‘Conviction’ is yet another so-so ‘Splinter Cell’

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It took me a while to get hold of this game, thanks to a hiccup in some unknown, probably wasteland-bound Best Buy warehouse with a single phone line to connect it to the Internet. It took me longer to get through it, as things like Comic Con, Dead Rising 2: Case Zero, Kane & Lynch 2, Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light, Case Zero again, PAX, and StarCraft II – you know, work –  popped up. Not to mention real non-game-related life.

However, I finally hammered the last few levels of “Splinter Cell: Conviction” a day or so ago. Immediately following that, I pulled up the “Splinter Cell: Conviction” Wikipedia page to figure out what the hell was going on in the story.

Partially this was my fault. I’ve been on a protracted play arc that’s lasted about a month when “Conviction” is, at best, probably 10 hours long (and that really feels like a high estimate). As I mentioned before, spending a lot of time playing games as a freelance writer means a lot less time for games for pleasure.

Upon completing this new “Splinter Cell,” the fifth in the series and sixth if you count that tiny round turd Ubisoft dropped for the PSP a while back, I was struck by how underwhelming it was. I mean, I just stopped the end of America, after all, in quite an awesome feat of marksmanship, hand-to-hand combat and general badassery. Shouldn’t I feel more…I dunno, just more, about it?

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‘Scott Pilgrim’ is supremely, stunningly fun

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I don’t even know how to start this.

It’s rare that some major aspect of a film doesn’t leap out as I go to compose a review, begging to be dismantled or jeered or championed. I had no such luck here. Two days have gone by while I sat here, trying to come up with an introduction that does this film justice. I never did find one, so I’ll be as simple as possible.

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is spectacular.

“Spectacular” in every sense of the word. Spectacular in that it is a loud, explosive, awe-inspiring epic (of epic epicness; not to sell out or anything, but it’s so totally true) that clips along beautifully, taking just enough time between each hilarious moment and developing characters so that we literally can’t wait for the next massive, graphic set piece. Spectacular in that it is one of the best movie-going experiences I’ve ever had, bar none. I mean that in the sense of best of all time. I can’t remember the last time I had this much fun watching a movie. It has been years.

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Hornshaw’s Comic Con coverage

So one of the big benefits of living in Los Angeles: the mecca of all nerddom, the San Diego Comic Con, is about as far away from me as my alma mater was from my parents’ house.

What’s more, my freelancery at FileFront means I’ll be doing some news coverage from the event when I hop up there Saturday with hetero life mate Nick Hurwitch. Not only will I be enjoying it, I’ll be getting paid to enjoy it.

It is now all the more enjoyable.

So here’s a quick post about where you can see all kinds of Hornshaw-related Comic Con stuff tomorrow. Here, obviously, will be a few of the more thinkpiece/analysis write-ups I occasionally do about things, so anything that strikes me as interesting enough will probably appear on hornshaw.com on Sunday.

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Sega re-entering console wars: an awful, terrible possibility

sonic Doing some news work for FileFront, the video game site I sometimes freelance for, I stumbled upon this story.

The article basically sells a rumor that Sega, the creator of the Dreamcast, Sega Genesis, Game Gear, Sonic the Hedgehog and numerous arcade games, is thinking about throwing its hat back in to build home consoles in the next hardware generation.

Which is, of course, a terrible idea. Because Sega is terrible with consoles. In fact, it’s so bad an idea that Sega should be physically restrained from doing so. No one will suffer but you, me, and video gaming at large.

Continue reading Sega re-entering console wars: an awful, terrible possibility

‘Assassin’s Creed 2’ confuses fun, frustration

Such a cool idea in concept. In the continued march of games that desperately wish to capture the purity of essence of “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” we have “Assassin’s Creed 2,” yet another largely ridiculous, largely unfun stab at the “climbing ruins” category of adventure game.

The sequel to last year’s arthritis-inducing “Assassin’s Creed” carries many of the same flaws as its predecessor. It contains good voice acting but a needlessly dense and insane story, more repetitive gameplay that lacks creativity, and a control scheme that feels like it belongs back in the late 1990s alongside such nearly unplayable horrors as “Resident Evil.” For all that was improved between the first and second games, so much is left to irritate a player that the fact this game isn’t universally panned is astounding.

