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Recent reviews

All reviews - Games (111)

The Crew: Wild Run review

Posted : 8 years, 3 months ago on 19 February 2016 08:15 (A review of The Crew: Wild Run)

Mild in the streets.

Ambition has never been an issue for The Crew. When it launched last December, Ubisoft's open world "carPG" attempted to provide players the opportunity to drive across the entire continental United States with a full squad of friends, competing in a wide variety of events like traditional circuit races and chaotic desert raids along the way. Unfortunately, much of the game's potential went unrealized. The world map--while indeed massive--led to hours of empty commuting through bland environments. The online multiplayer's myriad technical issues crippled its cooperative aspirations. Even the driving felt too floaty to offer much satisfaction. The Crew, in short, was disappointing, especially given how appealing its original aims were.

Now, just shy of 12 months later, Ubisoft has released the Wild Run expansion, and like the original, it bursts with ambition, building out the base game with motorcycles, monster trucks, drag and drift builds, new licensed vehicles, dynamic weather, visual upgrades throughout, game-wide physics adjustments, and a massive on-going online competition called The Summit. With such an impressive suite of new opportunities on offer, it's painful to report execution once again undermines ambition.

Admirably, several of Wild Run's broadest updates are available to all players, not just those who purchase the expansion (if you already own The Crew, your game most likely updated itself last week). Chief among these: upgraded graphics and physics, as well as all new weather effects. And while each objectively improves its previous iteration, The Crew as a whole continues to trail behind the competition. Take the dynamic weather: During the dozen or so hours I spent driving around Wild Run, I encountered only moderate rain. That's an improvement over the complete absence of weather in the base game, but honestly, it's hard to get excited about some underwhelming white dots that vaguely resemble rain drops refracting headlight beams.

To the game's credit, wet streets noticeably change your cars' traction thanks to the improved physics and handling. Every vehicle now reacts more believably to user inputs, making the simple act of driving a bit more enjoyable than it had been previously. This update doesn't resolve every issue, though. At times, it still feels like cars aren't even touching the road but rather gliding on top of it. Most of the subtle sounds and visual cues that make games like Forza satisfying remain absent here. Same can be said of the visuals: Issues like assets that pop into existence as you approach them have been resolved, but textures are still bland and uniform while objects like pedestrian cars still feel oddly boxy and unrealistic. The Crew finally looks like a current-gen game, but it's still deeply unimpressive compared to something like Need For Speed.

You could argue The Crew's dated graphics are an inevitable consequence of its incredible scope, but its open world is still more of a nuisance than an asset, especially for new players who can't fast travel to undiscovered areas. Wild Run attempts to assuage the potential tedium of cross-country commuting by introducing FreeDrive Stunts, an anywhere, anytime mode that throws randomized goals at players. On-demand mini-objectives are a fine idea, but the objectives themselves--drive on the wrong side of the road for 800 yards, near-miss 15 vehicles, and so on--are forgettable at best and impossible at worst. How can you jump a certain distance within a time limit when there are no ramps around? Similarly, FreeDrive Challenge--which allows players to quickly drop checkpoints on the world map to create ad-hoc events--is an amazing idea that falls apart in practice because it's only available while players are participating in in a co-op Crew. If you're playing solo or can't keep random internet players around long enough, you'll never see a FreeDrive Challenge in action.

Fortunately, Wild Run's new vehicle specs prove a bit more reliable--and yes, I do mean "specs." For the uninitiated, The Crew allows players to select a variety of tuning profiles that automatically equip your chosen vehicle with everything it needs to rip up the streets or the race track or the untamed wilderness. Wild Run introduces three new specs that can be added to many of the game's existing cars: drift, drag, and monster truck. Drift and drag cars are so unruly--fishtailing wildly in every direction--they're nearly impossible to use outside of the extremely limited number of events specifically designed for those specs. Within those events, however, they work well and add even more variety to The Crew's already impressive collection of race types.

Drag events are simple but satisfying: Players must rev their engines to fill a meter to exactly the right level, then match prompts while accelerating and shifting. There's not much to it, but if you're looking to test your timing and push The Crew's speed limit, you now have a new best option. Drift events, as you might expect, ask players to rack up points by chaining drifts together within a time limit. Thankfully, the scoring system is a bit more generous than the comparable Need For Speed, but the handling never quite clicked for me, too loose and fiddly to feel truly satisfying. Overall, drift trials deepen The Crew but may not fully scratch your drift itch.

Monster trucks and the newly added motorcycles, on the other hand, are a total blast no matter where you drive them. As you might expect, motorcycles are fast and nimble, which presents a welcome contrast to many of The Crew's more sluggish vehicles. The real winners here, though, are the monster trucks. It's hard not to love hilariously oversized tires that let you roll over just about everything in your path, especially when they're attached to something like a Fiat. Monster trucks also bring with them massive Trackmania-style arenas, which are basically big, ridiculous skateparks for monster trucks. Not much can match the joy of pulling double backflips on a half-pipe in a Ford Raptor.

Unfortunately, I was only able to find monster truck events within the new month-long, Burning-Man-meets-autosports competition called The Summit. Given that the competition consists of weekly qualifiers leading up to a final Summit at the end of each month, we'll get just one new monster truck event per week at this current pace. Thankfully, the Summit offers plenty of other options that, while not as enjoyable as its monster trucks, give players a tangible reason to consistently return to The Crew. You'll find drift and drag events, of course, as well as time trials and circuit races, but you can also engage in unique PvP events like Blitz Brawl, which challenges players to race between semi-randomly appearing zones and hold each zone until the next one appears. Each leg of the Summit offers six or seven unique events, which a healthy enough number to allow its evolving structure and leaderboard-driven competitiveness take root.

In spite of all this new content, many of the base game's frustrations persist. The UI is still an unintuitive mess, the story is still laughably bad and impossible for new players to avoid, and finding players to join my Crew frequently took far too long. And while the driving mechanics and general visuals have undoubtedly improved, they still haven't caught up to other, better racing games like Forza and Need For Speed. As a result, The Crew as a whole remains a lackluster experience, even with its monster truck half-pipes.

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Omerta: City of Gangsters review

Posted : 9 years, 1 month ago on 8 April 2015 04:54 (A review of Omerta: City of Gangsters)

There's already a good game out there that focuses on making a fortune off of properties in early 20th century Atlantic City--it's called Monopoly. In theory, at least, Omerta: City of Gangsters isn't too different from the Parker Brothers favorite. Both games have you buying and upgrading houses along Baltic Avenue and the Boardwalk, both feature cutthroat territorial acquisitions, and at times both at least present the threat of spending some time in jail. Toss in a few gangsters, some XCOM-styled turn-based combat, and some smart capitalizing on the current popularity of Boardwalk Empire, and you'd think you'd have a moxie-stuffed contender that'd let us find out what Uncle Pennybags could have accomplished with a Tommy gun.

The problem is that Omerta plays like a gangster's dream. Not a nightmare, mind you, stuffed with traitorous consiglieri and rival gangs gobbling up territory, but a dreamworld where cops forgive shootouts on the scale of the Saint Valentine's Day Massacre for a stack of chump change. It's so easy it's like playing Monopoly with yourself.

Nice presentation, but the gameplay isn&#Array;t as impressive.

It takes a while for this feeling to settle in. Omerta starts out promisingly enough, casting you in the role of a young Sicilian "fresh off the boat" (who nevertheless
Omerta: City of Gangsters
January 31, 2013

Omerta: City of Gangsters is a simulation game with tactical turn-based combat. Taking the role of a fresh-from-the-boat immigrant, with dreams of the big life, the player will work his way up the criminal hierarchy of 1920's Atlantic City.
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Leif Johnson Says
Play These Games Instead:

Gangsters: Organized Crime
Tropico 4

sounds better acquainted with Brooklyn than Palermo), and it hints at RPG depth in the way it determines your stats and weaponry through a series of questions. Did you have to leave Sicily because you slept with a Don's wife? Somehow that flash of genius nets you +1 to Cunning and +1 to Smarts. Use a knife in a fight over a Sicilian girl? Congratulations, you can use it to slice someone on Illinois Avenue. It's a shame, then, that all these numbers end up having as much significance as the sham pizza joints you open later. In my entire playthrough I never once felt as though I would have been better off if I'd put my points elsewhere. The story itself, like watered down whisky, loses its kick.

