their dark and bleak scenery - the game is a beautiful spectacle of light and nature. But this visual feast really covered up the painfully dull start I experienced with both races. Not only was the story lacklustre, but the simple process of levelling up a character took far too long even with the bonus XP amulet I was given at the beginning of the game.

I'm no stranger to the grind in MMOs or RPGs, but where other games wrap interesting story or engaging narrative around these game mechanics, Aion doesn't seem to even try. I'm the type of gamer who reads all the quest logs and information about the world so I can get fully ensconced it its lore and setting. That's what I loved about LOTRO so much - that the developers respected the source material and put so much of that into the game. Aion obviously doesn't have that rich heritage, but even other original MMOs like Free Realms or Fallen Earth have a far superior atmosphere and quest structure than what I experienced here. Sometimes it felt as if it was down to poor translation, other times it felt like the original developers idn't have the time to make it the story interesting.

It certainly doesn't help when you quickly run out of quests and are left with the hideous process of killing environmental creatures until you pass a certain level cap. Levelling up in Aion is some of the most soulless gaming I have ever experienced - akin to playing Hannah Montana: The Movie just for the Xbox 360 Gamerscore points.

Aion is not without its interesting additions though, and the inclusion of mini cut-scenes for plot-central quests is a nice touch. It gave me the feeling that what I did in the world mattered a little more than usual and it’s a neat way to bring in some solid narrative into an MMO game.

The biggest draw of the game for me was the addition of winged flight after reaching level ten. Having gone through many hours of grind this carrot was all that kept me going. The chance for my character to ascend was an awesome thought and the possibilities of aerial combat gave me hope that Aion could still draw a unique rabbit out of its dusty old hat.

Again I was disappointed. Not because of the visual drama that the cut-scene evoked - if anything I thought this marked a change in the game's narrative for the better and I actually started to feel interested in the world and the direction the game was going in. It was the technical restrictions that applied to this event that really soured my mood. I didn't expect to be able to fly all the time but the small limit that the game introduced felt completely arbitrary. There's no fun and no joy to be had from such a restricted feature, especially when the crux of the game is built on its inclusion. The real freedom I was hoping for didn’t come until level 25 when you enter the Abyss. Here the restrictions on flight are lifted but to be quite honest, by the time I had struggled to that stage I was sick of Aion and all it represented.

I'm aware that most people use MMOs as glorified chat-rooms or social hang-outs, but there are many other games that don't feel like so much hard work and actually reward you for putting over 25 hours of your time in. The unique pull of Aion with its visuals and aerial combat feels completely false to me now - the plot and world are muddled and I rarely felt as if I was travelling along a well-thought out path that had care or attention lavished on it.

Aion seems to sit uneasily between Eastern and Western design philosophy with its harsh levelling procedures and dull quest structures. None of its visual splendour can hide the fact that its poor storytelling and boring narrative are at the heart of its gameplay. I went into this game hoping to be inspired, but after twenty-five hours of play I feel more discouraged about the MMO genre and what it can deliver than ever before.