Friday, March 29, 2013

MINI-REVIEW - Spec Ops: The Line (Yager, 2K Games; PC)

I'm doing a mini-review of this game because, well, it's just impossible to do an accurate review, and for a good reason. Spec Ops: The Line is a deep game, especially for its sub-six hour length and third-person shooter style. Set in a sand-covered Dubai, you play as Captain Martin Walker, the leader of a small team of Delta Force operatives. Your mission quickly changes from the brief, escalating into what is easily one of the best-written campaigns of any modern shooter.

Now, that does sound a little bit like saying being punched in the stomach is preferable to being stabbed in the eye, but Spec Ops: The Line shows that the shooter genre is a perfectly capable and valid vehicle for a powerful, complex story that delves into the human psyche and the morality and ethics of warfare.

What is also surprising is that, removed from the story, the game itself holds up rather well. Whilst it sometimes isn't the prettiest, and this can impact some sections of the game, it is richly detailed, and the combat mechanics, mostly, work as they should. I found switching weapon and grenade types to be a little confusing at first, and the cover mechanics don't quite work as smoothly as they should (which can make some sections harder than they should be), but otherwise it is an expertly crafted game. The audio design is also almost entirely excellent and worth noting, particularly the choice of licensed tracks. I was surprised to hear Mogwai's Glasgow Mega-Snake play during one high-adrenaline section, though the effect was marred a little by no effort to blend the repeats into each other (meaning the song played out, then started again).

I don't really want to talk more about the story, I feel I've said too much as it is. The story needs to be experienced, played through and reacted to. Reading it in a review or even on blogs just doesn't do it any justice, and will even take away from one's own experience.

Spec Ops: The Line is a game I highly recommend. It is an excellent deconstruction of the war genre, and a brilliant game in its own right. Whilst it will normally take no more than six hours to complete, those few short hours are amongst the best you will ever experience in a game of its type.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

REVIEW - Tomb Raider (Crystal Dynamics/Square Enix; PC)

This year, Crystal Dynamics and SquareEnix released Tomb Raider, the latest iteration of the highly-successful and world famous video game series of the same name. As has been the case for the last few years, it has not been developed in its birthplace of the UK, but primarily by the once British-owned American studio Crystal Dynamics. This release in the Tomb Raider franchise is notable for numerous reasons. It's a reboot of the franchise with a much darker and more mature aesthetic, and it trades the globe-trotting plots for one set on a single island, and it is also the first Tomb Raider game to achieve an 18 rating in the UK.

Lara is part of a small expedition aiming to make a reality TV show about a mythical Japanese island, and it soon becomes apparent that the island most likely resides in a very stormy section of the sea (it is described as making the Bermuda Triangle seem like almost nothing), and as is to be expected, the ship gets caught in a storm and the crew are unceremoniously dumped on the very island they were seeking. Moments after washing up on the beach, Lara is kidnapped and we start the game trying to escape in order to regroup with the other survivors, and hopefully find a method to escape.

The game itself is not too dissimilar to previous iterations. There are a lot of platforming sections, including climbing walls and buildings, looking for hidden items (relics, texts, etc.), solving fairly basic puzzles and, of course, shooting things. Combat is unavoidable in this game, but the game is certainly built to handle it. You have an ever-increasing range of weaponry to choose from, including a bow, a pistol and a shotgun, and you can use these and the environment to pick off your enemies as you see fit. I, personally, spent most of my time using the bow as it had good range and good damage, whilst also being fun to use. Your weapons are further bolstered by an upgrade system (which uses a generic 'Salvage' currency) and skills gained by spending the experience you earn, as well as specific parts which change the 'model' of your weapon (e.g. the bow will go from 'makeshift' to 'recurve' with its first upgrade). Whilst these customisations don't really have the potential to change the way you play (bar a few non-optional upgrades), it's still an interesting system and one not to be overlooked.

