Thursday, June 30, 2011

inFamous 2

            The first inFamous was a fantastic superhero game.  Taking a lot of the comic book style tropes and putting them into an original character, Sucker Punch created a game that gave you the true feeling of power that you should get out of a superhero game.  The one problem being that the same year, Arkham Asylum came out and easily became the best superhero game period.  Now inFamous 2 has come out the same year Arkham City is coming out.  Is it worth the wait?  Well…we’ll get to that.
            The story follows after the revelations of the first game that I won’t spoil, the important part being that Kessler told Cole McGrath, the electric-powered hero, that The Beast is coming.  So naturally, at the start of this game, the Beast is here, and Cole, his best friend Zeke, and new woman Kuo run from Empire City to New Orleans-style New Marais.  Once there, they have to find 6 blast cores to power up the Ray Field Inhibitor and stop the Beast.  The game gets a great sense of how close you’re getting to the finale.  Any time you hit Start, you’re shown a map of the US with the Beast having destroyed everything in his path from New York on the way to Louisiana.  On the other hand, the plot itself gets sidetracked.  In New Marais, you run into Bertrand, a preacher/politician type character who’s running his own private army.  It might’ve been a good second part of a trilogy, Cole’s powering up while still giving him an enemy to fight.  The problem is that the game makes it pretty clear it’s ending here, or at least this story of Cole’s life, and so the game’s final act feels rushed with the reintroduction and fight against the Beast.  The other big problem with the game story-wise is the move to New Marais.  It should’ve been a completely new environment.  Instead, it just feels too much like Empire City.  The only exceptions are the occasional trips into the swamps, and the flooded part of town.  Sadly, the latter part is absolutely wasted.  It should’ve been a very difficult part, since Cole’s powers damage him the water.  Instead, it’s more just an inconvenience at best, and the enemies stupidly wander into water while you instantly kill them from the rooftops above.
           What still hits me is how wonderfully the powers are done.  The electrical powers not only let you zap people, but have you throw electric grenades and rockets, give you the ability to fly, let you grind along power lines.  If your regenerating health starts getting bad, all you have to do is find a power box and drain it to heal yourself.  And some of your powers only unlock by doing certain moves so many times, ensuring that you’re going to use variety and learn from it.  It really felt natural to learn what each of my powers did and when it was best to use them, and the fact that you’re just getting better as the game goes on means the difficulty curves well, although it can absolutely destroy you at times.  One of the best missions in the game, though, has to be one in the late game, where you fight enemies in the middle of a storm.  You can charge at any time, which brings lightning down on you.  It doesn’t matter how good you are at the game at that point, you get the feeling you can curb stomp anybody that comes your way.
            The mission variety is generally pretty good, tending to be the standard mix of missions you’d expect to find in a sandbox game.  Nothing was too difficult for bad reasons.  Escorts in particular managed to avoid being painful.  The side missions also seem to have gotten a bit more variety, although a lot of them still come down to “There’s about 1000 enemies over there, want to kill them all?”  The worst part of these is the reuse of boss-type enemies.  Besides The Beast, there’s only one fairly unique boss fight in the game, and you still fight him twice (although it’s completely different each time you do it).  It’s a real pain to fight them so many times, particularly since most of them are weakest against powers you don’t get until later in the game.  The missions also sometimes force you to make a karmic choice.  It’s…ultimately pointless.  Like so many other games with a karma meter, the choice basically comes down to “Do you want to help this old lady across the street, or do you want to kick a puppy?”  There’s nothing really tough that makes you suddenly want to switch, and there’s absolutely no reward for being gray, since your karmic growth is tied to the growth of your powers.  I do love the blue and red color scheme to show the choice of paths, though.  It’s especially interesting with the characters of Kuo and Nix, whose powers manifest in blue and red.  They act as the angel and devil on your shoulder throughout the game.  It’s a nice touch for the game to figure out that you’re heading towards a mission for Kuo, and have Nix radio you to talk about how you should do her mission.
            So what is inFamous 2 in the end?  It’s a fun game.  There’s a decent story, there’s enough missions and side missions to give you a good time of playing experience, and the karmic choices will at least give some people a reason to play through the game twice.  Is it a fantastic sequel?  No, sadly enough, especially after Sucker Punch just got better with each game in the Sly series.  But if you liked the first game, you’re going to like this one.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Red Dead Redemption

