Thursday, November 29, 2018

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves - Thoughts

[contains spoilers]

I spent a lot of time grousing over Uncharted: Drake's Fortune's missteps. I thought the story was lacking, the game wasn't adventurous enough, and that the combat frequently became an uncompromising chore. I considered that perhaps my criticisms were too scathing, but after finishing Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, I feel that my grievances were well placed; the second Uncharted outing is everything I wanted from the first. And it is a beeeaaauuuutiful game. Like, good lord.

Almost every aspect of the game has been improved, the most notable of which being the combat and locales. And honestly, those two are really all Uncharted needed; allowing the player to engage in exciting gunplay throughout diverse and gorgeous settings is what makes this game a joy from start to finish. For the most part, Among Thieves does everything in its power to make sure the player is having fun. It offers many short, exploratory breaths between its more action-packed sequences, and whenever one setting starts to drag, the weather will drastically change or the scenery will wipe from a jungle to a ruined Nepali city. Though Uncharted 2 cannot boast about its puzzles (positioning the hands of the statue was the only thing "aha!" worthy), the lack of head-scratchers is permissible because the adventure does its damnedest to stay compelling over the 10 hour journey.

This is because Uncharted 2 realized what it is Nathan Drake excels at. The game starts by thrusting you into a tense, unbelievable train-crash scenario and then slings you through space and time, weaving a tale of heroism tinged by revenge. The plot is... nothing I'd actually write home about—honestly most of the Uncharted narratives blur together into this "isn't adventuring fun?"-sorta haze—but what Among Thieves offers over Drake's Fortune is characters other than Elena to get invested in. Flynn is fun (for the most part—his servile attitude feels contradictory), Chloe is captivating, and Lazarevic proves it's better to be campy than forgettable. I mean seriously, who was the old man in the first game again?

Since the adventure is a decent chunk longer than its predecessor, moments where the player can chill out and absorb their surroundings are more plentiful. The "look for the right path to traverse" sections have a bit more meat to them, breaking up a lot of the monotonous combat that plagued Drake's Fortune. And even when there are long stints of drawn-out combat, you're often inserted into these fantastic open arenas that allow you to be fairly mobile, where you can conquer your enemies with whatever weapons you prefer. Sadly, as the game goes on it relies more on narrow hallway encounters, with the train chapters being among the worst offenders (it sure is a jaw-dropping set piece though).

I think now is a good time to acknowledge that I don't... really... care for Uncharted's combat. I think it's fine: it feels fluid, is rife with cool animations, and is rewarding when you bring your A-game. But when you're suffering death after death due to a hot start (or you're staring one too many times down the barrel of a heavily-armored soldier), the recurring thought that's likely to bubble up is "god damn these guys have a lot of health". And I get that enemy tankiness is a design by necessity—an Uncharted where foes fall in one shot is bound to be disappointingly short—but it doesn't change the fact that I don't look forward to combat due to how much of a grind it can be. When I started the series, I tried my best to go for strategic headshots, but by the end of Uncharted 3 I was just pumping magazine after magazine into the granite chests of my enemies. The gunplay plays well, but isn't immensely gratifying (for me).

I bring this up because a mainstay of Uncharted 2 is its combat. I enjoyed blasting fools and participating in scripted sequences, but wasn't something I actively looked forward to; my heart was captivated by puzzles and alluring locales and secret treasures tucked away—things that reasonably dwindle as the game got closer and closer to its rambunctious climax. Therefore it's kind of weird to look back on Uncharted 2, as I can acknowledge its greatness and technical prowess, but the final taste it leaves me with is a "I'm glad that's over". Not in a Hitman: Codename 47 way where I'm pleading to be released from torment, but in a more subdued, grateful way... like reaching the very cusp of concluding that the game is too long and repetitive for its own good.

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is still an impressive title nearly a decade later. It knows first and foremost how to entertain, keeping your eyes and hands delighted throughout its colorful campaign. It's an astonishing improvement over the first in almost every way: mo-cap, scenery, combat, story—you name it. I may not be a big fan of the series, but I can appreciate the level of effort Naughty Dog has poured into building one of gaming's premier action platformers. It's hard not to stand in awe of Among Thieves.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Torchlight - Thoughts

[contains minor spoilers]

For me, Torchlight was at its best in its opening hours. I had recently finished getting another character to level 70 in Diablo 3 and wanted to sample a Diablo 2-esque experience for comparison. I could've just played Diablo 2 again, but I was in the mood for something more bite-sized and different. Torchlight fit that bill nicely, so I went into it wanting to build a beefy dual-wielding fighter that dominates his foes through left clicks alone. My plans had to change the deeper I went underground, which slowly began to remind me of why I tend to stay away from Diablo clones in general: monotonous grind.

