Thoughts On… Metro 2033

Metro2033_wiki

Publisher: THQ
Developer: 4A Games
Year of Release: 2010
Platforms: PC, Xbox 360, PS3

Based on the games I’ve played from Russian developers, they must be the most depressed developers in the world. The STALKER games are bleak apocalyptic wastelands filled with death and horror while Cryostatis was a deeply upsetting and tense voyage through a ship frozen in the polar ice. I guess its in part due to the hard ships that their country has overcome (invaded constantly, weather that hates mankind and bad stereotyping) but it sure helps to make atmospheric games such as THQ’s Metro 2033.

Based on a recent Russian novel, Metro 2033 takes place in Moscow after humanity decides to stick the middle finger up at Sting and nuke the crap out of each other. Most of the Muscovites hide in the underground stations to avoid the nuclear winter, due to the fact they are built like bomb shelters any way. Over the years, these stations became their own states each with their own specific character (under siege state, communist state, factory state). Above ground, the radiation has ruined the surface and plunged the earth into nuclear winter as well as creating hordes of mutants that are attempting to get into and turn the humans into steaks. Even worse than even the mutants are the rumours of the Dark Ones, the new bogeyman that parents use to scare their children to sleep. This world is a horrible, gritty and grim vision of the future made worse by the fact that even when humanity’s very existence is in trouble, we are still trying to kill each other – the war between the Communists and the Nazis still carries on underground, in the ruined stations and the cavernous tunnels.

1262662-ss_b06d9916b6733c58a5c99a6d80fe9bad5ac25c5a_1024x768

Your actual role is a much simpler one. Your character comes from one of the outlying stations, which is constantly under threat from the hordes of evil banging on the airlock. After a friend of your father’s goes missing in the wasteland, you head to the central station to relay the news of an impending attack. Along the way, you experience a cross section of the underground life. You fight the frontline of the war between the Commies and the Nazis, trek through a haunted tunnel with a spiritual ranger and then venture above ground to look through the ruins of Moscow. The story is a brilliant setup for the action, dragging you from set piece to set piece. Some of the associated dialogue that goes with it, as with many games from the Eastern Bloc, is lacking some of the quality of other games that came out in the same month. I also like the fact the background information isn’t just shoved in your face but is instead picked up by simply standing around in the hubs, listening to the chatter of the passing civvies as they relax in the cramped huts that line the corridors.

Unlike the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series of games to which it resembles in look and tone, the game is a simple corridor (often quite literally) shooter. There are no faction levels to monitor or free roaming to be had – instead the focus is on scripted experiences such as the rail car sequence near the middle of the game. All these sequences are really good, with no single one that left me feeling that I’d wasted time. Each one has various pathways which allows each playthrough to be done differently – an example is “The Line” were you can either fight your way through the battling sides or simply drop down to the floor (which does use up your gas mask filter due to the noxious gases) and sneak past all of them. These do add a little replayabilty to the game, which it is slightly lacking due to the absence of multiplayer.

One particular feature I quite like is the design of the weapons. There are several weapons that survived the nuclear war (such as the old standby the AK) but most of your arsenal is made from bits of other weapons that are strapped together. The double barrel shotgun is quite simply two tubes of metal strapped together with wire, while the Bastard (a starting SMG) is akin to a Sten gun – a lump of metal made as cheap and as quickly as possible. The funnier selections are the pneumatic weapons which require you to pump up the gas chamber. Every time I used them, it just felt like I was using a super soaker. Other standout weapons include the semi automatic shotgun, due in part to the worlds most inefficient magazine system which leaves a massive gap when you need it the most and also one of the coolest looking games, and the revolver, which when given a scope and/or stock is effectively a mini-sniper rifle.  However despite all of the weapons feeling and sounding powerful, they can occasional feel a little weak. The enemy troops can act as bullet sponges due to their body armour so all combat has to be focused on location damage to the head or legs and arms. The mutants on the other hand range from the disposable rat things to fucking annoying Librarian/Gorilla bastards (see below) which take more lead than the amount lying on the roofs of all the world’s cathedrals. The worst are the flying daemons which require a grenade or two in the face (bearing in mind that they fly) to kill. These factors combine to make battles quite challenging and often requiring a checkpoint reload

