Monday, November 14, 2011

In Which Thaddeus Attempts, and Likely Fails, To Measure Madness

Welcome to Wonderland
Today, we'll be looking into another sequel, though one not nearly as critically acclaimed, for either the precedent or the sequel, as Batman's latest outing.  Alice: Madness Returns is the sequel to the released-in-2000 cult favourite American McGee's Alice, though often merely in story conceit and design.  It takes place some time after the first game's deliriously happy and somewhat anti-climactic ending - Alice Liddel, now sporting a last name, is in the care of an orphanage run by the noted Dr. Bumby.  Of course, it turns out that she never really got over her family's death as related in the first game, the first of many sort of retcons Madness likes to sprinkle throughout its ten hours.  Soon enough, she finds herself back in Wonderland, less twisted than the first game but now sporting oil and machine chimeras known as Ruin mucking everything up.

Paint A Beautiful Canvas
The first thing most people notice about Madness is that it is a beautifully REALIZED game.  Every level has a cohesive and beautiful style, from an idealized Asian mountain to a wonderfully steampunk castle, that informs everything from enemies to Alice's wardrobe.  The graphics themselves are also quite good, especially Alice's hair, though there is a bit of texture pop-in that appears to be endemic to Unreal Engine games.  In addition to Wonderland's bizarre and wholly unique settings, the slums of London, visited in between areas of Wonderland, are brown, drab, brown, dull and off-putting; unlike most games of this generation, this effect is intentional and helps contrast brilliantly with Madness' mindscapes.

Forgetting Pain is Convenient
Of course, an absolutely amazing and fully realized art style isn't enough to carry a game by itself.  Sadly, the gameplay of Madness is fairly mundane and bare-bones.  You have access to all of Alice's out of combat maneuvers virtually right out of the box - shrinking is the only move you don't start with and it takes roughly five minutes to gain it - and there are only four weapons, a dodge, and a utility bomb to use in combat.  Hopefully, you really enjoy triple jumps, gliding, hovering on vents and weighing down switches because boy-oh-boy are you going to be doing that a LOT.  None of it is bad or particularly glitchy, the controls are incredibly competent, and level progression is usually fairly straightforward, it's just all quite same-y.

There is a fairly diverse rogues gallery to slash, crush, explode and season (don't ask) your way through in between the many platforming sections.  Aside from the ubiquitous Ruins plundering their way through Alice's world, each level has its own thematically appropriate enemies.  Most enemy encounters are actually quite fun to play through, mixing foes with dramatically different weak points and strategies, but they eventually suffer from the same malaise as platforming.  A few of the later levels, the second to last in particular, start to drag out as well, sometimes taking an hour or two to beat.

Different denotes neither Bad nor Good
The most important issue for a lot of people, and most of the people who actually remember the first game, is how well does Madness hold up against McGee's original.  I'm happy to say that in every respect, outside of a reduced total number of weapons, Madness is clearly superior.  It takes the story threads from the first game's incredibly loose plot and runs with them, crafting a much more interesting tale topped with a great ambiguous ending.  My sole complaint in the story department is that Madness spends so much time at the start basically recapping the first game's backstory - most of the first three levels, in fact - that it takes a bit too long to get to the interesting parts.
NOTE: If you're an American McGee purist, should such a thing exist, you may take umbrage with some of the retcons and personality 180s.  I doubt anyone else will notice or care.

Both combat, now a fluid and melee-oriented affair, and platforming, now with multiple jumps and gliding, are lightyears ahead of the original.  Level design is less abstract, but also far less maze-and-fake-door-happy, resulting in a much better experience.  Even the art style itself takes cues from the last game while expanding on them, with a particularly inspired take on Queensland being one of the most atmospheric levels in the game.

In Conclusion
Madness is a strange, strange beast.  Despite all the problems I had with it, I very much enjoyed my playthroughs.  It is one of those games that is strong enough in at least one field, art design in this case, that it buoys up the entire experience.  The plot, though initially anemic and reminiscent of McGee's Alice, does blossom into a wholly interesting flower of its own and comes to a satisfying conclusion.  If you are willing or capable of dealing with some uninspired - though thoroughly competent - gameplay, or have severe nostalgia for the first game, then I highly recommend picking up a copy of Madness.  For everyone else, it's definitely worth a rental.