One would think the city itself would hog the spotlight in a game like this, but Omerta's Atlantic City enjoys none of the subtle relationships between buildings that made Haemimont's Tropico games so enjoyable. Each mission plays much the same: upgrade your hideout for increased production, open "premises" such as breweries to enable production, open "joints" such as speakeasies to sell your goods and wait for the cash to roll in. Setting up a bookie parlor in the same mission where you’ve built a boxing arena constitutes one of Omerta's few concessions to management strategy; for most of the game, you can open joints wherever you feel like it and watch the cash roll in. The constable with the “cold” relations will never get suspicious of all the people visiting the hidden speakeasy next to his house, and because there’s no risk involved in transporting goods, you can place your distillery on the complete other side of town from your speakeasy.

In time, you wonder why you're bothering at all. Once you're done with a mission, your cash vanishes and you start over from scratch in the next one. It's not as though a rival gang's going to move in and steal your breweries as you expand your empire, and the absence of this threat robs the 1920s gangster scene of its romanticism. Your earnings from "dirty" money and "clean" money don’t really mean anything; Omerta makes it so easy to launder money that the only reason to pursue clean money is the forced satisfaction of roleplay. Money pours from your speakeasies and bookies like beer from a broken keg, slowing only when you pay your henchmen's meager salaries or when you speed up missions by buying alcohol and firearms to sell to a gallery of racial stereotypes all over town. And if your "heat" bar fills and the police launch an investigation? No worries; just slide them $500 and they'll turn away and reset the heat bar every time.
Omerta: City of Gangsters - Launch Trailer

The whole concept screams of missed opportunities. Your actions rarely if ever alter the landscape of Atlantic City, stripping the strategy portion of Omerta of one of the chief attractions of a game like Tropico. You spend a good deal of time playing mobsters with manners in order to make local celebrities and lawmen "warm" to you, as well as liquoring up informants so they'll let you know about opportunities for new joints or premises in the area. It's a realistic concept, but it serves little more purpose than accelerating the already speedy cash flow. Even then, you'll spend plenty of time waiting as your band of six henchmen have to jog to every new objective while the denizens of Atlantic City speed past in cars.

The turn-based tactical battles represent a step up in immersion, but not execution. It may be fun to watch your little gang of thugs rid local warehouses of their Ku Klux Klan infestations, but it's annoying to plan out stealthy routes for your gangsters armed with knives and brass knuckles only to find that the pathing system left them standing right in the path of a Grand Wizard's shotgun blast. The baffling AI sometimes refrains from finishing off one of your goons to attack someone else on the other side of the room. Cover opportunities abound, but often spots that seem like they'd leave you exposed offer the best cover while standing behind a wall sometimes results in your perp going the way of Bonnie and Clyde. One of Omerta's greatest failings, indeed, is that cash flows so easily that you'll sometimes find yourself paying a fee to avoid the combat (or else auto resolving it), which goes against everything a good gangster game should stand for.

Gangster warfare should be interesting. In Omerta, it&#Array;s not.

What a pity, then, that the multiplayer mode focuses exclusively on this aspect of Omerta. The ability to play cooperatively in two of the four missions sometimes achieves the semblance of genuine fun, but the idea that Omerta would have fared better with a multiplayer turf war on the strategy map always looms (again, think Monopoly with Tommy guns.) To call the sandbox mode a disappointment is bit like saying Bugs Moran was irritable; it confines you to the small neighborhood maps of the missions and quickly devolves into watching your money pile up. But though Omerta's gameplay succeeds about as well as Al Capone's attempts at tax evasion, its presentation fares much better. Early jazz reminiscent of the best work of King Oliver and the Original Dixieland Jazz Band plays through every stage, and when rain falls on the rooftops at Atlantic City by night, Omerta achieves a fleeting sense of beauty.

In all fairness, a lot of people might find this mix of lightweight city maintenance and top-down combat entertaining in small doses, and it's true that Omerta's consciously hackneyed voice acting and predictable story exudes some charm. It may be a disappointment, but it's a polished disappointment. Still, most games in this vein exist solely on Facebook, where titles like The Last Stand: Dead Zone provide a mildly similar experience for free. In such a light, Haemimont's asking price of $40 seems aimed at recreating the absurd prices Prohibition-era Americans had to put down for a swig of ale.
Amazon $3.89
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The Verdict

Omerta's mix of management simulation and top-down turn-based combat in the style of XCOM brims with potential but it suffers from an almost total absence of risk or failure even on the hardest difficulty. There's charm and a good soundtrack in store here, but it quickly loses its appeal amid gameplay that never stops feeling as though you're working your way through a tutorial. At $40, that makes for an offer you should have no trouble refusing.

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Duplicate review

Posted : 9 years, 7 months ago on 30 October 2014 05:07 (A review of Duplicate)

EA's Need for Speed series still has the pedal to the floor with its latest release, Need for Speed Carbon, launching alongside the PlayStation 3's North American premiere. Released not too long ago on the Xbox 360 and current-gen systems, the game is something like a sequel to last year's Most Wanted, but has enough changes to the layout and format that it warranted a new name.

Many of the race modes from Most Wanted have returned, namely things like the Speedtrap races. While cops are still about, you don't need to build up evasion runs like you did in Most Wanted to progress. Cop Heat is still an issue that you'll have to contend with, however, meaning that while the cops have taken a backseat to the actual racing, they're still prevalent. We're certainly supportive of this design.

The main new race type in Carbon is the Canyon races. After finishing enough races to take over a territory on the map, you'll meet up with that crew's boss along a cliff side in a winner-take-all competition. These races are pretty cool in that the side of the track is a simple barrier that overlooks a very long drop, so if you push your car too much you may wind up at the bottom of the canyon in a heaping wreck. It's pretty cool in concept, though we wish they were more prevalent in the game.

One returning competition type from the Underground games is drift racing. Drifting is very arcadey in Carbon, with a simple tap of the brake being all you need to put the car into a slide. Rather than being based on moves like faints or over-steering, everything is based on speed and how sideways you can get. You'll get bonus multipliers for stringing multiple turns together, but that's about as complex as it gets, for better or worse. The drift races wind up being a decent bit of simplistic fun. Like the Canyon races, they're basically tests of how far you want to push your car to win.

Need for Speed Carbon's single-player story is focused around taking over and defending territories. Each territory has a number of individual races, and taking over more than half of them will earn you the territory. After you're in possession of a territory, other crews will occasionally try to take them from you and you're prompted to compete in a defending race. This whole system is reasonably cool in setup, though since you're allowed to retry any race you fail you're never really in much danger of losing anything you've earned. It would have been cooler if you couldn't retry, giving the whole scenario a more back-and-forth and dynamic feel, though that doesn't quite fit in with the game's very arcadey setup.

Tying into the territory thing is your racing crew. You're allowed to have up to three crew members at any one time, and one of the three members of your choosing will race with you in applicable events. These wingmen come in three types: Brawlers, Scouts and Drafters. Brawlers will crash into an opponent and take them out of the race for a bit. Scouts will always take the quickest route through a track, helping you find the shortcuts, and Drafters will set up a nice wake in their path and allow you to gain some speed.

This system works reasonably well, though Brawlers are far and away the most useful wingmen since they can hold off other vehicles. Scouts are decent to use the first time or two in a specific section if you're not very good at finding shortcuts (which isn't hard at all), though once you know where they are they're not of much use. Drafters can also be somewhat helpful at times, though you have to ride in their line to make use of the speed burst, which isn't always ideal.

When it comes to the actual racing in Need for Speed Carbon, EA has largely stayed true to the same formula it's used forever. Cars are easy to drive and largely feel very similar, courses are generally long and winding with a few sharp turns here and there, and traffic is reasonably sparse. And yes, everything still takes place at night.

While the cars still do feel very similar to one another, there are three different classes this time around that do each have their own unique characteristics. Muscle cars are extremely powerful, but are more likely to slide around a turn. Tuner cars are quick and agile, while exotics are extremely fast but don't handle as well as the tuners. Of the three, muscle cars are the most fun to drive as they kick and scream with power that forces you to watch the throttle and go easy on the gas when exiting turns. Sadly though, one of the things that made the muscle cars most fun on the Xbox 360 is the controller rumble, and as the SIXAXIS doesn't feature said ability, they're left a tad more lifeless.

Speaking of the SIXAXIS, the PlayStation 3 version of Need for Speed Carbon makes use of its tilt controls for steering, though only for giving it a little extra oomph. Once you've pushed the analog stick all the way to the side, you can tilt the controller to squeak out just a little tighter angle, though in practice it's really not noticeable.