1369111-metro2033_2010_05_10_17_24_17_79

Relating to the weapons is the games currency – military grade bullets. The story says that collections of pre-war military class bullets are impossible to manufacture and so now are used as currency. Yes, you are using bullets to buy slightly crappier bullets. These are then used to buy new equipment and stock up on the essential before venturing back into the tunnels. In the early game it is rather hard to get enough to buy the good weapons, but most of the time you end up finding the best weapons lying around or are given to you. It is more of an issue when buying ammo as you never find it in large enough quantities to fully stock up, making some sections rather hard or requiring you to rush around looking for rounds rolling on the floor like a squirrel looking for its nuts.

Due to the messed up surface world, some places require you to wear a gas mask to progress through. These sections shows off the game’s sound especially, as when the mask goes on the sound and view of the world changes. Everything sound more bassey and as you are injured your breath becomes louder and raspier. However, the sound of breathing can also mean that your gas mask has become unsealed due to your gun play. The gas mask require two separate things to think about – gas filters and the aforementioned damage. This can make it rather complicated when you are above the ground and all you can hear is your breath – is your gas mask holed enough to be a problem or is it that your filter has just run out and your breathing in radioactivity? You can look at your watch but the vast majority of the time it doesn’t seem to correspond to what’s going on. The gas mask isn’t the only bit of gear – there is also your torch and your night vision goggles. Both of these require you to manually keep the power up via a hand cranked recharging system or else they lose effectiveness, with the NVGs cutting out totally. In the tunnels both of these are essential – as well as letting you see the bad guys, the torch is the only thing that can reveal the instant-kill ghosts while the NVGs allow you sneak past the bad guys before jabbing a knife in their back. The items also all have animations for using them, so when you need to put your NVGs on, the camera pans up to show you clipping them onto your helmet before pulling them over you eyes. It helps to tie you into the world a lot more, especially when used alongside the very minimal HUD and the physical journal/map.

1369098-metro2033_2010_05_10_17_14_52_46

As I have said, the game isn’t without its issues. As well as  the bullet sponge firefights, the enemy AI is a little simplistic. The enemy humans are fine, taking cover and laying down suppressive fire. The mutants on the other hand are very different – most battles end up with some side stepping, walking backwards and the odd quick time event when one decides to jump on you and eat your face off. Its a little annoying when most of the game is focused around firing lead at high speed towards bad guys. Despite this it is also rather hard, with the enemies liking to be constantly attacking and the number of health or other items rather hard to find. It can be hard to find a new mask when your current one has a gapping hole in it which can lead to rather quick death. Worse the game is also short at around 8 hours with no real replayablity apart from the level specific achivements (it requires Steam by the way for Steamworks) and trying out new tactics.Actually, I don’t really care about the lack of multiplayer. Many games (like STALKER) stuck in multiplayer just to seem more appealing to the western market but they always end up being so generic and lacking in other players apart from one guy is now the expert on it. Even just playing through it you could feel how it would be done  and the gameplay just wouldn’t suit it. The time that would have been spent on multiplayer has been instead used to great effect elsewhere on the tech and the rest of the game.

Metro 2033 is also rather good looking. A lot of work went into the lighting and the fog due to its use throughout. It is used rather well to crank up the atmosphere and make the stealth sections better. One such places that looks rather spectacular is the wide open areas of the Library on the surface, with dust being highlighted in the light. Unfortunately, the wall and floor textures are a little hit and miss in some places while most of the character models are a little glass eyed and fast approaching the uncanny valley. The audio is also excellently done and also benefits the sneaking points as well as when the action kicks off. My main issue with the tech is the frame rate – like its Ukrainian cousin S.T.A.L.K.E.R., it has a major issue with some of the optimisation leaving some very good looking graphics crippled by its framerate. Which is a shame.

