Saturday, November 29, 2008

Wall of text crits you for 10k

Well, the year is almost up and I am quite sure that I won't play any new games before the year's end. The exception might be the possibility of playing Little Big Planet, but honestly that can wait. Although I may give Guitar Hero: World Tour a go, it really isn't anything new in terms of gameplay and therefore not worth discussing at this point.

So, what's the point of this? Basically this year and especially in the last semester I have been rather occupied with uni work. As the purpose of this blog has changed and because of the various real-life distractions, I have not had the opportunity to document some of the better gaming experiences I have had in the last 11 months. That is of course until now. As the holidays are coming and because I leave for NZ in a few weeks, I find myself with more free time than I ever have had in the last four years. Because I plan on working in the gaming industry in the future, it is probably a wise idea that I at least critique the (new) games I have played completely (or enough to form a decent opinion on) this year. These shall be done in order from best to worse gaming experiences.

Left 4 Dead
By the far the most enjoyable game of the bunch, Left 4 Dead has united (at least) my housemates, both old and new, to form a squad of elite 'infected' killers. I say 'infected' as your targets are not classified as zombies, per se. Some shit about an airborne pathogenic virus similar in effect to an aggressive form of rabies. Whatever. The point is you shoot shit that runs at you with a group of people. You REALLY need to work together if you want to stay alive, which is where the fun factor gets interesting. It's not about killing the most infected or doing the most damage (although the stats do exist), but more about simply surviving the onslaught and reaching/achieving game objectives. You cannot do it alone. Versus mode online makes things even more interesting, playing as the infected. Perhaps even more cooperation is needed in this case. Honestly though, nothing beats spawning as a Boomer (big fat infected), spewing on a group of survivors from a balcony and watching the remaining horde literally rip them to pieces.

A problem with L4D however (and really not a problem at all) is that it is not very 'noob' friendly. By this I mean people who are still struggling with the basics of FPS games, such as circle strafing and snap-aiming. As my housemates and I play on Advanced/Expert difficulties, it gets rather difficult when beginners join our matches (games can be hosted publically). Carrying your weight in the 'squad' is critical to success and not doing simple things such as covering a reloading team mate or dispatching attacking infected quickly (without causing friendly fire) can be very detrimental over the course of a game. The lower difficulties do make this significantly easier and much less of a problem, but honestly the challenge aspect (i.e. surviving) is completely removed when you dumb it down. You want to play this game on hard-mode, with semi-competent friends who enjoy the challenge of surviving and helping each other out.

Below: Left 4 Dead - Flying Hunter Exposed

Crysis: Warhead
Purchased for me as a late b'day gift by a good uni friend Mr Hayes, Warhead was quite enjoyable. Although short, it was action packed and as beautiful as I remember it being in Crysis, over a year ago from now. What I love most about the Crysis games is that even today, nothing beats them visually in the gaming market. A beast of a computer will be crippled by this game on max settings which in my opinion is a positive thing. After all, it is games like Crysis which are pushing graphics technologies further.

Single-player in this game is pretty much the same deal as the original. You are a nano-suit equipped super soldier who is capable of turning invisible, jumping really high, moving very quickly and taking lots of punishment (though not all at the same time). You kill a percentage of the Korean army, then you kill some alien invaders (?) and then you kill both at the same time. The story is straightfoward and compelling enough, often revealing the darker side of the main protagonist Psycho, one of Nomad's fellow squad members from the original. Multi-player is a different ball game however. Now, I usually classify myself as an average FPS gamer, but seeing the online community that has developed around Crysis was quite astonishing. The average skill and creativeness of the players was far greater then I expected. Never had I been so pleased to be owned as much as I did in my first few online sessions. Though this could be related to the average age of the Crysis player being higher then that of most FPS games (it's an expensive-to-get-working game after all) it is good to see that at least some games today are not stagnating with immature incompetent fools. Yes I am looking at you Halo.

Below: Warhead GPU comparison (little difference)

Far Cry 2
Perhaps slightly less visually appealing than Warhead, but offering much more freedom gameplay wise, Far Cry 2 is the 'biggest' FPS game I have ever played. Covering nearly 50 square kilometres of African wilderness, FC2 puts you in the eyes of a mercenary hired to assassinate 'The Jackal', a foreign arms dealing warlord creating unrest amongst the various armed factions.

Anyways, to put it quite simply, FC2 was rather enjoyable to not only explore the various locales of the game world but also to greet the many denizens with hot lead, explosives and/or flames. The destructible environments (usually foliage and small wooden huts) are a benchmark in gaming, as never before have I seen fire modeled as realistically as it is in FC2. Affected by the revolutionary weather system (also a benchmark), fire sometimes becomes your greatest ally and most dangerous foe. Overall, FC2 was a relatively enjoyable shooter offering exactly what I had been looking foward to: open ended chaos in a fresh and beautiful environment.

