Max Payne 3

Info:

Developer/s: Rockstar Studios

Publisher/s: Rockstar Games

Platform/s: Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360

Genre: Third-person shooter

Release Date: 2012-06-01

Review:

The Max Payne series has earned itself something of a cult following, with the release of the first game in 2001, Max Payne offered something different for gamers – a third-person action game, with a film-noir presentation that made use of comic-book panels in order to tell the story instead of CG cut-scenes, to top it all off, the game had impressive visuals (immediately identifiable by the protagonist’s constant grimace) and added a bullet-time play mechanic that meant gamers were able to slow down time at will allowing one to set up all manner of elaborate and impressive gun battles in a style lifted straight from The Matrix.  In 2003, Max Payne 2 – The Fall of Max Payne was released and it managed to outshine the original in every-way with improved visuals, tighter controls and a more polished storyline that added a new level of complexity to the Max Payne character.

The in-game graphics are insane, here Max dangles outside a helicopter engaged in a rooftop shootout with some thugs.

Nine years after the last game, Max Payne returns in full force with the aptly named Max Payne 3 and true to form the game is an engrossingly dark and blood-soaked expansion of the Max Payne mythos.  When I saw the first screens of this game about a year ago, I was somewhat concerned by a bearded, bald and Hawaiian shirt clad Max Payne (at the tail end of the game), thinking that Rockstar may have departed a little too much from the original series in order to relaunch the franchise in 2012.  Thankfully I was wrong as while Max Payne 3 does take a different direction, it only serves to strengthen the legacy of an already impressive series.

Sam Lake – responsible for The Fall of Max Payne’s plot as well as being the face model for the original Max Payne game (looks a bit like a Tim Burton character doesn’t he…?).

So as I stated before, Max Payne 3 is something of a departure from the first two games.  Gone is the New York City setting as Max has quit his job at the NYPD instead choosing to spend his time in bars, addicted to alcohol and painkillers.  Max has evolved (or perhaps devolved?) somewhat in this third installment – he’s older, warier and more cynical than ever which is nicely portrayed throughout the game by use of stylized cutscenes (more on them later) and various quips by Max himself (voiced by James McCaffrey, who you may remember from the cult classic television series Viper).  After a fallout in a New Jersey bar with a local mob boss’s son, Max befriends Raul Passos who interjects in the confrontation and eventually convinces Max to leave the bottle behind (somewhat) and pursue a career in private security.  So this time around, Max finds himself in São Paulo, Brazil working as private security for the exceedingly rich Branco family consisting of three brothers – Rodrigo, Victor and Marcelo and sure enough, all hell breaks loose as Rodrigo and his wife Fabiana are kidnapped by a gang known as the Comando Sombra.  Needless to say, as Max it’s up to you to rescue the couple and thereby kill off half of Brazil in the process as you duck, dive, shoot and maim your way through scores of bad guys over a course of fourteen chapters.

Throughout the story, Max will have flashbacks of New York, requiring players to fight through his memories.

Memorable quotes >>

“I knew this was a bad idea, but, in the absence of any good ideas, I continued forward.”

“I’d been sitting at the bar for three hours, or five years depending on the way you looked at things.”

“When you’re stuck in a foreign country and don’t know the words for “reverse charges” and you’re in some lonely skin joint in the middle of some poor slum and just had every last cent robbed from you and you call yourself a bodyguard then you know you’re a loser.”

“The guy was smoother than an oil slick on an iceberg, and about as toxic.”

The game is filled with elaborate set-pieces and action sequences such as this boat chase scene, hitting slo-mo (L-Shift) distorts the colour and adds scan-lines for effect.

While the storyline in Max Payne 3 isn’t the most original in the world – kidnapping, backstabbing and the like, it does however manage to be a little convoluted at the same time, as more and more characters, villains and para-military groups get thrown into the mix, it can be hard to follow exactly what’s what.  Thankfully though, this is only a minor setback as is traditional with the series, your goal is to basically kill anything that moves and the plot is unfurled in such a cinematic fashion that things are always kept interesting meaning that one doesn’t really have to concern them self with every little detail of the plot.  It’s also worth noting that the game consists of a lot of foreign dialogue (Portuguese if I’m not mistaken) that isn’t translated into English, but I believe that the lack of a translation serves to engross the player into the game even further, giving one the feeling of actually being in a foreign country, not knowing what the hell is going on.

At certain sections, the game will automatically enter slow motion mode, giving you a finite amount of time in which to kill all the enemies before they kill you. Very cool.

There are a number of reasons why this game won’t appeal to everyone, for one – Max Payne 3 is uncompromisingly violent so if you’re squeamish or deterred by the sight of blood and gore then you’d do well to skip this one.  There is a wide array of weapons to choose from in which to dispatch your foes with, and it’s done so in such a wonderfully cinematic style (thanks to bullet-time) that you will find yourself taking a moment before rushing enemies in order to plot out exactly how to take them out in the coolest way possible.  Another nice touch is that players will always know when they’ve cleared out a certain area of bad guys because the last man standing will always be killed in slow motion as the camera follows the bullet into the face, chest or other extremity of your hapless victim.  Secondly, Max Payne 3 has a strong narrative interwoven between the game-play in the form of stylized cut-scenes that make use of various cinematic techniques such as scan-lines and shifting, especially during his painkiller trips emphasized by various phrases and words on the screen during Max’s narrative, these cut-scenes serve to replace the comic-book panels of the first two games and are also unskippable, as they cleverly veil the loading screens, that’s right instead of having to sit watching a series of static images or loading bar, the in-game movies are actually the loading screens themselves, rather ingenious.  As the cut-scenes are so frequent, players may feel that they’re too long or intrusive (a common complaint of Metal Gear Solid 4 for example) especially since the narrative dictates the pacing of the game, but it’s a small trade-off for what is undoubtedly the most action-packed and cinematic shooter to come out in years (and besides, I’ve always been a fan of in-game cut-scenes or FMV so it suits me just fine).

Widower Max Payne deals with his grief by means of alcohol and painkillers, portrayed throughout the game’s cut-scenes.