6.5/10 - Recommended, with Caveats

Explanation for Score: 10 - 2 for generic, sometimes boring gameplay - 0.5 for slow plot burn - 1 for grade school level "puzzles".

Friday, November 4, 2011

A Brief Synopsis of the Rating Scale

Having posted the first review as of last week, I decided now would be a good time to explain the rating system we here at Wholly Accurate Reviews use to judge and ultimately condemn games with.  I was intending to toss out a review of Alice: Madness Returns, but you know what they say, "Intent is not content."*  So here we are.

Each game starts at 10 points out of a possible 10, which is "one hundred percent" in common parlance.  From this lofty starting score, points are deducted based on a number of categories: graphics, style, gameplay, plot, and frustration.  After each score, there will be an explanation of which categories are lacking and the amount of points lost.  Subtracting these points gets you the final score.  Fairly easy, and pretty obvious.

GRAPHICS - One of the most obvious categories.  Boils down to how many bump-maps and reticulated splines and polygons can they cram into a game, and does it run.  A game can lose up to one (1) point for hideous animation, poor models, juddery framerates, broken textures and more!

STYLE - Style is a more nebulous subcategory to Graphics, but in our opinion, far more important to the enjoyment of a game.  It indicates how cohesive the game's look is, how beautiful things are, how the graphics reinforce themes; essentially a gut reaction more than technical expertise.  A game can lose up to one (1) point for having a boring look or levels being pieced together with random doodads.

GAMEPLAY - Gameplay is the heart of the medium, and the thing that most separates it from movies and novels.  Being as important as it is, a game can lose up to five (5) points for being janky, controlling horribly, confusing button layouts, or poor camera.

PLOT - Though games rely mostly on their gameplay, plot does feature prominently in virtually every title.  Game plots are pretty much universally derided for their sub-high school-level dialogue and baby's first forced romantic subplots, so we won't judge too harshly.  A game can lose up to one (1) point for failing to meet even the low, low standards game plots are normally held.

FRUSTRATION - This category is basically a catch-all for anything that doesn't really fall into another category.  Things like overt racism, crippling bugs, shattered difficulty curves, poor feedback, required internet connections for single player games fall into the Frustration Factor.  A game can lose up to two (2) points solely based on how much it pisses us off.

And there you have it, the five categories and how much they're worth.  Hopefully this helps put our reviews into perspective.  Come on back next week for a double helping of juicy reviews - sequel to the semi cult-hit American McGee's Alice, Alice: Madness Returns, and Techland's undead kicking simulator, Dead Island.

*In keeping with our dedication to only bringing you fact steaks marinated in pure truth, I am forced to point out that they have not actually said this.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Millionaire in Costume Acts like Dick, Punches Clowns - News at Eleven

Here's a game that's near and dear to the select audience that loved both the first game and the comics that it's cribbing from - Batman: Arkham City.  It power dived into stores here in the United States on the 18th of October, trailing a wake of ragdolling critics hellbent on singing its praises loud and proud.  According to the only source of factual information on the internet, besides Cat and I of course, it sold roughly infinity trillion copies in the UK.  This information is incredibly useful for us, though I'm not entirely sure why.  Last, but not least, its aggregate score on aggregate scoring site Metacritic is hilariously high, averaging in the 95s across both platforms.

Now that's great and all, you may be telling yourself, but this isn't anything near a review of the game, just some background information that you looked up on Wikipedia.  And sure enough, you are an eagle-eyed and no-nonsense prince, dear reader.  I feel it's important to give you some background from other sources, so you can take what I say, compare it to others, and form your own opinions.  This is in no way meant to become the be-all, end-all review for anyone, just the half-formed touchy-feely bullshit of one guy and his Breath of Fire avatar.

Welcome to Arkham City
For those of you who aren't familiar with the conceit of Arkham City, it follows up some time after the disastrous events of Rocksteady's first Batman game, Arkham Asylum.  Dr. Hugo Strange, who is some kind of psychotic psychologist and/or psychiatrist, has basically: walled off a section of Gotham City; filled it with popular asylum-goers, prisoners, and basically anyone he doesn't like; and left them to their own devices with little food, no heat, and all the random shit they can find lying around to smash each other in the face so hard.  In a shocking twist of events, this turns out poorly for reasons unknown, leading to a bunch of themed goon areas under the employ of a huge cross-section of Batman's primary rogue gallery: Penguin, Two-Face, Joker, Riddler, etc.  Batman ends up inside through no fault of his own in the opening minutes and proceeds to run around, punching and headbutting everything he can find in the face until this whole "inmates running the asylum" thing resolves itself.

