Monday, August 25, 2014

Wolfenstein - Thoughts


Raven's Wolfenstein feels a bit like an artifact caught out of time. Despite Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare's influence on the first person genre, BJ Blaszkowicz's rompin' stompin' Nazi killing adventure plays closer to the older style of post-Half Life shooters, like 2001's Return to Castle Wolfenstein and 2006's Prey. Despite feeling intentionally "old", it nevertheless makes new advancements in its mechanics and gameplay, giving it the feel of both eras... though at times perhaps the worst of the two.


Right out of the gate, the strangest thing to note is the inclusion of three connected hub areas in an otherwise linear FPS. All the main missions consist of a single path but in the hub town you can pursue side quests and engage in random battles that will break out between the Third Reich and Isenstadt's resistance. The Nazi forces will continue to expand and evolve as you move through the game, stronger enemies making more frequent appearances until you find yourself fighting more supernatural soldiers than grunts. It would be a great addition to a largely "by-the-books" game, if not for the fact that you gain almost nothing from combat.

XP is commonplace in most modern shooters but in Wolfenstein the only way to get stronger is to upgrade your armaments with golden trinkets—a non-replenishable commodity which can be hard to find. Scrounging around in corners and side areas can net you a couple hundred bucks every now and then, but you'll largely have to pick and choose which upgrades to apply since the gun enhancements can get very pricey. If you could get cash off of regular units there would be more of an impetus to fight them, but as it stands you'll only want to encounter them if you're not tired of shooting hundreds of soldiers already. And shoot many, many enemies you shall, as the design does little other than drip-feed you humanoid drones to plow through at every opportunity it can provide.


The game is at its funnest when you get to utilize your heavier weapons, each one feeling astonishingly powerful (the flamethrower in particular deserves a special mention, as it's an absolute beast [especially compared to Far Cry 3's dinky blowtorch]). The Particle Cannon and Tesla Gun are my favorites—the former used to render foes into dust with a terrifying shriek and the latter a portable Nazi-barbecue grill at close-range. The problem however, is that the ammo for these big boys is quite scarce, limiting your equipment primarily to the standard assault rifle firearms that drop from lower tier units. Buying ammo is unwise considering your income is limited, so you're left waiting until you can pilfer said munitions from the specialty units or finding stockpiles before boss fights. Speaking of, most of the boss fights can grow particularly vexing, especially the final one (while being a good callback to the id's archaic shooter, the routine nature of it drains the fun).

The most wild game mechanic comes in the form of your Veil abilities, adding to the shooter a peculiar metagame of resource management as these powers are crucial to your survival. There's something inherently entertaining in slowing down time, applying double damage to your weapon, and frying men alive with the Tesla Gun as you barrel into a densely packed barracks... though the Veil powers don't last long. Besides that it's a shame that shooting with the regular arms doesn't feel that engaging, the gameplay further dampened by the bottleneck design of certain encounters. There's also a World at War style grenade spam that compounds the issue, where more than three seconds behind cover prompts a toss (one section of the Castle stage saw me besieged by five grenades at once). When your supplies are maxed out the firefights can be quite fun but otherwise the action slows to a crawl.


Besides the gameplay, the story and visuals are pretty par for the course (I will admit that the Nazi zepplin does have a great steam-punk interior). Altogether Wolfenstein is a strange-yet-straightforward game with some good ideas surrounding some bad ones. Towards the end it starts to play to its design strengths more, sending a variety of its supernatural soldiers at you mixed in with the grunts, but by then you've likely had your fill. If paranormal Nazi killing is your jam you'll feel right at home throughout Blazkowicz's wacky adventure, but other than that it's largely unremarkable.
---------------------

Images obtained from: wolfenstein.wikia.com, newgamenetwork.com, ngohq.com, miikahweb.com, 

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Far Cry 3 - Thoughts


[contains spoilers]

After cleaning up the neon tropics of Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon I immediately jumped into Far Cry 3, salivating for some more open world mayhem. I was stoked to run through a game that was bigger and more customizable than Blood Dragon's, eager to pick up my bow and get back to tearing the local regime a new one. Though a handful of the mechanics were quite different (there's a perk tree!), I felt right at home with a lot of it—even more than I did in its nostalgic cousin. And 40 hours later, what conclusion have I drawn after raiding every base and completing every side mission?