Okay, so let’s talk about the visuals, the graphics in Max Payne 3 are absolutely stunning.  Every little attention to detail has been addressed here, everything from the texture quality, shaders and the people themselves look absolutely brilliant.  There’s no point in trying to convince you as the screenshots speak for themselves, and it’s definitely worth noting that the screen caps I took do not represent the highest quality settings available as my PC was simply incapable of running this game at maximum.  While the console versions have been lauded for their outstanding visuals, they pale in comparison to the PC version which is said to look four times greater than its console counterparts as it features DirectX 11 graphics and has high-end graphics features such as Hull/Tessellation/Domain Shaders (which adds curvature to the character/vehicle models), Gather4 (for optimized shadow sampling / FXAA), Geometry shader / Stream Output to name a but a few.  The PC version also requires 35GB of hard drive space for the install (an install that took close to two hours on my PC!) and has superior audio over the console version due to uncompressed audio (which does sound pretty amazing).  Of course, one doesn’t need to have a high-spec machine in order to enjoy Max Payne 3, as the game is quite scalable for low-end machines and has been tested on a wide range of PC’s.  A list of system specifications can be found here.  Apart from some minor instances of glitching, where for some reason Max refused to walk after picking up a new weapon, the game is bug free as far as I can tell, I didn’t see any clipping or sprites doing weird shit like being stuck through doors *cough* Dead Island *cough* or the like and overall, Max Payne 3 is an extremely polished masterpiece of graphical glory.

A nice feature is the video memory allocator which shows you how much memory each feature uses when you click on it, the game will only allow you to select features that your card supports (normal) but will restrict selecting certain features if your card has insufficient memory (not-so normal) thus ensuring that the game always runs comfortably on your system.

From top-to-bottom – Max Payne (2001), Max Payne 2 – The Fall of Max Payne (2003) & Max Payne 3 (2012).

To put it into perspective, Max Payne 3 ran incredibly well on my system which is considered to be rather low-spec by today’s standards, with the following specifications:

  • OS – Windows 7 (64-bit) Enterprise Edition
  • CPU – Intel Core2 Duo E8200 @ 2.66GHz/2.67GHz
  • RAM: 4GB
  • GPU: Sapphire Radeon™ HD 4870 512MB RAM

So we know Max Payne 3 looks great and has an amazingly cinematic presentation but all of that would be for naught if the game-play sucked, thankfully however it doesn’t.  Just as Max Payne 2 improved upon its predecessor, this third installment has improved the familiar and fun play-mechanics even further.  Using an over-the-shoulder camera angle similar to the first two games and this time incorporating an easy-to-use cover system (just press Q near a wall or such) similar to that of the Uncharted series, Max Payne 3 retains the run-and-gun game-play that made the series so popular to begin with, throw bullet-time into the mix (hitting L-Shift will activate bullet-time, represented by a small bar at the bottom right-hand corner, for a limited amount of time) and you have one hell of an enjoyable game-play experience.  The controls are tight and responsive. and it’s kind of difficult to imagine how one could play this with a controller as the keyboard and precision of a mouse definitely make life easier.  Though it can be challenging at times to know whether or not you’ve successfully killed an enemy with slo-mo on, things are simplified for the player in that the circle-cross hair will change to an ‘x’ when an enemy has been killed (people like Ben ‘Yahtzee’ Croshaw would do well to take this into consideration before bad-mouthing the game then again one can’t really blame him as that’s what he gets paid to do), I also find that emptying entire clips into a bad guy’s face helps.  Needless to say, balance is important in a game and I think this is where Max Payne 3 becomes a little indecisive, you are almost always engaged in some sort of fire fight or other and at times, it’s fairly easy, at other times not so much as you will find yourself repeatedly swamped by scores of enemies who will shoot at you with all manner of fire arms, combined with minimal cover and you will find yourself having to redo certain sections over-and-over.  In some parts I actually died so many times that eventually the only reason I was able to pass the section was due to knowing exactly where and when each bad guy would appear, thank fuck the action is scripted *phew*.  Health packs (represented as bottles of painkillers) are few and far between in Max Payne 3, further adding to the challenge.  Weapon switching is as easy as pressing a button, and you’re able to use pistols/handguns/machine-pistols, in a single or dual array (I’m quite partial to dual-Uzis), shotguns, grenade-launchers/rocket-propelled grenades, sub-machine guns, machine guns, sniper rifles and a multitude of assault rifles, so there certainly isn’t a shortage of firepower in this game.

The urban slum-lands of São Paulo add a nice contrast to the luxurious villas, hotels and yachts that Max finds himself in when in service of the Branco family. The attention to detail is also staggering.

Conclusion

To round off an already impressive package, Max Payne 3 proves to be rather lengthy, despite what some critics have said, easily offering 15 – 20 hours game-play and the experience is further enhanced by a wonderfully cinematic soundtrack by noise-rockers HEALTH (check out the song Tears and Combat Drugs), offering up an experimental, indie-electronic mash-up that adds a new-age ambiance to the game.  All-in-all, Max Payne 3 is one of the most frenetic and impressive games that I’ve played in ages, an action-packed, blood-soaked thrill ride with amazing visuals, game-play and a narrative that could put Hollywood films to shame.  Though frustratingly difficult at times, Max Payne 3 is well worth your time and money if slo-mo battles, elaborate action sequences and cinematic story-telling tickle your fancy.  Highly recommended.

Grade: S

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Crysis 2

Info:

Developer/s: Crytek

Publisher/s: Electronic Arts

Platform/s: Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360

Genre: First-person shooter

Release Date: 2011-03-24

Review:

I put off playing Crysis 2 for quite sometime now, after completing the dreary shit-fest that is Syndicate, I decided it was time to install this game and see what it had to offer.  In case you were wondering, the reason why I’ve been avoiding this game is because I really disliked the glorified tech-demo that is Crysis 1, not because of the ludicrous system requirements mind you, just because the first game was an empty husk of mediocrity gift-wrapped in shiny paper.  As a rule, I’m usually quite weary about any game that has ‘EA’ stamped on it (so then it’s a given that I’m weary of most games given Electronic Arts‘ apparent bid for platform domination) but thankfully, unlike its predecessor and the aforementioned Syndicate, Crysis 2 isn’t bad at all, in fact it’s pretty good.

