May 12, 2010

Nightmare Reality -- Alan Wake Review

A light shines faintly in the distance. The forest is dark and the fog envelops you. Instinctively, you know that you must head toward the light. If you know nothing else about your surroundings, your friends, your foes, or yourself, you do know at least one thing is true: Go into the light. Like a child in his room at night, the light can protect you from the monsters, from anything. But also like a child, you eventually grow to understand the reality of your fears, and the darkness is suddenly less frightening, less ominously secretive; the only thing left taunting you is the incoherent complexity of your nightmares.

Alan Wake is "a little heavy on the metaphors," says supporting character Sarah Breaker in Remedy Entertainment's highly anticipated third-person thriller. The same might be said of the game's writer, Sam Lake, who has crafted a wildly imaginative, captivating, enjoyable, yet frustrating plot for the studio's first game since the 2003 pulp shooter, Max Payne 2. When the literary technique is on, it works wonderfully, sustaining the story for at least half of its arc, depending on how one reads into it. But as the opening lines of the game -- "...nightmares exist outside of logic, and there's little fun to be had in explanations...there can be no explanation, and there shouldn't be one..." -- suggest, there may be no correct interpretation for the nightmarish mess in which author Alan Wake becomes entangled over the course of six short "episodes."

Although it seems that any type of cohesive logic applied to the game's narrative breaks down and falls apart at some point or another, sections of the plot make it a stellar title with one of the best first halves I've experienced in some time. This instantly captivating experience began to lose some of its magic in the second half, largely because of the demystification of the events surrounding Wake's retreat to Bright Falls: his wife's disappearance, the strange darkness possessing his enemies, the lapse in his memory, etc. The abstract seemed to become more concrete, and what I initially pegged as strictly psychological shifted more and more toward the supernatural. These changes were slightly disappointing and disenchanting, but even after finishing the game, a substantial degree of ambiguity still plaguing my perception of the experience tells me that the story is at least impressive, if not exceptional. Again, from the game's opening lines: "The unanswered mystery is what stays with us the longest, and it's what we'll remember in the end."

Alan Wake

The one-paragraph, non-spoiler-free plot is ostensibly about an author with writer's block who comes to a small town in the Washington mountains to clear his head and calm his nerves, but instead winds up staying on an island that has been gone for over 30 years, where his nyctophobic wife is kidnapped by a Dark Presence lurking in the volcano below, which has been awakened by his arrival. He then spends a week in the non-existent cabin, writing a manuscript edited by the Dark Presence in an attempt to save his wife, the content of which penetrates the real world and plays out exactly as it is written, casting him in the role of a semi-amnesiac, nearly narcoleptic protagonist fighting the aforementioned evil with light, occasionally receiving aid via dream sequence from a man in a diver's suit who has been dead for as many years as the imaginary island. But it's not exactly as simple as that.

The early part of the game is about learning the story, revealing the reality of Alan Wake's situation, so stingily pieced together by scattered, non-sequential manuscript pages. Alongside plenty of deadpan narration that explores events, expectations, and emotions, the manuscript pages expand on character development, gameplay elements, and overall plot. They subtly knock on the fourth wall, and tell a meta-narrative that recapitulates what the player has already seen, predicts future events, and at times describes Wake's current situation: "He took out his hip flask when he reached the page that described how he reached the page that made him take out his hip flask." The player is driven to find these pages because Wake is driven to reveal what is happening to him. The pages feel like more than just cleverly tied-in collectibles; they are integral to the experience. As the secrets are revealed, however, the journey becomes more about just "getting there," reaching a prescribed goal rather than unfolding the plot. This shift is not a bad thing, but may have happened too early in the game's timeline, leaving the second half to drag its feet in terms of depth and allure.

Otherwise, the game is paced incredibly well, remaining consistently compelling throughout the mix of cutscenes, combat, exploration, and narration. Wandering throughout the majestic mountain forests of the pacific northwest as the atmosphere vacillates between serene and foreboding dominates the experience, with intermittent moments of tense, frightful combat, and driving segments that surprisingly don't detract from the rest of the game. These remain short enough to not be intrusive, and don't abandon the core gameplay, instead allowing Wake to step out of the vehicle and go on foot any time something in the environment interests him.

Alan Wake

Combat, for the most part, is used very effectively to add to the overall experience. For the majority of the game, there is just enough to stress players into a state of alert, but rarely enough to become monotonous. One could argue, though, that the greater frequency of fights late in the game dampen the sense of suspense built earlier on. Conflicts are almost always foreshadowed by a change in atmosphere, which becomes increasingly dark, foggy, and obscured by blur effects before darkness-possessed locals called "Taken" quickly close in on Wake. The game uses a tight and responsive two-tiered combat system that requires Wake to cast away his enemies' shrouds of darkness with flashlights or road flares before dispatching them with hard ammunition. The flashlight has an excellent lock-on function and its persistent beam acts as a natural reticle for Wake's guns. Other weapons like flashbang grenades and flare guns, items usually considered secondary in video games, are now deadly, and quickly dematerialize even Wake's tougher opposition.

Encounters become increasingly formidable as the game progresses, as stronger Taken attack in greater numbers with more dangerous weapons, and inanimate objects propel themselves across the landscape in attempts to pulpify the protagonist. This demands the use of improved light sources (e.g. spotlights, headlights) and weaponry, but also makes flight an appealing option more often than in most games. Because there is nothing to gain from killing enemies aside from peace and safety, simply running to the next protective light source can be preferable to annihilating every last foe in the middle of the dark woods.

Relentless forward progress is encouraged in Alan Wake, tying into the author's description of how he must keep writing, lest he fail to save his wife. The beacons of light that dot each level provide Wake safe haven from his enemies and always show him where to go next, but also burn out as he passes them, ensuring that the only path to safety is ever ahead, not behind. Retreat is never an option, a theme that is further emphasized by the bridges that continually collapse behind Wake, leaving him to advance across the next figurative island in his disturbingly disjointed nightmare reality.

Alan Wake is a great game with nearly all of the elements one should expect in a thriller. Whether it cleverly incorporates literary technique into videogame storytelling or intentionally obfuscates any true meaning just to harass players is a mystery, but it does start one thinking, and that's an important step for the medium. Otherwise, inventive and effective gameplay mechanics combine with excellent art and sound design to make what is an enjoyable game, regardless of the intellectual (or pseudo-intellectual) stuff.