In fact, “Assassin’s Creed 2” is a critical darling – despite being really, really boring. The premise and master idea is that the “Assassin’s Creed” franchise would be a darker “Prince of Persia” – rather than climbing through ancient ruins gathering treasure, players would take part in an assassin’s quest to remove evil leaders from cities during the Crusades (in the first game) and the Italian Renaissance (in the second). As the assassin, one could scale buildings, sneak through crowds, get in close and take out enemies with a mixture of stealth, acrobatics, weapons and planning.

The execution is far from being as elegant as the description.

First, the actual assassinations never, ever, go well, because “Assassin’s Creed 2” is littered with minor irritations that amount to blown cover. Walk just a little too fast, stray just a little too far, press the control stick just a little off to one side, and not only is the moment lost, but often the result is a start-over situation, or worse, a tedious battle with a handful of armored guards. And those guards have some ridiculous eagle eyes when it comes down to the actual assassinations – so rather than feel like a sneaky badass, able to attack a situation by studying the best way to approach and eventually murder your target, much more often the player finds herself tearing through the streets after an escaping enemy, eventually chasing him down, pouncing, and then turning to deal with the fallout.

The run claw, or "how to play Assassin's Creed 2."This is the exact opposite experience the game should be giving you. Rather than everything going south at the critical moment because of something dumb like bumping into a random person in a crowd, “Assassin’s Creed 2” should be striving to put you in a position to hone your skills and then use them to accomplish a goal. Learning to play the game well, and then applying that knowledge and skill, is what makes a game fun.

But at no time does “AC2” ever employ skill of any kind.

The problem comes down to a ludicrously poor conception of how to control your character. Walk with the control stick; run by holding down the right trigger and using the control stick; sprint by holding down the A button, the right trigger and the control stick. I’ve heard this configuration referred to as the “Run Claw,” and that’s a perfect description: You spend virtually the entire game in a sprint, squeezing the controller tightly, making your hand sore just to get around. And the game’s sprawling Renaissance cities are just huge, which means just running from place to place is what takes up the bulk of your time and really crafts this whole experience.

And getting around is just not that much fun.

Climbing buildings should be the “Assassin Creed’s 2” bread and butter. Getting up the buildings should be fun, traversing the city from the rooftops and descending on enemies should be fun, and doing so should be challenging but rewarding.

Skip all that in “AC2” because the Run Claw could also be called the Climb Claw – the control is the same to scale buildings. But you don’t actually do anything other than hold the buttons down, occasionally guiding your assassin to a certain hand or foothold so he can get to the top.

Once atop a structure, you can run around it and jump to other structures – by using the same controls. Not by pressing buttons, but by continuing to hold the run buttons down and steering. The character makes the jump you intend automatically, most of the time, requiring absolutely no actual “play” from the person behind the controller.

This is also a major source of frustration, because fairly often, you’ll miss what you’re steering at slightly, or you’ll misjudge the configuration of a building, and the assassin will just hurl himself off a rooftop to fall to his death or massive injury. This happens 900-times as often when “AC2” decides to “help” with the player-controlled camera during certain climbing puzzles in order to show you the path – but without locking the camera in place, and usually moving it while the player is in the middle of a motion, which results in failure after failure after failure.

“AC2” loves to emphasize quickly getting in and getting out of an assassination, and often leaves the player in a “quick, escape!” situation. It loves to require speed and precision in leaping and running, without providing the controls to accomplish either. Whenever the player needs to abscond in a hurry, he inevitably ends up falling, off-course, or being killed and forced to repeat the instance. Or, of course, fighting his way out of the situation.

Combat is just as unsatisfying as climbing and jumping. Swordplay, the form fighting usually takes, is accomplished chiefly by jamming on the X button over and over again. The enemy will sometimes swing in return, causing the player to need to hold down the right trigger to block. The player can then time a press of the X or B buttons while holding the trigger to either make a counter attack or disarm the enemy.

