Saturday, December 28, 2013

A Second Look @ Unreal Championship 2: The Liandri Conflict

I'm admittedly cheating a bit by reviewing UC2, since it features a third-person camera, but since it is part of the Unreal franchise and its billed as an FPS, it counts. Deal with it.


Arriving a mere months before the release of the Xbox 360 and launching exclusively for the original Xbox, Unreal Championship 2 was once cited by one of the creators as "pushing polygons like crazy." That statement is held true as UC2 is probably one of the best-looking original Xbox games you could ever find. Epic Games made the most of it and created one of the franchise' best by taking things in a different direction with the addition of a third-person camera and melee weapons. If it doesn't sound like an Unreal Tournament game that's because its not; this offering is more balanced between the single player story and the multiplayer action by using all the content within for both sides. So much has been put into Unreal Championship 2 that its a wonder why Epic Games didn't just make it an Xbox 360 launch title. Understandably it would have been a gamble going against Call of Duty 2 in the FPS category, and by then the original Xbox was already in enough homes, so possibly sticking to the first console was a wise business decision.

This time around the single player campaign features a new tournament known as Ascension Rites. Liandri Corporation has gotten it's greedy paws into a Nakhti ritual that determines who the next king or queen will be. Enter Anubis, a warrior who gave up the princely lifestyle to fight in a far-off war which earned him the disdain of his people. He returns with the belief that the Liandri Corp has tainted the Ascension Rites through televising, marketing, and adding their own combatants into the fray. As Anubis you face your ex-betrothed Selket, her minions, and others vying for the crown through thirteen battles with various modes of play. There are four training sessions at the beginning to make sure you've got the game well understood and its easy to pick up and play by the end of them. While there are only five levels of difficulty it becomes a challenge to better yourself in the harder ones. Ascension Rites is played with Anubis only and by the end of it you feel most comfortable playing as him or someone of equal strength. Throughtout the Ascension Rites, Liandri is interfering by adding their own competitors and tipping the scales against you, including bot combatants and attacks outside of the arena, although the Ascension Rites do say that anyone can enter and win.
During the Ascension Rites ladder, Tournament legend Malcolm offers you to join the famous Thunder Crash team, and once its completed the real Tournament begins. While there are only 10 tiers with varying rules to play through, each of the fourteen characters has a tournament ladder for themselves. There's a special appearance by Raiden from the Mortal Kombat series as a tie-in with being published by Midway as well as the option to use the MK announcer.
In addition to the Ascension and Tournament modes, Challenges mode makes an appearance by offering trials wherein the player goes against several opponents on a team alone or must face off against new opponents, such as Raiden who is unlocked upon completion of all the challenges. Mods, known as mutators this time, make a comeback and take part in each of the game's modes with the series staples of Instagib, LowGrav, Speed Match, and others returning. Some new and exclusive mutators like Looting, Melee Only, and Camp Fire can make things a bit more interesting. Mutators add a level of fun and challenge that, even after many hours of normal play, can change the game in new and better ways.
DeathMatch, Team DeathMatch, and Capture the Flag being the usual Unreal game modes are present, while new modes Nali Slaughter, Overdose, and Survival make an appearance. Nali Slaughter has several competitors racing to kill as many Nali as they can while also killing or avoiding each other; its mindless fun at first but does feel like a real challenge. Overdose has players attempting to take control of an energy ball and hold it as long as they can without dying while attempting to reach a goal. More points are scored the longer the player holds onto the ball by the time they reach the goal. At the maximum dosage, the player reaches a godlike status with invulnerability, speed, and other temporary boosts. Survival pits the player or players in a one-on-one deathmatch against bots or a human opponent with the winner advancing to the next round.
Each character has their own strengths and weaknesses in regards to health and agility with four points split among the two. Those who are more agile have less health and vice-versa. Some characters, such as Anubis, are balanced. Aside from character traits, unique adrenaline power-ups can turn the tide of a fight with things like Repluse, which can shrug off some damage; Heal, which will refill a portion of the player's life bar; and Nimble, which allows the player to make several mid-air jumps in a row. Everyone has a set of temporary boosts that come at the cost of adrenaline, which is refilled slowly either automatically or via level pick-ups.
A big change for the franchise comes just before going into battle, this time the player is given a choice of only two weapons to choose from. One weapon that uses explosive ammo and the other that uses energy ammo. This forces the player to think ahead in terms of play style since the maps are too small to fit so many weapons, instead they're littered with ammo pickups of each type. The usual amount of Unreal weapons has been reduced down to eight, with series staples of Flak Cannon, Ripjack, Shock Rifle, BioRifle, and Stinger making a return. Each weapon also has they're famous alt-fire attacks to make combat more interesting.
The addition of a third-person camera adds a new depth to the playing field and allows you to see more of the action as well as a better view of the melee combat. "Bringing a knife to a gunfight" adds a whole new side to the Unreal franchise but don't think that the melee is a last resort when out of ammo. It can give you a definite upperhand in battle with the ability to charge weapons, dash through the air, shield your character, and reflect projectiles, which can add insult to injury. Along with each character having a melee weapon they also have two pistols in their arsenal with recharging ammo. When charged and released they can freeze a target in place for a short period of time, giving the player (or a bot) a few precious seconds to execute a Coup de Grace attack. These are stlyish one-hit kills with the melee weapon that are activated by pressing a button combination that's displayed.

