Sunday, December 30, 2012

MadCap's Mad Rantings - "Multiplayer? In MY Tomb Raider? It's More Unnecessary Than You Think"

As we close out 2012 (good job on predicting the end there, Mayans!) I've had my attention drawn to this article from IGN.  Crystal Dynamics Global Brand Director Karl Stewart has announced via his Twitter that the new Tomb Raider game to come out in 2013 will include online multiplayer. And I've made my comments on the trailer back in June, so there's no real point in rehashing what I thought of it. Like I said back then, I've never played a Tomb Raider game before, but with this being a reboot, this seemed like potentially a good place to jump onboard and see if Miss Lara Croft

And then this happened...

Now, I've got nothing against multiplayer - provided that all three people are in the same room with me and are therefore bound to have at least the semblance of civility and basic knowledge of the English language.  But when a franchise that has not had - or, apparently, needed - multiplayer for nine entries of its series and then suddenly makes the jump, it just has one question spring to my mind.


Granted, most of Tomb Raider's appeal is based upon the heroine and her two best friends, but the franchise has managed to last this long without any issue coming up that it needed to be anything more than single player.  And anyone who says that games have to be multiplayer now to compete in the market nowadays, I have one word for you.


Not convinced? I'll follow that up with three more words.

Dragon Age: Origins.

When multiplayer gets tacked on to a game as - in my experience - it always seems to be if at all, it had nothing at all to do with the game itself, which is a big reason why I don't review the multiplayer aspect of games I review (if at all).  And because of multiplayer being tacked on, the main game itself almost always suffers.  For an example, I'll give the Halo franchise.

The first game had a multiplayer aspect, but it was always among the local network on Xbox (As I remember, the PC version was full internet, though I could be wrong as I never played the PC version).  Halo had a great story, in my humble opinion, and the development team was allowed to focus strictly on it and made something that was pretty awesome.

Then we come to Halo 2, where multiplayer was touted as a big deal and the game itself suffered immensely for it.  At least, that's the approach I'm taking for the pointless cliffhanger and overall a very, very short campaign.  Bungie's development team was spread too far and focused too far on an aspect that should not have been a high priority.

Flashforward to Halo 3 and you get a storyline that you get dropped into and you only really understand if you have bought Bungie and Microsoft's line of spin-off books and memorabilia (Order now, kids, or the Covenant wins!) that take place between Halo 2 and 3.  This is another problem entirely that I have with Halo, but I'm getting off topic.  While Halo 3 gave an alright conclusion to the series (though not enough for Microsoft, it would seem), the storyline was again rather shortened and the pacing suffered, as did the campaign as a whole.

But the multiplayer side got some new map packs and some customization options through DLC and if you buy into Mountain Dew and Doritos, you get extra codes for more points and...really? All of this work - development and marketing and all - got put into something that really shouldn't have been the main focus of the game in the first place. Really?

This is kind of what I fear might happen with this new Tomb Raider.  What doesn't help is that we've already been told that the game will take roughly twelve to fifteen hours, which is only a few hours more than it took me to navigate my way through Halo 2.  And this being before the development team revealed multiplayer.  I'm willing to give the benefit of the doubt for the time being and hope that they don't completely ruin any potential storyline by putting too much focus on the multiplayer aspects.

And again, I have no problems with multiplayer games.  But, that's just the thing, they're multiplayer games. Very rarely is there any way to have single and multiplayer exist in a way that doesn't damage the other in at least some way, to the point where one of the other becomes absolutely unnecessary.  It's about finding balance, something that even the best of development teams can't seem to do. The new Tomb Raider looks like it's going for a grittier, more realistic portrayal of the franchise, and I'm honestly hoping that it will allow us to look past the boobs that have been the object of many a man's ogling since the late nineties and see an interesting action-adventure survival game that, hopefully, won't be bogged down by pointless multiplayer.