There are some annoyances with the game though, particularly the case where EVERYONE wants to kill you. This can get irritating if you need to get somewhere quickly, or have gotten tired of culling the human population for awhile (which does happen). They chase you, on foot or in vehicle until you are dead. Your only option is to kill them. This gets repetitive and frustrating at times.

Another problem in my opinion is the re-playability. Having finished the game and been satisfied, I wasn't looking forward to going through once more on a harder difficulty and having to unlock everything again. Considering you only accessed some of the better equipment in the later stages of the game (big sniper rifle ftw), having to play the game with inferior weapons once more would be unbearable.

Below: Far Cry 2 - Meet the Pyro

WoW: Wrath of the Lich King
Perhaps the biggest game of the year, WotLK continues where Warcraft 3 left off in terms of story and lore. Having experienced the fruitless time-sink that was Burning Crusade, I was keen to get back into parts of the game that mattered and were familiar. Arthas, the Lich King, kicking his heels back in Northrend for the past few years has finally decided that he needs to take a crap. On his way to the much less glorious frozen throne of the toilet, he decides to stir even more shit up and declares war on the rest of the world. In a counter-attack measure (it's a trap you fools!!!) the armies of the Horde and Alliance decide to invade Northren instead, so you end up on a new frozen continent culling wildlife and stealing their clothes once more. You also get bigger, by 10 levels in fact, and get to slap some Deathknights in the face (as well as the other way around).

Now I am currently playing WotLK on and off as I type this so my experiences at end game are yet to be revealed. However, after three years, I do believe the WoW curse (if you could call it that) may finally be wearing off. As much as I enjoy both the PvE and PvP aspects of the game, I don't really think I am interested enough to take the game seriously anymore. Serious raiding has always been a big 'sif' to me as relying on other people to perform in that game is quite unbearable (some serious noobs play WoW). It also takes far too much time, scheduled time which I am not willing to commit to. Also sif. Casual raiding has always been a 'maybe', but considering the amount I did in BC (almost none) I don't see myself doing much of it at 80.

Below: WotLK - Laizar and Jerziah (Jeremy)

Arena is something I am sick of, not only for its trivialness but also for its still ongoing imbalance between classes. You hear the phrase "Wow is not balanced around 1v1" constantly as well as "WoW PvP is balanced in large groups", so I find it hard to understand why people are rewarded so tremendously for organised dueling in small groups in a box all day. As for battlegrounds, well I will just have to come to terms that the glorius days of BGs are over. They have become merely an honor farm fest for sub-par mediocre gear that no one takes seriously. Therefore a large number of people playing them are completely clueless with absolutely no idea of the strategies, tactics and teamwork that made them awesome of yesteryear. Personally, I blame the bloodelves.

Below: WotLK - Flying Mount and Arthas

What was I talking about? Oh yeah, WotLK. My experience with this expansion is still ongoing, but so far it has been alright. Although people have left, some have stayed. Mr Hayes has achieved DK status and is slowly leveling one, as well as another uni friend hitting 80 last week on her druid. A UQ friend will also be coming along soonish, possibly on a hunter..... so I'm not alone. Yet.... :(

Satisfying my need for speed, Grid fit the role perfectly. Not since NFS:U2 have I played a racing game that was original but also provides the adrenaline rush experience of frantic racing challenges. A significant shock from this game was the damage system. No longer could I use other vehicles as bumpers around corners, or shrug off vehicle damage without a hitch. Because your vehicle takes almost realistic damage to all components (steering, wheels, engine etc..) learning to drive properly but also pushing it to the limit is not only essential to playing the game, but also where the challenge factor lies. Success in the game means you get to know the brake very well and using it incorrectly will cost you dearly in the Grid campaign (reputation/money).

Below: GT5 Vs Grid Comparison

Speaking of the Campaign, this game is not bogged down with unrealistic and poorly implemented car 'upgrades' that you magically slap on to increase performance. No, instead you buy a vehicle that has its own set of characteristics that are required to be eligible for the races you are entering. Taking a souped up Ferrari to a Sunday cup is impossible, which is a good thing. The game does not focus on your ability to tweak your vehicle to pefection, but more focused on your ability to drive and drive properly. This is perhaps demonstrated better online when you see both the noobs and pros at this game either crashing into walls (and each other) or powersliding to victory.

Crashing is also insanely amusing!

Dead Space
Now I havn't finshed Dead Space, but I have played enough of it (and seen a housemate play it) to form a well versed opinion. It should be noted that when I do eventually get around to finishing it, this game will probably climb the rungs of this list (slightly). In any case, the sum of the story of the game is that you are an engineer investigating a mining ship that has lost communication (very similar to Alien/s and Event Horizon). On board this ship is a horde of alien-humanoid monsters, setting a very dark and scary setting for your simple engineering protagonist.