The franchise has had great customization features for a while now, though Autosculpt takes them to the next level and is easily the most impressive new aspect of the series. Instead of replacing parts with pre-existing add-ons, Autosculpt gives you control of a section of the car and lets you dynamically shape said area. For instance, you can raise and lower air intakes, fatten, spin and split wheel spokes, lengthen, flatten and raise spoilers and more. It's an absolutely fantastic system that allows you to truly customize your car. It's limited, mind you, as you can't change the overall, basic body shape of any vehicle, but you can customize its individual pieces to no end.

One disappointing aspect is that the PlayStation 3 version of the game doesn't have a couple of the "show off" features that the Xbox 360 game does. The 360 version lets you pause the game at any time and enter a photo mode. It's basic, sure, but you can spin and zoom the camera and take a snapshot of your vehicle in motion. You're also able to upload a photo of your modded vehicle for others to drool over, but the PS3 game lacks this feature as well, sadly.

Visually, the PlayStation 3 version of Need for Speed Carbon falls short of its Xbox 360 counterpart. The two games run at roughly the same framerate, but the PS3's filtering effects, specifically the blurring, can be ugly. Road textures look nice and detailed at low speeds, but when you're flying down the road and the game blurs everything, they simply look poor. A few other odd things don't match up either, like the Drafter's wake, which is a transparent cylinder on the 360 and some rather ugly blue streamers on the PS3.
The Verdict

Need for Speed Carbon is an overall fun racing game, though in large part it's simply more of the same from EA. Cars still feel too similar to each other, and as they're the stars of any racing game, we wish there was a bit more character here. Autosculpt is a fantastic addition to the series' already great customization features. Carbon winds up being a pretty fun racer, and fans of Most Wanted likely won't be disappointed.

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James Bond 007: Quantum of Solace review

Posted : 10 years, 6 months ago on 10 November 2013 06:30 (A review of James Bond 007: Quantum of Solace)

Short Story

The game begins with James Bond kidnapping Mr. White, a member of the previously unknown criminal/terrorist organization Quantum. While he and M interrogate White, they are attacked by the traitorous MI6 agent Henry Mitchell, who is killed by Bond while White escapes. Later, Bond spies on a meeting of Quantum members and photographs them; among them is Dominic Greene, a well known environmentalist.

The game jumps forward to Bond crash landing in Bolivia, where Greene is trying to buy land. By this time, Bond has met Camille Montes, who is seeking vengeance against General Medrano, who is trying to overthrow the Bolivian government. Bond learns that Medrano killed Camille's family, and this is why she wants revenge. Bond opens up to Camille about the death of his former love, recounting the events of Casino Royale. The player follows through the plot of Casino Royale up until Vesper dies, at which point it flashes back to the present.

Bond and Camille soon arrive at a hotel in the middle of the Bolivian desert. There, Greene and Medrano are discussing the land that Greene wants to buy; Greene will fund Medrano's attempt to overthrow the government in exchange for the land that he wants. Bond and Camille break up the meeting; Camille then kills Medrano while Bond kills Greene. During the fight, the hotel's fuel cells are ignited; Bond and Camille manage to escape from the hotel before it explodes. They leave the area in an MI6 helicopter.In the closing scene it is revealed that Mr. White and Guy Haines are looking at MI6 debriefings and updates on 007's missions. The game ends with a short scene of Bond outside the house telling M that he's going in.

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Far Cry 2 review

Posted : 11 years, 1 month ago on 16 April 2013 06:22 (A review of Far Cry 2)

Although you can't say the same for the plot, Far Cry 2's first-person action squeezes every last drop of potential out of the unique African setting.

The Good

Incredible amount of freedom to approach each mission
50 square kilometers of visually stunning African landscape
Hefty single-player campaign should take at least 30 hours
Diverse reward and upgrade systems feed off each other very well
Robust map editor on all three versions.

The Bad

Story does very little with politically-charged setting
Traveling for long stretches can become tedious.

In Far Cry 2's chaotic world of mercenaries, gunrunners, and armed militias, you'll find yourself dropped into a dizzying web of shady clients and paper-thin alliances. All manner of names and faces are introduced during the course of the storyline, but the real star isn't anyone brandishing a smuggled weapon in search of blood diamonds; it's the daunting and awe-inspiring 50-square kilometers of African landscape that make up the game's open-world setting. Aside from providing the opportunity to soak up an amazing sunset, Far Cry 2's free-roaming terrain brilliantly harmonizes with the first-person combat. The diverse landscape and myriad environmental factors work alongside a wide assortment of weaponry to give you tremendous freedom to approach each mission. Combined with solid multiplayer, Far Cry 2's sheer breadth of action provides you with plenty of reason to stay lost in the African wilderness despite an underwhelming plot and the occasional sense of tedium in navigating from one location to another on the gargantuan map.

Far Cry 2's story is filled with potential. You're a mercenary working for a client who's sent you to an unnamed African nation engulfed in civil war, and your job is to take out a notorious arms dealer known as "The Jackal." He quickly proves to be an elusive figure, so you'll need to begin working for various warring factions that the Jackal has armed so you can trace the supply line back to your target. The two primary organizations at the heart of all this bloodshed are the militaristic UFLL and the revolutionary APR. You'll spend the bulk of the story working for these two groups, getting to know their power structures, and taking on all of the violent tasks they throw your way. Complicating things is the fact that your character has malaria, which means you'll need to occasionally play nice with the more ragtag Underground, the only group with the medical connections necessary to keep your potentially life-threatening symptoms at bay.

Each story mission can be played in multiple ways. There are 12 potential buddies randomly scattered throughout the storyline who you can befriend (nine of whom are available to choose as your silent protagonist), and they're often keen to tack on their own interests to the quests handed out by the UFLL and APR. Instead of just taking out a target, you have the option to earn extra reputation points by working alongside your buddy to first squeeze any remaining assets from the soon-to-be-deceased. This also earns you the ability to increase your level of companionship with that buddy. It's a neat reward, but it doesn't shed much light on their backgrounds. But that's par for the course; the main story is delivered in such a rushed, quick-and-dirty way that you never feel very involved in the game's overarching conflicts. The plot is less Blood Diamond than it is early Grand Theft Auto, a long roster of changing faces that scroll by far too quickly to capitalize on the politically charged setting.

Although disappointing for a single-player campaign that could easily drain more than 30 hours of your time, any shortcomings in the plot are mostly forgivable thanks to Far Cry 2's overall structure. The game is organized in a way that provides a daunting amount of freedom to explore, earn currency, and wreak havoc on the game's landscape and its denizens. It's all laid out in a manner typical of sandbox action games. Pulling out your map reveals a collection of icons that signify available missions and points of interest that you can meander toward at your own leisure. Among these are dozens of side missions that you can take on, with various forms of rewards. Delivering transit papers to trapped refugees earns you malaria medication, destroying rival convoys for gun merchants unlocks new weapons for purchase, and performing assassinations for mysterious voices at the other end of your cell phone rewards you with diamonds. You can also rough up militias stationed in small camps and turn their dwellings into your own safe houses. The side missions can feel a bit repetitive when played through in rapid succession, but they offer a great change of tempo when sprinkled throughout the main narrative. But what's most clever is how their differing rewards intermingle so wonderfully with your needs in progressing through the story: Malaria pills keep your HP and stamina up, diamonds buy you new weapons and ability upgrades, and safe houses provide temporary shelter to stock up and save your game.

The freedom of choice that goes with selecting which mission you want to perform carries over to how you execute them, and that's where Far Cry 2 really shines. There are a variety of factors that affect the way you approach each mission, from the number of people you need to kill, to the landscape, to the weather and time of day. If your job is to take out a key figure hidden deep within a militia camp in the jungle, you'll do well to take a nap at your safe house until nightfall and silently stalk your prey under the cover of darkness. If it's a windy day and you need to take out a bandit outpost in the dry plains, you can start a fire from far away with a flare gun and let the breeze and arid conditions collude to spread the flames toward their camp, finishing off the survivors with a sniper rifle. Need to clear out a bunch of scattered guards? Why not shoot an oil drum near an ammo stockpile and watch as the bullets erupt in every direction like deadly pieces of popcorn? Of course, you can also get up close and personal with pistols and machine guns, but the moments in which elaborately planned assaults succeed are some of the most gratifying points in the game. The whole process of staging an attack only becomes more intricate and rewarding as you slowly upgrade your safe house into a full-blown armory and unlock new weapon and vehicle abilities--all done through the gun shops.

