Monday, February 25, 2013

Review: Hard Reset

First person shooters seem to sprout like acne on a teenager's face these days, but a lot of them are heavily inspired by Infinity Ward's apocalyptically smashing hit Call Of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. More concerned with set pieces and going out of their way to take control away from you, it gets annoying when you realize a game that you happen to enjoy would somehow influence companies to copy it and miss the frigging point. Hell, it says something when Infinity Ward themselves miss the point and develop what amount to shallow parodies of the first Modern Warfare! Needless to say, travelling back to the early/mid 2000s and taking gameplay concepts from there is like breathing in a refreshing aroma scent after somebody does a really smelly fart. Enter Hard Reset, a game that feels like Serious Sam and Painkiller in that while levels aren't necessarily complex, open or mazelike, they're filled to the brim with waves of enemies and plenty of weapons for you to destroy them with. In that sense, it's like a roller coaster ride with twists, turns, loop de loops and even the occasional atomic death ray. Sounds like a lot of fun, hey guys? Well, more or less...

Roller coasters unfortunately have their boring bits, and this one's boring bits involve the story. In the future, humanity is mostly destroyed and entire cities are populated by robots. But there is one city left out there with humans. Unfortunately, that doesn't last for too long as robots are killing them all. Major Fletcher, a cyborg soldier, has to take them all down. Now, it could work out really well within the context of a shooter that's really all about shooting down robots, but then they introduce conspiracies and all this extra crap that does little if anything to actually grab your attention. It's one of those stories that tries to be Blade Runner by adding in themes of AI and what it means to be human, but given that the story is glossed over in favor of action, it falls flat on its face.

At best, the story is cute, like a three year old trying to draw its favorite animal; and at worst, you start to wish that there was more put into the story because in its current form, it's more convoluted than Metal Gear Solid. In other words, it's filler that gives justification for your actions, though due to its fillerific nature, there isn't much put into it, and unfortunately, the whole “what it means to be human” stuff that they slap onto the game is left underdeveloped and confusing as all hell. Not to mention, this game is about four/five hours long – if it was any longer, it'd have more space to stretch itself out a bit, not to mention that it could have a more conclusive ending. Thank god that it is, indeed, fillerific.

If you've never played Painkiller or Serious Sam, simply put, the idea is to go through levels and shoot down waves of enemies. You'll mostly fight robots that can cut you up, bash your brains in and blow you up via explosive shots or by blowing themselves up near you. There isn't much to their AI other than “kill all humans” and since you kind of look like a human, that's exactly what they're going to do to you. Unfortunately, one problem I had with this game about an hour in is the balance of difficulty... now, I expect twitch shooters like this to be harder than a porn star's tits as that's what keeps them enjoyable despite shallow gameplay, but only if it feels balanced. Sadly, Hard Reset is about as balanced as an overworked uni student's life at the worst of times – I've often found myself the victim of many different cheap deaths.

You see, Hard Reset can often feel like a two on one handicap match with oftentimes cheap enemies that can do plenty of damage, sometimes juggling you on one end; and explosives and electricity holding you by the arms for the enemies to beat the crap out of you. A fair amount of the encounters boil down to your usual twitch shooting formula of circle strafing while firing at enemies. Those are the fun scenarios because with many enemies to take down before they take you down, it's fast and frenetic. That's when Hard Reset is firing on all cylinders. The few bosses that you'll fight throughout the game are an even bigger treat – they huge and have hard to find weak spots, but fighting them is plenty of fun as these fights are also fast and frenetic due to their onslaught of attacks forcing you to think on your feet. These are easily the best part of the game. But then there are encounters with plenty of bigger enemies in smaller rooms where they can force you into a corner and unless you're lucky enough to fire some shots that'll give you breathing room to exhibit some good old circle strafing, these will lend you reservations six feet under.

