>Weekend Recap: RE5 and 50 Cent, together at last

>Ordinarily you wouldn’t put Resident Evil 5 and 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand in the same sentence, but we’re edgy risk-takers here at SFTC, and so: that just happened. I finished both of these games over the weekend, and I was a little surprised at how much they have in common; certainly it was a little disorientating when switching between the two.

Consider:

  • 3rd person shooter
  • crazy-ass story that doesn’t make a lot of sense
  • many enemies take lots of bullets before going down
  • crate smashing galore
  • hidden targets that yield bonus items
  • campaign can be played co-op, which I didn’t try but it would definitely enhance both experiences

Of course, 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand lets you move while shooting, and if you want to destroy a crate, you just have to hit “B”, instead of “LB + RT”. Most importantly, your AI partner in 50C:BotS can handle his own inventory, thank you very much, and is much more vocal in giving encouragement and pointing out objects of interest. Advantage: 50 Cent.

I kid, of course. 50C:BotS has been compared to Gears of War quite a lot, mostly because they both have cover systems, but the last level is a blatant and bizarre “homage” to both Halo 1 and Halo 3, and it completely rips off has quite a bit more in common with Bizarre Creations’ conceptually interesting but underwhelming arcade shooter The Club, where you fulfill disbarred attorney Jack Thompson’s wildest fantasies by literally getting points for killing people, plus bonus points for killing people in quick succession, and where there also are hidden targets to shoot.*

50C:BotS is better than I expected it to be; indeed, it’s better than it has any right to be. But that’s not to say that it’s a great game, or that I would recommend that you purchase it. Quite frankly, the biggest thing going for it is that it might be the most unintentionally hilarious game I’ve ever played. When I wrote earlier that 50’s AI partner is very encouraging, I’m not screwing around – every 10-15 seconds, your fellow G-Unit possemember is saying shit like “Hey 50 – over here, man!” or “Yo 50 – here they come!” or, my personal favorite during the obligatory driving level, “Yo 50 – hit that ramp!” The game is utterly ridiculous; the story makes absolutely no sense; when a character warns you in the game’s first chapter to “trust no one”, it goes without saying that everybody you’re going to meet in this game will double-cross you, but it’s not especially clear why they would be helping you in the first place. There are more than a few cutscenes that appear to have been edited for some reason so that they now function as nothing more than non-sequiturs, featuring evil people that you’ve not yet met conspiring to do things that have nothing to do with you – or, rather, finishing up their conspiring and walking away as the image fades to black. It’s very strange stuff indeed. I will concede that the unintentional hilarity was my primary motivation in finishing the game; I got all the Points I cared to get out of it and promptly sent it back to GameFly.

As for Resident Evil 5, it is much better than Blood on the Sand. I am obviously uncertain as to where it would stack up in my 2009 GOTY voting, but I think I can safely put it in the top 10; and if I were to play 10 new games that were demonstrably better than RE5 before the end of the year, I think it’s safe to say that we are all in for a real treat.

The controls in the RE5 demo frustrated me to no end, and I was fully prepared to hate RE5 to death. They do indeed remain archaic and strange in the full game (as does the inventory management, which gets its own paragraph) but they somehow work in the game’s context. If you were able to move and shoot at the same time, with your aim being the center of the screen, the suspension of disbelief would be utterly shattered; you’d have more than enough time, then, to actually see how ridiculous it all is. There’d be no tension, there’d be no cathartic release; the game succeeds because of its control scheme. You hit the left trigger to aim and your focus instantly narrows, and each infected thing you kill becomes its own tiny individual battle; you are forced to look at what is attacking you and, then, you are forced to look at what you have done to it. And just when you’ve seen enough of the same type of enemy, another one comes along with slightly different tactics or weapons or, eventually, it becomes something entirely different that you have to kill again. I’m not sure if that qualifies as genius, but it becomes pretty compelling and it’s only at the very end of the game where it stops being, well, fun.

The inventory management is a little wonky and clunky, and while it adheres to standard RE conventions while giving it its own twist, it could probably be done a little better. I read something last week – maybe it was in Zero Punctuation? – that decried the utter lunacy that a bazooka took up the same amount of inventory space as a first-aid kit, and that first-aid kits don’t stack. Again, I didn’t find it much of a problem until near the end of the game, when ammo management becomes both essential and ridiculous. The nice part about the game’s design is that you maintain your inventory and money at all times, so if you die, you can at least get a free, untimed re-organization and contemplation and you can buy whatever supplies you may need.

