Saturday, March 10, 2012

Movie Review: Underworld: Awakening

Wow. Been a while since I was here, at least three weeks. Well, that's what Dungeons and Dragons: Online and Stronghold: Kingdoms does to you.

I'm mixing it up a bit tonight, ladies and gentlemen. Instead of talking about how Stronghold: Kingdoms is the best casual game I've ever played, the differences between LoL and HoN, or the good and bad things about DDO, I'm going to talk a bit about a movie I just saw - Underworld: Awakening.

Now, I'm doing this for two reasons: one, I just saw the movie, and have plenty of criticisms in mind. And two, there seems to be a thing about critics of one medium hating other mediums - the most obvious case being Roger Ebert, but also Yahtzee; Ebert things games will (almost) never be art and Yahtzee has no time for films. I want to put a stop to this, right here, right now, and prove that a game lover/aspiring designer/sudo-critic can also be all those things with movies. So, here we go:

If I had to describe Underworld: Awakening in one sentence, it would be 'audio-visual rape'.

Shit. I'm not doing very well, am I?

It's not to say the movie is bad. The movie isn't bad, but it's not bad in the same way Iron Man 2 wasn't bad - the first was so, so much better, and it's clearly a transitional, 'chapter' movie rather than a... 'movie' movie, if that makes any sense.

Both of these movies feature awesome fighting scenes, except one has battlesuits and the other likes to shroud everything in darkness. It also didn't help that I saw the movie in 3D, which was actually perfect - it was a subpar, quite-obviously-setting-up-a-sequel movie, viewed though a gimmick-y tint with shitty lighting. I swear, you could have the movie run in black-and-white (except you colour in the vampire eyes blue) and for 50% of the freaking movie, you wouldn't be able to tell the difference.

As for the sound; my god. The people in charge of audio were either hopelessly incompetent or ruthlessly sadistic, or both. The explosions, the weapons (specifically the melee weapons, which have that 'schwiiiiing' sound as they cut through the air), and any sound made by a Lycan are all ridiculously loud. I was damn near deafened during the scenes where they had all three of the above sounds playing at the same time, and it all blended into one hideous, cacophonous mess. I'm pretty sure if it was any louder, the speakers in the theater would've blown from the sheer stress.

So, is there any good part to the movie? Well, there are some pretty cool scenes, like when the three Lycans are chasing the van with the main characters in it, across a busy street, and those Lycans are leaping from car to car trying to catch them. It was one of the best scenes in the whole movie.

Another great scene was the one where the massive werewolf was tossing Kate Beckinsale around like a ragdoll.

To be honest, it's hard to recall the movie. It's not that memorable to start with, and when the final scene hits you, you think "oh, this entire movie was just setting up the next one" and immediately forget it, because you'll know they'll just recap the thing at the beginning of the next one.

Which is sad, because the concept is actually pretty good - humankind start cracking down on vampires and werewolves. It almost has an Alien vs. Predator feel to it. In fact, that might make a pretty good game, and it would've made a pretty good movie if it was it's own movie instead of a sequel. But no, of course not.

All in all, Underworld: Awakening is pretty dissapointing, but that's understandable - this is almost a reboot. After all, Underworld: Evolution was released in 2006. That's quite a big gap between movies, especially ones that are supposed to follow on from the last one.

I'd say, rent this one just to get to grips with the story, or if you don't feel like spending any money, read a synopsis online. It's not a terrible movie, but not good enough to belong in your collection, or along side the other Underworld movies.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

First Impressions: The Darkness II Demo

The Darkness II was recently released on Steam for an excessive amount of money - something like $90 USD. It's out of the question - if I were living in America it would be bad enough, but I'm all the way over in New Zealand, and that exchange rate adds up real quick.

Luckily, The Darkness II has a demo - roughly 20 minutes of play time, which isn't too bad. But, I'm not here to judge the game on the length of their demo. I'm here to talk about the various aspects of the game. And in everyone's favourite form - list!

