Monday, August 30

Sharp as a Tac

After purchasing both Modnation Racers and Mafia II this weekend, I was fairly sure that I had enough to keep me occupied for the next week at least. Upon booting up the Playstation 3, I also downloaded what was to be one of the greatest surprises of the year so far: Shank. Capturing the simplicity of classic 2D brawlers, as well as adding competent platforming action to complement and punctuate the violence; Shank is the best downloadable title since Battlefield 1943. I say this as a heavy consumer of downloadable titles, as well as one who very rarely completes these (usually) bite-sized gaming experiences.

Shank plays like Final Fight crossed with Mirror's Edge and Devil May Cry. Swordplay (and chainsawplay) and gunplay are merged seamlessly into a beautiful ballet of blades and bullets. Boss fights, while difficult, usually have a recognisable pattern and seldom feel cheap. The art direction and the quality of animation on display is a true visual treat. Blood is in ample supply, and some of the attacks are unbelievably brutal. There are some standout moments when sprites are blackened (a la Kill Bill), and all that can be seen is the occasional muzzle flash and shower of crimson. I thought I would be playing this for a few minutes before moving onto some of the year's more acclaimed titles, but it really sucked me in. I've truly enjoyed Shank, all three and a half hours of it.  Is it worth 20 dollars (or 1200 MSP)? I would argue in its favour, as I had a great deal of fun for the majority of the experience.

For all of my gushing above, please do not purchase Shank under the impression that you will be playing a perfect game. The sound design is truly uninspired, and the music rarely matches the intensity of the action on-screen. The story is not overly original, and the dialogue is rarely anything other than roars and screams of anguish. The game also features some examples of poor level design, with overly lengthy climbing sections and cheap deaths aplenty. Shank is also host to the most frustrating boss fight in recent memory. The final confrontation has me beat. I'm not giving up, but last night I came close to destroying my lovely TV with a lightweight Sixaxis controller.

Crtitical opinion on this game is mixed, but I am fairly sure that most would enjoy this brawler. It's dark, but distinctive visuals are a joy to behold and the action rarely lets up. There are some frustrations to be found, but if you are looking for a short, enjoyable thrill-ride; I highly recommend it.

What did you guys play this weekend?

Friday, August 27

Mission Complete? (You're doing it wrong)

My resistance to Mass Effect 2 has softened somewhat. Shepard is still unable to engage in a conversation without my attention wandering, but the other characters are sometimes able to bring me back; Garrus in particular. I loved him in the first game, and his devil may care attitude and convincing animation often steal the show. Carly has made the observation that the alien characters are animated to a much higher standard than that of the human characters. What I would argue however is that we know how humans should move, and in most cases with Mass Effect 2, it is slightly off the mark. Particularly eye movements. Shepard moves just about right, but characters like Jacob and Miranda sometimes look as though they are about to pass out or are in dire need of an exorcist. Garrus, Mordin and Grunt are a joy to behold though, and I relish the opportunity to converse with them.

Then there is Jack. What an offensively cliched character they have proven to be. I won't go into any more detail for fear of spoiling the plot, but I've skipped through some of the more tiresome dialogue they have spouted on my ship. Zaeed is also unworthy of the Normandy's oxygen as far as I am concerned. Imagine if a member of the Barmy Army became a space pirate and you have him in a nutshell. He has however presented one of the more interesting quandaries on his character specific, loyalty mission. In my relentless quest to be the most vanilla flavoured space commander of all time, my purely Paragon (read: goody goody) actions actually resulted in what I would conclude to be failure. Yet still the story progresses, the mission was deemed to be "complete," and the Normandy sped off into the great expanse of space. It was refreshing for heroic choices to have negative consequences, as you can't save the day with great intentions. Sometimes it would seem, good people have to die for the job to get done.

The combat is still a bit awkward for my tastes. My brother insists that it is because I am going about it wrong way, considering my choice of class rather than any fault on the part of the developers. I understand his argument, but I still reject that the gunplay is anything other than competent. The boss fights are repetitive, my biotic powers (still in their infancy) are not the game changers I perceived them to be, worst of all, the AI is pretty woeful. Harbingers, pirates and other galactic purveyors of evil are more than happy for you to litter them with bullets provided that they can not see you. With some effective camera movements, you can shoot your opponents with little fear of reprisal.