Far Cry 3 is a great game.


Most of my adoration for the series was pontificated on in my Blood Dragon review, but I'll briefly recap here—Far Cry is fantastic because it allows you to approach its world more or less however you want. When encroaching on enemy territory, you can snipe the guards from afar, plant mines along their patrol routes, go in loud with the shotgun, or just avoid the confrontation altogether (and more!). The sheer variety offered in combat keeps the game constantly entertaining; no matter what position you find yourself in, there's always a multitude of ways you can carve through it. Improv planning is a key component too, considering that enemies will fight with both the wildlife and resistance, leading to some unexpected interruptions in your best laid plans. But most importantly, the game rewards you for clever thinking with (besides XP) the sheer gratification that you're the king of this domain—this island is your home, and you are the most dangerous man on it.

You begin your journey to the top by being woefully underpowered, but soon you'll have a grip on the layout of the land, driving across mountains and hunting down wild animals. The fauna is far more valuable here than in Blood Dragon since you need their hides to craft better goodie pouches (with a reasonable number of pelts required), and some of the side missions throw you into pretty tricky situations (I played on the hardest difficulty so having an assortment of ability-boosting syringes on hand definitely helped). As you level up you can choose which skills you want to hone in on, though a few of became useless by the end of the game (why would you want improved pistol accuracy or to use a turret longer?). In the arms department there's a solid selection of weapons to choose from, and you'll definitely find favorites amongst the lot (like the absurdly dangerous Z93 with its sound suppressor attachment).

After I finished the main campaign I continued to explore the lush emerald paradise, yearning to test my skills further. The best parts of the game are some of the little moments you'll experience between destinations, like attempting to drive up a hill that is clearly not meant for vehicles and making long distance shots with explosive arrows. Perhaps because I enjoy the gameplay so much I'm more easily sucked into the world, but I feel that the Rook Islands are a fantastic, gorgeous setting that's never boring to run around in, striking a great balance between seaside coves and dense woods. Exploring this world is similar to that in an Elder Scrolls game, except it lacks the plentiful dialogue and slow pace, letting you mess around with the locale in a delightfully meandering-yet-meaningful way.


The game is fantastic but it isn't perfect. Like with Blood Dragon it falls apart when the story takes the wheel, unable to escape from becoming a disappointment by the end. I'm going to speak at lengths about the plot ahead, but keep in mind that the gameplay and visuals are so lively, elegant, and engaging that Jason Brody's adventure could've had no story at all and it still would be one of my favorite shooters.

The most obvious bummer is the loss of Vaas two-thirds through the campaign, resulting in Hoyt's ascension to the role of antagonist. The kingpin doesn't remain nearly as menacing as the pirate though, despite how often the game tried to peg him as such; Vaas commanded so much attention every time he was on screen while Hoyt only seemed able to mimic his creativity in somewhat boring, unconvincing ways. The plot shines with brilliance in a couple moments (like the dark nod towards Keith's sexual abuse and the infamous definition of insanity talk), but it does little to expand or develop those threads. Near the end, the game frantically chucks Alice in Wonderland quotes at the player in a Deadlight-esque attempt to add another layer of depth to the story, though all it amounts to is a simple "do you like killing dudes in the jungle or do you wanna go back to your inane life?". Honestly it's an intriguing question to ask (since it's essentially "do you like being a hyperactive killer in games or are you trying to play them realistically?"), but Far Cry 3 only touches upon this critique briefly in its cutscenes, instead being more concerned with scripted sequences and senselessly violent twists.