This photo is probably more fun than most of the game.Against lesser enemies, a counter attack will get a kill. Against tougher ones, a disarm will almost always work. Even in battles with a large group of enemies, the combat is never tense or difficult – only frustrating. There’s rarely a moment where you’ll actually lose a fight, even if you get pummeled. Eventually you’ll clear out the enemies simply by smashing the X button or using the appropriate counter.

“AC2” includes some decent innovations to its predecessor. There are more weapons available, an entire economy system that allows the purchase of clothing, accessories and armor, and collectables that offer interesting story elements. The assassin’s base of operations can be upgraded, which itself provides income for the player to use to get more weapons, which is also a nice touch.

Despite this, the economy portion of the game has little discernable impact on the actual game. Weapons are supposedly stronger, armor supposedly heartier, but the only real impact of buying new things are that additional armor gives you more health and additional accessories allow you to carry more expendable items. Even these money centric portions of the game, while adding an additional layer to an otherwise-repetitive experience, aren’t really necessary. Invest your money in the right places, and it quickly becomes so abundant as to be a moot point. You’ll rarely need to complete side missions to raise capital, and really, you can blow right past the racing, fighting and assassination side missions for most of the game without any repercussions whatsoever – and they add nothing to the experience except to break up the repetition.

And then there’s the story. A game can be pretty bad if the story is compelling, because despite that playing it feels like running a cheese grater over your arm, you are rewarded for your toils with something interesting and you feel like you earned a reward. Unfortunately, like “Assassin’s Creed” before it, “AC2” makes sure not only to give almost no useful information to advance its overall good-versus-evil everything-you-know-is-a-lie story, but it grows its psychotically huge evil conspiracy to the point of being idiotic, implying that just about every single historical figure ever was influenced by the game’s special artifacts, or was a member of the evil faction or the good faction. Marco Polo and Dante Alighieri were assassins, and Robert Oppenheimer and Adolph Hitler were Knights Templar. Right.

I can’t fathom why so many people give this game such a positive reception, when it really fails to do what has been established as fully possible by something like 10 or 15 previous adventure games, not the least of which are every single title of the “Prince of Persia” series. And those are made by the same company as  this – so how is it that “PoP” can be exciting and challenging, even at its worst, and yet “AC2” is often more mundane, frustrating and painful than filling out a tax return while being stabbed in the tongue?

The first “Assassin’s Creed,” while awful in almost all the same ways, was at least an unknown quantity and therefore kept the player interested, and the assassination gameplay was a little bit innovative and interesting at first. “AC2” brings nothing at all to the table, so much so that it feels like a punishment – being forced to play the same bad game twice.

Story, intensity make ‘Heavy Rain’ spectacular

Love this game. Love, love, love, love.

Standing in the living room of a suspect’s apartment, you hear a key rattle in the lock. Your partner, a local PD detective named Blake, doesn’t catch the sound – until the man is in the room with you both.

Your search of the home, strewn with about 2,000 crucifixes among lit candles and pictures from Catholic scripture, is an illegal one. You know you shouldn’t be here, but the suspect is clearly disturbed and, after all, a child’s life hangs in the balance. You have only a few more days to find that child alive. So you and Blake question the suspect.

As you’re speaking to him, you back into a table, knocking over a candle. You turn, picking it up and replacing it, and spin back around – to find Blake standing at the wrong end of a gun the suspect had been hiding. FBI training kicks in and you pull your own weapon, training it on the suspect.

“He is the Antichrist,” the suspect drones as he gestures with the gun at Blake, his voice full of fear, full of despair. Through your head buzz a thousand things you could say and do – and as Blake keeps shouting, you could shoot the man.

The suspect makes a move and you twitch. You fire. He falls.

You know you could have talked him down, but it’s too late. The suspect is dead – if he was the killer you’re after, what knowledge he had just died with him. And your decision, your action, you have to live with.

It’s a nearly unprecedented position for a video game to take: there are no game-over screens, no failing and reloading to try again, no second chances. In Heavy Rain, as in no other game I’ve ever played, you live with the consequences of your actions.

