Sunday, January 11, 2009

Left 4 Dead Review (PC and Xbox 360)

I know in my youth whenever I watched zombie horror movies I thought to myself 'I think I could handle myself if this happened to me.' It might only be a game, but Left 4 Dead is what you could essentially call a Zombie Apocalypse Simulator and one fantastic one at that.

Left 4 Dead is the newest venture from Valve Software which puts players in the role of a survivor trying to escape from hordes of Zombies. The game allows you to play as one of four characters. You have Francis, the tough biker dude, Bill, the elderly army vet, Louis, the regular guy and Zoey, the twenty-something girl. There is no real back story other than the fact that you four are the only survivors trying to find help and stay alive.

The game contains four scenarios, which are played out as 'movies'. Each of the four scenarios takes places in different areas including an airport and an abandoned train yard. The objective is simple, move from point to point and not die. There are five chapters to each movie and they end when you reach either the safe house, or in the case of the final chapter, the rescue vehicle. Along the way, you'll encounter wave upon wave of various infected people and to spice up the action, other 'special' zombies each with their own special abilities. Their abilities include one called the Smoker who upon killing him turns the air into smoke causing your characters to cough for a few moments. Another character, a witch, is harmless unless you disturb her. If you do, she'll charge at you, knocking you down and will continue to pounce until you manage to kill her. These enemies occur at various burst, but when they strike, they manage to do the most damage to your characters.

Left 4 Dead features a cool feature called AI Director. Each of the four scenarios is approximately 45-105 minutes long in length depending on how well you play. What the AI Director does is ensure that each time you play through a scenario, your experience is different. The first time you play through a chapter, you might remember some pipe-bombs located in a room, but the next time you play, they won't be there. You think you're approaching a section with a Hunter zombie, but when you get there, the area is empty. If computer thinks you're having an easy time, it will throw more zombies at you, and reversely, if you're dying too much, it will ease the difficulty for you. The AI Director ensures that each time you play through the game the experience is different. You never know what to expect and because of this, you'll always be at the edge of your seat.

If you decide to play Left 4 Dead on your own, thankfully your partners are very good at what they do and it's very rare that you will have to save them. In fact, you're more inclined to run ahead of them and have them save you then the other way around. But Left 4 Dead is really enjoyed playing with others. While you can play this game with friends, to get the true experience, you need to play this with strangers.

The four characters in this game are not friends, but four random people who just happen to have the same goal, find safety. If you play with friends, chances are you will play smart and efficiently, but that really limits what you can do. If you're playing with strangers, you don't know what to expect. Like in real life, you might have the smart person who will grab gas tanks and place them before a horde attacks to burn them, or you might have a scared person who runs off ahead of everyone then pleads for help when they're getting consumed by the infected. While you should be working together, it's never perfect and this randomness makes every experience something special.

For a game located in isolated and deserted locations, Valve did a great job in make the environments looking true to form. All four of the 'movies' are significantly different but each one has plenty of detail in them. You'll walk or run through apartments, warehouses, train tracks, backwoods, airport terminals, hospitals and other locations and each one doesn't just look like the other with a different coat of paint. The generic infected look good even though there seems to be only about 5-8 different models (two or three female and three or four male skins) and there are also only 5 special zombie characters. It's not a bad thing, but sometimes you do wish there was a bit more variety in that department. You will encounter some graphical glitches here and there as well. These only seem to occur when you stand really close to a character, as textures will disappear, but it doesn't hurt the game.

The sounds from the ambiance to the voice-work are actually fairly well done. The game sounds from top to bottom like a horror movie with great sounds occurring at key moments. When you're nearing a witch, you'll hear her moan and groan and at the same time an eerie score will accompany it until you either kill her or move far enough away. There is some limit to the dialog between the playable characters, but when playing with friends or with strangers, you won't be listening to the 'reloading' 'come here and let me heal you' that Francis and the gang will state, so it is a non-issue.