There is a good game to play here, and hopefully the PS3 version will address some of the niggling issues I have encountered. Despite all my complaints, it can easily steal 3 or 4 hours from you, if you aren't watching the clock.

What are you guys playing this weekend? I'm in Brisbane this weekend, so that means portables. Whatever you are up to, enjoy it and stay safe.

Wednesday, August 25

When Hype Attacks

Mass Effect 2 is one of the most critically lauded titles released this year, but I'm not loving it. It has impressive visuals, deep characters and the action is solid, yet I believe there have still been better games released in 2010. It has hours worth of missions, side-quests and a comprehensive array of dialogue options, yet I believe I will struggle to finish it. The reason for this is simple: Commander Shepard. The central character, made to my specifications, Shepard is inconsistent, wooden and painfully awkward. A combination of near monotone voice work and stiff animation, my custom avatar has me at times cringing from a complete lack of sincerity.

Mild Spoiler Alert: The most glaring example of Shepard's erratic manner is during the reunion with Garrus, my favourite ally from the first instalment of the franchise. After listening to the protagonist put his crew, and the inhabitants of Omega to sleep with his droning tenor, the protagonist greets his old friend with his arms stretched out, essentially asking "Yo Garrus what up dog? Gimme some love!" Where did this come from? Since when was the captain of the Normandy so relaxed and at ease? I couldn't link this behaviour to the character I had previously observed for the better part of 5 hours.

Shepard isn't the only flaw in the package however. Textures often fail to load properly when you enter new locations, meaning that those noticeable load times still aren't long enough to ensure that the game consistently looks as good as intended. Further to that, sometimes the action grinds to a complete halt and continues loading. Also problematic is the combat. While I acknowledge that more often than not, it is enjoyable, it plays like your average cover shooter (at least early on, further in I am sure that stronger biotic powers should serve to differentiate the experience from the competition). There is not much here that you haven't seen, or played before in other 3rd person action games. Further to that, the ammunition system is just plain painful. I just want to use my heavy pistol, that is it. But I get 24 bullets for every mission. I could use other weapons (shotgun - short range, automatic pistol - too unwieldy), and I can retrieve more ammo from fallen enemies, but if I'm fighting from a distance, I've got 24 chances to make the galaxy a safer place. 

I am intrigued to know whether I would've noticed the above, had it not been for the relentless hype behind this Game of the Year contender. I still think Shepard would have left me fatigued, however I think some of the other issues may not be so glaring as they are now. I am going to persevere with Mass Effect 2, as I'm sure if nothing else, my brother would not forgive me if I did not play it through to near completion. Otherwise, I may not have found the inspiration to see Bioware's latest space-faring RPG (RPG lite I might add) through to its end.

Who is excited about Mass Effect 2 coming to the PlayStation 3? Who is nonplussed?

Monday, August 23

In case you haven't played it: Battlefield - Bad Company 2 Review (PS3)

I am not sure whether there is any merit in evaluating DICE's Modern Warfare competitor, nearly 6 months after release. With that said however, I was bemused to find that Battlefield - Bad Company 2 had not fared as well critically (at least quantitatively speaking) as Infinity Ward's last Call of Duty title. Why? Because save for its splitscreen multiplayer offering, I despise Call of Duty - Modern Warfare 2. The campaign is a frustrating, morally redundant tale of American militarism gone loco. A series of choke points punctuated by regrettable dialogue, spouted from testosterone-fuelled neanderthals, MW2's single player offering was a grind with very few rewards. The online competitive multiplayer while entertaining, often felt as though it was cheapened by killstreaks and lethal weapon attachments which I, in my limited skill level, have no hope of obtaining. Battlefield - Bad Company 2 however is a completely different monster. Sure it is a first-person shooter with lots of death and explosions, but the subject matter feels lighter. The sequel to the first console Battlefield game to offer a legitimate solo campaign, as well as a comprehensive suite of competitive multiplayer modes is a full-featured package worth experiencing.

The Good
Up there with the best - Bad Company 2 makes good on DICE's promise of a proper solo crusade, with some of the finest examples of set pieces, on-rails shooting and pacing ever seen in a console FPS. Save for a few frustrating shoot-outs towards the end of the adventure, this is all fun, and all thrills.