Even the main characters – there are four of them, whose stories in their search for a serial child murdered known as the Origami Killer are told in alternating chapters – are susceptible to dying and staying dead in Heavy Rain. You can play the game one week with one outcome, another week with very different one, depending on your choices, your successes, and your failures.

The failures are the especially intriguing parts. The game doesn’t have many dedicated buttons – you walk using R2 on the Playstation 3 controller, steer with the left analog stick, but that’s about it. Everything that happens, instead, is context-sensitive. Sometimes the game will prompt you with instructions about how to open a cabinet or look out a window; other times it will tell you which buttons to press in sequence to deflect a punch or climb a hill.

For the first time, my Playstation 3 is more than a blu-ray player with an irritating menu.

Heavy Rain is all story, so instead of guiding your character through level after level, pressing buttons to instruct the character, the game instead is guiding you through its story. You get to guide your character in walking around, but more often, your controls are meant to simulate the action you initiated your character into taking. For example, when playing a chapter in which you’re driving a car, the story dictates where the car goes. You hit the buttons it tells you, simulating concentration, precise motions, and the intensity of the situation.

Fail during one of these sequences – they are many – and the story proceeds differently than if you had succeeded. In the car-driving scenario, for example, missing too many button combinations ends with a flaming wreck. At another point, during a shootout, screwing up too often gets your character injured and forces him to kick down a door and escape into the night, rather than take the rampage to its bloody conclusion.

Playing Heavy Rain is much more like watching a movie, in which your decisions, unlike almost any game I’ve heretofore encountered, impact the way the story plays out. But what the game really excels at delivering is a level of intensity that’s even more exciting than the choice aspects of a game. Fail any of the difficult, concentration-heavy and awesome-to-watch deadly action sequences and your character could be killed, and stay killed, for the rest of the story. Nothing builds tension like consequences that can’t be taken back.

And because the emphasis is so heavily on story, the one here is pretty great. Unlike Indigo Prophecy, developer Quantic Dream’s Xbox title from a few years ago that’s in the same vein and with a similar delivery to Rain, this game never takes too many twists into crazyville. The story makes sense, the twists make sense, and it’s down-to-earth enough to engage you fully from front to back. As some reviews I’ve read have pointed out, Rain is written to the caliber of many Hollywood movies – and it would do pretty well as one, more than likely.

There are a few issues with the writing. Quantic Dream is a French company. The voice actors are mostly European. As an American gamer, you’ll feel it immediately in the dialogue and delivery. When one character pats herself on the back by uttering the phrase, “You go girl,” it’s not because the game is 10 years old – it’s because French culture isn’t quite in sync with American culture.

Even then, these are extremely minor squabbles in the face of what is among my top five gaming experiences of the last 20 years. Rain is so engaging, so intense, so entertaining and so well-made that even goofy lost-in-translation moments or a Resident Evil 2-esque crappy movement control system detract only in the smallest possible way. The fact that the game is a little short – I finished it pretty much in a pair of marathon sessions because I couldn’t put it down, so maybe around eight or 10 hours – also is easy to overlook, partially because Quantic Dream promises downloadable content (one new chapter’s already available), and partially because it’s clear that replaying the game will be very satisfying.

I loved this game. This is the first title I’ve picked up that truly made me happy to own a PS3, and one of a very small number of games that I started playing again almost as soon as I’d finished.

‘Bioshock 2’ more rehash than sequel

A new scary monster in Rapture, the Big Sister. It’s important to qualify my following complaints about Bioshock 2 by saying that I loved Bioshock and played it through no fewer than three times.

For a sequel, Bioshock 2 does a lot of things right. It recaptures the feel of the first game while presenting new locations and a storyline that moves in interesting directions. It improves on some of the more annoying aspects of the original in organic ways that make sense.

So I loved it for a lot of reasons. I played it zealously because the tone and story are as engaging as they were in the first iteration of the game. And the gameplay, while largely the same, is just as fun as it was in the first game as well. It isn’t broken, so publisher 2K Marin hasn’t bothered to try to fix it much.

Set 10 years after the first Bioshock, the game takes players back to Rapture, the city built by laissez-faire-touting billionaire Andrew Ryan to be a haven for science, art and business uninhibited by pesky morals, society or gross poor people.