Batman and Samus, Sitting in a Tree
While I'd like to segue brilliantly into combat from that last sentence, we need to have a flashback to Arkham Asylum's core conceit first.  Namely, AA is very much set up in the easily-recognized style of Metroid and Metroidvania games - lots of fairly small areas with tons of secrets, alternate paths, and locked doors you bounce around until you've collected all the gadgets you need to unlock everything.  There tends to be a fair degree of back-tracking, but you're always rewarded in some way for each instance, making it a lot less boring than lesser games with the same layout.

The reason I mention this, other than to waste your time, is because Arkham City eschews this tightly plotted style for a sprawling sandbox filled with all kinds of in-jokes, references, and respawning assholes intent on ruining your day as you throw batarangs at giant question marks to unlock concept art.  There are a few inside areas, mostly villain-important lairs, but you'll find yourself largely flitting along in the air like a giant sine wave on your quest to fly all over Arkham City for numerous sidequests.

This is actually my first criticism of the game, and it's completely at odds with basically everyone else.  I vastly preferred the style of the first game for many reasons, the first of which is that Arkham City feels kind of weirdly disjointed.  The size of the map has a lot to do with it, since the villain-stew story of the first game was just as fractured.  AC has a huge city, all the more places to hide riddles and side-quests obviously, which makes travel a lot more time-consuming and distracting.  Second, all the frequently interesting, if sometimes hilarious, side-quests are hampered by being essentially random events in the world instead of having a linear plot take you through their areas.  It makes doing them a chore, finding them a chore, and spreads them out a little too much to keep them fresh in your mind, especially when you're trying to juggle whichever gaggle of villains you're currently dealing with in the main arc.

In spite of these niggles, travel around the game's world is actually incredibly fun, employing your sometimes-spotty-at-picking-the-right-ledge bat-grapnel, your increasingly torn yet nevertheless still flight capable bat-cape for gliding and power diving, and the quickly unlocked grapnel boost for speed and height from which to glide.  You can also just run around like a doofus, ruining everyone's day by gracefully breaking their faces in the beautiful dance of combat.

It's Batman!  Get Him!
There we are, a much better segue into Batman's art of combat.  Full disclosure: I am absolutely terrible at Rocksteady Batman games in the combat sense.  I don't have the required patience, reflexes, or sense of rhythm it asks for, and as a result I end up dying horribly a couple times only to clear a room without damage the second time.

For anyone who hasn't played Arkham Asylum, I invite you to go play that game first because it's still an amazing, well-polished game about a sociopathic millionaire and his hatred of people in clown makeup.  Combat works mostly like a game of reactions, timing your regular punches and special moves in between spinning your cape around and countering people trying to smack you upside your silly head.  The first game had a couple of special attack types, requiring different strategies to deal with, but was mostly straight forward.

Arkham City is Asylum++.  Everything about the first game returns, bigger and better, while adding a crapload more mechanics to confuse me.  You can now quickfire five gadgets in combat, there's more unique enemy types, and you get a bunch of special attacks and counter attacks, and more gadgets, and more enemies at once, and more in-depth counters, and more ways to initiate combat, and...

The thing is that even though it's way too complex for me to even begin aiming for a PERFECT FREEFLOW COMBO (which is everything in his arsenal in one gigantic uninterrupted orgy of limb-breaking) and I'm horrible at it, the combat is just so darned fun.  When everything works out, it's a beautiful thing to behold and even more impressive for the person who's controlling it.  AC has a nearly perfect curve of enemy element introduction as well, starting with regular thugs and working you through knives, stun batons, shields, guns, big guys, armor, and swords as the game progresses.

The other side of combat, aptly titled "Not Combat" or "Predator", is much the same as the first game.  Hide in the shadows, choke people out, throw some batarangs, don't get caught.  There's actually very little change from Asylum's predator modes, other than the main game never setting bombs on your "Get Out of Jail Free" gargoyles.  Predator is still my favorite part of the game, which makes it a shame there seems to be a lot more of the punching dudes, which I suck at.

