maanantai 2. lokakuuta 2017

REVIEW - Thimbleweed Park

GENRE(S): Adventure, Point 'n' click
AVAILABLE ON: Android, iOS, Linux, macOS, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Windows, Xbox One
DEVELOPER(S): Terrible Toybox
PUBLISHER(S): Terrible Toybox
RELEASE DATE: March 30, 2017 (Windows)

Early 2017, for me, was all about my anticipation and expectation of the return of the TV phenomenon known as Twin Peaks. Released 26 years after the show's cancellation, this 18-part third season was even more glorious and twisted than anyone could've ever imagined. Twin Peaks, in its entirety, has influenced dozens of video games through the decades - most notably the Silent Hill series, Alan Wake, and from what I hear, a game called Deadly Premonition, which has been on my wishlist for ages. Survival horror games, mostly. In early 2017, though, legendary Maniac Mansion and Monkey Island creators Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick reunited to bring us Thimbleweed Park - perhaps the most Twin Peaks-y game ever made (down to its abbreviation, "TP") - but paying homage to the classic TV series is not what the Kickstarter-funded project is for. It's homage, all right, to another phenomenon lost in time - SCUMM. Described by the developers themselves as a spiritual successor to Maniac Mansion, any gamer who was around back then sees the truth as soon as they start up the game. It IS Maniac Mansion, just (mostly) without permadeath, and instead of just one house, it's set in a whole crazy town where a dead body is DEFINITELY the least of your problems.

Then there were 80

Two federal agents with very different outlooks on life - Ray and Reyes - are forcefully partnered up to investigate a murder victim found from a riverbank in the very small town of Thimbleweed Park. Though no one seems to care for the murder OR its victim, their arrival stirs up the small community, bringing to light the secrets of the town's strange history and a choice few of its citizens, including the recently deceased business magnate Chuck Edmund and his disfunctional family.

I've been on yet another hiatus for almost five months, mainly due to having a lot of work on my plate and problems with concentrating on individual games; I've had some problems connecting with games on a level that I've set as a requirement for myself to write a review I can take seriously and not feel bad about it afterwards. Then of course, there's my girlfriend to consider - good thing she's a gamer, though, in fact the best damn gamer I know. The main reason for this confession, is that these last five months, I've spoken a lot about restarting the blog, especially after finishing "THE LIST 2.0", and often found myself kicking some invisible rocks around for not getting anything done. I've jumped from game to game whenever I have had spare time, and even if I've managed to concentrate on one individual game long enough to beat it to the hilt, I might've started to work on a review and get nothing done just because it's been too long and I can't come up with anything smart to say about 'em. Call it a writer's block if you will.

Where the madness begins.
Then came Thimbleweed Park. I heard about Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick reuniting for an old-school PC adventure game some time in mid-2015, ergo about six months into the start of the Kickstarter campaign. However, as I'd completely given up on ever using PC as a gaming platform again - except for the old stuff, of course - I didn't pay it that much attention, but I was intrigued to know more about it. After all, Ron Gilbert is one of my favourite designers of all time and I'm always interested in what he's got cooking up even if it didn't directly concern me. Gary Winnick's kept an extremely low profile since Day of the Tentacle, which made the game even more intriguing. By total coincidence and whim, I picked up a local gaming magazine from the supermarket some months ago, which included a review of Thimbleweed Park. I read it, I laughed my balls off at the facts and the screenshots alone, and I was very pleased that the guy who wrote that review was an old-school point 'n' click fan who obviously knew what he was talking about, and that he gave the game a gracious rating, much based on how its target audience would receive it - not working in the dumbass method of automatically underrating the game 'cause it's a retro-style game which (deliberately!) fails to meet the 2017 standards. Some jerks do that, regardless of their age and experience. Well, as I reached the end of the very short but to-the-point review, I noticed a small print that said the game was "coming soon" to the digital console storefronts. I remember this as the same day Twin Peaks: The Return premiered. What a day that was. I was seriously overwhelmed with all sorts of expectations.

Well, the game was finally released about two weeks before the Twin Peaks series finale; of course I downloaded it immediately, but I decided to push back my first trip to Thimbleweed Park until the series was over, 'cause I didn't actually know anything about the plot, and depending on how close it was to the series in its oddity, I was afraid the game and the series would mess each other up by some degree. Well, that wouldn't have happened, that's for sure. Thimbleweed Park, although there are many connections to Twin Peaks, is very different in tone. This is probably what a Twin Peaks game would've looked like if it was licensed by LucasArts in the early 90's - strange, surreal, but above all, distinctively humorous. This was the just the kind of game I needed to truly captivate me and get me off my proverbial ass in terms of writing reviews again - some of the first games I ever reviewed were SCUMM. I love reviewing SCUMM. After summing up my feelings of expecting and finally heading into this over-the-top laughfest, in this much excess, I think it's finally time to tell you what it's all about.

How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck would chuck wood, Chuck?

Thimbleweed Park is a retro-style point 'n' click game that utilizes the 9-verb, illustrated SCUMM interface as it was presented in Monkey Island 2 in 1991. Its whacked-out (almost non-existent) storyline takes place in the year 1987 - the release year of Maniac Mansion. The Maniac Mansion and Monkey Island franchises are constantly spoofed in just about every possible turn - as long as you set the "annoying in-jokes" option to ON - but so is just about everyone and everything in 80's pop culture, including but definitely not limited to Star Wars (of course), Indiana Jones (mm-hmmm), Michael Jackson, Max Headroom, Star Trek (then brand new The Next Generation, in particular), and David Lynch's distinctive cinematic work in general. Even Sierra On-Line gets their share of ridicule, BY NAME. All we need is a Sam & Max reference or cameo, and this would be like any LucasArts adventure game of old - of course, the license is currently owned by Telltale Games, but I wouldn't be surprised if they'd made an exception for Thimbleweed Park. Maybe it is there - I just haven't spotted it. It's impossible to spot 'em all at once.

Franklin and some 1st world problems.
The game begins as a murder mystery investigated by two very different characters - the self-consciously cold-hearted bitch Agent Ray, and his quirky and borderline annoying Mexican partner, Agent Reyes. Solving the murder covers the first three chapters of the game's nine-chapter story, and long before the investigation is over, you'll probably have noticed that the murder is nothing more than red herring to serve as somewhat of a prologue to this madness they call a story. At steady intervals before the investigation concludes, we are introduced to three more playable characters. First up, the foul-mouthed Ransome the Insult Clown, the most hated person in town, who has been cursed by a local voodoo enchantress to never be able to remove his clown make-up or attire, due to an inappropriate joke the clown served her in the past. Delores Edmund is a geeky teenager who once traded millions of inheritance for her aspiration to be a game developer, and is now trying to cope with the consequences upon her uncle Chuck's passing. Her father, Franklin, roams the local hotel - also owned by the Edmund family - as a ghost, desperate to state a last goodbye to his daughter and get closure to his difficult relationship with his late brother. In the classic style of Maniac Mansion, each character needs to help one another to achieve certain goals, and finally, come together in one final chapter that will just leave you speechless, in better and worse.

All in all, Thimbleweed Park is an awesome game - a heartwarming, nostalgic experience that certainly doesn't fall short on surprises or laughs. End of review? Not quite, I'm afraid.