I have a soft spot for the first Diablo's atmosphere, having played the demo of it a ton as a kid, and Torchlight pulls on the same strings. Which makes sense, given that Runic Games was formed by the creators of Diablo, and they roped in Matt Uelmen, the moody master composer of the Diablo series. Though the game looks more like World of Warcraft than Blizzard's dark demon slaying series, everything else reeks of the first Diablo. You have three classes to choose from, a captivatingly eerie town theme, and NPCs in need of saving from subterranean spooks. Throw on top of that various Diablo staples like gems, gear sets, health & mana globes, and blue & red scrolls, and you have yourself a game that knows its target audience and isn't afraid to appeal to them.

Torchlight is an ambitious title for a new studio to create, but it isn't ambitious in and of itself. There are no twists and turns to be found in its story or gameplay, and the whole experience is meant to last 10-12 hours. Which is fine—after all, if the formula works you don't need to change things—except that I had my Diablo fill around hour 5. By then I had mapped out my intended path through the skill tree, figured out what magical skills to keep, and was thoughtlessly left-clicking my way to the end. And since the game lets you buy potions to your hearts content, the dungeon couldn't set any challenge upon me that I was unable to heal through.

Well, until the end.

I simultaneously admire and feel vexed by games that have difficulty spikes in their final act. Since I'm a challenge-oriented player, I prefer experiences that put up a fight rather than those that let me coast to the credits. But being roadblocked during a game I desperately want to finish (in order to take it off of my "to play" list) is a frustration too bitter to savor. And boy, does Torchlight put up one hell of a fight!

Two problems exacerbated my struggle: I barely did any sidequests and I was playing on hard. But neither really stymied my progress—I just had to keep my ring finger on the potion button in case I got surrounded. This all changed once I got to the final area, where a number of foes hammer you with elemental attacks. And since I was playing a strictly melee-focused class, it's not like kiting my opponents was a viable option. This turned the final few hours of the game into an arduous crawl as I repeatedly died over and over whenever I had to face more than two dragons or dark zealots at a time. And I died a ton; I was slain around a dozen times before Torchlight's final floors, while the Dark Palace alone racked up over a hundred deaths.

So what was I supposed to do? Despite dumping a lot of points into defense, there was no way I could affect my elemental resistances (which is what I was dying to) outside of slotting +2/4 resistance gems into my gear—and for reference, I had 94 lightning resist and was still losing half my health to undodgeable lighting beams. And since there's no way to respec my build there was only one option: grind. Grind a whole lot. Just get enough health that I can survive two poison bolt barrages instead of one. Would that have been fun though? I was very rarely finding new gear in the final ten floors of the game that was better than the legendary equipment I had on, and grinding was a chore since my character approached all enemy types the same way. When the final boss finally fell, I was elated, not just because I had finished a mindless twenty minute melee against him, but also because I could wipe my hands of the game. Without a second thought I retired my character, permanently shelving them because I was so done with this journey.

My gripes with Torchlight are more of a universal problem with the genre its rooted in than a denouncement of the game itself. For what it's worth, I approve of what Torchlight offers: it's a well built game with a lot of depth and great music, acting as a delectable lunch to Diablo 2's gargantuan dinner. The only thing you could argue it's truly lacking is a multiplayer component. But Torchlight revels in its repetitiveness, which is something I barely have any patience for if I'm not enthralled by the core gameplay. I went into Torchlight wanting a nostalgic flashback, yet emerged out the other end realizing that I was actually looking for something more.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Hitman: Codename 47 - Thoughts

[contains minor spoilers]

Hitman: Codename 47 is an imprecise and cruel relic of the past. The one good kernel it possesses—namely, killing your targets in stealthy and creative ways—is relegated to the backseat, in favor of its chaotic combat system. While great ideas have sprouted from this wretched soil, the original game seeks only to belabor you with aggravating tasks and singular routes through levels. Hitman: Codename 47 wants one thing and one thing only from you: copious amounts of blood spilt.

I'm going to immediately cast a shadow over my entire opinion by confessing that impatience is a significant vice of mine. The only stealth games I had growing up were Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes and Hitman 2: Silent Assassin, and I found the latter to be such a chore that I could only make it a few missions in. It's a flaw that I try to stay cognizant of when playing a franchise like Deus Ex, where I know ghosting my way through an area often provides a more rewarding play experience. And I'm tempted to say that Hitman: Codename 47 showcases the worst the stealth genre has to offer, except that statement isn't true—Codename 47 barely resembles a stealth game at all.