May 9, 2010

The Power Is In Your Hands -- Sleep Is Death Review

It just doesn't feel right trying to review something like Jason Rohrer's Sleep Is Death. To me, that would be like trying to review Dungeons & Dragons, or campfire tales in general, or conversation -- all of it. Sleep Is Death is more a game creation tool or storytelling platform than it is a single, critiquable entity; it is a sea of possibility limited almost solely by the people swimming in it. For this reason, it is more appropriate to approach Sleep Is Death in a discussion than in a review (and Rohrer did chat with me and the Big Red Potion crew a couple of weeks back), but I will still do my best to convey what this little piece of software is and why it's both important and excellent.

Sleep Is Death is a game for two people, and is only a game at all when two people are involved (otherwise it functions as a storyboard creator). The more important role is that of the "controller": the storyteller, game master, or game director, who presents each session's content in semi-real time. Via a simple gridded control panel interface, the controller customizes the game's current background, music, objects, characters, dialogue, and narration, or selects from a number of pre-made items, available from the outset. The controller essentially builds a new game/story in every session. The "player," on the other hand, sees only a single window with three available actions per timed turn. The player may move anywhere on the screen, type anything into a speech bubble, and/or indicate with an arrowed box that he or she wishes to interact with something in the scene, again using any words that come to mind. It's then up to the controller, in the next 30 seconds (a default setting that can be changed to anything, including the 300 seconds that I personally prefer to use), to respond to those actions with what would typically be stored in unalterable form on a game disc, but is instead dynamically generated by a real human brain.

Sleep Is Death

For the player, Sleep Is Death is only what the controller can author and offer in any given local or remote game session using the tools available. For the controller, however, the game is a powerful design utility that can be used to tell incredibly varied, open-ended, and meaningful stories, and to create player-director interaction that is impossible in current single-player games and completely different from standard multiplayer experiences. With the support of a robust community at sites like www.sidtube.com, creative expression can be fueled with numerous downloadable "resource packs," which include any number of game assets created in Sleep Is Death's surprisingly capable and versatile scene, room, object, sprite, and music editors. Every game session also outputs a pictoral "flipbook" of the entire story once the controller decides to end it, and hundreds of these game records can be found online, as well. What SID players have put together and shared with the community is astonishing, and makes the game an ever-expandable product.

Sleep Is Death's primary fault is the steep difficulty curve it imposes on the controller. While Rohrer himself recommends not being overly ambitious to start with, perhaps beginning with a single-scene game and some solid dialogue, the potential is enticing enough to lead a controller to destroy his own game with unnecessary complexity. On the other hand, practice with the control panel and a reasonable time investment can lead a controller to create very impressive content; I've already seen pseudo-3D games, first-person games, dungeon crawlers, shooters, and even inventory management systems produced by members of the community to go along with the basic adventures SID is most obviously suited for.

Sleep Is Death brings the concept of the game back under the control of the players involved, at once combining the natural ease of conversation and storytelling with the self-contained, individually directed experiences offered by film and modern video games. It is about the people at the keyboard; their stories, their creativity, and their interactions are the real substance here. SID is but the medium of transport, and although it expects a high degree of openness and willingness of its users -- which it may not always get; it's not for everyone -- it accomplishes its goals very admirably, and shows us at least one direction in which this industry can and should be moving.

May 8, 2010

An All-Points Bulletin For MMOs: Pay As You Go

MMORPG

For years, massively multiplayer online games have failed to suck me in like the virtual crack cocaine that they are meant to be. This isn't because I have supernatural powers to resist addiction or that I even dislike these games' content; it is primarily a matter of philosophical disagreement with the payment models a large majority of these games have chosen to adopt, and my own lack of desire to commit to playing enough to make the expense worthwhile.

The idea of paying continuously to access a game that I have already purchased once is ridiculous and annoying. This is especially a problem when the game's design makes me want to take frequent breaks and spread the game out over a long period of time. Using EverCrack and World of WarCrack as examples, there is only so much time I'm willing to sit and slay X number of whatever-you-call-its to bring back to Mr. Do-this-for-me in order to get experience points and items I usually don't need, want, or use. Gamers and critics often complain of filler in games, junk added to lengthen the overall game time, but in many MMORPGs, the majority of gameplay is exactly that crap I don't want in a game. The more I see this type of gameplay, the shorter I want my sessions to be, and the longer the gap of time before I want to jump back in. It's rather unfortunate, then, that these games make players pay by the month for access. So here's a game whose design forces me to progress slowly, and a pricing structure that takes my money in real time. Great. That's EXACTLY what I wanted!

There is far more value in a game that offers 40-50 hours of play, but doesn't charge me if I take too long to reach that time investment. Playing bits and pieces of Oblivion or Fallout 3 over the course of four months costs exactly the games' retail price -- around $60 -- but playing WoW for that same period costs the $40 initial investment and four subsequent $15 charges, totalling $100. I don't think "bang-for-your-buck" applies in this case.

It's true that there are a multitude of free-to-play MMOs out there now, and their increasing popularity is difficult to ignore. I also feel that they are on their way to being a proven new branch in the evolution of the industry, here to stay for quite some time. However, many of these games simply take the EverCraft quest structure and apply it to a virtual world for cheapskates, which makes little sense from one perspective, and is just not very interesting from another perspective. If the point of this type of design is to make character-building a slow process that forces players to spend more time paying into the system, then it doesn't belong in a free-to-play game, even if it is there to play a traditional filler role and lengthen the total game time for other reasons. This type of gameplay just isn't very much fun, and I'm sure a bit of play-testing would reveal that better-presented quests and story-driven adventure segments would do far more to pique interest in these mostly fantasy-RPG settings.

All-Points Bulletin

This is where Realtime Worlds' All Points Bulletin comes in. First, it changes the game in terms of genre by putting players in a modern world, in an urban setting, where the only wandering monsters are other players seeking to exploit the fair city with their criminal behavior, or those who seek to oppress and incarcerate the free actions of the lawfully unbound, depending on what side you're on. Stale fetch quests and odd-job-style goals are not expected to be a big part of APB, which will instead use a dynamic matchmaking/mission system to pit players against one another as they vie for those dangling experience carrots, ever-present in MMOs.

But unlike traditional pay-to-play MMOs, APB is using a payment structure that is for once actually fair to a variety of different types of players. First off, playing in the game's "social districts" -- where one can customize characters, chat with other players, create original car art, tattoos, or clothing, and trade on the in-game marketplace -- is completely free with a player's initial purchase. Only diving into the action districts will ever cost extra money, and it is all available at each player's own pace.

