Thursday, 28 February 2013

It's a far cry from holding the line in a sandstorm

Recently I've played two of last years fantastic shooter games. One first person the other third person. Both of them push the genre far with their storytelling and really are up there with games from other genres more associated with clever plots.

Spec Ops: The Line

At first glance Spec Ops may seem like a typical third person military shooter, however, as you dig deeper into a Dubai covered in a sandstorm, you slowly start realizing something has gone terribly wrong. This game tells a very dark story.

What happened in Dubai?

The Line is one of those few games that you actually benefit from reading the text on the back of it's cover. It draw you in and it sets itself apart form your initial expectations. Spec Ops has a terrible title and really is a game you need to dig an hour into before you get it.

I don't want to really go into the plot so much in this game, because doing so will comprise the twists within it. It may not be typical for a 3rd person action shooter to have a deep storyline, but this game deviates from that norm. It has strong gameplay and balances perfectly between really good cover shooting, flanking and slowly progressing forward in firefights. Some sequences are very action orientated, others are far more tactical. It blends nicely with the cutscenes and scenarios you witness while playing.

The main characters
The art direction gives way for some amazing shots.

Spec Ops may at first have little grainy look to it, but the amount of variation and depiction of a city covered by sand is incredible. It contains it's playing field in a hidden city covered by a storm and gives you that almost Bioshock-like feeling of being completely cut off from the world above. There is a lot of variation in the level design and you constantly feel like it refreshes your experience by introducing new places, enemies and gameplay changes.

The game has a fairly steep learning curve and does suffer from a couple of choke points which I could imagine to be really hard on higher difficulty levels. I would have maybe liked more checkpoints and a few extra hours of gameplay. However considering it's fairly short length, I recommend the game to be played consistently to help keep the story fresh in your head and to give you a more intense experience.

Firefights get quite intense at times and take place in really cool locations.

Prepare for some gruesome scenes throughout the game.

It makes you take a look at you morals in other military shooters and is one of the rare gems that makes you think more and more about it's story after you've completed it. I feel like going back to it's world and I remember some of the things I saw as terrible war scenes. Spec Ops: The Line is one of last years best games, and it totally overwhelmed me because I had no expectations and it's truly one of the very rare games that pulls out an emotional side of yourself while playing it. Those who give this game no chance and send it off as an ordinary military shooter have missed out on an incredible experience.



Far Cry 3

It often takes a third title to get a sequel back on track after trying to top an original game with so much praise. Far Cry 2 had it's fair share of ideas and in a way was a fantastic game, but it also suffered bad design choices and annoying gameplay elements. Far Cry 3 takes the best from both the original tropical shooter and the African continent survivor sequel. The result is magnificent.

Jungle warfare is key in FC3, and learning it is so much fun!
There are many vehicles to get around FC3's huge playing field.

Right from the beginning this game draws your attention immediately. It tells the story of a group of young friends on vacation on a Pacific island resort. They end up in the wrong place and get captured by local drug lords. The result is that you begin the game in a cage, being introduced to one of gamings most insane characters yet; Vaas. His character is so well voiced and acted; he constantly gives me an unnerving feeling that he any time will completely flip out and do something terrible to you. He never eases you up either and really sends a chill down your spine. Escaping his prison at the beginning of the game never felt better.

From here Far Cry 3 slowly teaches you up to become a hunter and survivor. It holds your hand for longer than what Far Cry 2 did and I think it helps. It may take away the feeling Far Cry 2 tried to give ("there is a bad guy somewhere in the game, find him"), but FC3 doesn't hide the fact that it will guide you on a main story which you must follow to complete it. You can very easily start exploring yourself, and failing to do so and continuously going for story related missions will make you kind of spoil the true Far Cry 3 experience. Luckily the game forces you at many points to go exploring.

Some areas will take your breath away...

Sneaking is fairly easy and a great way to take down pirates.

The game is so vast in it's size and will harshly test your gaming skills to simply survive. It's because of this it also becomes very interesting and tempting to explore on your own. You simply long to find out what's behind the next mountain top, across the water on an island or checking what a distant building holds inside. You begin with very short range weapons, and trying to hunt or cross through dense jungles with savage animals truly is difficult and gives that vital feeling of vulnerability  This feeling is key to Far Cry 3, and learning to become a true hunter and not just be hunted is when the makes you feel like you have truly amazing skills.

Let the carnage begin!

Taking over pirate bases is a great way to earn new safe zones.