According to Wikipedia: "A specialized version of Unreal Engine 2.5 called UE2X was used for UC2 on the original Xbox platform. It featured optimizations specific to that console." While it does feel like a true Unreal game, it seems to have lost the brooding of past titles and replaced it with a more technological look with glowing surfaces, water distortion, distance fog, and lights creating shadows and colors on the characters like crazy. It must have pushed the original Xbox to its graphical limits.
The level design is varied throughout the 40+ maps with none of the old Unreal maps making a return. This is all new stuff for a new game and the hard work shows throughout each design with amazing detail in each expertly crafted map. Distant mountains and structures look pixelated due to the technical limitations but the feeling of size and scale that's presented is mind-blowing for the console time.
The cutscenes in the Ascension Rites mode leave something to be desired in that the faces don't appear to be animated right while some textures seem to have lost a little shine that's present during play. Lighting looks good for the most part but the old FMV pixelation curse is still there. The videos do a good job of unfolding the story by introducing characters and driving the plot forward, but for those who are only caring about the action the story can be ignored.
While character diversity is a bit bland, the characters and armor designs are what you'd expect in the Unreal universe with the beefiness of the armor now becoming a mainstay in whatever Epic Games makes. Armors on Anubis, Selket, and the other Nakhti are heavily influenced by ancient Egyptian culture and look the best. All others, not so much. Besides the robots that are more appealing than previous franchise entries, the rest leave little to talk about. Regardless of that, each character design is considerably better than what was used in prior games, which they used to be recycled bodies with differing heads and colors.

The music is as dark and adrenaline-filled as you would expect from an Unreal game with techno beats, rock guitars, and orchestral instruments giving off vibes of urgency with a touch of old-school Egyptian mummy movies mixed in. While it is in tone with the Unreal universe, it feels somewhat lacking in edge and excitement as though the music is afraid to be anything less than empirical.
Voice-acting is superb with each character having several taunts, cheers, or orders when called for during gameplay while the Ascension Rites cutscenes are never too dry or phoned in. They inject a little bit of humor to keep things light-hearted and thankfully it never feels forced.
Sound effects are plentiful with grunts from the characters, distance explosions, pick-ups, gunfire everywhere, and sound distortion during a few of the adrenaline power-ups. Often times you can hunt down an elusive bot or player by following their grunts. The levels themselves never feel lifeless because there's always an environment sound happening nearby: birds chirping in open areas, the wind blowing by, footsteps through water, flames crackling, machinery motors whirring, water moving, and many other sounds give life to even the most mechanical-themed maps.

If there is a downside to Unreal Championship 2 its that it feels like just a one-trick pony. The possibility of a franchise here has flexed all its muscles with the ideas presented and for a sequel to be bigger would have to include some new and outrageous things. It would be hard to follow up and doing the next game in the same style would cause Epic Games to cement its feet and prepare to throw it in shark-infested waters. Its a conundrum: if they change it completely for a sequel then they'll be expected to keep changing with new ideas. If they keep it the same, they risk making the Championship name into a repeat offender.

I will freely admit that I have been biased in this review since UC2 is my second favorite game of all-time. Every time I put it in, even just to jump around the levels, I notice a new detail I hadn't seen before. Its easy to see why its my favorite with the amount of things to do and ways to play that make me want to play it more. The replay value is practically immeasurable if you have three friends willing to make a party of it. While the original Xbox Live may be dead, the Unreal franchise has always had bots and adjusting the difficulty feels like you'll want to better yourself. Unreal Championship 2 is only available for the original Xbox but is backwards compatible with the 360 and looks and plays best on it. You can find it incredibly cheap these days and its so very worth it to play it.
You need Unreal Championship 2 on your shelf and you need to experience this game. The ideas feel refreshing to a genre that was soon to be saturated with copy paste clones and even now it has aged well with the melee combat and character traits keeping things in a good balance with an ease of access that any FPS fan can comes to grips with.
We need to see an Unreal Championship 3 only to see more of the fresh ideas that 2 breathed into the franchise and the FPS genre in general. For it to be a follow-up to just a port of Unreal Tournament 2004 is a big deal since UC2 showed that the genre doesn't have to be stale if the developers are willing to push the limits and add new ways to play instead of how to play.