The first 50 hours are free, approximating the length of a hefty offline game, and already validating APB's retail price. After that, monthly subscriptions of $10 per month (or less for long-term deals) are available for players who have the intestinal fortitude to play extended hours on a consistent basis, which is right in line with traditional MMO models -- but still on the cheap end. Finally -- and this is the big innovation -- APB will let players top up like a prepaid cellular phone, in increments starting at 20 hours for $7, and use that time AT THEIR LEISURE. Finally, someone who can't stand being compelled to play a game just to avoid feeling swindled when the VISA statement arrives can enjoy an MMO on his or her own time. Playing intermittently will actually be a viable option, and that same $15 WoW charge for one month of play can instead be used by a two-hour-per-week APB player to stay in the game for five months. (Great for game journos who have to play new games every week, I might add.)

The important thing is that APB accommodates any level of commitment at a fair price, for something that is shaping up to be a top-quality title. Realtime Worlds is innovating not only in the game's content, but also in its delivery to the consumer. Other MMO studios would be smart to pay attention.

May 4, 2010

Carrot, Stick, Go! 3: Novel Discomfort

I guess it’s strange to genuinely desire discomfort, but I like it when a video game can make me feel uncomfortable.

Recent outings with generally unremarkable, formulaic game design have led to me consider why I can pick up and play 10 games, and yet only be truly captivated by one or two of them. The obvious answer is that some games are better than others, but is better really an objective concept, or is it simply a matter of measuring a game based on what is personally valuable to me? If quality is indeed objective, why do gamers and critics consistently bemoan sequels for being largely the same games as their predecessors, even when those predecessors were received with astronomical levels of acclaim? If quality is truly objective, shouldn’t a game with the same features, gameplay, and narrative delivery found in a previously extolled title be equally well received?

To me, novelty carries great weight as a component of my personal enjoyment of many titles. This plays a role in my preference of single-player or cooperative gaming over competitive multiplayer, original IPs over sequels, and genre-blending titles over conventional ones, as well as any game that emphasizes new ways to play or new strategies in game design.

This may seem obvious, as repeating the same actions and experiences ad infinitum should be torturous, but gamers actually do this all the time. Call of Duty players repeatedly shoot enemy soldiers, God of War players slash at mythical creatures for days on end, Final Fantasy players click "attack" thousands of times, and BioWare aficionados talk more than a Valley girl on speed. We do enjoy repetition sometimes, so maybe this common scapegoat is not deserving of the frequent chidings, and maybe quickly chalking up one’s level of interest to novelty is too much a simplification of the emotions at work during play.

Attack. Attack. Attack. Attack. Attack...

I used the word discomfort earlier because it communicates an emotional response that is only elicited once a certain degree of aberration has been achieved. A game may be slightly different from the standard, yet still not interesting as a direct result of its nuances, but a vastly anomalous game can be either loved or hated solely because of its uniqueness. This unfamiliarity is discomfort without qualitative assessment - simply a lack of established comfort with the content, gameplay, or other aspect(s) of the experience. Whether a good thing or a bad thing, this novel discomfort is easily recognizable when encountered, but in my experience is most effective when it literally perturbs the individual behind the controller.

Games like Monster Hunter Tri or Final Fantasy XIII do little to vary the formulas gamers have been presented with for years. I personally have spent very little time with either game as a result. Conversely, something like Demon’s Souls, also a Japanese role-playing game, is engrossing for all the ways it shakes things up, and in particular the way it makes me extremely uncomfortable while playing it. Foreboding atmosphere, fear of death, lurking phantoms, and messages from other players’ game worlds, among other things, make the game highly unsettling. The overwhelmingly positive critical and general reception shows that this works remarkably well.

Heavy Rain is another title that does an excellent job of making players feel uncomfortable throughout the experience. It does so with disturbing themes not often tackled by video games, including child death, divorce, kidnap, murder, and drug addiction. It also employs gameplay mechanics that are meant to give players a degree of influence over a long series of highly stressful, emotionally affective situations, but ultimately leaves them at the mercy of the overarching story, as authored by the game’s designers. The way it gives players control over multiple characters at different times, specifically ones whose motivations and actions are in conflict with one another, can also create a real sense of discomfort in players who are more accustomed to conventional videogame storytelling.

Completely un-conventional in that regard is Jason Rohrer’s recent 2-player storytelling tool/game system, SleepIsDeath, which presents no narrative of its own, but leaves the task up to the "controller" (a new-age dungeon master of sorts) of each individual game session. While the moderately haphazard behavior of characters in Heavy Rain can be disempowering to players trained for years on typical game design, SleepIsDeath removes even more rules of interaction, creating a blank slate that can be used to deliver some of the most powerful of interactive gaming experiences.

This can be discomforting because games with fewer rules seem less contained and less safe, with more opportunity to have one’s sense of well-being violated. This may very well be a large part of the appeal of open-world games, which the industry has seen a great push toward in recent years - that the world provides more possibilities and more unknown elements than a limited, structured game world with numerous rules governing play therein.

This all leads me to think about the reasons we play games in the first place. One is to experience the fantastic. For a seasoned gamer, the virtual experiences that were once extraordinary are not so anymore. Interest can wane, as it does in my case, without constant freshness and increasing distance from the recycled themes that reside within our gaming comfort zones. These comfort zones can relate to any aspect of video games: story content, gameplay mechanics, aesthetics, etc. Anything that challenges our sense of familiarity with the medium can put us in a state of alert, preparing us to encounter novel stimuli. In this way, novelty directly translates to discomfort as a measure of attentional agitation, automatically increasing our interest in what is being presented.

The simple truth is that for a fair share of gamers, especially progressive, veteran gamers like myself, convention in gaming is becoming increasingly uninteresting, while the unknown, untested, and unfamiliar can still maintain the wild appeal that enthralled us during our childhood. Games that cause us discomfort achieve this visceral captivation, and then some, better than other titles. To put it another way, if I’m not in tears, worried, terrified, or else on the edge of my seat, what am I playing for?

Apr 23, 2010

Genre: Moving On

Videogame mosaic

Part of the discussion during VS Node's "Game of the Games of the Decade" episode considered representation of genre in a list of all-time great games. Most of the participants in the discussion were in agreement that all genres needn't be afforded a delegate to the round table of the elite, which led me to ponder the benefits of, and perhaps more importantly, the problems with genre as it relates to progress in the videogame industry, overall. Can individual works qualifying as pure embodiments of genre be taken together as a complete mosaic of what makes gaming what it is, or would it be better if a more free-form, experimental approach was taken instead?