After a while you feel like you have been a jungle fighter all your life and become really good at either killing huge animals like bears or tigers or storming a pirate outpost. Either killing them guns blazing or silently sniping them down. It's up to you and each gunfight or hunt feels distinctly different from the last and small (or large) situations simply occur. Completely free from being scripted. This randomness truly sets Far Cry 3 apart from it's overcrowded shooter genre. Let me give an example:

I was on a mountain road, when I caught sight of a wolf. Naively enough I thought I'd kill it easily with my AK47. After missing the wolf with a few rounds, a whole pack of them turned on me and nearby pirates heard the shooting. With barking and the sound of jeeps roaring up the hill behind me, I run back to my car, hit the gas and drive over two pirates on the way down.

All this confusion and gunfire from the pirates makes me miss a turn. I drive off a cliff, and hit a tree further down. Destroying my car (crushed frontscreen, blurred screen and blood everywhere) and most of my health. Suddenly the whole car catches fire, including me. I get out and stop the flames on my body. Then I realize the tree and all the surrounding grass is on fire. I run like a mad man down over a beach and into the water.

It is so random, yet such a perfect example of how fun Far Cry 3 is. I could tell a hundred small stories like this and each one is unique and what happened to me, completely separated from the story mode.

The cutscenes are really good!

The bow is excellent for hunting quietly!

I really like the levelling in the game too. While the aiming and shooting may feel a little stiff and difficult at the beginning. Unlocking better gun skills with experience points and buying more advanced weaponry makes the game progress and the gameplay feels like it's progressing with your skills. There are a couple of issues, escpecially regarding the animation. It lends some of the stiffness and a bit rough animation that Far Cry 2 had. It gives a fairly big gap between the perfactly animated cutscenes and the game itself. The driving mechanics too, feel a little basic, but I guess it does it's job.

Far Cry 3 finally returns to it's tropical roots. The combination of  incredible cutscenes, colourful characters and really varied story missions, with tons of side missions, exploring, hunting and taking over territories, this game simply ends up being this years best game released.



Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Shooting in space and hell

Halo 4

One of gamings most famous series is back, this time though it's less Bungie and more 343 Industries. The story of Master Chief continues from where Halo 3's legendary ending stopped five years ago and it may be a different developer, but it certainly is classic Halo once again. MS has put considerable effort in picking out the industry's finest developers and putting them in 343 Industries, there are even people from the Metroid Prime series in here and it shows. Halo 4 surpasses all expectations.

Master Chief is back...

...together with his AI companion; Cortana!

There have been a few Halo games in between Halo 3 in 2007 and this latest in the main series. We got a different angle on Halo 3's story through the eyes of ODST soldiers in Halo 3's sort of add-on pack that was Halo ODST. Halo Reach told the story of how the fight with the Covenant began, before Master Chief's first story in Halo 1 started. We even got Halo Wars, a strategic war game that felt very much like a Command & Conquer type game. All excellent titles that truly show the quality and budget that MS puts into it's franchise, yet we have all been dying to find out what happened to our hero Master Chief and his relationship with the AI that is Cortana.

The first thing you'll notice about Halo 4 is how stunning it looks, it truly is a beautiful game. Clearly built only for the 360 and therefore benefiting from pushing the machine much further than multiplatform games. Together with MS' other exclusive for winter 2012, Forza Horizon, it's one of the best looking games around. What really stands out is the volume of graphics, from the shininess in reflective surfaces, to the strong contrast and beams from lights to the volumetric effects like dust lying in the air. It looks very "3D", with it's depth, scale and attention for small details. All the familiar weapons, vehicles and enemies from the Halo universe have been redesigned too, and look better than ever!

From close, and hectic gun fights... large scale mechanised battles!

The fantastic art direction is further backed by the introduction of seeing things from Master Chief's helmet visor. An idea taken directly from the Metroid Prime seris and it works incredibly well. It feels like you truly are Master Chief, and it feels like you are in a mask and looking at the amazing worlds of the universe outside it. Halo 4 may be slightly less large scaled than Halo 3, at least in the space your are allowed to walk in, but it compensates this with much more attention to details and effects. That doesn't mean Halo 4 won't blow your mind with some enormous scenes and settings, that will make you seem like your're tiny, there is just so much more detail in them this time around. It also adds lots of variety, both environmental and gameplay wise. just like Halo 3 and Reach did so excellent back in their release years.

The story is conveyed very well, more directly and cinematic than before. It still has the mystery that surrounds a typical Halo story, but does so in a more explaining way. The characters have much more personality and the relationship between Master Chief and Cortana is beautifully shown and really brings out your feelings later on in the story. It really helps that the faces are incredibly animated this time and look amazing. A Halo story has never been this gripping and focused before in my opinion. The ending is incredible.