      Back in their days when they were just getting famous for making Grand Theft Auto III, Rockstar released a Western game called Red Dead Revolver.  It was utterly forgettable, and quickly overshadowed by Rockstar releasing more GTA games.  So I was pretty shocked that they would announce a sequel in Red Dead Redemption.  I was even more shocked when playing it, as it’s easily the greatest Western game made, and possibly the best game Rockstar has made in general.
            The story stars John Marston, a former outlaw, who’s been forced by the government to find and kill Bill Williamson, a former member of the gang he ran with who’s now holed up in a fort in New Austin.  After John fails at this and gets shot, he has to get a group together to kill him, meeting the standard assortment of Rockstar characters and taking a trip across the border to Mexico.  I have always loved the way Rockstar does their dialogue, in a way that’s witty and informative, often making the pre-mission cinematics one of the most interesting parts.  There’s also a lot of long horse rides from mission start to where the mission actually happens, and they always give you someone to ride with and some dialogue going on.  John’s voice work is a bit spotty in parts, though, particularly when he’s shouting out at enemies or playing one of the betting mini-games.  It has the requisite Western roughness that you know and expect, but it’s a bit too rough when you hear it all the time.
            The game also manages to avoid the problem that hits some Western games: the West is not just a desert.  In Gun, a Neversoft-developed open-world Western, the entire environment was just desert.  There’s enough variety here, particularly in the third act, to keep you interested as you go through the game, not bored that you’re running across another samey looking desert for the thousandth time.  And even within areas, I felt like I knew where I was in relation to the world, with enough detail to make each area feel different.  The game’s world is also filled out well, with various side-missions.  The nice part is that most of them are long-standing.  Meaning that, if you suddenly run into a side-mission while you’re so close to a story mission, you don’t suddenly have to drop everything if you want to do it.  Instead, you can get around to it when you’re ready to.  The mission will continually be in the menu, and you can get those objectives done whenever.  There’s also various random encounters, like bandits attacking people or such.  Not only can you take either side you want, but you’re free to ignore it entirely and just keep riding on.  It does have a feeling of “Buhwah” when you first drop into the world, so much stuff going on and so many icons on your mini-map that you don’t even know where to begin.  Once you get into the groove, though, it works out fine.
            The game itself follows Rockstar’s standard formula.  You run around, do missions, kill bad guys, go on horseback chases.  They’ve always done well in making sure that each mission feels different, though.  I never felt that I was doing “yet another of THESE missions”.  Whether it was a simple twist or just adding in a new gameplay mechanic, it keeps being entertaining.  It plays out with cover and regenerating health.  GTAIV did not have regenerating health, and after this and LA Noire, I can say I would much rather play a version of it that had it.  It just takes away a lot of pressure from you, instead of those moments where you’re down to almost no health and you really don’t want to start the mission over again.  Oh, and also, they put in checkpoints.  Freaking finally.  Now, I know they added them in on The Lost and the Damned, but having them here shows how much the GTA titles were missing without them.  Now they can have longer missions with more pieces to it without it feeling like your death will be a huge pain.  Thank you.  Thank you so much.
            The few problems I have with the game are minor in the long run.  First, the fast-travel system is terrible.  You can either get a stagecoach ride from one of the towns, or use it from your campsite that you can set up.  The former is going to be out of the question early on, since until you start building up a good amount of cash, you simply don’t have the money for it.  The latter just has too many restrictions on it.  You have to be out of towns or settlements, away from roads and rivers, and on open flat land.  I had many times when I really just wanted to set up camp to fast travel, and kept trying to find the magic spot that the game counted as “open flat land” for my camp to come up.  There’s no reason it couldn’t have been done like Oblivion or the recent Fallout games, where you just select where you want to go and get sent there.  The story also has a few problems.  Although it’s a great Western tale, it’s decisively split up into 3 acts.  The general goal is there throughout, but there’s a good deal of disconnect from act to act.  For instance, in the Mexico portion, there was really no reason to ever go back to the US.  The characters I had met in the US portion also barely appeared again for the rest of the game, just disappearing.  The endgame is the worst part.  While it makes sense in a storytelling standpoint, as a gameplay standpoint, it takes a significant dive.  You’re just ready for the game to end, and you’re stuck doing tasks that you haven’t done since the opening missions.  The final mission definitely makes up for it, but you really don’t want people getting tired of the game when they’re so close to the end.
            Red Dead Redemption is really an excellent game.  I don’t know if I should really be praising Rockstar for fixing things they should’ve fixed ages ago, but it’s amazing how much better the game has become once they’re fixed.  The story is great, the gameplay is fun, the atmosphere is fantastic.  This is the gold standard that all Western games will be compared to years from now.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Villains United and Secret Six: Six Degrees of Devastation