#1 - The Controls

I'll be honest, thing that attracted me to it in the first place was the tentacles. The gimmick is you have two tentacles - one for grabbing (Q) and one for whipping/lashing (scroll wheel). You could use these in conjunction with your guns, and you could dual wield guns too.

And I gotta say, that takes some getting used to. My biggest problem is the use of the scroll wheel. Here's the list of controls the game devs mapped to it:
- Cycling through your guns
- (hold) Basic slash with right demon tentacle
- (hold + mouse up/down) Vertical slash with right demon tentacle
- (hold + mouse left/right) Horizontal slash with right demon tentacle
You can have one or the other, but not both. What's wrong with using the number keys? The effect is whenever I go and slash some dudes up, I cycle through my weapons. Hell, what's wrong with using "[" and "]" for weapon cycling, if you absolutely hated obvious controls and didn't go with the number keys?

When you do decide to start slashing, you'll realize it does far less damage, and far less range, than you would assume. I assumed that a horizontal slash will slice someone cleanly in half, but it just seems to bat them to the ground. And I have to be uncomfortably close for it to be effective. I say uncomfortably because everybody - everybody - uses guns, and you'll get shot at when you move in for the kill.

Thankfully, health doesn't seem to be that big of a deal. Just eat the hearts of fallen enemies to regain health, simple as that. Or just execute them. To be honest, it's a little like Prototype (execute enemies to regain health), but easier because you have guns immediately available in addition to melee attacks, whereas Alex Mercer just has melee.

Another problem is whenever you slash, the camera gets all gummed up and you can't move very much, so it makes chasing enemies with melee attacks hard. It's simpler just to shoot them or throw shit at them. Hey, speaking of cameras...

#2 - The Cutscenes

You know what I love about Penumbra and Amnesia? You almost always have the camera in your control. Even if your body is stuck or on the floor or whatever, you can still look around. Sometimes this is constrained, but sometimes not. Point is, you feel like you have basic control, even if it's as simple as swiveling your head to look at stuff while you're on a conveyor belt.

Think back to the first Half-Life, and if you can't, go play it. It's available on Steam for $10. But let's assume we all can. Remember how you were in the cable car/gondola thing, transported along a fixed path? Remember how that was just a bit boring and felt like it was dragged out way too long? At least you could move around and look wherever you wanted. You could either look at the Black Mesa facility when the game wasn't showing you brown rock walls, or stare at the floor in defiance.

When I first came to that cutscene in The Darkness II in the restaurant, I expected to be able to look around a bit. To really take in the whole place. Maybe even follow the guy at my own pace.
But no. What I got instead was a fixed camera and a fixed conveyor belt path. I didn't look at what I wanted to look at - I looked at what the game devs wanted me to look at. It always sucks when you have to just sit back in your chair and let the scene play out, not at all involved in what's going on until something eventually happens to draw your attention back into the game.

Cutscenes where you can't do anything are fine if it's third person. I don't have any problems watching cutscenes in any GTA game. But The Darkness II is entirely first person, and being unable to look around in a cutscene is very disengaging.

Moral is, let players look at what they want to look at within first person cutscenes, unless the nature of the cutscene would make that an impossibility (paralysis, for example).

#3 - Character Interactions

Because I've never played the original The Darkness, I have no idea who these characters are or why I should care. Which is par for the course for games who's sequels were released on more or different platforms.

What I really don't get is your friend (the guy who drags you across the floor while you shoot at bad guys in the restaurant bit) isn't at all surprised when you meet him again and you've got the tentacles out. In fact, none of your allies are surprised. Maybe Jackie made it obvious that he had that power in the first game, I don't know. Point is, it doesn't make any sense to me that those people aren't freaking out that you're got two evil tentacles coming out of your back, and are using them to liberate people's internal organs.

#4 - The Visceral, Nasty Stuff

Finally, I just want to talk about all the visceral, nasty stuff the game apparently has in it.

Here's my responses to the 'execution' moves in The Darkness II:
First time I saw an execution move: "Oh, ow. That was pretty nasty/Jesus, that didn't look pleasant"
Second time I saw it: "Yeah, still ouch."
Third time I saw it and onward: "Health!"