The inclusion of Challenge Tombs is fairly interesting, and whilst they don't make sense on any level, they add interesting diversions to the game. The point of a challenge tomb, simply, is to solve a puzzle in order to gain a map that details the location of the collectables on the map. They typically take no more than a few minutes to solve, and the map does come in handy as it eases the task of finding the numerous relics and texts in order to gain experience. What I found particularly good about these tombs is they're a break from the story, but they also show Lara in a different light – when she talks, she's much more confident in these sections, and it adds depth to her character. There are only a few, however, and their solution will sometimes be related to a section of the game that you have just completed (the first you discover requires that you use the climbing tool that you had just acquired, for example) and can feel a little gimmicky rather than utilising any real player skill.

There is one major, major issue with the structure of the game, however, and this issue has been a major talking point since the first details. The game is heavily reliant on Quick-Time Events (QTEs), which is fairly reasonable to expect considering the cinematic tone they have chosen (more on that later), but they come at flow-breaking times and could often be replaced simply with cinematics. One QTE in particular raised a lot of controversy whilst the game was in development, and I tackled it fairly early into the game. In this scene Lara is confronted by a Russian man who leads a gang of thugs, and it's pretty clear she's almost certainly going to be raped after being caught trying to escape (such a visceral scene itself could be a rape trigger for some, not to mention the 'interactive' nature of it), and the QTE that follows allows you to confront the assailant and ultimately kill him. Any incorrect move and Lara is killed. This scene is incredibly frustrating for numerous reasons, but ultimately the challenge of this scene so early on (particularly with the disconnect between the commands on screen and the controls in the PC version) will almost certainly cause numerous players to have to attempt it more than once, and I feel this contributes to the poor taste of the scene as it will cause some (including myself) to experience it more times than should be necessary.

Thankfully, no other QTE scene attempts this again, but they can still be as frustrating. I browsed the Steam-hosted forums for this game whilst playing, and saw numerous complaints about various major QTE scenes, because they were frustrating to get through. One is even so badly implemented that closing the game and loading it again is necessary to get past due to a progression-stopping bug. Frustration is an emotion I experienced numerous times whilst playing this game, because the controls or the design hindered the experience. There are many sections where the game is unforgiving as they don't allow you to react or move unhindered, and these can cause you to die through no real fault of your own. Deaths typically are represented two ways. In scripted sections you see Lara die in a visceral, violent fashion (impaled on spikes, branches, etc.), and in those where Lara simply falls, she hilariously bounces off rocks and other objects. These actually take away from the game once you see them enough times, because you begin to get used to them, which isn't the intention. There are no punishments for death, either, which I suppose is fair considering the game will sometimes barely acknowledge the player's wish to keep Lara fighting.

The approach to Lara's injuries is rather puzzling, too. The game takes an almost perverse interest in showing Lara getting injured, showing us in detail numerous injuries she takes (a rusted bit of steel that goes through her midriff, a fire arrow that burns her arm, as well as numerous cinematic death scenes), and allowing us to control her during some of her most injured moments, but it seems to only have a fleeting interest in actually having anything to do with them beyond establishing them. Lara routinely wades through filth with open wounds, there are times where she walks slowly as she's clutching her side and even a section that revolves simply around finding some medical supplies (which is promptly forgotten about), yet interspersing these sections are times where Lara is seemingly A-OK and can run, jump and climb like a pro. Her clothing is also seemingly intact throughout all of this, with barely a scratch or a tear showing, though it does get coated in its fair share of mud, blood and grime (which sometimes magically disappears).

