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. 

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Thief 1 vs Thief 2: Which is Better?

Thief II: The Metal Age is technically a sequel -- it's in the name, after all -- but it's so much like its predecessor, Thief: The Dark Project, that it doesn't really feel like a sequel. It's basically the same game, but with 15 new missions, a couple new items, and a few technical upgrades to the engine. I guess Looking Glass Studios realized they had a pretty good formula on their hands, and chose not to do anything too extravagant with the sequel. The two games are so fundamentally similar that people tend to lump them together as one collective entity, because if you like one, then you'll like other.

And yet, people definitely have their preferences, with some people liking Thief 1 more for its darker supernatural atmosphere, and others liking Thief 2 more for its more robust level design. Some people find the undead enemies in Thief 1 to be a turn off, while others think the same of the robotic enemies in Thief 2. Having played Thief 2 immediately after finishing Thief 1, there are certain things I like and dislike about it; it's a tough call trying to pick one over the other.

I'm not going to treat this article as a stand-alone review of Thief 2, because that would feel mostly redundant, since I've already covered all of the basics in my review of Thief: The Dark Project. Most of what I wrote in that article applies to Thief 2 as well, so I'd recommend you start there so you have an idea of my thoughts going into this review. I'm also not going to make this a direct side-by-side, in-depth comparison article, either, because the games are so similar I can't talk at much length about how they differ. Rather, this review will be a more simple look at Thief 2 and, in general, how it stacks up to its predecessor.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Looking Back at Thief: The Dark Project

I remember playing Thief II: The Metal Age about 10 years ago and enjoying it quite a bit. Alas, I only played a few levels before something drew me away from it. I mostly remember breaking into mansions, warehouses, and slinking through the city streets on my noble quest to liberate as much gold as possible from the city's aristocratic elite. I thought I knew what I was getting into by jumping back into the series where it at all started, with Thief: The Dark Project; I was pretty surprised, then, when I went into the first game and found myself descending into giant crypts and haunted cathedrals to sneak past and, more often, fight off platoons of undead zombies and skeletons, among other sinister, twisted monstrosities.

Developed by Looking Glass Studios and released in 1998, Thief: The Dark Project was a pioneer of first-person stealth gaming. Its design was years ahead of its time, with the advanced lighting and three-dimensional sound effects offering an unprecedented level of immersive feedback for would-be thieves trying to hide in the shadows and avoid detection. It's impressive, really, how well it holds up after all this time; games have come a long way in the past 17 years, and yet modern stealth games really aren't that much more sophisticated than Thief. It would not be that ridiculous to claim that no other game has handled stealth as well as the original Thief, with the possible exception of Thief II, but that's a discussion for another article. For now, it's time to take a look at Thief: The Dark Project (the Gold Edition, specifically) to figure out what's good and what's not good with it.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs Sucks

Halloween is right around the corner, which means it's time for another disappointing horror game that couldn't possibly live up to my high standards nor rouse any ounce of emotion from my cold, blackened heart. This year, it's Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, a sequel of sorts to one of my favorite horror games of all time, Amnesia: The Dark Descent. In an appropriately horrifying twist, however, Frictional Games decided not to handle the sequel themselves, and instead handed the license to the team responsible for the torpidly bland Dear Esther. Now don't get me wrong, the retail release of Dear Esther is a solid artistic expression, but it features no meaningful gameplay whatsoever and left me beyond skeptical that the Chinese Room could pull off a successful Amnesia game.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Talos Principle: Probably Worth Playing

What is the difference between a robot and a human being? If you put a person's brain in a mechanical suit, is he or she still a person? What if you replaced the brain with a computer that performed all the necessary functions of the brain, while still retaining that person's memories and personality? What does it mean to be alive? What does it mean to be a person? At what point does the line between human and artificial intelligence begin to blur?

These are the types of questions that The Talos Principle -- a first-person puzzler by the team behind the Serious Sam series -- explores as the player assumes the role of a nameless robot going through testing chambers in a computer simulation. Guided by the voice of the God-like Elohim, you're instructed to visit all the worlds in his creation and complete each of his tasks so that you can achieve eternal life. All you must do is collect enough sigils hidden away in each chamber, and above all else, stay away from the tower. Do you take it on faith that he'll lead you down the road to eternal life, or do you get inquisitive and try to find out what exactly is at the top of the tower, and what is the real purpose of this world you're in?

