Thursday, February 26, 2015

Game Review: Risen (Xbox 360, 2010)

I really want to give Risen a glowing recommendation.  It's one of the only a few games that have made me feel like I was truly playing a role instead of mindlessly following waypoints.  As I explored the world and searched for clues, I was invested in the story.

It's a shame that the mechanics are terrible.

But we'll get to that.  First, the good:

Risen's nameless protagonist begins the game shipwrecked on an unknown island.  Along with the only other survivor, he sets out to find signs of civilization and ends up neck deep in a plot with apocalyptic potential.

While the transition from lowly stowaway to key player in epic events is cliche these days, I think Risen does it in the best possible way.  Your character is looking for help, but everyone wants something in return.  As a result, it never feels like the weight of the world is dropped on you; instead, you slowly work your way towards the game's conclusion by earning favor with increasingly influential NPCs.  The whole thing feels very natural and subtle.

And the island gives a lot to explore.  You can ally yourself with one of two opposing factions, the Don's gang and the Inquisition, but neither is explicitly good or evil; they both fall in a moral grey area, which makes their conflict more compelling.  You can also investigate a number of ruins and caverns, and there are tons of quests to complete and goodies to discover.

The quests are easily the best part of the game.  Unlike most modern games where you're beaten over the head with quest markers, Risen forces you to find everything yourself.  You may have to locate particular NPCs as they go about their day, or you might need to navigate a dungeon to find a particular bit of treasure.  Either way, the most guidance you'll get (outside of the quest description) is a vague dot on an imprecise map.

It makes for a very satisfying experience.  In some cases, I found myself searching for an available path for a long while or trying to figure out how to use my spells and abilities to cross apparently impassable obstacles.  You're left to your own devices at nearly all the key moments, so I usually felt like I was actually contributing to the game rather than just following the developers' intended route.

I'm honestly not sure if I've ever had that kind of engrossing gaming experience before.  It was awesome!

And if the game were limited to exploration and interacting with friendly NPCs, it would be a blast through and through.  Sadly, everything else is terrible.

The combat is by far the worst offender.  You encounter a nice variety of monsters over the course of the game, but no matter the enemy, fights are tedious and frustrating at best.  For one thing, your opponents are always more nimble than you.  In damn near every fight, I'd start to swing my sword, and my enemy would immediately jump back beyond my reach or block all of my blows.  This process repeated until I could pin them against a wall or they initiated a counter attack (which always interrupted my offense, though my attacks never interrupted theirs).

And that's it.  That's every fight in the game (except for the last boss, who plays by completely different rules).  Some enemies block more often, others focus more on the dodging thing; some will attempt to stun lock you with long attack chains, others will seem to block forever.

It just isn't fun.

There are also a few other weird flaws.  The game always lagged a bit after dispatching a monster.  The context never mattered; the game freezes for a second after every single kill.

The lag has other effects, too.  Any time you load a save, the game will begin playing a second or two before the load screen disappears, so if you saved in a perilous situation, you may find yourself dying whenever you try to load.  Sometimes the game won't register your inputs, but at other times, it'll queue them up, executing several commands in succession with no way to interrupt it; which one happens seemed random to me.

Thankfully, it's not all bad.  While the underlying RPG elements aren't anything more than decent, they do a great job of enhancing immersion into the game.  As you kill monsters and complete quests, you'll earn "learning points" that can increase your primary attributes or unlock new skills or abilities.  Whatever your choice, you'll have to find an appropriate skill trainer.  It's a cool system because it fits nicely with the "shipwrecked dude just trying to survive" vibe, as your character needs experts to help him along the way.

On the superficial side, Risen doesn't do anything to stand out, good or bad.  The graphics haven't aged particularly well, but it's really only noticeable during the big cutscenes and closeups on faces; during gameplay, character models and textures look pretty good.  The title theme is great (it evokes memories of Fallout), but most of the soundtrack fades into the background.  While there are a few awkward spots, the voice acting is generally pretty good.  It's overall pretty mediocre with nothing in the extremes.

Risen is flawed in bizarre ways.  It hits the "role-playing" part of an RPG almost perfectly, but all the pieces in between are tedious and frustrating.  RPG enthusiasts may find it hard to put down, but it may be too much of a grind for everybody else.

My Rating: 6/10 - decent.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Game Review - Murdered: Soul Suspect (Xbox 360, 2014)

I love adventure games, but almost every game based on exploring and solving riddles falls victim to a common flaw - when every interaction in the world is carefully programmed, you have to be able to anticipate the designer's intended solution path to solve a puzzle.  At the same time, the designer tries to obscure that path to make more challenging and satisfying puzzles.  It's a delicate balance, and only the best of the best are able to strike it consistently.

Murdered: Soul Suspsect's premise puts it on track to be a member of the highest echelon of adventure games.  It opens with a serial killer murdering Ronan, a detective in Salem, Massachusetts.  His spirit leaves his body, stuck in limbo until he can resolve his unfinished business (solving his own murder), which is when you take control.