That’s really my favorite part about RE5 – it’s not necessarily the single-player campaign, but the entire package that arrives on the disc. The game is clearly designed to be played more than once, and there is a tremendous incentive for doing so; there’s a lot of cool stuff to unlock, for one thing, and as I said before the game lets you carry over your inventory so that you can replay chapters with new and advanced weaponry. You can also upgrade your weapons, which is its own meta-game; do you continue to put money into upgrading your basic weaponry, or do you start from scratch with a potentially better weapon that will be less powerful when you acquire it than the one you upgraded?** In addition to goofy costumes and graphics filters (which I haven’t really messed with yet), beating the campaign unlocks the Mercenaries mode, which is a fun diversion (and which I’m not very good at yet).

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: while I was playing RE5, my mind kept coming back to Metal Gear Solid 4. They are both set up as the conclusions to their respective mega-franchises, although Kojima hinted at future MGS games at last week’s GDC, and Capcom has already said that RE5 is a conclusion of the current storyline and that RE6 will be a dramatic reinvention. They are both graphical show-stoppers; I might even say that RE5 is better-looking than MGS4 if only because there’s a wider color palette. They’re both very quirky and are somewhat insular, even as they’re accessible for people unfamiliar with the larger story. They both take themselves very seriously, even though they’re also high in camp. And they are both ultimately love letters to their adoring fanbases; they are absolutely loaded with special treats that long-time fans of the series will no doubt enjoy. I was not a die-hard fan of either franchise, and I wound up really enjoying both of these titles, even through their faults. I’m not sure I’m going to run out and play any of the earlier MGS titles, but you’d better believe I’m going to dust off the Wii this week and see if I can’t finally get into Resident Evil 4.

* The hidden targets might even be the same color, now that I think about it. I would insert screenshots to back up my point, but Google isn’t being helpful and I don’t have the time.

** I think I read somewhere that when you fully upgrade a weapon, you then have the ability to have unlimited ammo for that particular weapon; fully upgrading a weapon is very expensive, however, and in the meantime you could be messing around with other things to buy.

>Be Sure to Drink Your Ovaltine

>The small part of my soul that is not yet tainted by cynicism is somewhat a-flutter this morning, now that I’ve read this official PSBlog post revealing the launch of an ARG for Home.

Of course, the problem here is that the most successful and engaging ARGs don’t come right out and tell you that they’re ARGs; the idea is that you discover them without knowing you’re looking for them. I’ve only really been invested in 2 of them, but they’re the ones you’ve heard of: the A.I. game, and the I Love Bees game; both times I happened to stumble across them, and both times I got totally sucked in, even if I didn’t actually go out and do any field work. It’s true that I knew that it was just advertising, but it was advertising that was actually more interesting than the product it was selling. (Did I just say that I Love Bees was more absorbing than Halo 2?)

The other problem, of course, is that I haven’t used Home – or, indeed, even thought about it – since my initial, less than thrilling experience with the beta a bazillion years ago.

But here’s the thing – if I were using Home, and I happened to stumble across this strange grafitti, and then crazy things started happening, I’d totally love it.

I might just fire up the ol’ PS3 tonight and check it out. I just hope I don’t end up totally hating myself as a result.

>Announcement

>I fucking LOVE Resident Evil 5. It makes no sense to me that I should love it so; but there it is. I just finished Chapter 4-1 a short while ago and the only reason why I’m calling it a night is so that I can keep going back to it during the week.

As much as the game is ass-backwards in so many respects, there’s something about how it all comes together that is wonderful.

That is all.

>The Path

>This is a link to Joystiq’s not-review of The Path. I read this not-review this afternoon and felt compelled to check it out; I’ve just played a little bit of it and I can pretty much concur. It’s not a game as much as it is a surreal, dream-like experience. It’s also seemingly taxing my PC, which seems odd; I had to turn down a lot of the graphical bizness in order to maintain a decent, still-choppy framerate.

If you have $10 and an open mind, there are worse ways you could spend a few hours.

>Super-Quick Impressions: RE5, Halo Wars, GTA:CW

>One of the first things they tell you in acting class (well, one of the first things they told me) is that when you’re in an audition, the directors can pretty much make up their mind within the first 10 seconds whether you’re right for the part or not. It’s true that sometimes a gut impression can prove wrong, but they’re awfully hard to shake one way or the other.

I’ve been finding more and more lately that if a game, book or TV show doesn’t immediately grab me, I tend to lose interest (and patience) very quickly. I’m not entirely sure why this is – either I’ve developed adult-onset ADD, or my standards have become unreasonably high, or maybe it’s just that my bullshit detector is malfunctioning. In any event, I’ve been pretty busy lately and I’ve found myself having trouble getting sucked into anything (with the very notable exception of the now-defunct TV show The Wire, which I’ve been devouring like mad).

