Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Review: God of War: Chains of Olympus

Ready at Dawn


God of War: Chains of Olympus is set as a prequel to the existing games, at a point where all-around tough guy Kratos has already been saved by Ares. As the game opens, you’re defending the city of Attica from the Persians, a battle which culminates in the first boss battle of the game, against a basilisk. Still doing the dirty work for the Greek pantheon, Kratos soon finds himself mixed up in yet another god’s scheme to take over the world, or at least the heights of Mt. Olympus. The plot is remarkably engaging for what’s effectively the franchise’s third time around the block, and still manages to pack in a few surprises.

What won’t be a surprise to experienced GoW players is the game’s battle system – thankfully, it’s still set up to use the same combos and quick-time events as finishing moves, and seems to be exactly the same as that used in God of War 2, right down to the button combinations for special moves. Developers Ready at Dawn have obviously put the effort into making sure that the moves look and feel exactly the same, and despite the slight control differences (the PSP, is, after all, missing two shoulder buttons and an analog stick), the game handles very easily. In fact, the change to controlling your magic (R + a face button instead of having to use the D-pad to switch magic types) means that players who rely on button-mashing to get their game on won’t waste as much magic energy by accidentally hitting the wrong button.

Even the sound effects seem to be exactly the same as those in the earlier God of War games – thumping enemies is incredibly satisfying, regardless of the amount of damage you’re doing. During combat, the action is made to seem even more larger-than-life by pulling back the camera from the fight at certain times; this does have a somewhat bewildering effect the first few times it happens, but any hint of planned cinematic effects is usually enough to counteract that. Controlling a main character who’s little more than two or three millimetres high can be disconcerting to start with, but that more than makes up for the problems that cropped up in games like Ratchet and Clank: Size Matters, where the fact that you couldn’t see more than a few virtual metres past your character only exacerbated the lack of a second analog stick.

Chains of Olympus moves the story along in three quite different ways – in-game cut-scenes, pre-rendered full-motion video, and what looks like animated concept art. I’d have been a bit taken aback by the concept art, but it probably saves space or processor power for the rest of the game, and whatever has been done has had the beneficial effect of completely removing loading times between and within levels. Add to that the side effect of making some of the cut-scenes narrating the interstitial action seem like dramatic retellings of ancient Greek myths, complete with slowly animated two-dimensional pictures, and it all adds to the overall (weighty) impact of the game.

I only have two main gripes with Chains of Olympus, and for once, they have nothing to do with the PSP not having a second analog input. What’s actually the problem is that certain quick-time events require you to twirl the thumbstick around to register a certain move – something easy to do when it’s a full analog stick, but slightly more difficult to do with the tip of your thumb when you’re trying not to drop your console at the same time. Second on my list of gripes is the slight screen tearing that kicks in when the on-screen action gets too intense, or when you’re moving through the environments too quickly. Granted, it doesn’t happen very often, but it’s enough to be noticeable, distracting, and kind of annoying by the end of the game. As a side note, the time it takes to finish the game could also count against the game – six to eight hours should see you comfortably finish the whole thing – although six to eight hours is about as long as I’d want to spend on a portable game anyway, to be honest. Built more for a slim profile and ease-of-putting-in-a-pocket, those consoles aren’t exactly made to be comfortable to hold for too long at a time.

These distractions aside, if you hook up the system to your television set (only possible with the newer, slimmer, PSP model, mind), you’ll almost believe that you’re running the game on a PS2 – it’s only very slightly behind the quality of God of War 2, which itself is probably still the best action / hack-n-slash game for that home console. Keeping that in mind, if the only counts against this title are the small amounts of screen tearing, difficult finishing moves and the length of time it takes to play through the main quest, then think about what you’re getting – an epic game that hits the high mark set by previous titles in the series, and all running on a piece of machinery that weighs less than 200g. Now that’s epic.

Despite the minor flaws, Chains of Olympus is hands-down the most impressive game on the PSP, and if future developers take as much care with their games as Ready at Dawn obviously did with this one, there’s still a long lifespan ahead for the handheld.

[This review first appeared in Critic magazine.]