The amount of detail is amazing, notice the realistic blurring of the out-of-focus firearm.

So this time around, the focus has been switched from a Pandora-esque jungle to an urban one, and you play as ‘Alcatraz’ who has taken ownership over the Nanosuit 2.0 from former Delta Force officer Laurence ‘Prophet’ Barnes.  Since CryNet Systems have been hunting down Prophet in order to reclaim the Nanosuit, your character – Alcatraz, is inadvertently pursued.  Needless to say, human operatives won’t be the only thing on your tail, as the squid-like alien race known as the Ceph make their return, ditching the ‘outdated’, tentacle-exo suits in favour of an armoured humanoid variety.  Crysis 2 takes place in a war-torn New York City, and if all the destruction wasn’t enough, a disease nicknamed the ‘Manhattan Virus’ has rendered most of the denizens as immobile, moaning meat sacks.

No time to look at the pretty lights, pissed-off aliens demand your attention.

You will need some pretty bad-ass hardware in order to contend with all the hostiles in Crysis 2, from CELL (CryNet Enforcement & Local Logistics) operatives – a private military contractor tasked with handling the alien invasion on Manhattan Island, to the aliens themselves, and there is no weapon better than the highly-advanced Nanosuit 2.0 that you will be stomping around in (though there are plenty of shooty-things too).  The Nanosuit has been upgraded and streamlined since the first outing and switching between the various modes that the suit has to offer has never been easier.  The Nanosuit 2.0 is equipped with a cloaking mode – enabling players to become invisible and for the most part, undetectable to the enemy’s field of vision,  this stealth mode is an integral part of the game-play and can be used to lure and ambush enemies or bypass them all together and allows you to perform melee ‘stealth kills’ though be warned, any attack while in stealth mode will cause you to decloak.

Nano vision, this thermal mode is especially handy for detecting hidden enemies or navigating through dust-laden sections.

The predecessor’s strength & speed modes have now been combined into what’s called power mode, turning the player into a veritable human tank, plodding around with this mode engaged while hearing bullet impacts on your suit gives you the feeling of what being a Terminator is like.  Power mode offers a fair amount of resilience to projectiles and limited protection against electricity-based attacks (at the expense of suit power).  The Nanosuit is also equipped with binoculars that provide on-the-fly tactical recommendations, as well as nano vision, a built-in thermal mode much like what is seen in the Predator films.  It’s up to you to use the Nanosuit’s various modes in order to outwit your foes and it is this kind of strategy that was sorely lacking with Syndicate’s DART 6.  It is also worth noting that all of the Nanosuit’s abilities drain energy (rather quickly) and will require brief intervals between use while your suit recharges, so players always have to be vigilant of the suit’s power levels as there’s nothing worse than sneaking past a group of enemies only to have your suit decloak on you midway…

Even though I played the game on extreme graphics settings, my Radeon HD4870 still couldn’t process all the detail, so essentially the game looks even better than pictured here.

The game-play in Crysis 2 is a bit more complex than the average shooter, and there’s far more to it than just sneaking around in an invisible power suit.  After you’ve killed an alien, they will leave behind a shimmering cloud (derived from Ceph tissue) referred to as ‘nano catalyst’, different types of aliens leave behind different amounts of the substance and collecting the stuff will earn you points that can be spent on various upgrades for your Nanosuit, such as faster regeneration, a cloak tracker (for detecting invisible foes), increased resistance to gunfire and so forth.  It is therefore vital that players eliminate as many of the aliens as possible in order to upgrade the suit as it will be needed as you progress through the game.  There is also a multitude of firearms which players can wield ranging from traditional weapons like the SCAR (Superior Combat Assault Rifle), Grendel Assault Rifle, Feline SMG, Jackal (semi-automatic shotgun), and various side arms to more exotic weaponry like the K-Volt (Electrostatic pellet SMG), M20 14 Gauss (electromagnetic anti material rifle) and X-43 Mike (Microwave Induced Klystron Emitter), these are just some of the available weapons and most of them are customizable too allowing you to switch out scopes, add silencers and so forth, all-in-all very impressive.

Some of the most mind-blowingly realistic scenarios seen in a game.

Crytek have made something of a name for themselves when it comes to the graphics department and Crysis 2 is no exception being the first game to feature the CryEngine 3 with Crysis 2 being lauded as the most visually impressive game ever created and it would certainly be difficult to dispute that claim as Crysis 2 is a beautiful-looking game.  Not since Half-Life 2 and Metal Gear Solid 4 have I stopped during a game just to take in and fully appreciate how awe-inspiring the graphics are (no point in harping on about shaders, anti-aliasing and anisotropic filtering just check out the screens for proof, all in-game footage).  Crysis 2 had a multi-platform release, and while the console versions of the game look amazing, as Crytek CEO Cervat Yerli stated, the PC version is indeed graphically superior to its counterparts so needless to say you will require a pretty decent PC in order to run this game on extreme settings.

Not only was this scene somewhat harrowing (what with all the needles pointed in your direction) this is a good example of light-blooming done right, Syndicate could learn a thing or two here…

Conclusion

The only area that I can really fault Crysis 2 in is the linearity of the maps, and that’s only when compared to its predecessor,  though the open-world jungles are gone, Crysis 2 still offers plenty exploration in this concrete jungle setting, and a longer than average single-player campaign mode.  The addition of a multi-player mode further extends the longevity of Crysis 2,  rounding off an already impressive gaming experience.  The second and last gripe I have is that the few driving sections in the game are quite crap due to the awful handling of the vehicles but I’m really just nitpicking.  Otherwise, good AI, awesome visuals and an interesting single-player campaign make Crysis 2 a definite must for all first-person shooter fans.  Highly recommended.

