Game Review Roundup Fall 09: Action-Adventure Games

Trailer - Uncharted 2: Among Thieves


From: AM2, Bethesda Softworks

Reviewed on: Xbox 360, also available on PlayStation 3

Review By: Seth Robison

That 70’s Game.

There is a cycle in popular culture that bestows the past with a particular gravitas, an authenticity that is appealing over the perception of the new as a product of “marketing phonies.”  From Happy Days to throwback uniforms to the Dodge Challenger there is an idea that a simpler product, even if it is just on the surface, gives its patron a deeper sense of familiarity and ownership in it, as if you were once part of something great that is now gone.  It’s a feeling that many of the ageing gamer population understands, it’s nostalgia for the simple mechanics and look of an Atari 2600 era game, or even the controller crushing challenge of the 8-bit days.  

In WET from Artificial Mind & Movement (Indiana Jones and the Staff of Kings) and published by Bethesda, out now for PS3 and Xbox 360, the idea of retro-chic, in this case low budget 70’s revenge cinema, is a better description of the game’s setting than the assorted dingy buildings and alleyways of the world that actually appear as a backdrop. You are Rubi, a hard drinking (bottles of booze in fact restore your health) gunwoman not above doing a little ‘wet’ work, if the money is right.  Betrayed and left for dead after a seemingly routine retrieval mission, personal honor and a small sense of justice propel you to cut a swath (with your sword or a series of paired firearms) through the criminal underworld.

While the plot is not exactly Chaucer, it does enough to set up one of the game’s key aspects, the visual presentation.  A visual filter is applied to the camera giving the game the look of being an ill-treated film print of a B-movie.  Scratches and lines will run down the screen seemingly at random, the brightness could be turned up simulating an erratic projection bulb or the whole game can temporally go out of focus as if an unskilled projectionist was showing the game in a theater.  This ascetic reinforced by stealth loading screens disguised as drive-in theater advertisements or public service announcements, after which the game will resume, often in a slightly different local as if the ‘film of the game’ is missing a scene and other touches during gameplay.  The soundtrack plays along, adding pops and occasionally letting the dialog go out of sync.  These visual features can be switched off on the options screen if they become too distracting, but will only reveal more of the game’s standard quality character models and locations.

As a third person acrobatic shooter, WET more in the vein of John Woo’s Stranglehold then its ideal target, Sands of Time (with guns), but the developers made a conscious decision worthy of appreciation to let not to let reality interfere with the action.  For example, your powerful and handy default dual pistols never need to be reloaded and have unlimited ammunition, in fact all the weaponry in the game: the pistols, the ammo-dependent shotguns, the sub-machine guns and the explosive bolt shooting mini crossbows are paired.  WET also includes the well worn trope of ‘bullet-time’ which can be activated during any of Rubi’s acrobatic moves, including slides, jumps, wall-runs and pole swings that can be chained together and as long as you never stop shooting or moving time won’t resume its normal pace.  Not to be overlooked is the dual targeting feature: during the ‘acrobatic action,’ as the game puts it, Rubi will target one enemy automatically and allow you manipulate the camera to target a second with the other hand.  Although somehow Rubi is able to shoot with both hands while reaching and grabbing onto horizontal poles (something that would actually require her to have a tail, and is perhaps the reason for her otherwise unexplained monkey motif) your hands will be full as well trying to move in one direction, aim and shoot in two and prepare for the next jump.  This might occasionally tie your fingers in knots, leaving you running against  walls while looking behind you if you’re not careful.  However, once mastered, and you will eventually master it, a successful combination of these chained moves and chained kills will award you with points that you can spend at least once per level on upgrading your weapons’ firing rate, ammo capacity and damage.  You could also choose to but a longer lifebar or more acrobatic moves for Rubi like sweeping sword strikes or the ability to kick up and off a charging foe.  

While the bulk of the game is run and gun, it is broken up a bit by short acrobatic sequences where the camera, for the most part, does a good job of not only keeping out of your way but also showing where you need to go.  Also there are occasional ‘arenas’ were you will have to fend off (not unlimited) waves of foes while trying to block their spawn points and collecting point multipliers.  In other segments, Rubi’s mind snaps and her homicidal tendencies take control for a little while.  In these circumstances the world is desaturated into just three detail-free flat colors: red, black and white.  During these psychological divorces from reality, enemies are little more than block figures (it looks like you’re killing dozens of Don Drapers from the intro to Mad Men) that, to Rubi’s kill-crazed brain, dissolve upon death.  Finally, a trio of well-scripted chase sequences take up three entire levels where sharp aiming at moving targets and Quick Time Events determine passage.  It should also be noted that critical QTEs show up in cutscenes as well, so gamers must be wary.