There's a myriad of other strange design decisions you'll wade through as well, consisting of missions that feel like bloated filler in a game already packed with content. All three expeditions to retrieve the golden compass pieces involve cinematic escapes that become terribly predictable, and the magical item is never seen again after Buck's death. Similarly, the entire Privateer's infiltration feels utterly pointless—you've spent the better half of the game shooting anyone that gets in your way, but suddenly it becomes best to curry favor with the bastard you're trying to kill? There's even a moment where you meet Hoyt face to face but can't do anything other than beat up your own brother in order to appease him (which, considering how bombastic the end of the game gets, feels very senseless). From a gameplay standpoint the last handful of missions are pretty abysmal as you go from turret section to turret section, throwing out stealth and forcing you to play it as a straight-up first person shooter. There were admittedly good ideas in the Privateer chapter, like the mission where you're allowed to walk around the enemy base and plan out your method of attack from within, but otherwise it largely feels like an insult after the great finale to Vaas' arc. At least Sam Becker was mildly entertaining, even if the only purpose his death served was just to shock the player.


If you jump into the jungle looking to write your own tales rather than listen to the ones told to you, the wilds of Far Cry 3 are certainly worth your time. I played it almost obsessively the week I bought it, enthralled the entire time by the beauty and massiveness of it all, the lows of the experience being overcast by the mountainous highs. I lost track of how many small, wild, unscripted encounters impressed me, and had a blast succeeding in my undetected base captures (in one of them I freed a bear to help me fight back against its captors, but then had to protected the bear from my allies in the resistance as they attempted to down it—all the while trying not to get mauled myself!). I was glad the game was everything I hoped for and more, and I'm genuinely curious if the other games in the series will outdo the precedent that Far Cry 3 has set.

I suspect if the writing is stronger, they just might.
---------------------

Logo obtained from: hdwallphotos.com

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Fire 'n Ice - Thoughts


There's not too much I have to say regarding Tecmo's positively brilliant puzzler Fire 'n Ice. It's a game with some very simple mechanics that winds up getting insanely complex later on, demanding absolute mastery over its ice physics. Many aspects are handled excellently, from the clean visuals to the great map design to the catchy tunes to the perfect difficulty curve. Perhaps the story is far too puerile for such a cognitive experience, but the plot isn't integral to the overall package—Fire 'n Ice is all about the puzzles.


Dana's journey starts off deceptively easy, the first world serving as an innocent tutorial. You'll learn that your character's abilities are three-fold: you can hop a single block-high obstacle, you can push blocks of ice by walking into them, and you can create ice below you at a diagonal (bottom right & bottom left). The goal is to destroy all of the grimacing flames on a single screen, either by having an ice block fall on them or kicking a cube into its fiery face. That's it. Barring a few other mechanics, like angular pipes, burning jars and frozen stones, the game is solely about finding your way around tough layouts and determining how you'll extinguish each flame. That's why it's tricky to talk about Fire 'n Ice's component parts—deciphering your plan of attack is the real meat of the title.


The puzzles themselves are utterly fantastic, warming you up with the aforementioned tutorial where you push blocks around at a predetermined pace, teaching you to think about both ice creation and how you can traverse vertically with the aid of your chilly powers. It may begin nice and slow but ramps up into some utterly vicious levels later on, many of which you'll have to really mull over for long periods of time (or come back to after a full night's rest). There's a couple off the top of my head that stand out: 4-10's pest party, 6-9's claustrophobic stumper, 7-3's frozen labyrinth, and 9-4's tower of doom. Perhaps one knock against the design is that the last boss's stage is really lenient and simple, especially compared to the other autoscroller boss stages. But given that the game has some of the fiercest head-scratchers towards its final stretch that you'll ever experience (teaching you new tricks even at the penultimate level!), it's a minor chip against some already impeccable armor.

(Also, only after writing this review did I discover that there's 50 bonus levels included in the game! While most weren't as impressive as those in the main story [there were a handful of outright duds], there's still a lot of clever ones worth playing that continue to teach new tricks; it's amazing to me that an entire third of the game is left hidden behind a secret passcode.)


I feel a bit like a broken record for this entry, unable to expand upon my acclaim without getting into the nitty-gritty detail of each and every map. It's crazy just how much milage Tecmo got out of this game (and it has an edit mode too! [with no way to save unfortunately]), and if you're looking for one of the roughest, most entertaining NES puzzlers you'll ever play, you don't have to look any further than this. A fantastic entry that I unfortunately don't see lauded enough.