crysis 2

I’ve been working on a post over the last few days, considering the best-looking games of this current generation.  I felt that I couldn’t publish that post, however, until I’d played Crysis 2.  Every FPS has to have a gimmick, and the Crysis gimmick is bleeding-edge graphics, and as a self-professed graphics whore, I felt obligated to check it out.

I’ve only played the first 20 minutes of the first Crysis – I really only bought it to see if my new-ish PC could run it, and it could.  It looked good.  I got a little lost, and kinda didn’t care about where I was going, and never really thought about it again.  The big deal with Crysis 2 was that it would be appearing on consoles – indeed, it seemed from all accounts like the consoles were the main focus of the development cycle – and so the big question was, how good (or bad) would it look?

The very first achievement you earn in Crysis 2 – and you really don’t do anything to deserve it – is called “Can It Run Crysis?”  Cheeky, to be sure; yes, the 360 can run Crysis, and to be fair, it does look really good.  Mostly.

But I’m not so sure that it plays all that well, and it’s more than a little buggy, and it’s most certainly in the running for worst story, worst dialogue, and worst voice acting.  Of all time.

It’s shocking how bad the story is.  I mean, I don’t necessarily expect all that much out of first-person shooters when it comes to story, but I do at least expect to have a clear motivation for getting from one place to another.  And I want to know why people are shooting at me.  There’s been an alien invasion of Earth – so why are human soldiers trying to kill me?  Or, rather, why are some human soldiers trying to kill me, and then why do other human soldiers need my help?  It’s never explained, and if it was explained in the first game, then that would have been nice to know for the sequel, especially since the whole thing about the first game was that hardly anyone could actually play it.

In the beginning of the game, you are told to find a Dr. Gould – you’re led to believe that this mad genius can save the world from certain apocalypse.  Dr. Gould communicates with you via radio throughout the beginning of the game.  He needs you to come to his apartment.  You get to where his apartment is, only to find out that he moved at the last minute, but you still need to go to his apartment anyway because Dr. Gould forgot to turn off his computer.  (!)  That’s the best reason you could come up with to create a new scenario?  Sweet Jesus.

The dialogue is atrocious.  It’s just random words placed together in some sort of order, devoid of context or meaning, and delivered without any attempt at coherence.

But, whatever – nobody plays these games for the story.  HOW DOES IT PLAY?

It plays pretty well, for the most part.  I’ll grant it that.  Enemies are somewhat smart, and they’ll sometimes move around and flank, and if you die (which you will) they won’t necessarily be in the same place when you respawn, so you’ll constantly be on your toes.

The game is buggy, though.  Guns would, on occasion, not appear in my hands, or in other soldier’s hands – I’d be stuck reloading an invisible weapon for 10 seconds.  There was a weird audio glitch that happened throughout my playthrough, where it sounded like something was bouncing, but I could never see what it was.  Enemies would get stuck in geometry, or walk in circles.  And, also, every enemy could see through walls.  One of the first nanosuit upgrades I bought was the ability to see tracer fire – I was pretty terrible at the stealth aspects, so I figured I’d take every advantage I could in straight-up firefights.  And so, since I could see every bullet being fired at me, I could see that they were firing at me through solid concrete, even though they hadn’t actually seen me with their own eyes yet.

The checkpoint system, though, is maybe the one thing that finally sent me over the edge.   Checkpoints are few and far between – sometimes.  Other times they appear right on top of each other, and there’s no real reason why.  But it was not uncommon for me to wipe out after a 20-minute standoff because I got blindsided by someone from behind a wall, and then I’d have to do the whole goddamned thing over again, several times.   I eventually figured out that if I ran quickly enough, I could just get to the next checkpoint and avoid the whole mess.  Not every situation could be handled like that, of course, but once I realized that combat wasn’t necessarily mandatory, I stopped caring.  I made it almost to the end of the campaign, but couldn’t put up with it anymore.

I’m going to go ahead and call Crysis 2 my current front-runner for Biggest Disappointment Of The Year.