That Is Seriously the Worst Disguise
Speaking of suck, let's take a quick gander at sidequests!  In short, they don't really suck.  Some of them, as mentioned before, are a little haphazard and random in their encounters.  Others are as simple as wander around blowing up stuff marked on the map.  The one thread tying them all together, though, is fan service.  Want to see one of Batman's villains but they didn't see fit to toss them into the main plot all willy-nilly?  Chances are that there's a sidequest that has little to do with anything lying around just so you can meet them face-to-face!  Being side arcs, there is usually no characterization for the villain du jour and they're all pretty short.  Granted, so is the cameo-heavy main plot, but it's nice to mix things up with some detective mode or talking with Oracle.  There's also one mission that had me rolling on the floor laughing at the end, which I'm pretty sure isn't the tone this grimdark game was looking for.

The sole sidequest that isn't a quickie one-shot is also the only returning one from Asylum: The Riddler.  Still obsessed with leaving green ? trophies everywhere, The Riddler's mission spans the entire game and probably then some, depending on how dedicated you are to finding all FOUR HUNDRED of his trophies, riddles (read: take a picture of something), and random things you can batrang to death (including cameras, balloons, and penguins).  These are still fun as hell, though some are a little bit of a pain, but I do have to level a little criticism towards their overemphasis on Batman's ancillary lore.  To whit, there are riddles I had no idea the answer to at first, because I'm not really a Batman fan.  Stuff like remembering who Aaron Cash is, or Maxie Zeus, or The Falcone Family.  Luckily, it's all possible due to a new mechanic that lets you find Riddler's goons, ask them for information, and then punch them really hard.

Sorry To Disappoint You Boys. It's Just Little Ol' Me
At last we reach the section I was looking forward to the least, despite its importance.  Frankly speaking, Arkham City is bizarrely degenerate in one category: sexism.

Now, I don't feel like arguing with people over this but it needs to be said.  Despite leaps forward in mostly every other category, except with regards to its sprawling map, Arkham City is as juvenile and disgusting towards women as the medium it's cribbing from.  I guess that is kind of laudable, in a way.  From Catwoman's idiotic zipper to Harley's new and even more moronic costume (bonus points for being confrontational about it, Rocksteady) and the constant "bitch" and overt sexual threats aimed only at female characters, Arkham City seems to wallow in boring, trite sexism for reasons unknown to me.  Call it whatever you like: realism or verisimilitude in a game based on themed and costumed idiots breaking clown limbs; me trying to be offended by disgustingly backwards garbage; not a problem because "I'm a guy and of course rape isn't a problem".  Don't care, probably won't waste time debating with you.

It's stupid and hurts this game for a lot of people, including me, which sucks because of how great the rest is.  If you're really curious about a more detailed breakdown of this, check Film Crit Hulk or any one of the numerous other blogs who've exhaustively detailed this nonsense.

Bite-Sized Summary of Salient Points
Arkham City is a fantastic game.  It improves on virtually every aspect of the last game.  There are two major criticisms I have with it: a disjointed cameo-heavy story lacking in characterization for mostly everyone, and its repugnant treatment of occasionally-strong-in-the-source female characters.

8.5/10 - Highly Recommended

Explanation for Score: 10 - 0.25 for Style Change - 0.25 for Plot - 1 for sexism.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Wholly Accurate Pledge

Welcome, dear readers, to Wholly Accurate Reviews.

As the title suggests, we here at WAR are, unlike the rest of the internet, dedicated to providing you with only the finest in truth-based reviewing - time permitting.  Our areas of expertise range from the finest arts (MICRO REVIEW: Picasso was a pretty swell painter) to the poorest...sciences, I guess.  With these sterling, and more importantly unverifiable, credentials in mind, be prepared for hard-hitting criticism and biting wit, draped across every post like mysterious Oriental silks.  In fact, we're absolutely positive that you'll enjoy our deep, meandering prose so much, we're willing to provide you with this ironclad guarantee:

We promise to meet and possibly, though perhaps not probably, even exceed your wildest dreams.

These words are our pledge, our gift, to you, the sight-seers in the majestic forest of rhetoric we call Wholly Accurate Reviews.  Treasure them always.

- Thaddeus Blank, Prevaricator-in-Chief