The sheer variety of weapons plays a big role in your ability to craft a personalized approach to each mission. For every situation, there's a weapon ideally suited to delivering mercenary justice. From the AK-47 to the Molotov cocktail and the remote-detonated improvised explosive device, they all feel like weapons that could easily be plucked from the civil wars of Africa. Furthermore, your weapons will cycle through an authentic level of wear and tear, particularly those picked up from ragtag militiamen; secondhand weapons will show dirt, frequently jam, and eventually break, which means that it's best to buy them from the shop. All of the above makes for a uniquely desperate and makeshift style of combat compared to other first-person shooters.

If there's one drawback to the combat, it's that it tends to be a little too forgiving after the first few hours of the game. Your health is divided into several individually regenerative bars like Resistance: Fall of Man, but once it gets low, you can inject yourself with a syrette for added health (though if it's really low, you'll first need to perform a slick self-heal such as yanking bullet shells out of your leg or snapping a broken arm back into place). You can eventually upgrade the amount of ammo and health you have to further tip the odds in your favor, and even have a buddy rescue you whenever you die (though you need to keep an eye on him because he can be permanently killed in a scuffle). Most of the challenge arrives when you're looking at your map in search of the next mission and then get surprised by a bunch of roadside bandits while you're driving one of the game's numerous run-down SUVs or river boats (which exist alongside hang-gliders, trucks, licensed Jeeps, and dune buggies as the types of vehicles you can operate). However, there are still very few moments when you don't feel like an everyman caught in a nasty situation, and that sort of improvised payback is what makes Far Cry 2's combat so engrossing.

Visually, Far Cry 2 is a stunner. Though not as technically amazing as the jungles of Crysis, Far Cry 2's depiction of the sprawling African wilderness makes up for it with environmental diversity and intimidating scale. Several landscapes are represented here: dense forests, rolling plains, arid deserts, craggy badlands, and even shantytowns and hut villages. You'll see trees swaying, the charred remains of a brush fire, and several forms of wildlife running around. It all looks incredible in the transitional period of the day-night cycle when the sun is falling or rising through the horizon and everything is cast in a warm glow. The game also sounds great, with tribal music accompanying you at all times, from a relaxing ambience in calm situations to a rapidly escalating roar of drums in battle. The voice acting during mission briefings feels strangely hurried (as if it's some trick to squeeze more dialogue onto the disc), but that's largely offset by excellent enemy banter during combat.

Adding to Far Cry 2's value is the 16-person online multiplayer. The gameplay modes on display are nothing terribly special (you'll see variations of Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, Capture the Flag, and Territories), but the fighting captures a lot of the appeal of single-player, including vehicles, fire-based weaponry, and a great sense of scale in each map. But what sets the multiplayer apart is that you don't need to settle for the included maps; each version of the game comes with a deep but intuitive map editor capable of letting you create everything from dense urban locales to sprawling forests. And downloading new maps is simply a matter of seeking out featured selections or hitting "download" when a Quick Match search lets you know that you don't have that one yet. Such uninspired gameplay modes are certainly a letdown, but the map editor has great potential to inject loads of lasting appeal into Far Cry 2's online component.

Although the original Far Cry was available only on the PC for the first year and a half of its existence, Far Cry 2 will see an expanded audience with the PC, PlayStation 3, and Xbox 360 versions all available out of the gate. However, its roots are clearly on display when taking in the differences between the three platforms. Far Cry 2 looks best running on a PC, with clearer textures, better foliage, and less pop-in. The console versions also suffer from the occasional loading hitch when you're driving into a highly populated city. Another key difference is that the PC version lets you save anywhere you want, whereas the 360 and PS3 games only let you use predefined save points. However, the latter difference isn't quite as lopsided as the graphical disparity; saving anywhere gives you more room for experimentation in approaching your missions, but the console versions provide a more clearly defined sense of consequence that adds extra tension to the combat. You'll definitely want to go with the PC version if you've got a system capable of approaching the hardware requirements, but the differences aren't so great that you won't have a blast with either console version (which are virtually indistinguishable from one another).

Overall, Far Cry 2 is a game in which you can quite literally get lost for hours at a time. But that feeling of exploration is precisely what makes the game so much fun; your creativity never feels stifled when approaching a mission, and the game's overall structure of side tasks, friends, rewards, and upgrades is a diverse ecosystem rivaling the landscape itself. No matter whether you're a PC fan whose played through the similarly structured Crysis or a console owner new to the world of open-ended first-person shooters, you won't be disappointed by Far Cry 2.

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Far Cry review

Posted : 11 years, 1 month ago on 16 April 2013 06:20 (A review of Far Cry)

Far Cry isn't just a stunning technical accomplishment. It's quite possibly the best single-player first-person shooter experience for the PC since Half-Life.

For almost a year now, the gaming world has eagerly anticipated the arrival of the next-generation wave of first-person shooters. These new games would finally begin to take advantage of the powerful graphical features that hardware companies have been incorporating into their video cards to deliver unprecedented visuals. But while we're still waiting to see the fruits of the labors of storied developers like id Software and Valve, Crytek, a relatively obscure German developer, has managed to beat everyone to the punch with Far Cry. In fact, Crytek almost delivers a knockout blow. Far Cry isn't just a stunning technical accomplishment. It's quite possibly the best single-player first-person shooter experience for the PC since Half-Life.

In Far Cry, you play as Jack Carver, a guy who's been hired to sail a mysterious woman around the Pacific. However, Jack's ship suddenly comes under attack. After washing ashore on a tropical island, sans the mysterious woman, Carver must investigate his surroundings so that he can find her and eventually rescue her from an army of heavily armed mercenaries. From this point, you'll delve into a story that combines the epic adventure of Half-Life with the bizarreness of The Island of Dr. Moreau, along with a good, healthy mix of Jurassic Park-style tropical island creepiness. You'll explore facilities worthy of Half-Life's Black Mesa, battle it out with brutally tough opponents, and assault a volcano stronghold in a James Bond-inspired finale that also offers a nightmarish vision of hell.

Without a doubt, Far Cry has the most advanced graphics seen in any PC game to date. Everything in this game looks amazing, and the level of verisimilitude is unprecedented. Jungles actually feature dense foliage that consists of trees, plants, and tall grasses, and this foliage is filled with birds and insects. Beaches have blinding-white sand, and the surf slowly laps ashore. The character models are some of the best we've ever seen in such a game, and they're richly detailed and animated. The game also incorporates real-time lighting and shading effects to a degree rarely seen before, so when you walk in the jungle, you actually see the shadows of overhead leaves flickering on your rifle. In some of the larger indoor levels, the shadows of oncoming opponents are projected in larger-than-life form onto walls. Intense heat blur from lava streams distort the atmosphere. And a near miss from an enemy rocket will black out your vision--as if you got the wind knocked out of you. You can't help but be pulled in by the sheer immersiveness of the game.

During the many firefights in Far Cry, you'll go up against cunning opponents, such as mercenaries who know how to use cover. They'll run between cover while shooting at you along the way. The lushness of the jungle usually means that these engagements turn into cat-and-mouse affairs, where you slowly stalk your prey. The jungle is so dense, however, that you often can't see your enemies until you're practically right on top of them. Sound plays an important part in the game at these moments, because you can track opponents by their sounds, and they can track you by yours. You can throw a rock to create a distraction, and you can crawl around the jungle to make as little noise as possible. Stealth can play a critical role in the game at times, and one of the few complaints we have about it is that the enemy artificial intelligence seems to have a very low detection threshold. If you make the slightest noise, all the bad guys in the vicinity go to full alert, rather than investigating further.

The sound effects in the game contribute heavily to the creepy atmosphere. For instance, you'll be working your way through a dark indoor level and you'll hear disturbing noises up ahead. Then someone you didn't realize was there will suddenly say something, and you'll jump out of your seat. In the jungle, birds will chirp overhead, and insects will buzz in your ear. When a helicopter approaches, you'll hear the thrum of the rotors getting closer and closer. You can eavesdrop on conversations by using the combination binocular-sound microphone featured in the game. These conversations tend to be enlightening because you can find out what the mercenaries are worried about or what's up ahead. The voice acting is corny in a way that fits in with the over-the-top action movie feel of the game.

You can also use a variety of vehicles, including jeeps, hang gliders, and boats. However, these aren't as tightly integrated into the game as they could have been. For instance, jeeps are pretty much restricted to moving along on roads, because there's very little open country on the islands. You can get into some wild chase scenes, but driving around exposes you to detection, so it's usually better to go on foot, if you can. And it's certainly unnerving to see mercenaries using vehicles against you. In particular, Black Hawk helicopters will swoop over the jungle to hunt for you, and there are plenty of wild moments where you'll have to try to fight them off. And in homage to Half-Life, an Osprey can fly over, and mercenaries will rappel to the ground. At night, you can see the headlights of approaching vehicles, which gives you time to either hide or set up a hasty ambush.

