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The Cave (XBLA Review)

February 10, 2013 Leave a comment

The-Cave-logo

Throughout this console generation we’ve seen a lot of melding of genres; for example, just about every game has some sort of RPG element now. The point and click adventure game is a genre that hasn’t really been involved in this mass melding. We’ve seen Telltale Games change it up a little with The Walking Dead, but now adventure game master Ron Gilbert and Double Fine have decided to try their hand at it. The result is The Cave, an adventure game platformer in which you control a selection of seven characters (though really there’s eight as one “character” is a set of twins) as they enter a sentient cave seeking their heart’s true desire.

After the titular and immensely charming Cave introduces the game, you are presented with a choice. You must select three of the seven playable characters to take on your journey. Each has their own special ability: invincibility for the Knight, telekinesis for the Monk, hacking for the Scientist and so on. These abilities allow each character to enter their own unique region of The Cave, it’s in these themed areas that you will be challenged with helping the characters gain their heart’s desire, for some that means love for others a wondrous treasure. There are also several shared areas that can (and will) be accessed no matter the make up of your party. As you won’t be able to see all seven character’s stories in one run, you will have to repeat these non-specific sections multiple times.

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Repetition is the bane of The Cave. If it’s not the entire sections you’ll play multiple times, it’s the frustrating amount of backtracking within each and every section. The ability to skip or streamline these areas in some way would have been welcome. Backtracking is exacerbated by the sub-par platforming and need to constantly switch between characters. As there’s no way to get a character you aren’t directly controlling to follow you, they’ll just have to stand and wait while you move the active character to where they need to be, at which point you have to switch characters and slavishly move to the next spot. In theory co-op might alleviate this issue slightly, but that’s hampered by a single screen camera that is inconsistent in who it focuses on. Platforming just ends up getting in the way of the adventure game aspects. Often you will know exactly what you need to do to complete a puzzle, usually because you’ve done it before, but thanks to the poor platforming it’ll take you far longer than you’d like to execute the solution.

Taking the puzzle solving of an adventure game and replacing the cursor with an avatar you directly control is definitely a smart idea. Heck, platformers have had light puzzle elements almost since their inception. Unfortunately, The Cave slips up on a fundamental part of this: the platforming is bad. Though not the worst platforming ever in a game, it’s clunky, slow and often hard to control. When the core gameplay and navigation mechanic isn’t enjoyable–oftentimes quite the opposite, in fact–you’ve messed up. There’s really no excuse for bad 2D platforming in 2013; Super Mario Bros 3 perfected that stuff well over 20 years ago.

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All these shortcomings are made all the more disappointing by the fact it’s immensely charming and well written. As mentioned earlier, The Cave itself (himself?) is great, narrating events with a wonderfully dry, dark wit which sets the tone and atmosphere perfectly. The few other voiced characters you come across are also all very funny, well acted and just generally a lot of fun. Puzzles are also clever and challenging; there are only a few stumpers here and there but you’re certainly likely to stop and scratch your head for a bit at some point. I found myself amused by the cartoon logic many of the puzzles use. Have a battery with no charge? Obviously this pool of water with Electric Eels swimming around in it is exactly what you need.

The Cave is a lovely little world to get lost in, with a beautiful soundtrack, a wonderful art style and writing that’ll constantly make you smile. Unfortunately, playing the game just isn’t fun, simply because it breaks too many fundamental rules. A game should never waste the player’s time, but here we have a game that almost feels designed to do just that, hoping you won’t notice because it made a joke about hot dogs.

Originally published on StickSkills.com

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Categories: Games, My writing Tags: ,

Mass Effect 3: Omega (Xbox 360 DLC Review)

December 23, 2012 Leave a comment

ME3 Omega 1

It has to be tough making new story content for a game with a narrative that’s already come to a close. And yet that’s what BioWare is doing with Mass Effect 3. Leviathan was the first attempt and was mostly successful thanks to some fairly large lore revelations. BioWare Montreal–currently in pre-production with the next entry in the franchise–has produced the second piece of content: “Omega.” It’s fair less grand in scope than Leviathan, but promises to deliver a large chunk of content all the same. Unfortunately the context of its release may make it less appealing to anyone not currently in the middle of a playthrough.

