Monday, April 15, 2013

ZombiU Review - Survival of the Fittest

Score: 7.75 / 10
Developer: Ubisoft Montpellier
Publisher: Ubisoft
Release Date: November 18th, 2012

  • Revives the hesitance and caution that a survival horror game should possess
  • Gamepad works well in inventory management and map navigation
  • Healthy variety of guns and upgrades to adapt to your playstyle
  • Controls can be difficult to adapt to in the more hectic situations
  • Melee weaponry is limited to a single weapon
  • Repeating environments make the city feel a bit bland
  • Multiplayer limited to two players
ZombiU, ironically enough, revives a lot of what makes a survival horror game great. It brings the key element that makes the genre so enjoyable; hesitance. A single bite can kill you, and with zombies lurking in dark corners or roaming in packs through the streets, it becomes a game of caution as every enemy is a huge threat. Do you risk using bullets and creating noise or opt for a slower, quieter path? Do you engage the threat directly or sneak around? Do you stock up on barricades for a reinforced escape route or load up on health items? Though slumping on execution, ZombiU succeeds in creating a survival horror game filled with tension and trepidation.

Where is the nearest Home Depot?

You begin as any good apocalyptic based situation should; running for your life as zombies close in on your position, armed with nothing more than a good set of sprinting legs. Guided by an ambiguous voice known as "The Prepper" over a speaker system, your randomly chosen citizen makes it to a safehouse where you are tasked with finding a way out of the city. The overarching dilemma of escape soon becomes complicated as you cross paths with a doctor trying to cure the virus and a secret society dubbed "The Ravens of Dee". You begin to question your once solid commitment to your primary liberator, and your resulting loyalty will determine one of three possible endings. The choices feel less like actual decisions to make for completionists, but the questionable circumstance adds an indecisive trust. It's not very complex, but compelling enough, considering you embody a random character with no real backstory or speech.

The random identity you assume adds a sense of attachment. Once your character is bitten, you are down where you stand and are thrown into another distinct identity. Not only are you teleported back to the safehouse, you must also hunt your previous role down and kill yourself. It is an interesting mechanic that leaves you with an uneasy feeling as you bash your previous body's head in to retrieve your gear. Keeping your identity is not the only incentive in staying alive, as your character's once highly leveled marksmanship with weaponry will be lost upon death. Your corpse also has the possibility to appear in another players games, giving the subtle connection with the community in addition to spray painted warnings you can place on the wall.

Assuming the role of errand boy for The Prepper sets you out into different areas of the city, gathering items and slinking your way through droves of undead. Resources are precious, and simply blasting a path to your goal results in empty clips and panic. A single target on the map will indicate your goal, but the promise of stumbling upon a new weapon or finding a jackpot of medical items will have you combing through apartment buildings and suitcases to find every resource possible. Using a sewer system to fast travel between areas will have you returning to previously inaccessible territory as you gather new gear and upgrades. Objectives are pretty straight forward, and usually result in retrievals gone awry with alarms signaling undead or other events to heighten the already tense environment.

You couldn't have just used chalk?

The game works surprisingly well with the Wii-U Gamepad. Your map and inventory management is all handled on the seperate screen, using the touch screen to move items in your inventory or navigate the map to see what is ahead. A motion tracker sends out a blip on the map to detect enemies and points of interest, giving you a moment to enter a zone and plan ahead. The Gamepad is also used to scan your surroundings. Holding the controller up and looking around the room gives you the ability to scan enemies, items, and intel that can be marked on the map. Its blacklight will also show certain hidden messages that can lead to possible upgrades. With CCTV cameras opening up the map for each zone and the promise of finding loot, you find yourself using the feature quite often.

When the swarm of undead finally notice your presence, the game can get a bit hectic. While you begin fighting simple undead, eventually armored zombies or shrieking monstrosities will attract more enemies that can begin a panic. Luckily, there is a vast array of upgradeable weaponry for your preferred arsenal. Shotguns, machine guns, and the usual norm will be picked up for those who wish to be loud and sniper rifles and crossbows are available for those who prefer the long distance method. There is only a single cricket bat for melee situations, and killing one zombie takes an unsatisfying amount of time. The undead become predictable, but when a large group attacks, the click of an empty clip will make things frantic. The gamepad works well in inventory management, but during combat it can become difficult to switch weapons on the fly.

I'm out of bullets!...guess...guess I'll used that stuffed animal

A multiplayer mode is also included, but is limited to two players LAN. It's humans vs zombies in a capture point based game, with four scattered points on a map. One player acts as the zombie king, using the Gamepad to disperse forces against the human, upgrading to more formidable zombies as the game progresses. The human player has a set loadout of weaponry and must stave off the waves of undead while defending and capturing points, picking up powerups to stem the tide. It's a hectic situation for the human, and a manically enjoyable one for the zombie king as his zombies overwhelm the human's hold on a beacon. Though fun, the promise of adding a few more players to the fray would have extended the life of the experience.