*beep*

The one core feature of old-school SCUMM is, of course, puzzle dependency. As fully expected, the puzzles of Thimbleweed Park are absolutely fiendish. There are two things to make them even harder to figure out than they are in concept alone; one, five playable characters with mostly inter-exchangeable inventories (the most notable exception is Franklin, who can't pick up anything or interact with any other playable character). Two, literally tens of acquirable items that serve NO purpose whatsoever. Guess which of these things I love, and which I don't particularly like. Sure, maybe Maniac Mansion had absolutely useless stuff lying around (and sure, even The Secret of Monkey Island had some), but since they went with the Monkey Island 2 version of the engine, they could've also removed all the crap from the field and let the player focus on things that truly matter. It's a big world for a game of this type, and there are so many variables to begin with, that we really don't need this sort of dead weight and a bunch of red herrings to lure us into a trap.

Plumbers *slash* ghostbusters dressed as giant pigeons are
one of the more normal sights to see in this town.
Speaking of puzzles and difficulty, there's also a casual mode which removes certain steps from the lengthier puzzles, switches key item placements, and finally removes whole locations from the world map. As opposed to easIER modes in some previous SCUMM adventures, the easy mode in this game is kinda insulting. There's even less logic to some already illogical puzzles; some important, somewhat explanatory bits in the narrative are completely skipped; and the game all-around offers the player the conclusion on a silver plate; you practically walk through this game with minimal effort, be you a veteran or a complete beginner.

Besides, even if you are a beginner (and in case you aren't too judgemental towards yourself), the standard gameplay mode offers you a hintline you can call any time, and as many times you like, as long as you have a phone nearby (Ray is the only character with a cellphone). The game drops contextual hints to any problem you might have, one at a time, until if and when you spam the hintline enough to prompt it to tell you exactly what you need to do to proceed, in verb-specific detail. It's not a secret, either - there are several advertisements of the hintline scattered across town, as well as a highlighted entry on the local phonebook. Even in the versions that support achievements, you are not punished for its use in any way. It's really hard to pass solid judgement on this one; while it does piss on the game's level of difficulty by an extreme bit, it's completely optional. It's not like the game tells you exactly what to do after you fail enough times - the choice of picking up that phone and dialing that number time and time again is yours, and yours alone. Considering just how fiendish some of these puzzles are, I'm not condemning anyone for the use of the hintline, as long as you use it in moderation. I personally think going at the game on casual mode is more of a disgrace than the occasional call for help - seriously, the casual mode fails to live up to the lowest standards of an adventure game. If "Monkey Lite" in Monkey Island 2 was the choice difficulty level for game critics, this is one for Telltale Games fans. (Keep in mind that I love Telltale's more recent titles for what they are, but for wholly different reasons.)

Finally, the narrative turns such a convoluted mess towards the end of the game, that at some point it's not even funny anymore. The ending - and many things leading into it during the last three or four chapters - is totally different from what we started from, and not in a delightfully surreal way, it occasionally feels like the game is comprised of two different projects. "Like a joke without a punchline", that's what I was looking for; keeping the humorous and non-sensical nature of the game in mind, I do feel like several jokes were missing punchlines here. Well, to be completely honest, even the high and mighty LucasArts didn't always get those endings right. It was nearly always the game and the experience it offered, that truly counted - and so it is here. Thimbleweed Park is such an experience, it will go down in history as one of the greatest point 'n' clicks ever made, even if just because it proves that even today, classic SCUMM works like a charm. No need for the more interactive GrimE, or any Special Edition or Remastered updates - give us nine verbs, an illustrated inventory, and a bogus world where nothing makes any sense all the while making all the sense in the world, and we're ready to raise hell.

VERDICT

Thimbleweed Park most definitely has its flaws, and it's not the picture-perfect throwback you might imagine based on who made the game, and how much historic easter eggs are hidden within its being. But, it is a DAMN good game, which needs to be experienced by EVERYONE who was ever into any SCUMM game in existence. Considering how relatively weak the whole year has been in terms of exciting game releases (as opposed to truly exciting game reveals), I dare to say that in my books, Thimbleweed Park is a Game of the Year candidate. Time to re-install ScummVM.

UPS
+ Absolutely fantastic humour spanning up to four decades of pop culture, the history of adventure games at the front and center
+ Tongue-in-cheek homage guaranteed to draw the interest of fans of David Lynch and in particular, Twin Peaks (YO! RIGHT HERE!)
+ *Beeping* great playable characters, memorable NPC interaction
+ Thimbleweed Park may be a small town, but from your perspective, it's a huge world to explore in a genre game
+ Classic SCUMM as it was in (some of) the best PC game(s) ever made

DOWNS
- Loads of useless items lying around
- The "story" turns a bit too convoluted towards the end, much more than it was probably intended to
- The Casual Mode is an insult to all gamers, regardless of their experience with this type of gameplay; if you play a version with any achievement tracking, you MUST play through Casual Mode to be able to truly complete the game
- Some random inconsistencies with both puzzles and dialogue - that have just about always been there
- Even on standard mode, the game offers a very detailed hint service without any punishment involved, which makes the game a bit too easy for gamers who are not too judgemental towards themselves, as well as achievement hunters

< 8.6 >

maanantai 15. toukokuuta 2017

REVIEW - Batman: Arkham Knight

GENRE(S): Action-adventure, Open-world, Stealth
AVAILABLE ON: PlayStation 4, Windows, Xbox One
DEVELOPER(S): Rocksteady Studios, WB Games Montréal, Iron Galaxy Studios (Windows)
PUBLISHER(S): Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
RELEASE DATE: June 23, 2015

NOTE: This is a re-stylized, mildly edited, and shortened (!) version of a review I wrote back in late 2015 or early 2016 during VGMania's downtime, hence the lack of my own screenshots (the game takes up a freaky amount of hard drive space on the PS4). I decided to publish it now to celebrate the DC Comics ensemble fighting game Injustice 2, which is out in the United States tomorrow and in the rest of the world by the end of the week. I'll be here to review that one ASAP, as well.

Riddle me this: do you remember a little humble indie game called something like, um... what was it... Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots? Do you remember how director Hideo Kojima told us, as we were pissing in our pants out of pure excitement, how Metal Gear Solid 4 was going to be the last Metal Gear game ever? Well, as it turned out: it wasn't. Kojima himself went on to direct Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker, released two years later, passed his baby over to Platinum Games another two years later for the creation of Metal Gear Rising, then directed the mammoth known as Metal Gear Solid V before getting unceremoniously canned by Konami - who are now working on their very own installment in the franchise, I like to call "Metal Gear Crash 'n' Burn". Well, even though Metal Gear Solid 4 wasn't the end it was so gloriously and gratuitously hyped up to be, it was indeed the end of an era, the final Metal Gear game in the Tactical Espionage Action series, and the last to feature its original protagonist, Solid Snake. In the summer of 2015, after a few delays and a simply disastrous launch campaign, Rocksteady Studios finally unleashed Batman: Arkham Knight - the "FINAL" game in the Arkham series. We all knew it wasn't going to be the last one - but it is most definitely the last major Arkham title created by the original crew, and thus, in my opinion, should be treated as the last true Arkham game, the ultimate "Be the Batman" experience. Now I know there are a lot of people who disagree with me on this, but that's exactly what it is. Batman: Arkham Knight is a jaw-breaking, fantastic climax to one of the most exciting trilogies ever seen in video game history.

Blinded by fear

Months after the decommission of Arkham City, Gotham City's crime rate has dropped almost completely; all of the surviving supervillains in the city have gone into hiding, leaving the swarms of street thugs to fend for their own against the most powerful law enforcement set-up in the world. On Halloween, everything changes. Scarecrow re-emerges two years after his disappearance following the Arkham Asylum incident, with Gotham's worst by his side, and manages to evacuate most of Gotham City with the threat of a city-wide chemical attack - counting on one man to stay behind and attempt to stop him. Together with allies brave enough to stay and stand by him, Batman embarks on what could be his last crusade against Scarecrow - unknowing that the mad doctor has allied himself with a new, mysterious villain calling himself the Arkham Knight, and his vast and powerful military forces.

