Friday, June 29, 2012

Video Game Review: The Amazing Spider-Man

I forgive Beenox for Spider-Man: Edge of Time.

It's rather ironic that I enjoyed The Amazing Spider-Man so much, as it is a return to the thrilling open-world web-slinging of past games… a formula that was growing stale when developer Beenox took the Spidey franchise reins and delivered the wonderful change-of-pace Shattered Dimensions.

A note of caution should be issued for those not wanting to spoil the Amazing Spider-Man movie… this game takes place after the movie, and is directly related to the ramifications of that plot. Some big spoilers are in casually tossed about right away. If you're concerned about knowing such things, this game really shouldn't be played until after you see the movie.

The game's story revolves around the outbreak of a cross-species virus infecting New York City (again? NYC was already plagued in the recent Prototype 2, as well as in Spider-Man: Web of Shadows. That's apparently Activision's go-to plot device). You fight off scores of thugs with your fists, webs and super-fast reflexes, on the way to saving the city single-handedly (cameos from other Marvel  heroes are sadly lacking). It's a solid enough excuse for a story, with not too much plot padding.

The big selling feature is that Spider-Man is back to swinging around in the wide open area of New York City… between story missions, anyway. The structure of the main story is shockingly similar to Edge of Time. A lot of corridors and almost entirely indoor locations. I do believe many of the environments were just reskinned to use in this game. But they removed a lot of the frustration by not having to jam on an action button to open every… single… door, as it was in the previous game. And there's none of those long "falling & dodging" sequences, though there were a couple places that scared me into thinking they might happen… a nice wink to how annoying those were.

In fact, if anything, the game may be too easy. They removed the "Web of Challenges" from the past couple games, so you're no longer required to pull off certain feats in certain areas in order to 100% the game. "Web-Zip" is now "Web Rush" and it will momentarily freeze time so you can line up a quick movement or attack. Attacking is mostly a one-button affair, switching only if you need to use webs or dodge. Even the web-slinging is simplified to just holding a trigger; No turbo boosting, no extra aerial acrobatics. It's still the most satisfying way to travel, in my opinion. I hunted down the hundreds of comic book page collectibles around the city map simply because I enjoyed swinging on the web (In the Web of Shadows game from a few years back, I collected all 2000+ items, even though I only needed 2000 for the achievement. And I didn't even finish that game. Web-slinging is fun, I tell ya!).

The biggest problem I encountered was the lack of responsiveness with the controls. I'd often hold down the Web Rush button without it ever activating. Same with the "Web Retreat" and "Web Cyclone" and activating the camera. This always leads to being hit or a quick death. Even jumping off the wall can be sluggish.
Load times between levels are pretty lengthy, even with the game installed to the hard drive. They did include Twitter-esque dialog scrolls from citizens to read, which is a nice touch. Wish they updated more than once a chapter, though.

And the side missions lack depth. There are no "side-stories". Nothing random or dynamic, either. They'll pop-up as you progress through the main story, but after you've completed them all, don't expect to deal with random muggings or car chases.

The graphics… are a mixed bag. The human character models are pretty ugly and outdated, but the monsters looks good, the city looks great (There's even a handful of different atmosphere conditions for the city throughout the game, and post game roaming allows you to choose between them), and Spidey's animations are pretty spectacular. The game starts off on a bad foot, with an extended first-person perspective of Peter Parker walking around the Oscorp facility. You get to see the ugly character models up close. Reminded me of Batman: Arkham City, which started off with the ugliest graphics in the game. They should have begun with some open-world web-slinging, to get you excited rather than bore you with an extended walk-and-talk sequence.

All in all, despite the flaws, I really enjoyed myself all the way through. It took me about 20 hours to get 94% completion, most of that side missions or item collecting. Or just having fun swinging around the city. Did I mention how much I enjoy that?

I just wish they had spent a little more time on the game, tightening the control responsiveness, and integrating the side missions dynamically (Most side quests, excluding simple muggings, "fade" out to the mission, and the "fade" back to the map when you're done). But it's a decent blend of standard beat-em-up fare and Spider-Man quick-web goodness.