Grade: A

Syndicate

Info:

Developer/s:Starbreeze Studios

Publisher/s: Electronic Arts

Platform/s: Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360

Genre: First-person shooter

Release Date: 2012-02-24

Review:

In all their wisdom, Starbreeze Studios, in conjunction with EA Games, have decided that what gamers need, in a market saturated by tactical and first-person shooters is in fact, a tactical first-person shooter, set in a dystopic future-shiny world where you play as a corporate agent named Miles Kilo, for the mega-corporation known as ‘Eurocorp’.  Needless to say, since originality seems to be frowned upon in this day and age, Syndicate also happens to be a reboot of a series of games developed by (now defunct) Bullfrog Productions who were absorbed by EA in 2004.  Sounds like a winning formula…

An example of the DART 6 X-Ray overlay in action, for a limited time your enemies are slowed down in a 'bullet-time' fashion.

Syndicate’s premise is nothing new, the year is 2069, you play as Miles Kilo, Eurocorp’s latest and greatest agent equipped with a prototype chip called DART 6 created by scientist Lily Drawl.  Free will is at an all time low, and pretty much everything in the world is controlled by über-powerful mega-corporations.  As a Eurocorp agent, you are tasked with various wetwork missions to ensure that your company stays on top, so it’s a given that mass murder and assassination will be the order of the day.  Needless to say, all does not go smoothly as the overly predictable and crappy ‘badass hero gets betrayed by his boss’ plot device rears its ugly head rather quickly.  It’s so painfully dull that being slapped in the face with a fish would be exponentially more entertaining.  The generic plot is compounded further by archetypal characters that have about as much depth as a 2D cardboard cutout.  Two of the central characters, Lily Drawl (voiced by Rosario Dawson) and Jack Denham (voiced by Brian Cox) are instantly recognizable by their distinctive voices, yet if you were still unable to recognize them Starbreeze Studios have modeled the characters on the actual voice actors themselves which is kind of weird given that for the most part, you are bombarded by faceless nobodies.

The DART chip also allows players to hack into camera feeds at certain points in order to gain intel.

But it can’t all be that bad right? Well, the only redeeming factor of Syndicate is the innovation of the DART 6 bio-chip.  Apart from the stock-standard firearms (various assortments of pistols, automatic weapons, smart-guns etc) that a player can harness (in this case the player can carry two main weapons and grenades), the DART 6 chip offers a new dimension to the combat in the form of an X-Ray type overlay that slows down time similar to the ‘reflex-time’ mode from F.E.A.R. allowing you to pick off your enemies much faster as you move in real-time, though obviously this effect only lasts a few seconds and will require brief intervals in order to recharge.  The other prominent element of the DART 6 chip is the ability to hack into enemies minds – called ‘breaching’ thus presenting the player with three options; ‘Backfire’ – the enemy’s gun explodes stunning them, ‘Suicide’ – the enemy kills himself and damages nearby foes,  and ‘Persuade’ – where the enemy temporarily becomes your ally.  The three breaching abilities also require recharging after use and charging can be expedited by successive kills, however there’s not much strategy involved in picking which breach to use as it’s more of a matter of which one is available first.  Certain enemies such as end-of-level guardians or plot-sensitive characters can be ‘chip-ripped’ and once their bio-chip has been extracted it offers the player additional upgrades such as improved armour, faster regeneration and so forth.  The DART 6 chip can also be used to hack locked doors, elevators, automated turrets, as well as certain shielded enemies that are invulnerable until their defenses are breached.

Extracting bio-chips earns your player valuable upgrades.

As far as game-play goes, Syndicate is a washed-down version of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, there’s no need for stealth, character building or conversation as you march from one location to the next hosing down anything that moves in a rain of gunfire.  The environments are also populated by civilians who will cower in fear the moment you start shooting, the player is able to kill them indiscriminately and without consequence, and in fact the civilians don’t even seem like people, instead merely there to occupy empty space.  The boss battles are also horribly frustrating as the difficulty spikes from being infuriating to absolutely insane to the point where any level of fun has been replaced by Vegeta levels of anger, so expect plenty rage quits.  Sadly, much like the characters, the locations seem to be horribly dull and ‘samey’ as you move from one monolithic structure to the next.  In a way, Syndicate feels a lot like F.E.A.R. but without the psychological-thriller aspect that made the latter fun and interesting. It’s also worth noting that Syndicate’s single-player campaign can be completed in a mere 5 – 6 hours so you may want to think twice before handing over your hard-earned cash.

The LTB Thermite gun (flamethrower) originally designed to quell public riots, also effective for turning people into screaming bacon bits...

Finally, the worst aspect of the game has to be the visuals.  While the graphics aren’t too bad at all, with certain sequences looking pretty awesome, Starbreeze Studio’s overuse of blooming has made Syndicate almost unplayable for the most part as the overdone lighting effects will obscure the player’s view completely resulting in severe eye-strain.  Syndicate is broken up into chapters called ‘milestones’ and in fact during milestone 13 the game was completely unplayable as whenever I moved in any direction the screen would repeatedly flash white (though in this case I’m pretty sure this was some kind of bug), I managed to get around this by using the developer console Ctrl+Alt+~ and typing the command xr_effectmodels 0, oddly enough, typing the command once more returned all the lighting effects and got rid of the flashing white screen, though in the end it’s still only a temporary workaround for a persistent visual problem.

This is a prime example of the overdone lighting effects that plague the game throughout. It's actually so bad it causes eye strain and headaches, and needless to say you can't see shit...

Conclusion

While the DART 6 feature is an innovative aspect of the game, Syndicate fails on too many levels to make it really worth any of your time, apart from the terrible overuse of lighting effects which render the game almost unplayable at times, there have reportedly been several other glitches (in one section I encountered a horrid graphic flaw) including intermittent freezing which have led many to think that Syndicate has not been compiled properly, combined with over-used plot devices, uninspired locations, little-to-no character development as well as what may be the crappiest ending to a game ever and you get a title that drowns in an ocean of mediocrity and generic tedium. Is the gaming industry really so hard-up for fresh ideas that they need to reboot a series that was last seen in 1996? Avoid.

