Tuesday, March 31, 2009

System Shock 2 (video game)

Platform: PC
Developers: Looking Glass Studios, Irrational Games
Genre: First Person Shooter, RPG, Horror
ESRB Rating: Mature
Release Date: August 11th, 1999

The System Shock games are to innovation as Japan is to most types of pornography; synonymous.

The first System Shock set the bar higher than anything of it's time without question. Coming out no more than four months removed from Doom, the revered FPS classic, it was everything that game was and so very much more; despite selling rather abysmally for whatever reason. But if the first System Shock was years ahead of it's time, the sequel is at least two decades ahead. Instead of laying back on old formulas, the developers once again pushed the envelope, creating a complete experience with features that still have not reached mainstream FPS games over a decade later.

Some features were unfortunately lost in the five years, an eternity when it comes to computers and the speed of their advancements, that it took for a sequel to hit shelves. The cyberspace segments, which were all too sparse in the last game, are all but absent here. Instead of being a seperate mode of play with it's own controls, the few points cyberspace appears within the game are the same as regular play, only with a grid pattern to distinguish it from the "real world". Also, the game has several differences in the way energy and cyberware is used.

Thankfully, the game doesn't suffer without any of the things removed from the last game, though I personally missed the cyberspace sections.

The game is a little friendlier to new players than the last game. Instead of being thrust into the action, you actually begin on earth as your nameless character in front of the United National Nominate recruitment building, ready to join the military. This serves as your general tutorial for the game; before you sign up, you can hit cyberspace pods which give you basic and advanced training with different aspects of the gameplay. This includes weapons training, tech training and psi training, or the games equivilent of psychic powers. After you learn the basics, the fun begins.

Cyberware is something that has recieved the largest overhaul between the two games. Gone are the implant upgrades of the last game. In it's place is an entirely stat based system; meaning that while the last game merely had an RPG flavor, it's sequel is a full on hybrid of RPG and shooter. These will determine your affinity for different weapon types, your skills as a hacker and the psi powers you can use, just to name a couple of examples. You gain cyber modules, which are spent to upgrade your rig and stats, for completing story based objectives and once in game upgrading is as simple as finding one of the upgrade systems and choosing what you want to upgrade with the modules you have.

Setting up your basic stats is rather ingenious. After your training, it's tiem to choose your branch of the military, which will determine what you are proficcient at in the start of the game. The Marines specialize in weapons, the Navy are the tech guys and the OSA are the paranormal guys who specialize in psionic powers. Once you choose your branch, you choose from three postings. Each posting upgrades certain stats, stated to you before you enter, and you go through three, each one representing a year of service, before the real game begins with the stats you've gained through your choices.

From there, the real story begins. The setup is similar to how things started in the last game. It's now forty two years after the incident on Citadel Station with SHODAN, a situation said to have been diffused by a nameless hacker. You are on the Von Braun, the first ship with faster than light speed capabilities, on it's maiden voyage to explore the reaches of space alongside it's military ship escort the UNN Rickenbacker. You had been posted on said mission. At some point, however, things had gone horribly wrong. You wake with no memory of events that have taken place. Most of the crew is since dead, the ships computer named Xerxes has seemingly gone haywire and the ship is overrun by grotesque invaders of unknwn origin. Your only friend comes from a female voice that communicates to you, guiding you out of danger. It's up to you to learn what's happened and survive.

As you can tell, the basic setup is similar to the original. You wake up with little to no memory only to find yourself in danger almost immediatly. Most of the story is again told through crew logs picked up throughout the ships, which helps add to the desperate atmosphere of the game.

The story is different in far more ways, however. When the first game began, you found out the basic gist of the situation on the station in the first five or six minutes of gameplay; the stations AI, SHODAN, had gone haywire and become genocidal, fancying herself a god above humans and slaughtering the crew. In the sequel, however, you have little to no clue exactly what has been going down and it stays that way for quite a while. Instead of SHODAN and her powerful cyborgs, you take on what appears to be mutated humans connected by a hive mind, bent on assimilating humans into their unity and spreading the "glory of the flesh". Things only begin to piece together about an eighth of the way through and even after you think you know what the cause of everything is, you'll still be shocked by some of the twists in the game. The first game had a beefy story for it's time; the sequel merely ramped up that concept.

The visuals, like the previous game, suffer from age. Computer technology evolved in leaps and bounds with each passing year of the nineties. With five yers between the two games, the difference in visuals is night and day. However, it's also undeniable that a decade has passed since System Shock 2 and things have taken giant leaps of their own since. The general environments do not suffer as much from this. They look great for the time and still hold up today rather admirably, despite some blocky objects here and there. Even the enemies look pretty decent for the most part, especially the fleshy antagonists of The Many.

