Monday, September 12, 2011

28- Your file's got a Five Star Pain In The Ass rating!

I want to talk about this one game that came out earlier this year, published by Square Enix and developed by feelplus, that game is Mindjack.

Set in the year 2031, a new technology called Mind Hack has been created, allowing you to take control of any person's mind with out them even knowing it, and someone wants to get their hands on this new tech. You play the role of Jim Corbijn, a FIA (Federal Intelligence Agency) agent sent on a simple "track and tail" mission revolving some sort of activist named Rebecca Weiss. When Jim happens to get too close and takes out the contact Rebecca was speaking to, they both find themselves in a seemingly secret war involving the government and a company named NERKAS.

Now, I don't own the instruction booklet for this game but I assume a huge part of the synopsis comes from it considering most information setting up the world of MindJack is not present in the actual game. In fact any organization, person or concept in MindJack is referred to without any real context or explanation. By the end of the game barely any of that information will be cleared up. That said, MindJack's main plot point is somewhat coherent and seems to have had some thought put into it, though subtleties such as gameplay and story relations seem to have been overlooked. I can't mention them due to spoilers.

The side plots on the other hand are mostly cliché ridden and awful. A forced love interest on the latter half of the game with some thrown in connection to the protagonist, a twist you can see coming from a mile away with an added ham fisted message. MindJack's story just doesn't do much with the concept of a future with such remarkable technology and decides to take a more basic approach, except done in a half assed manner.

Characters don't fare much better either, as MindJack's cast is small but mostly made up of rather unlikeable characters with vague information about them. The protagonist Jim Corbijn is a brash individual with a penchant for yelling every time he speaks and Rebecca Weiss is your standard unfriendly and confrontational female supporting character, whose in game uselessness makes it hard to justify such an attitude. As your AI controlled partner, Rebecca tends to fumble her way around the battlefield getting in your way when you are trying to get to cover, and bullheadedly charging into gun fire, forcing you to ignore any current plans so you can heal her.

But really none of that matters because the opposing NERKAS forces are equally incompetent. Often times when closing in, you'll see enemies run right past you with out firing a single shot to get to their designated cover spot. It feels like you are fighting game programs with very obvious set commands. Heavier enemies fare somewhat better as they don't require cover and will slowly walk around shooting rockets or shotgun blasts, but that doesn't make for much better opposition.

The main draw to MindJack is the hacking of the minds and the seamless integration of online play into the single player campaign. (More on the latter later) MindJack is a standard 3rd person shooter with cover mechanics and for the most part it all works fairly well. The shooting mechanics are functional with the only particular gripe I have being the awkwardly long while it takes for most weapons to reload. It mostly seems like just about any action interrupts your character's reloading animation.
Cover is also functional, though sometimes you'll find yourself on a corner that not only disables your ability to shoot, but sometimes has you shooting at said cover wall when you can clearly see your opponent.

You eventually get used to some of these quirks and manage ways around them, with the exception of one particular basic gameplay mechanic... close combat. MindJack uses a form of action command styled close combat system, which triggers a prompt when you get close to your opponents. Problem is it never quite works, as you'll find yourself kicking the floor like a jackass (the initial "trigger animation"), all while your enemy rolls around or shoots you. It has a bit of an input lag and only connects when you stand directly in front or behind the enemy, and even then you must mash the button in order to complete the full combo, because otherwise it will be cut short. While there is a finesse to it, it's FAR too much trouble to get used to.

(Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you...MindJack)

Mind Hacking is a mechanic that takes a little while to get used to, but it is definitely the game's highpoint. When you down an enemy you have the option to Mind Slave them, allowing him to fight along side Jim and Rebecca. This technique also works on robotic opponents and opens up some basic strategy. For the most part, Mind Slaved allies will work well as something else for the enemies to shoot at, and usually stand their ground far better than your partner does. When an enemy has been Mind Slaved, you also have the option to Mind Hack them, which lets you take full control of your ally. This is done by astral projecting yourself in what the game calls Wanderer Mode. In Wanderer Mode, you leave your body and float around the battlefield in a ghost-like first person view. Here you can target Mind Slaved allies or inactive robotic devices placed around the battlefield to take over and control. This lets you take advantage of specific abilities certain enemies or robots have.