If you only play this game alone, you're only experiencing a fraction of what this game is intended to do. This game needs to be enjoyed with others and with various people. When you play online, there is also the ability to play as the special infected characters against four real people as the survivors. This mode is fun albeit short at times since infected characters do die relatively quickly. If you manage to use your character effectively, you can do a lot of damage and thanks to the AI Director, even this experience will be different each time you play.

When I first started reading about Left 4 Dead, I thought this was just a generic shooter in a zombie environment. I guess you can blame the lack of fun I had trying out Resident Evil Outbreak and its attempt at this type of game. Valve proved that it can pull this off and I cannot stress this enough, you need to play Left 4 Dead. If you have a decent PC, I would recommend the PC version over the Xbox only because of the great support and eventually free content that will be available down the road. The Xbox does have the leg up thanks in part to the fact that each Xbox owner has a head-set which is an important tool needed to play, so even if you settle for that version, you're getting your money's worth. If you were looking for a fun game that will still give you the creeps when you're playing it over and over again, I have to say that Left 4 Dead is the only game you'll need.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Mass Effect (Late) Review (Xbox 360)

The best part about Role Playing Games is the fact that they are made for the gamer to experience the adventure at both their own pace and for the most part, branch the story to their specification. Because of this, RPGs can last a long time and you will still only experience a fraction of what the developers have to offer.

Mass Effect is a perfect example of a solid Role Playing Game; one with a great story that is possible to play a number of ways. The game has you controlling a Human solider in the future where Species from different Galaxies interact with each other. Your character can be created from the ground up, with the ability to adjust your sex, look and even your character's history, all of which affect the story and the interaction of other characters. This is actually quite a common feature with Western-styled Role Playing Games but the developers at Bioware have taken this to another level considering the amount of dialogue involved in this game. Where in some games, the main character would be a silent one, here it's quite the opposite. Your character, Sheppard, is very talkative and there is full voice dialogue in both a male and female voice.

As stated before, the future has various species from around the galaxy interacting with one another. The Human race are the new boys on the block and have yet to gain the full trust of the rest of the species, to the point that they are still not given the same treatment as the other, more superior species. The Humans are eager to gain this trust including earning a spot on the high council and earning a spot in the Spectres, a sort of Galaxy police that helps to protect everyone.

Sheppard begins the game as a support character on the Human ship the Normandy and one a mission discovers that a Spectre called Saren has gone rogue and seems to be plotting something very diabolical. Sheppard witnesses Saren and attempts to stop him but because of his status and strength is unable to do so.

The council see that Saren is a threat and because of Sheppard's efforts, they award him as the first ever Human Spectre with the sole purpose of determining what Saren is upto and to stop him. This begins the key story and your adventure through the Galaxy will see you traveling to various Solar Systems and planets trying to uncover Saren's plot and try to stop it.

In terms of Gameplay, Mass Effect is played out very much like a tactical 3rd person shooter. All action is played in Real time with you and two other team members. Depending on your character class your abilities both with weapons and biotics, essentially your magic powers, will vary. Upon leveling up, you have the ability to allocate points towards various skills. When you create Sheppard in the beginning of the game, you determine which abilities you will have throughout the game. Some traits will have you stronger with your Biotics but weaker with weapons, or reversely, you might be have great knowledge of all the weapons and armor but your Biotic abilities are extremely limited. Regardless of how you develop your character, as long as you learn your characters strengths, you can be very effective on the battlefield.

Your team always consists of you and two other party members. As you progress through the story, you will have the ability to choose from more than 5 different people to aid you along the way. Each of the other characters have specific abilities as well and finding the right balance for each mission is critical. During fights, your teammates do act on their own, with fairly good AI, but you will be able to influence them and direct them to varying degrees. With the simple tap of the up button, you can direct your squad to advance or if the heat is on, you can tell them to retreat. It's a great mechanic that works quite effectively. You won't be able to tell them to run around crazy, but they are smart enough not to stand around and let themselves get killed.

The game itself is fairly long but only long if you decide to go through the plethora of side-missions made available to you. Through your journey, you will encounter various different characters with many of them needing your help. Some might ask for some simple tasks as aiding them with some research or you might have the daunting task of traveling to various planets and collecting resources. How you interact with others will also developer your character either as a Paragon (hero) or a Renegade (anti-hero). If you fail to help people or kill the wrong people will only make you look bad in the eyes of the public, but if you are willing to help and go out of your way to help will make people think positive about you.