Feels right - Not since the original Quake has a boomstick provided so much joy. The shotguns available in BF:BC2 have respectable range, along with the stopping power expected from a youth watching Schwarzenegger films. Further to that, I usually don't enjoy using sniper rifles in FPS games, but the T88 S has started a love affair with long range weaponry.

Like a drug - With the possible exception of Gears of War, there is no greater multiplayer experience than that on offer in Bad Company 2. Offering enough of the quasi-RPG progression that makes Modern Warfare so addictive, as well as enough maps and different play modes to encourage persistent play, Bad Company 2 will take hours of your life if you aren't careful. More important than the plethora of maps, modes and equipment options however is the core gameplay, which is brilliant, if not chaotic. Due to the malleability of each battleground and balanced classes, there are limitless ways to approach each situation and engage with your opponents. The action is thoroughly satisfying, especially when you raze a structure that houses several enemies, or destroy a quad bike coming at you at full speed. Battlefield: Bad Company 2 is the best team-based multiplayer shooter since Team Fortress 2.

Balance (Part 1) - When a team comprised of each of the 4 classes (Medic, Recon, Assault and Engineer) works together, the action flows brilliantly; allowing for campers, run-and-gunners and support players to contribute to a win. Greatest of all, players are rewarded for contributing in almost any fashion. For those without the surest of aim, you can opt to repair vehicles, heal teammates or scour the road ahead for mines and other threats. It's so refreshing to play a game that rewards you for assisting the stronger members of a team.

Extensive support - Since release, there have been 6 free multiplayer map packs released to players who bought the game brand new. Most would argue that these packs are just the same maps reconfigured to be used in different play modes, however they present unique experiences in both Rush and Conquest arrangements. There are also paid expansions available, but I am yet to invest in them. There is enough content offered here for the purchase price without the requirement to procure paid DLC. There is more content coming though, with a Vietnam expansion due later this year.

The Bad
Balance (Part 2) - More often than not, you will find your team consisting of an inordinate amount of players using the Recon (Sniper) class. Referred to as "Wookies," you will often find yourself frustrated as they camp and watch objectives fall to your opponents. Used effectively, the Recon class provides vital support to the team. Abused, the Recon class can drain the fun from a match as you struggle to complete objectives alone.

What are we fighting for? - Returning to the solo campaign, the story and dialogue are not entirely worthwhile. There are Russians, a secret weapon and a ragtag bunch of soldiers affectionately known as Bad Company. That's about it.

Dude I hit you! - Another minor solo campaign gripe. In a game built around the premise of everything being destructible, it is somewhat confounding when you hit a helicopter delivering enemies to the battle with a rocket, and nothing happens. I know that it is to ensure that players take part in each of the thrilling gunfights throughout the adventure, but still it is disappointing to find some of those troop transports are invincible.

The Ugly
Go it alone - Save for the new, paid (read: expensive) Onslaught expansion, there are no cooperative multiplayer modes in Bad Company 2. This is a missed opportunity, especially considering that there are four members in the unit and several competitors (Halo 3 and to a more limited extent, Modern Warfare 2) allow for a few friends to play through either missions or challenges in splitscreen or online.

9/10 - The best console FPS on the market, no question. The single player campaign moves at a frenetic pace, with some unforgettable sequences and enjoyable vehicle combat. The multiplayer offering is so incredibly deep both in terms of progression and the standard gameplay. With the ability to develop and utilize four distinct, balanced classes, Battlefield - Bad Company 2 offers limitless approaches to combat. Perhaps best of all is the freedom afforded to players in conflict, with almost any object being completely destructible. Essential action and unbeatable value.

Friday, August 20


If Battlefield: Bad Company 2 has taught me one thing, its that if you want a fun final chapter, stage it on an aeroplane. Storming towards the final confrontation, unloading my automatic shotgun with gay abandon, the final moments of the game (even on Hard difficulty) didn't ask too much of me. I'll be damned however, if it wasn't the most fun I've had playing an FPS in quite some time. This wasn't an overly difficult journey, or a terribly long one, but it was memorable. The original Modern Warfare ended on a passenger plane, and if I recall correctly, that was another short campaign with an airborne exclamation point. Developers, if you want me to enjoy your single player offerings, my request is simple: Include more gunfights in the air, that shit is just plain crazy son! 