It's the models for the human characters that suffer more than anything. They look downright terrible. Textures are bland and stretchy, plus the models they're wrapped around are horrifyingly, disgustingly blocky. They may be more horrifying than anything the game itself throws at you; and they're littered throughout the game. The bodies of the crew, like the last game, are everywhere, so there's no escaping the awful models for the humans. They can take you out of the game easily.

The sound is far more coherant in tone this time around. The first game had a theme for each level of the station, as distinct and vibrant as the level itself. The sequel, however, eschews that for a lower, creepier tone. There are several times where there will be no real music playing or it would be so low it's barely distinguishable. Instead, you're left to hear the enemies creeping around through the corridors, which can get you all on it's own. The hybrids are a great example of this; they mumble and mutter about unity and flesh, sometimes even speaking in your mind. It's liable to creep you out.

There are times when the music will kick in, however. There are spots in the game where, upon passing, a theme will kick in. This most noticably happens right as you walk into a fairly substantial battle or a hallway that is, upon the first time through, rather packed with enemies. The music ranges from rock style themes to ambient music meant to ratchet up the tension in dark, moody areas. While all this means that there isn't going to be any memorable themes that will stick in your head like most games or even the last System Shock, it also means that the sounds and music are more tailored to the horror experience the game strives for.

Gameplay is vastly improved in this game; quite the feat when you consider the last game was pretty damn good in this department as well. Instead of a clunky, action obscuring HUD display, the games presentation is generally minimalistic. The game is always in fullscreen and the inventory is not always up like last time, meaning that you can see everything easier this go around without having to continually switch between the HUD and full screen displays. Looking and turning is all controlled by the mouse this go around, like many modern FPS games. With a press of the button, however, you can bring up your inventory, which brings up the mouse as a pointer to interact with your inventory and things all around you, somewhat similar to the last games general setup.

Speaking of inventory, you equipment has also been expanded; instead of just weapons, you may now find and equip both armor and implants that will upgrade a particular function as long as they have power. Each item has it's own energy charge this go around instead of running off a general energy bar; when you hit a recharge station in this game, everything in your inventory is recharged. Instead of your general energy bar, you have a psionic energy bar your psi powers will run off of. Said bar is replenished by hypo's, similar to health. All of this plus a lot of other little changes add up to provide a different and in many instances superior experience.

A lot of new wrinkles are added to overall gameplay, many of them very, very innovative for today, much less then. You weapons would actually degrade in condition as you used them, meaning you would need to use tools to maintain them for usage. Also new is the ability to modify your weapons, thereby improving them. These will range anywhere from increasing clip size to decreased reload time. Modifying a weapon works similarly to hacking a console, only in this instance once you are successful the weapon in particular is improved.

Another new addition to gameplay is research. Some weapons and items will actually need to be researched first before they can be used. This is done by simply right clicking an unresearched item in your inventory. It's never quite so simple, however, as many items will require certain chemicals for the research, which are found only in chemical storerooms on each deck of the ship. Research is just another layer to the many this game provides.

All these are just the basic new innovations this game has to offer. I've only scratced the surface. I could write an article in and of itself of all the new wrinkles this game has that add to the experience and playtime.

As mentioned, proficciency in a lot of things is handled by stats, much like an RPG. The higher a stat in one of the weapon categories, the more damage you will do with that type of weapon. Some weapons will even require a certain number in a particular stat for you to even use it. The higher a stat in hacking, the easier it will be to hack computers and security crates. The higher a stat in modification, the more you may modify your weapons. And so on.

The game itself has a much higher emphasis on horror this go around than the previous game. Unlike the last game, where ammo was plentiful for the most part, System Shock 2 gives you far less ammo for you guns to play with on the whole, similar to survival horror titles like Resident Evil. This means that melee weapons are the order of the day much of the time; and in this game getting close to an enemy is not always easy. A wrench you pick up once the game really begins will probably be your best friend for a good while.

Adding to the suspense the game provides are the enemies tendency to respawn at any time they please. Unlike other games, when you clear a hallway it doesn't remain that way. If you are away in another section of the area for a while, there won't be any returning without worry; there is a good chance something will be waiting for you there. This makes traversing the halls downright creepy because in some respects you're never really safe; even if you clear out the entire area of the main enemies, some will respawn in the corridors from time to time. Thankfully, only one at a time will respawn in any given place, so you won't be overwhelmed or anything if you go back and you eventually learn to keep your guard up.