“Omega” picks up a story thread that was left hanging in Mass Effect 3. In a side quest, Commander Shepard aided former Omega ruler Aria T’loak gain allies to help her take back the titular asteroid-turned-space-station. Between Mass Effect 2 and 3, Cerberus has taken over the station and Aria has fled to the Citadel. Once you helped her out, though, there was no pay-off to that particular side quest; you got your war assets and whatnot, but Omega remained under Cerberus control. You certainly couldn’t go there.

Until now.

BioWare has been talking a big talk with “Omega,” likening it more to an expansion pack than the more traditional DLC content we’ve become used to. It even has a price tag that implies it’s more content rich, but it’s not. The new chapter contains three hours of content at most. That’s about average for Mass Effect story DLC, and it’s certainly nowhere near what one would expect from an expansion. It’s a shame, because the content that is here is actually a lot of fun: very action-heavy, with a few Dead Space-esque sequences that enhance the atmosphere. You’ll also get some more insight into the character of Aria, thanks to the introduction of a female Turian named Nyreen. Their relationship is a complicated one, which you’ll discover the details of as they join your squad throughout the mission on Omega. None of your regular crew, it turns out, makes the trip.

In “Omega, you’ll see a different side of the station than you did in Mass Effect 2, as the areas you visited then are partially under the control of Cerberus. A lot of time is spent in small, darkened rooms, as Aria and her rag-tag army devise a plan to take Omega back. Some of Aria and Nyreen’s compatriots will also task you with the very few side quests available in this DLC, all of which you’ll complete as you follow the course of the main mission. For a space station that’s built into an asteroid ,BioWare managed to provide a lot of visual variety as you travel through abandon mine shafts and facilities. Unfortunately, some of the more impressive environments also suffer from frame rate issues (at least on the 360 version), although these moments are (thankfully) outside of combat.

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It’s hard not to compare “Omega” to Mass Effect 3‘s first piece of story DLC, Leviathan. That DLC also came out a good while after the game, even after the Extended Cut content. But because it was about a very specific and ultimately pretty important part of the overall Mass Effect lore, it was far more enjoyable as a standalone piece. “Omega” feels like it needs to be played as part of a full Mass Effect 3 playthrough to be enjoyed. That way you can wrap up the story thread with Aria, get a bunch of new war assets and weapons, then carry on with your mission to defeat the Reapers. As it is, most people will play through “Omega” and then take Mass Effect 3 out of their systems until the next DLC is released.

Taken on its own, the “Omega” DLC for Mass Effect 3 is a pretty cool piece of content. But when you start to think about it in context–the price, the length and how far removed it is from the release of the main game–it starts to look a little different. These factors add up and make “Omega” look like a bit of a bum deal.

Originally published on StickSkills.com

Categories: Games, My writing Tags: , ,

The Walking Dead – Episode 1: A New Day (XBLA Review)

December 23, 2012 Leave a comment

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Zombie games: They’re nothing new; some may even argue they’re overdone. We even have our fair share on XBLA already. The vast majority of games featuring zombies use the shambling undead as cannon fodder, the thing players need to mow down with a machine gun to progress.

With The Walking Dead, Telltale Games looks to do something a little different. Much like the comic series it’s based on, this isn’t about killing all zombies in your way, it’s a story about people. What do we do when society collapses and the dead come back to life? It’s a question that’s been the crux of some of the best zombie movies, but one that often falls by the wayside when it comes to games.

