Thursday, February 17, 2011

Bionic Commando Rearmed 2

Above: He's back... and he's grown a middle-manager's mustache.

My review of Bionic Commando Rearmed 2 is up at I liked it. Not having much experience with previous Bionic Commando games, even the NES version, I didn't go into this one with any expectations of how it should be. Whether or not that would have changed my opinion of the game, I can't say, but the debate about whether or not Rad Spencer should be able to jump is, at least, one that I have no stake in.

I liked this game's approach to difficulty. It was hard -- besides the instant falls to your death and the overwhelming boss fights, this is a game in which you can swing 90% of your way through the level, miss one grappling point, and plummet back to the start. But here's the key: none of this stuff erases any of the progress you've made before. You can always re-try levels you've beaten in order to find powerups that'll make your life easier. And even the game over screen just kicks you back out to the map, rather than letting you restart from a checkpoint.

When people complain about a trend toward easier games, this is the part that always confuses me. I don't think games are necessarily any easier these days. I've been dying plenty in Dead Space 2, for example. You just don't lose all your progress every time you die.

That said, some of those tricky parts are very tricky. The boss fights felt very much of the old school. Typically, they followed this pattern:
  • Attempt 1: Immediate death
  • Attempt 2: Almost immediate death
  • Attempt 3: Possible weakness spotted, death
  • Attempt 4: Strategy formulated, minor damage inflicted, death
  • Attempts 5-9: Failed attempts to execute strategy, death
  • Attempt 10: Victory!
And that's pretty satisfying, as long as you always feel like you're making your way forward. There's that tension between not knowing what to do, and knowing what to do but not having mastered the mechanics of doing it.

So there's that. I never felt transported or uplifted by playing this game, but I enjoyed it, and that's good enough for me.

Postscript: The Phoenix's legendary managing editor Clif Garboden died last week. Clif was a lifer. He was at the paper his whole career. Most of my interactions with Clif were in the Phoenix's smoking room, where he would enter, light up, hit filter after three powerful puffs, and then vanish, but not before making some acid remark about the state of the world. Clif terrified me.

Clif was also a true believer in the power of the alternative press. He never lost his sense of humor or his sense of outrage. He never stopped believing in holding the powerful to account. Often, when I read disparaging comments on my reviews at the Phoenix's website, it strikes me that the commenters don't seem to understand what publication they're reading. If you want to know what the paper is all about, Clif's personal recollection, published on the Phoenix's 40th anniversary, will give you a good idea.

Well, that and "Screw You, America," the op-ed that Clif published on November 12, 2004.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

LittleBigPlanet 2

My review of LittleBigPlanet 2 is up at Flame away!

When I complained on Twitter about how lacking in imagination I found the suggested user levels to be, Joystiq's Ben Gilbert quickly recommended a few levels for me to try. They weren't terrible, but I had the same experience with them that I had with almost all of the rest: an initial burst of "Oh, cool!" followed by an extended comedown.

One was a roller coaster level that looked kind of neat, but didn't require me to do anything except hold down the R1 button. Another was a cute concept, with a pet Sackboy in a typical suburban house, but it had almost nothing in the way of interesting gameplay, and for some reason ended with Sackboy hopping in an ersatz UFO and shooting lasers. None would have been remarkable if they had come from a professional developer.

Oh, also, doing the "text search" for the names of those levels did not bring up those levels even close to the top of the search results. So there was that.

I don't deny that there is value in creation. To the extent that LittleBigPlanet 2 has merit, it is that: most games ask you to follow along with the creators' vision, and this one asks you to be the creator. I get that. You might not be able to tell from the review I filed, but it's true.

But just because you created something doesn't mean that it's worthy of adulation from the masses. People spend $60 on a video game that was made by professionals, and even most of those aren't actually any good. Why are we doing backflips about a game that lets users make pale imitations of other games? That was almost all I saw in this LBP2. Let's run down the list:
  • A Vietnam-era first-person shooter in which the iron sights shot about an inch and a half to the right of where the crosshair was.
  • A Batman film where, among other crimes against the English language, Batman saw the Batsignal and said "Look's like im in need!" In need of a copyeditor, maybe.
  • A Donkey Kong clone in which it was impossible to jump over a barrel.
  • A Super Mario Bros clone in which it was impossible to jump over a pit.
  • A Wipeout clone in which there were no hovercraft.
  • An inFamous clone in which there was one building to climb.
  • A "Fun House" level in which the word "Buffoonery" was repeatedly written on the walls, in case you didn't get it.
And on, and on, and on. I genuinely do hope that some LBP2 players go on to bigger and better things. They could hardly go on to anything else.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

I play demos: Bulletstorm

Above: Kids, tell your parents: "Buy me Bulletstorm, or go to hell!"

Next I downloaded the Bulletstorm demo. Count me among those who are pre-emptively embarrassed about this game. I’m already plenty embarrassed at the way its marketing team has been leading the games press around on a leash for the past several months. All this isn’t to say that I don’t enjoy a prurient good time as much as the next guy.

What I don’t understand about the Bulletstorm hype is the notion that killing people stylishly is a new concept. Devil May Cry and Ninja Gaiden have built empires on it. Bayonetta was one of last year’s best games, and that was the whole idea. Bulletstorm shares even more in common with MadWorld and The Club, both games from the past couple of years that I had mixed feelings about, but which employed basically the same formula: it’s not enough to kill people, you have to flaunt it.

