Thursday, 26 July 2012

The need to run

Need for Speed The Run

EA's Need for Speed series is one of the gaming industry’s largest racing franchises. Through the years there have been many titles under the brand and many types of racing games. The most prominent features though, have been the races on open roads with traffic through nature landscapes and police cars trying to stop you.

I recall as I'm writing this blog entry some previous NFS nostalgia through the years. From the first games back on PC, to the (at the time) next gen Hot Pursuit 2 on PS2 with awesome surround sound and the Underground game that fused the NFS series with the popular Fast and the Furious movies and rain soaked cityscapes at night. Think over-the-top neon lights, bling rims and plastic body kits. NFS went serious again in, probably my most favourite in the series, ProStreet. It kept the styling options from Underground and went semi-realistic on the driving. Last entry before The Run was a return to Hot Pursuit which although went back to basics in the franchise, it went very repetitive fast.

Perhaps this fear for repetition and an impatient action orientated gaming audience sparked the idea for The Run. It's a different approach to a racing game altogether, originality and a daring idea, yet it goes back to its NFS roots very well.

My favourite: A Shelby Mustang GT500 NFS Edition and it actually exists!

The game introduces you to Jack, who in all fairness to his cocky attitude and appearance is, well, a complete douchebag. Yet something about his smirk and stupid comments, combined with idiotic behaviour made me kind of like him. He has come into bad company and must race across the US of endless roads A (to B) to win a race offered by his beautiful associate (Sam) to pay off his debts. Yes, Sam is so obviously played and modelled after the stunning Christina Hendricks from Mad Men tv-show fame. Their friendship is a one of radio chatter with a caring Sam giving you heads up about tricky parts and your standings in the coast-to-coast tournament and Jack usually replying in a laid back and over-confident manner.

Sam, voiced and modelled after the stunning Christina Hendricks.

The scenes depicting these characters are all in-game, very impressive, and usually contain some easy QTE which lead again to some racing. The very idea behind these are great and set The Run apart from many other racers, in fact it looks and plays like an action movie. The on-foot segments give a nice break from the racing and give some tension to what Jack is going through reaching the end of the race.

Jack being, as he knows best, a complete douchebag towards a cop.

The race from one coast to the other consist of stages, these again contain stretches of road which you must either gain places in the race, make up lost time, fight (ed. race) a rival, elimination type races or simply try to outlive the forces of nature. The race being always from A to B lets you never drive the same road and really gives way for some serious variation in the landscapes.

The Frostbite 2 engine renders landscapes at a large scale very well.

At first I thought the Frostbite 2 engine (think Battlefield 3) wouldn't fit a racing game, the textures for one looking a bit muddy close up for important racing game surfaces like let’s say: the road! But it's the scale of the cities you arrive at, the huge mountains you pass or a whole bloody avalanche nearly wiping you off the road that made me see how great the game looks and needs such a diverse engine to run it. The Run is a really pretty game and it gives you a ton of very diverse scenery. Either it’s detailed cities, highways past grassy hills, traversing dusty canyons, slipping on ice covered roads in the Rockies or sunlight reaching through autumn coloured orange woodlands. It kind of reminds me of NFS 4 High Stakes in its colour scheme and nature filled tracks.

Be prepared to fight mother nature as well as your opponents.

There are issues though. The game takes two or three hours to complete, a lifespan they easily could have increased be forcing you to do some circuit racing along the way and even letting you race all the way back over the US for fun. Even an expert mode where you actually have to gain all the places in the race without being forced to re-race races you didn't make the amount of places would have been great. The handling is as usual in an arcade NFS game far too floaty and sometimes feels as if you are just being carried through each subtle cornered track without much input or control. I found it more real than the last game though.

A beautiful red Chevrolet Camaro, indeed.

The Run really appealed to me, I loved the concept, the stupid story and the sheer variation in its locations. The idea of racing through a whole country was amazing. It could have been such a truly great game with a little more time spent on the development of its replay value. At best it's a fantastic and original racer which feels like a movie, at worst it's a bargain bin game giving you a small handful of gaming hours.



Friday, 20 July 2012

End of a universal trilogy

Mass Effect 3

The Mass Effect series from Bioware has reached an end. It began its life on PC and Xbox 360 in 2007, continued its story of the universes Reaper attack in 2010 with one of the best games made this generation: Mass Effect 2. And now, we get the final part of the story.

Mass Effect 2 is what you call a perfect sequel; it took the fantastic atmosphere and setting of the original game and fixes everything. It overhauled the gameplay of ME1 and controls so much it felt like a new game entirely. So well-made was ME2, that I gave it a well-deserved 10/10. ME3 then, does it match up to its nearly perfected predecessor?