Sure, there's a couple of sneaky instances sprinkled throughout the game. There's a mission where you can bomb a car full of triad and another where you can give a man a heart attack in the sauna, but that's about where your guile ends. Every other mission you're going to be strangling a dozen men to death or just blasting your way to the end, hoping that the game's capricious damage system does 2% of your health instead of the full 100% (which will happen a lot). Codename 47 is not merciful with its restarts either; on the missions where you can continue after death, it'll sometimes drop you next to a pissed-off guard, and you'll be dead again before you can tell where the bullets are coming from.

The wild damage probability coupled with scant pathways through a level already makes for a vexing combination, but what really pushes the game over the edge is how opaque and utterly confusing its detection system is. In isolation the system works: if you kill a man, hide his body, and steal his clothes, you effectively become him. But if a civilian catches you in the act or combat breaks out, good luck trying to figure out how to get the goons off your trail! Some guards remain stoic while others open fire immediately, and if an enemy is alerted they will instinctively home in on your position. No matter how often I switched clothes after a scuffle I'd still get discovered, and it's better to have a weapon in your hands for retaliation, rather than trusting that a snooping guard won't fill your unarmed ass with lead. Speaking of weapons, having certain firearms equipped work for some disguises, but good look figuring that out on your own!

While Codename 47's level design is largely nothing to write home about, there's two really egregious missions that solidified my revulsion for this game: the boat level and the entire Colombia section.

The boat level perfectly exemplifies the contradictory nature of Codename 47. In it, there's 3 gates you have to pass through in order to get to said boat to assassinate your target. Any suspicion by the guards raises the alarm, and soon your target begins his Olympian sprint to his escape vehicle (I never found a way not to trigger this, and always had to kill him as he was running). Getting found out before stepping onto the boat spells certain doom, so what you have to do is steal a guard's outfit and then go past each of the gate's checkpoints. Sounds easy, right?

The problem is that the guards don't let you through the checkpoint, even when you're disguised in an outfit that covers your face! This means your only solution is to snipe every single enemy... but guess what?—if one enemy witnesses this they'll run and tell the boss and you run out of sniper rifle ammo halfway through the level! So after an hour of trying, struggling, and failing, I found out what you're supposed to do is latch yourself onto the back of a patrolling guard and just follow him until he passes through a checkpoint. But make sure you don't get too close and trigger the "you don't belong here!" warning first, or the guards will shoot you should you try this method out.

If that sounds bad, the entire Colombia section is the hideous nadir of this game. On paper, it sounds interesting: go assassinate a drug lord in the jungle, with the catch that you can't restock your ammo or buy weapons between sections of the mission.  However, when you sit down to play it you quickly realize the jungle is massive and empty, taking a handful of boring minutes to run to your objectives. Plus well-armed foes can spot you off in the distance before they're even visible in the far-off fog! This is a nightmare combination where as soon as you're discovered, you're likely to get killed before spotting your assailant and a restart will teleport you back to the beginning of your 1 mile jog. And you have to kill enemies in these missions, so snooping your way through this is a no-go (three men that don't move guard a prisoner on a bridge).

The Colombia saga climaxes in a military base infiltration, where you'll face off against a Scarface-wannabe and blow up a drug lab. It sounds like there's a lot of opportunities for cool things to happen, right?—except there's not. The entire compound is gated, and the only way in is via the front entrance (and you always start at the back, which is great). Not only that, but the boss faces the doorway into the office, meaning you have to fight him (and the guards outside of his room) every time. And later when you have to stealthily blow up a drug lab, you'll be barred from using the two ramps that lead down into it, leaving your only recourse to be stirring up a violent bloodbath. There's ways to mitigate both of these sections, like assassinating the drug lord with a sniper rifle obtained from the first mission and using an officer's uniform to bypass the drug lab guards, but the game does a poor job at telegraphing this. The drug lab in particular strikes me as really rude, as even with the right uniform the guards will still tell you're not authorized to enter, but they won't shoot at you if you disobey them. Having not known that, I did it the hard way, having to run to the airport hanger under the dangerous gaze of a dozen watchtowers. This mission was an unrelenting nightmare to complete.

To grasp at the depths of my despair, know that I had already written a paragraph about how clumsy a particular mission was and had to delete it to make room for all the hogwash above. And I've already covered like, a third of the entire game! Rarely do I not find something to like—or at least appreciate—about the first entry in a series. Most long-running franchises have at least something worthwhile that planted the seeds of its future success, or a case to be made as to why it deserves a sequel. Hitman: Codename 47 buries that beneath so much mindless gunfire, so many forced routes (I didn't even talk about how rigid the first half of the Lee Hong mission was), and so much bullshit detection that at the end of the day, the only case it's made is that it deserves not to be played.