12.13.2010

Jump Around


Recently, I've been playing Enslaved: Odyssey to the West.  I've progressed almost to the end of that game, but decided to put it down for the next week so I could play Tron: Evolution before the new Tron movie comes out.
Let me start off by saying that I think both games are pretty good.  But it has been fascinating playing both games so close to one another because they are so similar and so incredible disparate.  While they are both essentially 3rd person action platformers, the way they go about the business of platforming couldn't be more different.

Enslaved got a lot of guff (undeservedly, in my opinion) for "holding the player's hand" and not allowing the player to jump to their death.  When you're running on a ledge and reach the edge, you don't fall off.  It triggers an animation of your character stumbling to a stop rather than falling to his death and reloading from the nearest checkpoint.  Also when jumping form hand-hold to hand-hold, you can't jump in the wrong direction (Uncharted 1 & 2 did this too). 

In Tron, on the other hand, the character's parkour-inspired actions lend to lots of freeform movement, just like in Enslaved.  But unlike Enslaved, you can easily (and frequently will) jump off any and all platform, undershoot jumps, jump the wrong way off of a hand-hold and plummet to your death, etc.

After playing Enslaved for so long, my first couple hours with Tron were extremely trying.  The ability to die in Tron also shot a hole through the argument against Enslaved's biggest criticism.  It's the same criticism that was leveled toward Prince of Persia (2007).  That preventing you from dying is in some way a cheat and that it makes the game less fun.
If anything I think it makes the game more fun. 

I like Enslaved's traversal system, because it's fast and you always know which way is the right way to go.  You can hammer on the X button until you get across the gap or up the cliff.  You can still die, but you don't have to worry about screwing up a bad jump or trying to go the wrong way because the camera wasn't in the right position.  You can also more enjoy the amazing work that went into animating the character.

In Tron, on the other hand, I find myself constantly dying, but the consequence of dying is almost as low as Prince of Persia (2007) because of the frequent checkpointing.  After playing it for a while, I finally understand the nuance of the controls and I genuinely like the game, but something as simple as an invisible guard rail to keep me from accidentally falling off a platform would have gone a very long way in making the game much more likable to me.

9.12.2010

Enter The Void


The addition of vertical cover was a much ballyhooed innovation to the game.  Although it isn't quite as amazing a feature as the developers would have liked us to believe, it is still an interesting mode of cover and makes for some fun moments in the game.  Basically, whenever Will encounters a cliff face (or an assembled facsimile of a cliff space, like a reactor core or the side of a building), he can duck down into a crouch and peer down the edge and see enemies below climbing their way up to him.  You can target, shoot and throw grenades just like you would when you are in normal cover, except that when you're ready to advance ahead you tap a button and Will jumps/falls to the next platform.  Once you have the rocket pack the same works in reverse and Will will climb from platform to platform with a short burst from his jet pack.  Visually, it's a seriously cool effect; firing up into the air and seeing your fallen enemies whizz by you on their way to oblivion.