So if you’re expecting a game where you must survive the zombie apocalypse by aiming down the sights of your pistol and getting some headshots, you’ll have to look elsewhere. The Walking Dead is a fairly traditional point and click adventure game; while you do have direct control over the main character most of your interaction with the world will be through an onscreen cursor or making dialogue choices.

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Here’s what we liked:

Characters you believe in – During the roughly 2-3 hour experience that makes up this first episode you play as Lee, an apparently convicted felon who was on his way to jail when the world started going to hell. During the course of the episode you’ll learn more about his past, but we’ll have to wait for more episodes to find out the whole truth. Whether he’s guilty or not, Lee seems to be a good guy, though you can of course turn him into a bit of a jerk if you want. As the story progresses Lee meets more and more survivors, from a possibly orphaned little girl to an already-established group who have taken refuge in a drugstore. Every character you meet is well-defined, and aside from a few inconsistencies (more on that later), behave in a completely believable way. It makes it easy to get lost in the situation and feel real tension when you are posed with a moral dilemma, or even just having a regular conversation.

Lee & Clementine – Very soon after the game’s opening, Lee meets Clementine. She has been hiding in her treehouse since things went bad; her parents are out of town (and could be dead) and her babysitter has succumbed to the zombie outbreak. Lee takes it upon himself to look after her, though they often seem to be looking after each other. The relationship dynamic between Lee and Clem is by far the most impressive part of The Walking Dead. Wonderfully acted, written and entirely believable, it is a joy to experience. Children in video games are so rarely anything more than an annoyance; not only is Clementime not annoying, she’s charming, tough and arguably smarter than some of the adults you meet. Telltale have managed to make something really special here and should be commended for it.

The zombie apocalypse ain’t fun – Don’t let the unique comic book illustration-esque art style fool you,The Walking Dead is just as nasty and brutal as its comic and television counterparts. People will swear loudly in your face and tell you exactly what they’re thinking and when you kill zombies you won’t feel good about it. Unlike other zombie games, your kill count in Walking Dead won’t reach double digits in a hurry. There are a few big kills throughout the first episode and they are bound to make you uncomfortable. Telltale do a great job of making you smash that hammer into a zombie’s skull just a few too many times. Lingering on your handiwork just a little longer than you’d like, it adds a lot to the already pretty intense action sequences.

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Here’s what we didn’t like:

Technical issues – With all their episodic games Telltale have been working with variations of the same game engine, and unfortunately it isn’t especially robust. Transitions between actions are often occompanied with a brief pause which often breaks the flow of some of the more action-focused moments. We also experienced some noticable dips in framerate during some of the more open areas of the game, though fortunately it never impacted any conversation or action moments so it can be easily forgiven.

Writing inconsistencies – The writing is no doubt the best part of Episode I, but it is not without its issues. There are several prominent moments where characters act or speak in a way which doesn’t make much sense and is wholly in service of gameplay. Perhaps the most infuriating example of this is when one character is made to look incredibly moronic just to give players a “puzzle” to solve. Carley is a reporter and a crack shot with the pistol she always carries, but she apparently doesn’t know what a battery looks like or how to use them. She asks Lee to help her fix a radio, only for him to discover it doesn’t have any a batteries. No one is thinking straight these days so it’s easy to overlook. Lee gets the batteries and hands them to Carley. When he comes back later the darn radio still isn’t working, so he takes another look. Turns out Carley put the batteries in backwards. The puzzle aspect isn’t challenging or fun and the whole sequence does nothing but make Carley look incredibly stupid. It sadly isn’t the only example of this sort of puzzle before dialogue issue; we really hope this aspect of the game is handled better in later episodes.

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A game in which the gameplay consists mostly of conversation and decision-making may not be for everyone. That said, The Walking Dead is fantastic, with a well-told story with believable characters and surprisingly intense and grisly action scenes. Even if you are unsure, we highly recommend you at least try it out. However if the idea of a zombie game that’s about more than headshots sounds good to you then there’s no doubt you need to play The Walking Dead.

