Monday, August 25, 2008

Retrospective: Mass Effect

Hang on, this is a long one:

Anyone who knows me knows that I have a particular contempt for the game Mass Effect for the Xbox 360. I don't think that I have the space or the time here to get into all of my reasons for disliking this game as much as I do, suffice to say that it is not as a whole a necessarily bad game, it just isn't everything BioWare and Microsoft said it would be.

Another history lesson for those not in the know: BioWare was originally a medical software company started more than a decade ago in Canada. Not satisfied with what they were doing, they changed gears and began manufacturing video games, and it turns out that they were actually good at it. Some of their past lauded works include MDK2, Baulder's Gate for the PC, Neverwinter Nights for the PC, and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic for the PC and Xbox. I should point out at this point that I have played and like all of these games, but SW:KOTOR is the most important one for this discussion.

KOTOR came out back when I was working at GameStop, then called Electronics Boutique. I didn't have the opportunity to play it back then as it was delayed endlessly, and the video demo that my company sent to us wasn't very reassuring; looking back now I believe that it was early development footage, even before they had finalized the textures or added enemies. When I finally did start playing it years later in college, it took me awhile to get into it. I had been playing Bethesda's Morrowind for quite some time at that time, and even today I feel that Morrowind is the mold in which I like my single-player RPGs, with lots of exploration, NPCs to talk to, and customizable weapons and armor. I have no gripes with Morrowind, so don't expect to see it here any time soon.

Back to KOTOR: Although different from Bethesda's opus it was still a solid single-player RPG. It had great graphics, solid gameplay, character customization, a great story, familiar character archetypes, lots of secrets, and OBSCENELY TERRIBLE LOADING TIMES. Even for a first generation Xbox game, the loading times were about the worst I had (or have) ever seen on a console, making the game that much less fun to play, but not so much that it was unplayable or not fun; KOTOR was a really polished diamond with some disappointingly rough edges.

(I'll cover Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II in a later column - there's just too much to hate about that game, and it wasn't even developed by BioWare so complaining about it now is a moot point.)

What does all of this have to do with Mass Effect, one might ask? Mass Effect is in many ways a direct sequel to KOTOR. It has the same character archetypes, the same weapons and armor customization, and a very similar setting. Some characters even have force powers that are almost exactly like the force powers in KOTOR, but with the distinction here that they're called "Biotics." You and your crew fly around the galaxy in a large ship, and you can find and add more members to your crew. BioWare has effectively "borrowed" every single aspect of this game from KOTOR save for the license. As a matter of fact, they seem to have left some things out...

... like quality control.

Every single one of Mass Effect's over-hyped selling points are also what make the game seem less like fun and more like a chore due to glitches, bugs, and design choices that range from poor to just plain lazy. Don't bother looking for any of these online - BioWare's marketing team has made it a point to show you only the more developed areas of the game, though they will make it seem like they have just gone to some random location.

Well, let's get to it:

GRAPHICS: Go online anywhere and take a look at the still images. Don't they look pretty? There's a reason, and that reason is because they are static. I can't speak for the PC version of the game, but the Xbox 360 version is one of the worst-looking games I have ever played, for a number of reasons.

Foremost in my opinion is the way that textures "pop" into the environments as they load. This happens in many other games, but usually when the initial load is done you don't see it again. In Mass Effect, this happens all of the time in the more detailed environments - and when I say all of the time I mean every time your character changes his or her view. This also contributes to the frame-rate being one of the worst that I've ever seen on the 360, and the environments aren't even that big or detailed. One would think that this defect would be to cut down on loading times - but no! This game's loading times are almost as bad as the last-generation KOTOR's... and there are more loading areas!