The Talos Principle is often compared to Portal, and those comparisons are certainly valid in a general sense. Both games, after all, are first-person puzzlers that have you going through test chambers while a disembodied voice talks to you and everything may not actually be as it seems. The actual puzzle mechanisms are strikingly similar as well, with both games featuring weighted cubes that you place on pressure plates, force field doors, redirecting laser beams, and devices that catapult you (and objects) through the room, among others. If you liked either of the Portal games, then it's a safe bet that you'll probably enjoy The Talos Principle. In some ways, I'd say it's even better than Valve's lauded masterpiece(s), though as usual, I have some issues with it as well.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Pillars of Eternity: The White March Pt.1 - Review

The White March - Part 1 is the first of at least two planned DLC-sized expansions for Pillars of Eternity, Obsidian Entertainment's recent isometric RPG. See my review of the base game here (short version, I liked it a lot). This expansion introduces a new region of the world map with several explorable areas, a bunch of new quests, new enemies, new types of equipment, and a couple new companions. The new content takes place roughly in the middle of the main campaign, once you've begun the second of three acts and have gained access to the player stronghold, Caed Nua, but before moving into the game's final dungeon.  

It certainly makes sense for Obsidian to put the DLC in the middle of the game -- it wouldn't really work if it took place after the base game, since the ending specifically talks about your companions going their separate ways and describing their lives in the months that follow your adventure -- but it's a bit of a nuisance in practice. For anyone who's already completed the game, that means you have to load a save from before the "point of no return" and sort of pretend like you didn't already beat the game, and for anyone playing for the first time, the DLC will feel like a huge deviation from the careful narrative pacing and mechanical balancing of the base game.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Pillars of Eternity Review

I consider Obsidian Entertainment to be one of the best developers of modern role-playing games. That should come as little surprise, considering all of its founders were former leaders of Black Isle Studios who worked on games like Fallout, Planescape: Torment, and Icewind Dale -- some of the most influential and iconic RPGs of the late 90s. Their latest game, Pillars of Eternity, is not only one of the best RPGs of the past decade, it's one of the best RPGs ever made.

Successfully kickstarted in 2012, Pillars of Eternity (then known as "Project Eternity") set a record for the highest-funded video game ever on Kickstarter, bringing in nearly $4,000,000 from project backers. Faced with budget cuts and layoffs as the result of a cancelled project, the outpouring of support for "Project Eternity" allowed Obsidian to stay in business and take its time creating what would arguably become its magnum opus, while also playing a key contributing role in the recent revival of "old school" RPGs. Pillars of Eternity is a brand new intellectual property (only the second original IP Obsidian have ever released) that plays like any classic RPG from the 90s, complete with the isometric camera angle and mouse-driven interface, aided by some crucial updates and a lot of modern polish.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Board Game Review - Shadowrun: Crossfire

Shadowrun: Crossfire is a cooperative deck-building card game for 1-4 players. Set in the "fantasy meets cyberpunk" world of the Shadowrun tabletop role-playing game, players take the role of shadowrunners (aka, mercenaries for hire) attempting to complete dangerous "gray ops" missions for the megacorporations that control all of society in the Sixth World. Missions offer different objectives and challenges while altering the game's structure, but the core gameplay mechanisms remain the same from mission to mission: draw cards from your deck, play them against obstacles, earn money for defeating obstacles, and improve your deck by buying stronger cards from the black market.

Taking its cue from the tabletop RPG, Shadowrun: Crossfire provides a campaign-style gaming experience, allowing players to create their own character who will gain experience and earn permanent upgrades over multiple playthroughs. Players can choose from one of five races (human, elf, dwarf, ork, or troll), which have different health caps, starting money, and starting hand sizes, and can pick one of four roles that each comes with its own specialized deck of starter cards. There's the street samurai who uses guns and melee weapons to control the battlefield, the mage who casts spells to deal high spike damage to single targets, the face who uses social skills to influence the black market and support his allies, and the decker who uses technology to manipulate his discard pile.