When you’re making a team-up book, one of the big things that’s going to draw people in is that eternal question: “Who’s on the team?”  After all, what’s going to get people to buy the book like the big name heroes?  Secret Six’s biggest name is Deadshot in the first arc, with Mad Hatter added in the second.  And yet it easily ranks as one of the best modern comics I’ve read in a while.
            Villains United is a bit on the rougher edge of things.  I blame part of this on the fact that it’s part of the Countdown to Infinite Crisis, and even having read Infinite Crisis, I…still don’t know what this book had to do with it.  It feels like DC had just decided they needed a book showing the villains getting together their evil Society.  And then Gail Simone put in the Secret Six, supervillains that have decided not to join the Society, and are instead working for the mysterious Mockingbird, mainly against their will.  The team is made up of Catman, Deadshot, Cheshire, Scandal, Ragdoll, and Parademon.  Before I read the book, I would’ve known Deadshot from the Gotham Knight animated movie and Catman from…well, some silly 60s Batman covers.  After reading it, I feel like I know these characters as well as I know any classic character.  They’re given such depth and such personality.  The fact that they’re recruited against their will means that, when they break into a fight, you know why they have.
            Six Degrees of Devastation is the first real volume of the Secret Six series, and if it weren’t for the fact that Villains United sets up several plot points, I would really recommend starting here.  The plot involves an assassination attempt on the “heroes”, leading them to find out who’s trying to kill them and why.  It really reminds me of a brainy action movie put in comic form.  You get some great fight scenes, but you also get a good story and some humor.  I also love how this book could’ve been set completely out of the DC Universe.  Too often I’ve seen superhero comics get so ingrained in the fact that comic readers are going to be the ones reading it, that they forget that not everybody is going to know every single event that happened in the universe.  It’s a cast of C-list characters that exist in their own bubble, which gives Gail Simone all the more time to develop them as she wants them, not as characters with long histories the reader needs to know to understand them.
            Both volumes are great, entertaining reads.  Secret Six was not one of the books to survive DC’s reboot, but Gail Simone seems pretty pleased with what she’s created, saying that she was lucky to get a book starring Catman that lasted as long as it did.  If DC ever wanted to make a solo book starring Catman, I’d definitely read it after this.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Cars 2

            Well, the streak had to end sometime.  After making 11 movies which redefined excellence after each one, Pixar was bound to fold on the weight of its own greatness.  If there’s any movie that it had to be, we can at least be thankful it was Cars 2.
            The story returns to Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson), who’s relaxing in Radiator Springs with Mater (Larry the Cable Guy).  When Francesco Bernoulli (John Turturro, thankfully minus his ass) openly insults Lightning on television, McQueen joins a worldwide race and brings Mater along.  Along the way, Mater gets mistaken for a secret agent by Finn McMissile (Michael Caine), and then Lightning’s plot pretty much gets forgotten for Mater’s version of The Spy Who Knew Too Little.
            Let’s start with the good of the movie.  It’s gorgeous.  Pixar has definitely not lost any of that.  A flyover of London looks downright realistic.  Flames, water, whatever, it looks as good as the real thing.  The movie also starts with a Toy Story 3 short.  It might be wrong to praise the short in a review about a movie, but it returns to a group of characters we know and love, exactly what the movie should’ve done.  It’s very funny, and I wanted to stay with them a little longer.  Since it starts with a “Toy Story Toon” tag, I can only assume this is going to be a thing from now on, and if it is, I’ll gladly be looking out for any more of these they make.
            So now that we’re done with that, it’s on to the bad.  The movie badly wants to be a spy movie.  It’s got a spy plot, spy action, spy gadgets, spies spies spies.  The problem is that it’s like it was written by somebody who loves James Bond, but doesn’t know what makes James Bond work.  Part of the key is a sense of mystery, that the writer has all the cards and you’re going to slowly reveal them to the audience.  The movie just outright tells you the main plot points so early on that you’re not left wondering.  It’s too bad, because it’s actually a decent plot in there.  The presentation of it just screws it all up.  The action sequences are a little better, but they’re still flawed, especially for a movie that’s clearly meant to be an action-comedy.  Both the Kung Fu Panda movies mix action and comedy together so well that there’s absolutely no disconnect.  Here, it’s like any time an action scene comes along, they completely remove the comedy from it.  And the racing scenes, which should be just as action-packed as the scenes of guns and explosions, are boring.  The NASCAR races from the first movie were more interesting.  NASCAR is more interesting than a course that goes through the neon streets of Tokyo.  I don’t know what to say.
            The comedy is just…I don’t even know.  It’s so hard to point out where jokes go flat or just don’t work.  I think part of it is the pure Mater part of it.  In Radiator Springs, you had a nice cast of characters, and while Mater certainly got a lot of the jokes, you didn’t get overwhelmed by him.  With him as the focus, you just long for that moment when one of the other characters will come on screen.  His whole schtick is that Finn thinks he’s a spy even though he isn’t, no matter how much it becomes obvious that Mater is completely out of it.  And when that’s not happening, he’s just being Mater, acting like a fool.  And this culminates in what may be one of the single worst moments to ever hit a Pixar movie, where the movie tries for Pixar heart, and instead just berates you for laughing at him.  This isn’t an unheard-of thing to do.  It just tends to be done in more adult movies.  I have no idea how kids are going to react to being told they’re horrible people for laughing at the comic relief character, but I imagine it’s either going to go right over their heads or just make them not want to watch the movie again.  After all, who really wants to watch a comedy where you’re not supposed to laugh?
            Cars 2 is Pixar’s Shrek 3.  It’s a sequel that loses what made the original so great in the first place.  It’ll probably make a lot of money, but I hope they don’t feel good about it.  And the worst part?  It’s directed by John Lasseter.  I can only assume this is the reason why we see him as producer instead of director recently.  I cross my fingers that this is Pixar’s first and only complete fumble.