Like any game with an 'execution' mechanic (a finishing move that guarantees the bad guy's death and possibly heals your character), I get more and more desensitised to the animation that plays when you execute an enemy, since you see one every ten seconds while in combat. Eventually, it becomes less about the gore factor and more about the mechanic behind it, which is usually the replenishment of health.

The only exception I've found with this is Space Marine. I don't know, the execution moves in that game have a certain... impact that other games lack.

Now, I've got to go listen to some Faith No More for some inexplicable reason.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Cosplay at the train station

So, this rugby thing is happening in New Zealand right now. I think it's called the 'Rugby Sevens', or something. I'm not a rugby connoisseur.

I knew this was coming. What I didn't know was coming was the cosplay.

I got plenty of pics on my iPhone (so they all look terrible), and I'll share my favourites with you here.

#6 - Sunflowers

There are a lot of jokes to go with this one. "Where's the zombies?" being the most obvious. But the first thing I thought was "Oh awesome, I'm going to get a shitload of sun with these guys". I guess that's the kind of person I am, and I'm not sure whether it's a good thing or a bad thing.

#5 - Euclid Class

GAH! What the fuck is that? That's not a goddamn costume, that belongs in an SCP containment facility.

#4 - Gangs of NZ

I'm not sure why I like this one so much. You've got guys in monkey masks with blue checkered shirts being followed by three or so guys (you can't see the others very well) in black wearing what Wikipedia call 'Conical Asian Hats', which I think is a very apt description.

I have a bunch of pictures involving these two groups, and I swear the Monkeys have been giving the Hats shit all the way to the train station, and the Hats have had enough. I mean, the guy looks like he's about to break into a run, right?

I'm not sure how it panned out in the end, but I was halfway down the stairs into the subway to the trains when I heard a scream, and someone yelled "forget him, he's lost!".

#3 - Firefoxes?

I consider myself extremely fortuitous to get this shot. The only way that shot could have possibly been any better is if they were holding hands and walking very close, almost intimately, and...

Sorry, drifted off for a second. Where was... right, yes. Blog.

#2 - Photoblocker

So, there were these girls dressed in what I originally thought were recolours of the Courtesan outfit from Assassin's Creed II. It was close enough, and I wasn't going to let an opportunity like this get away.

But this little bastard had to intervene.

He looked at me and deliberately stepped in front of my shot. He didn't do it by accident, he wanted to wreck my shot of the Courtesan cosplayers. (I'm sure that's not what they were trying to be, but at a distance it looked like it, alright?)

And he succeeded. I'm not sure what was more annoying - the fact that he went all vigilante and blocked my shot of the women dressed up, or that he went to one of them and alerted them to my presence, which I think was a bit much. I mean, it's not like I was just hunting for scantily dressed ladies at night, alone - it was late afternoon in a ridiculously public place. And lets not forget, if you go in costume you want to be noticed.

But don't worry, kid!


I got them in the end!

Friday, January 27, 2012

Amnesia: The Dark Descent - Custom Story Annoyances

I love me some Amnesia: The Dark Descent.

It's one of my top five games of all time, along with it's predecessor, Penumbra (or more accurately, the Penumbra series). Both of these games are made by Frictional Games, whom I love to itsy-bitsy pieces. I love them in the pants*.


One of the reasons I adore those swedish bastards so much is the fact they released the modding tools for Amnesia. Now, I haven't got into them yet - 3D Editors terrify me on a primal level, and they keep crashing when I try to do stuff or attempt to close them. But apparently people have seemed to master them, and have made some truely amazing stuff.

Stuff like La Caza, Wake and Beyond the Portal, for example. Those three stand out in my mind for being pretty well made - even though I didn't get past that bit in La Casa where yo- you know, getting off topic. Sorry.

The point is, there are lots of custom stories that do two very annoying, very stupid things. You can tell whether or not a custom story is going to be a fun, interesting experience or a weak, jump-out-scares infested slog from the first five or so minutes of gameplay.

These are those two things. Starting with...