Indeed, there are video games that epitomize what gamers have come to know as the basic genres in gaming; works such as Tetris, Starcraft, World of Warcraft, Super Mario 64, Double Dragon, and others all adhere firmly to the prerequisite characteristics of the genres they represent, in many cases serving as the original templates for their respective style of game, on which all to follow have been based.

Video games have a habit of borrowing heavily like this, riding on the successes of past games without innovating, and driving once-novel gameplay concepts to monotony well after others have reached the apex of refinement for a particular formula. Sometimes it is simply an act of copycatting, but I would argue that just as often, it is the fault of the genre itself, already having been epitomized by another title or titles. For example, Dante's Inferno may be a dead ripoff of God of War, but perhaps only because God of War games have become the crux of what that genre is, and in order to produce a game in that genre, a development studio can't help but essentially reskin and repaint the GoW template.

Dante's Inferno

This method of producing game content may be acceptable practice for developers who wish to make quick cash, but this industry exists on two very distinct levels, the economic/business level and the artistic level, and anyone who hopes to see artistic growth in the medium would do well to quickly distance his or her concerns from its business end. Truly, the continued reimplementation of gameplay styles with limited capacity for improvement, although a benefit for the bankroll, is an exercise in artistic stagnation, and the conservative mindset of companies that practice this unfortunately carries over into an audience that becomes increasingly resistant to change.

The establishment of and adherence to genre, while allowing room to play within a tested framework, fuels this limiting cycle. By reiterating certain aspects of existing video games, it suggests that they are necessary inclusions and absolutely must be incorporated into games of that type, leading gamers to expect very rigidly defined combinations of features, and pre-conceive developers' work and what a game should be before it even reaches their living rooms. In other words, it breeds narrow-mindedness.

The modern gaming landscape should be a virtual orchard of ideas, ripe for consumption. Touching again on that dirty concept of economy, the apprehensiveness to experiment as game design branches out and genres blend together can now be assuaged thanks to distribution services such as Steam, XBLA, and PSN. Here, unique ideas can be tested with minimized risk for developers and non-prohibitive expense to gamers, encouraging the abandonment of the play-it-safe guidelines that genres can easily become. Those long-standing delineations between traditional definitions of genre are rapidly blurring in the independent games market, but mainstream gaming is sluggishly trailing in the innovation race.

Animal Crossing

Video game journalists, critics, or bloggers by any other name can become equally crippled by obsession with genre. First, it must be pointed out that these individuals who often have little more than a voice and a forum are still gamers like anyone else, and can fall victim to the comfort of familiarity just the same as the rest. The difference lies in the responsibility that comes with our positions; we must recognize the hindrance of genre and beware of the growing conservatism within our own veteran-gamer minds, then open up to untested ideas and champion those that push the envelope.

Genre can also become a crutch in a culture where everything is categorized and jargonized. By relying on old descriptive language and referring to already-encapsulated concepts, we limit the ways we can talk about video games -- an antiquated and obsolete term in itself -- and in turn discourage industry growth. If we can only describe a game as being an "FPS" or a "strategy game" or a "platformer," etc., we are constraining it to one of those pre-conceived notions of what a game of that genre "should be." If we are to use genres to label certain aspects of games that blend gameplay styles, then we somehow discredit the ambition of those titles and beat them back into conventionality. This sort of dependence on genres as descriptions also creates a barrier for less seasoned videogame enthusiasts; "game X is just like game Y and game Z, which are genre N games" doesn't say squat.

Familiarity and experience with genre is indeed important, if only to know what should be avoided, promoted, or shunned in this industry. However, clinging to genre or constantly measuring titles by what has come before are probably not good things to do if we want to see this medium reach new heights. Without categorization, labels, expectation, or prejudice, everyone involved can openly take (and even critique) each new creation as it comes -- as a step toward, not a blueprint for, what is to follow.

Apr 11, 2010

Punch, Kick, Slash, Cast -- Final Fight: Double Impact Review

Some classic games are best left in the past, never to be heard from again. The pair of side-scrolling action titles in Capcom's Final Fight: Double Impact are not that type of game at all; with this downloadable double pack, old-school fans will love to revisit Final Fight and Magic Sword, and newcomers will get a glimpse of early-90s awesomeness without the usual downers associated with arcade cabinets, and with some added features for the online gaming era.

The two games are represented in-game as virtual arcade cabinets, and players can either go solo, create a local or online multiplayer game, or simply drop into an existing session with a random partner. There's also an option to search for games that meet specific progress and difficulty criteria before jumping in. Along with online leaderboards, achievements/trophies, remastered music, and multiple display options to accommodate both arcade purists and HD gamers alike, these updates make Final Fight: Double Impact more than just a flashy, two-game emulator, and a viable purchase at ten dollars for PS3 and Xbox 360 owners.

No matter what the packaging, though, it really comes down to the games, and the two included here are rock solid.

Final Fight

Final Fight is one of the most acclaimed beat-em-up titles of all time, and a standard by which many later games in the genre have been measured. Mayor Mike Haggar's daughter is kidnapped, as required by the late-80s/early-90s beat-em-up bylaws, and he, Cody, and Guy beat the crap out of every thug in Metro City until she is safe. These three heroes cover the big-and-strong, "Arnold Schwarzenegger," small-and-quick, "Bruce Lee," and somewhere-in-the-middle, "Jean-Claude Van Damme" archetypes and each have a distinct feel about them. In fact, much of what makes Final Fight so effective is the way players can feel every punch, kick, axe handle, throw, suplex, piledriver, and of course, spinning lariat.

Even with a simple two-button control scheme, pummeling the colorful cast of lowlifes never seems to lose its appeal, but Double Impact doesn't think twice about reminding players just how difficult that can be. This is the arcade version of the game, which was obviously designed to rob kids of their hard-earned allowances. That means that the difficulty is not scaled back like in the SNES port, and players will be surrounded by mobs of knife-wielding maniacs, bull-charging fat men, and Andre the Giant lookalikes all the time, not to mention the game's six tough bosses residing in each area. Luckily, players have unlimited continues this time around, like an endless stream of quarters keeping Haggar and company fighting until the very end. Some might consider that a flaw because it removes the tension of the original arcade game, makes this reproduction far more beatable than ever before, and shortens the duration of a single playthrough. Final Fight is indeed a short game, but if replaying it hasn't gotten old in 21 years, I don't think it's going to anytime soon, especially with Double Impact's enhanced co-op component.

