Monday, January 31, 2011

'Splosion Man

'Splosion Man

When everyone involved with a project clearly loves it, it shows. Soulless cash-in movies and games are everywhere, and then there are labors of love that just radiate polish. I come here to praise 'Splosion Man, not to 'Splode him.

"A platforming/puzzle game with a heart of gold (and explosives)" is the phrase that best describes 'Splosion Man. But here's another look:

Jenkins swiped his card and the airlock hissed open. He stepped in and steeled himself for the rush of nitrogen-rich air pushing down on him from the vents above, smelling slightly of ozone today. The buzzer rang and the green klaxon spun, so he pressed the ‘open’ button and stepped into the facility.

He’d been working here for a little under a year, and still had no idea what the entire project’s goal was. His department, the one he’d been recruited from Celsius AB for, was working on new ballistic propellant systems. He imagined it was a top-secret government project, but found it odd he hadn’t met with any G-men to get his Secret clearance renewed.

The whole building was just a little strange – very high ceilings, long hallways to nowhere, strange L-shaped dead ends that required you to call a liftjack just to get to the area you needed, but the pay was outstanding and he was free to work in an environment that rewarded results instead of incremental advances tempered by safety precautions. He liked that about this facility.

What he didn’t like, was Dinkelman. That corpulent leviathan was trundling towards him even now, a bearclaw in one hand and a clipboard in the other.

“Huh heh, Jenkins what are you doing down here?” he said, an errant crumb tumbling out of his mouth and onto his white smock, where it settled on top of a fold.

“I need to talk with Abernathy about a theoretical emulsifier for my project. Is he in his office?”

“He’s around. Think he went in the break room. We got a new air hockey table!” Dinkelman was never one to talk shop when he wasn’t at his desk. Jenkins pushed past him and followed the glowing blue arrows to floor 1-13’s office wing, glancing up at the mounted smartgun as it trained itself on him. Security was a top priority here.

Abernathy was in his room, standing next to a large lever. Jenkins rapped twice on the blue force-field to catch Abernathy’s attention and the red-bearded scientist, eyes covered by a pair of slitted view-goggles jerked and looked over, pulling the lever to lower the force door and let Jenkins in.

“Ahh, Jenkins,” Abernathy said. “How good to see you today. How are things down in 2-3?”

“Not bad. The acid baths seem to be tempering the propellants the way we want them to. It’s actually what I wanted to talk to you about. There’s a system subroutine that’s acting up and –“

Jenkins cut his sentence short as the floor rumbled slightly. Both men looked around for the source; subsonic vibrations were not uncommon, though it usually meant something had gone wrong somewhere and that there would be an announcement shortly. The two men turned their heads and listened, but the sound had stopped.

A moment later, though, the doughy scream of Dinkelman echoed off the walls, along with a high-pitched whine of the smartgun spinning up. The two men listened in horror as Dinkelman was apparently shredded by the smartgun’s caseless ammunition tearing into his flesh, and the screams were getting louder – as if Dinkelman was actually advancing on the gun’s position in spite of it barking fire at him. The screaming finally stopped, and Abernathy lowered his head. Jenkins followed; even though he despised Dinkelman professionally, he was still a human being.

There was a loud report, followed by two more from below, loud enough to spook Abernathy into raising a second, closer force field locking himself in with the lever and computer terminal. A bright glow came from the nearby junction, getting brighter and accompanied by an unconscionable cackle. As Jenkins turned in horror, the true purpose of the facility became clear – the munitions, plasma field research, augmenting intelligence programs, it all fell into place as the monstrosity came spinning over the lip of the column.

They were building a living bomb.

The thing - Jenkins didn’t know whether to call it a man or not – ran directly at him. Jenkins could feel the heat coming off its body, black Kirby dots crackling throughout its frame and giant optical receptors looking like two frosted bunt cakes turned on their side resting atop the pile of flames. He turned to pound on the blue force-field.

“Abernathy, you monster! Let me in! I’m out here with this…this creature!”

Abernathy shivered visibly and pointed at something directly over Jenkins’ shoulder. The heat was unbearable, but Jenkins managed to twist his torso and turn his head enough to put his eyes level with what could only be described as the creature’s mouth, gaping open with white textbook-sized square teeth.

It leered at him, the heat melting Jenkins’ pass-badge to his lab coat, and uttered a single word.

It's just a great, fun game. Everyone should play and love it. The fact that there are literally two full campaigns, one designed specifically for co-op, is great. The achievements are perfectly done, there's not one but two ending credits songs, live-action setpieces and a delightfully off-kilter design ethic through the whole thing.