Save for the penultimate stage, and maybe the one before it as well, Bad Company 2 is an essential single player experience. With that being said though, I have recently rediscovered the competitive multiplayer component of the game. I thought I had outgrown the mayhem of Rush and Conquest. Walls not providing any form of sustainable cover. Buildings collapsing on unsuspecting players (read: me). Screams of anguish from both American and Russian avatars. I was wrong though, it has captured my imagination once again.

This re-engagament can be attributed both to the previously described craziness, and my new found ability to play as a Medic. You've got to love spraying 100 bullets in another players general direction, knowing there are another 50 bullets to fire before needing to reload. Further to that, you can play a vital role in both attack and defence keeping your team alive, and even revive fallen comrades. I'm trying to stay away from my previously favoured Engineer class, but it is easily the strongest of the four. With steady, automatic weapons and rocket launchers, the Engineer is best equipped for every situation. Assault is ideal for those who love to run and gun. The Recon class, and particularly, the 65% of players who use this class are the only real blight on Bad Company 2's multiplayer action.

For those of you who still own Bad Company 2, do us a favour: load it up and play with me online. I need some trustworthy wingmen.

What are you all playing this weekend?

Wednesday, August 18


I will only preach to you about politics in the most extreme of circumstances. Only after our first female Prime Minister was sworn in, did I dare mix elections and videogames. I'll give you a little bit of context before my next sermon. This weekend, we will all go to the polls after what has been an overwhelmingly negative campaign from both major parties. In a campaign with few real policies, I've noted two issues that may affect the voting gamer:
  • Tony Abbott and the R18+ rating
  • The Australian Labour Party's National Broadband Scheme 
A lot has been made of Abbott's determination that:

“I think that the best way to handle this is to accept that our current classification system is broken.”

This statement was made before Kevin Rudd was deposed, and has been given attention by Kotaku, PALGN and the Australian version of Gameinformer magazine (Stead, 2010: p37). It should be noted that this was in reference to the classification system as a whole, and that Mr Abbott, if elected as Prime Minister, would not be involved in the decision process. The Opposition Leader has since stated that he "would be happy to look at an R18+ rating for games," but it should be noted that all he could really do (as far as I have read/understand) is lobby for the Standing Attorneys-General to consider review of the current classification system.

Perhaps more importantly, very few worthwhile games have actually been refused classification for sale in Australia (if you read this PALGN article, you can see that I would argue that no quality games have been refused classification). Those that are initially refused classification, are often modified for release in such a way that does not void the impact of the title as originally intended (Fallout 3 for example). The only exception to this statement of course is Left 4 Dead 2. I am still at a loss as to how the game was initially refused classification. I fully support the view that an R18+ rating is required for games in order to protect children, and inform the decisions of parents. This issue however, should not decide an election (and I am in no way naive enough to believe it would).

On the issue of the National Broadband Network, I may have access to high speed broadband but I know that there are plenty of Australians who are not so lucky. It's amazing how much of a difference 100 kilometers makes in terms of connection speed and bandwidth allowance (compare Gold Coast to Lennox Head, the difference is astounding). Hopefully the NBN will lead to greater competition in the sector and empower consumers with more choice, but we will need to wait until the scheme is properly implemented before judgements can be made. Ideally, Australians in metropolitan, rural and remote areas will have access to a high quality service that would lead to the proliferation of StarCraft II in the land down under. I have a dream that any Australian can one day prioritise their build cue in order to avoid a Zerg rush, no matter where their opposition is based.

I'm not saying vote Labour. Their adoption of the Coalition's racist border protection policies is a sickening affront to what I believe is the luckiest country in the world. What I am saying is: Vote.

Dutch note: All my references, bar the Gameinformer quote are hyperlinked. For those wondering -
1. Stead, C (Editor) (2010). The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Gameinformer. Issue 8, p37.

Monday, August 16

Heavy Metal

Loyal Readers, I am angry at myself (again!). Why? Because I haven't played the single player portion of Battlefield: Bad Company 2 until now. I'm 3 missions away from the end, so I can't speak for the entire campaign. That being said however, it has so far been the best example of pacing in a single player FPS since Bioshock. Only once, in awkward platforming sequence have I felt anything akin to a stutter in this action-packed campaign. Missions are short, and allow for players to approach set pieces with a moderate level of freedom. Action sequences are punctuated with supply caches, which allow you to select equipment that best suits approaching threats. Furthermore, the return of collectable weaponry and the implementation of quasi-collectable, destructable (?) M-COM Stations serve to provide the requisite distractions for gamers with short attention spans and/or obsessive-compulsive disorder. Finally, the expert distribution of vehicles throughout the campaign break up the standard shooting action.