What follows is a fascinating story in a brilliantly-crafted universe.  Ronan's disembodiment comes with some interesting advantages, like the ability to walk through most physical objects and possess the living and read their thoughts.

Ronan also encounters a variety of other tormented souls and reflections of particularly strong historical events, which fleshes out a detailed world.  Many characters you meet have little if any impact on the main story, but they still seem to have unique personalities and desires.  There are also a lot collectibles that reveal detailed backstories.  It makes for a fabulously engrossing experience.

That said, there are disappointingly few side quests to complete.  You can help a few of the ghosts that you meet, which provide some cool diversions from the main quest, but the small handful of side quests are all available right at the start.  It's a lot of failed potential in my mind.

Fortunately, the story itself is one of the more intriguing I've seen in quite a while.  The supernatural elements are effectively integrated into a believable modern-day world without becoming the dominant theme - the focus of the game is always the serial killer case.

The visuals, writing, and voice acting are all solid.  There are minor flaws here and there, like an occasional awkward line or odd animation, but the details usually enhance the overall experience of the story.

In summary, it's an awesome, nearly cinematic experience, even if it is a little on the short side (it took me about 10 hours), though that's partly due to lack of side quests.  With such a strong base, the usual problems with adventure games become exceptionally depressing.

The gameplay is basically split into two broad genres, adventure and stealth.

The adventure portions consist of collecting clues, interviewing (or, more often, mind-reading) witnesses, and figuring out how everything connects together.  The game's major areas are self-contained, so you never have to wander too far to find important details.  Most of the challenge of these segments is therefore found in finding collectible items (the clues) and getting around obstacles that block Ronan's path.

When you think you've collected enough clues to solve the next piece of the puzzle, you can bring up a screen that shows all the potentially relevant bits of information.  This is where several of the puzzles become frustratingly opaque - I often felt that it was pretty clear what was going on in any particular scene, whether the focus was determining what happened at a crime scene or deciding what will motivate a particular character to act the way you want.  It wasn't always clear which of the puzzle pieces the game wanted me to choose, though.

Granted, the cost of failure is exceptionally low, as it just reduces your rating for that scene (and rating doesn't seem to be tied to anything else in-game), but it's annoying to feel like you screwed up because the intended solution was excessively vague.

The adventure bits aren't very difficult, but that's ok because the exploration and investigation itself is reasonably fun.

The stealth sections are just bad.  You'll occasionally come across demons roaming certain rooms, and if they catch you, they'll devour Ronan's spirit (but the cost of failure is again minimal - checkpoints are very forgiving).  Your best bet is to dispatch them from behind, but if they see you, they'll hound you until you can hide for a while.

That's all fine; the implementation is the let down.  It's mostly that the hiding mechanics are awkward.  If you're spotted, you have to dive into various spectral hiding places scattered throughout the area.  The demons will attack hiding spots after they lose sight of you, so you have to bounce from spot to spot to avoid detection.  Jumping is disorienting and somewhat imprecise - it can often difficult to get the command to slide into a new hiding spot to pop up.

That's actually a general problem with the game: you have to be standing in the right place with the right orientation to be able to collect many of the important objects.  Most of the time, that's a minor annoyance, but during the stealth sections when quick reflexes matter, it can get really frustrating.

Fortunately, there aren't many stealth segments, and when they do happen, they aren't very long.  It could have been a cool way to add some tension, but it falls well short.

That's it in a nutshell - a beautifully detailed world to explore punctuated by some frustrating gameplay elements and design decisions.  I definitely recommend it, though if you're looking for some smooth action, you'll have to look elsewhere.

My Rating: 7/10 - good.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Game Review: Dead Island: Riptide (Xbox 360, 2013)

In my mind, Dead Island was a fantastic example of a game left in mediocrity when a fabulous premise met repetitive execution.  Exploring a beautifully rendered resort during a zombie apocalypse is a brilliant proposition, but the game wears on for much too long and every battle with undead hordes feels the same, making for a mindless grind after the first few hours of play.

Being a direct sequel, it's unsurprising that Dead Island: Riptide is similar.  Sadly, those similarities make it feel like a disappointing expansion pack to an already borderline disappointing game.  Here's why:

Riptide picks up right where Dead Island left off.  The four survivors of the first zombie outbreak escape only to get thrust right back into it on a new island with a few new zombies and one new playable character  It's basically the same plot: the heroes are just trying to escape, and they'll do whatever they need to earn the help of other survivors.

Where story is concerned, Riptide doesn't do a whole lot.  Yes, you'll meet a bunch of characters along the way, but none of them are very interesting and the major conflicts feel more like tedious tasks than plot points.

To make matters worse, the script and voice acting are bland.  Some of the lines feel forced, the main characters seem pretty dumb at times, and the voice actors don't anything to bring life to the game.