Magic Sword

The other game, Magic Sword, may be less of a household name than Final Fight, but is just as enjoyable to play. This side-scroller takes place in a fantasy world where players take control of a barbarian known only as "The Brave One," and must battle to the top of the 51-floor Dragon Keep to destroy the evil Drokmar. Eight cpu-controlled allies can join The Brave One on his quest, but only after being rescued from prison cells and only one at a time. These warriors run the traditional fantasy gamut -- knight, thief, priest, wizard, amazon, ninja, etc. -- and each have unique skills and attacks specific to their class standard. Enemies are varied and plentiful, as well, including eight boss characters, although strategy generally remains the same throughout the adventure; it's straightforward hack-n-slash all the way.

The size of Magic Sword is impressive for an arcade side-scroller from 1990, and will provide players with more novel playing time than Final Fight. Even with a number of secret paths that allow The Brave One and company to bypass multiple floors at once, making it to the top will take some time, and is the most likely reason for players to employ Double Impact's option to save either game at any point. The diversity of characters and character abilities, and constantly swapping them out for one another throughout the game is a particularly captivating aspect of Magic Sword, and the lesson that treasure chests don't necessarily require keys, but will respond just as well to tempered steel is always entertaining.

The two games included in Final Fight: Double Impact are both 20 years old, but still manage to carry the same appeal as when they were first introduced. Of course the technology behind video games has advanced since 1989, so one can't expect ultimate control precision or impressively complex AI routines, but for classic arcade fun, Final Fight and Magic Sword both deliver, especially when played with a friend. A solid remake, for sure.

Apr 5, 2010

Carrot, Stick, Go! 2: You Can't Win This Game

"You can't win 'em all."

This popular statement is relevant in the world of gaming, but not exactly as one might think. Sure, you win some and you lose some in competitive games, but not all games are meant to be "won." Rather, many games are meant to simply be experienced from beginning to end, with little concern for concepts such as success and failure.

In the modern gaming era, fewer single-player games can be, to use archaic gamer terminology, "beaten." Video-game narratives are typically predetermined, with each possessing a natural flow from a definite beginning to a definite end. There is rarely, if ever, a final, losing state. A game would have to forbid the player from resuming after a game-over screen, or perhaps revert to the old restart-from-the-beginning game design model, in order to be truly "winnable."



These days, to "win" a game is simply to see its ending, which may or may not be a happy one. No matter what the tone of the story's outcome, though, to finish is to achieve a goal. This still does not equate to an objective "win." This achievement can be considered a "win" based on the player's personal desires and motivations, but is in no way definable as a "win" without the diametrically opposed "loss." Proof of the subjectivity inherent to this "winning by finishing" concept is the alternative situation where a player may, in fact, triumph over a bad game by turning it off in the middle and never loading it into his or her console or PC ever again. In both cases the player's desires are satisfied, but neither is a direct function of the game's content.

To say that a player can "beat" a game is to assume that the game is doing everything in its power to prevent the player from succeeding. This is rarely the case outside of specific genres or multiplayer competition, which is no longer player vs. game at all. The intention of developers is almost always for the player to at some point see the game through to its end, regardless of challenges and obstacles along the way. There is no such thing as "beating" this sort of game because the game is not the enemy, and no victory can be won over it. In essence, the player is at all times working in synergy with a piece of software that is constructed so that he or she may extract enjoyment out of it; the game and the player are partners.



Some genres do emphasize winning more than others, and as the only games that can truly be won or lost should be considered differently. These are genres such as sports, fighting, racing, and strategy. These games do have definite and permanent win and loss states that cannot be altered once they have been attained. On the other hand, once narrative structure is infused, as is the growing trend in gaming, even these genres blur the concepts of winning and finishing. "Win" is essentially limited to those pieces of software that more closely approximate traditional board games, sports, or other such competition. Most other, story- or campaign-based games lean instead toward the realm of literature, theater, and film.

This natural lack of win and loss states toward which the video-game industry is progressing calls into question the definition and labeling of the industry as a whole. The evolution of the medium has made the term "video game" a misnomer. Much of what we manipulate on the screen is not a game at all, but a means to witness the expression of the dramatic arc. The recently released Heavy Rain makes this notion all the more obvious, clearly proclaiming to be "interactive drama" and abandoning the old "game" moniker. This directed experience gives the player control throughout, changing in key ways based upon player interaction, but inevitably concludes with one of a handful of predetermined denouements, each based on a single general outcome. Someone who "plays" Heavy Rain ends up acting more as a puppeteer than as contestant, completing a story rather than winning a game.

No matter what the label, the mechanics and structure of modern video games are changing. No longer are players asked to compete with a game in order to win, but are instead presented with narratives to explore and experience. Fortunately, each individual can choose to enjoy the type of play that he or she prefers, and even without actually "winning," will come away with some measure of success.

Mar 31, 2010

Hit Rewind -- Prince Of Persia: The Forgotten Sands Preview

Over PAX East weekend, fans and critics were treated to a hands-on look at the upcoming Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands, Ubisoft's long-awaited return to the Sands of Time saga. I was among those lucky players, and came away from the demo kiosk pleased with what I had played, looking forward to more.

The Forgotten Sands, or "How the Prince went emo," takes place between the Sands of Time and Warrior Within, and recounts the tale of the Prince's involvement in the defense of his brother's invaded kingdom. Of course, this brother carelessly releases the Sands of Time, turning soldiers into sand warriors and unleashing other, bigger baddies, all of which the Prince has to mop up.

Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands

Two segments were available at the show, and were tacked together to give players a taste of a few different game mechanics. The first part of the demo was what appeared to be an opening scene, much like that of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. Here, the prince navigated a Middle-Eastern palace exterior as soldiers clashed with him and each other and catapults pelted the stone walls and walkways in his path. This environment provided a perfect backdrop for learning the most basic of the game's controls, such as wall-running, wall-jumping, shimmying along ledges, sliding down flags, etc. It was very straightforward, with little planning involved -- a point A to point B affair -- but the controls felt tight and responsive, improved from the previous Prince of Persia and that game's delayed responses to player input.

The game's button layout will be quite familiar to Prince of Persia veterans. The face buttons make the Prince jump, drop down from his current perch, swing his sword, and kick his enemies, while the shoulder buttons make him run up or along walls, rewind time, and activate special abilities like the water-freezing mechanic that was showcased in the second part of this demo.