The facial animation is pretty good, though there are only a few races (4) that actually give any expression. Speaking of races, almost every race has only one character model that is changed for different characters by adjusting height, color, etc. Here they are:

Asari (female)
Human (male)
Human (female)
Krogan (male)
Salarian (male)
Turian (male)

Sharing the same character model (all characters look exactly the same) and no facial animations are the following:
Elcor (male)
Geth (androgynous enemies)
Hanar (unisex)
Keepers (unisex)
Quarian (female, only one seen)
Volus (male)

(NOTE: I left out the Batarians because they are an expansion race and I'm never buying the expansion for this piece of crap game)

As far as the movement animations go, all of the characters look like they have steel rods shoved up their space-butts so far that it should be sticking out of the tops of their heads. The run (or rather "jog") cycle is hilarious - it's almost like watching a speed-walker in action. The Quarian female looks as though she's supposed to walk digitigrade (on her toe-tips), but she is animated walking plantigrade like all of the other humanoids, so her race is so advanced that they can ignore biology and physics.

Oh well, at least the facial animations are good, if not understated...

STORY: Humans are expanding their presence in the galaxy, and the first human operative of an elite galactic agency has just been named: You. The player takes the role of Shepard, a war hero/survivor of a galactic attack/S.O.B. who is the first of the "Spectres," a brotherhood of lawmen who are above it and only answer to the galaxy's highest leaders. On his first mission Shepard is betrayed by another Spectre, and from that point on the words, "Don't worry, we'll get Saren - no matter what!" will be uttered throughout the galaxy as the dialog tends to get recycled throughout the game.

Complicating matters, Saren has allied himself with bio-mechanical beings who are trying to resurrect an ancient race of robots who will wipe out all sentient life in the galaxy, but twenty hours into the game this wasn't explored sufficiently enough for me to care.

I didn't play the game all the way through, so I can't really comment on any twists in the story. If you like television shows like CSI and Law and Order you will probably find the storyline intriguing. If you don't you will be as bored as I was.

SOUND: Lots of talking. Decent voice acting, although there is so much dialog it's like the actors lost a lot of their zeal when delivering so many lines.

The music is bland, but as it's supposed to mimic the new age-like sound of early 80s sci-fi movies it is appropriate.

CONTROL: Very poorly thought out. The game is a mesh of role playing game (like Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion) and tactical third-person shooter (like Ghost Recon Advanced Warfare or Gears of War), but falls short of performing either satisfyingly.

In GRAW and GOW, there is a button that the player pushes to take cover. In Mass Effect the player's character automatically takes cover whenever close to a wall... most of the time. Not all surfaces will do this; some that should, don't, and some that shouldn't, do. Once, my Shepard died because I was low on health and had to retreat down a narrow hallway, only to have the character get stuck on a wall. When I pulled away from said wall, I would get stuck on the opposite one. This went on until my character was dead from enemy fire.

There also isn't a jump button in the game, even though the game is purportedly in actual 3D and not in "mock 3D" like KOTOR. There are times that my character got stuck between a small rock and a survey flag, the only way around which was that I had to reset the game. The "Mako" vehicle in the game can jump, which makes it frustrating that the main character can't.

These problems become hot spots of volcanic rage when one realizes that the developer mapped two buttons for drawing a weapon - one to draw it, one to put it away. THIS IS INEXCUSABLE! Why would they waste two buttons for that when there is so much else in the game that needs fixing or greater control? Other buttons aren't mapped to where you would think they would be mapped and you CAN'T CHANGE THAT, and this makes the game hard to learn. The usual argument developers make, "because we want all the controls to be the same for all players in multi player" (which by the way is complete bullshit in the day and age of custom gamer tags) is moot because it is a single player game! What else can I add? Oh yes - on the game's menus change the button configuration between pages, meaning that the button to go "back" in one page will exit the menu entirely on another, or turn a weapon into "omni-gel" before you have a chance to examine it. Man, I hate BioWare!

The A.I. help you are given is more like A.S. (Artificial Stupidity). They act like anyone would in a gunfight; they stand out in the open forcing the player to heal them, then get in the way when the player has to retreat. Supposedly they take cover when told to, but they never seem to go where I tell them to... In the early demos, the player was able to take direct control of these gimps to put them where they were supposed to go, but this was taken out quietly before the game was released.