When I first finished - and immediately reviewed - Batman: Arkham City in late 2011, I honestly thought that was it. Rocksteady went all in with that game; the gameplay neared perfection, and with the death of Batman's greatest nemesis (not such a secret anymore), the Arkham story arc reached an imperfect but satisfying conclusion. There was nothing even close as exciting Rocksteady could've delivered with a third game than the whole comprised of two halves, Arkham Asylum and Arkham City. Warner Bros. developed the prequel Arkham Origins (and its portable counterpart) themselves, fueling the already common belief that Rocksteady had moved on. At this point, people didn't really care; Arkham Origins was, in part, a testament to the claims these Batman games had run out of ideas. However, once the first teaser for a new game called Batman: Arkham Knight emerged, the gaming community simply exploded out of excitement. This eighth-generation mammoth of a Batman adventure was set to answer all of our burning questions about past events in this universe and their ultimate consequences. Instead of simply remastering and redesigning the already familiar Gotham map used in both Arkham City and Arkham Origins, Rocksteady flushed that map and created a new, epic Gotham City from scratch, which you could finally be able to explore not just by running and gliding through the night sky, but by your trusty steed, which was done making cameo appearances - the Batmobile. Rocksteady also made it very clear from the start, that Arkham Knight would be THEIR last Arkham game - after this, Warner Bros. could do whatever they wanted with the series, but as much as they loved their product, Rocksteady would not touch it again. That speaks volumes - volumes of the greatest Batman story ever told. Batman: Arkham Knight is not that by itself - but it is the greatest part of a three-part story that IS the greatest Batman story ever told. I was always disappointed in the ending of Arkham City - ever since this game arrived, I've had no beef with it. It feels right.

Robin, get in the car. ...Or don't.
The original landing of Batman: Arkham Knight was far from smooth. First of all, the PC launch version was a well-known, disfunctional piece of trash that got pulled out of the market almost immediately for a later relaunch, leaving many PC gamers harboring deep hatred towards Rocksteady and Warner Bros., as there was virtually nothing wrong with the console versions of the game. Especially after so many delays - the game was originally supposed to come out sometime in late 2014 - I can imagine their disappointment. (This is me feeling genuinely sorry for the master race, I think I've grown up some.) The $250 Batmobile Edition of the game got cancelled THREE DAYS before the game's launch, 'cause apparently hundreds of the Batmobile replicas that were the edition's main hook had broken to pieces during the launch shipment to the States and Europe. This left major game retailers harboring a grudge towards Warner Bros. as well, 'cause now they had to put up with shit from customers who had pre-ordered and already paid for the game - including yours truly! Well, GameStop, as great as they are, came up with just about the perfect solution to ease my personal disappointment. I got the Special Edition of the game, coupled with the Season Pass, a free retail game of my choice, a limited edition Arkham Knight action figure, and a vintage Batman coffee cup to cover all of my expenses. THAT'S service.

After playing the game for about an hour and a half in the small hours between June 22nd and 23rd, 2015, I had fallen in love with it. I loved it from the start 'til the fake ending, and immediately took it upon myself to beat the game to 100% to see the true ending, which I loved even more. After finishing the game four times, I'm still pretty convinced that this is THE Batman game of all time. It's the small things that make it so - there are so many details, so many easter eggs, so many juicy, dark plotline twists that it really feels like you're living in a comic book, as the dark brooding hero of its pages.

The next day, came the reviews - and fanboy rants. While just about everyone agreed that storywise, Arkham Knight was fabulous, full of surprises and surprise guest stars, an epic love letter to the most dedicated DC and Batman fans, many felt that the game contradicted not only the earlier Arkham games, but also Batman's methods by having the Batmobile in such an important role in exploration, puzzle-solving and most of all, heavy artillery combat. "Suddenly Batman has become a mass murderer", blah blah blah. Before venting my own thoughts about the Batmobile, as well as the whole game, let's be clear about one thing here: Batman does not kill anyone during the course of the game. It's made clear early on, that all of the tanks Batman destroys in this game are radio-controlled, and the firepower he uses on individual people are concussive shots. Stop spreading false information. Thank you. Now let's move on - let's review this most awesome game.

The Darker Knight Rises

There's one thing I simply cannot do here: keep this short. Since I'm such a Bat-fan, I predict to delve deeper into the story than I probably should, or deeper than necessary at the very least. I'll keep this spoiler-free, though I'm counting on you having played through the previous parts of the trilogy. If not, skip to the next headline.

Let's start with Batman himself, once again voiced by the one and only Kevin Conroy. Since Arkham City, this guy's been a wreck, since not only did he lose the only true love of his life, but also his arch nemesis, who was more important to him than he'd ever like to admit. Although deep down he knows it's not the truth, he holds himself responsible for the Joker's death, and therefore feels to have broken the only rule he ever lived by. Even with the Joker's memory plaguing his mind all the time, Batman stops at nothing when his city's in danger. However, when you're dealing with a guy like Scarecrow, and his notorious fear gas, you really shouldn't rush in with a head full of demons... just sayin'...

Scarecrow has had one demonic makeover since the Asylum days. Not only does he look like a messenger from hell, he also sounds like one, courtesy of John Noble, who I remember best as Denethor in Lord of the Rings, as well as Leland Monroe, one of the main antagonists in L.A. Noire - creepy sons of bitches, both of them, but even with their powers combined, they can't match the new Scarecrow. Dr. Crane's mere presence takes us through pure psychological hell in this game, not to mention the lengths he goes to help deliver one of the darkest stories told in this whole franchise - definitely the darkest Batman video game storyline ever created, by far.

The Dark Knight vs. The Arkham Knight.
To steer this review towards Christopher Nolan's films for just a small jiffy, the Arkham Knight (voiced by the almighty and ever so versatile Troy Baker, who also reprises his other roles from previous games) is this game series' equivalent of Bane. Bane has appeared in every Arkham game released thus far, but clearly more influenced by his comic book persona, while Arkham Knight seems to take a lot of influence from Nolan and Goyer's more realistic interpretation of Bane. He's a powerhouse both mentally and physically - which balances out the Joker business of previous games, just like Nolan deliberately balanced out his own Joker business by introducing his Bane - he has his very own private army specifically trained to fight Batman, and knows everything there is to know about Batman, as well as his true identity, secret allies, even his gadgetry. He's ALWAYS one step ahead, nearly impossible to subdue. However, his recklessness and homicidal hatred towards the Dark Knight will be his most likely downfall. We'll have to see, won't we? ...Stay tuned for the conclusion, it's awesome.

The length of the guest list for this bashfest is just borderline insane. Many survivors of the Arkham Asylum, Arkham City, and even Arkham Origins storylines make an appearance; if not in the base game, then in the Season of Infamy expansion pack which I'll briefly be going over at the end of the review. Once again, many long-burning questions are answered, many new secrets unfolded, many points of closure finally achieved. The game has a sick amount of easter eggs relating not only to Batman, but other major players in the DC Universe, including Oliver Queen and Barry Allen, who have recently skyrocketed in popularity due to their respective TV shows - Arrow, and the first (and by far the best) of its many spin-offs, The Flash. There are also a couple of long-forgotten, one-off comic book heroes and villains that are made so much more interesting by being adapted into fleshed out characters. Nightwing makes his first voiced appearance here, and both Robin (the Tim Drake version) and Catwoman appear, big time - not quite as big as before, but yeah, you get to play as them both alright, and they both have their own sets of challenge rooms waiting for you after the game, as before in the case of Arkham City. Only this time in the base game itself, and not (only) as DLC.

