Sunday, October 26, 2014

Game Review - Far Cry 3 (Xbox 360, 2012)

I recently started watching Arrow, the tv show based on Green Arrow from the DC universe.  One of the reasons I enjoy the show is the character's backstory - harrowing experiences on an isolated island transform a trust fund baby into a vigilante hero of the masses.  It makes for some pretty exciting flashbacks.

The basic premise of Far Cry 3 follows a similar narrative.  A band of pirates abducts a group of twentysomethings vacationing near a remote island.  The protagonist abandons his humanity and becomes a cold-hearted killer to save those he loves.

While the story is built on a solid foundation and the gameplay is very well polished, a few annoyances stop the game from being truly top-tier.

Let's start with the story.  Far Cry 3 suffers from an unfortunately common problem in gaming, where the story starts strong but fizzles a bit in the later acts.  The script is generally pretty good, and the voice actors do a great job of bringing life to their characters, but I found I wasn't invested in the story by the end.

I think that mostly has to do with the fact that there are some fantastic characters and a compelling conflict early on, but as the plot progresses, those are replaced by story elements that pale in comparison.  I was excited to see where it was going, but I was let down by where it ended up.

To make matters worse, I think the story should end a couple missions before it actually does.  There's a sequence at the end that really feels tacked on and detracts from overall plot significantly.  It was simply unnecessary and disappointing.

That said, it does feature one of the most memorable characters I've ever encountered in a game, so playing through the story still has a lot of value.

The gameplay has a very similar vibe - a few disappointing design choices sting a little more because it's generally very well executed.

Far Cry 3 is played from the first-person perspective, but it doesn't feel like your stereotypical first person shooter (like the world's Call of Duties).  Instead, the game emphasizes stealth augmented by RPG-style skill trees.

Honestly, I think that's the game's biggest strength.  You're generally better off sneaking around silently eliminating enemies than running in with the biggest guns available, especially on harder difficulty settings.  It makes for a more strategic gameplay experience.

It's a lot of fun stalking guards and waiting for the right time to strike, and the skill system enhances the entertainment.  There are three skill trees, essentially focusing on combat, survival, and stealth, and you collect skill points by earning XP for killing enemies or completing objectives.  I found many of the skills to be borderline worthless, as they only applied in one or two instances, but planning the customization of my character was still enjoyable, and some of the skills had a pretty significant impact on how I approached encounters.

Sadly, this emphasis on stealth was also the cause of one of the game's sore spots: most missions encourage stealthy approaches by having wide areas and observable movement patterns.  Near the end of the game, however, you're forced into a few big firefights in close quarters (as far as I could tell; maybe I just couldn't figure out how to stealth my way through these sequences).

It's like the majority of the game prepared me for one play style but then punished me for focusing on it.

Fortunately, the main quest line is just one piece of the game's content.  Among the other ways to keep yourself occupied are sidequests (ranging from hunting missions to executing specific targets to searching for objects in a given area), timed challenges that allow you to compare your high scores to your friends', and generally exploring the gorgeous open world of these remote islands.

While some of these excursions can get a little tedious - there are, for example, some platforming sections, which is always a bad idea in games where you can't see your character's feet, and traveling from one objective to another can be frustratingly long at times - it's overall a nice diversity of in-game tasks.

The game also has an appropriate level of challenge - higher difficulty settings can get quite hard near the end of the game, but even the easiest setting isn't a cakewalk.  It's pretty generous with checkpoints, though, so you never lose much progress if you make a mistake.  There seemed to be the right balance of difficulty (to make me feel like I'd accomplished something) and forgiveness (to keep me from getting overly frustrated).

All in all, Far Cry 3 is a fun game good for well over 15 hours of entertainment (and much more if you're looking to complete all the side content).  It trails off a bit in the latter half and has a few bouts with general dullness, but it kept me reasonably well entertained.  I'd happily recommend it to anyone looking for a good first-person adventure.