After switching from the opening scene to an interior location from later in the game, I had the opportunity to make use of one of the Prince's major elemental powers -- the ability to freeze and un-freeze water at will. By holding the left trigger, I was able to freeze waterfalls and cascading water columns into solid walls and climbable pillars to help the Prince navigate his way forward. Thin streams spouting out of walls at timed intervals could also be frozen into the horizontal, ripe-for-swinging poles the franchise is known for. This, just one of the new platforming powers, will clearly expand the possibilities in The Forgotten Sands, especially as sequences become more complex. For example, the Prince may have to freeze a waterfall, run across it, unfreeze as he jumps through another fall toward a water column, freeze time again before latching onto that, leap to and swing from a frozen pole, unfreeze long enough for the next hole to spout, refreeze to grab hold of the newly created pole, and swing to safety. Players will have to think differently when entering each area, considering new platforming options provided by water, as well as the more obvious solid structures in the environment.

Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands

Continuing the game's elemental theme, the Prince will have new powers mapped to the controller's directional pad, such as rock armor or the devastating, area-of-effect tornado he can call upon in battle. These will be acquired from a Djinn residing in a mystical dimension over the course of the game, and will draw from the same power bank as the Prince's rewind ability each time they are used.

As far as combat is concerned, it seems Ubisoft has once again focused on challenging the Prince with large hordes of enemies, this time flooding the screen with up to 50 foes at once. Combat will be quick, rather than methodical, with much dodging involved. I was sad to see the block button removed from this entry in the series, and there seemed to be fewer opportunities to pull off flashy moves, a la The Two Thrones. I specifically tried to spring off of walls and over/into my enemies, but to no avail; most of the combat was a matter of "slash, slash, slash, power...." The Forgotten Sands is still an unfinished product, however, so I hope a little more complexity can be infused into the Prince's swordplay before release.

Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands is shaping up to be a welcome return to form for the Prince after 2008's aberrant Prince of Persia. Come May 18th, gamers will be rewinding time and running through the Middle East all over again.

Mar 28, 2010

So You Wanna Be A Fighter? -- UFC Undisputed 2010 Preview

UFC Undisputed 2010

"So you wanna be a fighter?"

This question opened THQ's New York press event on Thursday for the upcoming sequel to what has quickly become the company's biggest franchise, and what THQ considers to be the catalyst for its rebirth. The game, of course, is UFC Undisputed 2010, and from what was on hand for members of the press to see and play, it looks like it will be another great success when it launches in May.

Developer Yuke's aims to completely outdo its previous effort with the new game by implementing substantial updates to character creation, fighting styles, and career mode, as well as by greatly increasing the sense of immersion and translating the UFC atmosphere fans have come to expect from the sport. At the same time, however, the game will retain the general feeling of its predecessor, thanks to more subtle changes to the actual in-ring gameplay.

The first aspect of the game THQ highlighted during the event was the create-a-fighter mode, which has actually been used to create every one of the 100+ fighters in the game. This means that the system will be more in-depth and extensive, and potentially allow players to create much more detailed custom fighters. It will feature new color spectrum sliders, improved facial construction, drag-and-drop tattoos and logos, and greatly expanded selection of body types, hair options, etc., as well as new lists of first, last, and nicknames to be announced by the game's commentators. Players will also be able to choose from a list of fighter voices for cutscenes, as well as assign fighters' taunt, introduction, glove-touch, and victory animations.

One of the biggest and most welcome changes to UFC 2010 is the abolition of fighter archetypes -- standard fighting styles and move sets. Now, each fighter will come equipped with a unique arsenal of techniques that define his individual style. This carries over to created fighters, whose punches, kicks, throws, grapples, and submissions can all be selected, a la carte, for each button command. Adding a bit of strategy, each technique will cost a set amount of character creation points, and each will have three levels of effectiveness, with the higher levels costing more points to select. The range of customization will be far greater than in UFC 2009, and is reminiscent of THQ-published wrestling games of the N64 era, but more in-depth. And if a player isn't digging the idea of assigning every single move, the game does provide base templates for a number of general fighting styles, too.

"The game is watching you," THQ representatives told us. This theme will surround the game's career mode, which will be far more cinematic, and will force players to make choices at key moments, during cutscenes. This will include showing respect or disrespect to opponents, calling out specific fight camps, and simply responding to questions regarding fighters' careers. The game will remember these choices as fighters progress from the amateur arena to WFA to UFC, and they will have an effect on fighter relationships and how certain events play out over the course of the career. Along similar lines, the specific fight camps players choose to train with will dictate which new techniques their fighters learn as their skills improve.

UFC Undisputed 2010

Other additions to the career mode include character aging and attribute decay, which will be tied into one another. As careers progress, fighters' stats will decay in the absence of consistent training, which will make players remain conscious of their training regimens and encourage them to maintain at least somewhat well-rounded fighters. This rate of decay will increase as fighters get older, and will stop at a few key milestone attribute values: 30, 50, and 70 out of 100. UFC 2010 will also feature "game plan," a strategic, pre-fight stat alteration based on the strengths and weaknesses of the upcoming opponent.

In the ring, changes have been made to the way fighters strike, grapple, and perform submissions. According to THQ, strikes will chain together more fluidly this year, eliminating some of the choppiness of UFC 09. There will also be a new system of sways and leans to avoid incoming attacks. These will require players to be very precise with their timing and anticipation, and were not easy to consistently execute with efficacy during the time I had to play the game. "Adrenaline rush" is another new feature. This temporary state lets a fighter ignore any fatigue he has built up throughout the fight when he has an opponent rocked. This will allow him to effectively move in for the kill on dazed opponents in order to finish the fight, but will fade once his victim has recovered. If a fighter survives a round in which he takes a huge beating, the possibility of a doctor stoppage is now present in UFC 2010.

On the grappling end of the octagon, UFC 2010 now includes flash submissions to go along with last year's flash knockouts. Particularly skilled grapplers will also have the ability to switch from one submission to another without breaking the hold. When this happens, a player on the receiving end of these holds will have to reverse the rotation of the analog stick in order to continue to fight out of danger; button-mashing escapes have been eliminated entirely. Visually, the nearness to a tapout or an escape will be represented by a subtle zoom effect during these tense moments. This feedback is a big improvement over the static views of the previous game.

All of the updates to UFC 2010 sound extensive, and they will add a great deal to the overall quality of the game, but the short time I had to play UFC 2010 prior to GamerNode's trip to PAX East felt very much like last year's game. Of course, this is to be expected in most sequels, and as evidenced by the overwhelmingly positive critical response to UFC 09 and the 3.5-4 million units sold to date, it is not at all a bad thing. Still, the updates to the combat mechanics are evident, if not entirely game-altering, and it's easy to see how the various tweaks and updates can be capitalized upon as players learn the game and grow accustomed to the flow of the fight.