Graphics: Awesome. 'Splosion Man looks great, and the scientists are adorable. 4.
Sound: Better than amazing. Between the song about pastries and 'Splosion Man's Daffy Duck impersonation, you couldn't ask for more. 5.
Controls: The mappable controls from the menu are a highlight. 5.
Tilt: Completely endearing from start to finish. 5.
Overall (not an average): Tendrils' Top Pick.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Secret of Monkey Island

The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition

So you've got your gang in high school. You're all nerds, you play Magic at lunch, you get together for marathon D&D sessions that run from the last school bell on Friday until everyone passes out from O.C. (Cheetos Overdose) sometime Sunday afternoon. Life is good, and you are happy with your gang. Then something happens. You grow up a little. Puberty hits, you discover girls, start working out with the baseball team. Your friend in electronics classes starts taking early enrollment at community college to knock out his Electrical Engineering degree faster. Your computer buddy starts working tech support at an ISP. But one friend is still wearing ratty "WIZARD!" t-shirts and quoting Monty Python loudly in the halls at you. When he stubs his toe, he yells out "CROM!" instead of a normal swear, and you cringe a little. He still has his birth-control glasses taped together and a Terry Pratchett book sticking out of his back pocket. You don't invite him to your party, and slowly the gang drifts away from him.

Secret of Monkey Island is that friend.

People bemoan the death of adventure games all the time, and when they pine for the genre, make sure they ask a 13-year old today to play this game with no rose colored glasses. Guaranteed they won't make it past the "oh-so-hilarious rabid death poodles."

Sandwich-style review here, a piece of praise in between two complaints: the Special Edition of this game is a great update. I hope someone at Digital Eclipse plays this game and weeps silently in the corner for an hour. Even though you can play this game in all its pixelly glory, it has been repainted and updated with new sprites and full voice acting from everyone in the game, from real voice talent like Rob Paulsen. This is how you update a game: lovingly recreate everything in full HD with music and voice upgrades.

Unfortunately (bottom slice of bread here), Monkey Island's secret is that it isn't very good. While the writing can be clever in spots, it overall is just as groan-inducing as that friend from the first paragraph. While the game is good-natured and never strikes so wrong a note as to upset you, it just never appealed to my sense of humor.

The gameplay is what sinks this game, though. There is so much game-length-padding backtracking going on, and sadly you're forced to watch Guybrush walk through the same four environments over and over, especially the slow-zooming "just got here" part of the animation. You can try and queue up "go here" buttons, but it still is simply terminal how slow the game plays. Compounded with inscrutable puzzles that require you to "think like the developer" instead of having a sane solution may make you feel like the smartest nerd at the Star Trek convention when you get them, but are just annoying when you spend a half-hour trying everything and failing.

At one point you have to adjust a fulcrum and rock setup, then go up some stairs and drop another rock on it. If you miss your target, you have to go back down the stairs, push or pull the lever, then go back up and pick up another rock, set it down, then push it again. Pure trial-and-error gaming; Record your results in your copybook, now.

It turns what is a fairly smartly-written game into a slog of trial-and-error and kills any of the exploration joy you feel when you have to keep dealing with setbacks that are asinine and dealt with by game designers in the decades since this game's release.

Graphics: No complaints, this game is gorgeous. 4.
Sound: Again, hits the perfect note. Great and varied voice acting. 5.
Controls: Why can't you cycle through commands? Other than that, acceptable. 3.
Tilt: A breezy and fun game, sunk by atrocious, ancient gameplay. 0.
Overall (not an average): 1.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

RISK: Factions

RISK: Factions

I want to talk about another game before I talk about RISK: Factions - the old '900 number' call-in games from comic books in the 1990's. "Help the X-Men beat Magneto," the double page spread would beg. Then you'd get a parent's permission and call in, ready to press 1 to use Optic Blast on Toad, and the announcer would talk as slow as possible to rack up the per-minute charges. Of course you didn't ask Mom's permission, you took the phone in your room, hid under the bed and hoped you could stop Magneto's plans in just a minute or two, but it never worked out that way. Keep that experience in mind.

First things first, this is a pretty fun version of RISK. They do a lot to change up the maps (though they aren't dynamically generated) and the different colors for team choice are realized in a fun way. Red (whose general is Commandant-64, an 80's toy robot) and Yellow (Generalissimo Meow, a tinpot dictator kitty-cat) are both highlights. The combat animations are fun and colorful, and the music, though obviously repetitive, fits the mood and doesn't get too grating.

The single-player campaign has a fairly funny storyline with fully-voice-acted and animated cutscenes attached to it, though it's just over an hour long.

But on to the flaws. First the offline flaw: the game's information delivery. While the combat is skippable, every time an objective on the map changes hands or comes online, and every award claimed at the end of a round, is meticulously mapped out and animated, which gets old by the second time you see it. When a hotly-contested property like the Temple gets passed around in a round, it becomes absolutely hair-pulling, and ultimately sinks local multiplayer, which - by the way - again does not support hotseat play, which is absolutely asinine for a game with literally no actions available for non-active players.

Secondly, online play is completely worthless. I've always maintained, despite others begging for a computer game RISK with online play, that it would be worthless. Locally, you're still in the guy's house when you throw up your hands and quit; online you just press a few buttons and you are gone, off to Call of Duty land. But RISK: Factions still lets you join another game right away, leading to endless ragequitting with pubbies, meaning you can only play online with your friends.

