Friday, March 27, 2009

Far Cry 2: Fun With Malaria

The circle... ...of death?

All right, so let's run through our CryHistory one more time. In 2004, a little-known developer named Crytek made Far Cry for Ubisoft, a graphically striking first-person shooter set in a sprawling tropical environment. In 2007 they went on to make Crysis for EA Games, which had similar story-driven free-roaming outdoor gameplay but a completely unrelated story. In 2008, a completely unrelated team of developers at Ubisoft made Far Cry 2, which is also completely unrelated to Far Cry in storyline terms, and plays a lot less like Far Cry than Crysis does. Confused? You should be. Basically you might just as well call this game Fun With Malaria, because it truly isn't a sequel to Far Cry in any way. But with Far Cry's inconsequential storyline and Crysis so nicely filling the story-driven jungle-shooter void, that's not really a bad thing.

The gist of Far Cry 2 is that you're a mercenary in Africa, you have Malaria, and there are 2 warring factions who are both being supplied by an arms dealer called The Jackal. It's an "open-world" game with various missions that you can do in almost any order. It has a realistic day-and-night cycle and almost no menu interfaces or loading screens; in-game time is only skipped during sleep, bus rides, and a few key story moments. There is also almost no HUD to speak of, with ammo and health indicators only popping up when they're needed, and the world map actually appears as a real object held in your hand. (Markers do appear on the map through what appears to be magic, but the game would be brutally difficult without them.) Your health consists of a few bars which regenerate eventually, but if you get down to your last bar, you need to escape enemy fire and heal yourself before your wounds do you in for good.

Lush jungle environments break up the brown-ness.

Overall, this is a very strong design. Far Cry 2's commitment to realism (with a few necessary provisions) makes it one of the most immersive gaming experiences to date. The game world is surprisingly well-designed, considering that they easily could have copied and pasted a bunch of generic African-looking areas together and called it a day. Compared to the world in Oblivion, for example, there are a lot of recognizable landmarks. You really get to know the area and feel like you're living in it. And that's a good thing, because there is a lot of driving in this game.

I've seen some complaints about the high amount of driving, but I don't mind it; again, it's all about immersion. The real problem is the enemies, who attack you on the road constantly. This is the first noticeable crack in Far Cry 2's armor, and unfortunately it's a pretty big one. Once you leave the boundaries of one of the game's few cease-fire zones, absolutely every person you meet (aside from your "buddies") will try to kill you. You don't even have to do anything; they shoot on sight for no discernable reason. Because the enemies are scattered quite liberally across the map and drive on all the roads, you can't drive for more than a minute without having to get out and kill somebody. You never even get any really good car chases going, because the enemies will always ram you when they inevitably catch up to you, bringing everything to a halt. Without this nuisance, the driving would have been completely tolerable and not all that long, but the stopping and starting makes it a chore. Although their game worlds weren't as massive as this one, both Crysis and the original Far Cry managed to pull off the driving thing quite well, and neither game had a whole lot of friendly NPCs, so it definitely can be done.

The world map is as realistic as possible without making the game stupid.

Another game they might have taken a few lessons from: Assassin's Creed. Definitely not a perfect game either, but it introduced the interesting concept of behavioral stealth. Guards would wait for you to do something suspicious before attacking you. As the game progressed, they became more familiar with you and more likely to attack you, but you still had to do something suspicious or at least be in a restricted area. There's actually a little bit of this in Far Cry 2's cease-fire zones, but all bets are off once you venture out where all the action is. To be fair, this game's world is a militarized zone in a desolate country, so the characters have good reason to be hostile toward a stranger. But the instant, murderous hostility of every single NPC is just excessive.

The combat itself is pretty fun. You mostly fight generic humans, which is appropriate for the setting, but it manages to be fairly unpredictable and varied anyway. There's a very large selection of weapons available to both you and your enemies. If you kill an enemy you can take his weapon, but it will jam up much more frequently than any weapons you buy from the arms dealer. You generally have a nice variety of choices, as you can go with whatever weapons you feel like using at the moment. As in most modern shooters, you can't carry all of the weapons at the same time, but the sheer number of weapons available here makes choosing your arsenal a fun, strategic challenge. For example, in one weapons slot you can have a pistol, uzi, flare gun, or remote-detonated explosives; in another slot, you can have a sniper rifle, rocket launcher, or flamethrower.

