Monday, March 24, 2008
Sunday, March 23, 2008
These locations look more life-like than they ever have before and there are absolutely no load times separating walkways or rooms, a real feat given the scope of the world. This latter truth means that the entire school feels like one connected entity and not a series of rooms linked together by load screens. However, the completely streaming world does not arrive without any drawbacks. Unfortunately, the fluidity of the entire package is sluggish; this latest Potter runs between 20 and 30 frames per second and the motion is sometimes inconsistent. We're sticklers for smooth framerates in games so naturally we would have preferred an uninterrupted fluidity, but we're more forgiving of this shortcoming than we might be for an effort that stressed action over adventuring. The truth is that you're more often exploring the school or traversing its passageways and surrounding grounds in search of people or items than you are dueling with enemies, wand in hand.
- Combat is either boring or frustrating, depending on who you're fighting
- camera constantly gets in the way
- technical glitches and significant performance issues
- story is disjointed and doesn't tie itself to the film very well
- Keyboard-and-mouse controls are painfully bad.
Alongside the hotly anticipated film comes the video game adaptation of Spider-Man 3. It's on a whole bunch of platforms, and not all versions of the game are the same. The Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions are essentially slight upgrades over 2004's Spider-Man 2, whereas the PlayStation 2 and Wii versions are massively scaled back and dumbed down to the point of being awful. The good news for PC owners is that the PC version happens to be a port of the 360/PS3 version. The bad news is that this port doesn't quite cut it. The control scheme is totally unplayable unless you have a good dual-analog gamepad, and a number of performance problems frequently get in the way of the action.
Spider-Man 3 ties itself into the new Spidey film by including some of the key story arcs from the movie. You'll see Peter Parker get his black suit as well as run into villains like Sandman, New Goblin, and Venom. But much like Spider-Man 2, the roster of villains doesn't end there. Scorpion, Lizard, Kingpin, and others all pop up in spots. While it makes sense for the developers to extend the scope of the story beyond that of the film, trouble arises when you realize that the film's plot is practically glossed over. There are 10 individual storylines to play through, but none of them are paced well, nor do they ever build up or deliver enough of a story to pull it all together into one cohesive plot. It's almost like a hastily cobbled together Spider-Man mixtape. You get all the villains, and none of the story exposition. There's about as much character depth and story perspective here as is in the film's trailer.
If you played any of the recent movie-licensed Spidey games on consoles, you'll feel right at home with Spider-Man 3 from the get-go. Like the previous games, Spider-Man 3 presents you with an open-world version of New York City to swing around in to your heart's content. Swinging works much as it did in Spider-Man 2, letting you latch onto nearby buildings and launch quick webs to zip around as you please. Swinging through the city is easily the best aspect of the entire game. The city isn't gigantic, but there's enough familiar scenery around to make you want to explore, and that the city looks excellent is a big plus. Buildings are nicely detailed, the streets are jam-packed with cars and pedestrians, and the game uses some nice lighting effects to give the sky, as well as reflections of the sun off buildings, a rather pretty glow.
Of course, one required element to enjoy swinging, or really any other facet of Spider-Man 3, on the PC is a dual-analog gamepad. The default keyboard-and-mouse controls are just terrible, and trying to swing, fight, or manage the camera this way is simply futile. This game was designed with a gamepad in mind, and no amount of keyboard-and-mouse fiddling makes it work otherwise. However, if you've got a gamepad, you won't have a lick of trouble picking up the controls.
As you swing around, you'll find open mission icons scattered throughout the city. Fortunately, you don't have to go hunting for them, as there is a city map that lets you target any mission icon available to you. Though Spider-Man 3 doesn't change its formula much from previous games, the one big change for the better this time around is the game's structure. No longer are you forced to complete random side missions to get new story missions to unlock. The story missions and side missions are treated independently from one another, so you need only beat story missions to unlock more story missions. The story itself is a good 10 to 12 hours long, even if you never engage in any of the side missions, so you're not forced to sit through padded content that just makes the game longer. Side missions are still worth doing if you need a change of pace from the story, and there's still plenty of random crime floating about the city to take care of. The one bummer is that few of these random crimes or side missions deviate very far from the ones found in earlier Spider-Man games, and the few that do don't really fit terribly well. Even some of the new story missions seem weirdly out of place. For example, why is Spider-Man now an expert at disarming bombs?