Grade: D

Dead Island

Info:

Developer/s: Techland

Publisher/s: Deep Silver

Platform/s: Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360

Genre: Free-roaming, survival horror, first-person shooter, role-playing

Release Date: 2011-09-06

Ever since the official announcement trailer, Dead Island has sparked immense interest in the gaming community, with impressive (albeit pre-rendered) visuals and morbidly heartfelt subject matter, the trailer held great promise and when it was announced that Dead Island would be a survival horror, first person-shooter, role-playing game, the concept alone made the entire package all the more enticing.  I can’t really vouch for the console versions but what I’ve heard from several review sites and forums has been positive feedback for the most part, unfortunately the same can’t be said for the PC version as the myriad of bugs and technical glitches present are so imposing that it detracts from the overall experience to the point where the game becomes quite unplayable.  Granted, Dead Island’s ‘day-one‘ patch addressed around forty issues, unfortunately none of the problems I experienced were fixed by it.  I’d like to say that bugs and glitches were my only gripe with Dead Island though unfortunately that isn’t the case as I found the game to be rather boring and uninspired.

So firstly I will address the non-glitch related problems I had with Dead Island.  The premise is that you are on vacation at a lovely tropical resort island called Banoi – a fictional island located in the Papua New Guinean islands, south of the equator, north of Australia.  You have one too many drinks one night and through the alcohol-induced blurriness, people are seemingly attacking one another before you black out.  From this point, you are given the option of choosing from four playable characters:

  • Logan Carter – a former NFL star and ‘throwing weapons’ expert.
  • Purna – a former police officer and ‘firearms’ expert.
  • Sam B – a one-hit rap wonder and ‘blunt weapons’ expert.
  • Xian Mei – a Royal Palms Resort employee and ‘sharp weapons’ expert.

After you’ve selected your character, the game begins with you waking up in your hotel room, as you venture forth you discover that not only is the place devoid of human life, but blood-thirsty zombies are snapping at your heels.  It’s up to you to escape the hotel and find out what’s going on.

Using a vehicle to kill zombies is the fastest way to rack up experience points...it's also an effective zombie-extermination method.

Given that the idea behind Dead Island is to emulate a ‘real-world’ zombie apocalypse scenario, the most logical character choice for me was Sam B, considering that most of the items that one would defend themselves with would be anything one could get their hands on, it’s more likely that a person would arm themselves with a boat paddle, frying pan or baseball bat as opposed to razor-sharp throwing knives and firearms (though those are present).  Ammunition for the aforementioned projectile weapons is also extremely scarce, so having a character that is adept at using the things around them for protection was definitely an easy choice and considering that after completing the game I have absolutely no compulsion to play through the campaign with each of the other three characters, Sam B was a good choice for me.  I should also mention that melee weapons degrade in this game, so if you use one weapon too much it will become damaged requiring that you repair it. Weapon repairs can be done at any of the many work-benches strewn throughout the maps.  Work-benches also allow you to upgrade a weapon as well as modify it, so while a baseball bat is definitely useful, wrapping barbed-wire around it makes it all the more lethal.

Try to kill these particular creatures from a distance, if they receive too much damage they explode.

So this is where the problems begin…your character happens to be immune to the zombie epidemic, so while you’re certainly able to be killed by the creatures, you are immune to the virus they spread when bitten – fair enough.  Unfortunately that equates to you being the prime candidate for being given the run around by several other hapless survivors who have barricaded themselves in some hut, building, bunker or what have you.  Needless to say, because they’re ‘survivors’ they will be needing various supplies like food, water, power, weapons and so forth and each encampment is populated with a ‘leader type’ who will request that you do certain tasks (earning you experience points to unlock new abilities) but even though you are given the option to decline, if you wish to progress through the main plot you will have to accept all the quests from the leader characters.  Apart from the main plot quests, the other survivors offer side-quest opportunities (also earning XP) and it’s these side-quests which will occupy most of your time, it’s also the reason for having to constantly go back and forth the maps which becomes very tedious very quickly, especially considering that apart from the XP, the reward for helping the survivors isn’t really worth the effort.  Even though earning XP is crucial to your success, eventually I became so saturated by the game that I ignored the side-quests all together in an effort to complete the game as quickly as possible, which worked out fine as I was able to finish the game without unlocking the bulk of the special abilities or doing the majority of the laborious side-quests.  The Dead Island world is open-ended (for the most part) and expansive, so be prepared to do a lot of walking (or running given most situations) and eventually driving even though a ‘fast travel’ option exists within the game, extensive walking is an activity you should brace yourself for.  Killing zombies earns you XP which is required in order to level up.  Every time you reach a new level, you have the option to select an ability from the skill tree, the skill tree is broken up into three sections – Fury, Combat and Survival.  I spent most of my experience points unlocking the Survival section as it proved to be the most beneficial.

Find the right items and blue-prints (scattered throughout the game) and you can modify your melee weapons, like this flaming baseball bat for example.

If you strip away all the side quests, you are left with a generic and uninspired main plot which makes no effort what-so-ever to bring anything new to the table.  Plot wise, the zombie outbreak is similar to Resident Evil in that the zombies are of human design, except that the latter was actually entertaining and engaging where as Dead Island stagnates quite quickly.  Dead Island is broken up into four chapters, of which the first chapter confines you to the island resort and the surrounding area.  I found the first section of the game to be painfully boring but thankfully it gets a little bit better from the second chapter onwards.  Each chapter introduces a different kind of zombie, so while initially you are confronted with ‘walkers’ (the slow-movers), as the game progresses you are met with the ‘infected’ (fast-moving zombies that will sprint towards you), ‘thugs’ (large slow-movers that inflict major damage), ‘floaters’ (gelatinous blobs that spew poisonous vomit) and more.  Thankfully, the play-mechanics of the game are quite enjoyable, so smashing one of the undead with an oar or piece of pipe feels very satisfying, and if all else fails you have the ability to kick your opponents earning you some much-needed room especially if you knock your enemies to the ground.  I came across firearms eventually just over halfway through the game and compared to their non-projectile counterparts they are quite ineffective.  However, guns are extremely effective against the various non-infected human enemies you will encounter, so save your ammunition for them as they are all ‘packing heat’.

Sinamoi is the first 'leader' character you will encounter, talk to him to receive quests in order to progress through the game.

