Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Rental Review Roundup 3

With the passing of the seasons and the turning of the trees into brash wooden skeletons, I have fought my way through another list of disposable games.

Transformers: War for Cybertron
More than meets the eye? Not really, blast enemies until dead, then repeat.
The trick with transformers is not to ask too many questions. Questions like - why would an advanced largely robotic alien race feel the need to transform into vehicles? Why would they even speak English? Why would one side of a civil war call themselves the Decepticons? All these questions are ultimately void, because any child of the Eighties will remember the original transformers cartoon. How we wept when Optimus Prime sacrificed himself and became one with the matrix… On cynical reflection, you can see how the cartoons were just a narrative designed to churn out a new line of toys each year, but for purely nostalgic reasons, you just cannot write off the original Transformers. They were just cool. Personally, I was always a fan of the dinobots, Grimlock for obvious reasons.

The same cannot be said for the dire Michael Bay movies and their awful video game adaptations, luckily War for Cybertron re-imagines and revitalizes the origin story of the transformers, the civil war between the Autobots and Decepticons. A war, which will eventually lead to the destruction of their home world and cast the transformers across the gulf of space, where they will eventually take residence upon planet earth. With the original vocal cast from the cartoon returning, Transformers: WFC instantly provides the warm glow of nostalgia. Everything is just how your remember it. Megatron and Starscream bicker at each other, the latter always seeking to usurp the former. Bumblebee is the loyal hyperactive gun toting boy robot and Optimus Prime is always an icon of nobility, voiced by Peter Cullen. The planet of Cybertron is visually stunning, with its speedways and metallic skyscrapers, even if the environments do get a little repetitive over the course of the game it is still different from anything you have seen before in another video game.

Gameplay wise, War for Cybertron, is an old school third person shooter. There is no ducking behind cover, because transformers don’t do that. They don’t need to. Apart from blasting each other into scrap metal, they also have the ability to snap into their vehicular form. Which adds a manic fast paced dynamic to the whole experience. There is a real sense of glee when you transform. At one point, when playing as Bumblebee I was in my car state boosting along, then from out of nowhere comes a decepitcon flying machine and in one beautifully choreographed arc I jump up, transform in mid air, melee the sucker before transforming once again and landing on four wheels. Speeding merrily on my way. Gears of War may have the sadistic satisfaction of the chainsaw bayonets but the mirth of transformation is just as good.

The single player campaign has you play as both the Decepticons and the Autobots. You choose your character at the beginning of each level, usually a leader such as Optimus or Megatron or their accompanying classes scout, soldier, medic and heavy. Each having their obvious strengths, weaknesses and weapon loadouts. The two campaigns essentially mirror one another, both telling their own story behind the fall of Cybertron, though never backtracking through the same levels but always building to the big boss fight that occurs at the end. A single level from each campaign is dedicated to the transformers who have the ability to flight, which often feels to brief since the feeling of flight is empowering and works well compared to the on foot/wheels section. The campaign does begin to feel a little samey as you play through, the environments as good as they are do begin to get repetitive and listening to the Decepticons talk to one another did grate on me. Especially Megatron, I mean what an incomprehensible dick he is.

The game also includes a plentiful multiplayer experience, ranging from your selection of death match and team variant games to your obligatory co-op horde mode, all which extends your time with the game beyond the single player experience. On the whole Transformers:WFC is a decent package, the campaign is as long as it needs to be, the environments though visually impressive do become a tad repetitive the combat whilst satisfying also grows a bit stale as you fight off the usual waves of robots and slightly bigger robots with hammers. The multiplayer however, is really good, to the point I was reluctant to send it back to LoveFilm. Get a bunch of your mates round and you’ll get off on the nostalgia of old school transformers as well as the sheer brilliance that comes with transforming. Wouldn’t mind seeing a sequel. This time, bring back the Dinobots. Me Grimlock!

James Cameron’s Avatar The Game

Hey this looks alright! I assure you its not...

Going back in time, to the Ubisoft press conference at the 2009 E3 conference, James Cameron surprised the gaming industry by walking on stage to talk about his latest soon to be released movie, Avatar and to a lesser degree its accompanying game. For most sci-fi nerds like myself, it was amazing to see Cameron back on the stage again after the decade long hiatus that occurred after Titanic. Unfortunately, Cameron soon outstayed his welcome by boring the audience to tears by discussing how he was creating a world unlike anything people had seen before and how Ubisoft was giving him a chance to extend his world in a way that would appeal to people, or nerds… Whilst Cameron is undoubtedly a cinematic auteur it was obvious from his speech that he did not truly get the potential of gaming. In my opinion, Avatar was a decent enough movie. I am slightly amazed by how popular it has become, Aliens is still my favourite James Cameron movie, and whilst assault rifle wielding space marines sent on a bug hunt have been commonplace in the world of gaming since Halo, I am still eagerly awaiting Gearbox to release Colonial Marines, which rivals Duke Nukem Forever in the stakes of prolonged time in development.

I’m ranting. The Avatar game, or as it is appropriately titled James Cameron’s Avatar The Game is a formulaic third person shooter that is flawed in the classic tradition of lazy cinematic adaptations. After War for Cybertron, which successfully reinvented Transformers for the gaming platform, Avatar was dullness of the blandest form and it was difficult to find the motivation to plough through. You play as both the human forces and the indigenous Na’vi and both play exactly the same as one another. There could have been the potential to do a Halo clone here, but the environments as brilliantly realized as they are ‘from the mind of James Cameron’ are brought to life by mediocre graphics and boring gameplay. Fans of the movie will undoubtedly find some joy in exploring the world and learning more about Pandora, scanning creatures (a handful of six legged space goats) and foliage (the pink internet tree) Metroid Prime style for information but the game essentially boils down to moving around and shooting things, which granted, is the premise of most games, but Avatar’s problem is it doesn’t even try to make this feel engaging.