Then again, maybe the spirit of Jimmy Hoffa will appear to me and reveal to me the answer to Life, The Universe, and Everything.

...what? It's just as likely.

Friday, December 28, 2012

MadCap's Game Reviews - "Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions" 
Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions is an older game that you probably weren't expecting me to review.  You were probably expecting to review, say, Halo 4. Well, I've already expressed my issues with the Halo series continuing past the first one, so if I do get it and review it, it will be a while down the road regardless.  But back to my original point, Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions is a game brought to us by Beenox and Activision, the two big names behind the recent Amazing-Spider Man game tie-in.  That being said, this game should be pretty good, yeah? Not perfect, but pretty good, right?


The plot begins with Mysterio breaking into a museum in New York and being met by the one and only Spider-Man (voiced by Neil Patrick Harris) of the mainstream Marvel universe (Earth-616, for those questioning my nerdy cred). After a short altercation, they shattered an ancient tablet that creates a bunch of flashing lights and scatters itself across various dimensions of time and space.  With this having happened, Madame Web (not Doctor Strange, oddly enough) finds Spider-Man as well as three other versions of the Friendly Neighborhood Tablet Shatterer to collect all the pieces of the artifact before it falls into evil hands, which it inevitably has as you discover through your epic journey of padding and button mashing.

The gameplay is split between Marvel's range of Spider-Men...I mean, the various Spider-Men of parallel universe and alternate timelines.  Topping the bill, naturally, is the main universe Spider-Man as voiced by Neil Patrick Harris.  Following, in order of strengthening obscurity are ; Ultimate Spider-Man (voiced by Josh Keaton), Spider-Man 2099 (voiced, hilariously, by Dan Gilvezan), and Spider-Man Noir (voiced by Christopher Daniel Barnes).  The game promises new and innovative gameplay styles for each of the different Spider-Men, no two of them being alike.

It lies, people.


The only section that bares any real difference from the others is the Noir sections, where it's clear a page was taken right out of Batman: Arkham Asylum's book.  Now, I'm not as familiar with Noir as I am with, say, the main Marvel universe (there is a reason it was the most obscure on my list), but this Spider-Man seems quite unable to take on common thugs in a fight and has a strong allergy to bullets, and so more often than not sticks to the shadows when not engaging in the rare bouts of fisticuffs with a ne'er-do-well.  He also has the faster health regeneration out of the bunch, but a quick stream of bullets seems to pretty much negate that, and thus shadows and sneak attacks on the unsuspecting mooks.

The other three are the standard beat 'em up affair.  Combos, webbing, and snark from all three of the Spider-Men as you give the various mooks a variety of broken bones.  If you've played any beat 'em up with some abilities outside of the simple "punch them" type, then you've played this.  The only slightly different things come in the Ultimate and 2099 levels. Ultimate Spidey is given the powers of the black suit by Madame Web (because we can't very well have two Spider-Men looking exactly alike, can we?) that unlocks a "Symbiote Rage" mode that basically allows you to take less damage and dish out more of it more quickly.  On the opposite side of that, 2099 apparently has his Spider-Sense tuned to the point of being on par with the Dagger of Time from Prince of Persia, allowing him to slow every enemy down around him.

They're both very useful - the Symbiote Rage in particular - but they're both things that have been done before and aren't really the "new and innovative" that the game promises.

In beating up mooks in the levels, you can also pursue a challenge mode that is interwoven within the game to allow access to tiers of upgrades.  This brings in health upgrades, new combos to try, and the purely aesthetic choice of different costumes for each of the Spider-Men.

Each level also brings with it a boss battle with an iconic (and sometimes not so iconic) Spidey villain from the various continuities, and here is where I actually have a bit of praise for the game.  When the aesthetics are great, they're great.  The game's art design shows a lot of care, particularly the 2099 sections with the cityscapes (even if you can't really explore them) and the costumes of the different Spider-Men.  In particular, some of the bosses are very interesting visually, such as the 2099 Hobgoblin, the Ultimate Electro (very much resembling Doctor Manhattan), and the Noir Vulture.