Since we're on the subject of shitty control, let's address the "Mako," the worst vehicle ever put in a video game. Not only can you not customize or upgrade the stupid thing, its primary function - navigating the rocky surface of the ho-hum planets in the game - is hindered by the fact that it sucks at climbing hills. While it can jump, it can't jump high enough to actually get over obstacles, and using the jump jets on the side of a hill won't propel the Mako over it (like one would expect), but rather sends it off the side of the incline onto its back, damaging the thing slightly. The Mako's armor is also questionable - small arms fire will deplete the force field and armor in a matter of seconds, getting touched by a "Thresher Maw" monster will destroy it, but a half mile plunge off of a mountain with no attempt at activating the jump jets will at most slightly damage one tire. If the jets would face the rear of the vehicle where they could actually give it a boost for jumps on inclines it would make sense, but that's more sense than the developer had.

Controlling the Mako is a migraine in itself, because you will spend more than half of the time in the vehicle looking at the underside of it, thanks to remarkably bad camera control. Using the gun turret is easy on totally flat land - its too bad enemy encounters only happen in hilly areas where backing onto a slight incline will put the camera view on the tires and off of the enemies. When one finally does manipulate the camera to see the enemies, the gun will fire on the hills behind the bad guys even when the reticule is directly over top of them - its far easier to get out of the Mako and take on bad guys on foot, but don't use the Mako for cover - when it explodes after the third enemy bullet it will kill you!

GAMEPLAY: Very formulaic. From the original footage shown early on, the Mass Effect development team would have one believe that the galaxy the game takes place in is nearly limitless in size, with dozens of explorable solar systems with tens of explorable planets each. THIS IS A LIE! Let me break it down...

While there are dozens of explorable solar systems:
1.) Each solar system only has one planet that the player can visit, all other planets give a description of what one would find there and what it would look like (usually a paragraph or two that is almost always more interesting than the planets that are actually in the game).
2.) Each planet has one type of terrain (rocky) in different colors that the player can explore roughly one square mile of - if the player goes outside of that, the game is over.
3.) There is no indigenous vegetation and I only ever found one planet that had life forms on it (cow-like creatures that you couldn't interact with). Very boring to look at.
4.) Apparently, outside of the Shepard's ship there is only one other type of spaceship in the universe, and it is roughly the size of a mobile home.
5.) There are three types of structures in the entire universe: A two-story box, an underground bunker, and a cave. They always have the same layout; convenient, as you'll never get lost inside them.

So there you have it - since most planets are essentially the same collection of ores, enemies, and the Thresher Maw (a monster so diabolical that it can come back from the dead right after exploding due to lazy programming), there are about six-to-eight total locations in the game, making exploration moot.

Also, I have a hard time trying to figure out why there are stores in the game.

In a good game, the store is where the player goes to buy supplies and to upgrade armor and weapons. The prices are slightly more than what one starts out with, and they offer reduced value for old weapons, which forces the player to decide what he or she wants to upgrade and what keep.

In this (not good) game, the stores have a severe disparity of values. The player starts out with no credits, and the stores want roughly 12,000 credits for items that are slightly better than what the player has equipped. The converse is that the same store will usually only offer you about 25-100 credits for the same item. This is ridiculous. Once the player starts to survey ores and get credits built up enough to buy the items in the store, they've already found better items on the planet! Why are there even stores in the game? They're a complete waste of time!

The bulk of the game is based on talking. Not exciting, decision-making talking, but boring smalltalk- filled conversation. The game often gives the player five responses to every question, whether they need it or not. A small question very quickly balloons to a ten-minute discussion where Shepard has plenty of times to spout, "I'll get you Saren, if it's the last thing I doooooo!" or at least words to that effect. Even more annoying is the fact that boss fights are preceded by a twenty-plus minute dialog, which the player will have to repeat in the likely event that they are killed by the boss.

When Shepard is killed, the player has to sit through an annoying death sequence that takes way too long to end, then sit through the too-frequently-seen loading screen, then start the level over, unless they had the foresight to save.