#1: Impenetrable Darkness

There are two big parts of the game (the Storage and the Dungeon) where Impenetrable Darkness rears it's ugly, ill-defined head. They are genuinely terrifying, and it's where you get introduced to plenty of monsters who would just love to give you a big hug.

These two parts are fairly close together, so you get a nice, scary twenty to hour long (depending on how much you wait in the corner and weep to yourself) section of this impenetrable darkness thing, with a stint in the Machine Room in-between.

Impenetrable Darkness never shows up again after those two sections, and thank god for that. It was scary as shit to be running around, not being able to see a metre in-front of you without your lantern, but guess what, monsters can see you with your lantern out, so you have to keep it tucked away. In the dark. Where you're tense, waiting for that *ruuuurgh* sound to leap out of the corner of your screen, so you can run like hell to your saftey room you set up earlier.

So, Impenetrable Darkness has a purpose - to make the dark, opressive atmosphere of the room that much more terrifying, and to imply the use of monsters to make the player all tense. Used in moderation, Impenetrable Darkness can be absolutely harrowing, and the best part is you don't have to do jack - just let the player think he's about to be hugged to death by a monster through the use of a combination of atmospheric music, deep demonic breathing, and the occasional scraping noise.

What I see a lot of is players starting in or very close to Impenetrable Darkness, kicking pacing and build-up in the ribs and tossing them out a window. And maybe sleeping with their significant others, or something.

You can't make players start in Impenetrable Darkness, people! It ruins everything - it doesn't feel opressive, it feels like somebody's turned the damn lights out. I feel like groping for a light switch when I start up some custom stories, and not surveying my surroundings because, hey, it's in total darkness, so there's nothing to look at.

Starting me off in Impenetrable Darkness tells me that you haven't thought this through in the slightest - you just threw it down because it's scary and tense. The fact is it's only scary and tense if you build up to it, and let players feel comfortable before throwing them in darkness.

And #2: Smoke Monsters

There was this ONE, VERY SPECIFIC place in Amnesia, where if you went to a collapsed passage, you turned around and was treated to a close up of the Grunt, before the grunt vanished into smoke. It was so specific I (and I suspect many players) never saw it on our first try. But those that did see it were terrified, and rightly so. This fully illuminated, angry-sounding son-of-a-bitch was right fucking there, in front of you in all it's hideous glory. I suspect anybody who was unfortunate to stumble upon what I consider to be an easter egg screamed the loudest scream they would ever scream in their entire life. They were ambushed by a truely disgusting, horrifically disfigured creature very clearly used to be a man, a human being, and they were going to die.

And then the damn thing vanished into smoke. No murder, just seeing this thing for about one or two seconds, then gone. Terror piss was joined by tears of joyous relief, that one time when it caught you off-guard, and never, ever happened again. Because it was only scary the first time, and the devs knew it. That's why it only happened once. In a specific place. More italics. (Sorry).

So, after being blessed with this terror monster that could vanish into smoke, what was the aspiring young custom story designer to do to his map to make it as scary? Why, he would just have monsters that spawned but then vanished, but only after walking for several seconds in the players direction and making an awful racket, and leading the player to believe that the monster was real.

For the love of god, if you're going to do this, please, please make it so it's on a timer. If you can, of course. I'm not sure if you have to make it cross a path or region or whatever to activate, but if you can make it so that it vanishes after time elasped rather than entering a section of room, that would be absolutely wonderful. Or, just not put them in the game in the first place.

Belthasar's Sorrow threw a Smoke Monster at you in one of the very first rooms. It came around the corner of the hallway, went graawwwugh and ran at you. You could also hear the door lock behind you, which I think was a bit foolish. It would've enlivened the experiance if we had to run out the door and hid in one of the MANY closets in the previous hallway, but no, I guess not.

The thing is, you have to be standing still when you enter the room for it to work. The monster only vanishes if it enters the spot DIRECTLY in front of the door where you just entered, which is a classic game design mistake - assuming the player does what you wanted him to do. Because, guess what - said player almost never does.

When I saw this bastard, I tried the door (which failed, due to it being locked), and then I strafed the charging monster and ran down the hallway where it came from. I charged down and hid under the stairs, where I waited for it do go away. Or something. I didn't really have a plan, to be honest.