The game’s pace is kept up in no small part by its excellent soundtrack, packed front to back with obscure but lively alt-rock and ‘psycobilly’ (I had to look that up) jams that really sell ‘out of time, out of place’ vibe pitched by the visuals.  It’s a great change of pace from the operatic seriousness, repetitive techno, or ‘atmospheric’ silence found in most actioners.  While the developer’s of WET considered it a coup to land Eliza Dushku (Dollhouse) for the voice of Rubi, unless you’re a fan or hearing her swear and grunt (and it’s ok if you are) the role is not exactly ‘meaty’ or require a young woman who’s known for her action-chick roles to stretch any.  Moreover, while they landed genre legend Malcolm McDowell (Wing Commander IV: The Price of Freedom) for the role as the heavy, for all his character’s appearances he could have recorded his role while waiting in line at the post office.

While it might be thematically appropriate not to explain where Rubi got her skills, her disregard for human life and an airplane graveyard to live in, not developing the story, explaining/resolving multiple character issues, and a less-then-satisfactory resolution feels more like an oversight in a full price retail game then a dollar matinee feature the game is presented as.  WET is also not a long game, though four difficulty levels, easy, normal, hard, very hard, plus a one-shot-kills-almost-everything (including you) “golden bullets” mode extends the play.  The latter difficulties and a point scoring challenge mode are unlockable with play-through.  There is no multiplayer.  

WET, rated M, is in stores now.

Assassin’s Creed 2

From: Ubisoft Montreal, Ubisoft

Reviewed on: Xbox 360, also available on PS3, Windows

Review By: Seth Robison

" Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce?  The cuckoo clock.”  Orson Welles (The Third Man)

During the whirlwind summer convention season, the developers at Ubisoft explained the disparate periods explored in a core Assassin’s Creed game.  That the series was both the story of bartender turned test subject Desmond Miles in the year 2012, and the exploration of the points in human history where “great powers of all types were in flux” as experienced by Desmond’s ancestors.  Assassin’s Creed 2, out now for XBOX 360 and PS3 (next year for Windows), moves both of these elements forward by giving Desmond a more active role and by exchanging Altair and the Crusades for Ezio Auditore of the late fifteenth century Italian Renaissance.   

It is the year 1476 and the Medici family has parlayed their financial success and ruthlessness into true political power, threatening the established order.  Their allies, the Auditore family, are caught up in real world historical events that lead hellion middle son Ezio to take up the mantle of his forbearer Altair and become an assassin.  

It’s in this that the first major distinction between Assassin’s Creed and Assassin’s Creed 2 is made.  In the original, Altair was already a trained killer limited only by his arsenal.  Ezio on the other hand brings only a measure of fitness and agility with him at the start of the core gameplay (coyly solving a sequel’s most vexing issue: depowering an endgame level hero at the start of his next adventure) and as the story develops so do his skills.  

Beyond being able to swim, it is a sequel after all, Ezio complements his brawling and free running/climbing with basic knife and swordplay that can be developed to include instant-kill counterattacks and disarms that will let you take an enemy’s weapon and use it against him.  Outside of combat Ezio also learns how to blend in with the crowd, transforming any group of people into a mobile hiding spot, and the art of pick-pocketing, turning a busy street into a quick money making opportunity, as long as you’re not caught.  You’ll only net a few Florins at a time this way, but they are not without value as in keeping with the spirit of the era, everything in the age of the Medici has a price.

Not long after you begin the game, the price for anything more than the basic training, faster, more powerful weapons or better armor (which supplements your health) rises quickly.  To pay for them, you can engage in odd jobs like message delivery, footraces, freelance assassination, looting hidden tombs, and occasionally hiring yourself out as muscle.  There is also an option to play landlord to your family’s estate, receiving a steady income after making significant investments.

However, that is all distraction from the core gameplay, which hasn’t changed much from the first game, and didn’t really require one.  The plotline assassinations are less structured than in the original, allowing you to pick your given targets in whatever order you want and execute them in the manner of your choice.  Combat is still free flowing, and even if you get surrounded, your foes rarely think to attack all at once making it easier to pick off your assailants.  The lock-on option is also bit too sticky, dragging the mostly capable camera way out of position.  The true foes of the first game, the clingy beggar women, have been replaced a slightly less annoying, but eminently more punchable distraction.