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Sunday, December 22, 2013

A Second Look @ TimeShift

(Images taken from Gamespot)

TimeShift started life on the original Xbox and PC featuring the rugged, average, white male hero Michael Swift. After Sierra Interactive got the rights from Atari they gave the game a complete overhaul and created the Time Suit, making the player character anonymous in the process. Its a better a idea mostly because it feels like you are in control. You hold time in the palms of your... well, in your suit. From the sound of things, you almost expect the story to go from one time period to another, chasing down people or one man or even anomalies, setting things right in the past to make a better future, but unfortunately it never gets that imaginative.
The story puts you in the place of a highly respected scientist with a “mysterious past” who has been employed to work on a new ground-breaking technology. I'm sure we've heard the story before but I digress. It starts with the aptly named Dr. Krone (I can't think of that name without rolling my eyes) destroying the lab and using the Alpha Time Suit to make an escape. Acting quickly, your character takes the in-development Beta Suit and, as the lab explodes, uses it to time jump to a dystopian future where Dr. Krone has distorted history to make himself the ruler. What proceeds is a war between the governing army and the resistance. I know this story has happened somewhere but I can't imagine where. After waking up from the time jump, you are given a waypoint and told to just go there. It never reveals the reason why Krone altered the timeline and you're left to believe its just because he's evil. You just accept it and start shooting enemies. It becomes quickly apparent that your time suit is malfunctioning and will make random jumps to save you from detected danger. Its nothing more than just a lazy plot idea to move you from one point of the game to another without explaining where in time you are.

The main star of TimeShift is the time control, which is not given freely as the suit needs a certain amount of time to recharge the energy after each use. You can start and stop using one of the time controls whenever you want but when there are moments of heavy action you might tend to forget. Pausing time will drain the most amount of energy but during its use you can traverse certain obstacles, avoid gunfire, or even take an enemy's weapon from his hands. Slow Motion gives you the ability to move faster than everyone and doesn't take as much energy as pausing, but enemies can still fire on you. Rewind is rarely used and it only takes the game back by a couple of seconds but will never save you from dying. Later in the game you will encounter enemies with crude time suits of their own that can ignore your time controls. The best option to take care of these guys is to just shoot.
It seems the usual suspects in regards of guns are present: the KM2103 Karbine being your first gun is an assault rifle that can shoot grenades as an alt-fire. Each gun has a main fire and alt-fire: the shotgun can single- or double-fire, the pistol can semi-auto fire up to four bullets, the flamethrower (aka Hellfire) can shoot bursts of fire, the Thunderbolt is a crossbow with a zoom, the EMF Cannon, which is just an electric gun, shoots disabling electricity with shots that can be charged. There's also a sniper rifle and rocket launcher that deal the most damage. TimeShift never flexes its creative muscles enough to think of interesting gun mechanics that relate to time.
Guns aim steady but are never fun to fire and on the harder difficulties it feels like a chore to take down an enemy. They take their sweet time to die and will sometimes take a whole clip or more while a headshot may only knock off their helmet. The chaos of being shot at means you won't have much time to focus on who's actually hitting you. Enemy gunfire is also accurate and it seems that very few bullets actually manage to miss you. The Time Suit recovers your health automatically and using the fast forward time control quickens the recovery pace. When dangerously close to dying, the edges of the screen turn red and the only thing to do is take cover. The AI is too dumb to come out of hiding and attempt to flank you, which provides a whole new problem that TimeShift suffers from: lifelessness.
Allies, who are all male and have the same body type, are capable of taking out enemies but, again, you are the bullet sponge. While allies know how to fire they're also as dumb as the enemies. It screams of last-gen tech. You have little to no reprieve when being caught in the open and a firefight ensues. Its this idea in game design that makes it feel lazy, not because you have something to shoot, but because the game only does firefights and time "puzzles" instead of providing interesting things to do.
Unlockables include videos, concept art, and level music which are unlocked upon the completion of levels. There are no hidden collectibles or interesting easter eggs at all. It would have done the game good to have some newspapers or videos to give even a hint of a backstory as to how Krone came to power but its never that fulfilling.

The graphical effects are one of the few good things to mention in terms of looks. While surfaces are awfully bland, the water effects and depth of field are well done. Glass shatters nicely, lighting effects are competent, and the effects when controlling time are nicely crafted. As everything blurs, events rewind in real time, or everything slows down as you speed past and it all holds up well. But take away this and it only goes to show that the amount of time taken to develop a game doesn't always mean its going to be the most spectacular looking.
Level design leaves a lot to be desired as narrow spaces and cover objects abundantly scattered about are what you'll find here. Its the same old "pathway-into-arena" gameplay that is present in most FPS games and the linearity is broken up with a sky level wherein you shoot a turret at enemy mines and jets.
Some explosions can shake the screen and are actually satisfying to see, but it doesn't happen very often. Enemies can get ripped apart and there may be some body parts lying around, you can also leave bloody boot tracks, making it definitely not one for the kids in this case.
You do get to drive an ATV on some occasions, which gets caught on nearly everything due to twitchy steering and has a needless turbo boost. The ATV sounds overpowered while the mounted machine guns and turrets sound weak. Its a bad case of audio mixup.