It's not flawless. DICE has opted to adopt the Modern Warfare checkpoint system present in genre stalwarts like Call of Duty series in Bad Company 2, as opposed to the free flowing respawn system which served to differentiate the original instalment. This does lend a sense of consequence to your failures, however it also leads to some frustration when the next checkpoint is so close, yet so far from reach. Mind you, the frustration encountered here is negligible when compared to the Modern Warfare 2 (worst single player campaign ever). Further to that, the health injector from the first game has also been phased out in favour of regenerating health found in just about every modern action game. Funnily enough, IGN suggested in their review that these additions made the gameplay feel more realistic. Last time I checked, if a human being copped a few slugs to head and chest, they couldn't shrug them off after a few seconds had passed (without being hit by more bullets). Moreso, if they were killed in action, they couldn't rematerialise in a location they had previously visited. These changes which bring the Bad Company franchise in line with the competition work well enough, but they don't feel necessary.

The production values for EA's answer to Modern Warfare are top notch, and those of you who haven't played it yet can expect brilliant visuals, genre-leading action sequences and enough explosions to make an 80s action flick look tame. I should also point out that Bad Company 2 does the shotgun and sniper rifle justice, both are effective and fun to use.

What did you guys play this weekend?

Friday, August 13

It's not you

So after more than one year of on-and-off play, I've finally completed inFamous. I wish I had finished the game earlier because the twist at the end was worth it, even though you could see it coming. Further to that, the last time the game was in my possession, I would have only had about (unbeknownst to me) 7 story missions or about 3 hours playtime to get through. Short of collecting every Blast Shard, I've done almost all that you can do with the heroic arc of the morally-focused, open world action game. I've liberated every territory, played through every repetitive side mission and upgraded all the abilities. The last few hours of inFamous offer some of the best experiences both in terms of narrative and action sequences; one mission in particular provides a thrilling quasi-recreation of balloon parade from the first, Tim Burton directed Batman movie. The boss fights are also highly enjoyable, but for some reason are infinitely less difficult than the standard shooting/melee action.

Two months ago, I read an article in Gameinformer about the upcoming sequel, and was concerned to see that the developers had chosen to make aesthetic changes instead of addressing what (I thought) were the biggest issues with the game. Cole McGrath had been changed from a rugged, almost ugly biker into a pretty boy with the likeness of an "extreme sports star - like Travis Pastrana, Tony Hawk or Shaun White," (Stead, 2010: p49). From the article I concluded that most gamers can't relate to a protagonist unless they are attractive and "more sympathetic". IGN has reported that Cole is now looking more like his former self, however I'm yet to see revised concept art for the series' protagonist.

The problems with inFamous have nothing to do with Cole specifically, and more to do with repetitive mission design and the inordinately high difficulty of the standard action. When accepting side missions you know you will be doing one of 5 things:
  • Escorting prisoners
  • Tracking gang members to an eventual, small scale battle
  • Item retrieval (hidden packages or medical supplies)
  • Vehicle escort
  • Area clearance (routing either enemies of surveillance devices)
Apart from the vehicle escort missions which appear most infrequently, the other types of side missions rarely enable you to employ your arsenal of superpowers in an enjoyable way. You need to act within strict parameters or you will more than likely fail. Towards the end of the game, when you gain the power to summon lightning from the sky, I was dying to engage with waves on enemies without any peripheral objectives. Instead I was forced to zap gang members in the backside to keep them moving at a brisk pace. Taking back Empire City wouldn't have been such a drag if there were some more opportunities to light up the sky (and enemies).

The biggest issue I had with inFamous was the inconsistent difficulty level. On Medium setting, the average Reaper, Dustman or First Son is more durable than Superman and the Incredible Hulk merged into one stubborn super-being. These standard goons have almost infallible aim, and would be able to shoot individual flakes of dandruff off of your head if that was their intention. Unfortunately, your enemies intend to actually hurt you, not perform trick shots, and these controller-smashingly difficult grunts at times made standard combat a grind. Boss fights however were much more undemanding, to the point where the final boss battle felt anti-climatic (at least as far as difficulty is concerned).

