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Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Quick Overview of Sony's "Welcome Back" PS3 Games

I'm going to reserve judgement on Sony's 'Welcome Back' plan until all the details about identity theft protection are released and the PlayStation Store is actually back online. The most often quoted portion of the plan, the two free games, isn't really of interest to me since I already own all the titles they list. While I appreciate the cost in offering free games to the entire PS3 community, only two are full release titles and c'mon - LittleBigPlanet came out in 2008 and inFamous in 2009. Anyone who wanted these titles probably already has them.

But if you don't, here's some quickie reviews for you.

Dead Nation
Top down, zombie apocalypse action best played with another person sitting next to you. This was done by HouseMarque, who also did another title on the list: Super Stardust HD. The graphics are pretty excellent, and they manage to change up some game mechanics so that this doesn't feel like just another coop zombie shooter / Smash TV clone. If enjoy couch coop, this is a pretty great title.

I rather enjoyed inFAMOUS when it was released and look forward to the sequel. The gameplay gets a little repetitive, but still stands as one of the better free roaming superhero themed titles out there, even today (though not quite as good, imho, as say Crysis 2). The good/evil mechanic is a little overwrought, but hey - so are most good/evil mechanics.

If you don't have this one, get this one. Some of the platforming concepts might not appeal to people who don't like, well, platformers - but LBP is an excellent and unique title which also offers an absolute plethora of user made content.

Super Stardust HD
I actually find Stardust's difficulty curve a bit frustrating, but there's no doubting this is one pretty PSN title and very easy to jump into. It was the first game when I got my HDTV that a fellow gamer insisted I had to try out. Twin shooter/boat style mechanics against asteroids with lots of powerups - it is a lot of fun if you don't mind dying a lot.

Wipeout HD + Fury
I got Wipeout HD and played it a few afternoons, that was about it. It's not bad - but seemed overly derivative to me. A title only for racer fans for sure, and probably only if you've grown bored with Need for Speed.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Game Review: Brink

Brink is a bit of an odd title, and correspondingly it is getting reviews a bit all over the map. It's a bit curious to me that this was branded and sold as a "new breed of shooters" and that most of the previews seem to emphasize trying to figure out just exactly "what Brink is" - when what we really have at the core here is a fairly competent twist on Team Fortress, which is one of the oldest online game templates to go from.

The "evolution" most oft described for Brink is the supposed blending of single and multiplayer modes. Let's be specific and honest about this - there aren't really single player modes in Brink. Well, there are - but nothing in the same vein as what most FPS players are used to playing ... and not what's advertised. There are four challenge modes which seem to be mostly designed for one player, and actually serve as a decent tutorial for the game ... except that it isn't advertised as such and hence some players may be prone to playing after they've stumbled through parts of the game.

What Brink has done in lieu of a single player mode is to line up a series of objective based maps in a pretty convincing stand-in for a story-based campaign mode. Both teams have their own version of the maps, and playing completely through both sides actually has a decent narrative. It just lacks all the dialogue and in-game cinematics that most players associate with a single player mode. Which means that the maps are designed to be played by teams - not the shooting gallery setup of most offline campaigns.

It's not a bad design. Setup a narrative through team based maps, and then let players decide if they want to play against mostly bots, players on their side or players on both sides. As noted by many reviews, the flaw isn't the concept - the flaw is the AI. If you play offline, or mostly with bots, you must be prepared to push forward on all the main objectives and you simply can't always rely on your team to support you. I actually don't think the AI is as terrible as some of the reviews imply, it's simply that relying on AI for this kind of thing is the reason most games don't design single player campaigns like this. It's why I can't entirely buy into this "new breed of shooters" PR campaign. It's a different trick, but the same breed trying the trick out.

Then there is Smooth Movement Across Random Terrain, AKA SMART. SMART is designed to add parkor style movement to a shooter, and it does in general work pretty well. The truth is, though, that it mostly just solves the fact that ladders kinda suck in online shooters. It makes the maps feel more natural, my only real complaint is that many previews and reviews describe it as "point and press a button" to move to a point in the map, and while sprinting alone will accomplish some of that, don't expect all the platform jumping style frustrations to go away. In other words, it's neat - but it's not a game changer.

What's left is a competent, though occasionally flawed, objective based online team shooter with player class. There's more of a mix and match feel to building out your player's avatar, from the various options for appearance, to unlocking certain powerups, to selecting a specific body type (which gives "heavy" and "light" options to all the classes ... you can be slow and defensive or fast with lest health). There's not nearly the varied gameplay of say, Team Fortress 2, it actually feels more inline with the customizations that are available for Call of Duty.

That's not to say the classes themselves aren't important. In fact, they're key to success on a map because specific objectives can only be handled by specific classes. This will force you to change classes in the middle of gameplay to give your team with more options to succeed at the objective. This is particularly important for some of the time based objectives like hacking - your team is far more likely to succeed with multiple Operatives working together. Some reviews have knocked the game for forcing players to jump to classes they may not have leveled up as much, but temporarily jumping classes to help the team push through a section is pretty common for this style of shooter, even if it isn't the class you're best at - and since none of the powerups feel overpowered, I haven't really find this a big deal.

The classes are a mixed bag. The engineer feels a little overpowered, able to buff damage, build turrets and plant mines. In fact, the engineer is a bit more of a damage dealer than the soldier - which feels more like a support role to blow up objectives and hand off ammo. That the core gameplay on all the classes feels extremely similar, giving it that more Call of Duty feel, is both a curse and a blessing. There's less exploration in playing the classes, but it is also friendlier to new players and makes it easy to jump from class to class during the game.

If Brink has its flaws its that the technology doesn't completely fill in the gaps introduced with the concept. Mashing offline, coop and versus modes into the same map is a great concept, but the AI, having no squad command mechanic, and the lack of a lobby system - kicks the game in the knees a bit. There's some moments of real frustration - like trying to win an offline match with stupid AI support, or realizing that the challenges don't seem to offer their unlocks online.

And on an odd note - the graphics are a muddled result. Great design, and the customization screens offer awesome model detail, but in play - the actual detail and texturing has a tendency to dip in quality randomly (this was on a PS3, for reference - but I've heard tale it is true across platform).

That aside, the core gameplay is pretty strong. Some of the complaints I've read - that the maps host choke points, that most of the strategy comes down to getting a larger concentration of players in the right place, the repetition of play .... they're really somewhat true of this genre and subgenre in general. In some ways, I think Brink is a victim of a marketing push on features which aren't really the game's strength. Brink should be commended for some of the small things that it does really, really well. It's effectively solved grenade spamming with a simple cooldown mechanic. To be in disguise, Operatives need to scan a dead enemy - which keeps spies from constantly flooding objective points. They've resisted importing uberattacks, which nearly every shooter seems to feel the need to lift from Call of Duty. The interface design is pretty top notch, especially the customization and menu screens - but even the HUD is minimalist while informing the player. While there isn't a lobby system - there is something to be said for the "visibility" concept of starting a match exactly the same for offline, coop and versus that makes it easy to jump into the action.

At the end of the day, it's a good game - but probably only appealing to FPS gamers not completely addicted to the Call of Duty model. My biggest wish right now is that there were more players consistently online, as I think an all out human match is how Brink was really designed to shine, all marketing aside.

So recommend, though with reservations. Read up on this one first, or find a way to take it for a dry run. It's a great change from many of the console shooters out there - but not really a great game.

However, since it has sold well - I'm fairly optimistic for a sequel.