The game limits you to four weapons at a time, so like in Halo, there's a tactical element present that makes you weigh the positives and negatives of each weapon. All the weapons are taken from the real world, including the M4 carbine and the G36 assault rifle. It takes a bit of time to familiarize yourself with each weapon, especially since each has different characteristics, such as recoil. The G36 is hard to aim while firing, and the P90 submachine gun has a high rate of fire but does less damage. Hit location is also important. Headshots usually result in kills, while mercenaries have body armor that makes them resistant to hits to the torso. There is a rudimentary physics engine in the game that lets you knock over objects and hurls bodies in the air, but it's not as fleshed-out as it could be. For instance, a wooden crate will float in the water, but it won't shatter, even if you fire a minigun at it.

Far Cry features a loading technique that's similar to the one used in Half-Life and Halo. There's generally one long load at the beginning of each chapter. Then the entire level, no matter how large, plays seamlessly after that. The game only pauses for a fraction of a second every now and then to autosave your progress. Otherwise, there's nothing that takes you out of your suspension of disbelief, so you always feel as though you're actually exploring a tropical archipelago. The game uses a checkpoint-style save system, so you can't manually save your progress. If you die, you'll start back at the last checkpoint, which only takes a few moments to load. The inability to quick save the game isn't as annoying as it seems, since the checkpoints are generally spaced within reason. However, there are a few moments where it feels like the checkpoints are few and far between, which can be frustrating when you die and have to restart. At any rate, publisher Ubisoft reports that a quick-save feature will be added in a downloadable patch for the game.

The single-player campaign packs more than 20 hours worth of gameplay, which is an impressive amount in this day and age--when most first-person shooters feature campaigns that are half this length. And the developers manage to do this without making it feel like they're recycling themselves through the campaign. As you slowly uncover the plot, there's always something that will awe you, stun you, or scare you. Just when you think you've seen it all or you've gotten to the point where most games would end, the designers keep on going and up the ante even more.

The multiplayer portion of Far Cry is competent but not nearly as spectacular as the single-player game. There are only three game modes--free-for-all, team deathmatch, and assault--as well as a limited number of maps for each mode. Moreover, all the maps are quite large in size, which means that if you only have a handful of players, then you'll spend a lot of time looking for someone to kill. You'll also spend a lot of time just moving around the map because sandy surfaces restrict your movement speed. Additionally, movement speed is reduced by the specific weapon you're carrying. There are a few vehicles in multiplay, but they're not too useful during combat. The jeep, for example, has an open-air driver's compartment, which means there's no protection at all from bullets. And there are not a lot of places to drive because the thick foliage and rough terrain limit vehicle usage mainly to roads. Some of the weapons also feel horribly unbalanced. For instance, the rocket launcher does a tremendous amount of splash damage, and the sniper rifle can dominate a match over long ranges. There are also a handful of other oddities in multiplay. Most notably, if you pick up a weapon of a certain class that you already possess, the new weapon disappears as though you picked it up, but you won't actually have it in your inventory.

As expected, you're going to need to have some serious hardware to run Far Cry as it's meant to be played. While the game will run on lower-end machines, you'll have to tone down detail settings. And with older video cards, you won't get much of the graphical eye candy in the game. From our experience, we recommend a 2GHz machine with a DirectX 8.1 or 9.0-compliant video card. However, Far Cry could very well be the killer app people have been looking for to justify upgrading, because it looks that good. And, frankly, running the game with a lower detail level means you lose a lot of the jungle foliage, which reduces your level of immersion in the game. It should be noted that Crytek's execution is superb. Aside from the multiplayer quirks, we experienced no stability issues and no bugs. This is an impressive accomplishment considering the complexity and ambitious scale of the game. The potential for this technology is exciting. Not only do we expect third-party developers to license Crytek's engine to power their own games, but Crytek also includes editing tools with Far Cry, so modmakers will get to develop their own ideas.

Far Cry is a stunning game in so many ways. It certainly raises the bar for graphics to new heights. And yet, it's not just a technology demonstration. In Far Cry, the graphics are just one of the ingredients that submerge you into the experience. The developers exhibit a growing sense of maturity throughout the game. It's as if they themselves were learning how to use the graphics engine in conjunction with the AI, sound, and level design to create a superior gameplay experience--one that starts out impressively and, for the most part, just keeps getting better. The result is an awesome thing to behold, and it's an even better thing to experience.

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Red Orchestra 2: Heroes of Stalingrad review

Posted : 11 years, 1 month ago on 16 April 2013 06:13 (A review of Red Orchestra 2: Heroes of Stalingrad)

Death comes early and often in this extremely challenging and realistic tactical shooter.

The Good

Mostly authentic look at infantry combat in WWII
Extremely challenging, due to realistic modeling of damage and cover
Atmospheric, well-designed maps.

The Bad

Single-player campaigns afflicted with terrible AI
Has a very steep learning curve for new players.

Getting killed in Red Orchestra 2: Heroes of Stalingrad is not like the usual death in a multiplayer first-person shooter. Most games in this genre see you dying heroically with the bodies of enemies all around you. Here, death comes very quietly. Typically, you die without a clue that anything is wrong, taking a single bullet in the head fired by an unseen enemy. This is both the appeal and the frustration developer TripWire Interactive's shooter sequel, as the World War II combat here is so realistic that you have to approach every battle like a real infantryman or you risk dying the quick and brutal death of a real infantryman. A few features have been added to the gameplay to make things a bit easier on raw recruits--most notably a pair of single-player campaigns--but this game remains one of the most authentic and unforgiving shooters on the market. It is sure to thrill serious students of warfare and sure to frustrate run-and-gun players looking for a quick WWII-flavored fix.

You know the old saying that you never hear the bullet with your name on it? That pretty much sums up how combat works in Red Orchestra 2. The core of the game is a relatively typical territorial control mode in which teams of up to 32 players on German and Soviet sides battle over the wasteland terrain around Stalingrade circa 1943. But the battle mechanics are much more brutally realistic than in most shooters. Even though you take on the roles of standard multiplayer shooter troop types like riflemen, assault soldiers, and snipers, there are absolutely no concessions made to make it easier on you. There is no targeting reticle here. When you want to aim your rifle, you need to do it the old-fashioned way: by looking down the barrel and using iron sights.

Furthermore, there are no graphics to denote ammunition. If you want to see what you've got in the clip, you need to manually check it, and even then, you only get a vague idea of how many rounds you have remaining through text like "You have about half of a clip left." Most notably, single shots can and do kill. If you do something completely normal for the average shooter but incredibly suicidal in the real world, like charge through an open field toward an enemy-held ruined church, you will die. Chances are good that you will never hear or see the shot that kills you because it will come from the gun of a hunkered-down, smarter opponent who takes the time to line up shots from behind cover.

This is the blessing and the curse of Red Orchestra 2. There is only one way to play this game: You need to be incredibly patient, work with your teammates, and approach every situation just as real troops would have when fighting for Stalingrad during WWII. All of the limitations of the weapons here make it impossible to snap off quick shots with any sort of accuracy, which means that you have to take time to find a good firing position and then shoot carefully. Rapid firing means wild firing, which just alerts enemies to your position and gets you a bullet in the face. It also increases the chance that you will lose track of the number of shots that you have fired and empty a clip at the wrong time. If you don't shoot smartly, you inevitably run out of ammo at precisely the moment you need it and, again, wind up with a convertible skull.

This might not sound like a great deal of fun, and it isn't at first. Initially, the game seems chaotic and random, with a lot of sudden, unfair deaths inflicted on you by dug-in enemies that kill you without revealing their positions. You never know where they are until after you're dead, which is when the camera helpfully swings out and focuses in on them in their hidey holes. But after you spend some time with the game, you can't help but get hooked on how exacting a challenge it offers. If you get into matches with experienced teammates who work together, you can learn a lot just from letting them take the lead as you watch how they approach maps, clear buildings of enemies, and secure locations. Tension is ratcheted high because you never know when death will call. The pressure of having everything on the line all the time really pushes you forward, encouraging you to keep playing and building up your skills. You never even realize just how tense you are when playing the game until something happens that you don't expect, like an unseen Russian clubbing you over the head with his rifle butt--whereupon you practically jump out of your chair in surprise.

Maps are extremely well done, sticking to the expected realistic WWII battle terrain experienced by the German and Russian troops scrapping it out in and around Stalingrad. The design and architecture complement the style of play demanded here as well. Lots of rubble and blown-out buildings afford the cover necessary to keep breathing and ensure that the battle takes place in such close quarters that you frequently jump out of your skind. So you have at it in shattered city streets, rustic farms, deserted villages, cramped infirmaries, crowded rail yards, and claustrophobic offices.