Friday, April 18, 2008

Review: Uncharted: Drake's Fortune



Directions for making a hit action-adventure game: take one lovable rogue as the main character, a shady, cigar-chomping second-in-command, and an increasingly useful (and attractive) female lead. Mix in some good AI for your NPC friends, a range of weapons, enemies, a third-act twist to rival any game you’ve ever played, and drop in a legendary golden treasure at the last moment. Remember to preheat the whole lot with platform exclusivity, and you’re golden, so to speak. Not that Uncharted is formulaic, by any means – the game just manages to hit all the bases.

The latest release from successful developer Naughty Dog, Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune sees you take the reigns as Nathan Drake, a treasure hunter with a knowing grin, quick wit and permanently half-tucked shirt. A descendent of Sir Francis Drake, Nathan is searching for the legendary treasure of El Dorado, following clues and notes that Sir Francis left behind.

If this all sounds a little grown-up for the developers behind the cartoony Jak and Daxter and Crash Bandicoot series, don’t worry. Uncharted actually plays for laughs at quite a few parts throughout, despite your character being shot at for half of the game. The characters, while relatively lifelike, can manage some pretty hilarious facial expressions, and a fair amount of banter goes on between them. Imagine the Matthew McConaughey-slash-Kate Hudson film Fool’s Gold made into a game, but with more pirates, guns and gold. And then imagine that the plot was actually good, and that you didn’t have to look at either of the two ‘stars’. It’s a simple comparison.

Visually, Uncharted is a huge step up from almost everything else on the PS3 or any system – it plays like a colourful version of Gears of War, set in a more open, realistic environment. Where Gears was monochromatic, heavily stylised and set mainly in corridors and small rooms, Uncharted zooms the camera out, letting you enjoy the colour and freedom of walking through (and fighting in) a lush jungle.

The game’s combat mechanic takes a leaf from Gears, as well as Resident Evil 4 and GRAW, and uses one button (L1) to aim, and R1 to fire. Hitting L1 pulls the action from the standard third-person view to over-the shoulder mode, which gives you a remarkable amount of accuracy, even with the least powerful weapons. You’ll find that you need to use cover when you fight, as any open-air battles against more than two opponents quickly sees the screen fade to gray as you promptly get killed. Using cover could have been a problem, but a quick tap on the circle button lets Nathan get behind any kind of cover, regardless of its height. Using L1 to aim will see Nathan peer out from his cover and draw a bead on the opponent; and best of all, the location of your targeting reticule is saved between peeks, so all you’ll need to do is pop back out once and take care of each enemy.

Enemy AI is very effective, particularly in the early jungle levels – the modern-day pirates will use their own cover, try to flank you, and flush you out of cover with grenades. Later indoor levels see these tactics toned down slightly, as there simply aren’t as many indoor hiding places for them, but there’s a surprising amount of complexity in how the enemies respond to you – you can’t rely on them following the same path to the same place. I kept dying at one place in a level near the end of the game, sure that I had the best approach to kill everyone who was shooting at me, but I hadn’t realised how my early actions had attracted their attention,

resulting in a sudden hail of bullets every time I stuck my head out of cover. The game keeps you moving as well – there’s no hiding behind trees if you’re running low on bullets, as enemies will simply come and find you.

The AI for Sully and Elena, your two non-playable sidekicks, is some of the best I’ve seen in a long time. Depending on the type of enemy you’re facing (and there’s quite a range – from pirates with pistols to mercenaries with sniper rifles and grenade launchers), your allies will take cover, soften the bad guys up with a few well-placed shots, and even take a few of them out, if you’re hiding for too long. There’s a definite feeling of co-operation, despite knowing that the other character is an NPC.

Half of the game is fighting, and that’s done very well indeed. The other half, though, is a cinematic 3D platformer where your target is always clear. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I felt that the platforming aspect was a little too easy – bar a few mistimed quicktime events on my part, I flew through these parts of the game, pausing only to admire the view.

Textures pop-in on occasion, and there’s a fair amount of screen tearing if you’re turning the camera quickly, but these problems barely mar the game. There are moments when you’d swear you were making your character run through a real (abandoned) city: some textures have more resolution than you’d expect from digital cameras, and the cinematics merge quickly with the in-game action, letting you get back to business with a minimum of fuss. For a relatively short game (8-10 hours), there are enough shining moments in Uncharted to go back to it long after you’ve completed the storyline, if only to play through your favourite chapter one more time.

[This review first appeared in Critic magazine.]