Along the way, Rapture’s scientists discovered Adam, a substance that lets people rewrite their DNA, and suddenly the economy of the city turned from oxygen and food to splicing, or using Adam to make people better-looking or give them special abilities – like telekinesis or the ability to throw lightning bolts.

Splicing drove Rapture-ites insane, and Adam became the most precious commodity in the place. People were dying, and the Adam in their bodies was going to waste.

So the guys running Rapture made some monsters: Little Sisters, who can reclaim Adam from dead bodies, and Big Daddies, who protect Little Sisters.

Enter Subject Delta, one of the first-ever Big Daddies. He was killed and his Little Sister was stolen back from him by her mother, psychiatrist Sofia Lamb.

You wake up as Delta 10 years later with a burning desire to find your Little Sister, Eleanor. Because if you don’t, the psychological conditioning the scientists implanted in your brain will make you slip into a coma and die. Nevermind just yet how Delta happens to be alive right now. It’s time to smash your way through Rapture and find Eleanor.

Unfortunately, the whole game could stand to be creepier, like this Little Sister's doll. My major problems with Bioshock 2 are that it fails to go far enough. The story, while still cool, is far less engaging than that of the first game. Instead of a stunning revelation with a backdrop of discovery – finding out how a city built beneath the ocean fell into utter murderous chaos – 2 is much more “do this, do that, because you have to.” The first game imparted a sense of moral obligation to you for much of the game; you were looking to escape and you were helping allies to do the same. Now, you’re hunting Eleanor because that’s what you do, The End.

And you’re supposed to be a Big Daddy – essentially an unthinking Frankenstein monster whose sole function is to kill things that threaten the Little Sister.

It might be difficult to make the player feel like a brainless zombie, but Bioshock 2 doesn’t even really try to do so. Stylistically, tonally and thematically, this is virtually the same game as the first iteration. The bummer of that is, for people who’ve already played Bioshock, there’s not a whole lot new going on here.

The other thing that’s always bothered me about Bioshock, and which is therefore a problem in 2, is that the horrors that descended on Rapture don’t seem to affect the player’s character. You spend all of both games splicing up more than most of Rapture’s denizens, hitting people with lightning, fire, even bees that come out of a hive created in your forearm. Yet the player receives no abnormal effects: no homicidal mania, no deformed face, no hallucinations. I wish 2K had chosen to push the envelope further.

Bioshock 2 makes playing the game a little easier and a little more fun – you can use Plasmids, your gene weapons, at the same time as firearms, instead of switching between lightning and shotgun as in the first game. This dual-wield action lets you pull off some nasty combos and suit your weapons to the situation a lot better than in the previous game. Basically, it makes the game easier and more fun to play.

The multiplayer mode puts you in the shoes of a splicer during Rapture's civil war. The big change for the sequel is the addition of a multiplayer mode, which, like all first-person shooters, lets you murder other players over the Internet. Bioshock 2 has the added benefit of letting you use telekinesis, pyrokinesis, lightning and the like to do it.

That doesn’t really make Bioshock 2’s multiplayer all that different from that of any other game.

All the standard bases are covered – team-based combat, free-for-all modes, a keep-away mode and a territory mode. This is all standard fare in a game of this type and nothing about Bioshock stands out.

It’s the reward system that makes the multiplayer worth playing. The more you play, the more bad guys you kill, the stronger your character becomes and the more access your character has to better Plasmids, gene therapy and weapons.

And Bioshock rewards you for doing random other things too – like hacking machines, collecting vials of Adam scattered around each level, capturing Little Sisters, even performing “research” on dead enemies to get a damage boost against them – which is nice, because every game you play in, regardless of whether you play poorly, lets you advance your rank and eventually earn new stuff.

It’s fun – that’s important to remember – but a whole new installment of what is largely the same game is tough to swallow. Bioshock 2 does have a lot of the original’s greatness, and with some friends on board the multiplayer can be a good time, but for players who don’t intend to make a big commitment to the game, this is a rental that can be completed in a little less than a week.