Story wise ME3 picks up fast, it throws us right into a desperate time where Earth is on a full attack from the Reapers. This desperation and witnessing of innocents getting destroyed is a very strong introduction to the game. It kind of sets the mood for the whole story of ME3. It's a fight against time and the galaxy is indeed in its most desperate fight for survival. ME3 keeps you on your toes at all times and constantly puts you in difficult situations. You get to learn how bad the Reaper attacks truly are when you visit other planets and species. This is a fight will be a struggle for Shepard as she/he tries to make all the different races and species collaborate to defeat the Reapers.

Captain Anderson overlooks Earth being attacked by the Reapers.

ME3 takes a slightly different approach to ME2's very open ended game, the galaxy map is more closed in, it feels more dangerous and the exploring isn't quite as pleasant as in ME2. I found the galaxy map kind of annoying with the Reapers sending you away constantly, but it sets the mood. Compared to ME2's maybe a bit too thorough scanning of each planet it's a clearly different approach and is fine considered you probably spent a lot time doing this in ME2 and don't feel the need to explore like this over again. ME3 is in this regard more linear, you know where it is heading, but it throws a few twists along the way and each planet you visit contains surprises.

Enemies in ME3 are smart and aggressive, your skills will be tested!

Although ME2 had its controls laid out perfectly, ME3 manages to pull off some small enhancements. You now have a roll button, so you can dodge away from attacks, it feels slightly faster and the covering is even better than before. In fact it feels like Gears of War only slightly slower. The greatness of the gameplay, combined with it's even smoother layout in ME3 proves itself in the multiplayer mode. Yes, ME3 has multiplayer, but not the traditional deathmatch style. It's horde mode up to four players. Believe it or not, it actually is excellent and really fun to play; you level up characters here and can send them into the singleplayer experience to heighten your galactic readiness against the Reapers. It's fun enough playing together with randoms and truly entertaining with friends. A fantastic addition to the series.

ME3's shooting feels fantastic and never tires.

ME3 looks superb, it may overdo the contrast level for my liking, but the technical side of the game is excellent. The lighting looks fantastic and the character models are amazing. Bioware have really outdone themselves and have made the Mass Effect series into some of the most beautiful games around. I love the variation and colour palette within its worlds. Every new location is a joy to visit and admire. It keeps the excitement at a high throughout the game.

Cerberus soldiers looking for Shepard to fire at!

There are a couple of nit-picks though. I would have perhaps, after the huge decision and very different outcomes ME2 seemed to show at the end of the game preferred a possibility for making almost two separate storylines in ME3. All the choices made in ME2 seem to send you down the same route in ME3, good or bad. The ending though, which met a lot of critics, didn't bother me at all. Sure the different endings don't vary much, but I didn't feel like they needed to as ME3's story was more predetermined than I hoped it would be. I would have also preferred that some of the places you visit didn't look like multiplayer maps and the Asian ninja type of character was so bad it was annoying. Cocky ninjas with grumpy behaviour and completely outdated weaponry (who the hell uses a sword in a distant future against guns?!) should return to rubbish Japanese games that love this kind of stupidity.

The Melee attack helps a lot in close-combat situations.

Mass Effect 3 sets the bar for many other games considering presentation, voice acting and cinematic feeling. It ends a fantastic trilogy and shows a scale of a fight to survive and a galaxy at war even Hollywood movies would be jealous of. Finally reaching the end of the story I have followed through three games felt really epic, and it felt a lot seeing what happened to all the characters. A truly fantastic game that should be considered one of the best this generation alongside it's slightly better brother ME2.



Monday, 2 July 2012

Round up

L.A. Noire

You know what gets boring? Going to work each day, doing the same things and starting your day at a desk. Well guess what, Rockstar made a game making you do exactly this! L.A. Noire puts you in the role of an ambitious police officer in the corrupt post-war years in L.A.

The game is all about finding clues at crime scenes, then investigating witnesses and accused criminals. It starts out intruiging enough and actually feels like a very original game. Questioning people is a tricky affair, having to read the actors expressions to see how their ingame characters (which all look kind of creepy, more than they do impressive) react to alligations og questions.

While this gameplay sounds fairly good on paper, it sadly turns out to be a really repetitive and annoying affair. Little does it help that the action-orientated controls needed for car chases handle like they are made of air. The shoot-outs scream Rockstar shitiness (Hello GTAIV!) and are terrible. The driving and action scenes are almost a joke and it seems that the developers knew this allowing you to skip any action scene if desired.

This is a game truly for people with patience and very little interest in typical gameplay heavy games. Only jump in if you are interested in a stylish story and solving crimes and murders.