Score: Buy it!

Originally published on XBLAFans.com

Categories: Games, My writing Tags: ,

The Walking Dead – Episode 2: Starved For Help (XBLA Review)

December 23, 2012 Leave a comment

The Walking Dead Ep 2 Screen 1

With the first episode of The Walking Dead, Telltale Games gave us something very special. It was a game with a compelling story in which choice mattered. You cared enough about the believable characters and world they had created that the decisions were never easy.

We thought Episode 1 was pretty amazing so Episode 2, Starved For Help, had a lot to live up to. If you’re reading this then you probably already played the first episode, and you will have to own it to play this one. You’ll be pleased to know Telltale has not only met the expectations set by the first episode but easily exceeded them.

Here’s what we liked:

Simple but effective gameplay – As is to be expected, the core mechanics of The Walking Dead remain the same. You have control over Lee’s movement as well as an onscreen context-sensitive cursor. There are less puzzles this time round, and certainly no bafflingly stupid battery incidents, instead there’s a bigger focus on action. This means more quick-time-event sequences, which are used in increasingly smart methods. One extended sequence near the end of the game perfectly illustrates this, connecting you with the action in a very physical way.

Harrowing – The Walking Dead is about as adult as video games get, and Starved For Help takes that idea to new, horrifying places. This is not a game for the faint of heart. In addition to the agonizing choices you’ll make, there are scenes of graphic violence that will have you averting your eyes. This all adds up to give this episode an incredibly tense and paranoia-fueled atmosphere that makes you think twice about continuing.

Unpredictable – You may have finished the first episode and thought “yeah I can see where the next episode is going”, well we can almost guarantee you won’t have expected this. The main plot thread does become obvious after a while, or at least it did to us. But even then the game is littered with shocking and unpredictable moments. It makes every decision you make feel all the more important because you just don’t know what will happen next. What might have seemed like the safest option may lead to you fighting for your life, or put someone else in danger.

Fantastic writing – Once again the writing here is outstanding, though there are still a few inconsistencies present. We wish the writers didn’t feel the need to have characters tell you to “come see me when you’re ready”. But we’re nitpicking, this is still one of the best written games around, with believable characters that are just getting richer with each episode.

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Here’s what we didn’t like:

Technical issues – We critiqued the first episode, A New Day, for showing the limitations of Telltale’s engine. Sadly Starved For Help does nothing to fix these issues, in fact they seem to be getting worse. As Telltale tries to do more elaborate things with their engine, it shows the strain even more prevalently. The brief pauses and hitches when transitioning between action scenes are still there and now there are also numerous audio anomalies, including syncing issues and stuttering. While these issues are definitely a problem worth noting, it speaks to the quality of the rest of the game that they detract very little from the experience.

Some choices don’t matter – As impressive as it is that big decisions you make, like who lived or died, carry over we can’t help being disappointed that some things happen no matter what. There are a few examples of this in Starved For Help, choices you are presented with that don’t change the outcome. If you only play through the game once you’ll never know, it’s just a shame that those replaying to see other outcomes will be left wanting.

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With this series Telltale set out to make a zombie game that was more about people than the undead monsters they’re running from. We’re now two episodes in to this five episode season and we’d say they’ve executed on that idea almost perfectly.

Games are meant to be fun, sure, but they are also meant to elicit an emotional response. The Walking Dead Episode 2: Starved for Help will take your emotions for quite a ride; you may not enjoy yourself during certain parts of that ride, but you’ll be glad you took it. We can’t wait to play the other episodes, but we must express some trepidation towards what heinous things Telltale have in store.

Score: Buy It

Originally published on XBLAFans.com

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The Walking Dead – Episode 3: Long Road Ahead (XBLA Review)

December 23, 2012 Leave a comment

The Walking Dead Ep 3 Screen 1

Episode 3 of The Walking Dead is not fun, you will not enjoy the experience. You’ll walk away from it with a sick feeling in the pit of your stomach, and possibly tears in your eyes. It is a harrowing, depressing and almost hopeless tale, even more so than the two episodes preceding it.