Ultimately, better matchmaking/ragequit penalties and customizable animation levels would make this a perfect arcade game, but unfortunately it ends up with a very few, but very critical errors that make it not worth its price.

Graphics: Very fun, bright colors and good animations. The "Domination" animations are a highlight. 4.
Sound: Full voice acting, and a score that never quites gets under your skin or on your nerves. 4.
Controls: Fairly intuitive. You can't abort a fast attack, but other than that, no complaints. 4.
Tilt: You will love playing this once, but ultimately the overlong and far-too-frequent "informative animations" just get annoying. 1.
Overall (not an average): 2

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Two Worlds

Two Worlds

"Ahh... bandits." The first time you hear this immortal line, spoken by the baritone lead voice actor, in response to meeting a pack of wolves, you will be a little perplexed. But by the time the mounting insanity of this game reaches its fevered pitch, you will be absolutely in love with the characters.

Let's get one thing straight: Two Worlds isn't good. Not in the traditional sense, where high production values and a smart script come together with novel gameplay concepts to make an instant classic. Two Worlds is bad. Insanely bad. Ostensibly an Oblivion-like RPG in a boring faux-Britannia peopled by badly-acted wooden caricatures handing out quests to your hero like candy.

There is a lot of content to explore. There are a dozen factions to curry favor with or betray, dungeons to raid, side quests and hidden areas, and taints.

Yes, the "Big Bad" in this game is "The Taint," and the characters say it out loud over and over, and it never stops being funny.

But with a bit of interpretation, the game becomes something amazing. It is the perfect deadpan, never breaking character or winking at the audience at all, but somehow reveling in its badness. It seems to be daring you to buy into its ridiculous hero, a John Freeman for the swords'n'sorcery set.

Your hero is never far from a non-sequiter; he's a chatty hero (though never to anyone in particular) and seems to be the natural, real-world expression of the sociopathic characters from D&D games from the 1980s that were all about loot and killing. He seems to be just trundling through the world, duct-taping katanas together and riding a skeletal horse around, causing mayhem, and if you buy into that conceit, the game really does shine.

Two Worlds also brings a lot to the table in terms of novel gameplay concepts. Their handling of inventory is pretty novel (though having 255 different sets of gloves is annoying when you're trying to combine matching ones), and the world is big and full of varied quests. It just takes a particular mindset to enjoy it.

Graphics: Brown and green everywhere, and every model is edged with jaggies. 2.
Howlingly bad dialogue reading and a very limited palette of monster/attack sounds. No soundtrack to speak of. 1, or 4 Ironically.
Competent until you get on a horse. 2.
With the right mindset, incredibly enjoyable. 4.
Overall (not an average): 5

Monday, January 24, 2011



Let's go back, back to the halcyon days of 1992. You're at the mall, you've got a fat wad of birthday or babysitting money, and you're at Toys 'R Us, back when that was the place to get your games because no specialty stores existed. You pick up a cardboard box and look at the name, flip it over for a few screenshots and a description that more than likely is written "in-universe" to describe what the game is supposed to depict - like, "Help Dash Dengar fight off the alien hordes through 8 thrilling levels" that don't actually talk about the gameplay.

Remember that? Remember picking up games and hoping against hope that they were at least competent? MotorHEAT is the game industry's apology for that dark time before metacritic and internet message board opinions. Out of the box (or from the download screen) it looks like a cheap game, a throwaway cash-in tech demo or student final project. But from the moment you start, it reveals a depth and a knowledge of what fun is that really strikes you.

MotorHEAT only has three buttons - left, right and TURBO. That's it. Don't worry about acceleration, MotorHEAT knows you want the pedal to the metal the whole game, and so you start at, and cannot go less than, MAX SPEED. They do a good job at recreating the wanton destruction of Burnout 2 mixed in with the speed from WipeOutXL. It's a gestalt of the best racing games from the PS1 era, with great graphics for a 1-dollar game. More importantly, though the graphics aren't 1080i at full resolution, they don't have anything in them that takes away from the experience.

MotorHEAT even does a few things for three dollars that several full titles don't. While it doesn't have true Achievements, it does feature a few dozen in-game "awards," along with a metrics screen that tracks how close you are to achieving each one. It also seamlessly integrates with the XBox Message Center to send challenges/boast to your friends (and also give people who may not have even seen the Indie Games section a game to buy).

While it certainly wears out its welcome in extended-play sessions, MotorHEAT - when enjoyed in half-hour sessions while chatting on Party Chat or waiting for a slot to open in a multiplayer game with your gang - is pure bliss.

Graphics: Good PS1/N64 quality. Some blurriness in the backgrounds, but it has customizable player cars. 3.
A little muted. The music is forgettable and the vroom-vroom sounds anemic. 2.
It only has 3, and you only need three. You feel as in control as you can at 220kmph. 4.
A perfect distraction, with lots of polish and a few tricks full titles could learn from. 4.
Overall (not an average): 4.