Duke Nukem Forever

DNF is probably on of the most delayed games in gaming history and gained fame because of it. I remember reading about in a PlayStation 1(!) magazine back in the nineties. The development has been restarted numerous times and been handed from one developer to the other, until finally Gearbox decided to get it finished.

The game really doesn't look particularly pretty, in fact in parts it looks really rough around the edges and actually quite ugly. In other parts it takes benefit from running on the Unreal 3 engine though, and boasts some rather imaginative and cool locations. The whole game feels very old-school first person shooter and in fact it's actually something positive.

DNF doesn't take itself serious at all with really crude but funny humour combined with straight forward shooting. The challenge are the often brutal enemies and simply playing it like an old FPS with very little tools at you disposal. Forget ironsights and laying down to fire, this is all about hip-firing and jumping around to avoid bullets. Think Unreal or Quake and not modern military shooters.

The game even has a few hints to it's development time and early screenshots, it sends you on a very varied set of locations and will challenge most FPS players today with it quite harsh difficulty, compared to the rather casual gamer orientated modern FPS games.



PS: If you want to extend your DNF experience even further, the singleplayer DLC download "The Doctor Who Cloned Me", is really good value and takes about 2 hours to complete!

Driver: San Francisco

One of my truly favourite PS1 titles back in the days was Driver. I would sit for hours just driving around in it's four huge cities. Sequels followed, but each one turned out to be a bigger disappointment than the last. Hearing about D:SF made me kind of sceptical and even a demo didn't really convince me. Finally the game went on the cheap and I jumped in. Turns out I shouldn't have doubted Reflections, the game is great!

It evolves around the idea the skill the main character obtains after crashing and ending up in a coma. Called "Shift" this feature lets you at any time pan out of your vehicle and zoom in on another and take control of it. While unrealistic, this feature actually makes the game very enjoyable and makes it stand out from the crowd in a very positive way. Having trouble getting chased by the cops? Just jump into a car in the opposite lane and ram them, then go back to your own car which meanwhile is auto-driving the direction you left it in. It paves way for some spectacular crashes and very creative ways of stopping cars or winning races.

Technically D:SF runs at a smooth and rather spectacular 60fps. The car models are really nice and are actually real licensed models, in fact there are over a hundred of them. The cars feel heavy and drifty, so car chases look spectacular and movie like, in fact D:SF handles perfectly for a type of game like this. It's not realistic, but it's fun and makes you feel like a pro. The sheer variation in missions and modes is also really impressive. Reflections have really found every way a driving game can be played. A funny multiplayer mode to mention is to trail a Delorean, everybody fighting to stay in it's wake, the one doing so earns points. I also liked the missions where you had to protect a stationary armoured truck by ramming incoming cars with other cars you simply shift into.

While the story and cutscenes of the main storymode in D:SF seem a cheesy at the beginning, let the game settle and you will truly be in for one the most varied driving games and free-roam games made. It's the game you are looking for if you've finished Burnout Paradise and are looking for something similar!



F.E.A.R. 3

In a way the F.E.A.R. franchise should have been much larger than what it became, at least considering it's roots. The original F.E.A.R. was a fantastic cross between an action-filled FPS and a horror game. It completely outdid the competition graphically and the effects it used in it's slow-motion and destruction were amazing for it's time. Perhaps the first fault Monolith did was letting other people take care of some fairly confusing add-ons, and later on deny their storyline and make their own sequel. F.E.A.R. 2 did deliver a far more varied experience, but never quite nailed the atmosphere and originality of it's predecessor. F.E.A.R. 3 seems to follow the original games add-ons, being created by a different developer. A strange move for a franchise which could have been far more than it became.

What we are delivered in F.E.A.R.3 is a story of two brothers, both sons of the project in F.E.A.R.1 where Alma was born. One is Paxton Fettel and the other, a new character, is Point Man. The latter guy plays like the original F.E.A.R. games, with his slow-motion abilities and gun expertise. Fettel has more psychics abilities and relies on taking over enemy soldiers bodies and using them to kill each other. A more defensive playstyle if you like.

There doesn't really take much playtime to realize that F.E.A.R.3 is a fairly low-budget game. The presentation of the story is messy and never really explains much. The graphics are really generic and at times even quite aged, and while the gunplay feels solid the small levels look like an old FPS game. The environments you traverse are fairly standard too, making most of the game a sort of sleep walk through it. The airport level is the only one that stuck out for me and was quite good.

I guess it's an okay FPS for those who really want expand in the genre and need more games in it, but there is little to get from this title as a whole. If you are a huge fan of the series and a FPS fan you could give it a go.