The worst part of all that? It is an experience you absolute must take part in, this is a game that will make you feel and think things you’d never have considered a game could. In three short episodes Telltale Games have become masters of the zombie apocalypse, telling horribly believable, shocking stories through an interactive medium.

Here’s what we liked:

Time investment put to good use – By now if you’ve played through each episode at least once, you’ve spent a good five or six hours with this group of characters. It might not sound like much but you’ll be surprised how attached you are. Telltale knows exactly what to do with that information, they’re going to use it to hurt you. Those characters you care about? They’re going to suffer, it makes for a difficult game to sit through but the sheer power of the emotions you’ll experience make it worth playing.

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Technical issues ironed out – If you’ve read our reviews of the last two episodes, you’ll recall one of the main complaints was that the Telltale engine struggles under the pressure. We’re happy to see that with this iteration those issues are all but gone. There’s still a slight, but noticeable, pause when transitioning between some scenes but unlike the past two episodes it’s never in a place that effects the pacing of a tense sequence.

Puzzling – The other episodes of Walking Dead were fairly light on puzzles and adventure game tropes.Long Road Ahead brings in some simple puzzles to engage in, they come at a pretty perfect time too. Just when you and the characters need to distract themselves from the horrible events that take place throughout this episode.

Here’s what we didn’t like:

Uneven pacing – Long Road Ahead is packed with huge, game-changing events. The landscape of Lee’s world completely changes from the start of this episode to the end. With so many significant events packed into a small time frame (though this is the longest episode so far), it’s not surprising the pacing takes a hit. Unfortunately the flow of the game suffers a bit for it, there is a point about three quarters of the way through which feels like an ending point. It isn’t though, and the game continues on for a while still. The last section does seem necessary of course, setting up events in the next episode but we feel it could’ve been handled better.

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As we get further into the season it becomes clear that some decisions matter more than others. Ultimately it’s not so much about how much your decisions shape the story but rather how they shape you and the characters around you.

Telltale use The Walking Dead‘s zombie backdrop perfectly, bringing the human element to the forefront in ever more tragic ways. While it may make for a very hard to stomach experience, there is no doubt that everyone should play this game.

Score: Buy It

Originally published on XBLAFans.com

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Mass Effect 3: Leviathan (Xbox 360 DLC Review)

December 23, 2012 Leave a comment

ME3 Leviathan

Whether you experienced the original ending, or the revamped Extended Cut, it’s hard to argue that Mass Effect 3did not, in fact, end. Commander Shepard’s story came to a blatant conclusion, presenting BioWare with the problem of what to do in terms of post-release DLC. If the developers were to add content to the end of the game, they would run into problems with linear storytelling, as each ending is drastically different from the next.  Unsurprisingly, BioWare decided to create content that slots into the regular game and can be played like any other side-mission,. This method is no doubt easier and smarter, though it is a bit limiting.

In Mass Effect 3′s first expansion,”Leviathan,” Shepard is informed of a secret research project, tasked with the investigation of something called “Leviathan,” a mysterious entity that apparently killed a Reaper. Obviously a creature as powerful as this could be a very useful ally in the war against the Reapers, so Shepard sets out to discover more about what it actually is. A large chunk of “Leviathan” involves investigation, though this aspect of the game is heavily front-loaded. Players must find clues to narrow down search parameters, which lead to a new location with clues in the quest to find out what (or who) Leviathan is.

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Throughout the almost-three-hour length of “Leviathan” you will take part in small skirmishes against Reaper forces, who are themselves trying to track down Leviathan whilst stopping Shepard from doing the same. These moments bring a burst of excitement to an otherwise low-key piece of content. You’ll spend most of your time in the investigation sequences, searching offices and various complexes for clues to progress. A few sections also have a brilliantly creepy atmosphere, as you wander through dimly lit rooms and are told you shouldn’t have come by their occupants.