Not to mention that this game has a thing for explosives and electrical currents... that may work against you by completely frying your circuits, should you shoot an explosive that will trigger a suicidal chain reaction. Also take into account the old school health system where you need to find refills instead of waiting for it to regenerate and the checkpoint system (as opposed to a “save anywhere” feature found in other twitch shooters), and Hard Reset is pretty damn hard, but it's hard to gauge whether the next scenario is hard because your reflexes aren't up to snuff or because of cheap enemy variety, small rooms and explosives that you might not want to shoot even in a moment of desperation out of fear of dying. To some people, it seems like I'm making a mountain out of a molehill, but when I'm dying not because my reflexes were up to snuff but because a section worked against its design (lots of big enemies in a small room), I'm sorry – this is stuff that needs to be pointed out. Besides, not every section is like this. In fact, most sections are more like the fun old twitch shooters that separated the men from the boys – especially the boss fights - but there were most certainly enough of the cheap sections for me to want to warn you about them.

One thing Hard Reset has going for it is its weapon variety. You're given two guns, but each of them have five upgrades that... are actually different weapon modes. You have a CLN rifle, which turns into more traditional guns like a shotgun, an assault rifle and a grenade launcher, while the plasma pistol turns into more futuristic guns like a shock blaster, a plasma rifle and an electric mortar (basically a grenade launcher, only it fires balls of electricity that slow down enemies rather than just blowing them up). There is a good variety to be found here and unlike the rest of the game, it's pretty well balanced. The more powerful the mode, the more ammo it'll eat up for instance as each mode shares the ammo with whatever gun it's a mode of. You'll start off with just one mode for both guns, but eventually by finding orange orbs and killing enemies, you'll acquire enough experience points to unlock new modes, upgrade the modes with more devastating secondary or primary effects, and maybe even make Fletcher himself stronger in combat. You won't be able to unlock everything in your playthrough so if you want to do that, you'll need to play the new game+ mode. But either way, it'll open each playthrough up to be different depending on how you choose to upgrade everything. Whether you prefer the traditional modes, the more futuristic modes or a balance of the two (though both will be weak if you go that way), you'll be required to change up your strategy quite a bit. I have to admit, it's actually impressive how they implemented this feature.

Hard Reset is a brilliant looking game. On a high end PC, it looks downright amazing. The textures are crispier than freshly roasted cashews and the framerate is mostly very smooth. But where it grabs me by the hair is in its Blade Runner-esque cyberpunk style. The city is big with neon and holographic lights to signify that it takes place some time into the future, and they do a fine job of contrasting with the gritty cityscape. Said grittiness gives off the feeling that the world has become a hellish robotic wasteland devoid of human life, which goes with crappy plot established quite well. The scenes – which are played during the load times, by the way – are done in a hand drawn style that looks rather nice too. It pans out like a comic book with some oily drawings within panels, with speech bubbles showing what's being said. If it was an actual comic book series, I'd at least enjoy the look of it despite the lousily written story.

The bad writing could explain the rather mediocre voice acting. Just about everybody here sounded fine in the technical sense, but not a single syllable was able to grab me. It just sounded like they were more concerned with appearing to be realistic and good without having anything resembling a soul or conviction. The music is good though – a lot of it manages to pump you up with their hard and fast electronic beats. Nothing is overly memorable, but they manage to get you going during the intense firefights. During the cutscenes, the music does a good enough job of conveying a serious ambience to go with the serious story, so it's not as if the composers aren't trying. The music is generally good, it's the voice acting that lets the sound design down.

Hard Reset lives up to its name of being so hard you'll reset often, but not always for the right reasons. It's very much like the arena shooters of old, but at times, it seems like they ramp the difficulty up too high with cheap enemies and crap level designs that go against themselves. It's a shame because when the rooms are big enough to breathe in, Hard Reset can be a lot of fun to play through. The bosses are easily great. But games have two big goals to accomplish – one is to achieve what it strives to attain, which Hard Reset mostly does; and the other is to be the least bit fun or worth your time in some other way, shape or form, which Hard Reset does on its best day. But on its worst day, it's frustrating, and the overall rushed feeling of the single player campaign doesn't really help. I guess if you're starved for a twitch shooter to the point where you'll try anything, there's not much harm in playing through Hard Reset, but personally, I'd prefer that you play Serious Sam 3.

