Game Review Roundup: BAYONETTA, L4D2, Tons More

Game Review Roundup: BAYONETTA, L4D2

Fall 09/Winter 10 Game Review Roundup:

Wow, a LOT of games have come out in the last couple months. In an effort to catch up a bit, we're releasing this simply massive column of Reviews. We have reviews of just about every kind of game you'd want to play right now, that is if you need a breather between extended Mass Effect 2 sessions.

The Saboteur

From: Pandemic Studios, EA

Reviewed on: Xbox 360 (Also on PS3, PC)

Review By: Seth Robison

There is no problem which cannot be solved by a suitable application of high explosives.

- William Hughes

Racecar driver Sean Devlin doesn’t need a good reason to pick a fight, woe to the German occupiers of World War II era France when they give him one in: The Saboteur from Electronic Arts and the recently liquidated Pandemic Studios (Destroy All Humans!) out now for Xbox 360, PS3 and Windows.  

The native of Ireland is caught behind enemy lines as WWII explodes across Western Europe; costing him his way of life, scattering his surrogate family and giving him common cause with the nascent French Resistance movement.  For him, revenge is the goal, killing Nazis is a bonus.

The Saboteur is a third person sandbox action/adventure that, thanks to its setting, manages to twist the inherent player-generated chaos that is inevitable in the genre in service of good.  The fact that the only authority looking to stifle your activities are the Nazis occupiers of a condensed Paris and rolling French countryside from Normandy to just over the border in Germany, there can be no real qualms with gunning them down as they chase you.  While firefights with period weapons, as well as tanks and anti-aircraft guns, are plentiful in The Saboteur the key aspect of the gameplay is the committing of disruptive and damaging acts to inspire the French people, and weaken the grip of the Germans.  The importance of which is demonstrated in The Saboteur’s visual presentation, as areas under German psychological domination are depicted in a gloomy black and white, punctuated only by the red of Nazi flags, blood, and the orange fire of explosions.  Areas ‘liberated’ (it should be noted that you are not the Allied Army and you can’t actually liberate France from the Nazis singly handedly, this isn’t Medal of Honor) have their natural color flood back.  These areas also have a lower patrol rate of enemies and give the locals a noticeably improved attitude and a willingness to join in any firefights you start as well.  The color switch is a cool visual trick, especially when you can look down a street and see exactly where Technicolor ends.  However, it can be difficult to see low barriers, people and cliffs in the colorless areas; cheating on the gamma correction helps.

The bulk of the game follows the standard sandbox format: go get mission, go do mission, run from the consequences of said mission.  In The Saboteur the bulk of the these deal with performing acts that will hamper the German war effort, namely blowing stuff up.  Generally, there are two ways this can be done, you can go in guns blazing thanks to a generous and quickly regenerating heath allotment or you can take a stealthy route.  The Saboteur’s mini-map features an alertness indicator that will let you know if any enemies can see you and a meter that grows if your caught doing something or being somewhere you shouldn’t.  Stealth killing a enemy allows you to take his uniform, which lets you move about a bit more freely, working your way to your goal by blending in, or picking people off one by one in what can be a very tense, exciting game of cat and mouse.  Now for the booms: and as if to reinforce how important explosives are in The Saboteur, it’s the only weapon they let you keep if you get killed, there are two options: a bundle of dynamite that you have to light by hand and get away from (you’ve got about ten seconds) or a remote explosive you can plant in groups and detonate from mid-range.

As fun as it is to just blow stuff up, and it is, The Saboteur suffers from some gameplay issues.  A problem in the hit detection can get you caught on an edge or in a spinning radar array while your bombs countdown not-far-enough away.  Weapon selection, even though you can only carry two guns in addition to your bombs, is complicated by the presence of a melee attack button, separate hand-to-hand fighting toggle button and another button to hostler your weapon (which otherwise is useful for keeping a low profile) which can combine to leave you idly strolling among machine gun fire.  This lack of button economy puts your ‘call for back-up’ command on the Back button and pairing it with a move of the right stick, necessitating a move of your thumb from the left stick and leaving you a sitting duck and no reason to ever call for backup.  Finally there is the climbing, which is frequently the only way to get from A to B, suffers in comparison with Assassin’s Creed, feeling like a step back as you have to continually order Sean to climb up the side of a building from point to point.  Although there is an otherwise original ‘aiming’ indicator that will let you know if you can reach the next step in your climb, taking the faith out of the leaps of.

