Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Darkness II

Above: Jackie quad-wields you in the face.

My review of The Darkness II is up now at Count me among many who were pleasantly surprised by the quality of the story. While the gameplay is a little slicker than before, I don't think it benefits by being more overtly game-like than its predecessor, and by having more traditional level design.

In the previous game, Jackie was the only one with magical powers, and his enemies could bring little more to bear than increasingly powerful weaponry. Here, they have enchanted abilities of their own, which may make for a more fair fight, but diminishes a key part of the allure -- the first game was like a monster movie where you got to play the monster.

The whole thing is a lot of fun and well worth playing, but after playing the PC version I would certainly recommend that you play on a console. The mouse and keyboard interface is all sorts of messed up. To use the Darkness slash power, you need to click the mouse wheel, and then move the mouse up, down, or to the side to direct it. It doesn't work well, and feels like you're flailing. Plus, you're likely to accidentally scroll and switch weapons. Additionally, when you're wielding two guns, mouse2 fires the lefthand gun, and the mouse1 fires the righthand gun. It feels completely unnatural.

Oh, and for some reason you use the N and M keys to swap between skill trees. Makes no sense at all.

At any rate, I expected the worst from The Darkness II and found it to be a worthy sequel. This has been a good winter for games, and Syndicate isn't even out yet. What a wonderful time to be alive.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Final Fantasy XIII-2

 Above: Caius and some lady who's barely in the game.

I reviewed Final Fantasy XIII-2 for Paste. I didn't like it too much, but then again I'm the guy who did like Final Fantasy XIII quite a bit, so make of that what you will. Because the review necessarily had to cover a lot of ground, I wasn't able to mention my single biggest gripe with the game, which would have required a laser-like focus on a seemingly minor point, and a mind-numbing amount of explanation.

Minds, prepare to be numbed.

Final Fantasy XIII-2 has a random battle system, but with a real-time element. Whenever enemies spawn, a timer appears and a big circle is drawn around your character. If you can run up to a foe and whack him with your sword in the first few seconds, you get the first strike, which casts haste on your party, and fills up your opponents' stagger meter. If not, most of the time you'll begin the fight on equal footing. You can also try to run away, which is usually successful, and in which case the enemies vanish.

Now, if you fail to run away, or if the clock otherwise ticks to zero, nothing bad happens unless you lose the fight. Usually, losing a fight gives you the option to "retry," in this case meaning that you end up right back where you were, no worse for wear. But if you lose a fight after the clock runs down, you don't have the retry option. You'll have to start all the way back at your last save.

It's not the most punitive punishment in the world, but it is a sufficient incentive not to let the clock run down. Almost every time enemies appear, it makes sense to try to get the drop on them. But the controls aren't very good, not compared to a good action game, and so you usually end up running around in circles trying to make contact. As a segue into a fight, this is still not a huge problem.

The problem comes when the fight ends. As a remedy to complaints about the last game, FFXIII-2 features big, open levels with no clear path to your objective. It's also fully 3D, of course, with a free-floating camera that you can control at will. When you are returned to the world map after your fight, the camera is no longer showing the same perspective. Your character is no longer facing the same direction. The only indication of which way you were going comes from a dotted line on your mini-map, which shows your most recent steps, and is not at all helpful.

And so, every single time a fight ends, it takes a couple of seconds to re-establish your sense of the game. There is a moment of complete disorientation, in which you spin the camera around and squint at the mini-map, trying to remember which way you were going. By the time you figure it out, quite often another random battle has triggered, starting the whole process over again.

It reaches a crescendo of shittiness in the Academia 400 AF level, wherein you are attacked within seconds of each new encounter by flying enemies that you cannot reliably run away from. Many other levels have an option to ride this Chocobo in order to avoid random battles, but not this one. I spent a solid two hours on an otherwise lovely Saturday morning feeling like K. in The Castle, knowing exactly what I needed to do but being stymied at every turn.

It isn't the biggest annoyance in the world; it's a small annoyance that happens thousands of times. It's not like a bad escort mission that you need to push through to be done with it. From the moment the game begins, it's there, throbbing like a toothache. It keeps you off-kilter and uncomfortable the entire time you're playing. And it makes it harder to focus on what the game is doing well.

It's not just Final Fantasy games that have these issues, but it does seem like RPGs especially can be so invested in their Big Ideas that they overlook the importance of giving users a smooth and responsive experience minute by minute. From Fallout's bugginess to Mass Effect's inscrutable interface, this stuff matters. At least, it should.