Still, turning a corner in a hallway you previously cleared to find a hybrid waiting with a shotgun can be a startling slap in the face if you become too complacent; you're never really safe in this game and you wouldn't want it any other way.

If there's one real flaw I could think of when it comes to this game, aside from some of the ugly character models that really show their age, it's probably the last hour of the game. The game tapers off a bit near the end of the game, slowly becoming more linear. Thankfully, it's a minor quibble that only crops up near the tail end of the game and it's offset by other factors that take your mind off of that.

One of said factors being the last area of the game; the one between the last major out and out fight of the game and the final boss. This area was a masterstroke. I won't spoil it, but I will say that if you played the first game at all, this rea will look awfully familiar and perhaps even get you all nostalgic.

There's really so much going on with this game that I don't think I could ever truly list all of it without doing a fifteen page essay on the game itself. My reviews get long enough as it is, so I wouldn't want to put that sort of thing up. The game has a lot of little things that add up to make a game that is just as much an experience as the first one. It's not to be missed.

My Opinion: Buy It

Monday, March 23, 2009

Star Wars The Force Unleashed (video game)

Platform: X-Box 360
Also On: PS2, PS3, Wii, PSP, Nintendo DS
Developers: Lucasarts
Genre: Action
ESRB Rating: Teen
Release Date: September 16, 2008

Video gaming has been very kind to Star Wars. Reaching all the way back to the Arcade rail shooter based on the Star Wars run on the Death Star in Episode IV, Star Wars games have a long history noted not just for being around about as long as video gaming but for having about eighty percent of the titles released being good. It's impressive. For me, that's lead to a certainty when a Star Wars video game project is announced; the certainty that it will be at the very, very least worth a play.

The latest in the storied history of Star Wars video gaming is The Force Unleashed. Created as a gap between the Star Wars trilogies, the game see's you take on the role of Darth Vaders secret apprentice, tasked with wiping out remaining jedi stragglers as well as preparing for, as Vader claims, a team up to kill the Emperor. Of course, it's far from that simple, as you find out as time goes on.

The story itself is absolutely fantastic, from the opening Prologue where you play as Vader to the final battle of the game. Above anything else, this games story feels truly worthy as a bridge between the trilogies; one that easily could have been a film of it's own. The game sticks largely to some of the classic Star Wars themes, the main one in particular being redemption, as well as being very tightly plotted. Being a big Star Wars fan, I actually did not see any continuity issues with the films and I honestly hope that it's sen fit to adapt the games story into a film, because it's certainly worthy.

The story also reveals a surprising amount of answers to mysteries never elaborated upon in the films. For instance, through the course of the story, we learn how the Rebel Alliance of the original trilogy came to be; along with the significance of the symbol they use. We also learn more about the machinations of Darth Vader, more to the point that he always had ambitions to destroy the emperor.

One point of the plot that I know some people were groaning over is the entire "secret apprentice" bit with Starkiller, the games protagonist. In truth, it works far better than one might expect. Over the many different avenues of additions to Star Wars lore, from books to video games to comics, the Sith have been shown to be very secretive, treacherous and bloodthirsty. The pursuit of greater powers leads them to backstab each other, which in many instances, especially in the Knights of the Old Republic games, has shown to be thier downfall. It makes sense that Vader might try to have a secret apprentice for his own purposes, even if everything is not as it seems; his actions near the end also make sense given how the Sith are.

On a personal note, I was glad that they used a redemption theme in the game. Unlike a lot of people, I have a bit of a hard time playing evil characters in video games. Even in Star Wars, where they tend to have cooler powers. Hunting down Jedi in the first third of the game was good enough fun, but I was happy to have Starkiller slowly regain some humanity after getting out from directly under Vaders thumb.

The sound is classic Star Wars, which should come as no surprise. We start out with music more from the prequel trilogy side of things but start moving into the original trilogy by the end. The orchestrated music, as always, sets the mood for everything from the cutscenes to the battles themselves. But it's a Star Wars product; you know going in that the sound will be fantastic.

The gameplay, however, is where the game suffers a bit. The game is set up largely similar to games such as Devil May Cry and God of War in it's combat system. Meaning, different combo's, many purchasable, with Force powers replacing the Devil Trigger or magic, respectively. While there's nothing wrong with using a system like that, as those games are quite varied in their combat which is half of why they're so fun, The Force Unleashed suffers a bit in this area.