Players earn experience points (known as karma in Shadowrun lore) for completing missions, and, in the case of the "Crossfire" mission, for successfully aborting it after a runner's health goes critical, but before anyone dies. In addition to marking your character's name on the character sheets, you can also mark his or her earned karma, which can be spent on stickers that you permanently attach to the character sheet, thus permanently upgrading that character. Upgrades can be purchased in five-karma (5K) increments, ranging from 5K to 50K in cost. Basic 5K upgrades will let you start the game with an extra card in your hand, or increase your maximum health by one; for 50K, you can take an upgrade that will let you deal bonus wild damage, or double the value of basic cards that match your role.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Impressions of Killing Floor 2: Early Access

The original Killing Floor is one of my most-played games of all time, second only to the Korean MMORPG Lineage 2, so I was naturally eager to get my hands on Killing Floor 2 as soon as possible. Unfortunately, that meant playing the early access edition on Steam, a business model I've avoided like the plague because I don't like the idea of paying to beta test a product. My love for Killing Floor is so great, however, that I took the plunge on early access, anyway, because I wanted to be a part of the game's evolution from the beginning.

For those of you who've been living under a rock, Killing Floor is a cooperative first-person shooter in which you and up to five teammates attempt to survive against increasingly difficult waves of onslaught from genetically-altered humanoid experiments, commonly referred to as "zeds." Consistently one of Steam's most actively-played online shooters over its six year lifespan, its appeal stemmed from its variety of mechanically distinct enemies, its fun and exotic maps, and its sheer amount of powerful, satisfying weapons. It's a classically entertaining formula that allows for timeless enjoyment blasting enemies to bits, and its leveling system gives you a rewarding sense of progression as you get stronger and move up to higher difficulties, which come with their own new mechanics to learn and master.

Killing Floor 2 has been in early access for two weeks now, and I've been playing it steadily ever since launch day. It's inappropriate to do a formal review of the game at this point, since it's still missing a lot of intended content, and a lot is going to change between now and its official release -- therefore, consider this an "early impressions" piece that takes an early look at how it compares to the original Killing Floor and, more importantly, whether it's worth $30 in its current state. If you're unfamiliar with Killing Floor, consider reading my original review of the original game (although it's really out-dated at this point) before continuing. 

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Holy Hell, Ziggurat is Pretty Cool

  1. (noun) a temple of Sumerian origin in the form of a pyramidal tower, consisting of a number of stories and having about the outside a broad ascent winding round the structure, presenting the appearance of a series of terraces. (source)
  2. (noun) a rogue-lite first-person shooter video game in which the player, armed with an arsenal of magical wands, staves, spellbooks, and alchemical weapons, attempts to survive and advance through the floors of a randomly-generated ziggurat, battling roomfuls of enemies while leveling up and acquiring new perks, items, and spells. 
I tend to prefer games with a finely-crafted campaign, that include a definite beginning and end; these "go until you die, then start over" games often seem like a waste of time to me. As such, I've never been much of a fan of procedural death labyrinths. Ziggurat is one of the few exceptions. It does all the things you'd expect of a rogue-lite, but what really sold me were the gameplay videos demonstrating its fast-paced, old-school action. I have a fondness for shooters like Painkiller -- games in which you frantically run about killing hordes of exotic enemies in exotic locations with exotic weapons -- and Ziggurat scratches that itch in colorful, magic spades.

Monday, April 13, 2015

System Shock 2 is Infinitely Better than BioShock

System Shock 2 and BioShock are essentially the exact same game, except one has a cyberpunk theme set in space, and the other has a steampunk theme set underwater. Both are first-person shooters with a wide range of guns and multiple types of ammunition; both feature RPG-style upgrades for character abilities and weapons; both include a variety of "magic" spells that can be used in conjunction with firearms; both feature a setting that's been ruined by horrific disaster; both feature environmental storytelling with audio logs and ghostly apparitions; and both have an important, memorable twist revelation in the story. They even have virtually identical level/plot progression. Those are just the main overarching similarities; when you examine them closer, you notice a ton of smaller, individual things that make appearances in both games, like vending machines and respawn chambers.

If BioShock is basically a carbon copy of the esteemed System Shock 2, and is developed by many of the same influential people who made SS2, with the benefit of a much stronger engine and eight years of industry advancements, then BioShock should be a definite improvement over the classic masterpiece, right? If nothing else, it should at least be "as good as" SS2, right? Everyone had high hopes that it would recapture the magic of SS2 and put a halt to the growing trend of simplifying and "dumbing down" mainstream games. BioShock was indeed a smarter, more complex shooter than virtually anything else on the market at the time -- hence why it was so immensely popular -- but the sad fact is that BioShock itself is merely a simplified, dumbed-down version of System Shock 2.