Top Spin 4

I’m still chugging away at Torchlight, but today I want to talk about Top Spin 4.  I’ve been playing it for most of the week, and I’m both in love with it and kinda embarrassed for it.

Let’s talk about the good stuff, though, because all the nitpicking in the world – and there’s plenty to nitpick here, and we’ll get to it – still doesn’t take away from the fact that the actual tennis in this game is probably the best tennis ever made.  It’s certainly easy enough to pick up and play, but there’s also a very subtle swing-timing mechanic that is incredibly difficult to master, and it makes for a huge difference in your play once you figure it out.

Let me put it this way – there’s a lengthy tutorial at the beginning of the game to better explain this swing-timing thing, and it’s pretty much required if you’re planning on being any good.  The fact that there’s a tutorial at the beginning of a tennis game seems somewhat ridiculous – virtual tennis shouldn’t be that difficult to pick up, we’ve been doing it since Pong – and I’ll come right out and say that the tutorial doesn’t do enough to really show you what you’re doing wrong.  Hell, I’m still not consistently getting my timing right, and I’ve been playing for several hours and am pretty far along in my solo career.

Essentially, the game works the way most of the late-era tennis games work – one button is for flat shots, one button is for topspin, one button is for slice, one button is for lob – but Top Spin 4 adds a new wrinkle – the length and release of your button press affects the quality of your shot.  A “good” shot is, generally a good shot; “too soon” usually results in somewhat of a softball return, and “too late” – the option I still get most of the time – can sometimes result in wide and long returns.  A “perfect” shot, though, is usually a thing of beauty – it’ll land in the corner or close to the line, and your opponent will most likely wind up out of position, and you’ll really feel like you’ve earned that point, and it’s tremendously satisfying.  I’m generally an offensive baseline kind of guy – both in real life and in games – and the game feels about as real as it can, short of swinging an actual racket.

It’s also the prettiest tennis game ever made – the animations are fluid and graceful and totally lifelike, and the stadiums and courts are flawless.  But it’s when you look at the player’s faces that the game starts to fall apart.  This isn’t a case of “uncanny valley”; this is more like “hideous robotic man-beasts wearing polo shirts.”  It’s clear that the development budget wasn’t spent on facial quality, and it’s a shame that the game spends so much time showing you closeups of your mutant virtual self.

Also, the announcers are just terrible.  There are only one or two announcers for score-keeping, for one thing, and they all speak English, whether or not you’re actually in an English-speaking country.  They also sound incredibly bored and disinterested, which is odd because it’s not like tennis scores require a lot of variety – the recording session, including multiple takes, should only have lasted about 20 minutes, really.

There are also no mini-games, which is a feature of the Virtua Tennis franchise that I really like.  In Top Spin, you’re either playing tennis or you’re switching between menu screens with interminably long loading times.

Still, though, if you’re into tennis games, Top Spin 4 is the best one on the market in terms of the actual quality of the tennis being played.  You can forgive the rest of it.

And also: Killzone 3, Torchlight (XBLA)

Welly welly well:  yesterday was extremely productive on the gaming front.  After I finished Dragon Age 2, I ended up also finishing Killzone 3, and then sunk some serious time into the XBLA version of Torchlight.

Killzone 3:  Firstly, let me say that I did not care for Killzone 2.  It might have been pretty, but that was all it had going for it, as far as I’m concerned.  The controls just felt weird, although I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not really all that used to the PS3’s controls when it comes to shooters.  But even so – it felt stiff and unresponsive.  The story was muddled and convoluted.  I didn’t know why I was doing what I was doing, and eventually I just gave up.

(I might also add that the main reason why I bought Killzone 3 in the first place, since I’m not really a fan of the franchise, is because Amazon was offering a $20 credit towards future purchases, and there are going to be a lot of future game purchases this year, and every little bit helps, and there are too many commas in this sentence, and for that, I apologize.)