The open world is best navigated by the game’s collection of period automobiles, mostly boxy roadsters and touring cars, but there are a few variations of the racecars of the era and armed German military vehicles.  All of which, for quick shorthand, perform as well as they look.  The controls for driving are workable, and convey a feeling of speed.  However, it’s odd that in a game featuring a racecar driver that there are only two optional races and one ‘time trial.’

Using Sean’s sneaking, explosives, driving and Nazi butchering skills well enough open up “perks,” a mild but extremely useful character development tree that can make your job much easier, especially when it comes to the game’s “ambient free play events.”

Scattered over a thousand points on the map are little tasks that Sean can accomplish to earn the game’s currency, a monetized barter system of contraband goods, and reduce the effective of the Germans.  These “events” are either enemy structures or vehicles that can be destroyed, views to lookout from, landmark postcards to collect (but not look at), unique jumps to take in your vehicle or high-ranking Nazis to assassinate.  Fortunately maps of these points can be bought from your local black-market weapons dealer, giving the tasks a satisfying sweep-and-clear feel rather then they typical hidden package snipe hunt.

Visually outside of the aforementioned color-coding, The Saboteur is not breaking any new ground, but some credit is due to the earning of an M rating for another reason other than the standard gratuitous violence through an optional toplessness mode for the women in your Cabaret club hideout (free if you bought the game new, DLC everyone else).  The game’s soundtrack features a shallow but cool collection of period jazz and torch songs that fit the mood of melancholy and danger, but during alerts switches over to a series of orchestral pieces, each escalating in tempo and grandiosity as the level of the chase rises.  The voice actors do the best they can with weak dialog and what for some of them are non-natural accents.  Robin Atkin Downes (No More Heroes as Travis Touchdown) plays Sean with an Irish accent that might really bother people who are sure they know what all the 1940s era Irish sound like, but is otherwise enjoyable in the role.  However, a persistent drop out glitch in the sound effects really damages the experience.

While it may be true that the real French Resistance never had the kind of operations as shown in The Saboteur, and surely there wasn’t an Sam O’Fisher type running around, but Pandemic Studios took two aging genres, World War II and Sandbox gameplay, and forged an alliance that will mark their place in history.

Rogue Warrior

From: Rebellion Developments, Bethesda Softworks

Reviewed on: PS3 (Also on Xbox 360, PC)

Review By: Lucas Siegel

Well, they can't all be game of the year. While Bethesda took that title last year from us and many others with Fallout 3, this latest offering does pretty much everything wrong. The gameplay feels like it wasn't really playtested; the assortment of enemies is about 4 deep, and the most effective defense is to simply sprint at them and stab them. One-hit melee kills are pretty effective, except that you have to be staring directly at the enemy (if you're side-by-side and they're in your view, the button just won't work), and after you've seen the handful of animations, it gets pretty boring.

Shooting seems like a viable alternative, until you actually try to shoot and find that even when your reticle is red and directly on the enemy's face, your chances of hitting them are still only about 50/50. Mickey Rourke voices the main character, and has a couple funny one-liners, then a myriad of repetitive and childish curses, most of which don't fit the situation they're supposedly reacting to.

For instance, I wound up glitching about halfway through the second level, and he'd spout his grenade one-liner every single time I fired a shot. The good news is, this game is short, incredibly so. I started with a pace of about 20 minutes for the first two missions, and the game can be beaten on normal difficulty in under two hours. Let me say that one more time. This $60 retail in-box game can be beaten in under two hours.

Once you're done, you can try to play multiplayer, but in 5 attempts at different hours, I found enough people for a decent match once. In a crowded genre in a crowded field of games, this doesn't stand out from the pack. It just lays down and dies, much like the enemy AI. This is a must-miss.

