Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Yesterday's Worlds #3: BEA, Black, and Blade

Battle Engine Aquila (Lost Toys/Atari/2003) - New.

You really can learn things from video games. Case in point: Before writing this blog post, I thought Aquila was a made up word. Imagine my surprise when the spell checker didn't flag it as misspelled! A quick Wikipedia check told me it is the Ancient Roman term for "eagle" and it was also what they called their sacred standards (which looked like eagles) carried by each legion. This is a fascinating fact...which has nothing to do with the game.

You pilot a ship (from first person perspective) that can fly or walk on the ground while fighting numerous enemy ships and tanks. You've been chosen for this duty because of your prowess at speedy "forklift" racing - which is odd considering the Battle Engine isn't very fast and you weren't shooting anything while racing. Equally unexplained is why the faction you are fighting for would design a ship incapable of touching water (where it explodes!) in a world where sea levels have risen to a point where land is scarce. I guess the "it should float on the water" engineer was killed by the enemy before production of the Battle Engine. If so, it was an excellent tactical move on their part!

The gameplay reminds me of the old N64 game "Star Wars: Rogue Squadron" - mostly because of the continuous berating of commanders barking orders and the pleas for help from the ships I'm supposed to protect. You know, I play games to relax and have fun. If I enjoyed this kind of abuse, I'd go work at Gamestop.

This isn't a particularly pretty game (it's got that PS1 developer's first PS2 game look to it), but it did have one interesting moment. During an opening battle against flying enemy battleships, I was able to land on the wing of one of the slow moving ones and fire point blank at it until it started to explode and crash. I can't think of any other combat game that would have let me touch, let alone land, on an enemy craft - usually you just die instantly. But this wasn't enough to keep my interest, so I locked, loaded, and moved on to...

Black (Criterion Games/EA Games/2006) - Played before.

I wanted another shot at playing Gun-Porn Black. When it was released, OPM rhetorically asked if it was the last great game of the PS2 (which it turned out it wasn't, but the reviewer was so impressed he gave the game a 10/10). The game got considerable press coverage because Criterion was at that point only known for making kick-ass racing games (ie, the Burnout series). Plus it looked amazing for the hardware it ran on (PS2 and Xbox) and this in a time before Call of Duty had settled into dominance on the console scene. Had things worked out differently, the game coming out today (11/5/13) might have been called "Black: Ghosts".

The first level of the game was brilliant - a fairly easy battle on war torn city streets ending with you making an RPG shot at a sniper in a bell tower and watching it crumble to the ground. It takes about 10-15 minutes to get through. Then, something happened. The next level is more of a stealth mission, making you creep through a forest setting around armed guards to reach a border checkpoint that you have to fight your way through. There are few health packs to find (no auto-regenerating health here), all enemy soldiers seem to be immune from anything but headshots, and the level goes on forever - according to the FAQ I read it can take about an hour and a half to complete! And all of this without any checkpoints to go back to or even a map to follow! I can only suspect that the designers were too used to racing games and didn't know the kinds of things that FPS games need to be playable. From a technical aspect, they hit the mark, but the fun part of the game hits the brakes too early and winds up in the ditch. So, I left the burning wreck and went for a day walk to...

Blade II (Mucky Foot Productions/Activision/2002) - New.

Oh dear, another flag bearer to carry on the stereotype of bad movie tie-in games. This one showed no shame in its intention, running an ad for the movie's release on DVD before the game even started! All the usual suspects are here - the story has nothing to do with the movie (it's actually set after the events in the movie according to the manual's intro), no voice acting from the original cast, and cheap production values (the game starts in a multi-level parking garage where, big surprise, every level looks like every other level). It's only because I'm a big fan of the movie (the best of the three) that I even gave this an hour before I shut it off.

Monday, November 04, 2013

Yesterday's Worlds #2: Batman Begins....And Finishes!

Batman Begins (Eurocom Entertainment Software/EA Games/2005) - New.

Games that are born for the purpose of cashing in on a movie's release are, for the most part, some of the worst ever made - AEon Flux, previously mentioned here, being a perfect example. But, every once in awhile, the stars align themselves just right (or more accurately, a studio gets enough time, money, talent, support, and wise management) to produce a good movie tie-in game. That magical configuration happened for "Batman Begins".

