Monday, May 23, 2016

Dark Souls 3 Doesn't Suck .... Or Does It?

After the colossal disappointment of Dark Souls II, it would be appropriate to say that I had pretty low expectations for Dark Souls III. Although, I suppose it would be more accurate to say that I simply had no expectations for Dark Souls III. Despite all of my criticism against Dark Souls II, I still found it a deeply engaging experience, and I enjoy the core gameplay of the Souls series enough that a single lukewarm experience wouldn't be enough to turn me off from future installments. With Dark Souls III, I wasn't going to expect some sort of grand, transcendent experience like the original Demon's Souls, or even the first Dark Souls -- instead, I was just going to play it and try to enjoy it like I would any other video game.

Reviewing Dark Souls III is a difficult task for me because I have two divergent opinions about it. On the one hand, it feels like the least rushed and most polished of the three Dark Souls games, but on the other hand, it also feels like it's lacking in content compared to either of the previous two games. Despite that, I've put twice as many hours into Dark Souls III than I put into either Dark Souls or Dark Souls II, with 135 hours spanning multiple characters and multiple playthroughs. It was so addicting that I'd sometimes play for eight hours straight without stepping away to eat lunch or dinner, or play until four in the morning when I had to be up at nine the next day. And yet, after all that time, I've found myself progressively more annoyed and disappointed. There's all this extra stuff I still want to do, in terms of builds and playstyles, but I just can't bring myself to keep playing anymore, unless the game gets some serious patches, because the flaws have become almost unbearable.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

STALKER: Call of Pripyat - Review

STALKER: Call of Pripyat is the third game in the STALKER series, a trio of open-world survival-horror FPS games set in the irradiated "Zone" around the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine, following a fictitious second blowout in 2006. As a result of all the radiation (and other mysterious forces), the Zone has become an inhospitable place full of violent mutants and dangerous scientific anomalies -- small, localized spaces that defy the laws of physics, like gravity wells that pull you off the ground and rip you to pieces, or spots of earth that shoot fire when you step on them. Some of the mutants have even developed powers of telekinesis, invisibility, and mind control. The only people who venture into the Zone are scientists looking to study the anomalies, and treasure hunters known as "stalkers" hoping to find valuable "artifacts" contained in and around anomalies, which bestow their carriers with special powers like accelerated blood clotting or extra strength.

Call of Pripyat follows the events of Shadow of Chernobyl, in which you, as an amnesiac stalker known as the "marked one," managed to disable a device called the "brain scorcher," which had been keeping people from reaching the center of the Zone. With the demise of the brain scorcher, the Ukrainian government launched a series of helicopters to survey the area in preparation for a large-scale military raid on the CNPP. All five of the helicopters crashed in the Zone before reaching the CNPP. You play as Major Degtyarev, member of the Ukrainian Security Services, on an undercover reconnaissance mission investigating the helicopter crashes. You begin the game on the outskirts of the Zone in the Zaton swamps, before advancing to the Yanov Railway station and Jupiter manufacturing plant, and eventually, reaching the city of Pripyat itself.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

My Top 10 Favorite First-Person Shooters

In my recent review of the No One Lives Forever series, I made the comment that those games were among my favorite first-person shooters of all time. That's how I felt when I first played them ten years ago, and replaying them a few weeks ago reminded me of just how much fun they remain, even to this day. That got me thinking: where would I actually rank them among the dozens of FPS games I've played in my lifetime? Thus, after some thought and consideration, I came up with this list of my top ten favorite first-person shooters. Spoiler alert: No One Lives Forever and Doom will be somewhere on this list.

The games that made it on to this list, as well as their relative rankings, are based on the following criteria: (1) How good do I feel the game is, (2) How much of an impact did the game have on me as a gamer, and (3) How interested would I be in replaying the game right now. I also wanted to include only games where FPS gameplay is the primary, defining element; a game like Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines would rank higher than a lot of games on this list, but it's an RPG first and foremost, so I had to exclude it. And as much as I wanted to include Metroid Prime, it's really not an FPS at its heart, even though FPS gameplay is a major part of it. Spoiler alert: Vampire Bloodlines and Metroid Prime will not be on this list.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Great Games You Never Played: The "No One Lives Forever" Series

The Operative: No One Lives Forever and its sequel, No One Lives Forever 2: A Spy in HARM's Way, are a series of first-person shooters developed by Monolith Productions in 2000 and 2002, in which players take the role of 1960s secret agent Cate Archer trying to stop a villainous criminal organization from taking over the world. Overshadowed by major releases like GoldenEye, Half-Life, Deus Ex, and Halo, the NOLF series achieved only moderate financial success at the time and was soon abandoned by Monolith in favor of new series like Condemned and FEAR. Fox Interactive since allowed the copyright to fall into no man's land, preventing the games from ever being made available for digital downloads via Steam or GOG, thus cementing the series' cult status in the annals of video game history.

I played these games for the first time in late 2006 and considered them to be some of the best first-person shooters I'd ever played. Playing them again now, 10 years later (and 16 years after the first game's initial release), I can definitely tell how much these games have aged, but the things that made them so novel back in the day -- the story, the characters, the atmosphere, and the humor -- are just as good now as they were then. Some of the gameplay elements feel a little outdated, granted, but these were somewhat groundbreaking games for their time, being some of the first first-person shooters to allow and encourage stealth, while their emphasis on using spy gadgetry to complete your objectives in a story-driven, swinging 60s setting makes these games truly stand out from the crowd.

