Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Madworld ramblings...

Since Madworld came out there's been distinctly little talk about it in any circles that happen to overlap with my own Venn Diagram of experience. In fact the sole piece of reporting that I've really seen on it post-release relates to how "poorly" it's sold thus far.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I saw no advertising for this game. Not online, in print, on TV or in the cinema. It seemed that they were solely relying on the buzz created by the art and the fact that it was a "mature game on the Wii".

Oooh, yes. How positively shocking. A mature video game. It doesn't seem particularly mature to me. In fact it seems positively juvenile - but I suppose that's half the fun of it. I really consider it a sad state of affairs if "gallons of blood explode geyser-like out of a stump from a chainsawed limb" is considered to be the defining factor in what is "mature" and what is not.

Another bit of buzz in the lead up to the release of this game was that was being developed by some new American/Western development house created by SEGA. Part of a new wave of games designed to break the trends of old. But for the most part I feel like I'm playing a game so firmly rooted in the tropes of the 16bit era that I have to remind myself that this is 2009.

The story dialogue in this game is presented in the classic Japanese unskippable-floating-text-box-with-character-portrait-cutscene style. Don't tell me that you budget was so tight or room on the DVD so sparse that you couldn't get some voices in there for these scenes. They are few and far between and the fact that I never hear the voice of anyone actually in the world puts me off. And the fact that the story has to be delivered in such a way is even more disappointing.

Then we have the fact that this game still has lives. Yes. Lives. As in you die, you use a life and get to continue. Last I checked my Wii doesn't have a slot for me to pump coins into so this is an automatic devaluation in my mind.

Levels aren't particularly long, but for me anything more than 10 minutes without a save is annoying. And this game doesn't have saves. If you don't finish all the sections of a level before quitting then you don't have your progress saved. You get to go back to the very start. Personally, I think that if you have to have a load event to move into a new area, then the very least you can do is have a goddamn checkpoint there to allow the player to restart from there.

The gameplay isn't particularly deep, instead relying on player creativity and the visuals to keep interest going. And combining this kind of uninteresting combat with the quite frankly awful control scheme that this game has just results in frustration. The way the controls are in this game seems to be tailored to make them as unfriendly and unresponsive as possible. All too often you will end up facing the wrong way and attacking the air or having one of many, many, many context sensitive actions fail because you couldn't keep the camera aimed at exactly the right spot.

In combination, all these factors make me feel like I'm playing a B-grade brawler on the Megadrive. In fact, I'd be tempted to label Madworld as "The Wii's Altered Beast" if it wasn't for the fact that the game has style on it's side.

A few games have been accused of putting style over substance and only rarely has this accusation been more accurately levelled or the crime been more egregious. And I can take a lighter approach to sentencing here as Madworld revels in it's style - through the gritty black and white lense they're able to get away with a lot more. This ultra-violence is at the heart of the game's commentary, the focus is put on why ultra-violence is an accepted spectacle and supported. But this "social commentary" seems a bit off-the-mark, especially given how actively the game tries to alienate you.

Really, Madworld should be so much better than it is. All it would have taken is someone to take a stand and go: "It's not 1992. We have the technology. We can do so much more than Streets of Rage now." But it seems at every turn the easy decisions were made - to fall back on cheap, stale and boring design which ultimately saddles this game with so many issues as to make it unenjoyable. Combine this with some ridiculous technical issues - like how the game plays at some weird resolution giving you a top, bottom and sides letterbox effect cutting your viewable screen area significantly, and the continuing inability for Wii controllers to reliably pick up what's being input in gestural commands and the game enters the realm of painfully disagreeable. And for a game that should have been the perfect stress-reliever, this outcome is just criminal.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Eminently stoppable Force Unleashed meets immovable opinion.

I've been playing The Force Unleashed - and though I'm only about an hour in I feel that I can already unload some baggage on this one way train to wreck-town. Being a massive Star Wars nerd I could bitch and whine about how this game is inconsistent with the existing canon, or that it just recycles the same environments from every game, novel and film without a hint of originality or thought. But those would be easy swipes - and cheap ones too. Playing as Vader's apprentice is a cool concept and it is the recognisable environments that create an immediate impact and association, which separates this from "generic space game X".

No, the problems I have are with the game mechanics and even the design. None of these make it a bad game, as it is still fun, playable and thus far, it works - but they do prevent it from being anything more than average.

I'll start with the obvious - I have a Lightsaber. Why the hell do my enemies have health bars? When it takes me a combo or two to drop an enemy we know that there is a problem. Because it's a Lightsaber. I should wade into that crowd of rebels and emerge on the other side amongst a light shower of cauterised limbs. Now, like most Star Wars games which have come before it is choosing not to play the dismemberment game, which I find disappointing given it is one of the few settings where you can have a limb cut off and there be no blood to scare the censors, because it's a goddamn Lightsaber. The concession was undoubtedly made for ratings - and as much as I hate that, I can understand it. But it still doesn't solve the health bar problem.

