Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Review: Dead Island (Xbox 360)

            Man it seems like a long time ago when I first saw screens of this in an issue of PC Gamer, and then the sublime theatrical trailer which had a little girl savagely attack her father to be thrown out a window. Shocking stuff I’m sure you’ll agree and I was very much looking forward to this release, it turns out I was lucky to get a copy since it’s been sold out for 360 pretty much since launch. So the premise of this game? First person survival horror on a beautiful tropical island. So far so good, the thing I found myself hoping for was that it didn’t go too ‘Left 4 Dead’ and focus heavily on the gunning down of countless zombies, not that that’s a bad thing but it’s just we already have Left 4 Dead for that, I wanted a proper nerve wrenching survival horror. Did I get what I want, well sort of, ish, in a way… but not really.
            At the start of the game you must choose which of the four miraculously immune to zombification survivors you wish to play, each with a different weapon specialisation. I picked Logan whose expertise lies in throwing weapons, this seemed like the best of both worlds to me until I realised that you don’t have a stock of throwing knives or the like, you simply have the option to hurl whatever you happen to be holding at the time. This meant that as I started to get better weapons I was loath to use my character’s special skill for fear of losing a decent bludgeoning device for when the buggers got up close. This was compounded when I did throw something decent which hit the target for a good amount of damage only to be immediately savaged to death by an Infected (recently turned, very fast and particularly vicious zombies) and after re-spawning I couldn’t locate the weapon I threw initially. So word of advice, pick either the Sharp Weapon or Blunt Weapon specialists, guns may sound cool but ammo is scarce and thus it’s arguably even more useless than throwing. Anyway I digress; your goal is to travel the island doing quests for people with the eventual aim of escaping the island of Banoi and getting home for a well deserver cup of coffee, or whatever.
            The game is split into Acts which are split into Chapters, to me this seemed kind of arbitrary but I guess it’s a nice easy way to add some achievements, honestly there isn’t much need to differentiate the sections of the story. The game world is also split into 3 main areas which are free roam-able, starting at the beach, then moving into a city slum and finally into the jungle complete with an Oceanic plane wreck split into 3 parts (I’m not making that up). Unfortunately the City and Jungle areas aren’t as interesting as the initial Resort (read: pretty beach) but they aren’t terrible, just less stunning than the starting location. Speaking of stunning, the graphics on this one are superb. I wish I’d got the PC version to really crank it up but the 360 does perfectly well and everything looks incredible, again particularly in the Resort.
            As you kill zombies and the occasional human enemy you gain XP which levels you up granting you extra health, stamina and a skill point to spend on one of your three skill trees. This was a pleasant surprise for me as I avoided reading much of what was around pre-release for fear of spoiling what I wanted the game to be so was expecting an FPS I could finish in a few days and trade in for something else while it was till worth something, instead it appeared I had Fallout with zombies which can only be a good thing. These skill trees are Fury, a unique set of abilities that focus on your characters specialty and are used in ‘Fury Mode’. The next is a general Combat tree and the third is Survival which let’s you increase your health, learn to pick locks and other such skills. The Survival tree is easily the most useful here with Combat coming in at second. Other characters may have better Fury skills but as it stood mine just let me hit multiple enemies when I threw things and let me throw things further, not that great really.
            The combat itself is pretty good, it’s heavily focused on melee weapons which after getting used to I thoroughly enjoyed since it gave a more realistic ‘survival feel’ than falling over automatic weapons and shotguns, at least until I had an electro shock axe which dispensed death at a grin inducing rate. A few issues are the ease at which your attacks can get interrupted, especially if you’re using heavier weapons and end up against Infected who close very quickly and if you miss time the initial swing you take some serious damage. The way you move itself is slightly weird; the first time I pushed the stick forward I felt like the air you’re moving through was throwing up slightly more resistance than it should. The quick inventory could use some work too. Tap RB and you cycle once clockwise around your inventory of equipped weapons, there’s no way to cycle back but you can hold the button down and select what you want in a Dragon Age/Mass Effect style by moving the stick to point at what you want. This would be great if it paused the action while you do it so you can make a proper decision, or at least make sure you’ve picked the right machete since the icons are the same, but it doesn’t and this leads on to my biggest gripe with the game.
            Dead Island was very obviously designed with co-op play in mind and this is made abundantly clear by the weapon wheel not pausing the game as well as the sheer number of opponents you sometimes find yourself facing, often followed by an untimely death. Being the misanthropic person that I am I dislike the majority of the human race and certainly don’t want to have to play with people I don’t know to survive the odd unbalanced encounter here and there. The game basically forces you into co-op play, the default setting lets up to 3 randoms join your game with a simple press of left on the d-pad and even with this altered to single player mode the right hand side of the HUD is constantly being filled with messages that someone is near you and about the same level and asking if you want to join them. I find this counter intuitive to what was billed as a survival horror; to me a large part of this genre is the sense of desperation that only isolation can bring.
            This is when I realised that the game was not what I was hoping it would be. Once you factor in the subversive insistence on engaging with others and the Farcry 2-esque travel distances (complete with muddy vehicle controls and dodgy views out of windshields) to complete samey missions just to travel back for the reward you realise that the game is trying to do too much. Instead of being a first person survival horror it ends up being a first person free roaming RPG emphasising co-operative play over single player. Dead Island is a decent game, I just wish it had stuck to it’s initial MO instead of trying to be all things to all men, instead it falls from great into average and if I’m honest I was pretty disappointed by this.