Fire. Did you expect me not to take a picture of it?

The flamethrower deserves special mention, as the game engine supports some pretty neat fire mechanics. I'm not sure if it's as tactically useful as the hype suggested, but fire is fire (is awesome). My personal favorite thing to do with the flamethrower is run over to a herd of moose and burn it for absolutely no reason, with absolutely no ill effects. PETA would not be pleased. You also have access to Molotov Cocktails at any given time; they can burn stuff too, and they're stored like grenades so you can always have a few on hand. Fire spreads realistically across trees and shrubbery, which is cool, even though it doesn't particularly affect the gameplay. (Guys will still shoot you, you will still shoot them.) Oh, and one more thing: the detonatable explosives. You can get pretty creative in how you deal with those inevitable situations where a vehicle is chasing you down; my favorite solution is to place a landmine on the road, walk a few meters away, visually line up the mine with a rock or tree, and then push the detonation button when the vehicle passes behind said landmark. The resulting explosion is very satisfying.

Unique mission locations, such as this fort, are few and far between.

But you probably saw this next paragraph coming: there's a downside to all this. Killing stuff is really all you do in this game. This is not a terrible thing, really, but Far Cry 2 is an extremely long game with aspirations of creating a realistic world with missions woven together by a complex storyline. But the immersion and subtlety wear off when you realize that every mission falls into one of a few very limited categories. In missions from the arms dealer, you blow up a truck. In missions from the mysterious cellphone voice, you go into the village and kill a guy. In almost every other mission, you are told to kill/blow up one thing, then your buddy calls you and tells you to kill/blow up another thing first. Occasionally you get the privilege of visiting one of the game's more interesting environments, such as a train bridge over an awe-inspiringly large chasm, a fort that you have to infiltrate, and a hut village that's best escaped via a sweet hang glider ride. But it's essentially just window dressing on the same old missions over and over again. For example, there's one mission where you go into a town, fight your way through the hostiles, and enter a building to rescue someone. When you reach this person, he says something along the lines of "I assume you killed everyone outside. Go on without me, I'll leave on my own -- it won't look as suspicious that way." Now, I hate escort missions as much as anyone, but this really seems like a cover for the developers' unwillingness to program something more complex than "kill a bunch of dudes, find the objective". If you happened to drive by the town on a whim, the enemies would start shooting you like crazy and you'd have pretty much the same exact experience as the "mission", minus the requirement that you stop by that certain building and talk to a guy who then disappears when you leave the room. Replace that guy with any given objective and that sums up how the missions play out.

It's a long way down from the train bridge.

Various parts of the game's documentation claim that stealth is an option, but due to the incredibly aggressive AI, it really isn't. Even if it were possible, it wouldn't be all that useful, since your mission objectives involve violence 99% of the time. That's unfortunate, because it might have allowed for some more variety, and there's tons of potential for stealth in a game world like this one. Another point of unused potential -- and general confusion -- is the aforementioned "buddy" system. It's interesting at first, when you get rescued from a firefight by someone and start teaming up with them on missions, developing a relationship of sorts. But despite the presence of multiple potential buddies, I seemed to keep getting stuck with the same one, and whether or not a buddy was available to rescue me seemed fairly random. Sometimes I would go into a safehouse and my secondary buddy would be there, and the game would inform me that this buddy was now ready to rescue me, but the situation appeared to remain unchanged.

The net result of all of these things is that trying to follow the storyline is more trouble than it's worth. The missions are unmotivating, the buddy system is confusing, and you wind up doing the missions for both factions anyway. And did I mention that the game is LONG? There's a point where you think you're finished, because you've played for anywhere between 20 and 30 hours, and then a whole second half opens up. The mission design in the second half is moderately better than in the first, but the game still lacks a strong feeling of progression, the feeling that you're actually getting somwehere. Ultimately, you're forced to enjoy the game as if it were Doom with wildebeests, which is a shame, because there is a lot of really strong groundwork here for a remarkable game. There is plenty of fun to be had with it, but you have to make your own experience, and not really in the good "sandbox" way. You basically have to fight against the game to get maximum enjoyment out of it.

You won't get to hang glide very often, but it's great when you do.