Mind Hacking can also be done to civilians cowering around the urban battlefields. Humorously, they all seem to be packing some serious heat, ranging from pistols to machine guns. They don't live very long, but especially during multiplayer they serve as a final saving grace to any downed players on your team using the two protagonists.

Speaking of multiplayer, MindJack hopes to create a seemless transition of single and multiplayer interaction; it succeeds in doing half of it. The multiplayer is based on the concept of being able to hack into an other player's campaign; Split into two teams: Blue being the main player and Red being the hacker. As the Blue Team, when hacked, the now player controlled opposition makes for harder enemies to kill, creating a more interesting challenge for progressing through the campaign. Players can also join the Blue team, with their only limitation being that they can only Mind Hack enemy bodies if they are Mind Slaved by players using Jim or Rebecca. Everything else is fair game for both teams.

Playing in the Red Team however comes without much reward. When the Red Team wins they have to replay the same level they defeated the Blue Team in, this is because they are, like the AI enemies, impeding the progress of the main player. What you end up with here is a severe lack of motivation as the hacker to actually win, or to even be bothered by having the multiplayer setting on. For once, rage quitting seems justifiable and in a sense mutual.

Because of this multiplayer based design, MindJack's single player has stages split into short sections, some with shoot outs containing about 5 or so enemies. Any Mind Slaved enemies you may have instantly keel over and die once the results screens kick in, and once a new stage starts your weapon arsenal resets to default. This oddity is "corrected" by having an assault rifle and some grenades conveniently placed on the floor at the beginning of each new stage. Presentation also imitates multiplayer at all times, as each enemy kill is represented with your username, a kill icon and the enemy type killed.

As you play through the campaign in both single player or multiplayer you earn Experience Points (XP) from killing enemies. You level up with this XP, but it doesn't do anything other than unlock modifiers known as Plug-Ins. (Arts for Combat and Rules for Passive) Arts offer combat upgrades such as faster movement in Wanderer mode or better aiming, and you can equip up to two at a time, giving you some decent customization. Rules include team swaps for multiplayer and for or some odd reason difficulty levels.

A huge problem MindJack suffers from are constant glitches and strange gameplay quirks. A multiplayer example, in the Blue Team when players already have control over Jim or Rebecca extras go into Wanderer mode. Despite your ghostly form, should you fall behind you are capable of getting stuck in MindJack's many closing doors. This can be solved by Mind Hacking a civilian or Mind Slaved enemy, but should there be neither you are out of luck. An other recurring glitch my copy had was that in a certain part of the game my partner would simply stop moving when I attempted to go into the designated hall way, basically leaving me solo for the rest of the level. Other players have reportedly had worse experiences.

In a sense, the ultimate downfall of MindJack is its multiplayer concept. Had it not been there, feelgood may have been able to create some interesting scenarios or puzzles where Mind Hacking or Slaving could have been used to solve. But as it stands, it merely serves as a mechanic to make an average third person shooter stand out, but even then it is sadly attached to a fundamentally busted game. To summarize:

+ Mind Hacking is a fresh concept, pulled off fairly well.
+ Mind Slaving allows for basic, but enjoyable strategy.
+ Multiplayer can be an interesting experience.
+ "Plug-Ins" allow for some customization.

- Context-less story.
- Aggravatingly bad partner AI.
- Dumb enemy AI.
- Useless melee combat.
- Flaky cover system.
- No reward for winning when you are the opposition in multiplayer.
- Constant glitches.
- Bland visuals and audio.

My final verdict for MindJack is a Below Average, 4/10.
(Or as Jim Corbijin would say, "...a Four Star Pain in The Ass rating!")

(Screen-shot credit goes to Giant Bomb, and both low quality ones are mine.)

27- Red Satisfaction?

Volition Inc.'s Red Faction series isn't one I am particularly familiar with, however if I understand it correctly, its shtick seems to be destructible environments. Curious about how they go about it, I decided to give the series' latest entry Red Faction: Armageddon a try.