To tuck the story into a nutshell: it's very, very dark. It goes into places we've expected to visit since Arkham Asylum; almost every major plot twist in the game was written to rattle you psychologically by some degree, and the side missions in the game keep pushing that very same envelope. Arkham City already had you tracking down a serial killer, but here a similar side mission is not only more brutal and haunting, the conclusion is also a bit more disturbing. You can safely expect that not everyone will survive this night of terror - like in many good TV shows, that goes for EVERYONE. Before this turns into a spoiler merry-go-round, let's finally get into the game, how it (arguably) improves on the existing Arkham formula, and all that new stuff which admittedly goes both ways.

Knight Rider

Gotham City, as you knew it in Arkham City and Arkham Origins, is gone. What we have here is a sprawling, flashy, but still kinda dark, polluted and depressing metropolis most influenced by the Gotham City we've seen in Batman live features in the last 30 years, with less of that comic book-influenced style and architecture at least I felt in the previous games. All of the landmarks most important to the Batman mythos are most definitely there, and well, to me, this is the Bat-game sandbox most recognizable as Gotham City; after all, I'm more of a film- than comic book freak.

To navigate the complex roads of Gotham City, you have the one and only Batmobile - the one core feature fans always wanted since Batman went open-world, yet when it was finally added to the fray, these same fans wanted it out. The Batmobile is not just a sick vehicle for speed chasing, underground racing and the much-chastised tank and drone disposal, it's a multi-tool needed to make about 60% of progress in the main story; it's essential in many side missions, and about half of the Riddler puzzles in this game need the Batmobile's capabilities to be solved. While I do agree that the Batmobile's part in this whole scenario is way too big, I think the game is much more balanced than the next guy would have you understand. The main campaign alone is very lengthy, which means you'll have plenty of those freeflow and predator challenges, which made this series, to overcome. It's not all about blasting the shit out of tanks.

That means Batman has also got some new moves at his disposal, and a long list of WayneTech upgrades that's simply impossible to complete during a casual playthrough of the game; that's why you need to be fully aware and in control of what you pick, which upgrade category is most essential to your goals and playing style, and read the descriptions of the abilities carefully, 'cause else this game is going to turn frustratingly hard for you really quick, and the upgrades get really expensive even quicker (...and some of them are just useless crap, like any glide-gadgets). Even casual street fights with lowly thugs can be ugly; assault rifles, stun batons and knives are free game in the City of Fear. If you don't have the means to counter these weapons, you'd best stay up in the air. Or in your car. Batman's new suit, designed by series debutant Lucius Fox - fantastic performance, by the way - has these micr... micro... pulse... THINGS, that allow him to capitalize on his natural speed and strength. What this means for the game, is that Batman has a truckload of more forceful and acrobatic takedown abilities, which corrects many previous inconsistencies and simply makes confrontations more fun in both main categories. Building up epic combos has never been this fun.

The most important addition to the list of Batman's predator skills is Fear Takedown; by executing one standard Silent Takedown, you gain the possibility to take out a whole group of thugs with one swift combo of takedowns, possibly without them or their comrades ever knowing you were there. If this sounds too easy to you, keep in mind that the predator levels in this game are not much bigger than they were in the previous games, but they are much more complex by design and there are a lot more guys - who are highly intelligent, and completely adaptable to your tactics. Some sure-fire stunts will not work twice during a single confrontation, these guys tend to check each wall and floor vent whenever they're on alert, and finally, there are some specialized personnel you need to watch out for in addition to those that are already known, such as medics (a scourge in both combat categories) and hulking minigunners.

The side missions can (mostly) be completed at your own pace and leisure, but let it be known right now, that these aren't really "side missions". You need to complete all but ONE single side mission to be able to bring the game to an actual conclusion, and if you complete them all, you'll get the real ending for your troubles. Some of the side missions are not even available until you've finished with the story, which has its own logic. What's not very logical, is a main or side scenario where you're supposed to save an ally from an imminent attack, perhaps as imminent as having a gun to his/her temple at that exact moment - yet, you find time to do something else before butting in and saving your buddy, such as collecting a nearby Riddler Trophy or breaking into a nearby militia compound. Just because they're there and you "have nothing better to do". This is how open-world games work, of course, there's no real order to things, that's ultimately OK, but on the hand of contradiction, Arkham Knight also has plenty of those long stretches of having to take care of something before being able to sidestep; I already hated that in Arkham City, the main campaign of which had very few points that allowed you to embark on a Riddler quest or other side missions. At its worst, Arkham Knight can be somewhat of an incoherent mess; there's too much going on at the same time. Just to drag it down a little bit, to once again propel it high up.

Selina's a mixed bag of influences. I'm even seeing a little of
the Gotham series in her.
People seriously hate the Riddler in Arkham Knight. Here are SOME of people's problems with this guy. He talks, talks, talks ALL THE TIME, especially after you've conquered the main game and every other side mission; the Riddler's side mission is most likely the one you'll do last, because there are so many puzzles and Trophies in general, with a good deal of 'em hidden in levels and outdoor locations for other side missions. For the first time in the Arkham series, the Riddler appears as an actual boss after you've done everything relating to his conundrum, which in a way makes him the final boss of the game - a real disappointment, there, I can understand that. Like the main campaign of the game, the Riddler mission has A conclusion (which ends in the rescue of your ally from his Saw-influenced death trap) and a real one (where you'll fight him). To get to the first conclusion, you don't need to find Riddler Trophies at all - this is the puzzle-lite version of the game, so to speak. Instead, you need to go out into the world and conquer a number of "Mario Kart goes dark"-type of race tracks created by the Riddler, as well as puzzles mostly based on the advanced features of the Batmobile. Yeah, that's where most of the hatred for both the Riddler and the Batmobile stems from. Then you need to solve some much more tolerable puzzles together with your ally, to "finish" the mission. Of course any true Arkham fan will go for the true ending, it's not really optional for us, but casual players might appreciate the fact that you don't have to find every stinking Trophy and solve every puzzle in the game to reach some conclusion to this mission and the whole game.

Finally, that good old challenge room is already plastered with a fine amount of different challenges of all categories - joining the classic Freeflow and Predator Challenges are tank battles, races, and chases - and each piece of DLC comes with its own stack of additional levels and skins. The coolest of these packs allow you to relive Batman's history in film by giving you access to Batmobiles from ages past, as well as Batsuits from ages past, and finally, levels inspired by the past, all the way from the 1960's to Nolan's film trilogy - each level even comes complete with its own theme music! All that's missing is a set of levels inspired by the 90's animated series.

The huge amount of DLC also allows you to use a whole cavalcade of different characters even in challenges designed for someone else (and perhaps do a lot better from time to time by using an alternate character...) Simply put, the huge amount of DLC for this game makes the AR Challenge Room an infinite land of fun for those of you out there who always loved these the most about Arkham games, and even without the DLC, it's a vast, well-balanced hub of ass kicking you can go to "relax" any time you want. In addition to being listed in the main menu, every challenge in the base game is also accessible from within the open world.