6/10 (Above Average)

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Review: Sleeping Dogs

Although shooting games are more common than pocket lint, sandbox games aren't too far behind. Ever since Grand Theft Auto 3 entered the scene and popularised the open world sandbox genre, people have been wanting a piece of that pie. One of them was True Crime: Streets Of LA, which was an admirable little big game if not somewhat flawed in some bigger areas. It managed to spawn a sequel and then it nearly spawned another until some legal disputes not only pulled the plug, but chewed it in bits and buried the evidence outside. At least... it nearly did. Then Square Enix stepped in to give United Front a hand with the project and changed enough things to make it its own game so that they don't get in trouble. That game... is Sleeping Dogs, and honestly, thank *bleep* it got released because it's not only the single greatest game of 2012, but a really good *bleep*ing game on its own terms.

A lot of it is owed to its immersing qualities. For one thing, the story and the way that it's told sucks you right in. Wei Shen is a police officer who is deep undercover in the Sun On Yee, a triad gang based in Hong Kong. He has to find a way to bring them down without them realizing that he's a copper. At first, it seems like “oh they'll figure him out eventually” because there are heaps of stories like that - from A Bug's Life to The Road To El Dorado and Chicken Run, it's rife with potential to end up having that as some sort of halfway plot twist. But actually, the way this game does it is in a way that feels a refreshing twist on that kind of tale – it instead focuses on Wei's inner self. He's an undercover cop, but who knows for sure where his loyalties truly lie?

There are other elements to the story, like how it eventually turns into a full on internal and external war that Wei just so happened to be caught in the middle of, and all of this becomes a test of his loyalty. The gangs themselves get just enough time in the spotlight to establish themselves for the express purpose of developing Wei's character while having some presence of their own, all without being too intrusive. That's what bumps the story up from good to really fucking good – in reality, it's just as much about the gang that Wei eventually becomes loyal to as it is about Wei questioning how deep undercover he really is. It's a point that's driven home during certain parts of the story where it gets dramatic and intense, where the story takes twists and turns that makes you think “man, shit's going DOWN!!”. Because of this, the story is one that'll keep you on the edge of your seat and give you a hell of a ride while you're there.

A big part of triad wars involves each member getting their hands all bloodied up by either gunning each other down, or beating the everloving piss out of them. When it comes to a beatdown, Sleeping Dogs rules. Wei has access to a wide range of combo, throwing and counterattacks that allow you to take down anybody who dares to cross you. In that sense, the game is a tad on the easy side as if you have a decent set of reflexes, you can easily counterattack an enemy to set them up for one of your combo attacks. But difficulty is irrelevant when the feel of combat is so good that it eventually becomes second nature. See, after a while, you'll naturally be pressing triangle to break the kneecaps of kickers and holding X and square to deliver a kick of your own, ready to press triangle to elbow a pursuer from behind before you press square multiple times for a multiple punch+kick combo. It even becomes second nature to grab somebody and move towards a hazard so you can throw them into it and watch them die! It's like watching watching one of those 2D animated Dreamworks movies like Prince Of Egypt, that's how fluidly the animation flows from one attack to the next alongside how responsive each command is.

But then you get into the shooting, and it's.. alright, I guess. It's here that some cracks start to appear as, although the shooting works to the extent of which you can at least fucking shoot people in the head, it sure feels a bit crappy. Aiming is a bit stiff – I guess while mastering martial arts, Wei's arms don't move so well when he has to use a gun. To compensate, when you jump over cover, time will slow down. What's the matter United Front, can't fine tune your aiming controls so you engineer in some slow mo shit? Come on, I want to jump over chest high cover and shoot shit at big boy speed! That's not my biggest beef with the shooting, underfornately – for some bizarre reason, close quarters combat only seems to work when it wants to work. What I mean is that pistol whipping, disarming enemies and using said enemies as human shields seems to work completely at random, like I go to press the button... then I mash the button... then I just blast his head off with my stiff aiming pistol. Oh, I get less (and let's be honest here - arbitrary) experience points in the triad field, but at least I blew his head off and I get to live long enough to take down everybody else and see the next mission! To explain the experience points would be a complete waste of time, but basically, they lead to upgrades that hardly fucking matter as even at a low level on the triad, police and face sides of the fence, you're still a badass mofo! What's that, you get a Playstation Network trophy if you hit level 10 on all three accounts? Whoop-dee-fucking-doo!