The constant sound of rain on the main menu and through several levels can get tiresome but its ignorable with distant gunfire and explosions echoing throughout the city, these give a nice depth to the action of an otherwise lifeless setting. The downside of the audio being that the guns you shoot never seem powerful in sound or effect. In fact, the suit is more noticeable by always making some sort of sound, whether beeping when low on health, the S.S.A.M. system telling you that danger is close, or the way it distorts sounds when using the time control.
There's very little music present, in fact there's almost none at all besides the moments of "epic" encounters. You hardly notice it and, sadly, I didn't notice it all even after turning all other sounds off just to try and hear it. I know its there because the soundtrack can be unlocked and played in the main menu. What we do get in the ways of musical offerings is an electronica-drenched, moody, eerie-sounding mix of songs that fit well with the mood of the game. Its actually good. Possibly the best part of the game overall. The shame of it is that you hardly hear it when playing 

The usual Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, Capture the Flag, and One-on-One battles make up the multiplayer aspect. TimeShift gives us two unique modes called Meltdown Madness and King of Time. From the in-game description, Meltdown Madness is: "Throw Chrono Grenades at the opposing team's machine to prevent it from functioning. Your team wins when you machine completes its countdown." And King of Time has the players vying for control of a Time Sphere, which gives immunity to all time effects.
There is DLC available in the form of maps for multiplayer. One of them has 5 new maps and is free, the other is $10 and uses 5 maps from the single player campaign as battlegrounds.
What gives the multiplayer a unique spin is that the time suits don't come in to play. Instead, the energy meter is present and a small area is time-altered through player-thrown grenades. These grenades can slow or stop a player in their tracks. In defense, you can select a temporary burst of "time resistance." There are also several power-ups spread throughout that include time resistance, energy refill, armor power-ups, and heavy damage. Its unfortunate that most players will seem to rely on the random throwing of grenades to get kills so instead of the hectic mayhem that can determine which player is better its reduced down to who can manage their energy the best.
No one is playing TimeShift multiplayer these days, so the only thing to do is check out what it could have been like.

TimeShift is a lesson in de ja vu and contradiction: you get the sense that you've done this all before with some other game but here it wants to make you think  its original. It can't stick out on its own because other games have used the time control aspects and used them well. Its not bad. In fact it fails at failing. TimeShift is a solid effort at a game mechanic that we don't see very often and for that it sets itself apart from other FPS games. But its this reliance on the time control aspect to carry the bulk of the game that only makes it come across as unimaginative and just plain boring in every other area. A dull story, dated graphics, pathetic AI, and scripted action means you should never start playing TimeShift, that way you'll never have the disappointment of having to stop. Those of you who think you've missed out on it can find the physical 360, PS3, and PC versions dirt cheap on a used game rack or in the bargain bin, $30 on XBL, and $15 on Steam. Maybe it should have stayed on the original Xbox with Michael Swift. It may have improved it as, at that time, the FPS craze was just starting and the time control mechanics would have made it stand out.
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If I may speak candidly, and this includes spoilers: The comparison to Half-Life 2 is something that needs to be addressed. You are given a suit with certain powers, sent to an unknown time and city. You fight your way out to the countryside only to fight your way back into the city against a single regime. The dictator is speaking to the citizens through various displays placed all around the city. The suit recovering health automatically. The player character having an unknown past. There's a bridge level....
I found it hard to review TimeShift because I had to play it again. I've already done so twice before, on normal and hard difficulties only for the achievements, and that felt like enough. Plus the comparisons to Half-Life 2 makes it feel like I've played it a dozen times already. It's just not very fun to play. It can get intense and the game is solidly built, but it never gets fun. The ending to the game gives a finality to this story, only to undo what was done at the lab explosion, leaving it open for a sequel. The longer I took to write this review, the more I began to think of this as one of my all-time hated games, but I can't hate it because it did what it set out to do: make an FPS game based around time mechanics. For that, it begrudgingly gets my respect, but I'll never enjoy playing it.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

A Second Look @ Star Wars: Republic Commando

Made and published entirely by LucasArts, Republic Commando was launched just before the release of the Xbox 360 and received mainly 8/10 ratings. To be one of the better-praised FPS games of the time, it wasn't very widely spoken of among the people I knew.
Republic Commando puts you in the role of  Delta RC-1138, call sign Boss, as he leads an elite group of Clone Troopers, each with their own personalities and specializations, through missions on Geonosis, a destroyed spacecraft, and the wookie homeworld of Kashyyyk. You play through the tutorial in the first level and its incredibly simple, showing you all you need to know to use your armor's capabilities and to use your squad effectively. The rest is shown as you travel through the game and its very easy to pick up and play. One major drawback is the length: there are only three levels, each with several chapters, and once they're done, there's the multiplayer that feels like just an add on. Republic Commando feels like a build up to something greater, but I don't think we'll see it anytime soon. 

