Sunday, November 22, 2009

One ring to rule the mall! Er, them all!

About a week an a half ago, I traded some more of my extensive game collection to the Exchange in the hopes of procuring another multiplayer game to help pass the time since beating Borderlands.  I managed to scrape together enough funds to purchase an old copy of Lord of the Rings: Conquest, a game developed by Star Wars: Battlefront creator Pandemic and distributed by evil empire Electronic Arts (or EA, because most of their target demographics can't spell "electronic").  This wasn't the first EA game that I'd ever purchased and it certainly won't be the last, but having a company so historically responsible for selling some of the most mediocre games on the planet allows me to assign a good portion of this game's failures on them.

After all, Pandemic produced Star Wars: Battlefront and its sequel, two games which I thought were excellently designed for their time, though they are admittedly just licensed ripoffs of EA's own Battlefield series of games.  I, like most fans of the series, eagerly awaited the arrival of Star Wars: Battlefront 3 only to be disheartened when it was announced by LucasArts that Pandemic wouldn't be making it, right before the game went into development purgatory, never to be heard from again.   So when I heard that Pandemic was producing a Wingnut Films Lord of the Rings game for EA, I naturally assumed that it would be a pumped-up Battlefront game with a fantasy setting.  Star Wars: Battlefront 2 seemed like a solid enough game (with full game modes for up to and including four players on the old Xbox - quite a technical feat), so I was earnestly awaiting this game to see what Pandemic could do with the better hardware.

Apparently, not much.

GRAPHICS:  I honestly wasn't expecting very much from this game, and yet it still managed to disappoint me.  The characters, though textured nicely, are relatively low-polygon, as are nearly all of the environments.  I don't know why, but it reminds me of a Midway developed game from yore, such as Gauntlet Legends.  I mean, I can forgive it somewhat because in order to keep four players per console for all modes it wasn't going to look like Call of Duty or Gears of War, but this honestly doesn't look much (if at all) better than the last game like this that Pandemic released, and that was Star Wars: Battlefront 2.  The thing that really brings it down in terms of appeal is the spastic camera.  Like Battlefront it will change to show you who killed you, but often times I find that it will put the camera into a wall, not giving me any view of the action.  There is also a dearth of instances where my character will fall over dead with no indication of what killed me.  Single-plane textured polygons also make themselves known, and everything in the game just has a "last generation" feel.  You would think that a solid frame-rate would alleviate the problem, but the frame rate isn't so high that you don't notice the game chugging at inopportune times.  It's just plain ugly.

SOUND:  While the sound is for the most part tolerable, and fans of the films will appreciate the screeching Nazguls, the bellowing trolls, and the trumpeting elephants,  they will also be severely annoyed by the voice-overs.  I realize that they did not have access to the original cast when making the game (except for Hugo Weaving), but Gandalf sounds far more like Ed Asner than Ian McKellan, and the forced fake British accents used by some of the main speaking characters just feels obnoxiously mocking to me.  

CONTROL:  Star Wars: Battlefront 2 allowed the player to change every single setting on the controller, allowing fans of different games or genres the chance to customize their playtime to their liking.  Lord of the Rings: Conquest does not.  As a matter of fact, the only changes available to the player are the analog sensitivity and inverting the camera.  This would be fine if the controls in Conquest made any attempt at feeling natural to fans of third person shooters, but it does not.  Instead it opts for a button-mashing brawler style of control, which works in theory, but because all of the primary attacks are mapped to the face buttons and not the triggers I found myself falling victim to enemies that managed to sneak up behind me because my fingers couldn't operate the buttons and the camera stick at the same time.  Additionally, because the auto-lock for the various classes is so bad, I found myself swinging at air in an unbreakable combo, allowing the opportunistic AI to sneak up behind me.  If there had been some kind of combo-breaker move, this might not have been so bad, but there isn't so it was.

GAMEPLAY:  The core gameplay of the Battlefront series remains intact.  Players must fight back the enemy army to gain control of various spawn points on the map.  Capturing all of the spawn points for a preset amount of time will automatically win the match, as will killing all of the enemy soldiers.  At least I think it is.  To be fair, I've been struggling through the story mode which differs slightly, in that the missions are more structured.  There are several classes of soldiers to choose from (like in Battlefront) from warriors, to archers, scouts (who can sneak up and stab other players in the back), and mages.  there are also "hero" characters that can be unlocked during the matches (depending on the stage) that are more powerful than the regulars, and usually have some additional abilities.  There's nothing significantly different gameplay-wise than the old Battlefront games, except for a focus on more melee-based attacks.