But the worst offender may be in the game's graphics.  During normal gameplay, everything looks great - zombies are diverse and appropriately creepy, environments are reasonably populated with various doodads, and distant terrain reveals a beautiful world.  The problem lies with the human characters; their reasonably expressive faces keep them from falling totally into the uncanny valley, but their eyes are completely lifeless.  It makes cutscenes and conversations feel off, and I found it to be a surprisingly jarring distraction from the narrative.

It's a pretty disappointing attempt at a story.

The gameplay brings similar disappointments.  It is built on the solid premise of 4-player coop zombie stomping and plays a lot like a first-person shooter, although there is heavier emphasis on melee weapons than your typical FPS.  You'll run through zombie hordes, shooting, slicing, and beating your way to your next objective.

For the most part, the control scheme is pretty fluid, though there are a few hiccups.  I felt that the game ate my inputs pretty often while sprinting (and occasionally at other times), so there were times that I was frustrated because I couldn't complete some precise maneuver.  There are also lots of waist-high obstacles that you can't pass despite being able to jump. Even after completing the game (which took me a little over 15 hours), I never had a good intuition for which obstacles I could scale and which ones I couldn't.

On top of that, melee combat can get a little disorienting, with the camera swaying wildly as you swing your weapon; that one's a little more forgivable, though, as it may be an added layer of realism.  The sound effects are a little frustrating, too.  You'll often be able to hear zombies growling, but their volume doesn't change with distance, so you can't tell if they're right behind you or 30 feet away.

Aside from those annoyances, though, the basics are as advertised, and the zombie crushing can be a lot of fun.

Like Dead Island, Riptide also has some RPG elements.  You earn experience by destroying zombies and completing quests, which allows you to upgrade three skill trees.  Most of the skills just buff damage with certain types of weapons or enhance consumable items; the only really unique bit is that each character has a special activated ability, like a brief bloodrush that allows you to rapidly stab enemies.  Those abilities definitely set the different playable characters apart, but they still feel like relatively minor differences in the grand scheme of things.

While the leveling system provides some degree of customization, it mostly just forces you to upgrade your weapons occasionally as the game progresses, as weapons have level requirements.  It ends up being a lot like a loot-based dungeon crawler with very simplistic skill trees.

Of course, that's not necessarily a bad thing, and I think it works with the horror premise pretty well.  I just wish that some of the skills had more impactful effects.

For Dead Island veterans, there's not much new here.  You can import your Dead Island characters, which will only bring over their skill trees.  Riptide introduces a few new skills and pushes the level cap to 70, but there's nothing game changing; it's really just more of the same.

In fact, Riptide is even more repetitive than its predecessor - there are lots of areas to explore, but they aren't nearly as varied or interesting as the areas in Dead Island; there are a couple new breeds of zombies, but they don't require different tactics than all the others; there are numerous quests to complete, but the vast majority have you go through the same motions as quests in Dead Island.

The one notable "innovation" in Riptide is the hub defense.  Several times throughout the story, your band of survivors will need to defend their base of operations from waves of zombies.  Your NPC allies will help dispatch monsters until the helpful "horde strength" indicator on the screen falls to zero.

These defense sequences are a cool idea, but the implementation is awful.  First off, I found the NPCs to be almost totally worthless.  Yeah, they'd fight, and they'd do some damage, but they rarely defeated even the most basic walkers without my help.  As a result, these sequences felt incredibly tedious, as I had to wander around the area to clean up after each wave.  (I admittedly did this with an imported character from Dead Island, so maybe this wouldn't be as much of an issue with a fresh one).

Second, these defenses are incredibly easy.  I never failed one, and I actually never felt like I ever came close to failing one.  That was largely due to the incredibly forgiving death mechanic - anytime you die, you're resurrected nearby within ten seconds; the only cost is a fraction of the cash you have on hand.  There was never any tension during these hub defenses because I knew death wasn't permanent.

The ease combined with the tedium make these parts of the game feel much longer than they needed to be.

A third disappointment comes in the form of optional quests to aid your allies.  Each NPC has three related fetch quests to improve their weapons or the stock in their stores.  While these quests improved merchants quite a bit, it seemed like they only had cosmetic effects for the ones that actually fight.  The improvement quests hint really cool design possibilities (like optional quests that may change base layouts or add different types of obstacles for you to use), but as it stands, they feel pointless.

I could certainly ramble on about the rest of the failed potential, but you probably get the gist: Riptide feels just like the original Dead Island, but its world is more limited, it has mind-numbing defense sections, and the story falls completely flat.  Slaying zombies is often a lot of fun (though it, too, can get tedious), but pretty much everything else disappoints.

If you enjoyed Dead Island and you're looking for more of the same, you'll find it in Riptide; otherwise, you're much better off playing the original.

My Rating: 4/10 - mediocre.