Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine

I actually didn't intend to play this game at all. However I had already finished Darksiders 2 and Borderlands 2 was more or less around the corner. Not enough time to play any of the games I had particularly planned to (Dragon's Dogma for instance) but enough time for some quick playthroughs and I just happened to find this one for next to nothing in a supermarket. I used to be a Warhammer 40k player so the subject matter did have some meaning to me. In a nutshell, that is what keeps Space Marine going really. The game captures the feeling of the ultra-dark 41st millennium. The protagonist and his two pals feel are very much in canon to the grim lore; getting to massacre orks with familiar tools of destruction like bolters, chain swords and even freaking lascannons and thunder hammers has a certain oomph that generic no-name shooters would lack.

The scene towards the end of the game where reinforcements finally arrive and storm a chaos-infested bridge together with the player almost brought a tear to my eye. It also made me wonder why there wasn't more of this in the game. Most of the time the player hangs with just his two pals (who seem to be immortal) and they explore all sorts of industrial complexes like in any bread-and-butter shooter. Most of the best scenes in the game are ones where imperial guardsmen are involved because it immediately feels more like war. That's kind of what you would expect from a WH40k game: war. There's a plot in the game that kind of justifies the level design. As far as plots go, I guess it is fitting and does give the designers a solid excuse to get the player to shoot chaos marines, cultists and infantry instead of orks for the later part of the game. Oh, and also witness orks and chaos shooting at each other which is also cool.

Still I feel like less plot - more battlefield would have been a better solution for this game. Nevertheless, the bodycount reaches hilarious numbers - I really wished there would have been a kill counter in this game. In many scenes the green stream of orks is almost neverending. Most importantly, they die with satisfying amounts of violence and gore. Melee finishers especially are ridiculously brutal. The Emperor's justice is ruthless. The way theme is handled is the biggest strength of this game. It also means that people who don't give a rat's ass about Warhammer won't get much out of this game. Without the theme Space Marine is just a pretty average action shooter/slasher with huge waves of enemies.

The game's control scheme was a bit weird to my taste. Normally shooter/slashers have a separate aiming mode; outside it, the character faces the way he is moving. Space Marine does this a bit weirdly because the aiming mode is always on and the character is facing at whatever he is targeting. Until you press a melee attack, at which point he slashes at whatever direction the movement stick is pointing. This is really confusing at first. Then again, melee in this game is more or less button smashing, so the controls don't create much frustration. I still have to wonder whether they should have done the usual thing and separate melee and shooting modes from each other.

The game doesn't have any silly things like crouching. Who needs cover when you have a power armor? Health regen is Borderlands-y; armor regenerates but health is only recovered by delivering the Emperor's justice via killing blows. The coolest single gadget in this game was the jump pack. It sounds pretty boring but they've really buffed it up. It doesn't just allow quick vertical movement but also enables powerful dive attacks that are guaranteed to crush anything on the immediate landing spot and push others way back. Most importantly, targeting these dives is easy. It's a great change of pace whenever it gets used in the game (two or three times total I think), and when combined with the almighty thunder hammer the jump pack becomes even deadlier.

While Space Marine offers even less new things than Darksiders 2, it's yet another reminder that subject matter matters. The grim and dark future of the 41st millennium is for many people the ultimate setting for hilarious bodycounts and senseless violence.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Darksiders 2

Oh wow. I have been too busy to even keep this blog. Somehow I haven't been too busy to play games though! I guess there's a slight preference hidden there somewhere. Anyway. Now I have some time to catch up on what I've played. I'm going to go in chronological order because it's easy. The first one on the list is therefore Darksiders 2. It's going to be followed by Space Marine, Vanquish and Borderlands 2. I have also been playing Stepmania because I have no time for my normal exercise-related hobbies.

Anyway. Darksiders 2. This is one of the games that I've actually been waiting for this year. Largely because the first game was amazing in many aspects but felt like it could use a sequel. Many games these days do. In the movie industry sequels are often crap, but in the games industry it seems more like the sequel is often the better game because in a sense the game has gone through one hell of an iteration already with one launched title. The third title in a series might be a mistep again, largely because when there are no huge flaws to fix, new things have to be added into the mix. It's either that or be accused of "beating on a dead horse". You just can't win there. It would probably be an interesting study to look at how many series consist of exactly two titles. Might be interesting to also involve the sales figures of second versus third iteration.