Holy Season Pass, Batman

In addition to challenge-based DLC, Batman: Arkham Knight also has a fine amount of story-driven DLC starring someone other than the Dark Knight himself, in the style of the Catwoman Pack for Arkham City. Unlike the Catwoman Pack, however, these are completely detached from the main campaign and vary in quality. Season of Infamy is different; it's integrated into the main campaign, brings four more villains (ergo, four more storylines) from Arkham's past into the mix, and I don't know about you, but I think it's awesome. It makes the game even better and more whole than it felt during that launch playthrough, and succeeds in bringing even more depth and closure to these characters' storylines as they are imagined in the Arkham universe. Usually, I would've made a DLC guide, but since I'm not into spoiling this particular game, I wanted to mention Season of Infamy and its awesomeness briefly here, leaving the other add-ons for you to get familiar with and judge them as you see fit.

VERDICT

Yeah, sure, there's that VR game which no one played, and a fifth major Arkham title coming perhaps even as early as the end of the year, but it's safe to say that Batman: Arkham Knight is the last true hurrah, the climax, of this fantastic series of games. It's one of the best Batman stories ever written for any type of media - even without Paul Dini! - a well-balanced, action-packed, immersive, exciting adventure full of guest stars and easter eggs from all over the DC Universe. It's arguably the best comic book license ever made - even if you're to argue, I'm pretty sure your personal favourite comes from this very same series, so let's not fight over it. To each his own. Mine's Arkham Knight.

UPS
+ An illustrious, brilliant cast of characters to tell an illustrious, brilliant story
+ Music, voiceover work, sound effects, all top of the line
+ A massive open world with very little, if any filler - and it's none other than Gotham City
+ The vintage combat mechanics and predator tactics are refined to absolute perfection
+ Remarkable balance between each gameplay style within the campaign as well as the line of side missions
+ The Batmobile balances things out even further...

DOWNS
- ...But the Batmobile is also way too important to the big picture
- The side missions aren't really optional; you have to finish all but one of them to be able to reach some conclusion to the main campaign
- Some incoherence and inconsistency here and there; at many points, you're forced to make hours of progress in the storyline to be able to access the side missions again; while at some critical points where you feel like you should proceed with the story, you are allowed to do whatever you wish
- Some outright useless combat and exploration upgrades which will be of no use to anyone; however, you have to use them at least once during gameplay to be able to unlock every AR Challenge in the game

< 9.3 >

torstai 4. toukokuuta 2017

REVIEW - Batman: Return to Arkham

GENRE(S): Compilation
AVAILABLE ON: PlayStation 4, Xbox One
DEVELOPER(S): Rocksteady Studios, Virtuos
PUBLISHER(S): Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
RELEASE DATE: October 18, 2016

It started with HD remasters of PlayStation 2 classics. Then, came the "HD remasters" of seventh-generation classics, some of which made sense, and some a little less. It was only a matter of time when Rocksteady Studios would heed to the inevitable task of updating the two games that redefined the previously disappointing category of action games based on a comic book superhero - no, THE comic book superhero - to the standards of the current generation of consoles. Batman: Arkham Knight had already been out for a while, now gamers could visit *slash* revisit the realms of the first two parts of the trilogy, with the Silver Age prequel Arkham Origins (somewhat) deservedly left out of the equation completely. What's a lifelong Batman fan to say? It's true that there's nothing new to these games, double that if you've already got all the additional content for both titles. But, many have pointed out that they're not the same games that they were when they came out - and that is a false statement I am here to correct. He is vengeance. He is the night. He is Batman.

Batman is Forever

Batman: Arkham Asylum; Batman once again captures Joker and delivers him to Arkham Asylum, only to find that during his time outside the asylum walls, the Clown Prince of Crime has procured a chemical formula - not that different from Bane's Venom - that allows him to create a whole army of genetically enhanced supersoldiers, and then deliberately fallen into the hands of his nemesis to take over the asylum and let loose his fellow inmates to prevent Batman from interfering with his plan to dominate Gotham City.

Batman: Arkham City; One year after the events of Arkham Asylum, Batman cleverly infiltrates Arkham City - a large, isolated portion of Gotham City absurdly turned into a sprawling mega-prison - to discover the motives of the facility's overseer, Professor Hugo Strange. After discovering that Strange is fully aware of Batman's true identity and is therefore practically untouchable by him, and that his true intentions threaten the lives of each and every resident of Arkham City, Batman has to rely on the help of many of his sworn enemies and a pack of uneasy allies to tear Arkham City to the ground.

I'm not into re-reviewing games if there's nothing new to report, so to speak. Let's call this another article of "insight" instead of a review, 'cause even if I've said all there is to say about the games at hand in the past (9.0 for Arkham Asylum's Game of the Year Edition back in 2010, and 9.2 for Arkham City in 2011), there's a lot to go over regarding whether or not Return to Arkham is a worthy investment nevertheless. I'll start with short recaps on what I think of these games individually; there might be some new points and opinions I haven't stated before - granted, if I'd allow myself the opportunity to rate these games again, I'd give 'em both a slightly higher rating. So, this much I can tell you right now; both of these games have gotten even better with time, in their very own unique ways. There's really no telling which one's the better installment; it completely depends on your personal style, preference and approach to action games.

Back to where it all began.
First released in the late summer of 2009, at the absolute perfect time for an all-star Batman adventure as Christopher Nolan's film trilogy had recently hit its critical and commercial peak with The Dark Knight, Batman: Arkham Asylum nuked all expectations, prejudice and beliefs sky high. First of all, the game was developed by a relatively unknown British studio, and over 15 years had passed since any Batman game out of the dozens released had garnered any critical support. No one really believed in Arkham Asylum; even the final previews leading into the reviews by high-profile mediums left room for doubt. Maybe it just looked good, and was total shit underneath its flashy exterior. However, Paul Dini's writing, the voiceover cast led by 17-year Batman veterans Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill, and most important of all, contextually pitch-perfect gameplay design made Batman: Arkham Asylum perhaps the greatest game of the year. Not only the best superhero game ever released, but also one of the first masterpieces in adapting a Metroidvania gameplay formula to a 3D setting, and injecting it with a simple but awesome stealth-action core element, and an even more awesome, innovative combat system to boot. Chocked full of puzzles devised by everyone's favourite narcissistic nerd, the Riddler, a clever retelling of Batman's origins combined with an occasional dip into a 2D platformer setting, cameos from all over the Batman rogues' gallery, and of course, Mark Hamill absolutely stealing the show as the Joker - as any good Joker always does - Arkham Asylum was the perfect Batman game of its time. Despite its minor flaws in gameplay, recognized by just about everyone who's experienced the whole series, there are millions of gamers out there who appreciate the narrow, confined spaces and thick, dark atmosphere of Arkham Asylum over every Arkham game that came since.

Back to where it all ended. The first time.
Batman: Arkham City, released in the fall of 2011, ditched those narrow, confined spaces Arkham Asylum was best known for, and unleashed Batman on the open-world grounds of Arkham City, filled with distractions including side missions split into multiple parts, different training missions to hone his completely redefined gliding skills, almost four times the puzzles of Arkham Asylum once again devised by the Riddler, and more or less important appearances by a stunning total of 19 villains listed on the official central rogues' gallery alone! The combat and stealth systems were further improved, of course. Those more into Metroidvania than say, Assassin's Creed - the most obvious point of comparison, here - disliked or outright hated the thought of an open-world Batman game. Maybe blinded by that alone - I'll talk more about tunnel vision in a less speculative manner later - they started to pick on other stuff, and have picked on even more stuff as years have gone by. Bad story (not true, there are just a few slumps including a portion of the ending), stock gadgetry (well, that's partly true), and bad boss fights (Mr. Freeze?! ...and what exactly made the boss fights in Asylum so special?). The most common complaint of all: "it's just not as fresh and innovative as Arkham Asylum". Yeah, well, if you look at it that way, there's hardly a good sequel out there. Most actual critics were simply bedazzled by Arkham City, like they should've been - like Batman fans should've been. Like I was. All of this leads us up to Batman: Return to Arkham - a compilation disc consisting of both of these seventh-generation masterpieces, remastered and VERY SLIGHTLY redesigned, and permanently welded together with all of the DLC and platform-exclusive content for both games. Critics didn't like it, fans didn't like it. I doubted their reasons; I guess I've read the exact same ramblings one too many times. I once again set my brain to Bat-mode and headed into these games once more, to see if there was any truth to the mediocre reviews. I did find some of it hidden back in the deepest reaches. But, the truth is, that these two games are still as fucking fantastic as they were when they came out.