OVERALL: God I hate this game! I hate the fact that they made it look so good in the previews only to dump a half-developed product on the public. I hate the fact that has all of the problems that KOTOR had five years ago and actually adds to them. I hate the fact that there are small things that they could have fixed to make it better. Most of all I hate the fact that you - yes you - the buying public has almost universally declared this to be one of the best games for the Xbox 360, giving BioWare (and other developers) the fuel to dump more quick-and-dirty games on us at full price. Stop buying this crap already!

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Retrospective: the ORIGINAL Bionic Commando

This is a review of one of the absolute worst games I have ever played, Capcom's Bionic Commando.

Not the 3rd person, action game for the next generation systems, that's not out yet (though I suspect it will end up here before too long).

No, not the recent remake of the old Nintendo Entertainment System game. Although it has some minor flaws it was an overall satisfying experience.

No, no. Not the Game Boy Color version. I dislike it, sure but even its unforgivable flaws don't make the game unplayable.

No, no, no. Not the one for the Nintendo Entertainment System - I love that game. I'm talking about the other one.

It's the version you've probably been fortunate enough to have never played. I'm talking about the ORIGINAL Bionic Commando, in the arcade.

What? You never realized that there was an arcade game, and that the NES game is loosely based on it? Then let me give you a history lesson.

In 1985, Capcom of Japan unleashed the top-down arcade game Commando upon the world. Despite being an unbelievably mediocre-to-sub-par video game, Commando is remembered by many as a great game, probably not in the least because many people confuse the game with the Arnold Schwartzenegger film, which came out the same year and has absolutely nothing to do with the Capcom property.

In the game, players take on the role of "Super Joe," an elite one-man army cutting a swath of destruction through enemy territory. Joe has his machine gun and some grenades to deal with this menace, and never gets any other power-ups throughout the entire course of the game. Odd that it is considered classic when games like Ikari Warriors do the same thing only better.

In 1987 Capcom followed this up with a side-scrolling platform game entitled Bionic Commando. Players reprise their role as Super Joe, though this time he is outfitted with a robotic grappling hook to negotiate platforms with. Unlike many similar and later games, Joe cannot jump - he is totally reliant on the grappling hook to move.

Anyone who has played any of the other Bionic Commando games will recognize this as the mission where Joe gets captured, so one could call this the first game in a trilogy, followed by the NES game (and its remakes), and the new game on the Xbox 360. You can find this game on the Capcom Classics Vol. 1 compilation disc, and MAME ROMs are fairly common too, so feel free to check it out - but don't say that I didn't warn you first.

STORY: Story? You play a nameless commando, later decided by Capcom that it would be Super Joe, the soldier from the original Commando. Joe is out to get his ass kicked and to chew bubblegum... and he's all out of gum. No, seriously - Joe is air-dropped into enemy territory under the auspices that he will stop their super weapon at all costs (which at $0.25 a game usually comes to about $10). This is as simple as a military shooter gets.

GRAPHICS: Not too bad considering when this game was made, though everything is kind of washed-out. The lack of definition sometimes makes it difficult to figure out which background elements will hurt you (there are many) and what elements you can grapple onto with Joe's hook. Longtime Bionic Commando fans will recognize some better-rendered enemies and backgrounds that turn up in the later games, giving a sense of nostalgia to otherwise unremarkable art.

SOUND: Also a treat for BC fans. The familiar theme song is here, though other sound effects are sparse.

CONTROL: Again, anyone who has played the NES sequel will know what to do. The grappling hook fires at diagonal angles and straight up. Diagonal will send you into a swing, allowing you to cover more distance (in theory; see GAMEPLAY) faster. The other button fires the gun horizontally. That's all of the control that there is.

GAMEPLAY: This is one of the ABSOLUTE WORST-playing games I have ever picked up. Your quarter will buy you three lives. You will lose all of those within the first thirty seconds of playing, because enemy troops spawn way too fast, and you have no hit points.

