Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Deus Ex: Human Revolution (video game)

Platform: Playstation 3
Developer: Eidos Montreal
Genre: Action, Role-Playing, First Person Shooter, Stealth
Release Date: August 23rd, 2011

I'm often surprised at how little cyberpunk is used in video games. With current struggles and the power corporations wield in current US politics, the genre is more relevant than ever. Yet somehow it remains something of a niche genre. Sure, you can name some really good ones - including this games forebearer - but how many big budget games focus on it, or even partially utilize it*?

Here comes Deus Ex: Human Revolution to help fill the gap. It has one hell of a legacy to live up to. Does it?

You are Adam Jensen, chief of security for a top biotech firm. You have a... complicated relationship with your ex, who got you the job, and are set to escort her to Washington to reveal her revolutionary findings that could change everything in the field of human augmentation. That's when everything goes to hell. The building is attacked and after fighting valiantly, you end up mutilated. You may as well change your status from "it's complicated" as well, since she apparently died in the attack despite your best efforts.

Six months later, you return to work, newly augmented and struggling to understand what happened and why. Your quest to find the truth will bring you neck deep into a conspiracy that spans the globe. Welcome to 2027 Detroit. It's only going to get worse from here.

If you're familiar with the original Deus Ex, you can already tell this one is a prequel. We're twenty five years into that games past, on the cusp of a technological revolution. At first glance, that sounds like a bad idea, but the change in time period allows the game to carve out a look and identity of it's own. It's a different period, with problems both new and as old as time.

It allows the developers to explore what it might look like to live in a time period where such things might be a reality. It starts to resemble the racial issues we as a species have always struggled with; the fear of the unknown and those different from ourselves. The politics, the discussions, all of it feels realistic, as though it were a natural progression from the conflicts of today. E-Books scattered around the maps also help to add detail. The effect is a world that feels as though it's fully realized and lived-in.

Sound is a bit more mixed a bag. Not so much the soundtrack, mind you - which is excellent - but the voice acting. It can and will range from very good to just okay. Since he's the protagonist, Adam Jensens voice acting sticks out the most; there are some great moments of subtle emotion in the voice - an argument early in the game where he slowly loses his cool, depending on which responses you go with, is a nice example - but other times monotone is the default. Sadly, the age old video game problem of "characters with accents they should not have" is also present.

Gameplay is always important and Human Revolution hasn't strayed too far from its predecessor. Choice is again the word of the day, with your decisions on how to proceed seeming to change the world around you. At times, this will affect even the most minor of things, such as NPC dialogue; your actions in the first mission, for example, will alter the reaction and dialogue you receive from the SWAT members at the end, as well as the civilians working at Sarif Headquarters. The little touches add to the experience.

That choice also extends to how you deal with enemies. You can play it like John Rambo if you want, shooting up everything in sight, or you could do like Solid Snake and deal with problems silently. That said, it's pretty clear there's a "right" way to play the game; you'll find you gain more experience in the long run through stealth takedowns and bonuses for remaining undetected. Same goes for non-lethal weapons. You can do what you want, but it ends up making a hell of a lot more sense to deal with problems in the most efficient way possible.

There's so much about Human Revolution that I love. But - and you had to know a but was coming - it's not perfect. There are two issues in particular that nag at me and must be addressed.

The first issue is the boss battles. Simply put, they do not play fair with the player. You may recall that Deus Ex allowed you to play a pacifist throughout the entire game, including boss battles. If you didn't want to kill anyone, you weren't forced to. Almost all of Human Revolution is structured the same way; if anything, non-lethal action is practically encouraged as noted earlier.

All except the boss battles. You are left with no non-lethal options here. You must kill the bosses. From a story perspective, it makes sense; the bosses are all members of the team that seemingly killed your kinda-sorta-not-really girlfriend and mutilated you in the opening - the latter of which leaving Jensen with no choice but to be augmented or die - so Jensen has a pretty legit reason to want to shoot them in the face. From a gameplay perspective, it's a nightmare on your first playthrough unless someone warned you it was coming.