Crazy, crazy nights

To keep with the intention of insight rather than reviewing the game from a wholly personal point of view, let's start with the stuff that bugs most people the most about this bundle of Bat-joy. The remastered graphics are up first; yeah, they're kinda bright and colourful. That much we can all agree on. There's also one thing you might've failed to notice: especially in Arkham Asylum, all hidden secrets are quite damn easy to find. It's not just the case of you playing by memory and knowing exactly where everything is, if there's someone by your side who's never played these games saying "that wall looks like you could blow it up" without the Detective Mode on, and being absolutely correct in that statement; that kinda spoils the thrill of exploration for veterans and newbies alike. It's a small thing, for sure, and not as bad in Arkham City, I think; the lighting effects are relatively closer to the original article than those of Asylum's. All in all, the slight redesign of the games concerns Asylum more than City - with the exception of Talia al Ghul in Arkham City, who looks COMPLETELY different from the original model. ...And still appears in her original graceful form in the character bio screen. I guess some of the more obnoxious fans bombed Rocksteady for making her a blonde in the original, I dunno. Nerds.

The one character that's actually gets more menacing with
each dive into a deeper palette.
The second point of discomfort among the general public is one I'd like to go a bit deeper into. It would seem that even in these times when developers continue developing their games all the time even after they're released, critics and fans are suffering from severe tunnel vision, getting more severe all the time. I understand the need to review a game right away, as soon as the embargo lifts. What I don't understand is why critics blast out final opinions on games based on review versions, which are usually very glitchy and incomplete, provoking expecting fans into blasting out their "own" opinions, which are usually based completely on these reviews, 'cause after reading them, these expecting fans won't always even bother to try the games themselves. They post shit on these games on Facebook and troll the developers every chance they get before even trying the games, Mass Effect: Andromeda being a good, recent example (which is why I haven't rushed into reviewing that game). First of all, I think the critics should give these types of incomplete releases the benefit of the doubt; I understand it would be nice to have a complete game in your hands at launch, but why say stuff like "the gameplay's OK, the game's all around good, but it crashed on me so I'll give it 4 out of 10"? Then, there are games that critics describe "perfect", and despite a whole ocean of glitches in them, they completely ignore those glitches and focus on the gameplay alone (which they should ALWAYS do), giving that long-lost benefit of the doubt to games they think deserve it more than those games that are just "OK". That's really unfair.

The reason I wanted to preach here, is that the thing Return to Arkham was bashed for the most, was its tendency to lock down, crash, and very often freeze for seconds specifically in the middle of combat, which resulted in broken combo flows, rendering about 50% of these two games completely unplayable, moreover unbeatable. Well, during the course of my complete playthrough of both storylines, Arkham Asylum crashed once, and Arkham City twice. But, nearly every PS4 game I've ever played has done the exact same thing (including the perfect, almighty Witcher 3, take that you bastards), and there were no additional glitches to annoy me, not a single one, not even a small FPS break or texture failure. Nada. I had TONS of fun. All nostalgia aside, it was interesting to play through these games now that I've finally opened my mind to the DC Universe beyond Batman, most thanks to the TV escapades of Green Arrow and Flash, as well as Injustice. And, of course, the true final part of the Arkham trilogy, a review of which is coming up next, and in addition to tying up just about every loose end within Arkham (which I thought a DLC pack would manage just fine... pfft), beneath its Bat-surface it spread out to the far edges of the universe. But more about that soon. Let's wrap this up.

VERDICT

You have both games on the PlayStation 3? Then this compilation should not be on the top of your list. You have the PlayStation 3, but neither one of these games, nor any experience from them? Buy 'em... for the PlayStation 3. You don't have a PlayStation 3, but you do have a PlayStation 4, and no experience from these two games? What's that, you bought Arkham Knight and thought it was confusing? How dare you! ...And what do you expect? Go out and buy this damn compilation, dude! There's nothing new here, that's for sure - even the Trophies/Achievements are exactly the same, and won't stack with your old collection - and with the originals, you'll get the graphics best suited for these bleak settings. However, if you've still not taken your first steps in these pieces of superhero video game heaven, now it's high time to do that. Any platform will do for the mere experience just as fine.

UPS
+ These games are king
+ The gameplay's just as rewarding as ever before

DOWNS
- This collection took longer to arrive than most of its kind after its announcement; you'd think there were more new designs or features rather than just a few major inconsistencies to show for it...
- ...Therefore, it's not really worth much to someone who already owns all this stuff
- Absolutely no tweaks to basic mechanics that are known to be flawed
- Too bright, too colourful, too obvious; Arkham Asylum, specifically

< 8.5 >

tiistai 2. toukokuuta 2017

REVIEW - inFamous 2

GENRE(S): Action-adventure, Third-person shooter, Open-world
AVAILABLE ON: PlayStation 3
DEVELOPER(S): Sucker Punch Productions
PUBLISHER(S): Sony Computer Entertainment
RELEASE DATE: June 7, 2011

This game is most infamous (no pun intended - or perhaps it was) for the development hell it went through in its very short developmental period. Sucker Punch went to work on the game immediately after the release of the original inFamous, and unveiled the new product in the summer of 2010, only to be mauled by fans by completely changing the character of Cole MacGrath, all the way from the original voice actor to his more "attractive", heroic look. Sucker Punch defended their decision by explaining they needed a new kind of character to tell the story better (I, for one, am all in for that!), but ultimately they had no choice but to mix and match elements, both old and new, to create a satisfactory Cole MacGrath from scratch. Well, the game was done in a year into the first trailer, and the PlayStation community exploded in excitement. After all the setbacks, inFamous 2 got mighty fine reviews from the media, and much acclaim from fans of the original. All of the original's mistakes and black spots were allegedly washed out. Still, after reading a dozen of great reviews, I pushed the game back for all these years. It's just been there, on the shelf, gathering dust. After finishing this game, supposed to be bigger, badder and better than the original inFamous in every single aspect, I'm kinda disappointed. In myself, that is. inFamous was a solid game, inFamous 2 is a near must-have for fans of action-adventure.

Shock and awe

The Electric Man, a.k.a. The Demon of Empire City, a.k.a. Cole MacGrath, still in a very confused mental state over the events that transpired during the Empire City blackout, is contacted by another NSA Agent named Lucy Kuo. Kuo tells Cole that her associate, a brilliant scientist who created the notorious Ray Sphere, has created a new weapon capable of taking down Cole's future nemesis - the enigmatic Beast. Just as Cole, Zeke and Kuo are departing for his lab in the city of New Marais, the aforementioned behemoth shows up and gives Cole a very painful demonstration of his powers, draining most of Cole's, and utterly destroying what's left of Empire City right before his eyes, just as Cole was foretold in the very end of the original inFamous. Cole and Zeke establish a new base of operations in New Marais, to track down the scientist, kill the Beast, and take down a rich, shady bastard who's turned the city into a police state of his own - and apparently has strong connections to many of Cole's sworn enemies including the Beast. It's gonna be a long journey - how it all ends is up to you. Famous or infamous, round two.

