Thursday, July 22, 2010

LIMBO Review

Score: 8.75/10


Developer: Play Dead Studios
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Release Date: July 21, 2010

Cost: 1200 MS Points / $15

Pros: Gorgeous and stylish look, stunning presentation and overall atmosphere, Intuitive physics puzzles that really make you think, forgiving checkpoints for trail and error situations

Cons: Short - clocking in at about 3-5 hours for the average player, Wait that was a platform?, Sopranos inspired ending

It had been some time since I last purchased an arcade title from the Xbox live Marketplace, with Shadow Complex being the last truly entertaining download. I had been hearing incredible things about Play Dead's latest platformer, LIMBO. Taking a break from playing catch-up on games I missed out on, I thought I would give it a try.

As soon as you launch the game you realize that this is far from the typical side scrolling platformer. This is due to the fact that there is no real story to LIMBO besides what you piece together. It is much like Portal, in that you awaken in a strange place and the game slowly unfolds before you. No text giving an objective, no voiceover discussing a long journey and a destiny; just a boy waking up in a strange forest pushing forward towards some goal.

As far as presentation goes, this is a memorable experience. There is no true soundtrack to the game at all, with only an occasional quiet melody chiming in on key moments. As crazy as it may sound, it matches the game well. The only sounds that accompany you are the wind blowing, downpour of rain, and many other soft tones that add to the desolate setting of the game. The overall atmosphere and smooth transition from puzzle to puzzle really pulls you into the game. It does not seem like one of those games where the developer decided, "This is the factory level!" or "This is the water level!". It feels like one streaming journey through an empty, and haunting world. With only black and white colors, the game sure looks a lot better than most arcade games out there. It certainly plays on the color tone, offering bright and shiny segments with pitch black caves where all that can guide you are the blinking eyes of the boy.

As far as gameplay is concerned, the game functions much like a physics platformer. What starts simple enough with boulder and lever physics soon becomes a complex game that really makes you think when faced with changing gravity direction and rotating rooms. Where at the start a puzzle could take about five minutes to figure out, the latter rooms had me running around for a good twenty minutes before I figured out what I was suppose to do. Don't expect just box pushing and gap jumping, as the game is littered with hazardous bear traps, live electric platforms, giant spiders, and even mind controlling worms that force you to walk in a certain direction. It did not help that every time I died I felt a little terrible, as the image of a small child, even a shadowy faceless figure, being decapitated by a bear trap or impaled on a spike really sticks with you.

While gorgeous and inviting, the game did have a few drawbacks. The main problem seems to be the length of the game and sudden ending. While I was able to breeze through in little over 3 hours, most are clocking in around 3-5 depending on how adept you are at figuring the puzzles out in a timely manner. The time spent was quite enjoyable, but the sudden ending left a little to be desired. Before you shrug this title off because of the length, there are a handful of achievements and hidden items that keep you motivated to continue playing for a least a little longer. This includes one achievement in which you must complete the game in one sitting without anymore than five deaths; no easy task considering a majority of the puzzles require key timing.

Another issue I was having had to do with the art direction. While the black and white shades of the game produce a beautiful and unique look, it can be a pain sometimes in platforming. Placing an all black trap on an all black ground just invites random deaths. Though the speedy checkpoints did alleviate this problem, falling into the water because you are unsure what is a platform and what is simply background art can become irritating after a few deaths. Expect many instances of trial and error.

Despite the few drawbacks, this remains one of the more impressive Arcade titles I have downloaded. Nothing else approaches the overall feel and look of this game. Though short, the 3-5 hours you experience with the game will stick with you well after playing. It's fun, challenging, and a joy to watch as you go from puzzle to puzzle.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Kinect Impressions

Microsoft's Kinect seems to be all the talk lately. Some find it interesting, some find it passable. I found myself initially falling into the passable crowd, but began to question the reason. What is it about the Kinect that has some gamers turning away and rolling their eyes?