What's different about this sort of game is that you are not a hulking space marine decked in enough weapons to blow up a planet. Instead you are just your average joe blow trying to figure out what the hell is going on and how to get the hell off the ship. This said, Dead Space (so far) has not been as frightening as some of the other games in this genre I have played (F.E.A.R and Doom 3), but is definetly as creepy in a rather foreboding sort of way. Because you are not confident you can take down anything that you encounter, you seriously dread every corner and audio spike in this game as you know it could mean your death.

According to my housemate the game is relatively short, hence my reasoning to drag out my play time. Visually and audibly it is excellent, but I have noticed some of the texture samples seem a bit low. This could be due to the fact it was created alongside the console versions of the game and therefore suffered graphically because of the compensation for inferior video processing power/memory. Only a small quip, but sometimes it does detract from the immersion of the game when that rust scar looks like spilt tomato juice.

Below: Dead Space - Obviously its a screenshot of Deadspace

Probably the most impressive aspect of Dead Space is, funnily enough, dying. Having watched a development video about creating 'dread' in the game, it is quite true that "If you are gonna die (and die you will) then we might as well make it as damn enjoyable as possible". That said, getting your head ripped off and entrails dragged from your kicking corpse is quite shocking but at the same time rather awesome.

Also the lack of a HUD is unique and helps immerse the player quite well.

Gears of War 2
Unfortunately the console games that I have played this year just didn't cut it as well as the PC games. This has nothing to do with consoles as a medium, but more so the sort of games that I enjoy or want to play on them. Being over the childish platform games of yesteryear (pulled off incredibly well on consoles), my tastes in gaming have moved onto more serious and gritty genres. Gears of War is an example of such a game. By now you have either played the original or not, but what most people realise is that Gears of War is pretty much your standard space marine shooter. Yes, it does lack a decent story and well characterised protagonists, but if you are honestly playing this game for those reasons then you need to get your brain checked. This game is all about the combat, pretty much a Call of Duty game set in the future from a 3rd person perspective. Throw in lots of blood, a dash of guts, a few explosions and mix it with some frantic tactical shooting and chainsaw sculpting and you pretty much have Gears of War.

Mindless fun. That's it. You cannot really call Gears of War an equivalent shooting game to something like UT or Quake as it is far simpler and does not require even 1/2 the strategy. You run, you shoot, duck for cover, help your team mates and survive. That was the formula of the original and it hasn't changed a bit since, which is a good thing.

Below: Gears of War 2 - Chainsaws are excellent for solving arguments

Although I have not finished the game yet or played it on Xbox live (preparing to get dominated) I can say that it is a fun game. Perhaps not genre redefining, but it offers the experience I expected and is quite the blast with a friend in coop. Definetly not the thinking man's shooter, but that's not what you play this game for anyway.

One annoyance with this game, besides the inaccuracy of aiming with a controller, is your tendency to die instantly. This is usually caused from a rocket or large projectile travelling towards your arsehole which is unexpected due to the fact that you cannot turn around quickly.

Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots
Now MGS4:GotP is a great game .... narratively. The amount I played of it was enjoyable enough ... story wise. But that's really as far as I can praise it. Being a fan of the original on PSX and the sequels on PS2, I pretty much knew what to expect and what the game universe was set around (big machines that launch nukes). However the major problem with this game (despite being primarily narrtive driven) is unfortunately the revolutionized control scheme. In a way, this is not really the game's fault but more that of the average console controller.

I have said this countless times before, but you cannot (and should not) play these sort of games on console. Any game that requires you to aim quickly and with precision should by default be played on a PC with a keyboard and mouse (or alternatively on Wii). The exceptions of course would be GoW and Halo, possibly because they are pulled off better (read: simpler games). Holding down 4 buttons to aim and shoot a moving target from a distance using analog sticks is almost sickening. It isn't that difficult, per se, but it requires so much more unneccessary bull crap to pull off it is almost not worth it. The accuracy levels are more than halved and even though you can get good at it (I did) it just simply does not beat the simplicity and precision of keyboard and mouse.

Getting back on track, MGS4 suffers from this aiming aspect rather heavily. I usually know my way around a controller quite well (extensive past console gaming background), but the frustration of fighting the game instead of playing it was too much. I ended up trading this in to help pay for GoW2, such was the extent of my enjoyment. The game is a great looking game with well established characters, excellent audio and (as mentioned) a very in depth and compelling plot, but all of this is meaningless if the game is unplayable as it was for me. I don't know, maybe it's because I have gotten too use to the superiority of aiming with a mouse but I cannot transition back into the dark ages with any sense of comfort.

Below: Metal Gear Solid 4 - Aiming = chore

Well, there you have it. Probably the longest post I have done being a summary of the gaming experiences I have encountered this year, as well as my opinion of them. There have been others (Spore, World of Goo, Fallout 3, Red Alert 3 etc...) but I havn't experienced enough of them to form an accurate opinion on.

We shall have to wait for next year when Starcraft 2, Diablo 3 and Mirror's Edge (for PC) come out. At the moment however, there is simply nothing exciting.

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