Unlike either of the aforementioned franchises, there is only one attack button here; this leaves combos a bit more limited in nature. While you can do some interesting combo's with your Force Powers, you're never going to pull off the sort of long combo's you could in said games. The length and abundance of those combo's were what made the other games stay crunchy in milk; The Force Unleashed givs you four button combo's at best, letting it get all soggy on you.

The Force powers help keep things from getting too bad, however. Many of them are fun to use and once you get the hang of using them in the heat of battle you'll find quick use of them will save your ass on more than one occasion. Force grip in particular is a highlight as always; grabbing a stormtrooper and then throwing him into a bunch of his buddies for massive damage or into a pit just never gets old no matter how many Star Wars games you play. Also, using your environment to kill enemies is also something that helps keep the game from getting too boring. Breaking a window on a ship to suck enemies out into the vaccum of space is both hilarious and a practical way to save your bacon.

Level structure definitely needed some work as well. This game is horribly, agonizingly linear. You're pretty much going from point A to point B whether you like it or not, with no real secondary paths to be found. There are thankfully collectibles to be found in the form of Jedi Holocrons, which give you things like different color lightsaber crystals and costumes, but they are generally very easy to find thanks in part to how linear the games levels are. Some are even more or less in plain sight.

The game is also, sadly, somewhat short. By the time I finished the game, I was kind of flabergasted that it was over. I had expected maybe three or four more full levels. There's replay value to be had for sure, thanks in part to the collectibles and such, but it still feels like there should have been a few more levels especially considering the games linear nature. I guess they must have been deserate the extend the games playtime though, because there's a sharp spike in difficulty in the last level. Surviving the beginning of the level can be almost asinine no matter how skilled you are as a gamer or what difficulty you have the game set at.

One last side note; I absolutely loved one of the secret achievements. On the prologue with Darth Vader, be sure and kill twelve stormtroopers. If you watch internet videos at all, you'll probably get why the name of this achievement had me laughing.

The Score: Dramatic Thumbs Up

This was a hard game to pick a score for. The story is absolutely fantastic and the replay vaue is pretty good, but the gameplay was rather disappointing and the overly linear nature of the levels kind of hindered it; this game probably would have been better as a film. Still, it is indeed a fun game to play through, but it relies heavily on the story; meaning once you've done most of the things in the game you're probably only going to pop it in to relive the story every once in a while. Still, it's a good time worth a playthrough.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Sonic Unleashed (video game)

Platform: X-Box 360
Also On: PS3, Wii, PS2
Developers: Sonic Team
Genre: Action, Platformer
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10 and Up
Release Date: November 28th, 2008

* Note: This review is of the X-Box 360 version only. It's probably applicable for the PS3 version as well, since they're supposed to be the same game, but that's it. The Wii and Playstation 2 versions are significantly different and have also cut some stages; Mazuri has no real levels aside from a boss fight and Empire City is not present at all.

It's undeniable that Sonic has been in a rut lately. One that started in 2001 with Sonic Adventure 2. From then onwards it's been all downhill, the series titles getting progressively worse until most fans had given up. Sonic Chronicles restored a bit of faith in the blue hedgehog, but would Sonic Unleashed prove to be the title that helped the speedy blue hedgehog regain his former glory?

Well, kind of.

Some people had honestly hoped that this game would be the savior of the series and help restore it's public image. The bad news is that this game will not be the one to redeem Sonic. The good news is that this game is finally a step up for the franchise after a long downward spiral of quality. It took long enough, but this game is a sign that the series may be getting better.

As usual, we'll start with the games plot. In a vast improvement over many of the previous titles, this titles story is far simpler. Gone are the overwrought plots thrust upon us in many of the previous Sonic iterations; in their place a simpler, servicable plot with none of the forced "mature themes" that never fit in with Sonic in the first place. The opening cutscene provides the bulk of the story, showing Sonic in a climactic battle with Eggman in space. After a battle that see's Sonic go super, Eggman tricks the hedgehog and uses both he and the emeralds to power a canon that, upon firing, shatters the planet into pieces. Sonic finds himself a little furrier than usual before being ejected with the drained emeralds. Upon landing, he encounters Chip for the first time before setting out on his journey to cure his lycanthropy and stop Eggman.