Banjo Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts.
See not all games are about killing eastern european PMCs...

Back in the days of the Nintendo 64, I missed out on Super Mario, apparently it was a milestone in gaming but I never fully got into it. Created by Rare, Banjo Kazooie on the other hand, with its near identical blend of platforming, collecting, and imaginative worlds was a game I have many fond memories of. The Rare logo was always a stamp of quality, and something this greystation owner was most envious about. Since the N64’s heyday, Microsoft brought the legendary Rare studios, with the hopes that it would replicate the kind of magic for the Xbox. The results have been questionable, whilst Kameo and Viva Pinata are both underrated gems, Perfect Dark Zero and Banjo Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts have been widely regarded as misfires.

Having now played Nuts and Bolts, I can quite safely say that it is the first rental I would actually consider buying. Most people have been put off by the game, since it does away with much of the platforming antics that made the original N64 games a success. Instead, the game has a new look, a colourful patchwork aesthetic, and a new gameplay mechanic which centres on the construction of vehicles for challenges ranging from races to fetch quests, which begins to feel a bit like Spore. Spiritually, I would argue that the game does stay close to its N64 roots, the whole game is permeated by a sense of humour, the worlds are imaginative and colourful, if a little wasted on the vehicular challenges. One world is set within the innards of a computer, another is a museum containing remnants from the old games. Including Clankers, the mechanical shark. The fanatical pursuit of the collection of things is still there, though this time, you will be searching for crates to unlock new components for the building of your magnificent machines. The actual construction of vehicles is a bit daunting at first and feels as if its real purpose is to introduce key mechanical rules to children, but whatever, as you start to build gather new parts, powerful engines and weapons, you start to get into the whole Frankenstein mentality. For one race, I created a boat with two engines and spikes. Enough said. The physics can be a bit loose at points but it is clear Rare have put a lot of work into making this mechanic deep as well as accessible.

Though it isn’t a next gen version of the N64 masterpieces that people were expecting, Banjo Kazooie represents new Rare taking a risk and driving the much loved series in a different direction. The environments and characters are all a joy to behold, and the construction mechanic quickly becomes addictive. Would recommend it. Rare have still got it, despite what the naysayers think.

Quake 4

Going to need a bigger gun... Tip: When playing Quake 4 never under any circumstances use the blaster... You will hemorrhage man points.

Quake 4 has long been a game that has eluded me. First released on the PC and then ported to the Xbox 360 for the console’s launch in 2005, I did actually own a copy a couple of years ago. Unfortunately the game was prone to glitches and frequent times when it just froze mid loading screen, which meant that I never completed it. I put this all down to a faulty disc and traded it in, passing it on to some other hapless schmuck. This was a shame because, for the most part I enjoyed Quake 4 immensely, in contrast to the survival horror of Doom 3, Quake 4 felt more in line with the fast paced fragging of Id software’s original games. So here I am a couple of years later in need of a couple of rentals and thought I’d give Quake 4 another whirl. Take that Call of Duty…

Quake 4 is a relic of an older more simpler time, before your Halos and Call of Duties. Where a one man army space marine could carry ten weapons at any one time. Where injuries were treated by health packs and further bullet protection came from collecting armour shards that levitated upon the floor. Your enemies couldn’t be taken out with mere head shots, the bigger the enemy the bigger the gun required to put it down. The main change, as with Doom 3, is Id software’s lengths in providing a richly detailed and atmospheric world. At one point you negotiate the hallways of your space craft, where you can eavesdrop on conversations from crew members who all provide insight on the ongoing war against the cybernetic menace of the Strogg on Mars. After the multiplayer diversion of Quake 3 Arena, Quake 4 picks up the story from the end of Quake 2, where a lone marine defeats the big bad, the Makorov. Well... sort of... he returns in this game regardless. What makes the story special, is that your character is captured by the enemy and effectively turned into a strogg via a particularly gory sequence when you have your legs chopped off and are effectively disemboweled along a production line. In opposite worlds, there was an opportunity to perhaps explore the war from the enemy perspective, but no... you still retain your humanity and fight for the marines, though now with super strength and the ability to patch yourself up at... wait for it... health dispensers... I know.  Inspired stuff. 

Quake 4 plays best, when you’re running fast through corridors blasting indiscriminately at the Strogg. Doom 3 had a fairly slow burn to it, creating tension, particularly in the absence of light and scaring the player with things that went bump in the night. Whilst Quake 4 still has this in places, the pacing is more concerned with high action and the prospect of fighting a futuristic space war complete with vehicle sections. It is all very linear, you’ll never come across a secret early on in the game that grants you premature access to the Railgun as in Quake 2. The creature design is strong but not as good as Doom 3, the enemies are all robotic machinery, with the odd bit of human skin stretched over gears. Stuff of nightmares.   

Unfortunately, the game was still plagued by glitches. As before, the game crashed mid loading screen at the exact same places it had with me a couple of years ago. When you first come across the Makarov for example… Clearly, I did not have a faulty disc the first time; rather Quake 4 for xbox was a buggy lazy PC to console port. Again, such a shame, because I wanted to see this one to the end. Id software used to be the kings of the first person shooters. The pioneers if you will, and though they did make 2006’s Prey, it was largely written off by critics despite having some interesting ideas and gravity defying level design, it also introduced the concept of portals before well... Portal. Since Prey, Id software have seemingly gone dark... like Willy Wonka at the start of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Of course, it is only a matter of time, it looks like they have pooled all their resources in to this year’s hotly anticipated Rage, a post apocalyptic shooter that is in no way similar to Fallout 3 or Borderlands. As for Quake 4, well... don't play it on xbox. 

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