One major feature of Republic Commando is the use of squad tactics. Tactics is a word used loosely in the sense that all you have to do is aim at a designated point and press the USE button, giving a command to one of your three squad mates to complete the task at hand. By holding down the same button you can bring up a command menu to order your squad to secure an area, fire on one target, form up, or cancel whichever maneuver you had previously chosen. Its a little bit of Rainbow Six but doesn't really hold any significance here as these commands don't really feel necessary when playing the game.
Republic Commando definitely isn't big on downtime unless you want to be the one planting explosives or slicing (hacking) a computer, which there is a lot of both. Possibly 20% of the game time is used for this. You can give these commands to your team but they will take the same amount of time performing the task despite the backstory claiming they're best suited for these certain operations. All this happens while you're being shot at and listening to their banter during combat; they love to talk and are present for most of the game with the exception of the tutorial and parts of two levels. There is no lone-wolf gunning and your squad will take the initiative to take out enemies and are not satisfied to let anything slip past. They're not just random cannon fodder either: They take a lot of damage and you'll find yourself often reviving them mid-firefight during the latter chapters. Its a nice change of pace from other FPS game's bullet-sponge action but it does get bothersome when you're the only one left standing due to the AI being spread too thin.
Shields and health both deplete quickly if you're not careful but you're never too far away from a bacta tank, which in basic terms is a health refill station, or an ammo drop. Don't worry if you do get taken down: just as you have time to save your squad, they have time to save you. You can order them to carry out their current orders to take out enemies, finish an objective, or to come and rescue you. The latter puts them in danger as it takes a few seconds to revive someone, leaving the healer an easy target and only puts the downed member back at half health.
You're not stuck with the assault rifle for the total length of the game. At one point you can find sniper and grenade launcher attachments, you're also never left without your trusty sidearm which recharges ammo automatically. Alongside those you'll find an old-fashioned physical shotgun, a wookie bowcaster, a rocket launcher, and a mini-gun each dealing out better amounts of damage than your rifle. Thermal detonators (physical), Electro-static Charge detonators, Sonic detonators (mines), and flashbug detonators (flashbangs) are the grenade types and you'll use a lot of them to take out clustered enemies. One drawback is that the grenade selector display is cryptic and you'll find yourself throwing a flash instead of a thermal unless you memorize the icon for each.
Melee is satisfying as you put your gauntlet knife into an enemy and your helmet is splattered with fluids. Meanwhile gunplay feels weak as lasers constantly miss their targets due to the bad sensitivity for the Xbox version (setting at 1 feels sluggish while 2 feels twitchy, this is improved greatly when playing on the 360).
Your HUD is constantly working by displaying your health, identifying where your squadmates are as well as their health levels, objectives, detonator counts, and can be switched between normal, tactical, and low light modes. The melee splatters and low-light modes feel like ideas taken from Metroid Prime and they work well here.
Friendly fire is present, and while your squad does its best to avoid harming you they may get in your line of fire which can drain their shields or health. Your squad will do their best to revive each other but this will cause them to be in the open and take damage themselves. Luckily enemies aren't exactly the smartest and will charge at you instead of sticking behind cover. It feels like a let down and the difficulty is never too rough if you're paying attention to the surroundings.

There's not a lot of enemy variety and you'll face mostly Geonosians, Trandoshans and their scavenger droids, battle droids and the occasional elite guard droid throughout the game's three chapters. Hilariously enough, the game features ragdoll physics on dead enemies but its only good for a chuckle as you push them around. There are also Clone Trooper and Wookie allies throughout but most are immediately killed off within the first few seconds of appearing onscreen. While the levels feel like they belong in the Star Wars universe, level design is lacking in originality. It can be commended for not following the now-traditional "narrow-way-into-arena" gameplay but it maybe could have used a few of those to keep things interesting. Perhaps a test of the player's skill to use the team effectively is what's missing. You can choose to run ahead and take on enemies yourself, or you can actually stand aside and let your team do all the shooting. 
Graphics hold up well for a late console life release, looking crisp and without cracks, but it feels like the Unreal Engine 2.0 isn't being used to its full extent. Take Unreal Championship 2 for example, which was released a few months later and looked like an early 360 release. There are light reflections, lens flares, light blooms, and the HUD shows holographic standing positions for maneuvers. Several graphical effects occur throughout the game that affect the player's display including static from electric-based enemies, waving heat lines that distort the view, flashbangs filling the screen with white, and blood, oil, or rain that are wiped off by an electric wiper.

The sound you'll hear the most is from laser fire, which is familiar among the Star Wars universe, and oddly enough doesn't wear out its welcome. Even the chatter among your squad is somewhat comforting as they often talk to each other. Scorch being the sarcastic one, Sev being the sluggish brute, and Fixer being average. (To show that there's a lot of voicework done, a YouTuber has compiled all of their voiceclips into 15+ minute videos.) Explosions have no real impact in sight or sound and it feels very tame because of this. Even wookiee yells and "screams" from the battle droids sound like clips taken from the movies.
The orchestral soundtrack in the background is constantly giving off a powerful tone and it feels in-place with the Star Wars universe but somewhat cliche here. A different approach in the music would have given the game its own identity and its almost a shame that that idea wasn't implemented. To be the die-hard tactical FPS that it was billed to be, it doesn't really have any edge soundwise. While the music video from Ash (featured above) is a nice touch its merely an addition and is unlocked right from the start, seems more like a promotion from someone among the development team who heard the band and thought they were good. Despite all of this, the sound is not the weakest selling point for Republic Commando.