Bayonetta

From: SEGA and Platinum Games

Reviewed on: Xbox 360 (Also on PS3)

Review By: Seth Robison

The difference between sex and death is that with death you can do it alone and no one is going to make fun of you.  -Woody Allen

Cutting to the chase, there is nothing groundbreaking about the sexual content of Bayonetta, out now for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 from Sega and Platinum Games, other than the fact that it is the rare mainstream game that earns an M rating for reasons other than “Blood and Gore/Intense Violence,” although there is plenty of that anyway.  Bayonetta’s titillation factor, in both visuals and dialog, is what you’d imagine a playable issue of Maxim would be like.  The action, however, crosses the border between the sublime and the ridiculous so many times that the guards have quit and you have to put the controller down occasionally to either rest your frazzled mind or to keep from chucking it out the window.

Bayonetta is a third person action title that takes the punishingly precise combat system of a title like Devil May Cry into a world bordering the scope of God of War, all played with a light tone the belies the apocalyptic plotline.  As the title character, an amnesiac witch who is one of the last of the ‘dark-but-not-necessarily-evil’ half of an ancient society that kept the balance order and chaos between hell, heaven and the mortal planes (and a fourth ‘in-between’ dimension), you are drawn to a mysterious European city in search of a powerful gem that might hold clues to your past.  Along the way you cross paths with dangerous woman in red, a dogged young reporter and a painfully adorable little girl while battling your way though a host of angels whose halos can be used as currency with a demonic arms dealer.  This convolution is played out during excruciatingly long cut-scenes that alternate between full CG animation and voiced over stills.

The action in Bayonetta is broken up into fifteen chapters, four of which consist only of giant, multi-stage boss battles, all of which require precise control and quick (and quick-time) reactions to not only survive but score on the stringent rating system that pops up after every battle and again at the end of the level.  Initially you are limited to a default four-gun setup, two in your hand and two on your heels, but you can acquire other weapons including a sword, a whip and a set of elemental claws that you can equip in different combinations to your hands and feet to produce different attacks.  You are allowed to have two weapon setups to toggle between on the fly, but it’s easy to find narrow range of effective attacks, namely ones that end with massive representations of Bayonetta’s hands or feet pounding down out of nowhere, and use them repeatedly to hold your foes at bay and build up your magic meter.  Precise dodging, of which you’ll need to do a lot of, bestows more magic power and lets you enter ‘Witch Time,’ subjectively slowing your foes temporarily and leaving them open to counterattack.  Magic accumulated in this manner, or though the use of the various restorative lollypops, allows you to execute moves called ‘torture attacks’ to deal major damage in an elaborate way for each foe.

The quick dispatching of enemies is also recommended due to a camera issue when some of the larger foes loom off screen or from behind and attack with long weapons that sweep though without warning and touchy context sensitive moves that can lead to instant game overs.  

Visually the frenetic action unfortunately hides some incredible character animation, particularly from the lead, whose bearing and movements are keyed to what weapon she’s carrying.  The environments, once the game starts branching out from reality, are just short of breathtaking.  Not just the backgrounds, which vary in views from a astronomical anomaly-packed deep space to a stormy sea beset with lighting, wind and rain.  The game’s vertigo-inducing platforming segments feature islands spinning in space, paths that corkscrew around, and a moon that can turn the game upside down and have you fighting on the walls and ceilings.  On the audio side, the localized voice acting is predictably atrocious, but the soundtrack, keyed by multiple remixes of the Sinatra staple “Fly Me to the Moon,” features techno-heavy tunes that do a great job keeping the game’s pace up.

Bayonetta shows a bit of depth with its a pile of unlockable items, secrets, difficultly levels and awards to compel gamers to take it on multiple times, something its moderate length will easily allow.  In addition, an underling current of tongue-in-cheek humor and gaming culture references reward players that not only stick with the game, but also perform well.

Bayonetta is a game that takes a decade of hack and slash gameplay and graphical advancement and crams it into every moment of play, play that is designed to stimulate every part of the participant both internally and externally.  Bayonetta is an insane rollercoaster, one that begs to be ridden at least one, despite of what it does to your lunch.

