Sunday, May 23, 2010

Bionic Commando... Again...

A few weeks ago I was in The Exchange, perusing the Xbox 360 games.  I had been tempted into playing Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock.  Surprisingly enough, I didn’t hate it, so I had gone to The Exchange in the hopes of finding another cheap music game.  I picked up Rock Band for $5, and was still looking around when I saw another cheap game:  Bionic Commando for $5.

Those of you might recall in one of my earlier Bionic Commando posts that I was a huge fan of the original series, and was lamenting its move to 3D.  When the game was released last year, the market seemed to agree with me and it flopped spectacularly.  I felt that I could get in the mood to play a 3rd person shooter, and decided to pick it up, if for no other reason than to say that I had every American version of the game.

GRAPHICS: They’re pretty good.  This is one of those rare Xbox 360 games that doesn’t use the Unreal Engine, instead opting for a custom engine called “Diesel.”  This gives the game a steady frame rate and detailed environments, but also allows it to make good use of depth-of-field effects (when you’re zoomed in, things in the distance become clearer while objects that are closer to the camera become more blurry).  The animation on the characters is a little stiff, but only so much that it looks like a video game.  It would be a stretch to call this game realistic-looking, but some of the environmental effects are pretty nice.  This game has some of the best looking water I’ve seen in awhile. 

SOUND:  Anyone who has played the original game will appreciate the music in the game – it’s pretty much all remixes of the classic NES score, and most of them are movie-quality instrumentals (Nintendo take note: THIS IS HOW YOU DO IT).  The bionic arm makes a satisfying noise every time you deploy it, and it never really becomes too old too fast.  Because of the nature of the game, there isn’t a lot of ambient environmental sound (see STORY) but the rubble you walk on does have different pitch so even walking doesn’t become tiresome on your ears.  The action moves that you’ll perform have gratifying crunches, cracks, whooshes, and zips, but the guns sound generic for the most part.  The voice acting isn’t terrible, but it’s nothing to write home about, either.  “Faith No More” front man Mike Patton voices Nathan Spencer (the Bionic Commando), if that matters to you.  He mostly just growls a lot and says action-hero type things.  That’s really all there is to say about it.  The sound is sparse, but when no-one is talking it’s okay.  Extra points are granted for the Wilhelm Scream in the opening cutscene.  Come on though:  have you really read this far to hear me praise the graphics?  You want to hear me complain about…

CONTROL:  This is one thing that can make or break this sort of game.  When you are navigating a 3D world, you need precision control.  You know what?  For the most part, Bionic Commando delivers. 

The control scheme as a whole is pretty simple.  You have one trigger for your Bionic Arm, another for your gun, the bumpers are for evasive moves and quick selecting firearms, the “A” button jumps and retracts the arm (when grappling), “B” punches and extends the arm (when grappling), “Y” punches objects into the air so that you can use them in devastating combo attacks, and “X” picks up weapons (if you don’t want to use the grappling arm) and “looks,” though it is used so sparingly that like me you’ll likely forget about it.  Clicking the right stick allows you to zoom in and out for precision aiming (assuming that the weapon you have equipped will let you do it).

The arm works amazingly well: a target beacon will appear on the heads-up display (HUD) so that you can fire your grappling arm and swing, rappel, and climb the environments throughout the game.  You can use the directional pad to change your view quickly 90 degrees, which doesn’t seem that impressive until you need to use it.  One of my original fears was that the game would only let you attach the arm to certain things in the environments, thereby ruining a 3D version of the original’s 2D gameplay, and… it kind of does, but because the more traversable parts of the environment are pretty large, it doesn’t bother me as much as I thought it would.   It isn’t quite like swinging Spider-man style in the Treyarch-developed Activision games, but it gets the job done far better than I thought it would.

SHOCKING:  My only gripe about the control is that you can’t deploy the arm while precision aiming.  Even if deploying the arm took you out of precision mode it wouldn’t be as bad when you’re in a tight situation – you can’t turn around quickly enough while in it, and some enemies will sneak up on you and kill you before you can react.

GAMEPLAY: The gameplay is as straightforward as you can get without being Final Fantasy XIII (aw, snap!).  You’re given mission objectives which appear on your radar and HUD, and you navigate to them, fight some enemies, then go to the next objective.  That’s the basics of the game in a nutshell.  There are a few boss fights (very few), and a few areas where precision swinging comes into play, but the game is fairly forgiving on normal difficulty. 

A LOT of reviewers are complaining about the blue radiation zones in the destroyed city, as it gives the game an open-world look while limiting most of your movement to a specific area.  I really don’t see what all the fuss is about really; all games don’t have to be open world games, and the radiation only caused me to fail a couple of times.  If you keep yourself focused the chances of this killing you very much is slim.