The next time I tried it, I sprinted to the fireplace and crouched, where I could see the Grunt patrolling back and forth along the small room I came into. From my vantage point in the corner of the room concealed by the fireplace, I could see that Monsieur Facelift was very much alive and looking for me. I can't remember how I found out he was a Smoke Monster, but when I did, I was pretty pissed. Pissed that the designer couldn't be asked doing it properly. Pissed that the designer did it at all. There was no need for a monster scare that early on in the game - jesus, we already saw the guy we were supposed to visit chewed up by pulsating flesh-jelly. That was a perfectly fine scare on it's own, but ruined with the badly placed, badly scripted Smoke Monster.

It's not the only time it's happened, but it's the one that stands out the most in my mind. Considering how small a part it played in Amnesia (read: almost none), it strikes me as odd that it's so common. If you're that desperate for scares in your custom story, you should probably take a step back and examine what you want to really achieve with this room, or this little cutscene-thing.

Smoke Monsters are not the answer, and they mess players up - what if the monster coming at them is a real monster? What if they expect it to dissapear, because you've introduced Smoke Monsters early on and almost trained them to think that they'll dissapear, and it doesn't? They'll get pissed off at your custom story and stop playing it.

I saw both of these in one particular custom story, Dark Mansion. It was a demo and very short, but I started inside Impenetrable Darkness, in a room with big splotches of Impenetrable Darkness, broken only by sharp cones of light. Then, I opened the door, and a monster came barreling towards me and turned into smoke.

The reason I didn't worry about the monster inevitably being a Smoke Monster is because I started in a terrible room with stupid lighting. It was then that I realized I was dealing with a really god-awful custom story. Not that there was much - atrociously lit starting room, Impenetrable Darkness corridor, then a super-brightly lit dining room.

It's not that the setup wasn't good - although, he could use a bit of a crash course in level design - it just lacked polish. I suspect the reasons these custom stories lack polish is twofold; one, the designer has very little experiance with making custom stories or using the editor; and two, the designer hasn't learned anything from playing the original Amnesia game.

The original Amnesia made you confortable first, then threw you a scare. Then, it let you calm down, then another scare. The scares were made all that much better, mainly because they took you by surprise.

If you have played Amnesia, you remember the water lurker chase scene. It's one of my favourite parts, because when you walk out you're introduced to the most idylic room in the entire game. The soft music soothes your racing heart, and the gentle, blue-tinged lighting is a very welcome sight. Sure, the fountain is creepy, but you don't really care. This is your opportunity to calm yourself and relax.

And then you enter the Guest Room and get ambushed by a monster, and have to hide in the closet. But it's scary because it comes out of nowhere - you honestly aren't expecting it. The music doesn't imply it, the lighting doesn't imply it, the goddamn level size doesn't imply it. And it's also scary because you were all calm and relaxed before, so you were ready for a scary moment to get you nice and terrifyed again.

I almost never see that in custom games - the relax, scare, relax, scare. Comfortable, uncomfortable, comfortable, etc. It's always Impenetrable Darkness, smoke monster, opressive environments, repeat.

Alright, not always. La Caza is a perfect example of a custom story done right. The fact that I refuse to continue past the point where you fall down the well-like thing to the forward camp, considering there hasn't been a single moment of Impenetrable Darkness (at least I can't remember it) and not one goddamn Smoke Monster. Now THAT was a well made custom story.

Or you could go down the Through the Portal route and have very little monsters, and be mostly about story. I think there were a total of three monsters in the whole game, and they were poorly defined clouds of mist. The point of Through the Portal was what would happen if the game continued on past the Agrippa ending and the end of Amnesia, and not actually scaring the player, per se.

So, the point is: don't resort to Impenetrable Darkness and Smoke Monsters in your custom story. It looks unprofessional and cheap. Use full room lighting often, and save monsters for special occasions.

* I do not love the staff at Frictional Games in the pants. Only the games.
** That part is actually true, though. It's becoming a very expensive habit.