Armageddon's story has you playing as a Mason family descendant Darius Mason, grandson of Red Faction: Guerilla's protagonist Alec Mason and a soldier of the Red Faction. After an operation against cultist leader Adam Hale goes wrong, Darius and the rest of Mars' populous are forced underground due to the only thing keeping upper Mars habitable, the Terraformer, being shut down by Hale in said botched operation. Afterwards Darius gets caught in the middle of an ancient alien bug outbreak which makes life for the people stuck in Mars' underground much worse. Of course, it is up to Darius to exterminate the threat along with his trusty sentient computer guide S.A.M (Situational Awareness Module) to help guide him along the way and offer some banter with our hero.

The story is actually quite boring and amazingly cliché, with an uninteresting cast of supporting characters, a forced romance scene towards the end game, nicely rendered but uninteresting (and in one particular case confusing) cutscenes and plenty of baldness. Audio logs (which for some reason don't respond to the subtitle setting) are scattered throughout the game that tell further details into the story, but they too aren't very interesting to listen to, and I honestly found the subplot/explanation of events to be quite stupid.

The ancient bug menace (known as The Plague) aren't very interesting either, though their designs are passable. Despite its short length, towards the end of the campaign I was just rushing along killing endless amounts of bugs with ease, hoping for at least one interesting set-piece or boss, or for the credits to start rolling. Oh and you also fight some on foot, human Cultist enemies but there is absolutely nothing special or interesting about them, and they only show up in less than a handful of levels. As much as I dislike saying this, Armageddon's story is simply present to grant an excuse to destroy bugs in spectacular fashion.

And that is what Red Faction: Armageddon excels at, allowing the player to utterly destroy the opposition as well as the background around it. Gameplay consist of standard 3rd Person shooting with no cover based gameplay. Due to ability to destroy just about any man-made structure, cover isn't really a priority, but should you be in a situation where you need it your trusty wrist strapped Nano-Forge can be of help, as it allows you to Repair any damage you may have caused. This feature encourages players to go wild with destruction and creative use of their arsenal, safely knowing that if they needed that one staircase to continue up the designated path, they can simply rebuild it with no penalties. Repairing is also used for some story related events, in particular its Repair Grenade upgrade, which the Nano Forge receives halfway through the game that allows you to repair from a distance. Sadly the ability isn't really used in any way outside of the mundane "repair generator to open door" situations.

The Nano Forge has combat abilities as well, which are a highlight of Armageddon for me. These include a powerful kinetic blast that sends enemies flying and destroys terrain called Impact or the handy Shockwave, which once unleashed sends all nearby enemies floating mid-air for a few seconds. With upgrades, the Nano Forge abilities become immensely powerful and compliment the fast and aggressive gameplay of Armageddon well.

Throughout the game you will collect Salvage, blue light disks that fall off of destroyed terrain and enemies. These can be used to purchase upgrades like faster reload, higher defense and upgraded Nano Forge abilities. The upgrade system is split into tiers, each unlocked when you are at a certain part of the game. This strange system doesn't allow for players to freely upgrade what they want, even if they have enough salvage for it. This feels like a cheap way to balance the game.

The way you cause environmental destruction is done mainly through your weapons, which range from standard bug killers and starter weapons like assault riffles and shotguns to specialized, insanely powerful weapons like the physics based Magnet Gun, which allows you to target objects and send them hurling at enemies or the black hole unleashing Singularity Cannon. These are found through the course of the campaign and you can carry up to 4. Thankfully the campaign offers plenty of chances for you to play around with these weapons, though towards the end you may feel like simply using what is more practical than creative.

Besides blasting away with guns, from time to time you can use the guns attached to vehicles and a mech-suit referred to as L.E.O. to blast away enemies with. The L.E.O is optional to use in the few opportunities given, but it makes for an alternative to normal shooting, as it has some simple but powerful melee abilities that are fun to watch. The vehicle sections on the other hand range from spider walking tanks to flying a hovercraft in first person through a cramped tunnel. Towards the end of the game, vehicles segments are piled on heavily with little break in between, making them feel like padding for time and they don't allow for much personal destruction.