Oh and given that this is an open world sandbox game, driving becomes an important part of the game. Whether you're cruising around to get to your next mission or you're racing against rubber banding AI drivers, there's plenty of driving to be done as Hong Kong is seperated into four areas. If I have to pick out any flaw, it's that when you drive fast, the camera has an odd habit of shaking like the cameraman has Parkinson's. Why? It doesn't feel extreme or intense – it's just irritating. But that's about it on the negative front, because driving feels absolutely fine otherwise. Accelerating, braking, turning, this thing where you can ram into other cars; it all works just finely and makes driving around a viable option without it getting frustrating. But that's really all it amounts to... until you're in the races when you have to navigate through a segment of Hong Kong and beat everybody else to the finish line! This is where not only the driving shines, but also the design of Hong Kong itself. It's designed in a way for a car to go around all of it with relative ease, except for parts that are designed to be on foot anyway, and thinking about each of the tracks that are derived from segments of Hong Kong, the corners either feel wide or tight enough to work not only within the confides of a tricky racetrack, but also as roads you'd expect for a city, and the straights and highways are in logical places, so really, there are no complaints about this... except for the shaky cam.

What open world sandbox game isn't complete with side missions? Well, I guess the more story driven ones like Mafia, but regardless, Sleeping Dogs has them and they're... actually a mixed bag. The aforementioned racing is pretty cool for reasons already explained. Going into a fight club to beat up a bunch of guys is also fun to do. Finding a small-ish gang of thugs to beat up is even more fun, especially since you'll have plenty of thugs to beat up and it might actually offer up a challenge! After those thugs are beaten up, you get to hack security cameras by entering a 4 digit code where each number is unique, and then you cruise back to one of four... safehouses, I guess, where you look at footage and bust whoever the icon pops up on top of. Okay, so far so good, but then there's the dating sim, which just has you going on missions like driving around or beating some guys up? Well, doing these deeds is fine – abruptly ending these like 3 or 4 missions later is laaaame because with something like this, you'd seriously expect something like... I don't know, living together or something, not just some bitch work for nothing! Karaoke is just fucking terrible. You tilt the analog stick up or down to two different degrees along with the thick bars and it is about as tedious as it sounds... oh, you're required to do that one during the story by the way. Twice. Fuck that. I'm surprised you don't have to do the other eight songs, that's how proud they were of this shitty ass fucking side mission!

But then I think about what brings me back to what makes this game go from good to really good – the immersion. Hong Kong not only looks brilliant for the most part (ehhh I've noticed a few spotty textures), but it's also legitimate. It's big, dirty and bright with incandescent lighting, but it has different locations like harbors, shipping piers and other places that are inspired by the real Hong Kong. Now, I wouldn't say it's even like going through a scaled down version of the real Hong Kong, but with plenty of cities full of things to do and shipping yards on some of the outskirts of this country, it does at least feel like a legit attempt at recreating Hong Kong at a smaller size for the sake of exploration within a video game. Even without that in mind, it still looks brilliant. The textures, for the most part, are really detailed and the animations, even the ones outside of combat, are very fluid, looking like a dream. The lighting is actually something that's quite impressive as all of the shadows and lights are in the right places from their light sources, and the amount of shadows and light look just right. No doubt, if this was just a generic city, it'd look pretty damn fine, but the fact that this is a faithful recreation of Hong Kong makes it stand out that much more.

Keeping up the immersion is the voice work. The actors are all Asian, meaning that they can inflict their dialect without it degenerating into Hong Kong Phooey. It really does sound like you're interacting with the locals of Hong Kong since their accents are authentic. That's not mentioning the fact that technically speaking, they do a fine job of voicing their respective characters as there's a lot of oomph behind their voices beyond their authenticity, with each bit of dialogue drawing you in that much more. Unfortunately, I can't quite say the same thing for the soundtrack. Oh, don't get me wrong, when there's more traditional Hong Kong style music, it fits with the setting, but when there's the usual sweeping epic symphony playing, it's like “oh yeah it's exciting”. Perhaps I'm just getting sick of that being used in like every fucking game under the sun and that it does incite excitement and all that? Maybe. To its credit, it does do just that. The licensed soundtrack is good. The actual radio is pretty boring, not much is really done with the adverts in them and you just listen to them for the music. Christ, even radio today is more exciting than this, but... at least the choice in to include Queen, Deep Purple, Squarepusher and more songs from other artists from a wide variety of genres (rock, metal, classical, rap and electronic, mostly) is nice for some driving music, particularly the more full on songs. Although driving like a maniac to classical music makes me think of A Clockwork Orange...

