dinsdag 31 augustus 2010

Scott Pilgrim VS. The World Review - PS3

Scott Pilgrim: The Game is made to appeal to your sense of nostalgia. A beat-em-up in the vein of old 8- and 16-bit classics with a purposefully pixelated art style, your mission is simply to get from one end of the map to the other while beating the crap out of everyone who gets in your way. And, for a game that celebrates the simple pleasure of button-mashing, it's highly effective.

The game effortlessly weaves together nerd-culture references (from Super Mario Bros. to Akira) with levels and playstyle created to remind you of games like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and River City Ransom. Miniscule background animations and character details ensure that, even when you're just wailing away on clones of enemies you've seen in every other level, they all look distinct. And like RCR (or more recently,Castle Crashers) you also level up your character -- earning new powers, greater strength, and more incentive to keep going, the further along you go.

But as enjoyable as it is to mindlessly bash through wave after wave of enemies, you're going to have to grind to get through the later stages; especially if you're playing on your own. Money you earn from battering your foes lets you buy apparel and food (both of which boost your stats). Unfortunately, there's no way to tell what stats will get boosted until after you've laid your money down. But pretty much every item addssomething to your character, even if it's a modest hit point upgrade -- and you're going to need a lot of hit points to make it through the later levels.

See, even though you have unlimited continues, Scott Pilgrim is brutally difficult. Even on the lowest difficult setting (Average Joe), I had to grind through the later levels over and over again, earning enough money for new upgrades, just to be able to survive long enough to make it to the boss. And the same cheap tactics you use on your opponents to trap them in corners and mercilessly wail away at them? Well, they can do that too. The only way to prevail against the never-ending waves is to boost your stats... or employ the help of a few friends. Getting more characters on screen makes the action even more chaotic, but, you can revive downed allies and share hit points to make even the most grueling levels a breeze.

And that highlights Scott Pilgim's real problem: the lack of any online multiplayer. If you want to play with friends, they have to be sitting on the couch in the same room with you. And if someone comes up and wants to join a game in progress, you have to exit out to the main menu to bring them in. You can't have friends jumping into a brawl mid-level. As a nostalgia-inducing romp through colorful worlds, Scott Pilgrim is a great time-waster. But even if you're not a twenty-to-thirty-something with fond memories of River City Ransom (or a huge fan of the Scott Pilgrim comic/movie), the detailed art and driving soundtrack from Anamanaguchi should be more than enough reason to give this retro-inspired brawler a try.

maandag 30 augustus 2010

Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days Review - PS3

Dog Days is a considerably streamlined affair in comparison to the first game. There are no more heists, not much in the way of stealth missions, hell, there's not even much variety in the whys of what you're doing. You're pretty much always shooting and moving forward. In a way, this is refreshing - that other stuff was not executed well in the last game.

Of course, the flaw there is increased repetition. The shooting mechanic in Dog Days is more functional than it was in Dead Men, but it still feels a little behind the times in comparison to third person shooters in 2010, and the cover system still frustrates as much as it helps. This is compounded by weapons that have been hobbled in effectiveness by IO's desire to make them feel more realistic. Guns early in the game are inaccurate pieces of junk, and you'll spend as much time looking for better guns as you will your plan of attack. This is more a problem for you than the enemies you'll face, as Dog Days is one of the few games I've ever played where fodder opponents take more punishment than the player can.

The real draw of Kane & Lynch 2 is the story and presentation. At this point, you probably know about Dog Days' particular presentation style, evoking user created video content on sites like Youtube. However, the influence of modern and classic crime thrillers is also omni-present. Similar to the tonal similarities the original Kane & Lynch game shared with the film Heat, Dog Days evokes films like Collateral and The Departed.

Where the original game's narrative collapsed under its own weight about halfway through, Dog Days actually holds itself together remarkably well. It's rare that a game can make you flinch. Jump scares, sure. They're easy, and movies have made us all numb to them after the initial shock. But for a game to really crawl under your skin, to sit there and disturb you, where you'll watch awkwardly as a character sobs like everything has been taken from them, because it has, that's... unexpected. I'm unaccustomed to a game taking story seriously enough that it can actually be criticized for expending its emotional payload too early, or for descending so far into nihilistic violence that I felt like I needed to come up for air sometimes.

At times though, the story Dog Days has to tell feels at odds with the game it exists in. The body count in Dog Days numbers in the hundreds (with an achievement/trophy for 1000 kills in campaign), moving Kane & Lynch beyond mass murder and into wartime atrocity territory. In a mindless action game featuring supersoldiers pitted against monstrous hordes, this is something that I barely notice; in Dog Days, it's hard to ignore. The absence of things to do other than shoot undermines the game a bit. The narrative is still effective, still intense, still emotional, but it's weaker perhaps than it could have been.

And then there's multiplayer, and its cousin Arcade mode. Multiplayer is broken down into three modes: The returning Fragile Alliance, and a pair of variations on the theme, Undercover Cop and Cops & Robbers. Fragile Alliance partners you with other players on a heist on a strict timetable. You've got four minutes to get in and out alive with as much money as you can collect, but there's a wrinkle; any player can betray the other players, collecting more cash. Of course, the payoff might be bigger working together, and traitors face the wrath of other players and enemy AI alike. Undercover Cop randomly assigns a Serpico amidst the expat thieves, who's goal is to stop the other players once the heist is in motion. Cops and Robbers divides players into opposing teams, with Robbers attempting to pull off a score and escape and Cops attempting to stop them. Arcade mode takes the multiplayer modes and fills them with bots.