Aside from the single player campaign there is Infestation Mode; A 30 Round, 4 player survival mode where players must team up to clear waves of the Plague, each more difficult than the last. Stages are areas similar to those in the story but not outright pulled from it with a short paragraph giving some context to each one. While this mode can offer some good chances for some insane destruction, it isn't meant to be played solo. Not because of difficulty, but because it is incredibly boring that way and doing so reveals the repetitive nature of the enemy waves past the 10th. To keep things "fresh" you receive better weapons as you progress through the waves, which in turn makes the earlier ones rather undesirable for replay. A good balance however is for the Nano Forge abilities, which you only get to choose one to use as opposed to having all available like in the single player campaign. This makes playing with others more fun as you will be considering each others abilities and work as a team.

Infestation stages come in two varieties, Survival and Defend. Survival's premise is simple, which is just to slaughter your way through each wave of enemies. Defend is pretty much the same idea, but with the added task of protecting some large objects from being destroyed by the plague. Defend offers a nice change of pace from the normal killing and destruction, and it gets your Repair ability involved a little more but it can be a massive drag should you have an uncooperative team.

The other mode of play is Ruin Mode, which is a single player experience that focuses solely on destroying specific backgrounds in the fastest time with the biggest score. Sadly I wasn't quite able to test this mode outside of the trial version the game includes. This is because I rented the game, so I didn't get the code for the full version which would come with a brand new copy of Armageddon. That said it doesn't particularly seem like a mode with much depth, though at least it has leaderboard support for those interested.

Red Faction Armageddon is a solid action game with some interesting ideas and gameplay that while worth checking out, don't fully reach much of any creative potential past their base premise. A bland narrative makes the single player drag on but Infestation mode offers a fun experience with friends. Destruction is king here, and Armageddon offers it in large amounts with some fast and smooth gun-play with powerful weapons and abilities. To sum it up:

+ A creative and fun arsenal allows for some amazing moments of pure chaos and destruction, and the repair ability encourages it.
+ Infestation Mode is good chaotic fun, though best with others.
+ Smooth and fast gameplay.
+ Powerful Nano Forge abilities are a blast to play with.
+ Campaign offers good changes for destruction.

- Boring story with uninteresting characters.
- The underground setting gets repetitive quickly.
- Enemy variety is decent but the amount of exposure each type gets makes them monotonous.
- Piled on vehicle segments toward the endgame.
- Upgrade system feels like poor balancing.

My final verdict for Red Faction: Armageddon is a Very Good 7/10.

(Credit for screen-shots goes to Giant Bomb)

Saturday, August 6, 2011

26- Narcolepsy+Mining= ???

Sometime in 2007 I did an art trade with an awesome artist.

He drew one of my characters, the narcoleptic miner Conrad Mann in his crazy style and I love the image to this day. So for the hell of it (And after a long search for a good Oekaki website) I cooked up a personal rendition of the image.

My Version:

Original 2007 Gustov Version:

I still feel Gustov's version renders a more bizarre dreamscape than mine, even shifting the look of the character a bit.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

25- Flying Guns..I think?

I want to keep up some steady updates so instead of finishing my rant about Red Faction: Armageddon, I'll post some artwork.
Here is some fan art of Harrier, from Yu Suzuki's surreal third-person rail shooter Space Harrier.

I've always been under the impression that Harrier uses a flying jet gun of some sort, though I could be wrong. But hell that makes about as much sense as everything else in the game, so that's what I'm sticking with.

Anyways, here are some screen shots of this weird ass game.

"Welcome to the Fantasy Zone! Get Ready!"

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

24- X-Men: Nostalgia Glasses Required

Holy SHIT, an update~!

Konami beat 'em ups like The Simpsons and X-Men have been held in high regard by many beat 'em up fans, likely due to their ability to support 4 players (or 6 in "deluxe" versions of X-Men) creating a memorable experience at the time. But do nostalgic experiences equal to a good game? Not so much in this case.

X-Men's premise shows that in the 21st century the evil mutant Magneto attempts to destroy the world, humans can do nothing against the power of the evil mutant. The only hope is X-MEN, and thus they go and save the city.

Gameplay in X-Men is shockingly shallow, and quite frankly insulting to the genre. Where as previous beat 'em ups like Final Fight took the genre and improved upon it, X-Men almost purposely ignores said improvements. You have 3 buttons to work with, Attack, Jump and Special.