Multiplayer on original Xbox Live may be dead but couch multiplayer is still present with splitscreen. It includes the usual offerings of Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, Capture the Flag, and Assault modes; the last being similar to Battlefield's Conquest mode.
Unfortunately, you only have 5 maps total to play throughout each mode. It feels more like an add-on than something worth playing. Regardless, if you can gather three friends to battle with you'll find that the multiplayer is hectic, fast-paced fun along the lines of the original Unreal Tournament. As your disembodied hands pick up weapons and throw grenades, you'll find that you can't aim down the sights of some guns, the bowcaster and the sniper rifle being the only ones that can. The same weapons from the single player campaign can also be found here. Aiming is very accurate and the multi-tiered maps offer plenty of corners to run away from a firefight. Running is the best option as it only takes a few shots to take someone out. 
The multiplayer aspect is weak in the overall package, like a lot more could have been done since, being built off the Unreal Engine, it should have a lot more going for it. The map Arena G9 features two low-gravity sections on each side that is a great idea, but isn't implemented anywhere else. Its the small ideas that could have made this part of Republic Commando something worth experiencing more.

There's never any big "wow" moments and the story taking place during the Clone Wars, one of the biggest battles of the Star Wars universe, is awfully bland. The only unlockables are concept art, featurettes, and an interview with the game's director. If, at the time, you were in to Star Wars then the game really held nothing new for you except for a few new vehicles that were to be seen in Episode III. It didn't try to outdo the current reigning FPS champion of Halo and is almost content to do what it was planned to do. It succeeds in that respect but fails to try and tread new ground. It seems very comfortable confined into its own universe.
Personally, I feel like a lot could be done with Delta Squad through their differing personalities and ability to think for themselves unlike the majority of Clone Troopers. its a section of the large Star Wars universe that would be awesome to explore. More unlocks like skins, HUD customization, cheats for the Xbox version, and maybe a few others would have been nice touches to finish things out. If one thing is wrong with it, it never feels too difficult. You'll get taken down by an enemy's melee attack, and it feels more like a pause in the action rather an urgency.
Republic Commando is backwards compatible with the Xbox 360 and not only looks better in terms of graphics and video playback, it controls better as well. You can find it cheap these days and its available on Steam for $10, PC having the best graphical fidelity.
As a total package, Republic Commando packs in a lot and I'm sure the dev team could have made it an early Xbox 360 release had they waited. It would have improved the graphics, the controls and physics, the game length, and the AI. But for what it's worth, Republic Commando is an excellent and solid game.

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Wait a minute.... What's going on here? I call shenanigans!

Friday, December 13, 2013

A Second Look @ Homefront

(NOTE: Unfortunately, I can't comment on the multiplayer aspect of Homefront. With THQ's closure came the shutting down of the servers for all three available platforms. I can't even glance over how it was because I never had the opportunity to play it. In that regard the multiplayer aspect has been omitted and it does no good to read up on how it was.)
(ALSO: I'm sorry if you've read this review after the original post date of December 8. While trying to edit a few misspellings using the Blogger phone app, it instead reverted the review back to the draft and I unknowingly posted that in its place. So here's the real review...)

 (Images taken from multiple sources)

Why Homefront was ignored is beyond me. It came out at a time where everyone was looking for the Call of Duty killer (which will eventually kill itself) and people only wanted big multiplayer action. Homefront definitely had that with large-number MP battles and an engaging single player story. Kaos Studios used a template that everyone was familiar with but apparently nobody wanted.
Where Homefront succeeded was in its delivery: big action for both the single and multiplayer modes, an intense story and relentless enemies. Sound design of the highest caliber and an attention to detail of how the story came to fruition that most other FPS's don't bother with.
Where it failed is in its overall game design: an all-out para-military shooter with little regards to the cast of characters and a miniscule story length. The multiplayer was the usual mess of XP levels and being outclassed by higher ranks. It was the same thing we had seen in other FPS games before. It could have been done better, but only by very little.