ZombiU has its faults, but the overall survival horror experience was reminiscent of what the genre used to be. Limited resources, the reluctance of entering dark rooms, and the hectic fear that every zombie is as dangerous as the last keeps the game interesting. It makes great use of the gamepad in exploration and inventory management. The difficulties and issues with the controls and other faults may hold the game back from greatness, but as it stands, this ended up being my favorite launch title for the Wii-U.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

April Releases - Hutts, Heroes, and Hellions

Highlighted Release

Injustice: Gods Among Us
PS3 - Xbox 360 - Wii-U 
Developer: NetherRealm Studios
Publisher: Warner Brothers Interactive
Release Date: April 16th, 2013

April looks to finally give us a breather from big name titles, but Injustice: Gods Among Us looks to be the sleeper hit everyone could use this month. Bringing all the big names of the DC universe and throwing them into a Mortal Kombat inspired format seems like the formula for a great game. The fights that have been shown thus far show power behind every hit, a detail that fans can appreciate, and the potential for a story that could actually prove interesting and provide meaning behind all the beatings. It has been a while since a good fighting game has come about, and Injustice looks like the perfect title to break the trend.

April 1st

April 16th

April 23rd

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

A Beautiful Lie

There have been a substantial amount of cinematic trailers lately, each drawing my attention toward a different game. The Elder Scrolls Online showcased a particularly acrobatic archer, throwing his sword in the air to disperse three soldiers before catching it to finish a fourth. Starcraft 2: Heart of the Swarm's introduction presented a brilliant battle as a swarm of Zerg decimate a last stand of Terran forces. These trailers are always entertaining, brilliantly polished, and serve as a testament of quality to a game. That is when I realized something:

The actual game will never capture the feel of that cinematic.

That is not to say the game will be terrible or fail to offer such opportunities as showcased, but even at the highest possible level of play I will not feel like the character in the trailer. The archer that swiftly decimates a group of solders, will most likely stand in place shuffling between a set number of animations. The Starcraft battle of Zerg and Terran will not be a heart driven last stand, but become a brief explosive meeting in which each unit vibrantly fades into nothing.

My biggest personal experience with this discouragement was with Star Wars: The Force Unleashed. Prior to the game's release, a teaser trailer showcased a Sith taking down an entire star destroyer using only the force. I had never seen anything like that in the franchise history and was genuinely excited to experience it in-game. I purchased my copy, reached that pivotal moment, and was met with utter disappointment. The sequence was frustrating, tie fighters continually broke your connection, and the second you let go the ship magically plopped back to its original orbit. I was not the powerful, intimidating figure that was painted for me in the cinematic trailer, but a fumbling Jedi incapable of multitasking.
My focus needs more focus!
I blame much of this lowered expectation on something you would never expect; movie trailers. When you see a trailer for a movie it discloses the characters, small snippits of the plot, and general high points of the film. It essentially takes an hour and fourty-five minutes of film and deludes it to a two minute snapshot meant to entice you to purchase a ticket. The big difference is that what you see in a movie trailer will likely appear on the big screen, while cinematic trailers in gaming rarely allow you the participate in the epic battles they display or perform the elegant movements illustrated. You may bump into a few recognizable characters or walk through the same location, but the sense of familiarity typically ends there.

Part of this is due to the way these cinematic trailers are created. Square Enix, for example, is known for their lavish cinematics for Final Fantasy, Deus Ex, and the more recent Tomb Raider. Their internal studio, Visual Works, is the team responsible for this - taking the ideas and direction from the development team and turning into a visual representation of the final product. It's a similar process for other studios as well (Diablo III, SwtoR). Different parts of a studio or third party entrants will come in, look at the game, take everything into consideration, and craft their vision. The video below gives you a more in-depth look at their process:

So aside from the unrealistic notion of a cinematic trailer becoming gameplay anytime soon, what have developers done that has alleviated this predicament for me?

That would be the most common gaming adaptation of them all; quicktime events. Overlaying button prompts has become a practical norm nowadays, and I have always envisioned them as interactive cinematic scenes. God of War was the first experience I had with this, and a memorable one at that. Vigorously tapping the circle button vaguely mimicked the effort my spartan was putting into reeling a Hydra head closer and closer before slamming it into the deck. Though still lacking the flair of the cinematic, it's as close as one can get to feeling a sense of control as your character performs feats normally inaccessible to your standard movement.
I will defeat you, Hydra. I'm tapping as hard as I can!

Cinematic trailers have become more impressive with each generation of consoles, and despite my inability to mimic their unique feeling in-game, it is hard to be too bitter about it. The sole purpose of a cinematic trailer is to reel the viewer in while giving an "idea" of what the game will offer, and stands as physical evidence of the hard work and dedication going into the development of the title on all fronts. Sure, I may not be able to recreate an archer quite as cool as the one in the trailer, but that is perfectly alright if the overall quality reflects what went into making him so awesome in the first place. For now, I will simply bask in the beauty and professionalism put into these amazing teasers of what is to come...even if they turn out to be a lie.