My Rating: 8/10 - great.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Game Review - Asura's Wrath (Xbox 360, 2012)

As much as I rant about the value of a good story, I still want my games to feel like games.  When the cinematic-to-gameplay ratio starts to approach 2-to-1, I start to lose interest.  Those games aren't as entertaining as just watching a movie because the narrative tends to be more drawn out and gets broken up by spurts of gameplay.  They aren't as fun as playing other games, either, because I find I get dumped into a cutscene just as the action picks up.

It sort of feels like the worst of both worlds.

Asura's Wrath is the most recent offender I've played.  With a heavy emphasis on a disappointing story, it leaves a lot to be desired.

Let's get this out of the way: a big reason I'm not much of a fan of Asura's Wrath is the pacing.  While the game features some pretty cool episodic storytelling, where each chapter is presented as an installment of a tv show (complete with opening credits and previews for the next episode), very little happens along the way.

It's definitely in the tradition of classic anime series like Dragon Ball Z, where long periods of slow buildup lead to epic (though often quick) confrontations.  That style always felt awfully niche to me, and it was never really my thing.  If you're like me in that way, Asura's Wrath is unlikely to hook you.

The story itself definitely has potential, but it falls short because it doesn't really go anywhere.  Asura is one of eight demigod generals defending the planet from the corruption of the apparently evil Ghoma.  That conflict is never explained in any detail, cheapening what could have been a very interesting backstory.

Instead, the bulk of the game focuses on the other generals betraying Asura and his ensuing vengeance.  That betrayal is slightly better explained, but it still doesn't flesh out the game's universe enough to draw my interest.

Yes, there are awesome fight scenes (and the game is beautiful, so they're particularly awesome), but I was never invested in it.  There's a lot of failed potential in this one.

And the gameplay doesn't pick up the slack.  Part of that is because it relies pretty heavily on quick time events.  You'll need to be quick on the draw during cinematics to follow on-screen inputs and common button-mashing sequences if you want to get a good ranking in each chapter.  It also means that many of the cutscenes are unskippable, so multiple playthroughs become a huge chore.

The rest of the gameplay lacks focus, as it is split almost evenly between two genres - third-person beat 'em up and rail shooter.

The beat 'em up gameplay isn't anything mindblowing.  You use simple combat abilities to dispatch a decent variety of enemies while filling your "burst gauge," which allows you to unleash a super-cinematic attack (another strong parallel with Dragon Ball Z).  Battles are usually spamming affairs, where your best tactic is to wail on opponents indiscriminately.  Higher difficulties require more strategy and precision, but the hardest fights generally devolve into tedious exercises in pattern recognition rather than flowing combat.

My favorite bits of the game, on the other hand, were definitely the rail shooter stages.  During these sections, Asura will automatically rush towards some objective. You control his lateral movement to dodge incoming attacks and fire projectiles to take out enemies along the way.  There is generally not much riding on these sequences (it is pretty hard to fail in most of them), but they were reasonably entertaining.

To be fair, I think nostalgia is the reason I preferred those stages; they evoked memories of games like Panzer Dragoon, making me wish more games like that were on the market these days.  Whatever the reason, those sections of the game were the ones I was most excited about.

Despite an uninspired story and rather shallow gameplay, Asura's Wrath is one of the most beautiful games I've played in a long time.  The cutscenes are gorgeous, featuring charming art direction overall.  The soundtrack is similarly fabulous; there were definitely times that the background music amped me up more than anything else.  It's a fantastic presentation, even if the content is a little lacking.

In the end, Asura's Wrath was more of a niche title than I had expected.  It's really just an interactive action movie.  The plot is little more than an excuse for big fight scenes (though it drags on in a lot of places), and the gameplay touches on quality genres but never delves into them.  It's decently entertaining at times, but it failed to hold my attention for the full 6-8 hour campaign, and I have virtually no desire to play through it again.

Asura's Wrath will likely appeal to gamers looking for a Dragon Ball Z-style story, but for others, it's unimpressive.

My Rating: 3/10 - bad.