The game's dialogue, which is extensive varies greatly depending on how your character talks. In every major situation, you are given the opportunity to answer in one of three ways that can lean neutral, positively or negatively. Also, if you decide to develop your charm and intimidate skills can open up other dialog windows that may be important a key points in the game.

Mass Effect is not an easy game in the beginning and it will take you sometime before you get fully adjusted to switching weapons and using your Biotics effectively. Once you do get familiar with the combat system, the difficulty does get a lot easier, but this is a game that cries to you to save every chance you get. Enemies are strong and if your character is not developed a certain way can also add to the possibility of having to restart key points numerous times.

The only real down-side to the game has to be with the controls of the Mako, your ground vehicle. It can be fun to drive, but often the controls are a bit too sensitive causing you to drive it erratically. The camera can also pose a problem as you can get stuck if you drive yourself into a rocky area.

The game's sound is absolutely incredible. I have already stated how impressed I was with the amount of dialogue in the game. The voice-actors are all really well done and the lines are delivered quite effectively. Because you can attempt every area with any of your characters, each one had to deliver the full lines of the game, so you can imagine how many hours were spent recording dialogue. The score is also fantastic and adds to the game's fantastic setting. The sound effects will impress you thanks to the distinctive sounds of the different weapons, grunts and shouts of the enemies and allies and the noises from the environment.

Graphics do suffer a bit. It's far from a poor looking game, in fact, for the most part, it's a fantastic looking game but there are some noticeable polygon issues throughout the game. This game suffers a lot from loading and you will often see models 'load' their polygons as a cut-scene plays out. It almost gives off the impression that the graphics were rushed at times since it happens at such weird moments. There will be points where you will be amazed at what you see, but other times you'll wonder why it looks so bland only to see the detail slowly pop in. The game is also a victim of 'cookie cutter' syndrome where many of the smaller levels and planets look eerily similar to each other. Because of this, you can essentially learn what to expect once you reach a destination. This problem occurs with your side-quests but considering how much effort was placed on all the other aspects of the game, this omission stands out more than it probably should.

Depending on how much time you spend on sidequests, Mass Effect is about a 20 hour game. If you decide to play through the various rescue and research missions given to you, you could spend a very long time before you actually complete the main story line. Also, once you complete the game the first time, you can take your character and go through the story again, experiencing it from a different and/or more difficult point of view. It's great, especially for those who like to find every possible nook and cranny placed by the developers.

I absolutely loved playing Mass Effect. It is a great game that any RPG fan will enjoy. The game strikes the right balance of challenge and enjoyment that you might not realize just how much time you've been playing. The story is very deep and very engaging with plenty of twists and turns along the way. Your experience with the game could be very different from your friend's. On top of that, the 2nd or 3rd time you go through the story, you might notice things you didn't the first time. If you're looking for a game to get lost in, this is your best choice and should not be missed.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Prince of Persia Review (PS3 and Xbox 360)

The re-imagining of the Prince of Persia franchise for the PS2 and Xbox were in the eyes of many as one of the best games available in the last five years. The game took the puzzles of the original series and offered a great addition with the inclusion of the Sands of Time, an in-game function which allowed you to rewind portions of the game to fix a mistake you had, such as dying or missing a key jump. For the HD Prince of Persia, the same idea is brought into the mix and in the end, determines how much you will actually enjoy playing this game.

For this branch of the PoP series, you play as a crook rather than prince. Very little of your back-story is given to you except for the fact that you just obtained some loot and have lost your donkey, who is carry your cash. As you walk through the desert looking for said donkey, you stumble upon a beautiful young girl who is being chased by some armed guards. Your character intrigued, quickly follows her. You find out the girl is a princess and by accident, her father has released the imprisoned God. By releasing the God Ahriman, it begins to devourer the land. In order to stop Ahriman's corruption, you along with the Princess, Elika, must travel to various locations and restore the fertile land.