What really wrecks the game's story mode, though is the extra life system.  In Battlefield and Battlefront you have "tickets," a number of reserve soldiers that deplete as you and your allies die.  When you run out of tickets, the stage is lost.  Conquest uses a more video game standard "extra life" system, whereby players are given a few and then earn more as they defeat objectives.  While this certainly makes the game more challenging, the reasons for the challenge are not ones that one would expect; most often the lives are depleted by "cheap" deaths such as falling off a cliff after the automated character animation has you jumping off of a troll, or getting stuck on a tear in the stage's geometry when the enemy is firing catapults at you.  Also, the computer allies' artificial intelligence is far inferior to the enemies' -- orc warriors will block your attacks repeatedly, but your troops will just stand there facing its nice, open back while you fail to deal damage to it.  It sort of reminds me of the Dynasty Warriors series of games in that respect.  Enemy troops, on the other hand, will swarm you and take every opportunity to put a sword in your unguarded back.  Effectively putting the nail in the coffin for single-player enjoyment is the fact that AI bosses tend to follow you around the map ignoring all other soldiers in their way, no matter what class you're playing (as the balrog can kill with one hit, you need quite a bit of distance to take him down with a mage or archer, for example).

STORY:  What kind of Lord of the Rings fanboy would I be if I didn't point out that because you're playing a game based on a movie that's based on a book, it's about as far from the source material that you could imagine.  What's more, the game takes several annoying liberties with the core Tolkien canon.  If you thought that the death of Sarumon in the Peter Jackson extended version of the film was irritating, just wait until you witness Gandalf storm Orthanc and pummel Sarumon to death.  Or perhaps it'll be when the balrog "comes back to life" and you have to defeat it again -- not for the first time, as in Fellowship, but in the time-line of the game it actually comes back to life for no discernible reason.  It doesn't really matter what your poison is, a piece of you will die in these moments.  Another annoyance is the movie footage interposed between the stages in story mode.  I can assume that anyone with that much interest in playing the game has seen the movie, or vice versa, so it just seems like it's there to eat up the players time and no other reason.

OVERALL:  Ah, now to blame EA.  This game's many faults may at first seem to fall to Pandemic, but in light of my delight with Battlefront, I can't see how they could have dropped the ball so badly this time around, other than perhaps a very pushy EA forcing them to release it before it was ready, as only EA can, knowing (as they do) how drooling fans will buy anything that has their favorite franchise stamped on it.  If you feel that you must play it, only do so with friends to soften the blow.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Cracks in the armor

Borderlands is the only game I've been playing for the last few weeks, and I have to admit that I've been playing it more than I usually play video games. I have stated before about how much I am enjoying the game by myself, but I am starting to have a couple of problems.

The game did crash on me once while I was fighting in the "Circle of Death." I had been dying constantly and finally managed to outlast the enemies, but the game wouldn't end the mission after I had won, ensuring that I would have to start from scratch the next time. This is somewhat forgivable. If anyone is familiar with my feelings on Mass Effect they would know that a game crashing on me once in awhile isn't a big deal, just a game crashing on me constantly is (aaaaaaaaaaargh! Mass Effect!).

My biggest gripe isn't that, though. My biggest gripe with the game is that I found out that you cannot play split-screen over a LAN for four player co-op, even though the game allows two player split-screen for offline play. This is ridiculous. Halo 3 can do it, as can Left 4 Dead, Ghost Recon Advanced Warfare 2, Rainbow Six Vegas, Lord of the Rings: Conquest, Star Wars Battlefront 2 and countless other shooters that allow split-screen play. Granted, most of these games don't have the loot-tracking that Borderlands provides, but it's not like Borderlands' engine is bogged down by particle physics, AI, or diverse textures. I simply don't see the excuse for not allowing four players to enjoy a two-Xbox 360 two-TV LAN party, especially since this is one of the major reasons I purchased the game in the first place. If I had the money to buy an Xbox Live Gold subscription I wouldn't mind as much, but unfortunately I don't.

It's still pretty fun, though it is starting to get a little tedious because the core gameplay doesn't change much, and the game is FREAKIN' HUUUUUUUUGE! Every time that I think I've uncovered the whole map I end up getting a mission to the arse-end of somewhere new. The only bad thing about that is that the enemies don't vary much outside of the few boss fights and you can't do much exploring on your own without finding the mission that lets you into a new area of the map, some of which you won't have cause to visit after you've killed the boss or harvested the elements. The only time I die anymore is when I'm ganked -- literally swarmed by too many enemies with far too powerful equipment for their level. It doesn't happen often, but it's nearly insurmountable when it does.