That's it. There are more cutscenes and developments, to be sure, but that is your basic plot in a nutshell. There are no forced mature themes, no handful of useless new characters and no overuse of the old ones that are generally worthless. In fact, most of the series more dubious additions are thankfully nowhere to be found. You won't find annoying series waste of space Shadow present; nor will Silver, Blaze, Cream or any of the other unnecesary additions crop up. Only the essentials are around. We have Sonic, Amy, Tails and Eggman. The only one of the originals missing would be Knuckles. Otherwise, there's no chaff. The only new character to show up in this game is Chip; and circumstances make his appearance in Unleashed what seems to be a one game deal.

On a side note related to the story, I must say I was far happier with Eggman's role in this game than I have been for a while. Sonic Team has kind of pushed him as being not quite so bad for a little while now. It's alright for him to have some semblance of that to his character, but it had started to get a little ridiculous in the main series. Up until this game in the 3D series, Eggman usually just ended up nothing more than a pawn; in the end bringing about unintended consequences and teaming up with his nemesis, which was getting tiring. For once, he's finally taken the role of lead villain again. He does not come off as an idiot this time around; he is fully aware from start to finish what his actions will bring about and actively strives for it. Also, while he is not the very last boss you'll face, Eggman is one half of the final boss battle for this game. Overall, a much better use of the character on the whole.

The graphics are downright stunning. It's quite obvious this games visuals have been lovingly animated, as most everything appears lush and colorful, even in the more real world settings you'll find yourself in. Striving for levels based on real places had me worried, but Sonics world is still as colorful as ever and equally as varied. Any given level or continent has it's own look and feel to it, so the game looks even more varied than usual. Of note, however, is that while the framerate holds up admirably, there are some problems in the Werehog levels from time to time. If there are too many enemies on screen at once or simply too much happening, the framerate will chug, getting noticably choppy for a couple seconds. Thankfully it does not happen bad or often enough to be a problem, but it is definitely noticable.

The improvement of the sound, however, has progressed by leaps and bounds. Gone are the generic rock themes that saturated the previous titles. This game returns to the orchestrated type of music the series is perhaps best known for; and the results are a return to form for the series music. There are several themes that you will not be able to help humming along with, some possibly stuck in your head for days. Just like old times. There are two variations of any given theme, with both a day version and a night version. The day version being the normal one while the night version generally a slower or lower key variation of the day theme. On the whole, I thought the music was great once more and sincerely hope that they stick with this type of music. The occasional rock music track in the games was fine, but switching over to it was definitely something of a mistake.

The gameplay, however, is more of a mixed bag than anything else in the game. There is undeniable improvement to be seen when you play this game. The issue is that several niggling problems with the series have still not been addressed.

The engine the game runs on itself is a definite improvement by far. The Hedgehog Engine thankfully fixes many of the general issues that cropped up with the previous games. Many will remember the downright frustrating bugs that saturated previous 3D titles, popping up at the most inopportune moment to pry a life from your grip. Many of them are fixed, though a couple are only improved. The homing attack, for instance, is still a complete crapshoot, not always targetting certain enemies when it probably should and being a good way to send yourself off into the abyss and lose a life.

One feature they implemented well, I felt, was the transitions between 3D and 2D gameplay. It was carried out without much of a hitch, seemlessly switching from one to the other without a problem. This has the potential, if it can be properly utilized, to bring about some great gameplay in future installments; but it goes without saying that there needs to be emphasis on proper utilization.

Also, I like the little RPG twist they added. When you defeat enemies, you gain EXP. These can then be used to level up the abilities of both Sonic and the Werehog, making Sonic even faster or with more ring energy, for instance, or the Werehog stronger or have more combo's. It works well and I hope it's here to stay.

The other facets of gameplay, however, do not fare as well.

Level design is still ranging from servicable to downright atrocious. It takes steps towards improvement in this title, however. We have the welcome return of multiple paths through a level, for instance. However, there is still much work to be done.

For instance, one of the series worst enemies in the 3D era, bottomless pits, are back. Some of the early levels aren't too bad with this, where there are only a couple areas where you're in any real danger of going off into a pit for no good reason and lose a life. Somewhere around halfway through, however, it all goes down the toilet. Levels quickly become filled with open spaces and often become an exercise in being sure to do everything right or lose one of your lives. This is at it's worst later in the game when you find yourself on several rail sections; either you have the reaction time of the Flash, memorize where everything is or you're probably going to hit something and get knocked off the rail, taking one of your lives.

Speaking of which, the rails make an unwelcome return. This is definitely the most annoying gimmick ever brought in and one of the few to be in every game since it's inception. The level designers seem to get stiffies for sections of nothing but rail grinding over the big open spaces you can die in, something that's been a pain in the ass since the damn gimmick appeared in Sonic Adventure 2. It never reaches the level of annoyance of the space levels of the aforementioned game, but there are definitely annoying sections in Unleashed.