Once again: YOU HAVE NO HIT POINTS. One hit, you're dead. Remember in the NES game how you started with no hit points, but by vigorously collecting the little green-tipped bullets that the enemies dropped you could get more? There's nothing like that in this game. Any combination of three hits or falls off-screen result in another quarter to continue. Often times, you will find yourself in the position that there are enemy soldiers on a platform slightly above or below Joe, so that the gun will not affect them; since the bionic claw can't grip a platform that your sprite is overlapping, the end result is that you can only stand and watch as enemy troops kill Joe.

What's more, the enemy soldiers can jump from platform to platform, above or below, meaning that even the lowliest grunt in their army is more mobile than the supposed super soldier that you're playing. Adding ammunition to this theory is the fact that most enemies take more than one bullet before going down even with the upgraded weapons (which you lose when Joe dies), which effectively makes Super Joe the weakest character in the game, and EVERYTHING kills him! If you swing into an enemy soldier, Joe dies and the Soldier lives (and given that there is a constant rain of enemies coming down from the top of the screen, this happens EVERY SINGLE TIME YOU SWING). Bees come out of honeycombs and kill Joe, giant robots in the background will kill Joe just by touching him. Falling off of the bottom of the screen, even one pixel above a platform that you've just climbed up kills Joe. Enemy soldiers tap Joe on the shoulder and kill him, then walk away totally unscathed!

OVERALL: My theory was that the story originally involved Joe getting his spine blown out by enemy fire in the last game and that he was confined to a wheelchair for this one, but Capcom changed the sprite for American audiences because it was dishonorable to our veterans. I believe that the original Japanese title was Permanently Disabled Fun Super Yankee Joe Commando... I would love to see the 1986 concept art for that one...

Capcom balanced out the difficulty in the game by giving it only four stages, but you'll need deep pockets to see them all and get the "Gongratulations, you won!" screen. It is definitely not worth it, and if you're picking up the compilation collection just for this game then skip it - its not worth your frustration and doesn't add anything to the franchise.

Friday, August 22, 2008

First impressions: Star Wars: The Force Unleashed

It's difficult for me to get excited about a new Star Wars license anymore. It's not just because of the fact that George "My Ego is Fatter Than I Am" Lucas has taken something that I thoroughly enjoyed in my childhood and digitally raped the heart and soul out of it so many times that everything added to the canon now feels like bad fan fiction; It's mostly because so very few of these projects reproduce the awe and wonder I felt for the franchise in my youth. It's not really a feeling that I can articulate with base words, but I felt it in several of the stages in Knights of the Old Republic, the original Dark Forces, and both of the Battlefront games. When it does come, it is a joy that can rarely be paralleled by other properties - but when it doesn't, my interest doesn't just falter, it puts down the controller and writes an angry blog.

As you can probably tell, the Star Wars: The Force Unleashed demo has produced the latter.

STORY: You play Darth Vader's secret apprentice who has the aptly "evil-Luke" last name of Starkiller. Vader has trained this pupil in secret, and anyone familiar with Star Wars lore will know that this means that Vader is planning on usurping the Emperor at some point. There is obviously some connotation that Vader or the Emperor killed Starkiller's parents at some time in the past, giving the young man the impetus for dark force hatred. The first mission entails Starkiller infiltrating a shipyard that is under Jedi and militia control, and he is ordered by Darth Vader to kill the insurgents and all witnesses (so that the Emperor won't know about his existence).

I am so sick of this needless crap. Every Star Wars game or book feels the need to introduce "original" characters who are all just pale imitations of main-story characters (Dash Rendar == Han Solo, Kyle Katarn == Luke Skywalker, Mara Jade == pre-incest Princess Leia, etc). The "apprentice" is obviously just an Anakin Skywalker clone (not literally, but characteristically... well, maybe literally depending on how the story plays out - he does perform some very Anakin-like moves, and the name Starkiller could just be a play on Skywalker, implying a clone... so if that's how the story turns out remember - I called it first!). Regardless, its just new developers exploring the same tired old ideas yet again.