If you're anything like me, you realized early that stealth and takedowns are the methods with the most reward. This is even worse if you played Deus Ex and the rest of Human Revolution tricked you into thinking you could do the whole "mercy" thing for the the entirety of this game too. Which means, ten to one, you dumped most of your early praxis points into stealth and hacking upgrades, eschewing the ones pertaining to gunplay. You probably sold any lethal weapons and upgrades you may have picked up as well. Bad move.

The first boss is a wake-up call you just don't see coming. It's likely you have no armor upgrades at that point - if you're playing a proper stealth run you likely figured you wouldn't need it - meaning he'll shred you in seconds. Worse still, he's essentially a walking tank that will no-sell your weapons. Then, the capper; if you had no intention of killing anyone, you probably sold all your lethal weapons for cash and space. The boss room anticipates this possibility and does provide you with weapons, but you're still walking in unprepared.

In this situation, abuse of the cover system is necessary to get past him. Even that's not a guarantee; he's frequently moving toward you and moving around your cover, because it's not like he needs to duck behind something to avoid gunfire or anything.

The second problem I had pertained to the endings. Put bluntly, they're a complete letdown. You have four options, but no matter which one you choose you get a voiceover narration of Adam musing on what he's done, his choices and whether humanity will move in the right direction. It wraps nothing but the main plot thread. Anything pertaining to Jensen, his friends, unfinished business and where the characters would go from here receives exactly zero closure. While I realize it leaves quite a bit to be dealt with should a sequel be made in this time period - and the fact that it bothers me at all can be seen as a triumph, since it means I care about the characters - it makes for an unsatisfactory conclusion to the twenty to thirty hour game you just finished.

Niether problem is enough to sink it, but they are a pair of black marks on an otherwise great game.

The Score: 8.5 out of 10

It isn't perfect and isn't quite on the level of the original Deus Ex, but Human Revolution is a worthy successor to the franchise. I'm kind of hoping for a sequel set in this time period, but I'll be there for a sequel regardless of when it takes place. Well worth your time and money.

* Final Fantasy VII - one of my favorite RPG's - is guilty of this. The first quarter of the game is heavy on the cyberpunk influence. The dystopic cityscape, the corporation that rules over everything and does what it wants, the conspiracies, the cover-ups for the ill deeds of said corporation; right up until the last few scenes in Midgar, where the game shifts to a bit more typical "save the world" plot, the game is dripping in it. There's still strands of it in the games DNA, but once you leave Midgar in the dust it's mostly abandoned. It's interesting to think about what could have been had the game stuck to it. It likely would have made for a tighter story; as great as Final Fantasy VII is and as much as I love it, the game was all over the map at times.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Mega Man 10 (video game)

Platform: PSN, X-Box Live Arcade, Wiiware
Developer: Inti Creates
Genre: Action, Platformer
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Release Date: March 1, 2010

I think I came down on Mega Man 9 harder than I intended to. It was a very good game, but it was not perfect. I had issues with it, to put it plainly, but I did not hate it.

I still have some of those same reservations - yet again, Mega Man has nothing past the basic controls of Mega Man 2 - but this time the game is just too damn good to care.

Story is simple, as it always is. This time, a virus is going around. The kicker? It only effects robots. It's their version of the flu, basically. Dr. Wily shows up saying none of it is on him - I'd say spoiler alert, but come on, I'm not telling you anything you don't know when I say he's full of shit - and that the crazed robots have taken the device he had used to develop a cure. Mega Man takes Wily at his word - I guess he forgot the last time Wily pulled the "fetch my stolen crap" trick with the Peace Keeping Robot from 3 - and goes to smash some robot heads together.

While the things that annoyed me with 9 carry over, everything else has improved. It's clear Inti Creates took all the lessons they learned from making Mega Man 9 and applied them to 10, because everything is just that much better. Mega Man 10 has what is easily my favorite group of levels since Mega Man 2, with a wonderful amount of variety, great gimmicks, interesting looks and killer design. The music is even better this time around - I thought 9 had a great soundtrack, but I wasn't fond of a couple themes - with an eclectic group of Robot Masters and subsequent power-ups. Some of the power-ups were even worth using outside of the boss battles for me, which is a far rarer occurrence than you'd think*.