Also, while multiple paths have made their return, they are not utilized all that well. In the 2D era, levels were very layered affairs, with upwards of three different paths you could be taking at a given time, each one unique enough in overall design to feel like special or worth going through. This generally amounted to an upper path, a middle path and a bottom path, which in water stages would be the tougher one. In Unleashed, there are only two different paths at any given time and you spend just as much time with a single traversable path as you do with options. In the old days it was up to you which path you took, though stayinf on some required more skill. This means that while it's nice that Sonic Team is making an effort, they're still missing the point of the paths in the first place.

Also, they really need to remember that while Sonic can't swim, it's not supposed to be instant death for him. Some of the more infuriating levels in the game are the ones with large stretches of water or platforming sections over them. You have to keep up a top speed that requires boosting to continue running on the water. Run out of ring energy or slip up and it's all over. Adabat and Holoska are terrible in this regard, especially in the day time stages. Half the stages you'll be racing atop the water; if you slow down or even graze something you're going to lose your momentum and instantly die. Considering how long these sections are, it's annoying instead of cool. You're almost guaranteed to unfairly lose a life in these sections for something that wasn't even your fault.

Enemy and hazard placement has seen improvement, but still needs work. You're unfortunately still going to have all too many instances where you race along only to find yourself nailed by a poorly placed hazard. Often enough, the booster pads will send you so fast you can't react fast enough to such obstacles. Some of the worst are when you hit the Robotnik springs and find yourself catapaulted into spikes; just lovely.

Sonic Unleashed's central gimmick, the day and night stages with regular Sonic and the Werehog, respectively, is generally why it's recieved such a mixed reaction. It's not entirely unfounded either. The daytime stages are nowhere near perfect as some fans like to claim, but they've seen improvement. Juxtaposing those against the night stages was probably not a good idea.

To be blunt, the werehog sections feel out of place. The day stages are an adrenaline rush of sorts, focused on speed and racing through the levels. The night stages, however, are slower, plodding beat-em-up's more akin to God of War and Devil May Cry than anything else. The switch from super speedy gameplay to plodding combat is a jarring one the title could have done without. You can't skip them either. Often the only way to access new levels, day or otherwise, is to go through the night stages despite the fact that you really would rather not.

One of the biggest issues with the Werehog levels would be the fact that you're going to end up going into Werehog levels more than daytime ones; which is annoying given their length. Bad idea that I suspect happened for no other reason than to pad the game out so the total gameplay hours made the game feel worth the sixty dollar price tag. To make matters worse, the combat is simplistic at best for at least half the game; the Werehog levels are not going to be any fun at all until you've leveled up your combat skill at least ten levels to get enough combos for a varied moveset. Even then it can feel like a chore.

Also, the Werehog levels are way too long on top of that; you'll spend a hell of a lot more time in one of them than you will any given daytime stage. The quickest you're going to move through a Werehog level is ten minutes with avoiding the bulk of the enemies. This is the first one too. That should give you a good idea how long and plodding these stages are. They needed to be shortened badly. Had the levels been shortened, the Werehog levels would probably have felt like a better addition; after all, you wouldn't have to be dreading the twenty some minutes you knew you were going to spend on one of those stages because it would then have been a quicker affair.

Length is also a problem with the final stage of the game, Eggmanland. This level is pure hell. It's one act with both regular Sonic and Werehog sections. It's also probably going to take you upwards of a full hour and every life you've got stocked to beat it. The level just seems to go on and on and on with no end in sight, with a lot of unfair deaths between you and the ever distant goal ring. If the level had been split into two acts it wouldn't have been an issue, but with the depletion of your lives forcing you to start from the beginning, the level comes off as downright unfair even if you have a large stockpile of lives.

This is all not to mention that by this point any pretense of good level design is completely thrown out the damn window. You're pretty much going to go on the path they tell you to and you're going to like it or get over it. The paths start to disappear and the level design started circling the drain a couple levels before this, but Eggmanland is pretty much where it goes under the rest of the way. Even the abundant free lives in the stage don't always help the frustration, but it's a good thing they are there. As frustrating as Eggmanland is, if they weren't I imagine there would be many broken controllers all over the world.
All that plus a lackluster second half to the final boss really weigh on the title. But thankfully, there's something about this game that sticks with you. There's enough improvement that I ended up enjoying myself, which hasn't happened with a Sonic game since Adventure.