GRAPHICS: I have no gripe with the graphics - they are terrific, and the first stage consists of the inside of an Imperial shipyard, with all of the familiar Imperial bric-a-brac covering its cool color scheme walls in all of the familiar generic ways. It looks amazing and ho-hum all at once. The most cringe-worthy part of the whole game was when one of the loading screens mentioned Felucia, implying that this pastel-colored eyesore of a planet will be visited in the game.

SOUND: The James Earl Jones sound-alike they got for Darth Vader seems pretty impressive, and all of the familiar Star Wars sounds you've heard in the other million movies and games are all included. It was cool in Dark Forces and Super Star Wars, here it just seems like they used a 99 Star Wars Sound Effects CD that they purchased in the impulse-buying rack at their local Office Depot for $5.99. Come up with something new already!

CONTROL: You've never had this much control over the force in a game. Having said that, I don't see the need for so much control over the force in a game. It's cool being able to throw people and the THOUSANDS of conveniently-placed crates at Stormtroopers, sure - but the gimmick just seems to get old really fast. I'm sure that there are many, many button combinations and tricks to doing all of this stuff more destructively, but when one crate equals the death of three or more adversaries, why do you need to do anything else? It's also really annoying that despite nearly unlimited force powers that the apprentice has so much trouble fighting an AT-ST at the shipyard. I couldn't beat the damn thing because I couldn't affect it with the force, blocking the blasters is impossible for some reason, and throwing crates at it didn't seem to do anything other than stun if for a few useless seconds. Having so much control just seems like adding a level of complexity to something that doesn't warrant it, and while it might make for innovative Star Wars gameplay it still seems like a bland imitation of the combat in God of War or Ninja Gaiden.

GAMEPLAY: As stated above, it just feels like yet another shiny-yet-bland hack-and-slash game with stupid gimmick powers added for the point of appeasing fan boys. You can level up the character, which is original for this type of game, but so did Jedi Power Battles all those years ago and I honestly think that it was more fun. The learning curve seems easy enough until you come to something that doesn't make any sense, then it becomes a matter of trial-and-error, which doesn't account for good gameplay.

OVERALL: In the case of most over-hyped major properties, this game has already secured its spot in the "top ten" lists of dozens of game reviewers everywhere, right alongside Mass Effect (my contender for #1 on the top ten list of criminally overrated games of all time), Devil May Cry 4, and the ever-uninteresting Metal Gear Solid 4.

I think I'm going to pass on this one.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

First impressions: Too Human demo


I played a lot of Diablo back in the day, so much so that my friend Kelly and I had to play it on the Nightmare difficulty level just to gain any experience points. When Phantasy Star Online came out for the Sega Dreamcast, we could see that it was a thinly-veiled Diablo clone. I managed to max out my character's levels at 100, and really couldn't bring myself to invest any more time in it. Diablo 2 came out about the same time, but despite being more technologically impressive than the first game I just couldn't get into it, and never finished it. Later still Phantasy Star Online gained an update, but the thought of playing it to level 200 actually deterred me from the game; when a game seems more like work, then it is time to move on to something better. Bauldur's Gate arrived on the PS2 still later on, and I had every intention of playing it, but somehow I just never got around to it. I tried MMORPG's like Everquest and Lineage: the Blood Pledge, but they were so difficult to start and so boring once you got into the meat of the game that I couldn't invest in either - plus the fact that nobody really role-played in these games and the annoying presence of hax0r-speak. Everquest: Champions of Norrath for the PS2, and I was pleasantly surprised by the environments, player customization, and the fact that it supported four-player Gauntlet-style gameplay without being as inane as that older game was (we won't discuss Gauntlet Legends and its derivatives here - they're just too boring to bring up, so I'll save them for later). I picked up Champions: Return to Arms when it came out, and noticed improvements to the engine and art design, while remaining true to the style of gameplay.