Matt Hazard: Blood Bath and Beyond

From: Vicious Cycle, D3 Publisher

Reviewed on: Xbox 360 (Also on PS3)

Review By: Seth Robison

The (fake) gaming icon of the 1980s, Matt Hazard, is back in a new title available now from D3/Vicious Cycle Software for Xbox Live and PSN.  In this, the second “real” entry in the series, the star voice talent is gone, the CG cut-scenes have been cut, the action has changed from third person to side-scrolling two and a half-D and the retail box has given way to a tight five-hour downloadable shooter.  Keeping with the franchise’s style, Blood Bath and Beyond comes equipped with a sense of humor about itself, in particular a few self-effacing barbs about the reception the previous game received with critics (like me: http://www.newsarama.com/games/090409-ReviewRoundup.html) and jam packed with references to other game worlds.  Unlike the previous game, where these asides were often groan-inducting timewasters, the new title blends the references into the game making it a fun surprise when you realize that you’ve entered, for example, a Bioshock themed area.

The gameplay is frenetic with enemies appearing from all directions including the foreground and background.  The developers ably answer the classic shooting and aiming while running dilemma by defaulting to free movement and letting you lock yourself in place to aim at anytime by holding down a shoulder button.  Blood Bath and Beyond also does Shadow Complex one better by giving another button control over when you shoot into the background, letting you be sure that when you shoot straight, you will shoot straight.  And you will be doing a lot of it with bunch of different weapons that drop Contra-style from foes and boxes including a machine gun, flamethrower, shotgun, a rocket launcher and a coupled of variations on laser guns.  A heath meter will let you take a few shots, but don’t count on it on the higher difficulty levels. A revised Hazard Meter will grant you temporary invincibility and an upgraded weapon after you build it up with consecutive kills.

Visually the game is bright and colorful, but the M rated blood splattering on the ‘screen’ gets old fast (and occasionally in the way).  The audio is functional and typically, the in-game vocal cuts, including Matt’s meta-gaming quips, recycle frequently.  Blood Bath and Beyond is also not a long game for a full priced download, but a pair of collectible challenges and a local co-op mode will extend the gameplay once you’ve gotten all of the jokes and mastered the platforming.  There is a market for gaming humor in gaming and the “second” Matt Hazard title is a step in the right direction.

Mini Ninjas

From: IO Interactive, Eidos Interactive, Warner Bros

Reviewed on: PS3 (Also on Xbox 360, PC, Wii, DS)

Reviewed By: Lucas Siegel

Not every action adventure game is going to be over-the-top violence. Not every action adventure will be glitz and gorgeous, with a spectacle and feast for the eyes at every turn. Mini Ninjas proves that not every action adventure game NEEDS to be or have any of these things in order to be fun.

This game takes the basics of any action-RPG or action-adventure game as its gameplay mechanics. You run around, hacking and slashing through legions of cute evil Samurai (who are actually even cuter little animals magically transformed), and earn a variety of new characters, each with their own special techniques. You have the ranged fighter with a Bow and Arrows, the sprite-y girl with a magic flute, the brutish warrior with a massive hammer, and more, who can all be switched out in real-time depending on who you need (or want) to use at any given moment. The gameplay is grown by potions (which you can both find and make with ingredients from around the world), various Ninja-gear like Shuriken and cherry/smoke/pepper bombs, and of course spells. It's at once simplistic and addictive- don't sit down thinking you'll get bored by the first few minutes; sit down thinking you'll play for 3 or 4 hours in your first try with the game.

The game's simplistic nature does fall into a few traps, with extremely formulaic boss battles and a final boss that is about the easiest part of the entire game. Still, the journey to that point, and the huge amount of variety they managed to fit into something so cute and simple, provides a very fun playthrough. It's a game that's very easy to sit down and zone out while playing, and anyone that watches someone else play will likely want to steal the controller immediately. There's not much replay value, as most of the collectibles will likely be found in your first play, but it's still worth checking out for that first play alone.

Left 4 Dead 2

From: Valve Corporation

Reviewed on: Xbox 360 (Also on PC)

Review by: Lucas Siegel

So, you control one of 4 survivors with a group of friends, and shoot, blow up, and hack away at zombies (called here "infected"). If it sounds familiar, chances are you played the first game. This is more of the same, in the best way possible. There are a few new things, like proper melee weapons and incendiary ammo, and of course new characters in a new location, sunlit levels, and a few other little bits and bobs. Essentially, though, this is more L4D Zombie-fighting goodness. If you enjoyed the first one, you're going to love this. If you didn't dig the first, there's nothing drastically different about this game that's going to win you over.

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