The hardware itself does not seem to be in question. Let's face it, the Kinect is a pretty impressive piece of equipment. Speech recognition, a motion control camera that tracks active people, sleek design and look; the pieces seem in place.

The main thing driving me away is included as the pitch in the title: You are the controller. While this is something completely new and it something that you really want? In certain applications this idea makes total sense. The menu navigation remains one of the high points of its function, allowing you to simply wave your hand around to choose what you want like something out of a sci-fi flick. Even the video chat and voice commands are something that would be incredibly fun to show off to friends. When it gets down to the gaming function, I find myself stepping away.

I will feel confined without a control stick, stuck in one single place. With the Wii or PS Move, the control stick lets my character walk around freely in 3D space, going where I want and exploring what that shiny thing could be in the corner or placing my character in their desired position for a sports title. With the Kinect, it seems like I might be rooted into the ground, my limitations being the window I am included in. It does make me wonder, are we to expect on-rails titles for the majority of releases? Perhaps an RTS could utilize a lot of the functions, but at the moment all we have really seen are stationary titles and on-rails applications.

I have always been big on exploring in any game that allows me to, checking those empty corners for anything of interest or stepping near the cliff to get a good overview of a town before I trudge through the streets. The Kinect could hinder this desire, but at the same time, save me from wasting my time looking through dark alleys for items or setting me in the prime position for a sports game.

I also feel like the Kinect is essentially making me pay to play "pretend". Allow me to explain: The Kinect is really pushing sports games and driving simulators. I don't know about you, but pretending to have a steering wheel in my hand for a driving game is really bizarre. Want to practice for the Kinect? Hold you hands up right now, turning right and left like a steering wheel would. Understandably a bunch of pretty visuals will accompany me along the way, but having the feeling of a tangible object in my hand makes the experience much more satisfying and I get closer to the feeling of driving. The same can be said for Kinect table tennis, golf, or any other sport requiring equipment to accomplish the goal. Without the actual item in my hand or something representing that item, it feels weird. Would you rather use your finger as a pretend gun or have a wooden one add weight and shape?

Not to say the Kinect does not have any titles going for it at all. As cheesy and stupid as Dance Central sounds, it is the one game utilizing Kinect's technology in the best way. Having controllers in my hand while trying to dance would get in anyone's way, and the tracking capability of the Kinect promises to accurately depict my dancing ability (oh yes, it exists). The same can be said for the fitness titles and the boxing games. Even a few of games from Kinect Adventures look to be an enjoyable time with a slew of minigames at your disposal, and the in-game snapshots seem like it could make the perfect party game. They make great use of the technology at their disposal.

Another huge point driving gamers away from the Kinect? Price. Amazon had released a price point of $150. The price point could be seen as expensive, but acts more as a medium for comparison. People will ask themselves this holiday season, "Well I could get the Kinect, or for 50 bucks more a PS3 slim." To be fair, throw in a few controllers and games and the consoles are quite a bit more expensive, but that is not what the typical consumer will have in mind. Tacking on the rumor that the games would also run about $59.99 did not help either. Let's face facts, these are no high-end developer title games at launch. With the exception of a couple of titles, much of their initial line looks like a series of mini-games that could hold a person's attention for a few days.

To be fair, there are developers on board. Activision Blizzard, Bethesda Softworks, Capcom, Disney Interactive, Electronic Arts, and even Konami to name a few. While the launch titles may seem shrug worthy, the names listed could provide some truly incredible software to utilize the Kinect to its full potential.

So will the Kinect totally flop this holiday season? Of course not. While many are shaking their heads now, the lack of any new console announcements and bundle packaging with the new Xbox 360 Slim leaves me confident that the Kinect will in fact sell pretty well. However, the software launching with the system left me unimpressed, and I began to wonder what kind of reviews we could expect for the initial titles. Without a hands-on demo at my disposal, this is all really speculation and observation. After watching the demos and reading more about it, I am still on the fence about a purchase.

So how about you? Is the Kinect on your Holiday wish list?