Ain't got the number of the Beast.
I never had any special kind of love for inFamous. I finished the game once, and then put it to sleep. I bought inFamous 2 and played it for about two minutes before deciding I wasn't ready for it before I'd finished inFamous for a second time. Fast forward five years, I finally finished inFamous for the second and definitive time, actually thinking it was better than I remembered, but still I wasn't too stoked about inFamous 2 for some reason. Perhaps it was the story that still didn't stick that good, for me to bear through another sandbox-shaped apple from the same tree. Well, about thirty minutes into inFamous 2, I was dead certain I was heading into a very similar and therefore very accessible, but much better game. The voice acting is lightyears ahead of the previous game. The dynamic cutscenes do wonders to the storytelling - there are only a literal few of those comic book cutscenes here, only at a few key points of the game, including the prologue and the two completely different epilogues of the game. The city of New Marais - much inspired by New Orleans - is a much more interesting, diverse and somewhat sexier playground than the flat and repetitive Empire City. There are three completely different areas of the city for you to explore, all with their own types of enemies just like the first game, but also, different environments and conditions for you to try and survive.

I hate hippies.
First consulting my girlfriend, who's also a hardcore gamer, about the differences between whether you're playing it nice or being an asshole, revealed a whole different story behind the supposedly superficial karmic system. Playing the game through as a different character revealed the truth, which was even more awesome than I could've imagined. The game itself is not that different, but the story is full of remarkably different twists depending on which side you're playing. The story is the key to this game - it's absolutely amazing. It picks up from where inFamous left off, but delivers it so much more beautifully, and moreover, naturally. In other words, if you decide to do something evil as a good guy, the transition (or just one single step outside your personal game) is explained so much better, and it feels more natural. The core gameplay hasn't changed all that much - I can think of only a few things that have gone through some changes - but there's a lot of new stuff here, a lot more than you would initially expect from a game that was in development for two years and had to suffer through somewhat of a development hell just because of one design element fans didn't like.

No good deeds go unpunished

The sandbox of inFamous has been littered with all kinds of extras. Side missions are accompanied by karma-based mini-missions; for the good guys out there, there's a bomber running through New Marais who's turned Blast Shards (them good ol' Blast Shards) into bombs for you to locate and defuse, and of course dig up the remains of the bomb to slowly upgrade your juice meter. Civilians in need of pulse healing are now shown on the minimap, as well as civilians getting mugged by the prominent militia troops of the city. Bad guys get street entertainers to kill, and more Blast Shards to pry from the hands of dead civilians. For online enthusiasts, there are user-generated missions - yeah, you can create missions. How cool is that? The actual UGC is stuffed into the pause menu, but as long as you're playing online, Sucker Punch's own examples are scattered all over the map for you to take part in and take notes, if you're interested in such stuff.

Once again, the story is one hell of a key to this game, and I can't possibly emphasize its greatness enough. It starts slow, there's a couple of hot points here and there in the middle, and nearing the end, regardless of your alignment, it just explodes and you'll be remembering it for a long time, especially if you played the original game. The decisions you make during the story are always built up and explained so you wouldn't have the slightest chance of making a mistake against your desired outcome. Most of the time, you even have two characters of opposing alignments by your side, kind of like the angel and the devil on your shoulder, fully explaining their views on the many situations at hand, and their opinions on what you should do. They're brilliant characters too, so the decision-making in this game, as easy as it might sometimes feel like, they both have brilliant arguments that are hard to ignore.

City slicker.
The combat is generally more diverse, as even your basic shock attack uses up juice, which leaves you with the option of stocking up on hard-to-find generators, or taking a risk and getting up, close and personal with the enemies using the newly added melée weapon known as the Amp. It looks rad, and plays out even more rad, especially with upgrades. Speaking of the upgrades, there's no more stunt list for you to complete just for Trophies' sake, but doing enough of these (much easier) stunts garners you the license to buy more upgrades with your hard-earned EXP. The amounts the game forces you to do are very reasonable, and the stunts are just way more fun to try out when there's some actual benefit involved.

So, it's good - the game's very good. ...But. Are the original game's problems completely flushed? All but one - repetition. The further you go, and the closer you get to the end, the story gets better while the gameplay takes a run up the sad mill by ways of repetitive waves of repetitive enemies and repetitive missions even within the confines of the storyline. Once you get to the final fight, though, all of that matters a little less. The "good" ending in itself is one of the best scenes I've seen in any game for a long time, and what makes it feel even better is that the first game wasn't much of a poetic masterpiece. All in all, I can't find very many things besides that to complain about when it comes to inFamous 2. It's one of the true (semi-)hidden gems of the last ten years.

VERDICT

I kind of put it out there already, and there's very little to add. inFamous 2 is a fantastic game that outshines its predecessor by one fantastic mile. The few dips into the sea of repetition, more usual the further the story goes, are not enough to hurt a great story so fantastically told, and a game that generally whips a lot of the supposed sandbox greats off the table right out of its hiding place. Check it out - regardless of where you live, I don't think it'll rattle your finances too much nowadays.

UPS
+ Great story, great voiceovers, better storytelling
+ More dynamic cutscenes, less of those comic book stills
+ The controls are even more fluid than before
+ Player choices are more consequential
+ Great upgrades to grant an even more fluid gameplay experience
+ The sexiness and diversity of New Marais

DOWNS
- Still repetitive, especially towards the otherwise great ending(s)
- Some annoying control-related glitches here and there, though less annoying than having to deal with Sixaxis controls in the slightest

< 8.9 >

keskiviikko 22. maaliskuuta 2017

On my pending return

Phew, almost exactly six months have passed since my last game review. A lot of things have happened since then, mainly good things, that have alienated me from my laptop - alienated me from polishing up this blog, as well as writing new reviews. Well, I think the time is near to break the silence. Not today, not tomorrow, maybe not even next week, but I'm itching to get back to work as soon as possible.

I'm not dead. I'm not terminally ill. Just wanted to take this opportunity to inform you that I'll be back with some new stuff, hopefully as early as April.

sunnuntai 25. syyskuuta 2016

REVIEW - inFamous

GENRE(S): Action-adventure, Third-person shooter, Open-world
AVAILABLE ON: PlayStation 3
DEVELOPER(S): Sucker Punch Productions
PUBLISHER(S): Sony Computer Entertainment
RELEASE DATE: May 26, 2009

inFamous is a game I've wanted to do ever since I first started doing this thing. It's easier to go over the reasons why, before going into the couple of why-nots.

1. It's an open-world adventure game currently laid smack in the middle of the history of action games set in an urban, open world. Long after Grand Theft Auto III, right before Assassin's Creed II, and long before Grand Theft Auto V came, saw, conquered, and destroyed all hope for future developments' (such as Watch_Dogs) chances to really succeed in the open-world genre. Plus, unlike Grand Theft Auto or Assassin's Creed, this game was set in a post-apocalyptic world. Post-apocalyptic is kinda like my middle name. I never seem to lose interest in the different possibilities of a post-apocalyptic (open) world.

2. It was the second time a dedicated Sony developer went out to break loose of their family-oriented image. Naughty Dog did it first with Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, and we all know how that game fared, not to mention what kind of stellar franchise followed that game. Sucker Punch were known for Sly Cooper, and inFamous was their ticket to young adult land; being a PS3 exclusive already meant a lot when inFamous came out, so all in all it was a widely anticipated game.