Anyway, it's still way more fun than the games I traded in for it. So I don't regret that one bit.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Borderlands Liquidation

I recently had a jones to play Borderlands, the first-person shooter (FPS)/role-playing game (RPG) four-player co-op mash up for the PC (can't runt it), PS3 (don't own it), and Xbox 360 (the only system I own that will run it). I wanted to play it so much that I decided to trade in games that I honestly couldn't see myself playing again under normal circumstances. These included (but weren't necessarily limited to):

Armored Core 4 (Xbox 360) -- I loved the original Armored Core so much that I actually bought another Playstation back when they were still $200 a pop just to play the vs. mode in full screen with my friend Amiga-Bill. That's dedication! Things started to go sour in this series when FROM Software (the developer) neglected to keep up with emerging trends (i.e., analog control systems) even into the late PS2 era. Even after they included it, they tweaked the gameplay to actually make it harder to play, not more fun, and those things are pretty much mutually exclusive in my book. AC4 actually infuriated me because they implemented analog control flawlessly, then limited the size of the mission worlds to ludicrously tiny parts of a bigger-looking world and gave the player next to no idea what the mission would be, making it a very trial-and-error experience. I got angry every time I attempted to play this game, and it had to go (Chromehounds, FROM's other mecha game, might not have the cool designs but plays much better all around anyway).

Armored Core 2 (Playstation 2) -- See above.

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (Xbox 360) -- I was looking forward to this game at first; I liked some of Call of Duty 2's gameplay, though I was sick of the WW2 setting, so this seemed like a good compromise. Unfortunately, what I got instead was an FPS that passed itself off as hyper-realistic, but when I've wasted all of my ammunition staking out a house that apparently has over 100 terrorists living in it (the must be Mexican-Iranian) there's something fishy in the game engine. Multiplayer didn't fare much better, because in the mode that lets your level up your character anyone with a high-level mod can just waste you even if you manage to kill them (grenades are insta-death, and there's an option that will automatically allow higher-level characters to drop grenades when they die), and you have a formula for frustration. With the new Modern Warfare and its more-fun-looking zombie mode out in stores, there didn't seem to be much point in playing it anyway.

Transformers the Movie, the Game (Xbox 360) -- Bravo, Traveller's Tales. You somehow managed to make a game that actually surpasses the Michael Bay movie in craptacular-ness.

Iron Man (Xbox 360) -- I have to say that this wasn't as bad as Transformers (I purchased it at the same time for next to nothing), but it was still a horrible game if only for two things: It completely butchers the spectacular movie's story, and you have to hold down a button to stay aloft and hover while flying. If it eliminated the latter, I could have forgiven the former.

Rayman Raving Rabbids (Xbox 360) -- The offbeat humor in this "game" can't make up for the fact that it's just a slow-loading collection of piss-poor mini games. This Xbox 360 game is just a port of Wii Shovelware (trademark pending, as Nintendo seems to be intent on cornering the market).

Transworld Snowboarding 2 (Xbox) -- I played this game once, then went back to playing Amped. I don't know if that actually has anything to do with the quality of the game or my own preference. I like my snowboarding games with as little loading as possible, and Amped still shines in that respect. Transworld did not.

Capcom Fighting Evolution (Playstation 2) -- So, apparently evolution can move backwards too. This is hands-down the worst Capcom brand fighting game I have ever played, Street Fighter EX Plus Alpha not withstanding. As I already have Street Fighter Alpha, Super Street Fighter 2, and Darkstalkers for the Playstation, and the fact that they're all much better, I didn't see the need to keep this around.

Pokemon Pearl (Nintendo DS) -- Wow. Someone managed to find a way to package and sell boredom. That someone is Nintendo. Seriously, this is almost the exact same game as Pokemon Red, which I purchased over a decade-and-a-half ago. How is it even possible that they added color and nothing else. Oh, they changed the character's names and added some monsters. How about adding some fun?

Animal Crossing (Nintendo DS) -- This one wasn't completely terrible, but without the promise of unlocking old NES games like its GameCube counterpart, I felt far less of a need to keep playing it.

Star Fox Command (Nintendo DS) -- So, Nintendo once again takes a franchise that I once loved, changes the gameplay, breaks the controls, then forces me to vigorously rub my screen with my stylus insuring that not only will I be damaging my system in a manner that will require speedy replacement but also so I will begin to question why I loved the series to begin with.