Perhaps the biggest testament to NOLF's legacy is how well the series compares to other games of its time. When Half-Life came along in 1998, it forever changed the way shooters were made, yet in the years immediately following its release, few shooters adhered as closely to its lessons as NOLF1, which took the immersive gameplay and narrative-driven level progression from Half-Life and applied it to a more cinematic experience. GoldenEye was a defining genesis for console shooters; NOLF1 took its spy gadgetry and thematic objectives and gave them a more robust focus that, arguably, made NOLF1 a better James Bond game than GoldenEye itself. And when Deus Ex turned people's heads with its inclusion of RPG-style leveling and skills, NOLF2 did the same thing and vastly improved its own gameplay. All-the-while, the NOLF games were some of the first FPSs to allow players the freedom to choose how they'd go about completing a level, by allowing you to stealth your way past guards or to go in guns blazing.

In essence, the NOLF series takes the best elements of these iconic, classic games and blends them together with strong writing, interesting characters, a compelling story, an amusing sense of humor, and some of the most memorable level sequences of its time into games that are even better than the sum of their parts. It's even more impressive when you consider that there really are a lot of good parts to these games, with the wide variety of guns, the different types of ammunition, all of Cate's cool spy gadgets, the vehicles, the variety of mission types, and all the different locations. The story offers a solid premise with a lot of good twists and hooks, and the silly, lighthearted Austin Powers-esque atmosphere offers the series a uniquely refreshing flavor that will have you laughing at some of its more absurd moments, or else simply smiling at the realization that these games just want you to have fun, plain and simple.

Friday, January 8, 2016

The New 2014 Thief Reboot Sucks

Dear game developers: if you're going to make a new game in an established series, especially one that's been dormant for years, please give it a title that distinguishes it from the previous entries in the series. Don't give it the exact same name as the original game, or the series in the general. When I type something like "Thief mechanics" or "Thief level design" into a search engine, how does it know which game I'm referring to? When I'm talking with people about the newest game in the series, what do I call it? The new Thief? The Thief reboot? Thief 2014? Thief 4? Thi4f.? It drove me nuts with Tomb Raider, and I'm not looking forward to being in this same situation again when Doom comes out in 2016. I mean really, this whole trend is getting ridiculous and needs to stop.

I pretty much knew from the beginning, when Eidos Montreal released the teaser with the title officially stylized as "Thi4f," that the game was going to be rubbish. Mind you, I pretty much expect to be disappointed by virtually all mainstream AAA games these days, but my cynicism kicks in even stronger when it comes to revivals of beloved classics, and Eidos Montreal's efforts with Deus Ex: Human Revolution left me more skeptical than optimistic that they could do a better job reviving Thief. Looking past the rubbish name, I find that the game itself is rubbish too. It's not just that this is a bad Thief game, and it most certainly is -- it's disappointing even as a game in general. The fact that this is supposedly "Thief" just makes it that much harder to stomach.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Movie Roundup: Mini-Reviews

I spent about 20 hours in the back seat of a car this Christmas season, traveling across the country to visit family, which meant I had a lot of free time to kill. In the past I would spend that time playing handheld video games or reading books, but year after year I found myself not having enough time to finish some of those games or books during the trip, and then would never get around to finishing them once I got back home. This year, I decided to take advantage of my big-ass smart phone and download a bunch of movies to watch. I've now watched 11 movies in the past week, including the new Star Trek Star Wars movie on the big screen.

I don't watch a lot of movies, so my critical eye is not trained enough to write a lot of proper reviews for the movies I actually do watch -- with rare exceptions. But, since it's been a while since my last article and it's taking me forever to finish my Thief 2014 review, I figured I'd throw out a bunch of mini reviews for the plethora of movies I watched this week. In the full article, you'll find brief synopses and spoiler-free reviews of, in no particular order: Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Interstellar, Gravity, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Mist, Avenged, Forever's End, Exile, Ex Machina, I'll Follow You Down, and Under the Skin

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Thief: Deadly Shadows is Surprisingly Good

There are two things I've been persistently hearing about Thief III: Deadly Shadows for over a decade: first, is that it's an inferior disappointment compared to its highly-regarded predecessors, and second, is that the Shalebridge Cradle level is so good that it completely makes up for all of the game's shortcomings. Upon completing the game, I feel like I've been somewhat misled all these years. There's a ton of notable detraction from the precedents established in Thief and Thief 2, but it's really not a bad game at all, or even a bad Thief game. The Shalebridge Cradle, meanwhile, is a really well-designed level, but it didn't impress me nearly as much as the constant years of hype led me to expect. 

There are merits for both arguments -- I can agree with both, to an extent -- but I feel like people have been exaggerating the extreme positives and negatives of this game for years, when Deadly Shadows is just kind of an average game all around. There's a lot to criticize in this game (and indeed, I'll be doing a lot of that below), but there's some really good stuff at work here, too. It's a pity that the game had to compromise so much for a new platform and a new audience, and that some of its more brilliant ideas didn't work out like Ion Storm intended, because I actually kind of like Deadly Shadows, despite all of its flaws.