The good:  Killzone 3 is, if nothing else, absolutely jaw-droppingly gorgeous.  It felt, at times, like someone stuck a gritty shooter into a Final Fantasy cutscene.  It’s true that the game can be a bit too brown at times, but overall the environments are nicely varied and detailed and really just look phenomenal.  The controls are a lot easier to manage than in KZ2; everything feels quick and responsive and precise.  There’s a nice variety of things to do; I know some people are tired of turret sequences, but I still kinda like ’em, especially when they’re done well.  (See also:  Bulletstorm.)  Surprisingly good voice acting, even if the script is a bit ridiculous.  It would be fair to say that it can sometimes take itself a bit too seriously, but it’s never awful.

The bad:  The difficulty level is all over the place.  I played the game on the default difficulty and got my ass kicked left and right; or, alternately, I was killing dudes left and right with little to no fuss.  The enemies can, on occasion, soak up even more bullets than in the original Uncharted, which is ridiculous – how many times must I shoot a man in the head before he stops getting up?  Also – if the enemies and I are using the same guns, then it seems awfully unfair that I can’t hit anyone from more than 20 yards with an assault rifle and yet I can still be one-shot-killed from across the map by that same rifle.  I must say, this game got me as close as I’ve come to breaking a controller in about 25 years.

Torchlight:  I’ve played bits and pieces of the PC version off and on for the last year and a half; I don’t really game on the PC very much and so I haven’t really sunk my teeth into it.  But in any event, I’m familiar with the game, I knew what I was getting into, I wanted to support the developers, and I really want to play online co-op in the forthcoming sequel.   The XBLA port is surprisingly good; the controls are, for the most part, excellent.  The menus can be a little cluttered, but they’re still effective.  The only thing that seems a little off is the number of unidentified loot drops; I’d say that at least 80% of what drops requires an Identify scroll, and that seems a tad high.  This will be a fun time waster for the foreseeable future.

Dragon Age 2: many dead things

I finished Dragon Age 2 about an hour ago.  (Took a sick day today; feeling gross.)  Took about 33 hours, and that’s with me finishing every quest that was made available to me; my warrior, Hermano Hawke*, ended up at level 23.  (Here’s a link to my Achievements.)

I must admit that my initial enthusiasm for the game has been tempered somewhat by some pretty serious flaws in the game’s construction.  The game world feels incredibly small, but that would be OK if the world was at least richly detailed and varied. The biggest problem with the game is that the designers are constantly recycling the same environments, which only make an already small world feel smaller.  And considering how many times I traipsed back and forth over the same ground, it’s remarkable how many wrong turns I ended up making – the city of Kirkwall, where you spend at least 80% of your adventure, is surprisingly devoid of character or personality.  Each area of the city has its own look – you wouldn’t get Hightown confused with Lowtown – but all the architecture of each area feels interchangeable, so it can feel like you’re in a house of mirrors.  There are only 2 or 3 “dungeons” – depending on the mission you’re on, certain areas of the dungeon might be walled off, but they still appear on the map, and it gets awfully confusing.

The dialogue and character development are still top notch, and among the best work Bioware has put out; and yet the story got somewhat muddled towards the end, and I didn’t really care about the conclusion as much as I’d hoped.  And there are some serious issues with red herrings, which I suspect may end up being addressed with DLC, but still – what the hell?  You meet a mythical dragon/woman in the first 20 minutes of the game, and then you never see her again (except for one brief, somewhat inexplicable cameo, which isn’t part of a mandatory quest).  That’s not a spoiler – the dragon/woman was in the demo.

And I guess another thing that kinda got to me is that there’s not a tremendous amount of variety in your activities.  You talk to people, you kill creatures, you walk from place to place.  That’s it.  It is a tremendous credit to Bioware that I played this game for 33 hours and didn’t really get bored with either of those 3 things, but I certainly wouldn’t have minded a bit more… anything, really.

So I’m going to back off of my initial hyperbole; DA2 is certainly very good, but not truly great.  It’s a huge improvement over the 360 version of DA:O, but you know what?  At this pont, I kinda wish they’d remake DA:O with DA2’s combat and controls.