Brain Age: Train Your Brain in Minutes a Day (Nintendo DS) -- I beat all of the Sudoku puzzles, and the actual brain training portion of the game punished my score with unreasonably stupid handwriting and voice recognition. Note to Nintendo: If you're going to make software that exists only to judge me unfairly, at least make sure the damn thing works! Incidentally, I apparently had a brain age of 22 before I deleted the files.

Pac Pix (Nintendo DS) -- Probably the only game on this list that I actually liked, even with its annoying stylus screen-scratching. It was just more of an oddity than an actual game.

I was expecting to get about $40 for all of these games, but I actually ended up getting about twice that, which was not only a relief but a boon - I managed to not only acquire Borderlands but also a 1600 point Xbox Live card which I used to finally purchase the superb 'Splosion Man.

So my collection got a little lighter, but I don't care. Borderlands alone is actually better than all of these games combined. It's sort of an odd game: It's not really a great shooter and not really a great RPG, but somewhere in the middle it excels.

From a shooter standpoint, there's not much to say. The controls are slow, the options are obtuse - you're pretty much stuck with a "Call of Duty" control variant - the "Angelic" (read: Halo) scheme has no "one click zoom in, one click zoom out" option, forcing the player to hold down the look-stick to zoom, and while you're trying to aim this is nearly impossible making this scheme worthless. Even with the sensitivity cranked up the controls feel unresponsive and floaty. The enemies don't seem to have precise hit points making shooting them a guessing game (far less than in Deus Ex, however). The game lacks relevant physics - environments aren't affected by your guns and explosions, only enemies. The map is somewhat plodding and empty, with (so far) only a few different enemy types of varying degrees of difficulty, some of which spawn far too frequently. However, I didn't seem to mind as much once I got the "runner," a vehicle much like the Batman Begins style Batmobile that can boost and shoot and run over most enemies with the greatest of ease. It's easy to drive and fun to squish things. Even so, running back and forth from the towns to the mission areas does get somewhat repetitive, though I haven't been able to explore all of the (allegedly) huge map by myself yet.

From an RPG standpoint, it's about as basic as they come. You get experience points (EXP) for killing enemies and completing missions, you can find and equip a VAST array of weaponry and shield units, and you can also put points into abilities (commonly referred to as feats) every time you level up, which usually center around a character's special ability (the soldier has a sentry gun, the siren can turn invisible, etc.). This adds a lot of variety, as one can specialize a character for single play or for multiplayer. Enemies get a little easier with each level, and weapons become a bit more varied as you go through the game. Those familiar with dungeon crawler style of gameplay will feel immediately at home, though there are small things with the interface (holdovers from shooting games, I suspect) that will throw you, like equipping items; it's incredibly easy to understand, but you need to approach it from a non-role-playing point of view for it to make sense quickly. There are times where I found myself running around for an hour looking for quest items, and only because they aren't shown with precision on the map. That was by far the most frustrating thing about an otherwise reasonably-paced game. Enemies do tend to respawn after awhile, which makes the game seem a little more unrealistic, but is a nice change from the empty chambers left behind in most dungeon crawlers.

Graphics: This one's a tough call. If you like cel-shading, it works. My only gripe with the cel-shading in this case is that the line work is designed to look like comic book art, though the farther back the object, the smaller the lines (a real artist has a finite size of inking brushes to work with). Animations are somewhat simplistic and sparse, but due to the sheer size of the game it's forgivable. The animations that are there are okay. The desert environment doesn't have any plants, and the only obvious moving scenery are the windmills that dot the landscape. It's very brown or purple (depending on the time of day in the game), but for the most part it works, and fits the "Mad Max in outer space" theme quite well.

Sound: It's excellent. I imagine it's even more excellent with surround sound. Enemies say some really messed up things sometimes, and it frames the setting nicely. The voice acting is tolerable and well-suited to script which has enough black humor to satisfy steam-punk sensibilities. Monsters are appropriately whiny, robots are clunky, and everything makes a satisfying squish when it blows apart. The music has a nice guitar solo feel, until you start to become overwhelmed by enemies, then begins to beat hard. While it certainly won't be nearly as recognized, it's the best interactive soundtrack (that is, it changes with the action) since Halo.

Control: See above

Gameplay: See above

Overall: This game has the value of 10 games! Take all of the good points and multiply it by the number of people you can get to play it together with (much better in co-op, and you can turn dueling off if you're playing with a "griefer" - I'm looking at you, Seth Moore), and that's my score.

Come to think of it, this game doesn't deserve a gripe at all.