If the plot sounds like a rip-off of a certain movie or book, its more of an homage. According to Wikipedia, while John Millius, the original writer of Red Dawn, is credited as a writer, he had nothing to do with the game's script. Regardless of who did the writing, it and the direction are very well done, elevating current global news stories to an exciting and terrifying degree for a story set in the future of a little town in Montrose, Colorado. Unlike Red Dawn, the Korean army is less political and quick to shoot at any resistance, bringing in helicopters and moving whole platoons against a small guerrilla army. The opening of the game is more focused on the horrors of what's happening: a child watching his parents get executed, bodies lining the sidewalks, people being forced from their homes and into labor camps. Its so surreal that it had to be edited in order to be sold in the Asian markets for fear of backlash from North Korea.
The game puts you in control of Robert Jacobs, a former Marine helicopter pilot. Disregard that information because none of it comes into play. You never get to pilot a helicopter and that's a shame. While being taken from your home by the occupying Korean military, you are rescued by a couple of resistance fighters. Without much argument you pick up a gun and proceed to shoot your way through the town to safety. The game doesn't deal with the emotions of the characters at all and is instead more concentrated on the horrors of war. There's a lot of focus on the here-and-now and very little on the past. It could be said that it would not do well to dwell in that area but instead the game feels as though it could have used a little of it.

The game also goes through intense hand-holding as you're very rarely left alone. You are not the one-man army like in FPS games of the same era and does everything it can to remind you of this. You will quickly learn to rely on cover and your allies to overcome a firefight. They never get in the way but the repetitive dialogue out of combat breaks the immersion. The guns handle very accurately and a few well-placed shots can take someone down even if they're wearing riot gear. The same goes for you as there will be a lot of cheap bullet-sponge deaths with the enemies seeing you as their only primary target. You will take the bulk of the damage but health recovers quickly by taking cover and staying out of a firefight for a few seconds. Even then enemies may flank you, forcing you to stay on your toes. In this aspect it knows how to keep the game exciting but the automatic health recovery takes away from believability. There's little time or space to run from an enemy grenade and your partners will take hit after hit without loss of life or even flinching. 
There are no cars to drive in the single player campaign but you can use targeting binoculars to command a Goliath, a remote-controlled and converted Korean mobile missile launcher, to take out enemy vehicles. This only happens a few times but its just enough to be awesome. Besides that you're put in the gunner seat of a Hummvee for a minute while playing part in escaping the town.

Very linear but excellently detailed levels usher you through the main campaign all while being led around by a man with obvious PTSD. While you may want to go exploring the interesting little nooks you might see, the game is littered with invisible walls that hinder any curiosity. Scattered throughout are newspapers that offer stories of events leading up to the current time and gives depth to the backstory. They're not all hard to find but some are easy to miss, but in the end finding them all is just for an achievement on the 360. Its a shame that so much more could have been done in terms of level size and variety. The campaign is short but a lot takes place within the small levels that include neighborhood houses, stores, and the cliched bridge level (if you remember, I mentioned that in my Black review). While the individual level details are acceptable, the design is lacking in originality with narrow ways giving way to arenas as seen in most modern FPS games.
The game comes to a head during the assault on a TigerDirect store (there are several product placements throughout) where the resistance army uses white phosphorous against the Koreans. Its a brutal scene that grabs the player's attention but not one of the only big action moments.

(The infamous willy pete scene. It shocked me when I first saw it and heard Connor say "Let'em burn.")

While each voice lends itself well to the character, they lack any sort of personality besides "soldier" and you'll hear Connor the most during playtime. The other voice you hear a lot is during the level loads where the DJ for the Voice of Freedom radio network gives news to what you and your team have been doing. The game could have used more depth by exploring the short list of characters but its main focus is on the war. Understandable but a connection with them would have been a welcomed thing.
The main star of the game is the explosions, which some could rock a home theater system given the chance. Grenades and rockets give off nice booms and you feel a sense of urgency when you hear a helicopter off in the distance, knowing that you can't take it on by yourself. Each gun has its own unique sound and while they are fun to shoot, they go through so many bullets that you may not have time to pick a favorite. You'll be grabbing guns off the ground so often that the game gives off an air of "fire and forget."
The soundtrack ranges from a pure orchestral score that gives a sense of forlorn and can quickly change direction to a mix of rock- or techno-infused orchestra. Most of the time its background noise but given the chance its really very moving. The soundtrack is available to buy both physically and digitally for those who are into collecting game memorabilia. 

Since THQ is dead (R.I.P.) and the servers are gone, the game's single player campaign is now the only attraction left, but even without multiplayer its still worth picking up a copy for cheap just to experience the short but awesome campaign a couple of times. It will frustrate you a lot with the cheap deaths but changing tactics is a smart idea to follow and will save you from having to constantly restart checkpoints. You cannot take on the brunt of the enemies yourself and while this may lead to a new way of thinking, here its just to show you that you can only take about seven bullets before biting the dust.
Personally I want to keep playing it and I keep wishing that it had been longer with more situations to deal with. Throw in a decision-making moment that turns the tide of the game. Give us a chance to command others. A few vehicles to drive. Something!
We'll just have to wait and see what Crytek brings us with Homefront 2.

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Sunday, December 1, 2013

A Second Look @ Black

(Images taken from

Upon its release, Black was labeled as "gun porn," a kind of game with so many guns that it should have been classified as such. It was touted as having cinematic quality gameplay, destructible environments, an award-winning soundtrack, and an engaging story. The world was your playground to blow up as you saw fit. And for the first half of the game, it does this well.