Hence, my quick impressions of 3 rather notable games.

With regard to Halo Wars, I’d played the demo and enjoyed it enough to let it remain in my Gamefly queue, although my 360 was in the shop when it arrived; when my 360 got back to me and I’d gotten over my initial infatuation with GTA4:L&D, I popped in the HW disc and quickly burned through the tutorial and the first level, which is exactly what the demo was. But as soon as the second level started, and the freeform nature of the game finally took hold, I found myself not really terribly interested or invested in what was happening, and I gave up about shortly thereafter. I’m gonna chalk this up to my own reluctance to dive in to the RTS genre, though; the game would appear to be very well made and even in my short time with it I didn’t find anything that would otherwise turn me off, other than the nature of the game itself.

On the other hand, I’d played the Resident Evil 5 demo along with half the world and was utterly underwhelmed; the game felt antiquated in all the worst possible ways and the super-deluxe graphics only reinforced how un-modern the game actually is. I kept the game in my queue just for the hell of it, though, and when I started playing it over the weekend, I have to admit I found myself getting kinda sucked in to it. The controls are still 1997-ish but they weren’t as offensive as I found them to be in the demo. It’s certainly faithful to the RE conventions, for better or worse; even though I hadn’t really played an RE game since the Dreamcast’s Code Veronica, I immediately knew what I was in for. But it is true that the game is incredibly antiquated, and while I suppose I can respect Capcom’s decision to err on the side of fanboy pleasure instead of actual 2009 playability, it’s definitely going to need a dramatic overhaul in order to really stay relevant.

The “tension” that supposedly results from not having any ammo is really just an artificial frustration that immediately destroys the suspension of disbelief; for example, for a series that’s already stretching that disbelief (leaving alone the whole “killing zombies” thing), are we really to accept that these trained soldiers we play as would enter a combat zone without carrying any additional ammunition? Here’s my suggestion, as long as we’re operating under the notion that limited ammo is a necessary component to a successful RE game: I think if you really want to heighten the tension, you should start the game with all the ammo you’re ever going to get. You will think twice about taking a difficult shot if you know you’re never going to get that bullet back.

I’ve only finished the first 2 missions, in any event, so it’s not like I can really talk about the RE5 experience with any authority. That said, what I’ve seen is encouraging, and unlike HW, I’m still holding on to my copy.

Finally, my copy of GTA: Chinatown Wars for the DS arrived today, and I played the first mission just a short while ago during my lunch hour. And even though that really only amounts to about 10 minutes, I can already tell this is a better game than the PSP games, and certainly better than the GBA title. The novelty of seeing the word “fuck” on a DS screen is pretty goddamned hilarious, but more to the point – it looks great, and it has that all-too-elusive feel of its console brethren. It’s not a compromised vision at all – it is clearly its own beast. I am very much looking forward to checking it out for real.

>O Frabjous day!

>My wife often reminds me that I can be overly pessimistic; she pleads for me to “think positive.” This is easy for her to say; she hasn’t had the same horrific experiences with UPS that I have, even though I once wasted a day off by staying home and waiting for a UPS package for her that still hasn’t arrived.

My 360 did ultimately arrive yesterday, when it was actually supposed to, but I hasten to add that it almost didn’t. I heard the truck pull up in front of my apartment and immediately bolted downstairs; I saw the guy in the back of the truck pull out some large-ish boxes and throw them on the ground. He saw me, nodded, and then…. remembered something… and then returned to the back of the truck, only to shortly re-emerge with my 360, which he did not throw to the ground.

My 360 died the night before GTA4: Lost & Damned was released; in fact, it died as I was double-checking to see if I’d kept my pre-installed copy of GTA4 on my hard drive. And so, after I re-connected everything and made sure it worked the way it’s supposed to, I started downloading.

It’s been a long time since I played GTA4, and as I was telling Gred in an e-mail this morning, it felt just like coming home. I’m only 3 or 4 missions in but I’m totally right back into it; it feels like forever since I played a game that actually featured different writing. I think my only real problem with L&D thus far is that I can’t quite tell who’s talking when we’re all biking in formation; everyone kinda sounds the same. Nor can I get a read on Billy, the President of the gang; his line readings are a bit all over the place. Nevertheless – I love being back in Libery City, and I love that it feels just different enough to feel new.