This article isn't going to be a strict review of BioShock, because it's kind of moot at this point. It's been out long enough, and was popular enough that I'm sure you already know everything you need to know about it. Rather, this is going to be more of a description of what's wrong with BioShock, with comparisons between System Shock 2 and BioShock. For a little more context going into this article, consider reading my recent review of System Shock 2 before continuing.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

BioShock is Infinitely Better than System Shock 2

UPDATE: Click here to read the real article.

I know I said at the end of my review of System Shock 2 that I would be following it up with an article "explaining precisely why BioShock doesn't live up to the legacy of its esteemed predecessor," but when I got around to actually playing it, I realized that BioShock is actually a superior version of System Shock 2 in virtually every way possible. Scratch what I said in the previous article -- there's no reason to go back and suffer through System Shock 2's archaic interface and dated visuals when it's much easier to just play BioShock, and especially since it provides an all-around better experience, anyway. So, let's jump into the analysis, shall we?

Friday, March 13, 2015

System Shock 2: A Classic Masterpiece

System Shock 2. The grandfather and holy grail of FPS-RPGs. It was so monumental back in 1999 that it shaped many elements of game design that have become standard practice over the last 16 years. Games like Deus Ex, Aliens vs Predator, Vampire Bloodlines, Doom 3, BioShock, Dead Space, and Fallout 3/NV, all owe their existence at least partly to the innovations established with System Shock 2. Even games like STALKER, Borderlands, and Portal have drawn influences from the almighty System Shock 2.

Despite its immense critical acclaim, winning numerous "Game of the Year" awards and frequently finding its way into modern "Best Games of All Time" lists, System Shock 2 wasn't much of a commercial success at the time. Falling between the cracks of Half-Life in 1998 and Deus Ex in 2000, its legacy was that of an obscure cult phenomenon that few people actually played -- but those who did loved it vehemently -- until BioShock came out in 2007 and renewed everyone's interest in its spiritual predecessor. Even then, finding a working copy was a little difficult, so the game remained largely unplayed and inaccessible until GOG and Steam released digital copies in 2013. Now you have no excuse not to play one of the greatest video games ever made.

The real question, however, as it always is with these "old" games, is whether or not System Shock 2 is actually worth playing in this day and age. After all, lots of old games just haven't aged very well, and why would it even be necessary to play System Shock 2 when there's already BioShock, a more-modern adaptation of virtually the same game design? The answer is simple: because System Shock 2 is a better game, and it still plays remarkably well, even after 16 years of aging. I'll get into more direct comparisons in another article; for now, I just want to talk about System Shock 2 as an independent game and how it's stood the test of time.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Morrowind Sucks, aka, Morrowind is Overrated

Like everyone else, I have fond, nostalgic memories of playing Morrowind back in the early 2000s, but I was never able to get into it properly. I put about 10-20 hours into it, then gave up and lost interest. And yet, every time I've seen screenshots or heard its music over the past decade, I've felt a desire to reinstall the game and relive the glory days that everyone always harkens back to when discussing Oblivion or Skyrim. And then, whenever I do, I'm soon reminded of why I was never able to appreciate Morrowind, even back in its prime.

It's a shame, really, because I think Morrowind truly is the best of the modern Elder Scrolls games. It has the most interesting world to explore with its completely unique fauna, wildlife, and architecture, and it has the deepest, most complex stats-based RPG mechanics of any modern Elder Scrolls game. There's a reason, after all, that Morrowind was such a popular hit in 2002. For many young gamers, it was their first experience diving into such a deeply rich, complex open-world; for me, I'd already been spoiled by Gothic and Gothic 2, which made it painfully obvious how soulless and mediocre Morrowind really was.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Arx Fatalis: Old School Game in a Modern Skin

Arx Fatalis is a first-person dungeon-crawling action-RPG from 2002 by Arkane Studios, the team who would later go on to develop Dark Messiah of Might and Magic in 2006 and Dishonored in 2012. Inspired by the Ultima Underworld games from the early 90s, Arx Fatalis is a modern adaptation of old school design. The world of Arx Fatalis is set entirely underground, after a dying sun forces humans, goblins, and trolls to retreat to the old dwarven mines and rebuild their cities underground. You play a nameless human who wakes up in a goblin prison cell with no memory of his past or his own identity. While attempting to recover your lost memories, you learn that you were sent to Arx to prevent an evil god from awakening, which becomes your main quest for the remainder of the game.