3. The overpouring similarities between the story of inFamous protagonist Cole MacGrath and the story of Peter Parker - which, no doubt, are intentional, and have even inspired some critics to establish a spiritual connection between this game and the classic sixth-generation Spider-Man titles. "With great power comes great responsibility." Peter Parker has embraced that as a rule. Cole MacGrath, however, is given a conscious choice. Will you choose ultimate power, or will you choose responsibility? Like in any good karma-based game, you won't be able to grasp the underlying greatness of inFamous without trying both sides.

Which brings us to the question: is the game good and interesting enough to endure multiple playthroughs? Back when I got this game as a present having not the balls to risk the invest myself, I thought it was quite good, but I couldn't possibly muster the energy for a second playthrough - which the game needs to unfold, there's no escaping that. Also, inFamous didn't have a franchise backing it up, so I kept pushing it forward 'til it would have at least one sequel to make me want to go for a marathon. I tried, both times that a major sequel broke through, to get motivated for inFamous again, but on both occasions, I found the game heavily outdated by its peers. Even moreso on the second try, of course. Well, now I'm finally on that one final crusade to find out if inFamous truly is as outdated as it seems, and if evil's truly the only way to go if you want to succeed in this game.

Electric Funeral

The sprawling metropolis of Empire City is caught in a massive EMP blast, which results in the deaths of thousands of innocent people, and a total, city-wide power failure. Caught in the center of the blast is deliveryman and urban explorer Cole MacGrath. Instead of succumbing to the blast, Cole becomes a human battery, a walking electrical conduit who is able to take advantage of any trace of electricity in any way he pleases. With these new powers constantly growing stronger, Cole is faced with the ultimate question: will he use these new powers to help Empire City back to its feet, or reduce what's left of it to mere ash?

A superhero with his villainous fits.
inFamous was released at the perfect time for a PlayStation exclusive. At first, no one really knew what kind of a game it was to be, except for the core story element of being able to play the superhero or a supervillain in a superhero game. Stick that in a PlayStation exclusive, one made by such a revered developer, albeit one who had only made games for kids or early teens at that point - remember Naughty Dog - get blessed with a couple of damn fine early reviews, and you've got another PlayStation classic right there. Well, inFamous did never reach the massive popularity of Uncharted; Uncharted 2: Among Thieves came out some time later - hell, they might even have picked up a few climbing points from inFamous - and once it did, people hardly remembered this game anymore. The Uncharted franchise became the new cornerstone of the Sony PlayStation family, something inFamous was always intended to be. Bad advertising, or a good game that just wasn't good enough? I guess there's a bit of truth to both claims. inFamous is a great game that had all the potential to be a great franchise. There are just a few things really off about it - the game, I mean. I'll have to take a rain check with the rest of the series. Let's talk inFamous.

The cutscenes are more than a little detached from the game,
but in themselves they look quite damn good.
inFamous is an open-world action game, a third-person shooter with some RPG elements. Your secondary objectives besides the story are to help out the people of Empire City on either side of the law to gain territory; collect different stuff to either boost your maximum shock energy, find out more about the game's (very nice) backstory beyond what the twists in the main storyline lay out in the open; and finally, no game of inFamous is complete before amping your abilities up to eleven, whether you're the hero or the villain of this story. It's not just about a few key decisions at a few key points of the game how your character develops - everything, and I do mean everything, you do in inFamous is tracked to determine your karma. When you're attacked by a horde of enemies in the middle of the street, when an electrified grenade or a gigantic hammershock to the center of the crowd would prove the most effective option, you should remember that any civilians caught in the blast become food for your karma meter. If you're generally playing it nice, you could try to compensate the situation by going over to and healing any surviving civilians, and capturing surviving enemies for the police to handle. Or, if you're playing rough, just unleash the mayhem. Throw in a few more bombs to make doubly sure they're ALL down.

Of course the storyline missions and the big decisions, which are thankfully thoroughly explained by short cutscenes to avoid making drowsy mistakes with and for your character, have the most impact on how the game plays out for you. The final battle and the ending are both pretty much the same for both karmic outcomes, with some differences in the final monologue of the game, just to ensure us that a sequel was always coming. Which is good, 'cause inFamous can get quite tedious towards the end - here's hoping they fixed the most major mistakes with the sequel.

Running out of juice

First and foremost, inFamous is all-around repetitive. For the first few hours, the side missions have a fine abundance of variety to them. Towards the end, they're starting not only to repeat themselves by a long haul, but they're also repeating elements from storyline missions that weren't that fun to begin with. Collecting stuff, now that's what I'd advise you to do all the time instead of saving it all for later - you have this kinda "Spider-Sense" that shows the collectibles readily available to you on the minimap. There's a whopping total of 350 Blast Shards hidden all over Empire City's three districts, and only 300 of them have any actual use in gameplay - the remaining 50 are a disappointing gift to all Trophy Whores out there. The rest of the collectibles aren't nearly as much of a nuisance in total than going after the 50 Blast Shards that don't have any use, and could be anywhere in this sprawling pile of a city. Empire City ain't exactly the most interesting sandbox there is - it's kind of like a post-apocalyptic HD remaster of Liberty City in Grand Theft Auto III. Just without the cars. And the distinctive landmarks. And the different layers of terrain. And the hoes. Each district is supposed to be distinctly different from the next in style, but to be honest, I wouldn't be able to tell the difference between the districts if not for distinctly different enemies occupating each one. Yeah, regular enemies come in three types. There are some variations to each type of enemy, but not enough to carry an open-world game.

His delivery service just got a whole lot faster.
Finally, the story, as unique and exciting it basically is - it's a God damn open-world superhero game of completely original design! - is not told very well. Most of the voiceover work is fair enough, but the dialogue itself is clumsy, and somehow even aggravating, I can't really describe it any better. The cutscenes that are stylized after classic superhero comic books look really nice, but they're detached from the game and occasionally, they even seem to go against the karmic settings of your character, and the rest of the cutscenes are just bad cinematics. The exchanges between Cole and his ex-girlfriend, or his fat, dumb, jealous and arrogant (read: clichéd) best friend are painful to watch and listen to. There's just no emotional charge there of any sort.

My second round through inFamous was certainly a nice one, but that's only 'cause six years had passed. There are two people I know to have played this game through twice in a row to get to the Platinum Trophy, but I simply could never have done that. In all its length and size, not to mention how boring and repetitive a true open-world adventure in this game can get, and the crappy dialogue, in my opinion inFamous is not a game to be thoroughly completed at once. But, back to the original and more important question, is it outdated? No. General gameplay mechanics are actually way better than I remembered, and Cole's climbing ability is superior to any assassin's in the Assassin's Creed series, as far as gamer's comfort is concerned at least. So there, a very essential complimentary point before I wrap this up and delve into the sequel(s) for the first time.

VERDICT

inFamous is full of both superficial pros and superficial cons, a fairly even splice between good and bad karma. But, focusing on what's truly essential about an entertaining action game, inFamous excels in a whole bulk of it. The controls are fluid, the core mechanics of the game work fantastic. The new abilities are easy to grasp, and easy enough to execute with this terrific control scheme - except for the final ability which is another example of how useless the Sixaxis always was. Although it's not always carried that well due to the monotonic and clumsy dialogue, the story is fascinating and unique, and the resolution, regardless of your choices, paves an interesting path to a very interesting sequel. So, if you're on the market for a fairly entertaining open-world action-adventure apart from the more high-profile must-haves of its kind, inFamous is quite a solid choice for you.

UPS
+ Near-perfect controls
+ Fantastically delicate karma system
+ Great story...

DOWNS
- ...Brought down a tick by average voiceover work and frustrating dialogue
- Repetitive side missions
- Monotonic world and enemy design

< 8.1 >