Games like this make me think that 2012 did hold a few gems. In a year full of sequels that pandered towards troglodytes with gamertags like xmasterchief420x and SephirothJuggalo6969, here's a game that's kind of a sequel but kind of an original IP and it's actually pretty fucking good! Game of the year 2012 does it very little justice – it's one of the best games in this generation! It deeply immerses you into the atmosphere through compelling themes and storytelling. It keeps you coming back for more with a fluid and intuituve martial arts system and various plot twists that, while somewhat predictable, are a hell of a ride to go through. Really, if you have a 360, PS3 or PC, you'd be doing yourself no favors by not playing this game.

9/10 (Fucking Excellent)

Monday, February 4, 2013

Review: Plants VS Zombies

I would've loved to have been in on the pitch meeting for this game - “yeah, zombies are cool, but we need something that'd make our game stand out from the thousands of generic zombie games out there... oh yeah, let's have plants that fire at zombies - genius!” I mean, this has to be one of the more out there premises for a game. We're not exactly dealing with Attack Of The Mutant Penguins or the last third of Indigo Prophecy here, but it's not exactly a concept that has any basis in reality, almost like... a video game. Yeah, remember when video games weren't about trying to be realistic? Well, this game does a fine of job of reminding us of this fact, as well as just being fun.

The idea is to set up lines of plants so that they can either shoot down or stall the zombies, making sure they never get to the left side. If they get past your defenses via eating your plants (mmm yummy plants) and make it all the way to the left, they'll eat your brain and it's game over! It's a simple concept and for a strategy game, it's a rather simple affair. You won't need much more strategy than sheer numbers, maybe stall a group of zombies if you can't take them down quickly enough if you have enough resources (or sun, in this case) to summon something that can stall them or slow them down whilst damaging them. At the same time, it's a concept that, nevertheless, fucking works because of its simplicity and how Popcap executes it.

Everything is laid out on a 9x6 square grid and your plants only take up one square each, so it really is a matter of having the numbers to take down zombies while protecting your brains. Plants range from simple pea shooters (no, literally, they shoot peas) to ones that fire two at a time, three peas in three different directions and then some that fire melons like a catapult firing large rocks. That's not to mention Wallnuts, walnuts that stall zombies so you can build up some sun to plant more offensive plants. If you prefer to turn zombies against other zombies, there's a plant – or rather, a mushroom (which are often the nighttime equivalents of daytime plants although there isn't a plant that turns zombies against each other) that'll let you do that. Simply put, you'll never be starved for variety. Given that this is a strategy game, you'll wind up mixing and matching groups of plants to find what'll work best for your playstyle. Whether you have a mostly offensive force with one plant for defense and another to acquire more sun more quickly to grow more plants to destroy the zombie onslaught. The only thing is that you'll unlock a plant after every level, so while you'll get time to aquaint yourself with the ones you do have, you'll either get a little too aquainted with them or you'll need to be experimenting a hell of a lot at the beginning of each level just to see what this new plant has to offer and how you can best utilize it on your team.

Hell, variety doesn't stop with our shit – zombies also have plenty to offer. At first, you'll have you stereotypical droning zombies that wouldn't be out of place in Resident Evil if it had a cartoony visual style (as opposed to a cartoony playstyle with Chris Redfield punching boulders with his overly muscly arms). Eventually, you'll have zombies with buckets on their heads, footballers, old grouchy newspaper readers and even dancing fucking zombies that wouldn't be out of place in the Thriller music video (hell, in the older versions of this game, the zombie even looked like Michael Jackson – how fitting), among others that not only have visual differences, but also practical differences. From higher defenses requiring more/better firepower to faster movement speed (whether they're quicker on their feet or just chewing on your plants) and even some flying in the air so you can only hit them with catapults, you'll need to make sure you're adequately prepared to take them down. That's when the plant variety I was talking about before comes into play.