Unfortunately, dumb enemy AI detracts from the overall experience further so while I understand that the bulk of the enemies are supposed to be mindless zombies (pun intended), the human antagonists don’t make much of an effort to avoid gunfire.  Not only that, the easiest way to fight off the zombie hordes is to jump onto some form of elevated platform, in my case I found myself jumping on top of abandoned vehicles where I was safe from being attacked but was easily able to dispatch the enemies by taking swings at them with one of the longer weapons (like the mace).  I also found that, the ‘infected’ would be able to spot you a hundred metres away, sprint towards you to close in for the kill but the moment I jumped onto something high (like the aforementioned vehicles) they would stop immediately and act as if they never saw me.  I should also point out that everything you do pretty much requires stamina, so running, kicking or swinging a weapon will deplete your stamina bar, even though it replenishes very quickly, when surrounded by four or five zombies, fighting them off can prove to be difficult.

Despite their appearance, they are rather easy to take down, just make sure that you use something like a mace or sledgehammer.

Addressing the technical flaws, despite being patched Dead Island is loaded with problems, you cannot manually save, which is stupid especially for a PC game, instead the game auto-saves whenever the player reaches a checkpoint, which is fine except that this auto-save feature doesn’t guarantee that you will be in the same place when loading from the last checkpoint.  In fact at one point, I needed to cross a passage loaded with enemies and after being killed, instead of restarting where I was supposed to, I was ‘transported’ to the other side of corridor to where I was trying to get.  Another example, during the second chapter, I was running around the streets and when I was killed off, again instead of starting where the game last auto-saved, I was inside one of the survivor hideouts, one which I hadn’t encountered yet, and because I didn’t get there on my own, I couldn’t interact with any of the people inside as the game uses event-scripting, because I didn’t kill the zombies outside the entrance, the entrance-way was still closed thus the scripted event wasn’t triggered and the only way I could get out was to use a ‘fast travel’ map pinned on the wall.  The inventory system is a mess as not only is it confusing but for some odd reason it allows duplicate weapon entries, so lets say you pick up a revolver, that gun now uses one inventory slot, when you come across another gun of the same make and model, instead of collecting the ammunition, the gun is taken thus wasting another precious inventory slot…urgh…frustrating.  Another glitch worth mentioning is that enemies cannot open doors, so if a zombie is rushing towards you, players can close the door but a lot of the time, the zombie’s body would magically ghost through the door allowing you to attack him even though he is still on the other side, and at one point one of the ‘infected’ managed to run straight through a closed-door.

This is one of many glitches present in Dead Island, in this case, the zombie just walked through the closed doors.

Lastly, one of the few positive aspects about Dead Island is definitely the visuals, while the indoor scenes are somewhat bland, the outside locales are beautiful, be it jungle, mountains or beaches, everything looks authentic with a lot of attention to detail.  The zombies themselves look great too, and the artists did a wonderful job bringing the walking dead to ‘life’ as the zombies are decorated with gaping wounds, exposed bones  and oozing entrails.  At the very least, the developers did a fine job of creating a realistic atmosphere.

An example of the awesome, outdoor locations.

Conclusion

While the announcement trailer promised something emotional and engrossing, in reality, Dead Island is bug-ridden and generic at best.  The countless sub-quests serve only to pad an otherwise short and generic main quest, which relies heavily on over-used plot devices in order to progress the story.  The protagonists are as two-dimensional as the plot and while the combat is fun, it soon becomes tedious.  Dead Island fails to bring anything new to the table, with gameplay being broken up in to – find this, bring that or escort so-and-so and not forgetting the endless need to backtrack.  I don’t really understand why this game has been rated so highly by critics but while it certainly isn’t the worst game out there it’s definitely not the best perhaps only serving as a distraction until something better comes along.

Grade: D

Space Marine

Info:

Developer/s: Relic Entertainment

Publisher/s: THQ

Platform/s: Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360

Genre: Third-person, action

Release Date: 2011-09-05

The Warhammer 40k universe has been around since 1987, in the form of a turn-based, table-top war game (and is still going strong to this day), and with twenty-four years of canon to draw inspiration from it’s not surprising that video-games would be made and though there have been some in the past like Space Hulk (1993), Chaos Gate (1998) and Fire Warrior (2003) to name but a few, it was only until Relic Entertainment‘s Dawn of War series that the 40k universe received the recognition it deserved (as far as computer & video-games are concerned).  With a nightmarish, futuristic setting, the 40k universe is prime gaming fodder and Relic Entertainment is well aware of this fact, and with years of experience under their belts, Space Marine proves to be an authentic experience true to the franchise, simply put – Space Marine is brutal.

Unlike Relic Entertainment’s previous Warhammer entries, Space Marine has forsaken the real-time strategy genre in favour of a more up close and personal experience in the form of a third-person hack-and-slash/shooter game that focuses more closely on the Space Marines, in particular the Ultramarines – one of the strongest and most honoured Space Marine Chapters.  When Graia, one of the Imperium’s Forge Worlds (planets designated for mass industry to fuel humanity’s war effort) is besieged by millions of the Ork Horde, a small group of Ultramarines are sent to dispatch the Ork menace and secure a precious commodity – an Imperial Titan, Invictus (a building-sized, bi-pedal war machine).  You play as Captain Titus (voiced by Mark Strong) together with two of your  trusted Ultramarines – Veteran Sergeant Sidonus and the young Battle-Brother Leandros, as you make for the planet’s surface in order to purge the world of the green masses of Ork.

Space Marine manages to be quite immersive as the way the plot develops feels much the same as reading one of the Black Library 40k novels and while the overall storyline isn’t overly complex it manages to remain interesting nonetheless.  When Titus and his marines discover a distress signal sent by Inquisitor Drogan, it soon becomes apparent that the Orks are merely paving the way for something far more sinister and threatening.  Space Marine is dissected into long stretches of game-play and short in-game cinematic sequences that progress the plot.