OK, let me start by saying that this is NOT a "great" game. It's no Ico, God of War, Final Fantasy, or GTA. However, it's a good solid game that does something more license bearing titles should aspire to - it makes you feel like you are playing the movie it's based on. Eurocom was given the support of Warner Brothers to create a game that follows (mostly) the story of Batman Begins (a bit unfortunate as it wasn't the best Batman movie). They were able to get the original actors to do voice overs and to use their likenesses in the game. And the developers were talented enough to make the character models look like the actors!

The gameplay has been called "Splinter Cell for kids" because it's a fairly stripped down stealth game with some brawling (and some Burnout style racing with the Batmobile!). But I see it as just boiling down a stealth game to it's basic, enjoyable parts. Weapon types in the game are kept to a minimum as are special moves and stealth techniques. Objectives such as grapple points or doors are highlighted, but it's up to the player to figure out how to reach them. This usually comes down to finding a ladder, pipe, box, air shaft, or hanging chain to use. None of these are highlighted, so it becomes a matter of really looking at your environment to find them. They are never hard to find, but blend in just well enough that it makes it satisfying when you do. It's a great way to give the player direction without putting a big arrow over his head.

A unique system is used when fighting. Enemies are either armed or not armed. Batman, being a regular Joe, albeit with lots of gadgets and ninja moves, can't survive a fight against thugs with guns. (When dying in a hail of bullets, Batman sort of slumps down on his knees and falls over. It's a bit comical really, as if he's saying to himself, "Whelp, that didn't work!" since he knows he's about to get a cartoon style resurrection.) Instead, Batman needs to do something in the environment that scares the bad guys into dropping their guns. One scene has him using a computer system to eject bodies from a morgue storage unit, but usually it involves breaking support beams or cables making something fall close by them. This is the "fear" element in the game. Once the criminals are scared and disarmed, Batman can swoop down and bust some heads. I can't say I ever really got the hang of the brawling. Most of the time I was just mashing the square button and waiting for a prompt to hit the circle button for a special move, but it was still fun to take on 3 or more dudes and come out with only a couple of dings.

At several points, I was very impressed with the scale of locations in the game. Large outdoor environments and cavernous underground chambers, nothing that would cause any current gen console any problems, but were serious challenges for PS2 developers. The graphics may look basic by today's standards, but they prove that quality design is more important than eye candy.

Part way through something occurred to me as to why I was enjoying "Batman Begins" so much. It wasn't just the stealth mechanic (which usually just frustrates me), or that I was making steady progress each time I booted it up (due to a very intelligent checkpoint system), or even that it was a Batman game (before The Dark Knight I wasn't much of a Batfan). No, I realized the reason was, I wasn't killing anyone. I found this oddly refreshing. So many games now (like the recent Tomb Raider reboot) put you in the position of murdering dozens of opponents (admittedly in self-defense) leaving you with a stain on your virtual conscience of having taken many lives.

Unlike most of the games I play, both in this playthrough and in general, I finished "Batman Begins". The game kept drawing me back without ever throwing up some sort of frustrating road block to discourage me. I think it was a very underrated game for it's time, falling under the specter of typical movie tie-in schlock. It's games like this one, lost gems of the PS2 era, that I had hoped to discover. Certainly in this case, it's mission accomplished.

Footnote: With this game being designed to match the movie's story and the quality of the production (both from good development and studio support), I couldn't help but wonder where the game was for the sequel, The Dark Knight. A little digging led me to the find that there was a game planned, but it was not to be made by Eurocom. In early 2007, EA had picked Pandemic Australia to make a Batman game for the PS3 and Xbox 360. Then, with only months before The Dark Knight was to be released (in July 2008),  EA told Pandemic AU that the game needed to be a movie tie-in title and that it had to be "open world". Pandemic wasn't able to get their engine from "The Saboteur" to handle the in-game environments and, with their Batman license expiring at the end of 2008, EA canceled the game, and shortly thereafter, the studio. One can also imagine that Heath Ledger's death in January 2008 would have complicated any efforts to make a game true to the movie. After this disaster, the next Batman game, Arkham Asylum (2009) redirected the franchise toward the comic books and animated series. The success of it and the subsequent game, Arkham City, probably made the creation of a Dark Knight Rising game unnecessary.