And I must admit that I also love having my 360 back. Lord knows I tried making a go of it with the PS3… I really did. Still am, really. But Killzone 2‘s single-player campaign continues to underwhelm, and judging from my GameFly queue there’s nothing I’m terribly excited about until The Agency, whose release date is “TBA”.

>Things I Think About While I Wait For a Package That Will Not Arrive

>In my last entry, I mentioned that “I fucking hate UPS,” and that was before my newly-repaired 360 even left the warehouse. My 360 was supposed to be delivered today, and I’m here at home waiting for it, and yet somehow it was delivered on Friday – except it wasn’t, because the UPS driver apparently couldn’t find my buzzer even though there are only 2 buzzers by my front door to choose from, and one of them actually has my name on it. I called UPS and had the package rescheduled to today, the day it was actually supposed to be here; I’ve been tracking the package since I woke up this morning, and while it’s still listed as “In Transit,” the last update is from last Friday, and so I remain uncertain as to where it actually is, or if I’ll ever see it again.

So let me think of happy thoughts, then: let me turn to Peggle DS, which is the polar opposite of Puzzle Quest: Galactrix in that it is AWESOME. Peggle Nights is a pitch-perfect port of PopCap’s popular pachinko game (alliteration holla), which means it is exactly what I wanted it to be – a super-addicting puzzle game that looks and plays great. Where PQ:G suffered from copious, frustrating loading times and horribly implemented touch-screen controls, PN:DS wastes no time in getting you your fix, and you can control it however you want – I opt for the d-pad and buttons as opposed to the stylus. Anyone who’s played Peggle on other platforms knows exactly what they’d be getting into here, but I’d heartily recommend it for any DS owner.

On the retro-gaming front, I have been negligent with Final Fantasy 7; I’ve been really busy lately with some music projects and just haven’t had the hours available to really dive in. I’ve been keeping my PS3 busy with PixelJunk:Eden, though, and the other day I treated myself to Crash Bandicoot: Warped. My buddy Jongre and I played through the 3 main Crash games back in the day, and Warped was probably my favorite even if it was the one I played the least; it certainly mixed up the action more than the previous 2, even if it’s just as frustrating and the controls are as imprecise.

…Then again, since it looks like my 360 is in UPS limbo, maybe I will give FF7 some more time today.

>Impressions: Puzzle Quest Galactrix (DS)

>We’re only 3 days into March but I’ve already got a front-runner for the Biggest Disappointment of 2009: the DS version of Puzzle Quest Galactrix. As I am a fiend for all things Bejeweled-esque, and especially because I remain such a huge fan of the original Puzzle Quest (going as far as to buy it on the DS, the 360, and my old cellphone), I am willing to give the forthcoming XBLA version a fair shake. That said, the DS version – the version I was really looking forward to, the version I was hoping to be able to play at all hours of the day – is absolutely horrible.

And I say this even though I only was able to play PQG for about 10 minutes; 10 minutes was probably more than enough, to be honest. To be fair, my DS battery was about to die – but the technical problems in the DS version are glaringly obvious, and I’m being brutally honest when I say that 10 minutes with this version is being incredibly generous.

MTV’s Stephen Totillo has gone on at some length about the ridiculous – nay, absurd – loading times that plague the DS version – every thing you do is punctuated by 3-5 seconds of loading, and that shit adds up, especially since it’s unclear why switching between not-terribly-impressive screens should take that long. This could very easily be a Flash title – in fact, I do believe there’s a Flash demo online somewhere.

Most infuriating, though, is that the touch screen controls are totally fucked. The general idea is that you pilot a starship and you fly around to all the nearby planets/asteroids/ships by pointing on them, and then when you get there you point again and a little menu pops up, and then you point on whichever menu item strikes your fancy. This doesn’t seem to be that big a deal, except that when the menu pops up, you have approximately 3 pixels with which to click on – and if you miss, which you will, the menu doesn’t just close – your ship inexplicably flies off in a completely random direction, which means you have to click on the planet AGAIN and click on the menu AGAIN and attempt to select your menu option AGAIN and invariably you’ll miss the tiny little window and then you have to do all this shit AGAIN, and this shit adds up even more than the gratuitous loading.

As for the game itself – the part where you arrange colored hexagons in order to do battle – it’s basically the same thing as the original Puzzle Quest except new hexagons can enter the playing area from any side, not just the top. And, as it was in the original Puzzle Quest, the computer cheats like a motherfucker. It is not at all uncommon for the computer to get a 5 or 6-time cascade, which can totally fuck you up – and this happens at least 2-3 times per battle. And remember: I only played this game for 10 minutes, and I only got into 3 battles – the computer cheats like crazy AT THE VERY BEGINNING OF THE GAME, WHEN YOU’RE STILL FIGURING OUT WHAT THE DIFFERENT COLORS MEAN.