Speaking of the jet pack, the flying in the game is a lot of fun.  There's really nothing cooler than taking to the skies in your own jet pack.  Will's rockets never run out of fuel, or ammo and you can barrel roll and loop de loop to your hearts content.  You can even cut your engines whenever you feel like it and go into a skydiving free fall, then just before you hit the ground light them up again and zoom off into the sky.
The developers knew flying would be the main appeal so they made sure that in most of the levels, Will always has the option to take to the skies, blast airborne enemies, strafe ground-based enemies, hover and out flank cover-based enemies then land and punch enemies in the face.  Most of the levels allow you to attack as you see fit, allowing you to go from full flight to ground-based cover whenever you want.
The graphics in Dark Void are inconsistent.  At times, they are utterly breath-taking for instance when Will jumps onto an enemy UFO, the rockets on his back glowing red as they cool down, hurtling through a stone canyon as the sun sets in the background.
The biggest problem with the games visuals is also one of the bigger pluses to the game's visuals and that is the size of the levels.  Most of the levels in Dark Void are absolutely huge, but it also means that when you get up close to anything it lacks detail.  The interior levels all seem to have a spartan, clean look to them.  Even in ancient tombs that are supposed to look like they've been abandoned for centuries, there is not much inside them except for the geometry of the room.  No cobwebs, not much texture, just walls and floors.
The character models are also inconsistent.  Some characters look fantastic, while others are a bit off.  I would chalk this one up to design choice.  Similar to, but not as pronounced as, the Tomb Raider series the characters all look realistic, but have slightly exaggerated, almost cartoon-like features.  This is especially notable in Will's face.  His eyes are a little too large and his jaw, a tad too pronounced.  It's not really a short-coming, but the props, such as the weapons, jet-packs, machinery and even some of the enemies are all rendered in hyper realistic detail.  So it is slightly strange when Will takes off his ultra-realistic robotic helmet to reveal a slightly cartoonish face.
The productions design behind the game is nothing short of inspired.  Especially in regards to the Watchers and their technology.  Whether it be the props or the vehicles everything looks well designed; a great deal of thought was put into creating the details of this new fictional universe.
Where the game really falters is the cutscenes that bridge the gameplay.  The cutscenes are all interesting and do a good job of advancing story and character development, but many of them are edited and paced in a jarring way, detracting from the very thing they are trying to convey which is an immersive storyline and rich characters.  The cutscenes seem to trip over themselves and the frustrating part is that you can generally see what they were trying to accomplish or what is is that they were going for, despite the poor execution.
Sound in Dark Void is also a mixed bag.  On the one hand, one of the best aspects of the game is the soundtrack.  Composed by Bear McCreary as an homage to some of his favorite adventure movies, the soundtrack is fantastic and mixed into the gameplay in a dynamic way.  
The sound effects are all decent, however if you have a favorite weapon in the game, the sound of it firing will likely becoming irritating after a while.  I also experienced a glitch at one point where the sound for Will's actions cut out completely.  The jet pack, his weapon, and footsteps were all silent but his voice was still sharply audible.  
Speaking of voices, the voice cast for the game is top-notch and the veteran actors seem to have done the best they could with what was written on the page.  The hero is voiced by the ever-present Nolan North, who is a decent fit for the character.  Other notable cast members include Paul Eiding (aka Col. Roy Campbell from the Metal Gear Solid series) and Polly Walker as Ava. 
Dark Void isn't particularly challenging, although there are multiple difficulty modes and the option to change difficulty on the fly.  The game's story mode will generally last between 6 and 8 hours.  The missions are all repayable thanks to level select and a bonus mode containing "Survivor Missions" is also available as DLC for $4.99.
In the end, Dark Void is a game that had a lot of potential and the developers were able to deliver on much of it.  Hurtling through the air blasting robots in the future/past.  The things that Dark Void does right great outshine the things that Dark Void does wrong and it is definitely worth playing.


1.22.2010

Music Found: Wu-Tang vs. The Beatles


Back in 2004 a relatively unknown hip hop producer came up with a mixtape that combined Jay-Z's seminal (and supposedly final) album, The Black Album with The Beatles' classic 'white' album. The mixture went beyond the simplistic crossfading of normal mash-ups in that Dangermouse sampled and re-invented the instrumentation of the Beatles record to create new tracks for Jay-Z's a capellas.

The result was one of the most amazing albums of the year and a copyright lawyers nightmare (or wet dream, depending on what side of the table you sat). In the end, The Grey Album was released as a free download for a limited time.

I remember that album with extreme fondness. To this day when I think of Jay-Z tracks like 99 Problems or Public Service Announcement, I think of The Grey Album versions.

The Grey Album seemed like a once in a lifetime combination, but now, Tom Caruana has stepped from relative obscurity and dropped a bomb blast of a free download on the unsuspecting Internet. Wu-Tang vs. The Beatles.



Many hip hop fans (myself included) questioned the pairing of Jay-Z and The Beatles.  At the time, it hadn't really seemed like Jay-Z had earned his place in the pantheon of hip hop all-stars (despite his constant barrage of lyrics to the contrary) and thought he wasn't deserving of such an honor. Dare I say, Wu-Tang Clan are The Beatles of the hip hop world. A group of hugely talented artists, some how able to keep their super group together long enough to produce some of the most influential albums in the genre, only to break up and go on to create more as solo artists, while one member died early.

After listening to Wu Tang Clan vs. The Beatles, I have surprised even myself with the admission that it is better than The Grey Album. As unbelievable as that sounds, consider that while The Grey Album was limited to samples from the white album and vocals from The Black Album, while the parameters of Wu Tang vs. The Beatles allowed Tom Caruana to pick and sample the very best from The Beatles catalog, the Wu-Tang catalog and even solo work produced from members of both groups. Add in a smattering of interviews with Beatles fans, classic Wu-Tang skits like "Where my killa tape at..." and you have a more cohesive and expansive listening experience.

Don't get me wrong The Grey Album was a fascinating sonic experiment. It remains one of my favorite albums, but it was a much more straight-forward and rigidly defined project, taking one Beatles song and combining it with one Jay-Z track. Wu Tang vs. The Beatles has the luxury of having room to breathe and in the space of one track can run the gamut of resonating like a retrospective homage to a groundbreaking post-modern original remix.

You can download Wu Tang vs. The Beatles for free at: http://wutangvsthebeatles.bandcamp.com/