1. Originality, schmoriginality

Let's just get this out of the way immediately. Not a single ounce in the gameplay of Darksiders 2 is original. The game steals from a variety of sources: God of War, Prince of Persia, Diablo/Borderlands and of course Zelda. Most likely a bunch of other titles to boot. Does it matter? No, it does not. It is somewhat of a dick move though - taking good concepts from the wealth of past game design while giving next to nothing back. The one thing that has been done exceptionally well is the combination of so many influences. The core is definitely Zelda. The guys at Vigil clearly have decided that Zelda just isn't manly enough for them, so they replaced green elves with grunting wisecracking horsemen of the freaking apocalypse and made combat bloody as hell. It is a nice take on the Zelda gameplay, something for us grim'n'dark types to enjoy with our adventure.

2. Fighting matters

Actually yeah, I think combat is the single biggest differentiator between Zelda-like titles I like and ones that I  don't. One problem in the first Darksiders was that War was more or less a tank, and tanks are not really interesting to play in solo hack'n'slash. Death on the other hand is a master of agile DPS (you know, like agile programming but with more violence!) There is no guard button in Darksiders 2; the only way to avoid damage is to evade or interrupt attacks. The game also acknowledges the importance of hit stun resistance. Some enemies are more resistant to hit stun which makes them a lot harder to interrupt. Death's combos also have varying hit stun. This forces different strategies against different enemies. Hit stun is one of the most important aspect of hack'n'slash games. The lack of proper hit stun mechanics is what often leads to button smashing.

Games where defence relies on evasion can become evade fests instead but Darksiders 2 also avoids this by limiting the number of subsequent evades that can be performed to three. The last evade has a lengthty recovery which often leads to taking hits and hit stun (also known as quick death). I am not sure whether I liked this mechanic or not, because sometimes the enemies just attack in patterns that are really difficult to get out of with just two evades. On the other hand, this forces the player to seek strategies that avoid getting into such situations in the first place. So the jury is still out on this one. Most important thing is though that combat in Darksiders 2 actually demands some skill, especially against multiple opponents. Single opponents, no matter how strong, were mostly quite easy because of Death's superior mobility.

Here's a theory. It involves the guard button. Thing is, Darksiders 2 has the most enjoyable fast-paced hack'n'slash since Devil May Cry 3. The difference between these titles and titles like God of War and Dante's Inferno? Guard button. The guard button is a kind of fail-safe; it removes the need to telegraph attacks and in general make all attack situations perceivable. It's a get-out-of-jail-free card that allows creating fights where the player has no way of seeing what the f is going on because whenever things get like that, they can just hit the guard button and wait for a clearer situation. But that's bull. Holding a button is not a whole lot of fun. Getting a cue when attacks are coming and avoiding them with carefully timed evades is fun. More so, because often you might even need to learn which way to evade in order to get a good counter-strike opening.

So um yeah, the problem is not exactly the guard button itself. Still, guarding as a mechanic is horribly static unless some dynamics are added into it. See Dark/Demon's Souls to see a guard that works for the game.


I guess there is not really that much more to say about Darksiders 2 what with it being a sum of mostly other games. The hardest difficulty setting was quite enjoyable to play and many fight scenes in the game took several attempts so can't complain about lack of challenge either. What the game really lacked was interesting boss fights - most of them were too easy because of Death's ability to easily evade anything thrown at his way by a single opponent. The ultimate challenge in the game was also a bit lame: fight 100 rounds of arena battles without dying. Having to start the entire process over after reaching 98 or so was really really annoying. These things are hardly ever acceptable but even less so if the first half of the challenge is more or less trivial but still takes a great deal of time.

All in all, I guess, combat aside, the core message of Darksiders 2 is that theme matters. If it had been a cute game with pixies or silent elves in green tunics I probably would not have enjoyed as much. Furthermore there is always something to do in the game and every dungeon is different. My favorite ability was soul splitter which allowed Death to become a statue and spawn two clones of himself. The best puzzles in the game revolved around this ability. I dunno if this is stolen from another game or not; if not, good job Vigil. Adding looting and simple character development in Borderlands fashion was also a smart move. Hunting better equipment is always much more fun than trying to locate some small upgrades like extra health. As long as you don't mind lack of originality, you could do a lot worse than to pick up Darksiders 2.