Why do I bring all of this up? I have played a fair share of these types of games, so you can understand my interest in Too Human, an Xbox 360 game by Blood Omen and Eternal Darkness creators Silicon Knights. I downloaded the demo and played through it a couple of times, so now I'm ready to pick it apart.

STORY: Based on Norse mythology, the Too Human's characters and writing seem to take the standpoint that the Gods of old were cybernetically enhanced humans with spaceships instead of chariots, virtual reality instead of a spirit realm, and hot chicks in cyber-angel suits instead of hot chicks riding horses to take the dead to Valhalla. It's an interesting mix, and anyone familiar with Marvel Comics' Thor will feel right at home.

GAMEPLAY: It feels very much like a Diablo 2 clone, with skill trees, armor and weapons with plug-ins, and magical abilities. It has a fair number of cut-scenes throughout the game, but unlike most recent games the player has some interaction in them. The game also borrows from Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver in the sense that there are virtual reality areas that you character can enter to affect the environment in the "real" world. The game claims that there is online cooperative multiplayer as well, but given the limited choice of basic character models I'm curious as to how many players it will accommodate. Also, it seems that there would be little problem in including a single-system multiplayer mode, but supposedly you need Xbox Live in order to use this feature - all I can say is that the levels after the demo had better make use of a single-player-per-system environment, because the demo sure doesn't.

GRAPHICS: Not bad, but not great either. At least the developers haven't been touting this as the next big thing (like recent BioWare letdown Mass Effect). The demo level is about what you'd expect, with the stony environments lacking variety for the most part. The artists did make good use of glowing surfaces, as shown on your character and the enemies, though this too can be criticized once you run into enemies that explode upon contact - they don't look significantly different than any of the other enemies, but are much more lethal. If you were sick of the ancient futuristic look of the environments in Halo, Mass Effect, or Gears of War, don't expect to be wowed.

SOUND: No real complaints here. Everything sounds like you'd expect. Voice acting is appropriately as unconvincing as a Saturday morning cartoon (back when we had those).

CONTROL: Here's where things get sticky, and make what could have been an decent game into controller-chucking madness. It reminds me quite a bit of Phantasy Star Online, actually; the left stick moves your character, and there is a button to center the camera behind his point-of-view. The other stick is used for melee attacks, which uses automatic homing to track enemies and feels extremely unsatisfying to execute. The trigger buttons activate the use of firearms, and you can aim at multiple enemies or parts of larger enemies while doing so but you have to move the melee-stick to do this, which sometimes results in you swinging the sword while trying to fire. Because both attacks auto-target enemies this gets really annoying once you get in the middle of a large swarm of them. There is a special attack that will knock all of the enemies in your vicinity backwards, but you need to build up a combo level to achieve this, so it is not automatically available when you start the game.

My biggest issue with control is that the game doesn't always pause the action when a flashback or story related cut-scene occurs. This leads to a lot of standing around waiting for the character to do something until you realize that you're in control, and alternatively leads to the camera following some object on the wall at random intervals while enemies pound you off-screen.

The menus are easy to navigate once you know how and the level of depth involved in equipping your character and assigning skills is at least as complex as that of Diablo 2, but the menus are somewhat slow to respond to button presses (like it takes the game a moment to load between frames). This is a minor gripe to a game with some deep character customization, but I feel it is a valid one as it adds another level of frustration to a game that doesn't warrant it.

OVERALL: At least Silicon Knights offered a demo of this game, and didn't hype it to the point where its goals were unattainable (once again, BioWare's Mass Effect). While it seems like it would be a solid multiplayer purchase, the controls are so unintuitive and obstinate that I wouldn't consider paying full price for the game. There are just too many minor things wrong with the game (for example, when you die you have to sit through a lengthy sequence that has the Valkyrie will come down and pick you up. It is a long sequence, tedious to a tee, and has absolutly no bearing on the gameplay other than to make you sorry that your character is dead - and believe me, it is a frustrating wait). To the game's credit though, even when your character dies you don't go as far back as you did in say, Mass Effect (yet another example of how much I hate that game). Forty bucks, maybe, but definitely not worth sixty.