Black puts you in the shoes of Sergeant First Class Jack Keller, who in the opening live-action and proceeding (unskippable) cutscenes is being interrogated while in chains. What unfolds is a story of betrayal, disobeyed orders, and uncovering international terrorist plots. Or something. It is really hard to follow because the story does little to draw the player in. Let's face it: all you really care about is shooting stuff.
As Keller, you and your team are running through a war-torn city in Russia attempting to hunt down the leader of a high-tech and highly-trained terrorist organization. Along the way orders are disobeyed, plots are uncovered, enemies are mowed down, and things are blown up. Its a typical summer blockbuster story held together with duct tape. 

The gameplay is as simple as a formula can get for an FPS game: pick up a gun and shoot your way through the levels. Staying undetected isn't needed as it only means you have to shoot less bullets. One drawback is that once enemies know your position they lock on and know where you are even if you approach from a different position. They're less like human AI and more like scared hunting dogs. Their shooting is relentless, never running out of bullets but they lack intelligence, the only way to quickly dispatch them is with a tricky headshot. In this game, you need to aim for the upper part of the head rather than just the whole face. One would think a helmet would be more likely to stop a bullet than someone's nose.
Multiplayer is non-existent and in exchange each map is very large, taking around 45-60 minutes to complete, depending on how you want to play or how many times you die. The total game clocks in around 12 hours. That isn't bad, but when compared to other games of the same era, which some had longer campaigns and multiplayer, its a wonder why the graphics weren't touched up in replacement.
There's no button interference, no jumping or sprinting, which makes backtracking a boring task. The ability to screw on a silencer to some weapons is mapped to one of the face buttons. You can look down the scopes, reload, melee, and crouch. The usual. There are a lot of objects littered throughout the levels and all of them can be destroyed, meaning you'll be hard pressed to find cover in a SNAFU.

The orchestral soundtrack is a great one and lends itself well to the environments and the overall mood. On the Xbox, you can switch it out for a custom soundtrack so you can feel free to blast away enemies with whatever tunes you fancy.
Since the guns are the main attractions, the attention to sound detail is perfect. Each gun has its own unique and powerful sound. There is honestly nothing quite like letting loose with an M249 machine gun against a small horde of oncoming enemies.
The voice acting is awfully dry and doesn't show any emotion behind the acting. The cutscenes are the same way. Any talking is just ignorable at best.

The level designs range from several bombed-out cities, to a bridge, and finally a jail. Its not much and its not impressive at all. The "destructible" environments include anything from cars, crates, pillars, gas tanks, a few walls, and red barrels. The game rarely gets intense and the best moments usually come from a large explosion. You never feel above the enemies, you are just as easily taken down as they are. Some levels can be a bit confusing to navigate since it never directly tells you where to go. Sometimes you just have to hunt for the way yourself. You will also find yourself stuck on more than one invisible wall several times throughout each level. You can't just walk off the sides of stairs, the only times you can fall is from certain areas, otherwise there's an invisible wall to protect you.

All this serves as a distraction from what the game really is: a shallow FPS that was caught up in the hype of the genre at the time. Linear levels, poor AI, a typical selection of guns, and a poor story to hold it all together. What it has is a long, narrow-minded, even ignorable story, repetitive gameplay, a meager selection of guns, and the type of brooding similar to an emo teenager: its just a phase, and once you're halfway through this game you'll want to move on to something else. Gathering all the intel throughout the game unlocks nothing more than the requirements to advance to the next level in hard and black ops modes. They serve no purpose in the story and generally don't matter to the overall package. The end of the game comes abruptly with a cutscene and the credits roll. That's it.
There's no multiplayer, and the short campaign will either leave you wanting more or a deep feeling of disappointment. The back of the box says to "Get creative with your kills." The problem with that statement is that there is little creativity to be had.
There is no "wow factor." Even reloading takes away from the game as it seems to put an emphasis on it. The background blurs and Keller takes his sweet time to do it right. This becomes a major problem when in the middle of a firefight, instead of focusing your reticule dot on the next target, you can no longer see them because it wants you to pay attention to the action of reloading the gun. It's embarrassing.

Its not "full" of anything, even itself. It never has moments where its confident in what its doing. It doesn't do much to draw the player in to its world of shady black operations. If I could at least say one good thing about Black is that it sticks to its guns, literally. Every enemy drops a weapon that you can collect so you're never close to running out of ammo. It tries, but at the turn of the hardware cycle, trying wasn't enough. More weapon selections, more areas, a more detailed storyline, and a bigger emphasis on play style is what would have made this a great game.
If you're a fan of the run-and-gun FPS genre then Black deserves at least one playthrough. You can find it either on the original Xbox or PS2 for cheap or as a downloadable "Xbox Original" on the XBLA for $10. Despite all this it, its not hard to justify as a purchase for anyone else. Its a good, solid action game with long levels, amazing sound quality, and steady gameplay. It is definitely worth at least one playthrough.

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