One other change to the game is the addition of contextual minigames. Clearly inspired by the gameplay of God of War, Spider-Man will now engage in scripted events of acrobatic and combative heroism, and all you have to do is press a few buttons in time with the icons that appear onscreen. One example is Spider-Man having to leap through an impossibly complex series of lasers that will trigger an alarm if hit. Just hit the buttons or analog stick movements that pop up, and you're good to go. These new sequences aren't a bad addition, though they could have been implemented better. There's often very little warning as to when one of these situations is about to pop up, so there tends to be a trial-and-error aspect to them. The icons can occasionally be difficult to discern, as well, specifically if the game is using analog-stick icons. If there's a lot of crazy action happening onscreen, it can be tough to see exactly which direction the game wants you to go, let alone act quickly enough to pull off the move. Fortunately, the game almost never starts you back any further than the beginning of the minigame sequence you just started, so the punishment for failure is minor.
Where Spider-Man 3 starts to lose its way is in combat. The basic combat engine doesn't feel markedly different from earlier games, as it focuses on button-mashing combos that upgrade over time and give you some unique special moves. The main problem stems from the game's overreliance on Spider-Man's bullet-time equivalent. By holding down a designated button, Spidey goes into a slowed state that lets him automatically dodge incoming attacks. In combat against basic thugs, you only need to use this every once in a while, though when you do use it, you can clear an entire room in just a few seconds because the grunt enemies are so inept at fighting back. But against most bosses, you have to keep this button held down at all times to get much done. Some bosses can be whaled on sans the bullet time, but a few of the later bosses pretty much require it, making those fights a plodding chore. It gets even worse when the game tries to change things up on you. One of the more tedious, protracted boss fights pits you against a giant version of the Lizard, where you first have to toss him into a series of power generators using a clumsy spinning maneuver before you even get down to the dull business of beating him up.
Spider-Man 3's camera system is an even bigger problem. The camera doesn't know how to snap behind you if you have to run around in a circle to avoid enemy attacks, so you constantly have to readjust it. If you happen to readjust it in a tightly enclosed area, the camera freaks out and you lose all perspective of where you are or where the enemy went. It gets even worse during some of the missions that require you to swing around the city. There are multiple missions where you have to swing to a specific area in a certain amount of time, but getting the camera to line up so you have a clear shot of where you next need to swing is an exercise in futility. You'll end up failing far too many missions because of this. And if you're in a situation where you're crawling along a wall or ceiling, make sure you're not easily nauseated. The quick snaps of the camera and constant "Am I up or down?" perspective shifts make these parts vomit inducing.
Spider-Man 3 on the PC looks just about as decent as it did on the 360 and PS3, and if you turn up all the graphical bells and whistles, it actually looks a bit sharper. Still, the game never quite manages to look like something built for the modern generation of gaming. The city features the most detail, though it also has a few issues with texture popping. Most everything else looks slightly haggard in one way or another. The Spider-Man character model looks great, but all the other people look bug-eyed and mildly deformed. Some of the combat moves look neat, but the animations are jerky and stilted, as if transition animations are missing. You'll also encounter a lot of weird physics glitches as you play, especially during combat. Enemies will get hung up on walls or invisible pieces of the environment, objects don't break properly, and even Spidey sometimes gets stuck in or clips through walls or set pieces. The PC version also has a hard time moving with any level of consistency or fluidity. It's not merely a frame-rate issue--the whole game chugs up real bad at seemingly random intervals, though it's especially bad when you're swinging through the city. Turning down all the graphical effects to the lowest settings only helps to a marginal degree. We tried the game on multiple high-end PCs and got the same result every time.