It would stand to reason that the 360 version will not have these problems – the menus should be much easier to navigate, and the loading times should be nonexistent. But the 360 version isn’t portable, which is what made the original Puzzle Quest such a pleasant time-suck.

(And speaking of my 360, fucking UPS has it slated to be delivered back to me on Monday, March 9. It was given a shipping label on Saturday, February 28. That seems impossible; it only took 4 days for my 360 to get to the repair facility. I fucking hate UPS.)

I’m getting way too bent out of shape over this game – indeed, I’ve spent more time writing this post than I did playing the freakin’ thing. Rent it if you absolutely must, but be warned: it’s going to drive you crazy.

>Impressions: Killzone 2

>But before I get into Killzone 2, some good news, at least for me: my 360 is apparently already on its way back. It was in the repair facility for probably less than 24 hours; UPS is being incredibly vague (as per usual), but I’m guessing I’ll have it back by Wednesday.

I’ve been really busy this week; work’s been crazy, and I’ve got about 3 or 4 musical project all starting to happen at the same time. I left work a little bit early on Friday and decided to reward myself for making it through a crazy week; traded in a couple games (Halo 3 and Gears 2 among them, which should prove beyond a doubt that I’m not just a mindless 360 automaton) and managed to actually find a new copy of Killzone 2 at my local Gamestop – without a pre-order, no less. Amazing.

I’m maybe an hour into Killzone 2; I’ve earned 2 trophies, although I think I’ve finished 3 or 4 levels by now. I have absolutely no idea what’s going on, other than I’m supposed to shoot the dudes with the helmets and the orange eyes – I have no idea why, but they seem awfully pissed off at me and my squadmates. I believe I’m on their planet, although there’s a lot of Earth/human-like features there – there’s garbage bags and stray shoes and dumpsters. Oh, and they speak English, with what I think is a slight trace of an English accent. They kinda remind me of the Combine in Half-Life 2.

The game is, if nothing else, jaw-droppingly gorgeous. There are some stop-start hiccups during level transitions, but those generally occur during breaks from the action so it never really affects gameplay. It is probably the best-looking shooter I’ve ever seen; and yet it also suffers from some pretty bland cinematography, at least during the cutscenes. For one thing, I have a hard time telling who is who during the first few cutscenes, especially since the player character is sometimes in the scenes; everyone’s the same dirty angry soldier, talkin’ all tough-like. The soldiers in this particular army have a peculiar mode of transportation; they ride around on the roof of flying machines, without any apparent safety harnesses, which makes them pretty easy targets, if they’re not actually flying off the roof. There’s no apparent reason for this, either, but even if it’s purely to make the game more action-packed and to make you think your character is a real bad-ass, my main problem is that these sequences have terrible camera angles – they’re shot from your p.o.v., but you can’t move the camera around, and the camera is low to the ground and looking slightly up – which means you can’t really see where you’re going or what’s underneath you, which also means you have no sense of scale. This could be construed as nitpicking, but for a game that’s meant to showcase the power of the PS3, it actually comes off as something rather amateur-ish.

Camera angles notwithstanding, my main problem is that I’m not totally sold on the gameplay, and it’s mostly because I find myself continually wrestling with the controls. The old line on FPSs used to be, “I can only play them with a mouse and keyboard, I can’t play with a controller.” The new line, at least for me, is that “I can only play them with the 360 controller, I can’t play with the PS3 controller.” The PS3 controller feels weird in my hand, and none of the buttons correspond to what I expect them to do. My biggest thing is that the trigger is the R1 button and not the R2, but I’m also constantly throwing grenades when I mean to duck for cover – and the cover system, while appreciated, feels unintuitive and unhelpful.

I fully concede that this is probably due to my own inexperience with the Playstation controller; I’m only now getting to the point where I know where the square button is without looking. It’s just that shooters on the 360 feel really second-nature to me – even the bad ones – and I find Killzone’s controls unusually tough to get used to. So between the controls pulling me out of the experience, and being in the middle of these gigantic battles that I have absolutely no emotional investment in, I find myself having trouble really getting sucked into the single-player campaign. I’m curious to see if the experience changes in co-op or online; I’ve not yet had much of an opportunity to try out the online side of the game.

I’d like to try and finish the campaign soon, though, if only because I’m downloading The Lost and Damned the moment I plug my 360 back in.