In the very last levels of the game it tries something irritatingly new:  quick-time events. For those not in the know, a quick-time event is when a game eschews normal gameplay in favor of making you press specific button combinations before time runs out.  Not only is it somewhat unsatisfying to have to complete these annoying distractions, but the very last battle is practically nothing but quick-time events, making the last cutscene feel unsatisfying.   Still this is a minor gripe when compared to…

STORY (SPOILERS AHOY!):  This is the single worst thing about Bionic Commando.  It’s not too bad if you’re not familiar with the franchise, but if you are a fan then there are things that will make even less sense here than they did in the 8-bit game.  Then again, if you’re not familiar with the franchise, some of the other stuff isn’t going to make sense either…

I guess that my main problem with the story is that people with bionic implants are considered dangerous and are being hunted down by the very government that gave them the implants in the first place.  This is just incredibly stupid.  It’s like the racism that X-men (Days of Futures Past, specifically) parallels with mutants, but instead of being something that they’re born with, they’re just amputees who are trying to get their lives back but end up being used by the government.  Why don’t they just hunt down amputees before they give them bionics?  It would make just about as much sense.

So, apparently there are enough “bionic sympathetic” people out there who are so pro-bionic that they start a terrorist militia, and then proceed to drop a nuclear bomb on the country’s largest city (Ascension City, in the Bionic Commando universe) and kill millions of people.  It’s true that the BioReign Militia is being used by its leaders for nefarious purposes, BUT COME ON – HOW STUPID IS THIS AS A PLOT DEVICE?

So Joseph “Super Joe” Gibson (the main character from classic Capcom games Commando and M.E.R.C.S., and the person who you have to rescue in every other version of Bionic Commando) has Nathan Spencer (who is in military prison for treason because he’s bionic, or because he killed some bionics, or because he failed to kill some bionics – the story’s never really clear on that point) released from death row to go into Ascension City, survey the situation, find out what the terrorists are really after, and stop them.  As a carrot for completion of the mission, Joe promises to give Spencer information on the whereabouts of his missing wife.

During the mission Spencer is reunited with another bionic super solider called MAG.  MAG has bionic legs that allow her to run really fast.  No, she’s not from any of the previous games, so him meeting up with her and arguing over her motivation makes no sense.  There might be backstory here, but the game doesn’t seem too keen on expanding it.

It turns out that the terrorists are after something called “Project Vulture,” the key to which is located in Ascension City.  Spencer fights his way through legions of enemy combatants and their cybernetic enhanced armored suits to regain the key to unlocking Project Vulture.  After he gives it to Joe, Joe reveals himself to be Silver, the leader of BioRegin.  He has his minions try to kill Spencer and leaves with the device.

Joe’s motivations make no sense to me.  I could understand if he didn’t know where the device was hidden that he’d have to stage the disaster to find out where it is, but as soon as they “discover” the enemy’s target he directs Spencer there to recover the device, even though he has thousands of troops and mile-high walking mechs at his command.  BUT HE’S THE ONE WHO TELLS SPENCER WHERE IT IS.  Maybe he was just using BioReign to get Project Vulture and then not share it with them, but then why does an untrustworthy a**hole like Gottfried Groeder (one of the bosses from Bionic Commando: Rearmed) follow him?  It just seems out of character for Joe, who has been portrayed in all previous versions of the game as a hero, albeit one who is aging and near retirement.

AND ANOTHER THING: at one point, Joe tells Spencer that he was there, developing bionics at the very beginning.  Excuse me?  Joe was a soldier, not an engineer, and it is established in the previous games that he and Spencer meet for the very first time near the end of the game.  So how was Super Joe involved in bionics?  The military’s going to send a bionic engineer into enemy territory to spy on the empire (Bionic Commando Rearmed and the original Bionic Commando)?  It’s never satisfactorily explained.  He makes the argument sound like he’s been the one fighting for the rights of bionics, then proceeds to brutally kill MAG.

AND AND ANOTHER THING: I know that there are some of you out there who are all like, “dude, the website and character profiles have all of these motivations and explanations in them.”  To them I reply, “SO THE FUCK WHAT?! QUIT USING OUTSIDE SOURCES TO PLUG OBVIOUS PLOT-HOLES!”  There’s also a sniper character that’s not from the previous games that shows up for no real reason, like we’re supposed to be awed by him or something.  You don’t fight him, and he doesn’t really help you, so who cares?