The game's audio is mostly predictable, though it's decent enough for what the game requires. The biggest draw here is the involvement of the film's cast. Kirsten Dunst is nowhere to be found, but Tobey Maguire, James Franco, Thomas Hayden Church, Topher Grace, and J.K. Simmons all make appearances. Simmons seems to be the only one that's enthusiastic about reprising his role as J. Jonah Jameson. Maguire gives an OK, but generally, sleepy performance as Spider-Man/Peter Parker, and the remaining cast all seem like they'd rather be somewhere else. Bruce Campbell shows up yet again to play the narrator, though he generally comes across as superfluous and out of place. Sound effects and music are both solid, though once again, swinging through the city seems oddly silent. You get some nice whooshes of wind as you swing about, but the soundtrack either cuts out entirely or stays very quiet and understated as you swing. At least the music is good during fights.
In the end, Spider-Man 3 has its moments. Swinging through New York is as fun as it's ever been, and some of the new contextual action sequences are pretty cool. But for everything Spider-Man 3 does well, it does something else poorly. The camera and presentation issues, as well as the clumsy combat, all conspire to drag the experience down significantly. And as for the PC version specifically, the control quirks and performance issues give the impression that this game simply wasn't optimized properly for the PC, making it a less-than-ideal choice compared even with the middling 360 and PS3 versions. Spider-Man 3 isn't without merit, but unless you're one of those diehard Spider-Man fans that can't get enough of the swinging superhero, there's probably not enough to Spider-Man 3 to make it worth your time.
Saturday, March 22, 2008
The basis of the game is to use fear against the enemy, similar to Bruce's training under Ra's Al Ghul in the movie. Since he is only one man, he must use the environment to his advantage to subdue dozens of enemies at once. The video game accomplishes this with a targeting system that lets the player see what can be manipulated in the immediate area, for example a weak support that will send a few drums crashing down with a well-placed Batarang. While Batman is skilled in disposing enemies in hand-to-hand combat, it will only take a few bullets to deplete him of all of his health. A handy radar will distinguish what thugs have guns from those that don't, allowing Batman to sneak up on the firearm-carrying men first. In situations where Batman can't use stealth, the player must find a way to scare his targets. Once he finds the right object to destroy, a cinematic will play showing the ensuing carnage - luckily, each cinematic also shows the thugs dropping their weapons in fear. An "Area Fear" gauge will then appear - the higher it is, the more damage the Caped Crusader will do. This will also increase the chance some enemies will just surrender and curl up in the fetal position.
While the concept of using fear against enemies is creative, it becomes a repetitive chore throughout the game. The player will move from room to room and once he sees a group of enemies, he will look for the closest object that can scare them. Assuming he is successful, he can proceed to beat up on the hapless criminals using punches, kicks, and situation-dependant moves, such as a spinning kick that can take out multiple enemies or a powerful punch that can break through a low-life's blocking attempt. That isn't to say that getting to these rooms is easy at all. Rather, some levels have Batman using grapple points to swing from building to building, or balancing himself on a beam a few stories off the ground - on a side note, falling from these heights isn't instant death. Batman just reappears back on the beam with lower health.
In addition to the on-foot portions of the game, there are two Batmobile levels included, just as there were two Batmobile sequences in the movie. It obviously uses the Burnout 3 engine, also produced by Electronic Arts. The dead giveaways are the stylistic "Takedown" shots when the Batmobile sends a car careening into a wall. Other than that, they are just straightforward vehicle levels - destroy as many cars as possible before the end of the track, perhaps take down a "boss car" at the end.
Okay, so the gameplay isn't that great. However, the graphics and sound are the exact opposite. The game features the best superhero model in a videogame along with faithful backdrops. Arkham Asylum looks exactly like it did in the film, as do the docks where Batman finally confronts Carmine Falcone. The voice acting is superb - none of it is phoned-in, and it all has the emotion and attention it deserves from the actors. The game uses the same score from the film as well and adds some background music that changes depending on the situation - fast-paced for combat, slow and brooding when Batman is slinking in the shadows.
Unfortunately, that's where the good points end. The game won't last past a week, and while it offers some interviews with the actors as well as some scenes taken directly from the movie, there isn't much to do once one completes the game, other than play it again on a more difficult level. Hopefully for their next title, Electronic Arts will take a look at Spiderman 2 the game and create a more freeform adventure for Gotham's hero as well as add a two-player mode including Robin. Batman Begins the game is a start but it's just not the best superhero game out there. It is, however, the next-best Batman video game out there other than the original title on the NES.