Why have a health bar at all? I can't see many people becoming so deeply invested in this that they are worrying about force power micromanagement and going: "Oh, he only has a 1/5 of his health left, not 1/4 - so I shouldn't use my Sith Slash on him and instead do a Sith Slam to ensure maximum efficiency." The health bar shouldn't even be there, it's distracting and serves no real purpose. I couldn't give a crap what their current health is - they're still standing up and thus I'm still going to liberally apply Lightsaber until they fall over.

I would have preferred to be mowing down greater quantities of less "healthy" enemies - have the game focus on you feeling like the Force-throwing Lightsaber-swinging bad-boy that you are meant to be. Instead, I'm stuck being the only character in the Star Wars universe for whom Stormtroopers are actually a threat. I just cannot get over how incongruous and immersion-busting it is to unload a flurry of Lightsaber death upon some Rebel Scum (TM), only to have them kick you in the chest and knock you down, because they've still got half their health left. It's stupid and I don't want to have to talk about it, but here we are. Thankfully with the terrible "lock on"-system and lack of decent camera controls, you'll rarely see a health bar for the person you're actually trying to hit with your Lightsaber so the whole point is really quite moot.

It just strikes me that the lack of dismemberment in any form and the use of a healthbar has really undercut what could have been a remarkable chance to show off the Euphoria physics/AI stuff. Lets look at GTA IV, where an injured person reacts to their injury or physics interaction and then attempts self-preservation in the environment accordingly. Compare this to Force Unleashed, where Euphoria for enemies is little more than a hopped-up rag doll system and the closest your enemies come to reacting is occassionally grabbing something when you Force Grip them.

And this brings us to the core gimmick of the game: Force Grip. One upon a time when you were stuck in a game, you looked around for the airvent to shoot in order to crawl into it. In this game, you look around for something with a great big glowing aura (or better yet - great big yellow arrows) which you need to Force Grip. And it's here that the game bogs down, as the first time that you drag a yellow arrow across a door it's a case of "heh, that's pretty cool", but the second time you go: "Really? Again? So soon?" Then, by the tenth occurence in the first level of a puzzle relies on "use the Gravity Gun (sorry "Force Grip) to pull the power cord out of the shield generator" you'd be forgiven for thinking that it's 2004 and you're playing Half Life 2. You know, back when this crap was still somewhat new and different.

This tedium is what I fear will stop me from going too far with this game, no matter how much I love Star Wars. Every aspect of this game feels focus tested, like it is was developed to be as safe an investment as possible. And I'm under no illusions that this is how things work and that this is definitely the new LucasArts way. It's just that this board-room-generated-checklist approach has never been as painfully obvious. I'd like to hope that the occassional flashes of inspired design that are in the game haven't been totally wiped out by this lowest-common-denominator approach to development and that I might find something to love. But other things about the game make me question just how well made it actually is.

With the ability to Install to HDD now available on 360, I haven't played a game of disc in quite a while - and being able to hear my 5.1 sound system over the console is a lovely change. And in several games I've noticed a real performance increase in terms of both load times and framerates. Well, if the load times for Force Unleashed when installed are anything to go by, then I am ecstatic that I have it installed and am not just running from the disc.

How can it take the same amount of time to load an options screen in the pause menu as it does to load a level? In a game that relies on upgrades and character advancement, this is not just ridiculous, but passes into the realm of totally goddamn unacceptable. Every time I go to a menu or select and option from a menu it actually has to bring up an honest-to-goodness load screen. And not a quick flash of one, but a nice long load screen. Enough time for you to consciously think: "Man, this is taking a while, has it locked up? I'll check to see if any Friends are online. Oh, only three - and none playing anything I want to. Ah well, back to the game. What? STILL? Come on! How can it take thi- Wait, there we go. Hurrah, now I can adjust the brightness."

And this isn't just while playing the game, this is from the main menu too! It's like someone there thought that Mass Effect's elevators were the greatest innovation in game design since CGA colour and the world needed more of that crap. When a game takes as long to load an options menu as it takes GTA IV to load a city, you know that there is a problem. And I might forgive it if the menus were works of art or somehow remarkable. But they aren't. They're drab and derivative, there is no conceivable reason that they should take so long to load.

I feel like I shouldn't play this game, like I shouldn't waste me time on another pandering grab at my fan-whore money. Maybe I should just go and get Conan or Hellboy or Viking to get my brawler fix. Or go back to Madworld, actually no. Lets not go back to Madworld right now. I'll leave that for next rant.