Thursday, 30 October 2008

Review: Far Cry 2

Format: Xbox 360 / PS3 / PC

Category: FPS
Players: 1-16
Publisher: Ubisoft

Roaming the Bush.

Now here's a game that looks at first to have it all. A grand arsenal of guns? Check. A vast and varied map? Check. Smart A.I? Check. However, let's look a little closer. Cover system? No. Satisfying gunplay? Nope. An actual sense of being lost in the wilderness? Never.

You see, Far Cry 2 is not what it at first seems. I was excited to begin with. Everything was in place. The graphics are certainly a cut above most FPS games and the clean and clear HUD made me smile. It basically looks like real life. The problem is once the bullets start flying this game falls apart. It just doesn't feel right. I can't explain it but I know many out there will just know what I mean. Shooting an enemy just isn't satisfying. Firing your weapon is a generic experience and there is just a total lack of intensity about the combat.

You do a lot of driving in Far Cry 2... until you discover the bus stops. Even after being teleported via a black loading screen to the bus' destination there is still a good deal of marching to be done. I say marching because jogging/running in this game is broken. Like the gunplay, it feels wrong. I guess the PC gamers out there (all remaining five of them) might have no issue with this whilst playing WASD style. Sadly, us console gamers do. Pressing down on the analog stick COD4 style to run is how it should be. However, not being able to easily change direction mid run is awkward. Also, a problem for all formats, comes the blemish that is the way that running means your vision will become blurred around the edges of the screen. This pointless effect seems designed with some aim of achieving realism in mind. However, this actually simulates nothing and just proves irritating and even enough to spark motion sickness with some.

There is no denying that there is a real exploration factor here. After the initial thirty or so minutes of missions that are indirectly designed to teach you the controls, you are free to do as you will. I took a vehicle, hit the road, and headed out into the wild. To begin with there was an amazing sense about this. The hot African sun bombards your windscreen as you negotiate thick foliage and ramshackle dirt tracks. The driving side of things is very well handled. You get a first person view of the inside of the vehicle and are free to look around whilst driving. You can also study your map, which you hold in your arms, and still move around. This simulated view is a far more immersive way of putting you in the driver's seat than something like GTA IV's bog standard external views and bizarre windscreen-mounted-cam view.

Your journey will eventually come to a firm halt whether on foot or off roading though. Regardless of what way you go, you'll encounter impenetrable rock faces that oddly seem to run parallel to the roads as if nature mapped those very paths. In other words, the map is sectioned up. It doesn't feel realistic. I wanted to just head into the bush with a pistol and a machete and just get lost in a wilderness. It just doesn't work that way. Head in a direction for long enough and you'll hit a mountain side. There is no way to climb rocks or devise elaborate methods of crossing over. The game just doesn't really give you that sense of battling against the elements and pulling through.

Far Cry 2 needed more in the way of an emphasis on survival. There should have been the option to buy a tent and deploy it whenever you wanted and use that as a save point. There should have been a way of collecting various resources in order to make stuff like primitive bows. I don't know. It just seemed to me to lack everything I wanted from such an African setting.

The missions with Far Cry 2 are your standard go and blow up some crates tasking objectives. To be honest, I didn't bother with many. Instead, I roamed the map and created my own story. I often 'pretend' things when playing these kinds of games. In my world, I was a lone sniper out to cause as much chaos as possible whilst remaining out of site. I moved from enemy checkpoint to enemy checkpoint and engaged with an old Springfield bolt action sniper rifle from a distance. After playing in this manner for several hours I had basically unlocked almost every location marked on the map.

It was certainly fun. However, it was rather a pointless tour of duty. Sniping is completely effortless, with no scope drift or bullet drop, and the enemy make no effort to hunt you down. I wanted to see a collective effort by them to track me. I wanted to see swarms of them rambling through the vines, coming to get me. Instead, I just saw a load of checkpoints; where enemies patrol and never budge from. Once killed, they eventually respawn, ready for it all to happen again.

Many reviews go on about the awesome fire effects in this game. Personally, I think it's pretty worrying when the best thing you can say about a game is that the fire looks cool. Sure, it spreads around a little, only to then puff out into smoulder before you've got yourself a forest fire. Nothing burns for long and no major structure is destructible. I'll admit that on one occasion I was very impressed by the way fire can be used as a distraction. I sneaked over a promontory of rock where I had an overhead view of a few bad guys patrolling a... shed. I hurled a molotov and it lit the grass alight. They all ran off screaming 'fire' whilst I sniped them one by one. It's all good but just not enough.