The characters animations and dialogues are fantastic.

Gameplay is great as usual, and feels instantly familiar to any previous Halo player. It retains the slightly more realism orientated gunplay from Halo Reach, but mainly feels like a typical old-school shooter. Mostly the guns are fired from the hip and the amount of enemies onscreen really count up to a large number so it's classic fire and dodge gameplay you fondly remember from classics like Quake and Unreal. It's a lot more about your moving abilities and experience than modern shooters today that hinder you more in your movement options. It's hardly realistic, but it's very fun.

Halo 4 also has a ton of content for multiplayer, in fact it comes along on a whole extra disc that needs installing. It offers everything from close combat with weapons only, to large more open ended battlefield fights. The game also comes along with a huge, dedicated "Spartan Ops" coop mode with it's own storyline, cutscenes and content being added every so often on Xbox Live. It's a huge coop mode for those wanting to play even more that just the main story.

The new race Prometheans fighting amongst and against the Covenant.

Stealing enemy vehicles and weapons makes Halo very varied .
Halo 4 is a truly amazing package. It feels more Halo than ever, tells a story brilliantly, lends ideas from the genre and really stands out technically  It's one of those games that really perfects in everything it does and has no weaknesses other than maybe a slightly short campaign. It's an incredible thought that MS have kept the quality of the series on every single game in it. 343 Industries should really be proud of this game, it is amazing and it has never made me feel more like actually being the hero Master Chief before! A masterpiece.



Doom 3 BFG Edition

Doom may be one the most famous games made and it's third instalment is often an overlooked classic. Good then, that Carmack decided to give this game a new chance and tweak it up slightly and release it under the BFG Edition.

Doom 3 was originally released at a difficult date. It had to go up against Half-Life 2 and Far Cry. Two games that easily pulled gamers much easier than Doom 3. Mainly because of their larger maps and much more original gameplay. However Doom 3 is criminally overlooked technically. What it lacks in open worlds and modern gameplay, it compensates with amazing lighting and effects and really challenging old-school style shooting mechanics.

Doom guy faces a rather large monster.
D3's strength lies in it's gameplay. It really feels like a fps game from the early days. There is no covering, there are no iron sights and there definitely is no auto-healing. It's about man against monsters. This game shows no remorse. It's tough as nails, unforgiving and pushes your skills constantly. Just when you thought you were getting to grips with it's monsters it introduces a new type of enemy. Pulling your senses straight back in. It may be hard, but it never feels unfair, and you actually feel a certain reward when getting past a difficult are and going on to the next, simply because you feel like you actually got better at playing the game. Modern games rely to much on rewarding you with some fancy cutscene and hold your hand constantly with healing mechanics and endless checkpoints.

Doom 3 gets rather nasty and bloody at times...

The variation in enemies is D3's strong point, each one requires a certain approach and gun. I also like that huge bosses end up being just "casual" enemies that come in packs, a little after you have hell beating one of them! At times, areas seem impossible to get through, simply because there are so many enemies coming at you. However you quickly learn how tot play Doom 3 and how you used to play shooters. All the skills lies in moving around, dodging shots and using corners to hide behind. Limited ammo doesn't make things easier either and actually helps build the tension. I played the game with a friend and we were constantly asking each other to take over the controller again and play. The gameplay is really fantastic.

Talking about tension. Doom 3 actually is quite scary at times. In the beginning of the game it feels like a slow-paced survival horror like the original Resident Evil games with zombies, a weak gun and only a couple of bullets at your disposal  This quickly changes, but somehow the game always seems to be able to calm things down  and build atmosphere up again. Sure it uses the "spawn an enemy in a locked room behind you" trick to scare the crap out of you, but it works and it keeps you on your toes. The excellent lighting from your torch  gunfire and enemy parts (like the eyes) really creep the hell out the many dark and scary corridors.

Some of the enemies fire back and are a real pain to take down.

Doom 3 isn't without faults though. It's a fairly dated looking game now, although the lighting is fantastic and holds up well today. The variation in levels is terrible and only later on becomes more varied (a portal to hell literally opens) than an endless futuristic space corridors. The storyline is really thin and hardly serves any purpose, I lost the interest immediately. The voice overs are completely forgettable. This game is about gameplay and atmosphere built though what you see.

Doom 3 stands it's test of time surprisingly well, it really shows that gameplay can easily win over presentation and story, an achievement worth mentioning, in today's gaming world which far too focused on cinematics. I recommend the game if you want a skill-challenging and scary shooter.