Don't confuse this for a complex strategy game because this really is about as simple as it gets and it's at its most evident in the story mode. It starts off at a very low difficulty level and even the later levels are maybe moderately challenging at best. Even then, a lot of that has more to do with terrain than anything else. Every second world will take place at night, meaning you won't get any free sun – it all has to either come from sunflowers or sun generating mushrooms. The last world takes place on your roof, which means the left side will be angled lower and thus you NEED catapults, as well as pots because there's no soil on the roof. The third and fourth worlds take place in your backyard, with a long swimming pool taking up 2 rows, meaning you'll need water based mushrooms, weeds that'll drag zombies down to drown and lillypads for your grounded plants to float on the water. After a little experimentation, you'll be able to easily figure out the most efficient means of taking down waves of the walking dead.

The post-game content is where things get more interesting. The one that you'll really get into is survival mode as it basically takes the formula used in the story mode, but instead of there just being a wave or three of zombies, you'll have either five, ten, twenty or infinity sets of waves to take down. You can change your lineup of plants every five sets, and the further along you get, the more you'll need to be a bit strategic as you can't keep low costing yet weak plants forever – you need more firepower! But once the zombies become more plentiful and powerful, you'll find that you'll need to spend more sun on plants than you may have, requiring you to get some lower level plants. From there, it's like “what the fuck do I do!?!?!?” as you try to figure out the best means of survival, but then you realize that you have other plants that you can use before the beginning of every fifth set and from there, it really becomes a matter of predicting what may happen. That's easily the best that's on offer – not that Wallnut Bowling and Pot Smashing aren't fun either and the latter certainly requires a lot of strategy to make sure you use the plants you're given to quickly kill the zombies that you break out of the pots, but survival pretty much takes the story mode and injects it with steroids.

Plants VS Zombies sports a very cartoony style that'd make all but the most insecure of men and purist of zombie movie fans look at it and go “damn this is pretty fucking cool”. It's simplistic in nature much like the game itself with some basic shapes used to construct each of the models and plenty of reused heads for the zombies. The animations mostly consist of that old Flash technique where you have each limb as its own layer and simply move them along instead of painstakingly drawing each bit of movement on each frame, although the plants bobbing around like bobble head dolls is a rather nice touch. But it's the vibrancy of the color scheme that stands out. This game is very colorful, making it stand out on your computer screen. In particular, the plants are so vibrant that they stand out even in the daytime stages, let alone the nighttime stages when it ought to be dark. Hell, even when it's dark, it's brighter than the light at the end of the tunnel!

The sound design, like the graphics, are simple in design, but pretty damn effective in what it actually does. The soundtrack is mostly calm and upbeat, yet it's pretty much in the background for the most part, really only existing to give you a friendly hello when you start up the game and then to try and keep you calm while you take down hordes of the undead. There is an attempt at a haunting atmosphere during the screen where you select the plants you want to use for that level (or set of five in surival mode), but it's still decidedly upbeat and calming. It's not an issue because Plants VS Zombies isn't supposed to be scary – just a fun time waster – but it is in there nevertheless. The finest detail is in the zombies' groaning. It not only serves as a great audio cue for you to wake up and keep an eye out for zombies, but it sounds so goddamn cheesy and cartoony that it works!

Where Plants VS Zombies ninja kicks you right across the face is that its simplicity compliments what it strives to do. It's not an artistic reflection of society or an epic RPG; it's a fucking simple strategy game that was originally meant to be played on the go either while you're on a train, on a family trip or you have a spare few minutes in your day... only to be insanely addicted to it! These colorful, cartoony graphics reflect that – you ordinarily wouldn't have any time to appreciate fine details in your presumably busy schedule, you just want to play a video game to pass some time. Conversely, you wouldn't care much if at all about graphical fidelity or technicality once it has your nuts in a vicegrip with its addicting gameplay! That's the take home lesson for the day – Plants VS Zombies is simple, fun... and refreshingly addicting, so practice caution before you start playing this game. You might never come out of your house again...

8.5/10 (Great)