This isn't the most attractive shooter that you'll play this year, but it runs very smoothly on even midrange machines, and lag is never an issue even when playing on a server packed with 64 players. Nevertheless, it is loaded with a morose sort of war-worn detail that sets a time and place as effectively as any bleeding-edge visuals. Frills like cutscenes are also extremely well done, playing out like old newsreels shown in theaters before movies back in the day. The visual presentation effectively immerses you in the grim struggle. Audio is of a similarly strong quality, although both the martial music and vocals cut out occasionally, forcing a reboot to get out of this unintentional silent-movie mode.

Despite its devotion to authenticity, Red orchestra 2 isn't entirely realistic. Problems are caused by a handful of noteworthy flaws. At times, it can be tough to properly attach yourself to cover. It's a little too easy in the chaos of battle to wind up on the wrong side of some rubble and unwittingly expose yourself to enemy fire. Sometimes you have to get ridiculously close to the cover-providing object to bring up the option of hunkering down. Another more serious issue comes with firing. Bullet drop is supposed to be part of the physics model, but it's hard to see much of an effect, at least over the distances involved in the included maps. Aiming high to compensate for gravity pulling bullets toward the earth seems to mainly result in missing high, so the mechanics appear to be a little off. The most troublesome flawt may be of the technical variety, however: occasional random crashes might take you from Stalingrad to your Windows desktop in a hurry.

The new single-player mode has its share of drawbacks as well. The campaigns are something of a turnoff for newcomers because the bots are dumb. They mindlessly rush enemy locations, run around in circles jumping over the same broken-down fence, and occasionally ignore both orders and enemies. Bad guys are equally stupid, particularly when it comes to ignoring your presence, so there is a bit of a tradeoff here. Still, the two never balance out because you're usually taking the offensive against dug-in enemies and need the assistance of allies to storm these locales. Orders can be given to nudge your buddies in the right direction, at least. Regular reinforcements mean that you can eventually overcome the actions your stupid squadmates perform in the field, although in the absence of smarter squadmates, you can wind up forced into attempting suicidal one-man charges over and over again. As a result, the solo missions are only marginally entertaining and serve more as extended tutorials familiarizing players with the controls and overall flow of combat than proper new modes of play.

How much you get out of Red Orchestra 2: Heroes of Stalingrad really depends on how much time you put into it. This is a demanding, slowly paced game of authentic infantry combat where success depends almost entirely on your patience and willingness to wait out opponents. If you approach it properly, you can't help but be impressed and captivated by the grim majesty of the multiplayer battlefields. But with that said, this game pretty much defines the term "acquired taste." The challenge and sheer intimidation of getting started are almost overwhelming, and the numerous problems with the new single-player mode actually make it more likely, not less likely, that players will quit out of frustration before seeing what the game's all about. This is a realistic WWII shooter that is worth trying, but the unique and unforgiving nature of its squad warfare means that you need to spend a lot of time learning the ropes. If you can make the commitment, go for it; you'll be rewarded with one of the most intense experiences in shooter history. If you can't make the commitment, stick with something more forgiving and avoid the inevitable frustration.

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Red Orchestra: Ostfront 41-45 review

Posted : 11 years, 1 month ago on 16 April 2013 06:11 (A review of Red Orchestra: Ostfront 41-45)

Red Orchestra is an enjoyable, team-based online shooter for those who like the Battlefield-style games but want a more technical and realistic experience.

The Good

More-authentic feel than most shooters of this type
Requires more teamwork than other shooters
Large maps
Decent-sized community of regular players
Built-in VoIP.

The Bad

Learning curve is pretty steep
Requires Steam activation, even with retail box purchase
Bots for single-player are quite dumb--don't bother with them.

Red Orchestra: Ostfront 41-45 is a team-based multiplayer shooter set, as the name suggests, on the brutal eastern front of World War II, where the Russians and Germans fought a brutal war of attrition. While that setup probably sounds pretty familiar to those of us who've played games such as Battlefield 1942 or even Call of Duty, Red Orchestra manages to differentiate itself. The game offers a hardcore gameplay design that weeds out the arcade-shooter crowd with a meticulous attention to realism, albeit sometimes just for the sake of it.

Red Orchestra has its roots in an Unreal Tournament 2003 mod of the same name. Like other such mods, including Counter-Strike and Day of Defeat, Red Orchestra is now available as a stand-alone retail game. The package requires you to activate the game through Steam, which was a process that resulted in some complications for us as we tried to play from an office PC and from a separate home PC. Once you sort those installation issues out, the game loads up like any other game on Steam, and you're able to load up a server browser to search out games to play online. Much like other mod-to-retail games before it, Red Orchestra is an online-only game, although the developers have included a single-player practice mode where you can populate a map with bots--this is a "safer" environment where you can learn the many nuances of the game without getting berated by human players. You'll find that the bots included in the game are pretty brain-dead, so once you get the mechanics down, you'll want to jump right into a live match.

There are 13 maps in Red Orchestra, ranging from small farm towns and the plains surrounding them to a bombed out rail yard and a monastery set atop a hill. These maps are generally quite large and well designed. There's plenty of room to stretch out, which lets teams move around and attempt flanking maneuvers in a lot of cases, though at times it seems like the action doesn't feel as concentrated and directed as it could be. The detail in the environments is pretty good--you'll find buildings to garrison and shoot out from; foxholes and trenches to dive into; and plenty of foliage, rocks, and other debris to use as cover, all of which looks quite good. Most of the maps have required objectives for each team to capture--once all the objectives are reached, that team wins the round. The maps vary from vehicle-oriented maps, where each team has plenty of armored personnel carriers and tanks spawning right at their base; to infantry-only maps; to combined-arms maps, where both infantry and tanks roam about.

One of the interesting things about Red Orchestra is how the various classes work. Like many other team-based shooters, Red Orchestra lets you select from an array of different classes, each of which has special weaponry. Riflemen get guns such as Kar-98s or Mosin Nagants, squad commanders and other shock troopers get submachine guns such as MP-40s. There are also machine gunners who carry heavy automatic weapons such as MG-42s. The vehicle specialists, which are the only class that can jump in a tank or operate other vehicles, only carry a sidearm, but they can pick up weapons lying on the battlefield.

More so than most other team-based shooter classes, these classes feel a lot different from one another. The machine gunner can't shoot accurately from the hip. Not only is there no crosshair to assist your aim, but the gun sprays wildly out of control unless you find a rock or ledge to set the gun down on or go prone so you can deploy the bipod. The machine gunners will also find that the barrels can warp from overheating due to repeated firing, which severely hampers accuracy. Yes, there's a separate button you'll need to learn that swaps in a fresh barrel. Submachine guns have a ton of recoil, more than you'd expect if you're a veteran of the more-popular WWII shooters. Commanders can use binoculars, which on certain maps are used to call in artillery strikes, which need to be radioed in by another player.

You'll find a similar separation of tasks for driving tanks. Unlike other games where one player usually serves as the driver and turret gunner, Red Orchestra has one player exclusively doing the driving, while another player mans the turret and handles reloading (and selecting the type of tank round to use). This requires good coordination between the two players, as the gunner's job is infinitely harder if the driver is constantly lurching around and never stops to let the gunner aim. Even the basic mechanics of driving and shooting a tank gun have an added air of realism--the driver, for example, can only see through a tiny porthole in many tanks. You can pop your head out of some tanks for added visibility at the expense of vulnerability, but for the most part, you'll need to deal with a tunnel view. The gunner meanwhile spends all of his or her time peering through a narrow-view gun sight with rather complicated, and presumably realistic, markings--if you know how to use these markings, you can probably more-easily adjust for elevation as you fire the gun, which seems to exhibit real projectile physics. You can't mouse-aim and turn the turret as fast as you like...instead, you use the WASD keys to aim the turret, which simulates the turning speed and elevation limitations of the various tanks in the game. It all sounds like a real pain, and in all honesty, it can take a while to learn how to effectively operate a tank. But when you find a good driver or gunner partner, and everything comes together, it's all the more satisfying to wreak havoc on the battlefield with a tank in Red Orchestra.