Your progression through the game revolves around you and Elika traveling from location to location in search of key spots where Elika can restore the area. In order to get to each location, you will have to run, jump, climb and perform other various manoeuvres to get to certain spots on the map. Where in Sand in Time, the key feature was the ability to rewind time when a mistake was made; this time around Elika acts as your saving grace. Since she possesses magical powers, if you make a mistake, such as fall off a ledge or miss a jump, she can quickly grab you and bring you back so you can try again. This mechanic is a key feature in the game and will ultimately determine your enjoyment of the game. Those who might find games like this a bit demanding will enjoy the fact that her assistance will make things easier for you. You won't actually die, so if you make a mistake, it's simply try and try again. But those who want a challenge may end up finding this as a crutch and will be put off by the easiness it makes the game feel like.

Thankfully, this key feature of Prince of Persia is a great addition to the game and for the most part, Elika is a great character that it doesn't feel like a cheap-game-play mechanic. Elika is a key part to the game and in fact, she is the more important character of the two.

The game focuses solely on the puzzles of each locale. For the most part, once you get to a location, there is really one way to get to the main point, but the game doesn't force you into playing the game in sequential order. Upon restoring fertile land, special 'orbs' will appear that must be collected to help Elika's strength which are then used to unlock additional abilities and progression through the game.

The first few levels are basic, but as you unlock plates, each with special functions to them that acts as the key to completing the game. You can select whichever plate you want to unlock first and that will open up parts of the area for you to complete. Some levels require only one plate to complete, but later on in the game, you will encounter spots where two or more of the plates will be used to reach key spots. The four plates are each significantly different. One acts a teleportation plate which takes you automatically to another point. Another one turns your character into a speed demon, where you will literally run along a path to reach your destination. If you hit a wall or an obstacle, you'll have to start again.

The game's actual combat more or less only occurs during stage battles. With each of the fertile lands contains a boss that must be defeated numerous times, once per each of the four sub-sections and then once more to rid them of Ahriman's possession. The combat in game is a bit hit or miss. In the beginning, the combat is simple and taking care of your enemies is a breeze, but that quickly changes and boss battles end up becoming a long series of quick-time events. This is the weakest part of the game as the combat feels out of place from the great platforming you do throughout the rest of the game. Often, you will be spending a good chunk of your time deflecting attacks before you actually manage to strike your opponent. There also seems to be a problem with the sensitivity of the controls, where you will be certain that a button was pressed, but nothing occurs.

This touchiness with the controls also occurs during the platform puzzle portions of the game. Because you essentially use only one button for majority of your actions, depending on the camera angle and the position of your character, he might end up doing an incorrect action forcing you to restart a long series of moves. It's not too bad, but it happens enough that it will frustrate most people.

Because of Elika's saving ability, the game is easy, but not easy enough that you can breeze through this in one sitting. The game does take a long time and even with the saving and assistance she gives you, you will be playing this for a while. There is plenty to collect and admire that you could end up spending a lot longer than you'd think.

Prince of Persia contains some of the best looking graphics I have ever seen in a long time. The game uses the once popular cell-shading art style exceptionally well and everything from the characters to the environments are breathtaking. The animations of both Elika and the 'Prince' are very fluid with almost no noticeable hiccups. Yes, I did encounter some weird graphically glitches, including once in which my Prince ended up running on air which forced me to restart from my last save. Other than that minor malfunction, I often would stop playing only to admire the art design. Some might feel that cell-shading should have been stopped years ago, but Prince of Persia shows that it can still be done effectively.

The sound is nearly on par with the game's graphics. All the voice-work, be it Elika, the 'Prince' or even the enemy characters are very convincing. The game's score is also one of my favourites in recent years. The music during points in the game where you unlock the plates is something I will surely not forget for a very long time.

Outside of the rare control issues and the weird combat mechanics, this is an absolutely incredible game that will appeal to fans of the Prince of Persia series, especially those of the Sands of Time series, and fans of adventure games. I can't stress enough that this is one fantastic game that should be played by even those who might not be attracted to this type of game.