Fans can get excited for UFC 2010, which looks to be a more complete game than its predecessor. On top of core updates to the gameplay, THQ plans to support the title with a robust community website, tournaments, an in-game UFC news ticker, and on-the-fly fighter updates for players who stay connected via Xbox Live and PSN. Check back for more coverage around the game's May 25 release date.

Handheld Horror -- Dementium II Preview

Dementium II Logo

Fans of horror titles generally have a smaller set of options on handheld consoles than on home videogame machines. While most videogame horror (including the illustrious Silent Hill franchise) falls flat when going portable, newcomer Renegade Kid managed to produce a fresh and enjoyable, though still flawed FPS horror experience on the Nintendo DS with Dementium: The Ward back in 2007. In April, publisher Southpeak Games hopes to improve upon that formula with Dementium II.

Behind closed doors at PAX East, I had the opportunity to get my hands on the sequel, which maintains most of the mechanics of the first game, but corrects many of the problems highlighted by critics and the gaming community. For those unfamiliar with Dementium games, the first-person look control is managed with the DS stylus on the lower screen, which now displays a map of the current area at all times, as well as health information. Movement is assigned to the system's directional pad, with a double-tap of any direction sending the protagonist into a run. Attacks are executed with the L button. Controls for jumping, ducking, and accessing items exist as virtual buttons on the DS touch screen.

The game focuses on atmosphere, putting players in dark and foreboding 3D environments and pitting them against warped monsters who hope to leave each one as just another of the many blood stains throughout the narrow corridors. Players won't be restricted to a single psychiatric ward this time, but will explore a variety of locations throughout the game. Adding to the creep factor are a number of unidentified torture victims at various points throughout the levels, such as the poor soul I encountered who had a chain being slowly drawn from the floor to the ceiling THROUGH HIS CHEST. Enemies are equally twisted, like the gaping-chest-maw things I killed a few times before reaching the semi-terrifying, hook-footed, skinless, zombie-lion-looking boss character rounding out my play session.

Dementium II Dementium II

I say semi-terrifying because the monster wasn't actually scary, but was very difficult to defeat, and therefore mildly frightening, thanks to an unfortunate discrepancy between player and AI agility and mobility. I failed and was ridiculed by friends and colleagues after using up all of the health items I had collected throughout the level. Combat seems to suffer slightly, at least in melee situations, from a limited range and finicky hit detection. I didn't get the chance to grab any firearms, but obviously these problems won't carry over to that range of combat. One large improvement is the ability to wield a single-handed weapon with a flashlight in the off hand, a feature that was sorely missed in the first game.

For those who are familiar with the first game, yes, the save system has been fixed. Dementium II now features both auto and manual saving.

While a short demo, my time with Dementium II left me interested in seeing more. The sequel does address the main problems of the first game, and its action-based, first-person control scheme fits the DS well. What remains to be seen, when the game hits stores on April 20, is whether it can dial up the actual horror and make the genre relevant in the handheld arena.

Mar 27, 2010

Chainsaws And Parkour; What Could Go Wrong? -- Shank Preview

Shank

I had never played a game billed as a "cinematic brawler" prior to stepping into an off-the-beaten-path hotel room at the Sheraton adjacent to the Hynes Convention Center in Boston during PAX East this weekend. Shank, from Klei Entertainment has left me quite optimistic about such a prospect, though, thanks to its smooth mix of platforming action and bloody side-scrolling brawling.

"Brawling" may not be the best term, although it's the company's preferred description, because Shank is really a whole lot less brawling and a whole lot more stabbing, shooting, and chainsaw massacre, with some abusive, manhandling grapples, throws, and slams folded into the mix. In between all of this, integrated in an effort to create a different gameplay cadence for each level, is plenty of jumping, swinging, wall climbing, and sliding down poles at all angles. This platforming aspect, although not Shank's primary focus, is a noticeable distinction between Klei's game and similar side-scrolling beat-em-ups.

Shank

Also impressive at this stage in development is the game's combat, as it should be, considering the sheer amount of fighting players will be doing in Shank. Face buttons make Shank, the game's protagonist, jump, shank, chainsaw, and shoot, with grapples and "pounces" mapped to the right shoulder buttons. A grapple in Shank is a close-range grab, from which the player can continue to stab and saw enemies, or opt to throw them across the screen onto others. A pounce does the same, minus the throws, but only after Shank makes a long-range leap that pins opponents to the ground. In either tie-up, he can momentarily break from his onslaught to shoot oncoming foes, without ever letting go of his current prey. Klei CEO Jamie Cheng also demonstrated the special uses of grenades and parries, which are mapped to the left shoulder buttons. Besides simply throwing grenades at enemies, Shank can also stuff the pineapple-shaped, explosive delights right down their throats after grabbing them. Blocks and parries defend the player, and open up opportunities for free attacks and the initiation of melee and ballistic combos.

Chaining attacks, explained Jamie, is an important aspect of Shank. Not only do combos increase one's effectiveness in combat, but the myriad ways in which the different moves can be linked together seems like something that players will make their own game out of, always trying to be more stylish fighters and simply do more badass things with the tools they have at their disposal. One such badass maneuver is Shank's cross-handed, bi-directional gun-slinging move, where players can seamlessly gun down at enemies approaching from behind while maintaining steady fire at their original target. By simply tapping the control stick backward as they fire, players will cause Shank to aim one gun behind him and continue shooting in both directions. He also has the ability to shoot at angles, which played a part in the one boss fight available during the hands-on demonstration.

Shank

The never-before-played meat-packing plant level culminated with a fight between Shank and a hulking, maniacal, chain-wielding butcher, who would easily snatch Shank out of the air to counter any grapple or pounce, and who took minimal damage from Shank's regular attacks. The key here was to get the brute to sink his morning-star-like meat hooks into hanging carcasses by shooting them down from the ceiling before he made his attack. Shank could then charge, grapple, and deal massive damage from the clinch, rounding out a Zelda-esque, pattern-based boss encounter with a quick button prompt and a bucket of blood, in all its graphic-novel-style animated glory.

I enjoyed my time with Shank, and look forward to playing more when the game is released for XBLA, PSN, and PC this summer. Especially for nostalgic, NES-era Double Dragon (and ilk) players, this is certainly one to watch.

Mar 12, 2010

Long, Black Hair And Ghosts With Technology -- Calling Review

Japanese horror, no matter what the medium, thrives off of thematic convention. Hudson's Calling is no different. Although it suffers from sub-par visuals, awful voice acting, simple puzzles, and minimal gameplay variety, it still maintains its appeal thanks to intriguing presentation, atmosphere, and its ability to connect with natural human fears and curiosities.