Far Cry 2 is let down by its gunplay. Death animations aren't impressive. The blood effects are also poor. I wanted to see pools of the red stuff under bodies and entry and exit wounds. I also just wanted to see more realistic enemy behaviors. The A.I isn't stupid but the enemies don't strike me as organised. Okay, they're a bunch of militiamen with AK-47s and not much skill. However, this is no excuse for the way they never seem to just do human stuff like call for backup, stay in cover, or just run away.

There is a possibility here that I'm missing something regarding the A.I. You see, I ended up playing this game on the easy/normal difficulty settings. This was because otherwise, I just kept getting killed by crazy enemy jeep assaults (see further below) or just found it impossible to survive with enemies charging me and the sluggish control handling making precision firing next to impossible.

Just to cover it, I may as well bring up the game's multiplayer offering. To be blunt, it sucks. It feels dated, much like Hell's Highway's recent attempt. Also, it is another game that suffers from its lack of any co-op mode. The idea of roaming this vast world with a buddy to share the experience with would have made it all worthwhile. The hyped map editor is all very well but I'm just not into map making. At first glance it just looked too complicated to me and I doubt we will see many console players embrace it. It's interesting to note that at the time of writing the most popular custom map was a user created 'Shipment' from... yes you guessed it, Call of Duty 4. To me this was yet another example of multiplayer gaming truth number one: map design makes or breaks an online game. Map editors are all very well but they need to be backed up by... good maps.

I'm going to round this up with my final few points. The whole, 'omg I have Malaria, best take my meds', feature is BS. It shouldn't have made it into the game. You have to make sure you are stocked up with pills or otherwise you'll suddenly find yourself wondering the jungles and thinking you're under the influence of eight dried grams.

It was also sad to see this game suffer from the Oblivion style 'bandit on the road' syndrome. Whenever you drive across the road you're bound to encouter enemies driving jeeps and riding shotgun with a fixed MG. In other words, you'll get shot up and f*cked up unless you, too, cruise in a vehicle boasting some form of turret. You die, you die, you die. All because some jeep smashed into you and you had no time to grab cover.

This is a game that boasts it all but the execution is just lacking. It's just not that fun or satisfying to play. Combat is overly simplified and the marvellous world you roam lacks any real sense of life besides the generic evil militiamen and the odd zebra. This title is more a showcase than it is a computer game. It's a tech demo with a hefty pricetag for admission. If you're that desperate for some African sunsets, just get saving for that real trip.


+Visually stunning
+Uniquely realistic fire
+Pretty limitless freedom
+/-(But the map is sectioned up via rocky borders)
-Combat is generic and lacking in intensity
-No real sense of getting 'lost in the woods'

7.8 / 10
With freedom comes generic content and a dated FPS experience

by The Critical Alien
© 2008

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Brushing up on some Gears

I wonder quite how many people are doing, or have been contemplating doing, what I got up to for a great deal of last weekend. With the imminent release of Gears of War 2 for the Xbox 360, I felt it wise to return to some old ground with the original Gears of War. Released in late 2006, this is still one beast of a third-person shooter.

Playing Gears again reminded me of quite how good it was. Sometimes it's too easy as a gamer to knock games and take the truly important stuff for granted. Playing through it on the Insane difficulty setting with a pal over Xbox Live co-op affirmed for me one thing above everything else; that this game still remains to be bettered. No shooter has really come close to offering the level of co-op integration that exists in Gears. Sure, Vegas 1 & 2 gave us a few laughs, and no doubt Halo 3 kept parties keen well into the night, but there is no denying that in terms of integration of co-op gameplay Gears is the daddy.

I was also reminded of the simple fact that Gears just feels solid and smooth around the edges. It's in the details such as the way a bright orange glow will pierce bullet holes upon initial impact with solid surfaces. It's in the way the cover system is just flawless. It's in the way your A.I teammates just seem to get on with it and it's in the way the active reload feature keeps even reloading your weapon entertaining.

Frankly, I just forgot about the calibre of game Gears represented. I forgot how much of a marvel it was and remains today. I'm sure vast swarms of gamers will be revisiting this title over the next few weeks in preparation for the arrival of the sequel and I bet most of them conclude much the same as I; that in actuality we've seen little in the way of greatness over these last two years.

Call of Duty 4 stands out for me as the only truly special game to have come out since Gears. Again, the key with CoD4 was its polish. The 60 fps touch. The unique perk multiplayer. The engrossing story. The developers just had that special touch that makes a great game. GTA IV just didn't quite nail it for me atleast - not enough for me to call it great anyway. Halo 3 certainly didn't. The rest were never really in the competition.