3 out of 4 stars.

Recommended for: Lovers of Spider-Man! It is a solid entry in the series, and certainly a step up from last year's frustrating mess.

Franchise Fixes: Take some more time before the next entry. Get everything polished up and seamlessly blend the open-world with the story and the side missions. Also, take a cue from Batman: Arkham City and give the side missions some story and depth of their own. And next time the game is tied to a movie, how about make it a prequel so you're not spoiling the film's plot?

Achievements/In-Game Reward System: Not a big mix of challenges, most achievements are given for story progression, difficulty setting and task completion. A couple diversionary achievements don't do much to make this list  too exciting, although it is an easy game to boost your score with. I wish they had more in-game rewards, though. When I completed the storyline, I was at level 22… upgrades stop coming at level 20. The game could really use additional unlocks, perhaps making the costumes obtainable this way? Which reminds me… one redeeming quality about Edge of Time was that it awarded players from Shattered Dimensions with unlocked costumes. Sadly, the tradition did not continue here.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Review: Lego Batman 2: DC Super Heroes

I hate a love/hate relationship with the Lego games.

I want to love them. They have an endearing goofiness, simple yet engaging gameplay, and are some of the most respectful adaptations of their source material. And for achievement hounds such as myself, they're usually good for an easy 1000 gamerscore (if you want to put in the time for the repetitious grind).

However, they tend to rest on their laurels, afraid to make needed changes as they crank out game after game (There's as many Lego licensed games on the Xbox 360 as there are Guitar Hero games, a franchise which died from over-saturation). They mostly ignore core improvements desperately needed: AI partner, targeting and camera problems continue to persist through these games.

I had high hopes going into this new Lego Batman game. After all, they added voice acting. That's a huge step up from the grunts and giggles these games are known for.

The game starts out with a whole flock of villains for you to take down in the first couple of levels. Each battle is small and quick, giving you the impression that these are just cameo appearances from the first Lego Batman's baddies, just getting you ready for a whole slew of new bosses to battle. Sadly, that was not the case. Do you like Lex Luthor and the Joker? Hope so, because you'll be chasing/fighting them for the entire game. Really. They build a robot and you'll be fighting that for the last half of the 15-level adventure. That's disappointment # 1.

Disappointment # 2: the misleading title of the game. Lego Batman 2: DC Super Heroes… should have been Lego Batman, Robin & Superman: With Brief Appearances by Other Super-Guests! Superman shows up a few levels in and you'll spend a lot of quality time with him. I particularly like how rightfully overpowered he is, and how his presence annoys Batman. There is a cutscene with Batman & Superman in an elevator that was the highlight of my game.

However, aside from Supes, no other hero will show up to help you out until the final two stages. Which makes the end of the game play out like a tutorial level! I'm still shocked that anybody thought that was a good idea. And why are all these super-powered icons fighting like Batman & Robin? Why isn't Wonder Woman just ripping the robot apart with her bare hands? Why isn't Green Lantern using his ring to pick up the robot and throw it into space?

Did I mention this happens at the end of the 15-level game? That's right, one single storyline and then it's over. No multiple episodes, or even a few levels from the villains' perspective like the previous game. Disappointment #3. You can finish every level in 3 or 4 hours.

Let's compare that to the previous Lego release, Lego Harry Potter Years 5 - 7. I'd say lengthwise, the storymode in LB2 is probably slightly longer than one "year" from LHP, which had plenty of between level puzzles and navigation and new spells to learn.  Conservatively, I'd say there is 3 times more content in LHP than in this game. That's quite a step down.

But they did add something new. A giant hub world in the form of Gotham City, filled with all red bricks, gold bricks, citizens-in-distress and unlockable characters. Or, as I like to call it, Disappointment #4! The biggest misstep in the game.