Even the endgame is improved. Dr. Wily's Super Death Trap Castle is as frustratingly crazy as ever and the bosses are just as bad. The "Yellow Devil" version of this game is the Block Devil, which is almost fiendish, even once you get the pattern down, since it's made up of the blocks from the floor and wall. Meaning that being knocked off the ledge to your death is a concern. Then, after Wily has thrown everything he can at you and the game seems over, it has one last trick up its sleeve.

There are even some advancements to be found in the gameplay if you're willing to venture outside of Mega Man. Proto Man is available in the stock game - shield and all - and he has the slide move that used to be a staple of Mega Man's moveset. Meanwhile, Bass is available as DLC - complete with his ability to fire in eight directions from Mega Man and Bass - and he can combine with his robodog Treble, an ability that's been unavailable to us since the Rush Adapter in 7.

Oh, speaking of the DLC, I didn't bother with 9, but I got it this time. It was worth the money. Bass is, of course, fun to play as. But also on offer is the "Endless Stage" mode, a marathon session where your only objective is to stay alive for as many screens as you possibly can. Unfortunately, only Mega Man is on offer for this mode, but that does not make it any less addictive. I've dropped cash on worse DLC, for certain.

All told, 10 may just be one of the best entries in the Classic Mega Man series.

The Score: 9 out of 10

Mega Man 10 is pretty close to perfect. Well worth your cash. Tenth time's the charm.

* This might just be me, but for the classic series, I tend to find the different powers impractical for use outside of the designated boss they're strong against. The first a second game had some fairly practical powers, but as the series wore on it seemed like they ran out of interesting things to give you. This is all not to say that 10 doesn't have it's duds; Thunder Wool is completely useless and the Water Shield - which works the same way as the Leaf Shield from 2 - isn't a hell of a lot better.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Mega Man 9 (video game)

Platform: PSN, X-Box Live Arcade, WiiWare
Developer: Inti Create
Genre: Action, Platformer
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Release Date: September 22, 2008

There's been a bit of a "retro" revival lately. Sonic the Hedgehog attempted a middle ground between the modern day and the past with Sonic 4. But before the other blue hero decided to get back to his roots to win back his fans, Mega Man had the same idea. The main difference is that he went all the way, regressing back to his 8-bit heydey for this latest adventure.

Plot was never a focus in the Mega Man games and this one doesn't break the mold. Dr. Wily frames Dr. Light and Mega Man has to smack around some robots to clear his name. As expected, it's not much more than an excuse for our pixelated hero to fight eight more master robots - even including a female for the first time in series history - and traverse Wily's Super Deathtrap Castle to shoot him in the face.

Mega Man 9 is fanservice of the highest order. A lot of time and effort has clearly gone into recreating the classic Mega Man experience, right down to making an intentionally bad box cover* just to complete the illusion. The graphics, the controls, the music, the effects; everything has recieved painstaking attention to detail, to the point where the only evidence that 7 and 8 ever existed is maybe Auto and the item shop. That's the problem.

A lot of people more articulate than I have gone into detail about why nostalgia - and attempting to recreate things based around it - is a doomed effort. The Iceberg Lounge has a pretty good piece about this, so I'll just say "go read what he has to say" and I won't go into too much detail about that particular subject. But that's the gist of what we're looking at here; they've tried so hard to hit those nostalgia centers that they've taken the series ten steps backwards, to the point where the controls have regressed back to what we had in Mega Man 2.

That's not good for a game series and in fact it actually leads to stagnation. Quick, how many of you ever think of 4, 5 and 6 whenever Mega Man is brought up? Exactly. They were pretty good games, overall, but that was the period in which the series had begun to stall. Rather than jump to the Super Nintendo, the franchise stuck with the then-outdated NES and any improvements made were incremental at best.

See, video games have to keep moving and keep improving. Otherwise, they may as well be the equivalent of a mission pack extension of the older games. What would Final Fantasy have looked like if it never progressed past the first game? We'd have lost a lot of things, such as the job class to start. Why has the Katamari series begun to lose some of its cult fanbase? Because the series refuses to move forward in any meaningful way. Say what you want about 7 and 8 - and they had dumb ideas, like the soccer ball mechanic from 8 - but they were attempts to finally move forward instead of lingering in the past.