1204731-metro20335

I’m relatively easily pleased and I love games from Russia. Metro 2033 has a great setting, some great ideas and is a perfect match of survival horror and shooter. However, its failings can mar the good points and once you’ve finished it there is little reason to go back and play it again. Even so, the experience through is one not to forget, so why not give it a go?

Thoughts On… Frozen Synapse Multiplayer Beta

(This preview is for a work in progress game and so things may change between now and release)

synapseMini

Frozen Synapse isn’t your normal indie multiplayer game. It has all the tension of games like Counter Strike, but  mixed with the tactical thought usually applied to the XCom games or Commandoes. And it looks as though it all played out in Tron.

You control a team of operatives with various weapons battling out against their opposite numbers in various randomised locations. There are various modes available but mainly its all about killing as many of their dude while keep yours alive. Its played out turn based, but instead of each game taking hours and hours to play, they are over in minutes in part due to the fact each players plan out their moves at the same time. This leads to some hilarious messes where your opponent messes up completely which leaves you to devastate his team in one go.

1

It is really simple to pick up, with the modes easily explained at the very start of each level. Each of the classes have their own different specialities – for example, the standard assault rifle troopers are good all-rounders, but if they meet a shot gunner in a corridor they will probably not survive. As well as that, there are the snipers to pick off the stragglers while if you want to blow stuff up the RPG or the grenade launchers will easily wipe out an entire team in one go. All of the classes feel just right and each has their own role to play with very little overlap.The command system is also nice and intuitive. The pathfinding by default can be a bit hit and miss when placing move orders but if you need to be careful you will place every single point yourself. I love the intricate plans you can do with the wait order, ignore or aim commands which allow you characters (despite being from the overhead view) to do all sorts of actions you would imagine real life trained killers would do. In fact, you can pin down a room just by the careful use of aiming arcs, blocking off door and windows with automatic gun fire.

The tech is also pretty good. It sound really good for an idie game, with punchy gunfire sound during the main battles. Music isn’t in the game at the time of writing, but from the album you can download with the premium version of the game it suits the cool, detached air of being a commander sat at a desk away from the fighting. It also looks really good for a game that runs on old PCs –  it has the feeling of 3D to it while the effects of running gun battles or RPG strikes light up the surroundings impressively. Even at this stage it looks really, really polished.

multisplode

Overall I love the game so far. It has a few bugs to iron out and there is no singleplayer campaign, but the multiplayer holds great potential. Its lightweight, runs on pretty much anything and takes five minutes to play. It is almost designed to be played at a lunch time. Also, if you buy it now you get into the beta but you also get a free copy to give to a friend who will also get the full version

Frozen Synapse is currently in beta for PC and Mac and is available from the website at http://www.frozensynapse.com/

Thoughts On… Just Cause 2

Just_Cause_2

Publisher: Eidos/Square Enix
Developer: Avalanche Studios
Year of Release: 2010
Platforms: PC, Xbox 360, PS3

Some games are designed as art, with exquisite art styles and/or a message or a specific point. Others are simply multiplayer death matches. Just Cause 2 is another style of game – a kiddies playpit with a B movie plot, terrible voice acting but a physics engines that plays to its strengths and the best open worlds I have ever seen.

The original Just Cause introduced to Rico Rodriguez, Latin super spy and ladies man, a composite of all the best movie heroes from James Bond to El Mariachi. In the first game he freed the island of San Espirito from tyranny and now he is back to create some chaos in Panau, an archipelago in the South Pacific that has experienced a regime change via the new dictator, Baby Panay. Worse, Rico’s old mentor, Tom Sheldon, has gone rogue on this island chain. So your objectives are clear – find Sheldon, cause chaos, and win this island back from its dictator.