Keep Cole gritty. Keep me looking for Blast Shards and Dead Drops. Vary the mission design, and make the difficulty more consistent and inFamous 2 will be enjoyable, if not perfect.

What are you playing this weekend? I'm intending to start playing through the single player portion of Battlefield: Bad Company 2. What do you think of Bioshock Infinite?

Wednesday, August 11

The Benefits of Time Travel

For reasons I can't explain, I was excited at the prospect of God of War Collection being released last year (in the States at least). I purchased two import copies of the game as Christmas presents for friends, and had laboured for weeks over the prospect of owning it myself. I had never finished either title on the Playstation 2, but the prospect of these High Definition reissues with trophy support gave me the horns. I, and the gaming media at large kept thinking of the possibilties: Final Fantasy Collection, Team Ico Collection, Metal Gear Solid Collection, (Insert Popular Intellectual Property Here) Collection; but for nearly a year now, Kratos' PS2 adventures have so far been the only recipients of a current generation makeover.

While The Sly Collection has been announced, this fails to generate much excitement with me because I never played the originals. The rumour of both Splinter Cell and Prince of Persia HD reissues however is infinitely more promising. Not because I played through these games (because I haven't), rather it demonstrates that perhaps third party publishers have noticed the commercial validity of this nostalgic premise. Perhaps that (Insert Popular Intellectual Property Here) Collection isn't that far off.

Why do I care? Is it the trophies? Possibly, I'm a recovering Achievement addict. Is it because no good games have been released in this generation? No! Some of the greatest games I have ever played have been released on the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3. My theory: I am an advocate for these collections of past generation content because Sony and to a more limited extent, Microsoft have removed backwards compatability from current hardware; and the ability to now play games from that technically lost age of hardware (with all the modern trimmings) is appealing because normally I would not not be able to. I still have a copy of Metal Gear Solid 2: Substance (PS2) sitting in my collection, ready to go. If only my Playstation 3 would read the bloody disc.

Do you want to see more HD collections of previous Playstation 2 games? If so, what franchises should get the treatment? Tekken, Metal Gear Solid, Devil May Cry and Final Fantasy would be at the top of my list.

Monday, August 9

Impulse Plus

Just over a month since its inception, Playstation Plus has managed to deliver a satisfactory return on my initial investment. I wouldn't dare say that it is an essential service, but for those of us (read: me) who usually waste untold hundreds (read: thousands) of dollars on mediocre downloadable games, Plus provides a disincentive for my usual impulse purchase habits. Why? Because whatever I buy might be offered up free (or at a discount) in the coming months. While I am yet to touch the complementary Minis and PSone classic offered up this month, Zen Pinball has been a fun distraction this past weekend.

Now when I say Plus has proved to be a deterrent for my compulsion to purchase downloadable content, I'm not being entirely honest with you. Having utilized the Full Game Trial function to download open world, superhero action game inFamous, I found myself compelled to finish a game that I had previously owned, twice. In this hour of play, I came to understand why I had not previously enjoyed my time with this Playstation 3 exclusive: I was playing it wrong. In the quintessential example of a superhero action game done right, Crackdown; you can walk the streets of Pacific City, confident that you are able to withstand the most formidable of attacks provided that you don't stand still for a prolonged period. Your enemies employed strategies that were for the most part, incapable of causing a great deal of harm (once again, unless you stood motionless for a few minutes). With inFamous however, your enemies are rabid, intelligent dogs with eyes greater than that of ten hawks sandwiched together. They hunt you down, and for a superhero, they effectively make you feel powerless.

So instead of playing inFamous like an arrogant, invincible god of war; I'm trying a new approach. Now I'm playing it like a cover shooter (with freaking superpowers!), and I'm actually enjoying it. Enjoying it enough to buy it for a third time. At least now its a Platinum title. Right?

What have you guys been playing over the weekend?

Friday, August 6

In case you haven't played it: Alan Wake Review (X360)

Released during May, or as I like to call it: the mid-year gaming glut, Alan Wake is an Xbox 360 exclusive, survival horror title. Developed by Max Payne creators, Remedy, this oft-delayed 3rd person "Psychological Action Thriller," details the titular character's violent holiday to the town of Bright Falls. After a short time in this small American town, it becomes apparent that there is something in the water and Wake's sabbaticle turns into a waking nightmare.