Space Marine does an admirable job of bringing the harshness of the 40k universe to life, all the characters look faithful to the source material and you actually feel as if you are in the Space Marine armour as controlling Titus feels powerful and weighty, this is accentuated with the heavy-footed stomping sound the Space Marines make when they move around.  One thing I liked about this game in particular was the feeling of continuity, because Relic Entertainment developed Space Marine, all the Orks, demons and so forth sounded like they do in the Dawn of War series – case in point with the Orks who once again sound like hoodey-wearing yobs while behaving like football hooligans running around causing untold amounts of destruction and carnage.  The addition of Mark Strong as the deep-voiced Captain Titus is a welcome one indeed, as Strong portrays Titus as commanding and authoritative.  There’s a definite feeling of authenticity here as Relic Entertainment has faithfully created the Forge World to a tee, a Forge World is a planet stripped of its resources and covered in industry, so don’t expect to see lush forests and green hills as players will be met with towering buildings, factories, streets, vast corridors and landscapes of dusty mountains devoid of life.  While the locales may sound somewhat dreary, it compliments the subject matter beautifully.

And not forgetting the Space Marines themselves – all their armour and weapons have been faithfully recreated here, down to the chipped paint and dents, and speaking of weapons, there is a vast selection to choose from so while you start out with a bolt pistol and combat knife, as the game progresses you will soon lay your hands on more effective and destructive weaponry such as the chainsword, power axe, meltagun, lascannon and my personal favourite, the heavy bolter.  The game allows you to carry one melee weapon and up to four ranged weapons simultaneously.  Space Marine uses a hybrid combat play mechanic, allowing players to engage enemies in brutal melee combat in third-person or ranged first-person mode well-suited for sniping weapons like the stalker pattern bolter or the lascannon however players also have the option of shooting from the hip (third-person) which definitely has its advantages when faced with hordes of enemies.  The most satisfying aspect of Space Marine is without a doubt the game-play, dispatching your foes with a well-placed bolter round or chainsword to the stomach feels very satisfying, and one of the most impressive combat features are the ‘execution’ moves which can be done after stunning an enemy (a prompt will appear above their head), there’s nothing quite like knocking your enemy to the ground then putting your boot through their skull.

On top of that, execution moves rejuvenate a portion of your health bar but be weary, these moves leave you vulnerable to attack so if you attempt to execute an enemy while surrounded by a horde of his friends they will inevitably gun you down before you can restore your health.  As you progress through the game you will unlock the Fury meter, which once filled allows players to dish out brutal melee attacks (earning you health simultaneously) or ‘bullet-time’ slowdown allowing you to hit many targets over a short amount of time with your ranged weaponry.  As one would imagine, Space Marine is insanely violent, as blood and viscera fly in all directions, whether melee or ranged combat, there is invariably geysers of blood and getting in close and personal will remodel your ‘ultramarine’ blue armour to a deep crimson.  Space Marine has some impressive visuals, with solid textures, some awesome lighting/pyrotechnic effects and no noticeable glitching or screen-tearing.  A reasonably powerful PC will be required to play this game with maximum settings (unless of course, you purchased either of the console versions).

The game-play is pretty straight forward, you shoot, stab and bludgeon and you stomp around…looking for things to shoot, stab and bludgeon..respectively.   There isn’t a whole lot of different combinations of melee combat, and one would be forgiven for thinking that the two or three different attack moves would make for a tedious experience but it is instantly overlooked since the game is just so much fun…dumb…but fun nonetheless.  Space Marine is not a very tough game and given that you are an eight-foot tall super human running around in power armour it’s understandable, however the game is absolutely relentless as you are almost always engaged in combat, which is the point as Relic Entertainment wanted players to be thrown into a warzone.  Even though the game is geared towards melee combat I found myself using the ranged weaponry for the most part.  So while the game is relatively easy, the last chapter becomes quite difficult before the final boss encounter which is a complete cop-out which left me feeling cheated.

While Space Marine has a wonderful presentation and is extremely fun, it is also decidedly short being able to finish the single-player campaign in just over two days.  There is multiplayer mode allowing players to customize their Space Marine (colour scheme and so forth) and then duke it out online.  The multiplayer functionality adds some much-needed longevity to the game but that’s not saying you wont play through the campaign again, as I stated before, Space Marine is a lot of fun.

Conclusion

Space Marine is really one for the fans as Relic Entertainment have created a satisfyingly-fun Warhammer 40k experience that is faithful to the original subject matter.  While there isn’t a huge amount of melee combos and so forth, the game never lets up with its relentless pace and the large variety of Orks and other antagonists (not going to give everything away) ensure that the game never stagnates.  Though definitely not for everyone, Space Marines offers a somewhat mindless, hack-and-slash adventure with a relatively straight-forward storyline but the characters, antagonists and addictive game-play make up for these minor short-comings.

Grade: B

Limbo

Info:

Developer/s: Playdead

Platform/s: Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network and Windows Platform (via Steam)

Genre: Puzzle-Platformer

Release Date: 2011-08-02 (Steam Edition)

As one of this blog’s readers pointed out sometime ago, it seems that attempting to quantify something like a video-game by singling out and rating it in sections (graphics, lifespan, etc) in order to give it an overall score can be somewhat confusing as it raises constant questions as to why, for example,  one aspect of the game scored a ‘4’ instead of a ‘5’.  In the end though, this is a self-interest blog and most of the articles written here are solely my opinion.  However, in light of this, I have revised the way in which I shall review computer & video-games and will employ a ‘unified’ method whereby the review shall be one streamlined ‘opinion piece’ with a final rating at the end.  The score system will work as follows – games will be rated as either S, A, B, C, D or F (See the Rating Systems page for more information).  Okay, so now that that’s been covered, on with the review.

Limbo has been around for quite some time now, however due to Xbox exclusivity, it took over a year before PlayStation and PC gamers could get their hands on this game.  This review is focused on the Steam (a digital distribution platform) version of the game as this is obviously the version that I have.  There really isn’t much of a plot to Limbo, and before reading the wiki page, it really never occurred to me that there was a plot to begin with – turns out there is, you play as a nameless protagonist (a young boy) who is searching for his missing sister.  However, it is rather apparent that the wafer-thin plot only serves as a staging ground for the myriad of lethal puzzles that the player has to solve in order to progress through the world of Limbo.  The lack of a typical narrative (text or cut-scenes) also leaves the plot open to much interpretation, but this was done so on purpose by the developers allowing the player to make up their own mind as to exactly what it was that they’ve experienced.