Lara's clothing is actually another thing I need to mention. It's pretty clear from the box art alone that Crystal Dynamics want to present Lara as differently from her earlier incarnations as possible. She's no longer wasp-waisted (which ceased pretty much after Legend, actually), large busted or clad in a pair of khaki-hot pants, but is instead somewhat more average looking (for a female video game character, at least), of a more realistic build and dressed in more than a swimsuit with shorts. And I do like this new design, truly, but it doesn't work in this game. The camera all too often takes shots down Lara's top, and I feel this really weakens what they're trying to do with her. It doesn't seem appropriate at all that we should get a hint of cleavage when trying to portray Lara as injured, broken, overwhelmed and stressed, yet at times we get shots that are more appropriate for candid magazines. This is further added to by what appears to be very light use of 'jiggle physics' (I'm sure I've caught her breasts moving out of the corner of my eye) and a pair of trousers that seems to mold itself around Lara's buttocks, not to mention occasional brief periods of animation where her poses are highly feminised or accompanied with girlish grunts/squeaks (and not the kind you get from exertion, it seems). Thankfully the edition I bought came with an outfit that covered Lara's chest almost completely (not even a tiny bit of cleavage!) and seemed less tight around the legs, and once I'd done this the game felt much better to me.

The changes made to Lara (younger, much less confidence, and so on) really make sense in this context. She's not the Lara we knew, yet you can see that she might just grow into that kind of person. Maybe not quite as extreme, but she's still as intelligent, still as dedicated to her work and her friends, and you just know she'll go as far as her earlier incarnations did. A lot of attention has been put into the details with her actions, too. You get a sense of the pain she's in, and the mental turmoil she has, but the way she reacts to the environment can feel very authentic. In various cutscenes, Lara will shiver and shake with shock or due to the cold, and when trying to lift the lids of chests in challenge tombs, her arms appear to shake and strain with the effort. These little details add quite a lot of immersion to the game, though sadly it doesn't carry quite so well into the standard gameplay. There's also the issue of Lara being traumatised by her first kill, even finding the idea of killing a deer very hard, yet within less than an hour of the game, she's slaughtering everything in her wake. Most enemy kills are non-avoidable, and this doesn't quite add up with what the characters try to convey in cutscenes. It becomes an over-the-top bloodbath at times, yet Lara has – seemingly – no remorse over these kills.

On a technical level, I was moderately impressed. The game certainly is pretty, even on modest settings, but the lighting (particularly that of torches) doesn't seem to be entirely realistic and it can leave cave sections being overly dark. The environment reacts fairly naturally to Lara, though breakable objects are obvious to the point of sticking out like a sore thumb, and I felt the world seemed to work really well. The controls didn't seem to be that brilliant, however, neither being reflected in the commands for the quick-time events nor being that responsive at core moments. I died numerous times because Lara jumped at an angle I didn't want her to or because her movements seemed to slow down. The camera also contributed to these issues at times as it could obscure the view and cause you to misjudge a jump. The pacing can also be an issue as it pushes you to go faster, which then allows for mistakes and, as such, infuriating deaths can then occur through small mistakes.

Overall, I did enjoy Tomb Raider, and it is a worthy title for the franchise, as well as being an excellent starting point for its new direction. Whilst some aspects of the plot are tired, overplayed and incredibly predictable, not to mention completely overlooked for the sake of the chosen direction, the writing itself is enjoyable and creates some interesting characters. It feels like there is a lot of development that goes on across a relatively short period of time, and this does help keep things interesting. Aside from a few sections where the game is unbelievably frustrating or prone to bugging, it feels fun and exciting to play. Lara's movements are fluid, the combat works nicely for the most part, and there are environmental aspects that can be exploited to tackle issues. Whilst not the longest game (10-15 hours on average, depending on how much you die, how many collectables you choose to get, etc.), the game never feels particularly empty nor overbearing, instead keeping you on a fairly straight line, but one that doesn't feel artificial or claustrophobic.

I highly recommend Tomb Raider, and I look forward to the sequels. Make no mistake, Lara is back.

(Please note: I played this on the PC with a keyboard and mouse, and finished with 92% completion in a total of 13 hours. I missed no sections of actual content, only some collectables and challenges. I did not try the multiplayer mode)