I don't know if they outsourced the creation of this hub, but having the navigation controls change going from the levels to the hub world is a monumental failure in judgment. In the levels (and even in the small Batcave area), flying is simple and easy. The analog makes you go, holding the jump button makes you ascend, and the "context" button brings you back down to the ground. It's not perfect, mind you… when you release the ascend button, you begin to drift slowly back down instead of hovering. But in the hub, you have a twitchy reticule you point towards where you want to go and then hold the jump button to move. It sounds simple, but it's an absolute mess for any precision flight. Especially since your character will do some crazy super-swoop if you get close to an object…. Such as a small rooftop I'm desperately trying to land on. So, as you shoot past it, you'll need to slowly reorient the camera without any available sensitivity options. It's a frustrating disaster.

The hub world is a glitchy fiasco upon itself. Vehicles and enemies not spawning, or sometimes appearing half inside a building's wall. Remote control minigames that stop accepting certain inputs (After about ten seconds, I could only move my vehicle in reverse.). And most annoyingly, whenever you acquire a Gold Brick you become frozen in place for ten seconds while the game saves. The bad guys running around beating on you aren't subjected to the freeze, so you get to sit and watch as they beat up you and your co-op buddy. Sure, "it doesn't matter" because it's all post-game stuff and dying doesn't really mean anything. But when you have to go through it 200 times(!) it becomes a huge blemish on your day. That's over half an hour of just waiting on the game to let you continue playing.

The worst part of this city mode, in my mind, is that nothing gets accomplished. You never "cleanse" sections of the city. Thugs continue spawning, civilians continue to run in circles, panicking. It's just very unfulfilling. Find the gold bricks and move on. Bleh.

This game sets a new benchmark in user-unfriendliness.

You'd think a mini-map would be standard technology for open world areas, but developer Traveller's Tales is so far behind they only give you a useless compass that marks landmarks which are already visible just by looking around. Instead, on your quest to find all the bricks and characters, you must enter the start menu and scroll down to select view map (despite having unused buttons on your controller which normally would be assigned this task), find what you're looking for, back out to the menu and scroll back up and press Resume to continue. You'll have to do that A LOT. There's another hour that could have been shaved off this game with some very standard programming. Is that their way of making up for the lack of story levels?
In previous Lego games, as you struggled to navigate platforming sections, your AI partner would suddenly make miraculous leaps and join up with you (often trying to knock you off your ledge). Now, he's been programmed to lag behind so you have to manually bring him everywhere you need. Even when the AI is in control of Superman, I always find him earthbound, walking on balance beams, or stuck behind some slight outcropping in the wall. I'm going to mark this up as not an improvement for the AI.

But it's not all bad! One thing I am particularly grateful for is the change in the vehicle levels. They are all on-rail shooter levels now! No trying to drive with horrible controls (Though, they're not totally gone; The hub world still has drivable vehicles which you'll need to manage in order to get those darn gold bricks. I envy non-completionists.)!

The on-rail sections are fun, but they're quite easy. In fact, the whole game is crazy-simple. I don't recall any non-boss even using a gun. And puzzles are practically non-existent. It's just a matter of "where's the suit I need to wear?"

Overall, the lack of true content and challenge,  as well as overall lack of open-world programming experience, really brought this game to its knees. It's fun for a quick play-though, but ends up a sad failure to live up to its huge potential, and not worth the full purchase price.

2 out of 4 Stars.

Recommended for: Families looking for a short rental, and achievement hounds willing to deal with the poor navigation to get all their gamer points.

Franchise fixes: They seriously need to slow down their production process. Stop cranking so many of these games out each year. Instead, consolidate talent and even hire some experienced outside help to expand the knowledge base of more advance game programming. Then make some real high-quality games that you can support with DLC. Also: how cool would it be for an open-world game where every building is demolishable and able to be rebuilt from the Lego rubble?

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Opinions To Follow!

A brand new blog; a fresh palette upon which to spill out bunches of thunked-up words! It's exciting to think that this will get me to write more, to openly express my opinions about the video games I play. 

It's also a bit daunting.  Writing every day doesn't leave much time for thoughts to evolve. Will this blog be too kneejerk and raw? Will I regret the bulk of these entries? Quite possibly! I'm already regretting that this is going to be the first hundred words on this blog and I'm not even talking about games yet.