The realism extends to infantry combat, as well. Like Day of Defeat, Red Orchestra uses stamina to limit how much and how often you can run. If you run to the point of exhaustion, you'll find your aim noticeably less steady. There's location-based damage in the game, and you can even have the gun shot right out of your hand, which is quite disconcerting the first time it happens. But more often than not, Red Orchestra is a one-shot, one-kill type of game, so you quickly learn to keep your head down, crouch, and crawl most of the time to stay under cover, only popping out to take a shot. It's not just about aiming down the iron sights of your weapon either. If you're armed with a bolt-action rifle and fire, you need to press the shoot button again to work the bolt, eject the spent cartridge, and load a new round into the breech. Forcing you to work the bolt on your rifle seems somewhat over the line as far as realism goes, but real grognards may still get a kick out of it.

Beyond the large, wide-open maps, Red Orchestra is a great-looking game, which is what you'd expect from something based off of Unreal Tournament 2004. The character models can look a little generic, and they animate stiffly at times, but the level of detail put into the vehicle models is appreciable. There's even a nice shellshock, shaky visual effect when an explosion goes off near you or when bullets are whizzing near your head. The sound effects in the game are also great. The gun effects are sharp and varied, depending on what weapon you're using, and the tanks in the game rumble about with the expected authority, both from their massive engines and the booming cannons when they're fired. There's also built-in voice-over-IP support, which a lot of players seem to use--for a game such as this that requires a lot of close teamwork, it definitely comes in handy and works well. Overall, the presentation of Red Orchestra is about what you'd expect from a good war game.

If you're looking for an easy-to-play, online, team-based shooter, Red Orchestra is not it. The various nuances in the game, such as driver and gunner separation in tanks, one-shot kills, and stamina modeling will probably be turnoffs to those who are looking for something that's pick-up-and-play ready. But for those who can appreciate a more-realistic and technical gameplay experience, there's definitely a lot to like in Red Orchestra. Large maps, a focus on teamwork, and attention to detail in the various weapons and vehicles make for a game that hardcore wargamers will find enjoyable.

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S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat review

Posted : 11 years, 1 month ago on 16 April 2013 06:07 (A review of S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat)

The most stable S.T.A.L.K.E.R. game yet also happens to be the most atmospheric and compelling.

The Good

Bleak ambience creates a fantastic sense of place
Lots of tense exploration
Numerous improvements over the previous games
Some cool new enemies to take on.

The Bad

The story takes too long to get interesting
Pripyat isn't as interesting as the surrounding wastes.

Like its predecessors, S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat is all about stretches of chilling stillness and thick dread, punctuated by the tense thrills of menacing mutants and the rush of discovery. If you've played either of the first two games of the series, you know that The Zone is a harsh mistress, and exploring it requires patience, thoughtful planning, and plenty of ammo. But it's also erupting with rewards as long as you know where to look. This shooter/role-playing hybrid oozes ambience by the bucketful, whether you're traversing marshes or skulking through dark crevasses, and the dread that accumulates makes encounters with all sorts of grotesque freaks feel all the more suspenseful. These compelling moments don't inspire every aspect of the game, however. The story does little to draw you in until the final hours, and the visuals are showing their age despite some welcome improvements to the graphics engine. But Call of Pripyat is an excellent return to form after the uncomfortably buggy, awkwardly paced Clear Sky. Prepare, once again, to face impossible odds as you trudge your way across one of the planet's most dangerous expanses.

In the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series' third installment, you play as Ukrainian security agent Alexander Degtyarev. A number of military helicopters have crashed in the region devastated by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster--known as The Zone--and you're sent to investigate. Call of Pripyat tries a bit harder than its predecessors in the storytelling department; the camera pans around your character in cutscenes, the writing is more straightforward, and the climax ties back to Shadow of Chernobyl, the original S.T.A.L.K.E.R. game. The plot gets a bit interesting in the final few hours as you find out more about what's going on in Pripyat, the abandoned city closest to the nuclear plant. Unfortunately, there's little to get you invested before that, and the awkward scripted scenes don't communicate a sense of drama as much as they highlight the aging visuals. A few characters, such as an alcoholic technician who will upgrade your weapons only after you give him enough vodka, are interesting or entertaining enough to make you care about their fates. But for the most part, you'll care only about surviving--and thriving--in such bleak, lawless environs.

And what environs they are. Shacks dot the grassy landscapes, cracks open in the earth's crust, and the famed Pripyat Ferris wheel looms beyond a barbed-wire fence. Storms rage across the skies, and frightening radioactive emissions spread across The Zone, threatening the small pockets of human life that populate it. You encounter groups of bandits fending off mutant attacks or huddled around a fire, camped near a radioactive anomaly. This is a tense, unpredictable, and sometimes scary place where the next step could invite danger or bring respite. You get some forewarning of some attacks, such as the frenzied barking of mutated dogs before a pack of them descend upon you. But other times, the darkness hides a shocking surprise, like a new enemy to the series called the burer. These misshapen dwarves are like mutant poltergeists, flinging objects at you and even telekinetically yanking your weapon out of your hands. A sinister encounter with one of these creatures in the center of Pripyat near the end of the game is one of several nail-biting highlights.

Another highlight is a nighttime ambush of another newly introduced beast called the chimera. Night is wholly black in Call of Pripyat, not the dim facsimile that so many other games provide. Not knowing when this terrible beast might bear down upon you in this blackness makes this just one of many petrifying sequences, though even most mundane encounters will have you sweating bullets. Call of Pripyat is not an easy game, so you need to aim well, know your weapons' strengths and weaknesses, and conserve ammo. Human opponents put up a tough fight, so running in guns blazing is a quick ticket to the afterlife. There are times when the AI's ultraproficiency seems a little too obvious. Human enemies facing away from you have the uncanny ability to notice when you peek out a window behind them and are remarkably good shots in the dead of night, even without night vision scopes equipped. But despite a bit of cheating, Call of Pripyat rarely feels unfair. It features none of Clear Sky's lame choke points and mission design issues, and the economy and weapon upgrade systems have been tweaked in sensible ways. So while you'll still make use of the quicksave and quickload keys, you never feel like the game devolves into frustrating save-game attrition.

These aren't the only improvements Call of Pripyat makes over its precursors. This is by far the most stable S.T.A.L.K.E.R. game out of the box; we didn't experience a single crash or corrupted save file, and the graphics engine performs better than ever (if not quite perfectly), even when you turn on the new DirectX 11-specific options. This update doesn't thrust the game into the forefront of cutting-edge visuals, but while low-resolution textures and clumsy animations may betray the engine's age, carefully crafted environments and all sorts of atmospheric touches make this a case in which art trumps technology. Other welcome improvements include flexible hotkeys,along with important gameplay additions, from preventative medications to the ability to roam The Zone freely once you've finished the story.

Outside of the main story, there are plenty of side quests to pursue. You'll eliminate bloodsucker nests, search for a fabled corner of paradise, and, as before, hunt for incredibly valuable artifacts hidden in the midst of various anomalies. Gathering artifacts is as tense and exciting as it ever was, requiring you to venture into a deadly anomaly that may pick you up into the air and throw you around, burn your skin to a crisp, or zap you with jolts of electricity. All the while, you must follow your detector's signal to pinpoint the artifact's location. The search is frantic, and the risk is high, which makes success oh-so-sweet. All these tasks are wrapped into a free-form package, allowing you to explore The Zone under your own terms. In fact, the vague instructions you receive from some mission providers require you to thoroughly explore every nook and cranny, from abandoned schoolhouses to derelict fuel stations. Don't expect a specific mission waypoint with every job you undertake. This is frustrating if you let it be, but it's an authentic part of Call of Pripyat's bleakness. The Zone does not allow you to tame it without a struggle.

The game isn't always so open ended, and some story missions funnel you through a few extended, linear sequences, though Call of Pripyat falters slightly here. The game spends a lot of time setting up Pripyat as home to unspeakable dangers, and a protracted journey through a long, dark series of tunnels is so nerve-racking that the reward for the effort--the city of Pripyat--is a bit of a letdown. There are fewer opportunities for boundless exploration here, fewer surprises to discover--and no typical vendors, which might lead to some unavoidable travel back to the game's two other major regions. Thankfully, this is when the story missions start to get more interesting, moving from mundane to there’s-something-freaky-going-on-here territory.

Call of Pripyat's multiplayer options, just like those of its predecessors, are routine and slightly clumsy, because the game's shooting mechanics don't work so beautifully when isolated from the context that makes them successful. But it's the chilly ambience and lifelike ecology that should lure you to the newest S.T.A.L.K.E.R. game, not the ordinary online play. Well-constructed environments and superb sound design make The Zone as cheerless and ominous as ever. But it's also rich with resources, begging you to cultivate its secrets and withstand the hostilities. Series fans and newcomers alike should don their protective gear and journey forth.