It’s safe to say “Leviathan” contains some fairly large revelations that give context to the Reapers and their origins. Is it necessary information? Not at all. The Reapers were fine as a seemingly ageless race whose origins were so old they could barely be comprehended. That said, having this new context does little to hurt the overall universe of Mass Effect. In fact it’s immensely interesting and has me intrigued to know more.

The revelations “Leviathan” holds are wrapped in an enjoyable piece of Mass Effect 3 content, that is sure to remind fans why they love the series. There are some truly spectacular visuals toward the end too, but overall, despite being enjoyable and building on the fiction, “Leviathan” isn’t quite a must-play.

Originally published on StickSkills.com

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Yar’s Revenge (XBLA Review)

December 23, 2012 Leave a comment

Yars’ Revenge was one of the best selling games on the Atari 2600, making it somewhat of a puzzle why it has taken so long to come back. To the modern player of games it would appear very simple and, of course, being from that era it is just that, but for some reason it found an audience. The goal was to take out your enemy, an alien known as Qotile, which involved getting through its shield using the weapons at your disposal. Atari have decided to give the game the “reimagining” treatment and have put developer Killspace Entertainment at the helm.

Yar’s Revenge on XBLA sees you facing off against many Qotile, rather than just the one from the original. The game is no longer a single screen shooter either but has been transformed into an on-rails affair akin to Sin & Punishment or Rez.

Since the game is on-rails, Killspace Entertainment always know what you’re looking at, which means they have focused a lot of effort on the art. As a result, there are plenty of very impressive (but perhaps not very varied) painted backgrounds. Lots of lovely cloudy vistas to take in as you fly through levels. The design of Yar herself is also great, a simple but interesting mixture of insectoid robot and slightly generic anime girl.

In contrast, the six or seven enemy designs in the game are dull and uninspired. Plus anything that isn’t part of the background looks plain bad. Low-res textures, poorly animated enemies (even the bosses) and visual effects lacking any flair or substance make Yar’s Revenge feel very low budget. Each enemy is constantly repeated throughout the levels with occasional colour changes to add a little variety. This wouldn’t be quite as big an issue if the unique types of enemy had differing or interesting attack patterns. While the painted backgrounds are great to look at, the same can’t be said for the rest of the game.

Yar has three main weapons: A pulse laser, railgun and missiles. The railgun has a cooldown time and the missiles have limited ammo (which can be replenished from pick-ups). Points and multipliers are what drive Yar’s Revenge; as enemies are dispatched the multiplier climbs. The strategy comes in knowing when to take out enemies. There are often brief lulls in combat which will leave just enough time for the multiplier to tick down to zero. So the battles become a balancing act of staying alive while trying not to clear the screen too quickly. When to use the game’s several power-ups also figures into this, especially the shield as using it means Yar can’t fire any weapons. All these options during combat make the gameplay a bit more interesting than it initially appears.

To beat all six of Yar’s Revenge‘s levels will take a couple of hours, max. With very few deaths and enough continues that you won’t be forced to restart the level, it doesn’t take very long to get into the rhythm of knowing which weapon to use and when. Challenge seems to have been shifted to figuring out the multiplier system with the actual combat taking a backseat.

It’s difficult to call Yar’s Revenge a bad game, it’s just very mediocre. Killspace have tried to add replay value by making the main modes all about high score. But when the gameplay is so boring and lacking in challenge, it’s hard to see anyone caring enough. The ideas behind Yar’s Revenge are good but the execution is lacking, whether that’s due to a lack of budget or some other unknown reason. While it’s cheap and easy to get hold of, there are far better examples of this type of game available elsewhere.

Originally published on Square-Go.com

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