There is no longer a central hub area to blow through between cities, just regions that link linearly each with ‘fast travel’ booths that will take you from city gate to city gate for a distance based fee if you don’t want to spend the time boosting a horse and riding there yourself.  The free-running is back, with hanging objects that allow for ninety degree turns at speed, but while capering some caution is advised.  Slight variations to when you point the analog stick could have you plummeting out into the void.  The climbing is back as well, the city states of Renaissance Italy were littered with towers with either protective, decorative or sacrosanct purposes.  It’s shown early, and humorously as a good example also of the game’s wit, the source of Ezio’s climbing prowess.  Prowess that is put to good use throughout the game, delivering a real sense of satisfaction, both with the soft capping sound of hands capably flying up erratic brickwork or ornate facades, and when you reach the top and trigger the map revealing a sweeping city view.

On the subject of visuals, Assassin’s Creed 2’s Italy looks like a three dimensional Renaissance landscape, brighter and more alive then the Holy Land of Altair’s time.  That being said, there is some pop-up in the detail and sections of terrain look to have hard lines between panels on groundscape.

The game and the franchise’s strongest aspect is still its story: the blend of science fiction, conspiracy theory and historical fact is compelling, and this latest entry takes players even deeper into the franchise’s mysteries by answering questions instead of just posing new ones.  The voice acting is passable (hint: turn on the subtitles to learn some casual Italian greetings and swears). Although the heavy Italian accented English quickly feels like parody, it is paid off in one moment that would a crime to spoil.  A sizeable opportunity was missed in the area of background music; a few pieces from the period could have added another layer of depth, instead of what’s included:  incidental stabs with the action and a stock background theme that is less than elevator music

Both of Assassin’s Creed 2’s protagonists, Ezio and Desmond progress from idle ignorance to highly motivated actors of their own destinies not overnight, but in a gradual, reasonable fashion as they discover the truth about their world and their responsibilities.  It is an experience you will want to share.

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves

From: Naughty Dog, Sony Computer Entertainment

Reviewed on: Exclusively on PlayStation 3

Reviewed by: Lucas Siegel

This is the best, most complete, most well-rounded video game I've played on the current generation of consoles.

The Uncharted series takes you into the role of Nathan Drake, a descendant of historical explorer Sir Francis Drake. It's easy to explain him as a younger Indiana Jones who is exploring and adventuring today instead of several decades ago. Nate is joined by some friends, some allies, and some who you can't quite tell whether they are friend or enemy.

The story of the second game takes you on a journey to find the mystical city of Shambhala, also known as Shangri-La. You're retracing lost journals of one of the ultimate explorers, Marco Polo. It's a race against another explorer and his mercenary warlord boss, who hopes to harness the power of a special stone Polo's journals reveal to perhaps be real.

The game follows the basic action-adventure formula in pursuit of the story. There's running, jumping, shooting, sneaking, climbing, hanging, and lots of exploring. The controls and camera here are nearly perfect. The amount of missteps as far as reaching the right point or seeing the next place to go can be counted on one hand. This game was designed to make the player enjoy the story and naturally play out an action movie.

Supporting the you're-in-a-movie feel requires stellar graphics, ambient noise, and voice acting. Luckily, all of these are present in this game. The voice acting is particularly incredible. Nolan North (also the voice of Desmond in the aforementioned Assassin's Creed 2), who comic fans will know as the voice of Cyclops in "Wolverine and the X-Men," brings a real life, a quality to Nate that is equal to any of the best acting in any live-action or animation big budget movie. He is a living, breathing character, with real motivation, real feelings, and relationships that make sense to him as a character and to the player as an observer. The other voice actors support him well, and the script allows them proper freedom and direction to present the story well. The graphics, while 720p, not "true HD 1080p," are simply gorgeous. From cityscapes to sprawling jungles, there are hundreds of times you'll want to stop to simply view what's on screen in awe. The commercial for the game that jokes about someone watching, thinking it's a movie, is really not far off at all.

When you've completed the incredible journey of the single-player mission, there's a great multiplayer component to back it up. Standard shooter modes are here, along with explorer-specific modes. Perhaps the most fun is the now ubiquitous survival mode, where players team up to take on increasingly-difficult waves of oncoming enemies.

There are difficult parts of this game, but nothing that gets overtly frustrating. The final boss battle is a little repetitive, but it does allow you to use the techniques you've learned throughout the game.

This is truly a spectacular game. It marvels in every aspect of its production, presentation, and play. This is a game that should not only be a must-own for PS3 owners, but a reason for those who don't have one yet to get one. In a year with some great games, this has stood out as the easy #1.

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