The problem that both of those games had was that they got repetitive fast. MadWorld had, in the end, only a few different types of kills. Most were impalations. The Club seemed to want you to do a forward roll every time you killed anyone. In either case, the stylistic requirement seemed at odds with survival. Usually, as a player you refine your technique to find the most efficient way past your obstacles. These games, Bulletstorm included, ask you do to the opposite. They want you to find more and more elaborate methods to dispatch your enemies, while still finishing the level as quickly as possible. It’s a balancing act. If done well, you could see how it might soar.

I’m not sure if Bulletstorm soars. It looks great, and it controls well, and at this point I’m willing to roll with the humor. But after a couple of playthroughs I’m already repeating myself. You have a few different abilities in this game. Besides your guns (three available in the demo, each with an alt-fire mode), you have a kick move, and a leash, which I imagine is supposed to be the money shot. With the leash, you can grab enemies and pull them toward you, or hold the button down to launch them into the air.

Pretty neat idea, and it works – but how much you can actually do with it, I’m not so sure. I kept finding myself pulling people in with the leash, kicking them, and then shooting them. Not because it was the most stylish move, but because it was the most effective way to get them to stop shooting back. Obviously I was not pulling off the balancing act.

There are plenty of environmental options, too, which all seem telegraphed. Some are clearly setpieces, such as when you throw a switch that drops a huge rail car down the tracks, crushing several foes.* Others are smaller but similarly designer-directed. One of the first things you see in the demo is a highlighted piece of the ceiling with a prompt to use your leash. You do, and it dumps a bunch of debris on a guy. That’s cool and all, but I didn’t feel like a badass as much as I felt like a rat that was pressing a button to receive a food pellet.

I could believe that the Bulletstorm demo is playing its cards close to its chest. Crazy weapons and varied environments could help it to pull off the combination of zaniness and mayhem that it’s going for, and I’m always a sucker for the kinds of massive boss battles that play in the video at the demo’s beginning. But I’m worried. Getting extra points for shooting a guy in the ass is fun the first time. The tenth time? Not so much. I think I’ve already reached my quota.

*Note, I have no idea if it actually was a rail car, and it doesn't matter, because it was really just some huge thing for crushin’.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

I play demos: Dead Space 2

Above: You've come a long way, demon space baby.

January was a dead month, even by January standards. I haven’t filed a review since publishing Lost in Shadow on Joystiq at the beginning of the month, and even though right now I’m playing LittleBigPlanet 2 for a review, spoiler alert, I find it hard to play that game for more than an hour without getting frustrated and wanting to move on to something else.

For the most part, I haven’t minded having these few weeks off from playing. A hiatus can refocus the mind. But after awhile, those old familiar urges creep back, and I find myself wanting to play something -- anything.

I’ve laid out my philosophically confused position on demos before. It’s not something I feel strongly about, but I try to avoid them when I can. They’re advertisements, not really games, and if I know I’ll end up reviewing something then I like to go in cold if I can help it. On the other hand, theoretically everything you’d see in a demo will be in the final game, and, if done well, a demo can be a worthy standalone product, like a good movie trailer. So given my lack of conviction on the issue, and my fiending for something new to play, I downloaded a couple of new demos: Dead Space 2 and Bulletstorm.

Dead Space 2 is a game I was looking forward to, but when circumstances kept me from being able to review it, I filed it under the “wait until it’s cheaper” category, which is never a bad idea for any game. Maybe I should be more excited. I liked Dead Space when I played it, and found that my opinion of it improved with time, even though I never revisited it. Then, I loved Dead Space: Extraction, the prequel that came out for the Wii (the inclusion of an HD version of Extraction on the PS3 edition of Dead Space 2 is reason enough to pick it up). I should have been a prime customer.

There’s something to be said for a game with such a polished presentation. People these days are so enamored of low-fi indie games that it’s almost become gauche to appreciate a game with good graphics and responsive controls. Which is not to say that Dead Space 2 avoids all of the problems of today’s AAA shooters – one look at the control scheme almost gave me heart palpitations. Then again, I am old, and eat a diet high in fat, so maybe it was something else.

The demo does not begin with a bang. Isaac walks through four identical rooms before anything happens, and when something does happen, it’s the same attack of the Necromorphs that was replayed endlessly in the first game. They jump out of cryogenic chambers, and ventilation shafts, and who knows where else. All I can say for sure is that there always seemed to be one behind me. This was enough to convince me that Dead Space 2 may not be likely to change its ways, and that it is satisfied enough that withering, high-tension action scenes are sufficient to be called horror.

Next, you encounter an environmental puzzle in which you use telekinesis to pull clearly marked clamps down from the ceiling. Hardly a brain buster, this felt a little rote and obligatory. I could almost hear someone in charge saying, “Y’know, we just had a big action scene, so we should probably put a puzzle here.” That’s not meant to be a damning criticism, just an observation. And it was followed by a zero-gravity sequence that I found heartening – Isaac is fully controllable in these scenes this time around. I didn’t think the zero-g scenes in the first game lived up to their potential, so I’m encouraged that they may do so this time.

Then, I walked into a church and was attacked by a bunch of screeching alien baby people. Not what I expected. I think that’s the first time I’ve been able to say that about a Dead Space game. This part of the Dead Space 2 demo accomplished a couple of the things that the first game never did. For one thing, it was an interesting environment. I liked the Ishimura as a functional space vessel, but I was never as enamored of it as some people were. It’s nice to see that the sequel branches out a little. As for the screeching space babies, they’d probably get old if the game relies on them too much, but they made for a nice change of pace.

So, good job, Dead Space 2 demo: You have kept my interest. But I’ll still probably wait for a sale.

Next: Bulletstorm!