As a launching point for the open-world first-person-shooter subgenre, you could certainly do a lot worse than Far Cry 2. The game mechanics are solid, the world design is engaging, and it's a highly playable game despite its various frustrating elements. It just needs some more variety and structure. If there were more things to do in the game's incredibly vast world, and if the factions and buddies did more than just give you instructions about what to blow up, maybe this adventure would have lived up to its compelling premise. Some articles I've read have suggested that Ubisoft is aware of the game's shortcomings, and it also seems to be selling well, so I look forward to the inevitable follow-up. Whether it's a "Cry" or not.

3 stars (out of 5): Vaguely Disappointing

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

At the Synce Fyction Convention

In the spirit of pointless rebranding, it only makes sense to change MTV to something that more accurately reflects its current demographic. It will still be pronounced the same, but the logo will be slightly different:


Friday, March 13, 2009

Prince of Persia: Skittering Along the Edge of Greatness

"I have to collect this, don't I?"

The 3D portion of the Prince of Persia franchise has had an interesting history. There was, of course, the long-forgotten Prince of Persia 3D that was made during the "take old games and make them 3D" craze, but even the angriest of video game nerds have forgiven and forgotten. That's largely because the next attempt, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, came many years later and was many magnitudes better. It had great level design and an innovative time reversal system helped alleviate the frustration that often comes with tricky 3D jumping. Although other 3D platformers would obviously have a hard time incorporating a similar system for storyline reasons, many (including the Italian plumber himself) imitated its iconic wall-jumping and pole-swinging mechanics. On top of that, it had gorgeous stylized graphics and pretty good characters.

But as almost anyone who's played the game will tell you, its combat sections were rarely rewarding and often frustrating, due to a combination of clumsy controls and repetitiveness. This was rectified in Prince of Persia: Warrior Within, which had a more enjoyable combat system while keeping pretty much all of the great platforming intact. Unfortunately, the game's "hardcore" makeover repulsed more fans than it attracted. So in Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones, Ubisoft toned down the blood 'n boobs but added a questionable "speed kill" system, which I felt required a frustratingly high level of precision. Speed kills were also tied to long animated sequences, which meant you often couldn't rewind time far enough to correct your mistakes.

So there's a bit of a pattern here (which I'm far from the first to point out, Yahtzee). The POP games have a habit of getting a whole lot of things right, but then also getting a few key things wrong that keep them from achieving true greatness. And often, those key things have to do with the balance between platforming and combat; the former is almost always the best part of the game, with the latter feeling like they had trouble fitting it in. The games have also had some issues with production values; while they all looked gorgeous, they fell prey to various audio glitches, cutscene sloppiness, and even a few rare game-breaking bugs. If I had to pick one as the best representation of the series, I would actually go with Warrior Within, since most of its bad decisions were only skin-deep. It plays the best out of the three games, and a good chunk of it is actually quite aesthetically pleasing, even though everything bleeds and wears thongs all of a sudden.

"Check for corruption in my armpits, Elika."

Anyway, that's all in the past, because the Sands of Time trilogy has (wisely) been put to rest so Ubisoft can try its hand at another reimagining of the franchise -- and the genre. Prince of Persia 2008, as I will be calling it from now on, builds off of some ideas from Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed. It employs an "open world" design philosophy, a streamlined running & jumping system, and a "marionette" control scheme where each of the four buttons corresponds to a body part, each with various context-sensitive functions. Unlike in most platformers before it, buttons don't need to be held down for things such as climbing onto ledges and running on walls, which definitely takes some getting used to. Like The Sands of Time, it has the potential to influence a new generation of platformers, but also like The Sands of Time, it has flaws. And they're a bit harder to ignore this time around.

Here are the basics: you run around a large world aided by your magical female companion, Elika. Your job is to rid the world of corruption, which isn't as hard as it sounds, since "corruption" in this case means black goo that occasionally turns into enemies. If you fall into goo or a deep pit, Elika floats over and pulls you back to safety, which usually means the beginning of a certain series of jumps. Most of the game is spent jumping between platforms, ledges, and grabby-rings. This is broken up by the occasional puzzle or battle. Combat is always one-on-one, and it involves creating combos by chaining together four different types of attacks (controlled by the four context-sensitive buttons). If you get "defeated" during combat, Elika saves you from actual death and you continue fighting, but the enemy regains a significant amount of health.