The Good
Cliffhanger - The overarching story arc in Alan Wake is among the year's best. The lure of further exposition, in the form of well-directed cinematics and collectable manuscript pages kept me playing through some of the more tiresome sequences on offer throughout the adventure. Even when I read about an approaching threat, or story twist, the heavy foreshadowing never spoiled future sequences, rather they added to them.

Stay in the light - The lighting effects on show in Alan Wake are technically and artistically impressive, and very rarely will you notice a hitch. A repetitive combat system is saved by the clever implementation of light as a weapon, but more importantly it almost always looks spectacular (especially when you add a flare gun into the mix). The shadows that possess the Taken and give dark life to inanimate objects are also a visual delight.

The middle - The strongest sections in Alan Wake are after the main premise has been established, and before its prolonged final chapter. Combat and exposition are balanced expertly in the third and fourth episodes. Further to that, some of the more memorable characters are introduced, or at least developed to the point where they were no longer unlikable. One of the best set-pieces I've played through involves a rock concert and a brilliant pyrotechnic display.

Not entirely original soundtrack - Alan Wake employs some exceptional licensed tunes to signal the end of each episode, and in one instance, accompany a tense fight in a warehouse (look for the conveniently placed radio towards the end of the 5th episode). Some of the tracks are a bit hammy, but they do match the mood of the game quite well.

The Bad
Clone Wars - There are about 6 different enemy types in Alan Wake and they repeat ad infintum. After I had dispatched my 300th sickle-wielding, plaid shirt-wearing, Taken; any sense of tension was lost in the visual tedium. Too add to the overwhelming sense of repitition, every enemy acts with the same mandate: rush Wake. There is no flanking, no strategy, just aggro enemies that spout jibberish. Some Taken carry stronger weaponry (like chainsaws) but their approach is frighteningly similar.

Cake Walk - On normal difficulty, Alan Wake completely fails to present a challenge. The only segments that required multiple attempts were poorly constructed platforming sequences which frustrated me to no end. Even the most fearsome of enemies can be dispatched with some strafing and mindful pressing of the "use battery," button. The greatest indictment is that in this survival horror game, you always have more ammunition than you could possibly need. You never feel stretched, or fatigued from a lack of resources, you tire rather from a lack of genuine challenge.

Constant (although minor) visual hitches - Alan Wake is one of the better looking games to be released in 2010, with expansive, gorgeous environments and as mentioned previously, lighting effects without peer. For all of its grandeur and visual splendour however, you'll encounter instances of screen-tearing and blurred, ugly textures that muddy an otherwise unspoiled canvas. This may sound like nit-picking, but it happened enough to hurt the strong impression made by the town of Bright Falls.

The Ugly
No change of pants required - For a "Psychological Action Thriller," I sure managed to keep it together while playing through Alan Wake. The Taken aren't especially fearsome, and as discussed on Glaring Omission, there is no strong, obvious consequence for failure. There are no jump moments in this survival horror title, and very few moments where I felt anything close to anxious.

The last episode - One of the worst examples of level design I have had the dubious honour of playing through, Alan Wake's sixth chapter is part shooter, part driving game, all tedium. What should have been a quick, tension-filled ride to your final confrontation with the Dark Presence turns into a mind-numbing series of tired road blocks and combat set pieces.

7/10 - For every great idea explored in Alan Wake, there are several tired design choices that prevent it from being the Game of the Year contender it should have been. The story is worth seeing through to its conclusion, but my word the level design makes you work for those scraps of exposition. A survival horror game with no frights, Alan Wake features a repetitive combat system and poor level design which detract from the innovations on display. Trying too hard to be too many things, Rememdy should have taken (ha!) the less is more approach. Jack of all trades, master of one.