06_large

So how to do it? Well this game does something magical and assigns chaos a numerical value. By blowing up carefully marked items in the world, finding collectables and doing faction missions you can gain more chaos which in turn unlocks more missions to gain more chaos to do more missions to progress with the story. Rinse, dry, repeat. The chaos also unlocks a black market items, allowing you to call in all the guns and vehicles you need to get on with the story. Its a nice framework for a rather generic set of missions, encouraging you to go round blowing up radio masts, propaganda statues and (bizarrely) water towers to show off the games amazing graphics/physics engines. Even better, due to the fact all these items are marked out in red, you start to go into autopilot and simply blow up every single thing as you simply drive through them.

 011259947040

That said you won’t be driving that much. The cars handle fine (although the police do like popping tires making most cars useless after 5 seconds) while the boats are so-so, but there are three other modes of transport that are much better. Bikes are great fun to bomb around in, jumping over bumps and pulling off stunts, while planes are so simple to fly and pull off action movie style tricks (want to jump from a stunt jet to an airliner and back again? You can!). However, there is one mode of transport that is not only unique to the series but also the best way to travel around I’ve seen. By using a grappling hook and an infinite supply of parachutes, you can fly around the island to your hearts delight, clamping onto the scenery to swing yourself around at high speed. For most of the game, I never touched the cars (and in fact I did several missions involving car chases by simply grappling alone. The grappling hook is also a great help, making missions more fun than simply running through with guns out. You can tie people to other people, people to jets, jets to cars and so on and so forth. My only real issue with it is that its has a short range but apart from that its hilarious to use.

17_large

Of course you also have guns to kill people with. Most are fun to use (the submachine gun being the one to choose) but there is a major flaw with all of them – ammo runs out way too fast. You can’t carry enough and each enemy requires a metric ton of lead to the face to die. However, as soon as you pull out a rocket launcher or a grenade they die super easy. The balance of the weapons just feels off. Worse still is the black market which seemed like a good idea at the the time but is terrible to tool up for a night on the slightly burnt town. Between buying each item, you have to select it, watch a cut scene, bring up the beacon to bring the Sloth Demon (the black marketer) back, watch a video and then repeat. Its just clunky.

So why have i spent over 20 hours playing this game? Because it is just great fun to bomb around what equates to Paradise on earth. Panau is a mixture of various terrain types, from the deserts of the south, to the tropical beaches up to the towering snowy mountains of the centre. All of these places look amazing with some of the best graphics I have seen. Additionally, the map is packed full of settlements (over 300 listed places with various others not on the list) with each totally different yet all based around a similar theme. They are the perfect for the whole action movie look, with Rico hanging off jeeps as they drive through lush jungles while being chased by thugs. What makes this even better is how well it runs on PC – a smooth 30fps no matter what on my PC with even older PCs running well. But all this happens while also looking beautiful with some of the most perfect sunsets you have ever seen. The character models are not quite as impressive but nearly everything else is quite nice. To fit in with the B movie atmosphere, the music and sound effects all suit an ‘80’s action film, with even cars flipping over in the air producing the “swish, swish” sound you’d expect to hear while Arnie shoots people up.

jc2_cream_003.bmp

What I’m trying to say is that this game is not the best game ever, but despite its flaws it is a brilliant toy. Its perfect for just five minutes of game, where you can jump in for a bit of bloodshed while you wait for Dr Who to start. Just don’t try and 100% it in one go – it may actually ruin it. But how many games allow you to tie a car to a jet, take off and then drop it into a oil refinery and watch it burn. I love chaos.

 

 

You guys are still reading? Okay here is how to really have fun with Just Cause 2 – buy it on PC and get hold of some of the mods and trainers. Once you’ve finished it, fill it up with crazy things – stuff like invincibilty or unlimited ammo. Also get hold of some mods to make the grappling hook have longer range, a stronger rope (means you can tie tanks to helicopters without the rope snapping) and allow multiple grapples. They make the game even more stupid than it already is.