*A nod to Arrested Development, of course.  All my male game characters are called Hermano, except for the sports games who feature Jervo McNervo, #27.  All my pets are named Lolily.  I don’t necessarily have any set go-to names when I play as females; I don’t really play females that often, although it should be noted that my Shepard in Mass Effect is female.

new digs / dragon age 2

So here we are.   I think one of the reasons why I haven’t been posting lately at the old site is because, well, Blogger feels like ancient technology.  I’ve been keeping a personal blog here at WordPress for a while now, and frankly it’s just easier to write here.  I am hopeful that this will translate into more SFTC posts, especially because 2011 is starting to get serious.

Case in point:  Dragon Age 2.

I took a sick day yesterday, and as a result I’m now about 12 hours into the campaign.  I can’t speak for the larger structure of the game, but from my experience with Bioware RPGs, I’m guessing I’ve finished the first “act.” *

My spending 12 hours with it already should tell you everything you need to know, frankly; I managed barely two hours or so with the 360 version of Origins, and maybe only an hour on the PC.

I knew from previews that Origins was meant to be a PC experience – which is fine, as I was a big fan of Neverwinter Nights – but the 360 port was ugly in every sense of the word.  It presented itself as an action RPG, but the combat was turn-based, or something – it was a loose translation of KOTOR‘s combat, I think, except not fun.  The controls weren’t intuitive and combat didn’t really make any sense.  And for a graphics whore like me, it was just awful.

I didn’t fare much better with the PC version, which I picked up during one of Steam’s insane holiday sales.  It certainly looked a lot better, and it certainly made sense on the PC, but… well… it’s been a long time since I’ve used a mouse and keyboard to play games, and I kept getting lost with the controls.

I’ve heard a lot of bitching about DA2 being “dumbed down” for consoles, but look – if this is the level of quality we can expect when Bioware dumbs something down, then I’m all for it.  Combat is fluid and responsive and FUN.  Conversation trees now use the Mass Effect system, which is intuitive and informative.  It looks… well, maybe it isn’t jaw-droppingly amazing, but it certainly looks quite good.

If I have one piece of hyperbole to dole out, though, it’s that the choices in DA2 that I’ve had to make so far are, without question, the most difficult choices I’ve ever had to make in a videogame.  And I’m only at the end of the first real quest!  ***(Slight, vague spoiler, just so that you know where I am:  I’ve finished the Deep Roads, and am currently exploring my estate in Hightown.)*** The choices I’ve been faced with have been so tough, in fact, that it virtually guarantees that I’ll be doing another playthrough; I need to see what happens if I do x instead of y.  And I’m sure that it’ll be just as agonizing the second time around.

Speaking of which, I’m also really impressed with the game’s writing.  Whenever I play a game with a moral system, I invariably play as good and morally upstanding as possible; I don’t ruffle any feathers, I don’t get overly aggressive, and I certainly don’t sass.   But in DA2, for whatever reason, I’ve been feeling a lot freer to actually speak my mind; the dialog options are smart and well-written, and for the most part there’s usually a speech option that reflects how I, Jervo, actually feel about the current situation.

If I have to find fault with the game, I guess it’s that it can adhere a bit too tightly to the standard Bioware template.  For example, if you ask a character a question, there will always be 3 dialog screens that follow before you respond.  It’s a pattern I’ve noticed for a while, now, and it kinda took me out of the moment a few times once I became aware of it.  Similarly, there are quite a few side quests that you’re given in the beginning of the game, and if you ask why something needs to be done, you invariably get some variation of “Why does it matter?  I’m paying you, just do it.”  Which is maybe a little lazy on the part of the writers, although it’s nothing egregious.

In short: it’s everything that DA:O wasn’t.  And so far, it’s one of the best Bioware games I’ve ever played.


* Bioware RPGs generally follow the same pattern – a gigantic opening chapter with a big main quest and lots of sub-quests, as well as lots of random side quests and various errands to run, and then, after the conclusion of that first main quest, the momentum picks up dramatically.

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