Roll on Gears 2 then.

Saturday, 4 October 2008

Review: Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway

Format: Xbox 360 / PS3 / PC

Category: FPS
Players: 1-20
Publisher: Ubisoft

Got the t-shirt.

Literally. It came free with my copy of
Gearbox's latest tactical WW2 FPS; a game I've been pretty pumped for since... oh at least 2006! When it came in the mail it was one of those childish moments I seldom experience nowadays. Like a geek, I 'prepared' myself before settling in for a hardcore night of war gaming. How? By watching Saving Private Ryan and eating Pringles, of course.

I can't be bothered to type
Hell's Highway every time so from here on in this one's called Highway. I had a feeling Highway was going to do something special. Three years of development would surely ensure one hell of a game? You would think so, and you would be right to think so, for Highway delivers. There are a plethora of issues here though; most being minor, a few being major.

I'm going to be blunt here. Quite simply,
Highway is without doubt one of the finest FPS games I've ever played. It's also one of the very best WW2 era shooters put onto a disc. As war games go, this is a high point. However, it's a flawed game and some of its rougher elements are plain embarrassing for all concerned.

Highway is all about the single player experience. Forget the multiplayer. It's optionless, laggy, played by about 35 people, and blatantly just an afterthought. There is no party mode, clan system, or any sense that it's going to be a hit. It feels like the old days of online gaming and reminds me of early builds of Day of Defeat as opposed to a Cod 4 rival. This is a shame. I wasn't expecting a great deal from the team deathmatch mode but was hoping for co-op. Highway is just one of those games crying out to be played with a friend. Why it didn't make it into final code is a question I don't think anyone has a satisying answer for. The best I've heard is something about how 'we' are just not there yet as an industry. Well, surely we are? With Cod 5's 4 player co-op on the way and countless other games managing to include some form of co-op mode in recent years there basically just isn't an excuse. It was obviously on the cards at some stage of production but just never happened. Frankly, this is just embarresment number one.

If Highway had just been a generic romp of an FPS game I'd have been utterly pissed off with the fact the multiplayer side of things is just pants. The thing is this: what Highway does well it does so well that I, for one at least, can just forgive and forget. The experience this game puts you through feels like playing the very best bits of
Band of Brothers and Saving Private Ryan. Now I know that just sounds like a gaming cliche' nowadays, and I'll admit I've said that before about much older titles, but here I just cannot emphasise it enough. However, the bug/omission list goes on.

There are all sorts of blemishes with
Highway that could/should have been ironed out before release and considering the length of time it took to make, and countless delays, it just makes no sense that they exist. One particularly striking issue comes with the way your character's mouth doesn't move when he is yelling out a command to the squad. When in the third person cover view this is very noticeable and just takes away some of the sense of it being real and cinematic. All we needed was a mouth movement animation! Also, why can't you chose your kit before each stage? I wasn't impressed by the way this game assigns weapons to you. It's odd because you never get to use some guns, such as the Grease gun, at all. It's also rather bizarre how you can't pick up German stick grenades. They don't seem to be modeled at all. This is a shame as it would have been nice to have more than one type of explosive. I also wanted to try out the bazooka and .30 caliber MG for myself. There should also have been some form of melee attack, a rifle butt atleast.

There is no animation for attaching charges to Pak 88s either. You just hear a click to acknowledge the bomb is set. I died the first time I primed a field gun because I literally just didn't realise I'd done anything and didn't run for cover. I was also unimpressed by the way death of squadmates is handled. They never die! Instead, they fall and writhe in pain only to respawn at the start of a new checkpoint. The
Cod system should have been adopted here. I would liked to have seen some form of pool of reinforcements who run into the fray every time a soldier falls. A medic would have also been a decent inclusion, and a sniper team. Stuff like this would have made this an absolute masterpiece of a game as opposed to a very, very good one.

This brings me to another problem. Only in one level near the end do you get to play with a full squad at your disposal; being 3 teams of 3 guys. I wanted far more of this earlier on. However, the early stages were still stunning in every other respect and that's the thing about
Highway. Its successes are solid enough to negate the f*ck ups.

What Highway does is something no other war game, besides former
Brothers in Arms titles, has ever come close to: depicting combat for what it really is. Skirmishes can be long, drawn out affairs where you find yourself flushing enemies out of barns with grenades, pinning down an MG42 position with sustained covering fire, or even just getting so confused and battle weary that you lay low in the bushes and hope for a positive outcome. Blood spatters the ground where dead bodies rest in the grass and grenade explosions raze sandbag placements and create billowing craters in the earth.