You'll make the streets of Palmont City yours over the course of the career mode.
Carbon continues the story where Most Wanted left off. For those just tuning in, Most Wanted ended with you recovering your stolen car and bailing out of the city of Rockport while the overzealous, anti-street-racing Sgt. Cross continued his pursuit. At the start of Carbon, you're making your way to Palmont City when Cross, now a bounty hunter, catches up with you and totals your car during the chase. Before he can collect his bounty on you, though, your old friend Darius steps in and pays off Cross. You are then put to work, taking over the turf of the other rival street-racing crews in Palmont City. It seems that you've got a history in this town that predates the events in Most Wanted. And during the course of the game, you'll learn more about that fateful night you skipped town. Different characters will give their takes on the night you supposedly ran off with a big red duffle bag full of cash. And by the end of the game, you'll not only find out what really happened, but you'll have taken over all of the street-racing territory in Palmont City.
Outside of the actual gameplay, one of the more endearing aspects of Most Wanted was the way it used live actors in CG environments for its story sequences. These sequences invariably featured plenty of actor/model types, trying a little too hard to talk tough and failing spectacularly at it. The technique remains the same in Carbon, though there are more story sequences now and a slightly more self-aware tone. The heavy use of flashbacks is an interesting idea, but the story ends up being kind of muddled. And none of the villains come off as particularly menacing. Although it's hard to really qualify any of it as sincerely good, it's just over-the-top enough that folks who enjoy stuff like The Fast and the Furious, ironically or otherwise, should get some enjoyment out of it.
Most Wanted had you racing to raise your visibility with the police and take on the most notorious street racers in Rockport. In Carbon, it's all about turf. Palmont City is divided into four major territories, each of which is predominantly controlled by a different street-racing crew. Each territory is then further divided into zones, and within each zone, you'll find starting points for a variety of different race events. Winning at least two events in a zone will put it under your control. And once you've taken over all the zones in a given territory, you can take on the head of that crew. As you continue to extend your reach across Palmont City, rival crews will come back and try to retake territory the same way you took it from them, forcing you to accept their challenge if you want to maintain control. Having to go back and rerace events that you've already won is kind of a pain, but the open-world structure is nice and gives you plenty of options to take on races at any given point.
However, you won't be taking on all of these crews by yourself, because Carbon lets you bring along a wingman into many of the races. These computer-controlled companions break down into three different behavior types--blockers, drafters, and scouts. Blockers will run interference for you, spinning out opponents at your command. Drafters let you slipstream behind them, giving you some extra speed from the reduced drag, and from there you can pull aside and slingshot your way past them. Scouts have a knack for finding the many alternate routes and shortcuts that can be found in most races, and they have short neon tracers that follow them, making it easier for you to take advantage. You'll definitely find yourself in races where your wingman's influence is the difference between winning and losing. But often, your wingman's presence is either unnecessary or an actual hindrance. Blockers are only really effective in taking out competitors that are behind you, and even then, they're not very reliable. Drafters work as advertised, but the lengthy straightaway needed to set up a proper draft is rare in Palmont City, which limits their usefulness. Scouts are the least useful of the three because the neon tracers don't seem to get longer as the cars you drive go faster, so eventually, there's just not enough time for you to anticipate an alternate route. If you didn't call on your wingman, you might expect him or her to just hang back. But we found ourselves getting bumped into and boxed in by our wingman on several occasions. It's not ruinous to the experience, but sometimes it makes you wish they would just go away.
Canyon duels are challenging, but their repetitious structure can sometimes make them wearying.
The game relies on some pretty tried-and-true types of races, but it also throws some curves. You'll find plenty of common stuff, such as lap-based circuit races, point-to-point sprints, and checkpoint races. But there are also some unique races, such as the speed-trap race, where your standing is determined by your cumulative MPH as you race through a series of speed traps. Most races take place on the city streets of Palmont, but there are also drift events, which can take place either on a closed racecourse or on the winding canyon roads that surround the city. The goal in the drift events is to score points by making clean drifts around corners. The car-handling changes completely for the drift events and feels much more slippery than in the rest of the game, which recalls the drift events found in Need for Speed Underground 2.