Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Alice continues to dazzle and delight; Alan is barely awake

The swift justice of the Vorpal Blade really shows off A:MR's visuals.

After another week of playing, I’ve seen even more of the alphabetically prime Alice: Madness Returns and Alan Wake, the latter of which I finished last night. Asides from that, I took some time to try out a couple of releases; some new, and some not so new on the XBLA Marketplace.

After many mostly-dreaded playing sessions, Alan Wake finally drew to a close tonight. I know it’s an ongoing and repetitive mantra that I chant, but I still feel as if Silent Hill 2, in its excellence, has corrupted my experience with the survival horror genre. I was wholly unsatisfied with the ending and I want to believe that, à la Silent Hill, it is because I was at fault, rather than the game drawing to a rushed and lazy close. Around every corner, Remedy’s Alan Wake threatens to reveal and unleash a seriously great story, something truly engaging and affecting. Largely, in my experience, the majority of the story exposition was polluted by far too much wandering around. It’s painful to play through an entire game, and then have begun and climaxed the story in the same location. Some might call it coming full circle, whilst I feel as if I simply spent many hours wandering through forests and all manner of darkened endroits for no apparent reason. Too much of the story feels as if you reach somewhere, only to relentlessly turn back; to be sent to find another abandoned location to wander through. The gameplay becomes repetitive a little too quickly for my tastes, and the enemy balancing makes it feel as if each encounter is either manageable to pass, or else mostly reliant on luck if you wish to see the other half.

If you stare at this screenshot for around eight hours, that'll
make for a decent simulation of the gameplay experience.
The one concession I’ll give to Alan Wake was the joy exuded by perhaps the single most ridiculous part of the entire game. It seems to be largely unreported, so I don’t know if that’s a sign that people either love it and are keeping it as a surprise reveal, or else everyone else thinks that it is completely ridiculous and ignores it. Regardless: fighting off a zombie (and let’s be honest, they are zombies) horde on a band stage with full lighting and fireworks to a pumping, raucous power metal soundtrack was my personal highlight of the Alan Wake experience. It dipped in excitement before that, and it dipped very soon after. Needless to say, I am glad to be done with the whole affair. I’m still not entirely sure what happened to my dearest wife Alice in the end, either.

Speaking of Alices, as far as visually-arresting games go, Alice: Madness Returns goes from strength to strength. Platform games have never much tickled my fancy, however Alice often reminds me of one of the few platform games that really engaged me in my youth: Rare’s N64 classic Banjo Kazooie. First-off, the enemies are of that similar cute-but-deadly ilk, such as Alice’s Cannon Crabs, who are currently my personal favourites among her foes. Secondly, there is level design which, and I am emphasising particularly here the underwater levels, really brings to mind areas such as Banjo Kazooie’s Treasure Trove Cove, alongside general art direction similarities that I find hard to express here in words. Finally, and what perhaps invites association the most for me, is the use of enjoyable character dialogues between Alice and the title’s various NPC cohorts. Oftentimes the information is crucial and driving for the story, but is coloured by a certain tongue-in-cheek tone, all of which is exaggerated by the fairy-tale setting, something that BK did brilliantly in its day. Before we move on, a common criticism is that the game’s chapters/levels outstay their welcome, and I am inclined to agree. I’m not sure if it’s a by-product of the typical modern games experience, but I expect most if not all sections of a game to not push me further than an hour. Much more than that, and I start to feel as if time is being wasted that could be better spent elsewhere. Alice and Alan are both guilty of this over-stretching throughout.

This weekend, my girlfriend and I decided to give our Magic the Gathering starter packs a whirl. She got a white set, led by Ajani Goldmane, whilst mine was a black set, led by Liliana Vess. If you know anything about MtG, then you might perhaps be better equipped to resolve our confusion, but after a number of games, we concluded two things: 1) MtG is ridiculously complicated, even at entry level, and 2) She really enjoys MtG. I remembered that a friend of mine on Live used to play MtG on his Xbox, and so I went in search of the demo so that she/we could try it out. I came back with two versions of essentially the same game: Magic the Gathering, and…

Card games benefit from translation into video games.
MtG is no exception.
Magic the Gathering 2012 – Duels of the Planeswalkers. The latter is a revamped, improved version of the original release and, after some experimentation with both, within a matter of days, she happily coughed up the requisite 800 points in order to unlock 2012′s true potential. The purchase is just over 24 hours old, so it’s a little soon to draw conclusions. However, the standard battles seem engaging enough, and I quite like the instances that it introduces, presenting you with a variety of set pieces in which you must divine the correct strategy in order to best your opponent.

The purchase of MtG resulted in me being granted my own 800 points to play with, and thus much browsing of the XBLA has ensued. I’m tempted to go for Rez, having seriously enjoyed the first-level taster that the demo gave me. In spite of the enjoyment, though, I’m wary of the game being largely a repetition of that first level, but would that be such a bad thing? The storm rages on.

The most untrue 'full version' I have ever downloaded.
In my browsing, however, I was reminded of Pinball FX 2, a title fondly spoken of by the folks at Giant Bomb. I navigated to it, and was surprised to see that it was available for free. ‘What the hell is going on here? Brilliant!’ I thought to myself as I started up the download. Moments later I was greeted by a total horlicks of a piece of software, riddled with time-delayed menus, and no available pinball tables after purchase unless I wanted to actually spend points on them. ‘What the hell is going on here?! I quit.’ was my conclusion. Protip, Microsoft: Don’t advertise a title as free to purchase if it’s not free to purchase. Raising up and then failing to meet consumer expectation results in negative feelings. I got hurt feelings, M$.

The boss fights add a well-integrated level of tension to
the puzzle solving.
Lastly, I took some time to play the trial version for Twisted Pixel’s new effort Ms Splosion Man, a greatly-named follow-up to Splosion Man, the game that really made people stand up and take notice of them as a developer. MSP is better looking than her male predecessor, but the character model is seriously ugly, an unpleasant contrast to the colourful, cutesy science world that she inhabits. Her utterances are almost exclusively verbatim from 90s girl-group pop lyrics, and this is surprisingly amusing, also showing me that I may be in possession of a shamefully deeper knowledge of such music than I’d care to admit. There is the odd super-quick ‘Na na na na na na na na poker face’, too, and even that landed well with me. It looks, at face value, that if you liked the first, you’ll love the second. If not, then I’d push you to give the demo a go, just to see how explosion-based puzzle platform games sit with you. It’s certainly an individual genre, if anything.

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