My problem with the boss fights is when they're padded out.  For example, the Electro level.  You pursue the giant blue man and battle him, only to traverse more of the level to follow him and fight him again only for him to escape via cutscene for you to go and battle him one last time.  I've read some reviews that have said that this game is too short and I would be inclined to agree.  It's padded out profusely and doesn't really show a lot of thought in the level design when all the villains play the "Until next time, Batman!" card, fleeing and then meeting up with them again.

The padding done to the game is also reflected in the objectives within the levels themselves, none more so than the Deadpool level (Oh, yes, there's a Deadpool level). In tangling with the Merc with a Mouth, Ultimate Spidey must smash a series of cameras that are the eyes and ears of His Wilson-ness throughout his facility.  And after destroying said cameras...a few more come out for you to break.  Shattered Dimensions, let me go ahead and level with you.  When I finish off your objective, adding more of the same objective is not only incredibly cheap, it's arbitrary and a complete waste of my time after the third or fourth time you pull it to lengthen out your level.

But, in the end, can I really dislike this game?  Can I recommend a game that's three parts beat 'em up, one part Arkham Asylum, and several forced in parts of padding enough for Victoria's Secret to want the patents to it for their next bra?

Nope, I really can't.

I think the blurbs describing each section on the back of the box best describes my feelings over all.

"Amazing:  Battle with innovative web combat"...that is nothing different from how web combat has been done in any other Spider-Man game that has done web combat right.  No gold stars for following the set standard, Shattered Dimensions.

"2099:  Explore a futuristic New York City" ...if by "explore" you mean "follow a linear path through some places that have admittedly really good detail given to the scenery", then sure, I guess this applies.

"Ultimate:  Unleash the power of the Black Suit" ...beat up your enemies slightly faster! ...yeah, that's it.

"Noir:  Experience stealth based gameplay"...and experience becoming Swiss cheese if you're not all that good at that.

Another gripe that comes to mind is that the four Spider-Men only really interact at the very end of the story, following the defeat of Mysterio.  True, the boss fight section seems to incorporate all the them in a weird sort of tag team kind of way between each section of the fight, but I would have liked to see them interact more and perhaps even experience the universes of the different Spider-Men.  But all we get is one throw away line, and that's it.  Kinda cheap, Shattered Dimensions.

Despite my gripes, this isn't a bad game.  If you're a diehard Spider-Man fan (like me), then go for it.  Otherwise, you could stand to just give this one a miss and you won't really lose anything.  One big thing I can say to its credit (at least from my perspective), is that it doesn't try to shove how "awesome" Wolverine is in my face.

"Spider-Man:  Shattered Dimensions" is now available from Beenox and Activision for Xbox 360, Playstation 3, Nintendo DS, and PC.

This review is based on the Xbox 360 version.

Friday, December 7, 2012

MadCap's Game Reviews - "Skyrim: Dragonborn DLC"

It’s a good thing that this a written review instead of an audio one, largely due to the fact that I am really unable to properly form any sort of words with my mouth after playing this new DLC, much less any sentences.  This DLC is amazing! When Hearthfire came out a few months ago, I was vastly disappointed.  The kind of disappointment one really only receives from being promised the world and being given a rusty tin can and some string.  Dragonborn has proven to be everything that the previous DLC, for all its lovely aesthetic appeal that didn’t save it from being completely pointless, was not.

The storyline was picked up by my Dovahkiin in the city of Whiterun, where he was approached by two strange looking cultists (very reminiscent of the Knights of Order from Shivering Isles) who inquired as to whether or not I am the true Dragonborn.  After telling them I was, they made a poor life choice that resulted in them being piles of ash on the small bridge by the blacksmith and I found among their remains a note that led me to Windhelm, and eventually to the island of Solstheim.  That’s right, the beloved stomping ground of werewolves in Morrowind’s expansion Bloodmoon returns and has changed significantly since the time the Nerevarine came to meet the channel of Hircine.