Combat just feels authentic. Sometimes you'll just see red and feel a burning desire to assault all guns blazing. It never works out though. You rely on the men around you, your squad, and the skill is ultimately in leading them through it. Here are a few things you simply MUST do in order to get the full experience with this game: 1) Turn off every on screen HUD element. 2) Crank that effects vol all the way up. 3) Set the controls for 'tour of duty' - the FPS controller layout God intended. 4) When it's unlocked, you owe it to yourself to play in the 'authentic' difficulty setting.

With these pointers in mind, you'll get to experience a true simulation of WW2 era squad based combat. This is not a game that has you single handedly defeat a reinforced armoured battalion. Nor is this a game that puts you in the shoes of some godlike hero of warfare. In fact, Sgt. Baker is in some ways an anti hero. You're a dried up soldier in no mood to do much besides get through it.

The story is adequate without being particularly memorable I would suggest. My biggest gripe was the way British troops were acknowledged but in that antiquated way certai
n Americans just can't leave alone. I do wish Gearbox had just accepted the fact years ago that games cannot mirror television when it comes to portraying character. The cutscenes are overly sentimental and seem to be aimed at a pro-war, go America, gun demographic that doesn't really exist anymore in any great number and probably are mostly just too busy watching re-runs of BoB to play games anyway. That or they're dug in deep in Afghanistan right now.

The battle dialogue that can be heard during gameplay between squad mates could have been better too. It's good and quite varied but I just wish it had been even more varied and, well, just done by much better voice artists. There is often a lack of emotion in the comments you hear and not enough swearing. It's that simple. I really wanted to hear yells of "this son of a bitch" and "fucking flank that bastard" during intense moments of swell. Occasionally you do hear some realistic dialogue but it's just not as integral as it could have been.

The last level of Highway is a big anti climax. It's another 'to be continued' moment. I can live with that though because I want far more of this game. A factor I struggled to accept at first was the way this game tries to go all mystical on us. The initial in medias res level is a poorly handled introduction to the game as it simply fails to do anything besides throw you straight into the combat without any sense of a build up to the action. Later, we are once again forced to play through a sort of dream-like sequence in an abandoned hospital. You are split up from your squad and end up wondering through hallways whilst marvelling at the impressive visuals. The atmosphere is fantastic and certainly rivals moments from fully fledged horror games such as Fear and Bioshock. However, it just felt a little out of place. This is a realistic war game. It tries to be more than that and just shouldn't.

The eastern village moments are few and far between compared to the constantly challenging and genuinely realistic scenes where you are in the thick of it. I wasn't that amazed by the tank combat though. It felt like
Medal of Honor, enter the evil nazi shooting gallery, territory. During scenes where you take on enemy tanks as infantry you also get the sense that realism goes out the window. For a game striving to be realistic there is no excuse for these old school moments where you defeat panzer tanks via satchels and rocket launchers instead of just avoiding them and calling in the P-51s.

So much that was promised simply hasn't made it into the game. For instance, enemies do not 'trip up' or help one another to safety if wounded. All of these elements simply failed to make it into final code. Also, civilians play no role whatsoever. There is also no true sense of comradeship with your men. I never once 'exchanged ammunition' for example. At its core, it's not much more than the previous
Brothers game. It just takes those original premises, such as the find, fix, flank, finish game mechanic, and gives them a serious overhaul.

Highway offers is a humble simulation of small scale skirmishes. No other game I have played comes close when it comes to just capturing that sense of real combat. Inclusions such as the action cam are simply brilliant. It slows down the action and zooms in on your well placed headshot or grenade hurl. Sometimes it can seem so real that you actually feel ill at ease with the results. The gore is grim and bloody.

Highway is a game I know I am going to play again and again. If it had co-op this would be an absolute high point in gaming. I'm not sure why it took so long to make, although I get the sense the PS3 may have been a seminal factor, but on the whole this is a brilliant game. When you're pinned down beside a log by enemy fire, hearing the whizzes of overpassing tracers and seeing the dirt hit your face, you will be about as close to war as you're ever going to get within the comfortable confines of your armchair.


+Fantastic visuals, sound, and atmosphere
+Genuinely realistic and tactical
+A WW2 game for the more mature gamer
+/-Which has no co-op mode
-What? No co op mode? Ya rly! No wai!
-Vomit inducing story

9.0 / 10
A seriously intense, realistic, and mature war game

by The Critical Alien
© 2008