While multiplayer's concepts are strong and interesting, they rely even more heavily on the shooting and cover aspect of Kane & Lynch 2 than single-player. It's nice that they're there, and fun can be had, but the online aspect fails to lift above its humble underpinnings. There is online co-op this time around though. 

A recommendation for Dog Days isn't hard, though it is filled with qualifications. If the story and characters haven't caught your interest yet, or if you're just not interested in crime thrillers, then there's probably not going to be enough in Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days to keep you playing. Outside of the story it tells, how it tells it, and the interesting conceit of its multiplayer modes, Dog Days is just a passable third person shooter. But if you appreciated the promise of the last game, or you're looking for something darker and more sophisticated content-wise than your usual shooter fare, then Kane & Lynch 2 is just the thing.

zondag 29 augustus 2010

Mafia II Review - PS3

Vito Scaletta, Mafia II's conflicted leading man, does not lead an easy life. War, murder, and betrayal are common themes in his complex existence--the prices paid for booze, money, status, and sex. Like most aspiring made men, Vito knows the risks of his lifestyle, but the lure of earthly pleasures is too great to ignore. Mafia II, the game he stars in, is also an earthly pleasure, as well as a cerebral delight that any fan of great storytelling will revel in. The twisting narrative is almost certain to draw you in, and superb dialogue spoken by a talented voice cast brings the characters they portray to life. It's easy to get engrossed in this world of tenuous allegiances and pompous personalities, though there are a few oddities scattered about that may occasionally yank you back to reality. Most notably, Mafia II's detailed open city is curiously underutilized, giving you few reasons to explore it and providing precious little to do outside of the main story. Yet while Mafia II is not the fully featured open-world game it seems to be at a glance, the tremendous story, the fantastic action, and the lovely city overflowing with striking visual touches make for an exciting mob drama.
The story kicks off in 1945, and you meet Vito Scaletta, the son of Italian immigrants who, along with his smart-mouthed best friend Joe, seeks out the fastest ticket to a big fortune. The duo starts small: a jewelry store heist, black-market sales of gas coupons, working over some uncooperative dockworkers, and so on. Eventually, the stakes are raised, and Vito and Joe prove they've got the guts to whack a guy just because a mafioso with the moola tells them to. Vito's occasionally stoic, occasionally fiery demeanor makes him an excellent leading man. He and his cohorts are not Italian caricatures, but are thoughtful and (yes) moral men who adhere to principles that may seem barbaric to most people but provide a strict ethical framework within "the family." Mafia II never holds back when depicting this world's everyday violence. Whether the murder is a cold-blooded, no-questions-asked assignment or a vicious execution driven by Vito's seething rage, the killing is typically accompanied by copious spurts of blood and profane deathbed curses. Vito and Joe are showered with hedonistic rewards--alcohol, women, even houses--and never delude themselves with a greater purpose. At one point, Vito reminds Joe why they do what they do: to have stuff. And you have to appreciate his honesty.
But of course, a life of crime has consequences, and a few plot twists ensure that Vito is intimately aware of them. Allegiances change, underhanded intentions are exposed, and eventually, the macho duo find themselves in over their heads. Vito asks his associate Henry if he has ever considered getting out of the business, and Henry responds that this life is a part of who he is. This excellent dialogue expresses Vito's dilemma in a nutshell; his moral compass demands he rise above his reckless behavior before it's too late to turn back, yet mob life is increasingly irresistible. Every line of dialogue sounds authentic while still always driving story and character, and there are even subtle and satisfying winks to the audience. (Joe's remark about how Vito's diet must help him heal so quickly is one such delightful reference.) The pressure builds in the final chapter, only for a somewhat unfulfilling conclusion to turn down the heat. The ending is thematically consistent in a game that depicts a difficult lifestyle that comes with cruel consequences. Yet too many story threads and emotional strands go unresolved for the finale to feel particularly satisfying.
Empire City plays a supporting role in Mafia II, rather than taking center stage. That isn't to say it isn't a beautiful place to roam, however. The game's initial chapters take place in the winter of 1945, when the streets are coated with snow, and ladies in overcoats stroll with gentlemen sporting fedoras and chain-smoking cigarettes. This first act seems as if it were lifted from a Norman Rockwell painting and represents an idealistic wartime America. The radio spouts gasoline conservation propaganda declaring that "when you ride alone, you ride with Hitler," while black-market ration coupons provide organized crime syndicates yet another source of income. As you drive a variety of old-timey vehicles about the town, it's hard not to notice all sorts of pitch-perfect visual details--the couple struggling to get their dead car started, the way the snow that accumulated on your vehicle's trunk slips away in the wind, the lamps hanging above the street in Chinatown. It's a United States as imagined through old Life magazine photos: a memory you don't have, but one that you wish you did.
The clock eventually ticks forward to 1951, and the visual touches transform but are no less impressive. Pink flamingos now bedazzle your pal Joe's apartment, and the bulbous vehicles get a little more streamlined. The radio announcers aren't concerned with carpooling but rather with recent scientific studies suggesting that smoking might be hazardous to your health. The music you hear on car radios changes as well, from Frank Loesser standards to hits from The Monotones and Rusty Draper. The music is evocative, but much of it is anachronistic; many of the tunes you hear didn't exist until six or seven years after the time period portrayed in the game, which is an odd blemish in a game so concerned with meticulous period detail. But Mafia II nevertheless layers on the fine points. Rain showers cast a gloomy pall over the later, more violent missions. Screeching to a halt in a speeding convertible produces a cloud of dark smoke. The creaking of bedsprings betrays a nearby couple's intimacy. There are some minor differences here and there, but the game looks and sounds fantastic regardless of which version you buy.