Saturday, 3 September 2011

Deus Ex: Human Revolution

            I want to put this out there right at the start, Deus Ex is one of my favourite games of all time and I have been waiting for this release since I first laid eyes on the eyegasmic trailer. Think kid at Christmas excited, you know that kid in the YouTube video who goes mental over his new N64, just a little less than him. It’s been 10 years in the making but a sequel to this gem of a game is finally here, ‘Invisible War’ doesn’t count, because it was rubbish. After getting rather annoyed that the disc I bought early apparently just opened Steam and I had to wait til midnight, then download it all night and have to wait til after I finished work to actually play the… sorry, tangential rambling, let’s get on with this shall we?
            You take control of Adam Jensen, ex-SWAT, gravel throated protagonist who gets brutally mutilated at the end of a brief tutorial which sets up the rest of the plot. Now we come to the first of the very few problems with his game, the plot is… convoluted to say the least. I expected this to some degree after all this is a Deus Ex game and as such is required to have a conspiracy theory to complicate matters. In this it seems more like it was just added to the initial idea to needlessly complicate things. It all boils down to; the attack on Sarif Industries (Adam’s employer) that left him in the aforementioned mutilated state and his girlfriend (among others) dead. Cue Adam’s boss sending the newly augmented soldier on a mission to find out who attacked and why, with a spattering of revenge thrown in. This would have been fine with a few twists here and there to keep it fresh, unfortunately everything gets bogged down in confusion and you sort of lose track of the specifics and focus on the core I outlined already.
            Thankfully the gameplay is fantastic and help make up for the slight plot issues. Each and every mission can be approached in a number of ways, the main variants being stealth or frontal assault. You can choose to take either of these options and also whether you want to take a non-lethal or lethal path both of which net slightly different rewards. Obviously you have an array of weapons at your disposal, inventory permitting, which can be upgraded to improve their potency. You’ve also got a lot of different augmentations to choose from which can improve all sorts of things for your character. These range from simple things like a radar or in built cranial com device to personal cloaking and the Tempest explosive launcher which sprays little bombs all around you taking out everyone in the area. You have to pick and choose which of these augments to buy and upgrade using Praxis points which you get from gathering experience points from completing objectives, taking out enemies and finding secret areas. This is where you can really diversify your game as you upgrade yourself to play how you want. My personal approach was to quickly upgrade my computer hacking abilities, my max energy and the personal cloaking to help with my plan of sneaking around in air ducts, easily hacking security systems and taking people out silently and non-lethally where possible.
            We now reach the second problem which is to do with how the augments are set up and the energy cells you have to power them. I appreciate that some of the ones the game gives you at the beginning are completely necessary to the game and therefore fine to start the game with. The radar, the com link, level 1 hacking and strength were all fine, I take issue with the game providing the health recovery system from the get go. I was expecting this aug as it was in the first game and was welcome, but you had to buy it. As it is here they’ve thrown it onto the menu simply to placate the people who have forgotten what med-kits are for and have come to believe hiding behind a wall has magic healing powers. My second issue with the augments is the energy cells. You start with 3 and can have a maximum of 5 if you spend some points on them but if you want to be using your take down moves, Typhoon attacks, punching through walls or the hugely draining cloaking device you have to use an item to refill them. So far that’s not the worst thing in the world, indeed it’s entirely expected but unfortunately there is no other way to charge them up and the items to replenish the cells are quite scarce. Now for me this was a huge problem thanks to now I planned to play, and I understand there would be balance issues if I could run around silently and invisibly as much as I wanted but the drain on the stealth made it a last resort thing rather than something that was fun. Your last cell will always recharge but the others only will if not fully deplete, and most things cost 1 full cell. I don’t think it would have been too game breaking to put recharge points every now and again or something like that. Finally and somewhat superficially there are whole trees of upgrades that are basically useless, the stealth enhancer adds some things like vision cones on the radar but you won’t need that and the lung upgrade to stop poison gas hurting you is a total waste of points.
            This aside the combat is very well managed, the cover system works much better than I was anticipating and is actually pretty vital to surviving fights, you take damage fast and the first attempt at the first boss will show you quite how easy it is to die very quickly. All guns blazing will end very badly if you aren’t carful and even if this is your desired approach it’s often best to at least sneak into a good position first and take down a guy or two quietly before the alarms go off. One thing I don’t really understand is how Jensen is entirely proficient with handguns, shotguns, assault rifles and heavy weapons but as soon as he puts a sniper scope to his eyes it wanders about far more than it should, if there was an upgrade to help this I could forgive it but there’s not. So I won’t. You need to be careful with what weapons you carry round with you too.  You have a finite inventory and each item has a certain size it takes up, big weapons may be powerful but once you’ve got say, a heavy rifle and a case of ammo you won’t have that much space for other stuff, especially if you haven’t upgraded your inventory space.  I relied mainly on my super upgraded 10mm pistol for the times when the game forced me into situations where my tranquilizer rifle or stun gun wouldn’t do.
            A final word on the sound and visuals, both are outstanding. The music is never intrusive but certainly aids the atmosphere; the soundtrack from my Augmented Edition is now happily placed on my iPod to bring some pleasure to my commuting life. The graphics, speaking here for the PC version with everything turned up to 11, are sublime. Everything is bright and well defined and the textures are a nice change from the fuzzy concrete from the original, which hasn’t aged well at all and even at the time wasn’t exactly cutting edge.
            This game is awesome; a serious contender for Game of the Year though I think Valve’s Portal 2 might just edge it. It has a few problems and I do wish the RPG element was more prevalent in the augmentations like it was in the original but it’s a refreshing change of pace from all the other FPS games out there at the moment, for this is much more an action game with RPG elements rather than it’s older brother which was an action RPG. One of the rare games to live up to the hype generated it does the original justice, although it doesn’t surpass the original it certainly does it justice. You should pick this up and experience it for yourself, you won’t be disappointed.