Like Arkane's other games, the draw in Arx Fatalis is that it offers players a lot of freedom to decide how to play the game, in terms of building your character in an open class system, how you choose to approach situations and solve puzzles, and how you go about exploring the world. This isn't a thorough, in-depth RPG with dialogue options and multiple solutions to quests, or an open-world sandbox game that lets you go wherever you want and do whatever you want, but it takes elements from those types of games and implements them in a more streamlined fashion. Normally, I would consider streamlining a very bad thing in an RPG, but the execution in Arx Fatalis offers plenty of satisfying depth while keeping the game's pace moving forward in a meaningful direction.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

RAGE: Not Worth a Clever Review Headline

By now I'm sure you're all aware of the colossal "ho hum" that is RAGE, id Software's first (and only) game since Doom 3, which came out way back in 2004. Seven years later, in 2011, they released Rage (as I'm stylizing it from here on out), boasting that it would feature a large world to explore, complete with vehicles, NPCs, towns, side missions, merchants, upgrades, and a crafting system -- a lot of "firsts" for the pioneers of the first-person shooter. The problem, you see, is that other games were already starting to do this at the time (and even a few years prior), and those other games not named Rage did the exact same thing, but better.

Rage is set in a post-apocalyptic future, after a meteor wipes out nearly all life on Earth and leaves much of the planet's surface a barren wasteland. Survivors have banded together in makeshift settlements to defend against bandits and mutants, while the Authority -- a group of technologically advanced soldiers -- attempts to govern the wasteland and restore unity with oppressive force. You play the role of an Ark survivor, a group of subjects put into cryogenic stasis deep underground, in order to repopulate Earth and rebuild civilization. When you emerge as the sole survivor of your Ark, over a hundred years after the meteor strike, you enter the wasteland on a mission to do .... something.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Board Game Review: The X-Files

In The X-Files, a board game by IDWGames and Kevin Wilson, one to four players take the role of FBI agents Fox Mulder, Dana Scully, Walter Skinner, and Alex Krycek moving across the continental United States solving X-Files cases as they appear, in order to collect enough evidence to unravel the shadow government agency known as the Syndicate. One player takes the role of the Cigarette Smoking Man, who is working against the other players to cover up evidence and delay them long enough to eventually win through attrition and shut down the X-Files department for good. 

On agents' turns, they perform some combination of moving from region to region across the board, trading cards with fellow agents in the same region, collecting influence (which serve basically as action points), and playing cards from their hand -- usually to "investigate" an active X-File case in their region. Each X-File requires a certain amount of "progress" to solve; if an agent plays a card that says "investigate 3," they place three "progress tokens" on the case, and continue playing cards (one at a time, in turn order) until the number of progress tokens matches or exceeds the required amount on the card. For each solved X-File, agents collect a certain amount of "evidence tokens" from a bag, which are used as currency to buy one of nine puzzle pieces that the agents have to acquire and assemble to win the game.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Deadly Premonition is Mind-Blowingly Awesome

You may have heard of Deadly Premonition, the open-world horror/thriller game from 2010 that proudly claims (on the back of the Director's Cut box, no less) to be "the most critically polarizing game of recent times." With a $20 price tag and review scores ranging from 2/10 on IGN to 10/10 on Destructoid, Deadly Premonition quickly earned a reputation for being "so bad it's good." Like a good "B movie," this was a game whose primary entertainment value seemed to derive from laughing at its failures and its generally awkward incompetence.

There's certainly plenty of reason to dislike Deadly Premonition. The graphics look 10 years out of date, the controls are clunky, the animations are ridiculous, the sound mixing is poorly balanced, the lip syncing is awful, and the music selection is often totally inappropriate. As a result of the clunky controls and the large open-world, the bulk of the actual gameplay feels pretty uncomfortable, and even a little boring, particularly in the beginning when you have very little reason to care about what's going on. Hidden beneath all of these superficial problems, however, is a comically bizarre, oddly fascinating, and uniquely surreal experience.