There are certainly worse ways
to spend your time.

I basically like the idea behind this combat system. Enemies don't get in your way when you're trying to progress through the level and they can't knock you off platforms. The fact that you can't technically get killed in battle seems like a cop-out at first, but it actually makes quite a bit of sense. Since this game (and most games like it) won't allow the story to progress until the main character wins the battle, allowing you to die only to reload and try again is essentially a waste of time. Having Elika "rescue" you for a non-fatal penalty dispenses with the shallow illusion that your character's loss actually has any effect on the story.

The combo system is fun -- sometimes. Unfortunately, your freedom to create combos is largely inhibited by the enemies' constant blocking, as well as some other pretty arbitrary restrictions. In an effort to make the combat difficult, they seem to have removed a lot of the fun from it. Consequently, the most enjoyable combat comes when you fight what I would consider to be the "easiest" boss, since he doesn't block everything you try to do. You can actually choose when you want to fight each boss; there are many different branching paths through the game. But does it really matter? Despite the subtle variation in boss difficulty (which is either unintentional or doesn't make sense), every area feels basically the same. And that brings me to the game's biggest problem.

For a while, it was hard for me to pin down exactly what made the game world seem so uniform. As far as "open worlds" go, it's not quite as much of a cut-and-paste job as Oblivion, and there's nothing wrong with having consistent architectural themes; just look at the previous POP games, which take place mostly in broken-down temples. Perhaps, I thought, the game needs more indoor areas to add variety, but that didn't seem quite right either. The game world does have its fair share of landmarks, many of which are stunningly beautiful to look at. But there's the catch: all you're doing is looking at them. Not running around on them, climbing them, or fighting enemies on them. It will eventually dawn on you that you spend a stunningly large amount of time looking at walls in this game, and rarely at all the exotically beautiful stuff right behind you. You're constantly on the outskirts of all these diverse, beautiful environments instead of being in them. You can really never run for more than 5 seconds in this game without having to jump onto something.

You'll be seeing a lot of this.

So yes, I am saying that there is actually too much jumping in this game. I know that sounds like a stupid criticism for a Prince of Persia game, but it's really hard to design truly memorable levels out of a bunch of floating walls. The franchise's trademark wall-running is just out of control here -- it's pretty much the primary method of travel in this world. And I find myself conflicted, because the gameplay is actually reminiscent of that one part in each Sands of Time game where you'd be scaling the outside of a really high tower, which always felt really awesome, but I guess without the indoor parts it loses its luster. How interesting can outskirts really be? You'll see a whole lot of ledges, vines, and grabby-rings in this game, but for my money, one of the best experiences comes during the breather portions, when you're running across the sandy dunes of the "hub world", shrouded in moonlight.

On that note, let's get one thing straight: the game looks beautiful, even if most of its wonderfully crafted world ends up being window dressing. The production values are the best and most consistent so far in the series, although the voices still get lost in the mix often enough that you'll need to turn subtitles on. The animation is much more fluid than in the previous games, making good use of the Assassin's Creed engine. Everything flows together smoothly, and if Elika ever threatens to get in the player's way, the two characters do a nice little "dance" around each other that's quite endearing. Occasionally the elaborate animations will cause you to misfire a jump, but on the off chance that that does happen, you'll be rescued anyway. The "painterly" style of the game is effective yet subtle, never obtrusive or overly impressed with itself. The soundtrack is absolutely wonderful, mostly revolving around a beautifully orchestrated main theme. The presentation is impressive from the moment you load up the game, and it rarely falters.

No bottomless pits around here?
What is this madness?

POP2008 is a game that tries a lot of new ideas, and when a game that tries new ideas doesn't live up to its potential, those ideas tend to be criticism magnets. I think most of these ideas have actually been implemented really well, though the battle system does have its flaws. The non-dying aspect may give the game the appearance of being too easy, but I don't think it really is. It's actually the age-old conundrum of level design that has snuck up to bite the developers here. The good news is that this game is very likely to get a sequel, so hopefully they focus on correcting the game's core issues and don't do the wildly misguided backpedaling that soured so many people on Warrior Within.

3 stars (out of 5): Vaguely Disappointing