Wednesday, August 4

Glaring Omission

You'll have to forgive me loyal readers, I haven't been able to fit in much gaming this week. Last night I spent some more time with Alan Wake, completing the much improved third episode. My complaints about repetitive combat were remedied (ha! developer pun) by the bereavement of weapons for a substantial portion of the level. The game is starting to display elements of successful survival horror titles:
  • Limited means to combat/subdue enemies
  • Environmental Hazards
  • Horror
In its first two levels, Alan Wake lacked the above to the point where the action felt uninspired. I always had a full cache of ammunition for the standard issue revolver as well as batteries for the Taken-disabling torch. Because of the overabundance of ammo for the standard weapon, I assumed I would be taking on more formidable creatures and saved more powerful weapons for threats that never materialised. In the third level, I wouldn't go so far as to say that the combat sequences were more difficult, but I did find a use for those shotgun shells I'd been hauling for hours. Environmental hazards literally leapt forward to attack Wake in this level, and were a welcome addition to the formula. For the first time since commecing the adventure, I actually found a sequence that claimed the titular writer's life several times. Also, finally, there were some moments where I felt nervous, almost anxious of what would appear when whispers were heard in the dark.

All things considered however, Alan Wake lacks the elements of all survival horror games which make the greatest impact: gore, viscera, blood.  As I've disclosed in previous posts, seeing all the horrible ways that Leon S Kennedy could die in Resident Evil 4 compelled me to fight tooth and nail for his well-being. In other survival horror titles such as Dead Space (which I am yet to play, but have watched my brother engage with), the consequences of failure are so apparent, so brutally obvious, that you would do your utmost to survive. In Alan Wake, death causes the screen to fade to black. Wake doesn't even make much of a fuss when he expires, just rag-dolling to the ground. I think I would take the game a little more seriously if one of those many thrown sickles and knives remained lodged in the protagonist's skull upon death. Even if Wake screamed, made some audible expression of dread, indicating his untimely demise.    

I am still enjoying the game, but I just can't help but think that something is missing.

Monday, August 2


There was a lot of action on offer this weekend with the highlights being StarCraft II (obviously) and Xbox 360 exclusive, Alan Wake. In addition to my Friday flavoured thoughts on Blizzard's long awaited, space-faring RTS follow up, the mission design is top notch. Very rarely is the principal objective to destroy the enemy base (or a large opposing force). While sometimes you are tasked with destroying targets, there are usually time and resource constraints which will force players to approach missions with a creative, and at times experimental mindset. Completing secondary objectives doesn't just add to your achievement point tally, they can also provide opportunities to acquire research points and unlock new units and permanent upgrades to your existing arsenal. I've replayed several missions already, and the rewards are greater than points and upgrades, there is genuine excitement on offer, even after the first playthrough.

I was lucky enough to be gifted with the Collector's Edition of Remedy's foray into the survival horror genre, Alan Wake (thanks Carls!). I'm yet to delve into any of the extra content packed in with the game, preferring to jump straight into the macabre adventure. From the get-go I noticed a few presentation issues that, while minor, are serving to take the gloss off this long-developed title. The lip-syncing during cut-scenes is entirely unconvincing. Whether screaming in terror or sharing a quiet word with his wife, Wake's mouth moves in a similar, almost robotic fashion. Further to that, characters' faces also seem to miss audio cues by a slight margin. There are also noticeable instances of screen-tearing when you pan the camera too fast, or when the action gets too hectic.

All that negativity aside, there are some shining lights (ha! torch pun) that serve to make up for these shortcomings. Finding pages of a manuscript that Wake does not remember writing, provide some foreshadowing of future terrors. Further to that, the central character's constant narration throughout the action adds to the tension and serves to develop the story. The episodic structure of the narrative works in the game's favour as well, as the combat is fairly repetitive and excess exposure to Alan Wake the character can be nauseating. He is not entirely unlikable, however his selfishness and predeliction to douchery discount from the positive impression made by the unusual narrative mechanics and gorgeous town and wilderness of Bright Falls. The lighting and environments are truly exceptional, and most of the time you won't mind scouring through the forest for more manuscript pages. Microsoft's unrelenting hype machine has exposed Alan Wake to a greater level of scrutiny then I would normally afford other titles. I was expecting a great game refined to a perfect one after a five year development cycle. What I got was a good game with some great ideas, seemingly (at least so far) undermined by some technical issues and cliched characters.

I plan to complete both of these blockbusters. StarCarft II because it is the sequel to a childhood favourite and Alan Wake because I can see a good game behind my litany of complaints about an adventure game that explores the perils of writer's block.

What did you guys play this past weekend?