DANGEROUS MASTERBATION OR HAZARDOUS SEX?: So you find out that Nathan Spencer’s bionic arm is his wife.  How is this possible, you might ask?  It’s never really explained.  It’s implied that in order to get bionic parts to sync up to their users, they need to use the consciousness of a user’s loved one.  It is further implied that this kills the “donor,” but the method, parts used, or where that part is located in the mechanical casing is never explained.  This is simply a twist of Shamalan-calibur stupidity.  Why does this even have to be in the game?  THEY SINGLE-HANDEDLY RUINED BIONIC COMMANDO WITH THIS INCLUSION. 

Plus, it opens up a whole bunch of questions:

If the public is clamoring for the destruction of bionic people, do they even know how they are made? 

How is this even being covered up?

If Nathan Spencer gets a girlfriend, is that cheating on his arm? 

If his wife’s brain is in the arm, then which one of MAG’s legs has her husband’s brain in it? 

If this is the future where they can do that type of surgery, then why can’t they just clone the bionic soldier’s brain to put in the bionic part?  Wouldn’t that be more “in sync?” 

Who the hell thought this was a good idea?  I’d expect that kind of schlock from a Japanese company like Capcom, but this was developed by GRIN, a Swedish company.

OVERALL: This game wasn't nearly as bad as I thought it would be, but I still don't feel that it was worth the original $60 price tag.  I have to admit that a great deal of my enjoyment of it was that I put in the secret code to unlock the Bionic Commando Rearmed skin, which looks like a 3D version of the 80s sprite, complete with radioactive red hair, RayBan sunglasses, an upturned collar, and hi-top sneakers.  Because all of the cutscenes use the game engine, seeing this testament to uber-cheesy 1980s action movies spout angst-ridden drivel gave me a warm feeling inside.  If you see it in a bargain bin somewhere for $20 or so, give it a spin - it's well worth the time for the gameplay if you can ignore the idiotic script.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Good god, I hate "Project Natal."

I know that it seems bitter and vindictive to hate something that I've never tried and that I've only seen in videos, so perhaps the more appropriate title to this article is that I hate the very idea of Project Natal.

People who are excited over this often times don't put the observation into certain facts about the demonstrations and the state of certain things.  I would like to examine some of those facts for those people who still insist that this is going to be the next gaming phenomenon.

1. In any of the widely available online videos, you will see a family with what is possibly the world's largest living room huddled around their television playing with this... abomination.  Kids, do you really think that there's enough room in your college dorm or bedroom to play with this thing?

2. My controller works.  It took them almost 30 years to make wireless controllers even semi-standard (and man, what a freeing feeling that is, right?) and now you want us to give up our complex button-intensive game so that we can wave our arms like morons in front of the TV?  Why?  I've never used a camera or gesture-based  system that was accurate enough to be fun (Sony EyeToy), or that didn't involve unrealistic waggling to do simple tasks (Nintendo Wii).  I don't see this as being any different.  What happens when you sneeze in the middle of a game, or stub your toe on some carelessly conveniently placed furniture?

3. Lag.  I have yet to see a "live" demo where an impartial person (read: not Peter Molyneaux) has failed to mention that the lag on this thing is noticeable.  Because much of Project Natal's reputed use is for action games, this seems more than a little broken.  Lag has destroyed button-based games in the past, so why is it okay with gesture-based games all of a sudden?  

4. Buggy.  Also, notice that when people say that the motion recognition "works great" they're usually in a well-lit room with a light background.  How many of you have that in your home?  Ever notice how natural light washes out or causes glare on your television screen?  I'm willing to bet most of what Microsoft is doing right now is tweaking the detection to recognize different lighting conditions and skin colors.  In other words, if you have any decorations, reflective surfaces, or windows in your house this probably isn't going to work too well.

5. Not everything has to be Wii.  Look, I appreciate that the Wii made Nintendo oodles of money, brought back third party support to the company, and invited average non-gaming people into the world of video games.  Bravo.  The problem is... have you ever actually played a third-party Wii game that didn't suck?  There's only a few out of the hundreds and hundreds on the market, and most "average" consumers only use the system to play Wii Sports and never buy another game.  This is starting to be a real problem for Nintendo who has now become the industry-collapsing danger to the industry that Atari was in the early 1980s.  Microsoft and Sony, please: no good can come from emulating Nintendo's business model, because the people who are buying your games now aren't going to be swayed by the hype once they see how derivative your product is.  It's a fad and a cash-grab.  It will not last.

6. This is Microsoft.  Don't get me wrong, I like Windows, and I was a huge advocate of the original Xbox when it was released, but Project Natal has hints of the taste of Microsoft Soundsmith, and I don't think that any of us need to relive that nightmare.