Covering the gamut of J-horror cliches, Calling sends players through a school and a hospital, among other locations, in hopes of discovering the truth about "The Black Page," an internet chat room that draws its users into a world where the living and the dead walk among one another. In this "Mnemonic Abyss," ghostly torment and seemingly perpetual darkness impede progress, while cellular phones allow for physical transport from location to location.

Calling

Characters cannot be harmed in Calling. Being assaulted by ghosts only raises the player's horror meter, which begins to decrease after breaking free from their clutches in true Wii-waggle fashion. What is impressive about the system is that the player begins to dread fear itself, and the idea that the characters can be driven into a state horror that will turn them into ghosts and end the game.

The unknown and revealing the unknown are the significant themes in Calling. Players consistently find themselves in environments with very little light, making exploration -- primarily on-screen "grasp" and "examine" icons that interact with environmental objects -- impossible until a light source such as a flashlight or candle is located. Players can never be sure whether incoming calls on the always-equipped cell phones (via the Wii remote speaker) are from friendly characters or hostile spirits. One particularly effective scenario early in the game features a voice telling the player that it's coming to get its phone, after which the ghost continues to call every 30 seconds or so with updates on its progress. This all happens as the player frantically runs through dark school hallways that all look the same, quickly increasing stress levels and having a field day with one's nerves. The cell phones' other primary function, transporting, is simply a game of roulette; each time a number is found, the goal is only to escape the current location in hopes that the unknown destination is somehow nicer.

Calling does a good job of making the player feel hopelessly lost, in part because basic exploration is so slow to reveal the way forward, but also because the environments repeat all the time. Every hallway in each area is the same, low-fidelity collection of images, from doors and windows to furniture and objects, and although this aids the game to produce its desired effects, it is a cheap and transparent way to do so. The use of light and dark, on the other hand, is very well implemented, as flashlights illuminate in long columns with soft, graduated edges and limited overflow into peripheral space. Perhaps more important than light and exploration, however, is the guidance from a number of spirits on which the player grows dependent as the story progresses. In a way, Calling plays the player, using these otherworldly apparitions to point the way forward. They demonstrate that constantly checking doors and searching rooms isn't the best way to proceed, but only after dropping the player into environments where they would logically conclude the opposite. What initially feels like fumbling in the dark turns into following cues and ignoring the irrelevant, later on.

Calling

Some aspects of the game did degrade over time, however. Environmental sounds -- thumps, cracks, creaks, etc. -- and visual abnormalities like shadowy figures darting across the screen or images of faces quickly flashing and disappearing may have frightened players early on, but were easily ignored only a little later in the game because they were rarely an indication of immediate danger. They were essentially boys who cried wolf. Voice acting, too, is a weakness for Calling. The awkwardly timed and abnormally inflected speech of ghosts would have been fine, but when those same speech characteristics are present for living characters, narrative suffers. It is also slightly annoying that so much was left in Japanese in the North American version of the game. It wasn't so much the signs and posters in the environments, because those can at least be examined to find out what they say, but more pertinent to un-examinable words scribbled on walls, in lockers, on bookshelves, etc., where the player has no way of knowing what is written. Because so much of Calling is about building atmosphere, the fact that a non-Japanese speaker's native language effectively cuts out parts of the game can diminish the overall experience.

Calling has as many factors working against it as it does working in its favor; dates visuals, poor voice acting, repetition, and weak puzzles suggest a worse experience than the game provides. But while leaning heavily on traditional J-horror themes and conventions to deliver scares and suspense, Calling creates a captivating, dark atmosphere and manages to connect with gamers' psyches in a way that makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts.

Mar 8, 2010

All Action -- Resident Evil 5: Desperate Escape

Capcom has taken a very interesting route with the two recent downloadable extensions of last year's Resident Evil 5. While Lost in Nightmares, released two weeks earlier, was essentially a throwback to the slow-paced, suspenseful design philosophy of older RE titles, Resident Evil 5: Desperate Escape takes the action-oriented style of the latest game and turns the dial all the way up. Both are appealing for different reasons, while each falls a little flat for its respective omissions.

Desperate Escape fills RE5 players in on the events that occur between Jill Valentine's rescue from Wesker's control and her arrival via helicopter with BSAA agent Josh Stone to pick up Chris and Sheva in the main campaign's final scene. The simple explanation is that they quite literally blast their way out of the Tricell facility in about an hour's worth of nonstop action.

Resident Evil 5: Desperate Escape

The game features no new enemies or weapons, but certainly throws enough of both at players to make this an enjoyable splatter-fest. One fairly easily attainable achievement rewards players for single-handedly stopping 150 non-zombies by the time the mission is over. That's a lot of shooting... and grenade-tossing... and knifing; Desperate Escape reveals that Jill happens to also be a master of knifing.

One thing that is nice about Desperate Escape, considering its focus on streamlined action, is that Jill and Josh begin with different weapons, and will continue to carry complementary arsenals throughout the mission. This means that there will be very little ammo sharing, and less wasted time managing inventory; whoever has a particular gun picks up that type of ammunition. Simple. On the other hand, because the game steadily hits players with an ocean of ammo, grenades, and herbs, the inventory screen will likely be filled to capacity the majority of the time. Only in the game's final moments does ammo ever seem to dwindle, which significantly ups the adrenaline for that scene, but also exemplifies the relative lack of tension during the only slightly less-heavily populated earlier portions. Those parts are action-packed, but not white-knuckle style, like the DLC's climax.

Resident Evil: Desperate Escape

The climax is one of the more hectic parts of all of RE5, playing out much like the title's Mercenaries minigame, or like a chapter in Valve's Left 4 Dead. The duo must defend against an onslaught of all manner of antagonists as an on-screen timer counts the minutes until an escape chopper arrives. Here, players will be challenged to bring their A-game against axes, sickles, Molotov cocktails, giant warhammers, chainsaws, chain guns, etc. on a small and very hazardous (and notably explosive) rooftop. It's pretty intense.

In addition to the lost chapter of the RE5 story, Desperate Escape also includes two new playable characters for the Mercenaries Reunion game mode, newcomer Josh Stone and Rebecca Chambers of Resident Evil and Resident Evil 0 fame... and the minigame itself for those who don't already have it. These two extend players' Mercenaries options, but are simply not as much fun to play with as the characters unlocked by the previous DLC are.

Desperate Escape is essentially a concentrated dose of Resident Evil 5's action-based gameplay, and is quite enjoyable for the short time players will spend with it. If you're looking for puzzles, start walking the other way, but if you just want some solid, new-era Resident Evil action, you will not regret giving Desperate Escape a whirl.