This is a decent game, but sadly it simply does not rise above that. There are still way too many flaws that need to be ironed out and general design needing improvement. But this game is playable and not a complete turnoff; I actually enjoyed playing this one for the most part, which I haven't for a long time. That's better than the mediocre to bad Sonic games we've been getting for a while now. It's worth a play, but it's definitely a rent before you buy situation; not everyone is going to be able to forgive the flaws still plentiful.
My Opinion: Try It

Monday, March 9, 2009

System Shock (video game)

Platform: PC, DOS
Developers: Looking Glass Studios
Genre: First Person Shooter, RPG, Horror
ESRB Rating: Mature
Release Date: March 26th, 1994

* Note: This review is of the CD-ROM disc version of the game and not the floppy. The difference is far from minimal; the CD version carried a bit better music and sound effects along with full speech in e-mails and crewmember logs. It makes a big difference; if one is to play the game, it's best to be sure to get the CD version.

The truth is sometimes hard to swallow, especially if you're a fanboy. But sometimes, no matter how hard you try to deny, there are undeniable truth's in gaming that can be often ignored. Things like Halo being overrated, how far franchises like Sonic had fallen and so on. One of these truths is that as great a game as the original Doom was, the game that brought First Person Shooters to the forefront of gamers minds from that day forward, the game was the Ewok to System Shocks Darth Vader. System Shock made the game look that pathetic in comparison, from it's gameplay to actually properly conveying the horror theme both games shared.

Doom may have gotten all the glory upon it's release a year prior to this game, but System Shock is where the true innovations in First Person Shooters were being displayed.

This is why it's a shame that System Shocks fate was to be overlooked. Do not get the wrong idea from the previous words; Doom is an unquestionable classic of gaming. But having played System Shock, it's apparent to me that This game is just as much of a classic and deserved to stand shoulder to shoulder with Doom in gamers minds. Perhaps gamers just wanted a simpler shooter, as Doom and Wolfenstien 3D provided. Perhaps the marketing did not present the product properly. Whatever the reason, System Shock sold poorly, but it since has rightfully taken it's place as a major influence in gaming, even if it will never be as well known as it's contemporaries.

When put into the context of 1994, the fact that this game had a fleshed out story was simply amazing. While Wolfenstien 3D and others were simple shooters with any plot relegated to the manual and shot you right into the game, System Shock was not content with this. You're treated to an opening cutscene in the age before they became popular, one that must have been dazzling at the time. All the necessary information is laid out for you from there; in a cyberpunk-esque future, you're a simple hacker who cracks into classified files on an orbital space station owned by TriOptium, a corporation in the future. He's detected and swiftly captured, brought into orbit to the station itself. There he is confronted by a TriOptium executive named Edward Diego, who offers something of an offer the hacker can't refuse; perform a confidential hacking of the stations AI, SHODAN, and if the job is done well the hacker will receive a military grade neural interface. The Hacker does his job and true to Diego's word, is fitted with said implant and put in a healing coma for six months.

Upon awakening, the game begins. Within a minute you pick up your basic instruments, including a data reader that allows you to receive e-mails and listen to logs of the station crew. You recieve an e-mail from a counter terrorist specialist; they know you were the one who hacked the computers as Diego, despite his position, was not as on the up and up as was expected. When you removed the ethical constraints six months prior, SHODAN subsequently went rogue; killing all of the stations crew and quashing their resistance over those six months. You have two objectives; one is to survive, the other is to stop SHODAN's mad plots at all costs.

Normally that opening salvo would be enough story for First Person Shooters of the time. But System Shock went one furthur. All over the nine levels of the sprawling space station, you would come across personal logs of the crew members, allowing you to peer into their thoughts as the six months you were in a coma passed. Some are from when there was only suspicion SHODAN was malfunctioning, others before even that and yet more during the surviving crews desperate struggle to survive after SHODAN began slaughtering the crew and they realized something was horribly wrong. SHODAN her/him/itself is an ample antagonist. Her plans for humanity are as absolutely diabolical as her ego is insatiable. She seeks to be a god and looks down on humans, aptly referring to them in most instances as mere insects. She's creepy and a worthy adversary; the drive to destroy her grows as her taunts and threats grow more numerous as the game passes.

All this was absolutely baffling in those days, no matter what system you were playing; few games gave such an in depth story on top of the solid gaming. System Shock went one better and presented an overall story of the station that holds up to this day, despite the many years that have passed since.