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S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky review

Posted : 11 years, 1 month ago on 16 April 2013 06:06 (A review of S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky)

Glitches drag it down, but Clear Sky provides plenty of haunting ambience and challenging gameplay.

The Good

Amazing, oppressive atmosphere
Enemy stalker AI is often remarkable
Huge, chilling world to explore
Faction war gameplay adds focus and replay value.

The Bad

High level of difficulty won't be for everybody
Bugs, bugs, bugs
A number of small frustrations.

The Zone isn't a friendly place, and if you played last year's shooter/horror/role-playing hybrid S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl, this comes as no shock. Clear Sky offers a few improvements and a number of issues, but the real star of the series--the large, barren wasteland created by a fictional explosion of the infamous nuclear facility in Chernobyl, Ukraine--is still the most impressive aspect of this prequel. This isn't a full-fledged follow-up, but rather a stand-alone expansion set before the events of the original. You're introduced to a new main character and several new mechanics, the most important of which is factional gameplay, which allows you to ally with an AI-controlled group and assault its enemies. Unfortunately, new features come with a price: new bugs, erratic difficulty, and other annoyances further disrupt the immersion. While Clear Sky is a good game, it's disappointing that developer GSC Game World failed to address the problems with Shadow of Chernobyl that were left to the modding community to clean up.

If you've already visited The Zone and got lost in its nightmarish world and deliberate pacing, you'll find the landscape is still bleak and uninviting. You play as the silent loner Scar, a survivor of a strong emission originating from the nuclear plant at the center of the zone. His rescuers are the Clear Sky faction, a group of scientists investigating the reasons behind the emissions. And of course, their goal becomes yours as well. During your measured journey through The Zone, you'll visit other factions' headquarters as well, where you'll be asked to assault enemy bases, join their brotherhood, and perform tasks in exchange for information.

With so many bases scattered about, you'll soon discover that compared to its predecessor, The Zone is practically teeming with human life--though you shouldn't take this to mean that it's suddenly a carnival of cheery faces. This meatier population is borne out of necessity: Clear Sky's major new addition is that of factional warfare, in which the various packs of mercenaries (or in this case, stalkers) fight each other for turf control. As a result, you can meet the faction leader and join the team, assuming you've proven yourself worthy. This in turn means better merchant prices and other perks, as well as easier (or harder) passage to certain areas. Thus ensues a Battlefield style tug of war, in which factions fight over controls points in an attempt to take over the other's base.

Joining your teammates in these battles, like almost any combat situation in Clear Sky, is a nail-biting excursion into the unknown. Impressive enemy AI is one of the biggest reasons for this. Enemy stalkers make excellent use of cover, crouch and move away when they reload, flank you whenever possible, and generally react in plausible ways. They're tough cookies, so even at standard difficulty, you can't play as you would a standard first-person shooter. The only successful approach is to act and react as you would in real life: with caution and perseverance. Because of the slow flow of cash, you'll often feel spectacularly underpowered, but while these fights are often tense and difficult, clearing out a base with nothing but a pea-shooting pistol and an underpowered hunting rifle feels like a major accomplishment. Just be prepared to save. Often.

Over time, you'll find and purchase new weapons and armor, and can upgrade them with a visit to the right technicians at various bases. Unfortunately, enemy stalkers have a few tricks up their sleeves that border on the magical. Grenades are a nice addition to the series in theory, but foes have an uncanny knack for throwing them directly at your feet from huge distances. The implementation seems a bit off here; grenades explode very quickly once they land, yet S.T.A.L.K.E.R. has never been about quick movement (a stamina bar limits how much you can sprint and jump), so more often than not, multiple grenades usually means game over. The AI's uncanny ability to land shots, particularly at nighttime, also borders on the absurd.

These issues are most prevalent in two frustrating sequences that bottleneck progress in the first half of the game. In one, you emerge into a new area only to find yourself under attack from a nearby military installation. You're meant to run, but the eagle-eyed soldiers riddle you with bullets time and time again as you die and reload, wondering what the secret for escape is. In another, you must take potshots at enemies from behind a bus while dodging multiple grenades at once. Furthermore, this battle takes place a few feet from an exit point to another region; should you accidentally trigger it, your location will be reset to a few feet away, potentially on top of a grenade. Usually, Clear Sky is a tough challenge that makes you feel powerful when you succeed at your task. Sequences like these do the unforgivable: They yank you from the powerfully immersive world at the heart of the experience.

But what a world it is. Both new areas and old are desolate and freaky, and become more so as you move out of the swamps and carve a path to your destinations. Swirling anomalies threaten the simple act of trudging through the wilderness, and may pick you up and toss you about before you can escape. Packs of mutants, from wild dogs to leaping monstrosities, will descend on you as you scavenge for ammo, and it usually takes more than a single blast from a shotgun to defeat them. A journey through an underground installation becomes a fight for sanity as you get pummeled with psionic attacks that blur your vision. And in a heartbreaking moment, thugs attack you and take all your cash and equipment. Harsh, sure, but most of the time it doesn't feel unnecessary; it's just the nature of the world. You'll begin to think differently than you would in most games. How soon will night fall? Do I have enough bandages and radiation drugs (or the ever-helpful vodka)? What factions bar (or ease) the way to the artifact-harboring Garbage region?

Speaking of artifacts, those valuable, stat-enhancing objects are still floating within anomalies like before, but you aren't just going to see them and run in to grab them. Now you need to equip a detector, which will flash and beep when one is near, and point you in its direction. You won't see anomalies until you get very close, which means wandering directly into the radiation, grabbing the glowing bugger, and making a hasty retreat, usually while downing some vodka and using a health pack or two (here is one of those occasions where you will desperately wish the game let you bind radiation drugs and vodka to a hotkey). These are harrowing moments, but they make artifact collection feel meaningful, and just as you will tense as you wade into the danger, you'll feel equally rewarded when you walk away intact, brandishing your new glowing artifact.

It's too bad that Clear Sky tries so hard to make you not like it, thanks to any number of bugs and performance issues you may experience. The first main mission--assist a friendly stalker at a swamp outpost--is bugged: If you take a different route to your destination than the game intends, you won't trigger the script. In other cases, your faction leader may direct you to defend an outpost, but the attack will never come, or the promised reinforcements will never arrive, even if you wait for 10 or more real-time minutes (an eternity in video games). We experienced multiple crashes using a Steam-purchased, patched copy of the game, and a save-game corruption erased an hour's worth of progress. A retail disc would not run on one machine, because the copy protection program insisted there was no disc in the drive. Other annoyances also get in the way, from the inability to use the quickload key once you've died to hotkey settings that won't always save your changes. And over a year later, the engine remains unoptimized, delivering lower frame rates than you would expect on systems more than capable of running technologically superior games without a hitch.

However, Clear Sky doesn't look bad, and GSC Game World has managed to squeeze a lot out of an engine that was already lagging behind the competition when Shadow of Chernobyl was released. Lighting and shadows are outstanding, particularly if you have a system capable of using the newly enhanced light settings (good luck with that). Even without that system-wrenching addition, though, contrasts of light and dark are impressively ominous, due in part to the game's visually authentic day/night cycle. Dawn imparts a realistic orange glow, while midnight brings bleak darkness, punctured by the roaring fires in stalker camps. Bolts of lightning cut through the evening sky and dreary rain moistens the morning. Atmospheric effects like these are effective, taking your eyes off low-res textures, blocky geometry, and occasionally glitchy animations.

Clear Sky's ambient sound design is amazing. From the far-off howls of a dog to the roar and whoosh of anomalies, roaming about The Zone has never sounded so scary, and so lonely. No matter how many times you hear a mutant growl, the sudden outcry of one on your trail is always startling and chilling, and will have you glancing about, looking anxiously through the tall weeds. There are a few missteps in other areas, however. While much of the voice acting is fine, some characters sound like caricatures, like the squawking Freedom barman that offers to sell you marijuana (it's so grating, it may be enough to drive you to join the opposing Duty faction just to not hear him speak again). The base broadcasts you're pelted with when you visit faction headquarters are similarly out of place, and they detract from the atmosphere.

There's also a new multiplayer mode, but a week after release, we couldn't find anyone playing it--though Clear Sky's straightforward but slightly clunky online play isn't its main draw. You come for the atmosphere, and few games deliver dread and desolation better than this. Too bad it's as buggy as its predecessor, and throws in some new quirks of its own that break the spell. Nevertheless, while Clear Sky may get even better with some patches and fan modifications (much like Shadow of Chernobyl did), it's still a worthwhile journey through a stark world that, at times, feels all too real.

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