Which brings me back to Mega Man 9. It's about as perfect a piece of 8-bit gaming as you can find. It's fun, it's challenging and engaging. But it's so deeply rooted in the past that I wonder it maybe they've gone too far. They're shooting for one demographic here - the people who grew up with NES Mega Man games - and in that regard I wonder if they've forgotten other demographics exist. I've heard more than one story of a parent seeing Mega Man 9 as their own personal nirvana while their kid just didn't get what the big deal was.

If the series is to continue past Mega Man 10, I'm hoping they get back to moving forward again. If you must, keep the pixelated graphics. But man, at least evolve the gameplay a bit, even if you just end up bringing things back from the later games in the series.

The Score: 8 out of 10

A well polished game that is arguably too much of a blast to the past. It's a great game, but I can't help but feel like it's a step back for the franchise instead of a step forward. But if old school Mega Man is your thing, have at it. Just don't be too surprised that the game is basically Mega Man 2 with a fresh coat of paint**.

* This is an amusing thing to go ahead and replicate. Sure, everyone remembers the insanely bad cover for the first Mega Man, but that was the only one that was flat out wrong. Mega Man 2's had a lot of inaccuracies, but was far closer. Past that the cover art nailed the look of the characters.

** This is not necessarily a bad thing. Mega Man 2 is easily my favorite in the classic series, maybe even in the entire franchise. I'm not sure I wanted a remix of it, though.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Wolverine and the X-Men Vol. 1 (comic)

Writer: Jason Aaron
Artists: Chris Bachalo, Nick Bradshaw
Collects: Wolverine and the X-Men #1-4

You'll recall in my review of Schism that I named this the book I was looking forward to the most out of anything. Funnily enough, I ended up reading the Uncanny X-Men relaunch first. I didn't review it - I've yet to decide if I want to - and in case I don't bother the short version is Cyclops and his not-so-merry band of X-Men continue to be stuck too far up their own asses. This comic is the exact opposite; it's funny, visually interesting, packed with great characters and never dull.

It's the X-Men book I've been waiting a long time for.

The setup will be familiar to almost anyone; we're back on the school grounds again, arguably where the X-Men belong. Schism surprisingly plays more of a role here than it did in Uncanny. The Kid Helfire Club - who you'll recall orchestrated everything that happened in Schism - decide it would be pretty funny if Logans new school blew up on the first day. So they blow it up on the day the board of education is visiting the school to evaluate. Hilarity ensues. Also Krakoa is involved. This all takes place in the first three issues, I remind you. The fourth issue is a standalone bridging our introductory arc and what comes next.

At first I felt Jason Aaron got the raw deal out of the split, with most of the power players sticking with boring Scott and his sinking island, but as it turns out he got the better end of the bargain. His eclectic group of mutants immediately proves themselves an engaging group, even as it becomes clear they're way out of their depth. The new kids are endearing and the old favorites are just as great. Everything simply works right from the first issue.

You can probably imagine my delight when I found out Chris Bachalo was on art duties. Turns out, he manages three issues before we need a fill in. But they are three stylish, visually striking issues. His exagerrated, animated style works perfect for a book like this; there are a couple of panels that aren't entirely clear in their storytelling, but they end up being minor issues in an otherwise beautiful book. Nick Bradshaw is also a strong artist in his own right and if he's the guy they have in mind for trading off art duties with Bachalo I'll have no complaints.

But there's just one other problem that has nothing to do with the contents themselves. The issue count. They want fifteen dollars SRP for four issues. This is quickly becoming standard at Marvel and it's starting to work on my last nerve. Once in a while is fine, but deliberately splitting stories or putting in a low issue count just to get more money out of the consumer is just low. I'm even more annoyed this time, because this is a series I'm buying rather than borrowing from the library.

The Score: 9 out of 10

If you are an X-Men fan and you don't like this book, I can only conclude that you either hate fun or are one of those odd souls that prefer King Cyclops and his team of villains.