The attack button is mashed for typical (and rather weak) 3 hit combos, and often the combo string is interrupted by a back facing attack (depending if an enemy is behind you) or a spontaneous throw. A beat 'em up sin if you will, not allowing the player to choose when he/she wants to throw an enemy. The standard "walk up to enemy to trigger grab position" isn't present, so that attack option is gone. Enemies seem to take random amounts of hits before they keel over and die, and the absense of enemy health bars (which Final Fight featured, 3 years earlier) doesn't help. When an enemy is knocked down, players have the option to kick, stomp or punch them as they lay. To X-Men's credit, this is visually amusing.

Jump attacks don't fare much better. Characters jump incredibly high, making the timing of aerial attacks unnecessarily awkward, add to that the fact that characters will spontaneously switch from standard aerial attacks to diving aerial attacks. There are ways to purposely and continuously pull these off, but for the most part it feels unnecessarily clumsy, and considering the aforementioned jump height, they are useless anyways.

(Note: HUD seen in screen-shots are not accurate to the finished product, sadly this is the best I could find, my apologies)

Your special attack, named Mutant Power, varies between characters and is the only real form of difference between them. These powerful attacks use up an Orb which you start out with and gain more as you complete levels (In the US Rom), though once you use the Orbs up any further usage of Mutant Powers will cost 3 bars of life. Unlike other beat 'em up special moves, Mutant Powers have no priority over enemy attacks, making them useless as defensive options. The inclusion of unlimited continues shifts their usage as well. Without the pressure of having to pay 25 cents for your next life, most players seem to prefer abusing the Mutant Powers till dead, re-spawn, and continue as before.

A rather strange game-play omission from the US version are the health and Mutant Power pick-ups. The included Japanese ROM of X-Men has them and honestly makes it a slightly better game for it. Unlike regular beat 'em ups however they come in the form of oddly colored Sentinels, which once destroyed drop a pick-up. These help balance out Mutant Power usage in ways other beat 'em ups have done before, that is at least in its original arcade state. Due to the presence of unlimited lives, this becomes a bit of a moot point.

Magneto's forces aren't a very varied bunch, nor are they interesting or smart in any way, relying on sheer numbers to overpower the player. Ranging from Sentinels to some bizarre half punk, half tank tracked guys with assault rifles which produce sound effects straight out of Contra, most of X-Men's enemy roster doesn't even seem relevant to the source material, though I could be wrong on that.

Bosses offer some form of spectacle, mainly in their humorous repetition of quotes, but like the rest of the game lack in any form of real strategic approach, that is besides the standard hit and run. This, along with unlimited continues help reveal X-Men's outdated quarter consuming design and its surprisingly bland visuals (considering its original platform and subject matter) show how badly the game has aged overall.

X-Men's main draw seems to be its multiplayer capabilities, allowing up to a maximum of 6 players on screen. A rarity at the time in arcades, only a few got to experience the "deluxe" version of X-Men. My first experience with this game was with a mere 4 players, and it wasn't any better then. My friends quickly resorted to spamming Mutant Powers and the onscreen chaos was enjoyable, if only for a few minutes. The highpoint of that playthrough for me was getting eaten by a giant Sentinel...that you don't get to fight.
I hardly believe 2 more players could make X-Men THAT much better.

In closing, X-Men is one of those cases where mentioning Nostalgia Glasses seems relevant to its recommendation. Boring, clumsy gameplay that ignores improvement's created by the genres best and outdated design make this game very hard to recommend for anybody other than fans who enjoyed it during its original run in arcades and players that feel the genre is depth-less button mashing. Here is a summary of my thoughts:

+ 4 to 6 player (Online and Off) can potentially be enjoyable chaos.
+ Punching/Kicking people in the floor is somewhat humorous.
+ Includes Japanese ROM, which is a slightly better game.

- X-Men takes every gameplay advancement better beat 'em ups introduced and ignores them completely.
- Mind-numbingly shallow gameplay with no room for any real strategy or depth.
- Characters don't differ from each other in substantial ways.
- Bland visuals.
- Repetitive voice overs.
- Lack of extras besides visual filters and the Japanese ROM.

My final verdict on X-Men Arcade is a Bad, 3/10.

If you crave old school beat 'em up action, give the genre proper respect and download Streets of Rage 2 or Final Fight: Double Impact instead.