The story follows the Dragonborn learning that the many sacred stones of the Skaal people have been corrupted by some unknown force that is getting anyone who comes into contact with it to build temples around them.  Sooner than later, we discover the identity of the cultists’ leader – the original Dragonborn.  And you lore fanatics might be screaming that it’s Saint Alessia, but it is in fact and individual that we’ve never met or heard of before.  I have to admit, that is a little disappointing (and given lore, more than a little confusing), but it soon becomes irrelevant as you go on more and more through the storyline.

It quickly becomes clear that your Dragonborn much become stronger than the one currently rising in Solstheim.  To do so, you seek the help of Hermaeus Mora, Daedric Prince of Knowledge and Memory, and can find a few new words to channel into Shouts.  The DLC also gives you a variety of new armors and weapons to try out that those players of Morrowind should find quite familiar – Bonemould and Chitin – as well as badass new Nordic armors among other things.

I really did enjoy playing through this DLC and I think you will, too.  I speak, of course, from a position of not even being remotely done.  Even after wrapping up the main questline of the Dragonborn, most of Solstheim is left open before me, untouched.  There are still many Dwemer ruins and Dragon temples to explore, and I wish to leave no stone unturned and you shouldn’t either.  The nods to things in Morrowind are just great and a big gushing point for me, as Morrowind remains to this day one of my favorite games.  Even some of the remains of House Redoran and Telvanni make appearances.  The homages are done in a way that doesn’t get in the way of the main story, and I like that.

Where Dragonborn falls short for me is in two areas: 1) The Dragon shout that allows you to tame and ride dragons, and 2) Morrowind itself.  The shout has a problem in that, I can get a dragon to come down and mount it, but I’m not even sure that I’m controlling where it goes.  When I tamed a dragon for the second time, in the forests of Solstheim (so I could test it out in a non-plot related event), the dragon would go in a certain direction for a set amount of time, and then loop back around.  No matter how I moved the control stick, it seemed I was unable to much control its movements.  Being able to lock onto targets from the air would be nice, but when are you ever going to have that many enemies to rain fire down upon? My Dragonhunter character, my main play right now, is nearing level 45 and he can easily dispatch even a crowd of enemies very well on his own.  But usually enemies aren’t in mobs of more than three or four.  I could see this being useful for maybe a bandit or a Forsworn camp, but not much else.  And if you can’t even really steer the dragon, what’s the point?  It just seems rather cheap for a mechanic that Bethesda was so blatant about promoting as something awesome.

And then, there’s Morrowind itself. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Morrowind is probably one of my favorite games of all time. It had depth and complexity to almost every facet of the storyline, it was just great and well thought out and all that. And the scenery, well it’s a Bethesda game, so the scenery is kind of a given it always looks good. But traipsing around the island of Vvardenfell, there was always this strange, exotic look to everything. When I first played it, I could see just from that that this was not the normal sword and sorcery tales I had grown so accustomed to. This was something wholly unique.

 I’m not really fond of Bethesda’s decision to have had the Red Mountain erupt and render Vvardenfell effectively uninhabitable, because it robs us of seeing so much amazing things that could have been done with Skyrim’s graphics engine.  Not to mention, I would have just loved to see how Vvardenfell had progressed in the 200 years since we last saw it.  It just seems like a rather cheap cop out, especially almost taunting us with Solstheim – an island that was within swimming distance in Bloodmoon – being the setting for this one.  But, I suppose in the end, it’s not all that bad and it doesn’t at all ruin the charm of this DLC.  If you’ve got an Xbox 360 and 1600 Microsoft Points lying around, I highly recommend that you get it.  It is completely worth it.

Oh, and the PS3 crowd will actually be getting this one, Bethesda has said. It’s about time, guys.