Every so often you come across other children, be wary - Lord of the Flies comes to mind...

Limbo was created by independent, Danish developer Playdead founded in 2006 by Arnt Jensen and Dino Patti.  The company is based in Copenhagen, Denmark and Limbo is their first title to date.  Limbo draws much inspiration from old-school side-scrolling plat-formers reminiscent of the NES, SNES and Sega Genesis era.  You control a character in a 2D sidescroller environment, and in the typical fashion, you are able to run left or right, jump, climb and manipulate certain objects (like crates) by pushing or pulling.  Your character can be manipulated fluidly throughout the game environment and is a joy to control with little to zero frustration due to the near-perfect game-style.  Perhaps a little less typical of the genre, Limbo employs the use of a physics-based game engine named Unity that governs the environment as well as the player character.  Limbo’s puzzles are all basically physics-based and are for the most part, downright insidious which is not surprising given the fact that Playdead designed the puzzles expecting the player to fail the first time around before finding the correct solution.  Playdead refer to the play style as ‘trial and death’, and what deaths they are, as this game is unexpectedly gruesome oftentimes seeing your character, decapitated, impaled, shot, shredded or electrocuted before a correct solution to a puzzle is found.  While the puzzles are initially simplistic  and singular in nature, as you progress, they become ever-more elaborate and multifaceted, forcing players to think outside the box.  Some of the ‘magnet-puzzles’ are particularly brain-melting.

The monochrome visual style is as eerie as the subject matter.

Moving on, the most notable aspect of this game is undoubtedly its visuals.  Limbo is primarily presented using black-and-white monochromatic tones and hues and incorporates a film grain effect to create an eerie game environment and overall visual style.  Critics have applauded the visuals having compared it to film noir and even German Expressionism.  The characters in the game, including the giant spider (creepy bastard) as well as the protagonist have no discernible detail to speak of, merely portrayed as black silhouettes (save for the white blinking eyes of the human characters) but this minimalistic aesthetic is a welcome breath of fresh air, especially in an age of highly detailed 3D-polygonal models that gamers have grown accustomed to over the years.  While Limbo is definitely game-play driven, the dark and creepy visual style compliments the game beautifully.  Limbo doesn’t have much in the way of a soundtrack, but the acoustic compositions (a form of electroacoustic music) of  Martin Stig Andersen, serve as the perfect ambient remedy employing the game’s environmental sound effects to build atmosphere.

Hate spiders, especially the giant variety that see you as a human happy meal...

Limbo is not a very long game, and can be finished in one sitting (provided you haven’t stormed off in frustration over some yet-to-be-solved puzzle) and being an independent game, created by a relatively unknown (and small) company, the game’s shortness is quite understandable.  My only real gripe with Limbo is its rather abrupt and somewhat unsatisfying ending, but it doesn’t really detract from the overall experience of the game and apart from that I cannot think of any other cons.

Conclusion

With the tagline – “Uncertain of his sister’s fate, a boy enters LIMBO“, Limbo is certainly an intriguing little gem amongst the myriad of computer & video-games available, winner of more than 90 awards, Limbo is well worth your time and given the small file size of this downloadable content (approximately 70MB) and the relatively light system requirements (though the game may struggle to run on systems with integrated graphic solutions) there really is no excuse to not play it.  But be warned, this is a puzzle-game through and through, and gamers unfamiliar of the genre, who spend all their time playing fast-paced first-person shooters or racing games will probably not like Limbo given that expansive 3D worlds have been forsaken in favour of a simple, 2D approach, be that as it may, Limbo is an awesome game.  Highly recommended.

Grade: A

Halo 2

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Info:

Genre:  First-person shooter

Developer(s):  Bungie Studios (Xbox), Hired Gun (PC)

Publisher(s):  Microsoft Game Studios

Platform(s):  Xbox, Windows Vista

Release Date:  9 November 2004 (Xbox), 17 May 2007 (PC)

Plot:

Master Chief returns to battle the Covenant and the insidious Flood in this second installment of the popular Halo series.

Review:

I’m slowly working my way through the Halo saga, being a PC gamer, I need to wait for certain releases to appear on my platform of choice, such was the case with Halo 2 and even though it’s been out for PC for over two years already, I finally got around to playing it.

After having completed the game, I can honestly say that Halo 2 can be described as; more of the same.  The graphics are beefed up since the first installment, but like all the games in the series (including Halo 3 ), the engine never really provided one with the ‘wow factor’ as far as fps graphics engines go and much like first outing, Halo 2 is just far too easy to play though and complete, even on the hardest difficulty setting.  Here’s hoping that Halo 3 provides more of a challenge.  The campaign focuses on both Master Chief and the alien Arbiter, having the player assume the roles of both characters and while this does add depth to the storyline, I felt that the alien campaign detracted a little from the human fight, which is what the series is all about after all.  I also felt that the game was too short and that the final battle was far too easy, but it has to be said that the ‘cliffhanger ending’ left a sour taste in my mouth, I realize it was done in order to leave the player in anticipation for the third (and supposedly final) game but I felt it was a bit lacklustre ending the game so abruptly.

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Okay, so now that I’ve gotten the negative aspects of Halo 2 out of the way, what’s so great about it then?  Well the Halo series is just damn fun to play.  The game has wonderful playability with smooth, responsive controls and there are plenty of awesome weapons (both human and alien) to choose from as well as a host of vehicles that one can use to kick-ass in.  The plot is also pretty well written as far as first-person shooters go and I can see why they want to make the series into a film.  The creators have created a lush, detailed and varied science-fiction saga that is a joy to play through.  I’m also glad that there was less of the Flood in this installment, I never liked these parasitic characters and find much more enjoyment in fighting the forces of the Covenant.  Another feature of Halo2 worthy of praise is the soundtrack, it really creates an immersive and cinematic experience when playing the game.  The multi-player maps add some much need longevity to the game for those who felt cheated by the fairly short single player campaign.

So if you’re looking for an action-packed sci-fi saga to play through, you can’t go wrong in making Halo your game of choice, playing the role of Master Chief is a satisfying and rewarding experience, specially if you’re looking to kick some alien hide.

Score: 3/5