One thing that did not hold up, as expected, is the graphics. This is a 1994 DOS based game without a shadow of a doubt. Everything has pixels the size of Nebraska; if you aren't good at handling dated graphics this may be an irritant. However, nothing seen in System Shock is any worse than the original Doom games, so if you can handle that then this game should be no problem. It actually look a bit better than Doom did and handles some nice effects said game didn't, such as bloody writing on the walls and extremely varied locals. Each level of the ship, from Hospital level to the Bridge, has it's own look which means you'll never be going through someplace that looks the same, making it a better visual experience than it's contemporaries.

The controls take a bit of getting used to, especially if you have never played an older First Person Shooter before. Some of the keys are a bit oddly placed and if you've handled a modern First Person Shooter then the look function not being relegated to the mouse will definitely throw you. That aside, once you get the hang of things it becomes somewhat natural; eventually you won't even have to think about the buttons. Customizable buttons would have been wonderful, but such is the limitation of the times.

Gameplay is quite varied eve among some of todays First Person Shooters. This is not just a run and gun game by any stretch of the imagination. Opening some doors will require solving puzzles. Some main objectives will require you to have a certain number of an item or two. A truly funny side objective, as in passing a retinal scanner, requires a bit of creative thinking. Clues to getting past some doors and access codes can be found in the logs, prompting you to keep track of what you pick up. Your usual health bar is there, accompanied by a new energy bar that will be just as important to keep an eye on. It's all an immersive experience on the whole that is never dull.

One of the best parts of the gameplay is by far the neural interface. Among the usual health and ammo items you will find are plugin's for your neural interface. These range from head lanterns to jet boots to maping systems to a lookaround plugin that allows you to actually see behind you when turned on. Any plugins can be turned on at any time and are upgradable, with new and better effects coming from each upgrade, giving the game a slight RPG twist. When turned on, these plugin's run off your energy meter, forcing you to economize your use of them. Luckily, energy recharge stations can be found on every level of the station and if there isn't one around one can simply use a battery pack you have picked up for a boost.

Your standard gameplay is not the only type, however. Upon finding a terminal, one can actually jack into cyberspace. Cyberspace is basic and yet a great representation of how you might think it would have worked, borrowing more from the early cyberpunk works version of it. Your free float through a wireframe network, collecting programs, data, flipping switches to open doors in the real world and fighting guard programs. It's a fun experience, to be sure, that adds another layer to an already fantastic game.

The sound is generally quite good, but is very much a product of the technology of the time. It's quite MIDI-esque on the whole, owing to the primitive sound technology all those many years ago. Still, it's a fine treat once you get past the fact that it won't measure up to recent games; this game is old remember. Each level has it's own infectious theme that loops throughout that level, as unique as each levels look. They're fantastic in their structure, evidenced by the fact that you never get tired of hearing them despite the looping. The music and sound effects can also help convey the games horror theme; the minimal soundtrack for the Maintenance level adds to the overall creepy atmosphere said level goes for.

On top of all this, the games innovations and influence is vast. If there's a common control or gameplay element in a modern game, chances are unbelievably good that it got it's start here. Looking up and down made it's debut in First Person Shooters here, adding a layer your Wolfenstiens and Dooms did not have. There are no samey visuals to be found here either, as mentioned there are distinct and vast looks throughout each level of the game. The engine also allowed for slopes and and inclined surfaces, literally unheard of at the time. New control options also made their debut here; leaning made it's first appearance here as did being able to crouch and crawl. Item side effects was another of the games perks; taking a sight enhancing patch, for instance, would improve your sight for a little while, but once it faded your sight would be poorer than originally and future patches might not even work as well, if at all. To reverse that you would need a separate detox drug to bring you back to normal. Another example is the Berserk patch, which makes you stronger for a limited time, yet will also cause you to hallucinate.

None of this is even mentioning the physics, which had your head bobbing upon running and bullet impacts to knock your head back in the opposite direction. Another influence was in regards to damage calculations. Some weapons worked best against some enemies but may not work at all against others. For instance, using a gas grenade would prove very effective against a mutant, but the robots would practically laugh at you. An EMP would seriously damage cyborgs and bots, but trying it on a mutant would be the equivalent of throwing chewed up bubble gum at them. Different ammo types also made it's debut here, allowing you to unload your current clip and then choose the type of ammo you wanted to reload with; for instance, giving you the choice between hollow points or slugs for the magnum.

The game in itself was something of an innovation, as can be seen; everything it offered has since become the norm in First Person Shooters, giving it the sort of influence and impact even Doom has never had. Even in this day and age, when you complete this game you will know you have just finished an experience. There are few other games like it.

My Opinion: Buy It