The difference between clever and cunning.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Nefarious Review

Not many games let you actually play the villain. Not just choose the selfish or cruel option on a conversation wheel, but step into the boots of the villain of the story. Any thug can bully the weak. Conquering the world with style and vision is not so trivial a task. Nefarious is a welcome entry into a lightly populated field, earning a place alongside such black-hearted classics as Dungeon Keeper and Overlord.

Nefarious is an affectionate parody of the classic hero/villain rivalries of gaming. Playing as Crow, latest in a long line of bird-themed air pirates, your quest is to travel to each of the lands of your world, defeat the resident hero, and kidnap the resident princess. Once you have enough of them to run your royalty powered doomsday device you can finally give the world the conquering it so richly deserves. 

Each level has a clear art direction and theme. Tsarist era Russia and dwarves go together well.
Least the story appear a bit regressive it quickly becomes clear that each princess is a character in their own right, not just a McGuffin. The narrative has a lot of fun with the classic trope, giving it due homage without becoming too predictable or dull. In some cases what Crow insists is a kidnapping looks more like a rescue. Other princess are formidable enough that Crow looks more like the one who needs to be saved. 

Villainy Victorious

Nefarious is also a much needed example of the Kickstarter model of development done right. This is an era when other high profile projects like Mighty No. 9 land with a resounding flop, and John Romero himself can’t get a project funded. Despite just barely hitting their funding goal of a modest 50k the team at Starblade delivered an excellent final product. It’s encouraging to see somebody pulling off a success and delivering what was promised, avoiding cardinal sins like bloat, feature creep, and the abyss of forum drama.

A good villain bestrides worlds like a Titan, planetarium models or otherwise.
Nefarious’ core gameplay is classic 2-D side-scrolling platforming. Crow runs and jumps his way through levels, disposing of enemies and obstacles with a swing of his oversized mechanical fist. More intriguingly Crow can launch bouncing grenades from a limited but automatically regenerating supply. 

Crow takes no damage from his own grenades, but when carefully timed their explosions send him hurtling through the air. Grenade jumping takes a while to get the hang of, but once you manage it makes movement an explosive joy. Speed runners and collectible hunters will find mastering the technique worth their time. 

Not every level is pure platforming.
Nefarious is also un-afraid to shake up its core mechanics. Once kidnapped each princesses changes Crow’s abilities for the duration of your escape. This can be as simple as a floaty jump or as complex as letting your grenades create short lived platforms. A few levels, such as a mellow undersea exploration sequence, change up gameplay entirely. 

Like a Boss

Boss fights with heroes cleverly reverse the traditional formula. Crow, after all, is a videogame boss himself. When he goes toe to toe with a hero it is inevitably from the cockpit of some sort of giant death machine. These fights are short but sweet, quick to learn and tremendous fun. For once you’re the one trying to to crush, smash, or vaporize a smaller, more nimble opponent while protecting your giant obvious weak point.

It's nice to be the one in the giant robot, for once.
The difficulty curve is sharp. While the opening level might lull you into a false sense of security, the platforming skills and reflexes demanded to progress quickly become demanding. The optional levels and alternate ending boss are just straight up Nintendo hard, though this is certainly appropriate given the source material. 

Fortunately you have unlimited lives. The checkpoint system is challenging but not sadistic. Deaths tank your rating for a level, but this is only relevant if you are going for the related achievement. Death also shaves off a modest percentage of your current cash, but this can be recovered simply by reaching that point again. Generally you can hurl Crow into the acid/lava as many times as necessary to memorize a sequence and finally get it right.

Late game levels can get quite demanding.
Much like the early platformers it pays homage to, Nefarious is not a lengthy game. Most first runs are unlikely to take more than 4-6 hours. Multiple endings, optional levels, and a host of challenge based achievements add a lot of value for the dedicated. The tight scope and design keeps the game from wearing out its welcome.

Devils and Details

While voice acting is quite sparse the character portraits that accompany dialog are crisp and full of personality. A few of the in game characters can look a bit crude or even fuzzy by comparison. Hitboxes are also slightly wonky, especially when Crow is lugging a princess over his shoulder. Crow himself has just a touch more momentum than I like in a platformer that asks for this level of precision.

Between mission interludes occur on Crow's command ship, the Sovereign.
These minor polish issues are likely a result of Nefarious’s modest indie budget. To be fair I only really noticed them because I was having so much fun with the game I gave it a second playthrough. More seriously some achievements were not awarding properly, and one strange bug left the Sovereign (Crow’s skyship and mission hub) almost un-populated on re-loading a saved game, interfering with progression and access to some of the optional missions. 

An excellent sound-track and surprisingly strong writing and characterization rounds out the experience. Some tracks are quite catchy (Give the train robbery level music a listen below), and each does a great job setting the atmosphere of the level. Characters are coherent and consistent. Crow himself is amusingly aware of the tropes that govern his world and how to navigate them to his advantage without it coming off as obnoxious.

If you have any appetite for platforming I highly recommend Nefarious. While the reverse boss battles alone likely could have carried the game, Nefarious works hard to deliver compelling gameplay within its tightly controlled scope. The game handles its source material with respect and affection while being unafraid to build its own memorable world and cast. 

Reasons to Play: Clever use of premise and reverse boss battles. Excellent sound track. Indie Kickstarter development done right.

Reasons to Pass: Slight polish issues. Sharp difficulty curve.

Articles copyright James Cousar, games and images copyright their respective owners.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

DOOM (2016) Review


The Doom series has long been one of gaming’s flagships. The original, its sequel, and the million and one mods and map-packs they spawned remain highly playable even today. The fast, brutal, accessible gameplay endures the test of time. 

A History of Violence

Doom 3, released in 2004, was a surprising departure from the earlier style of the series. Doom 3 made use of a technologically astounding (for the time) lighting engine to create an extremely dark but atmospheric demon infested Mars base. The core gameplay and atmosphere seemed to be trying to imitate Doom’s own distant descendants, the Half-Life and System Shock series.

Rather than running and gunning against hordes of foes players found themselves picking their way through cramped, shadowy settings. Combat came in the form off a series of haunted house style ambushes by small numbers of enemies. The raw speed and frantic action of the earlier games was replaced with something more akin to survival horror. The constant tension was gripping, even exhausting, but to many players the game didn’t feel like Doom

Hell looks appropriately like a metal album cover.
What little information we received about Doom 4 during development was even less encouraging. Screenshots featured rubble-strewn modern urban settings and unhappy people in tattered military gear. It looked like we were in for a miserably serious slog with nothing in common with the classic Doom gameplay. The news that development was being scrapped and rebooted entirely was met with hesitant relief. When the game was finally released earlier this year expectations were hopeful but not high.

Note: For the rest of this review, Doom refers to the series in general, while DOOM specifically means the 2016 reboot. It’s an ALL CAPS kinda game.

At Doom’s Gate

The opening to DOOM puts any concerns to rest immediately. Within seconds of starting the campaign you are killing. In scant minutes more you are armed, armored, and blasting imps with a shotgun across a demon infested Mars. DOOM understands and embraces what made the first two games so enduring and fun, while updating elements to account for 20 years of technological advancement.

Outdoor sections make a nice contract to the classic gore-strewn corridors.
The Marine still moves with the ground devouring stride of the classic FPS protagonist. Weapons do not need reloading and can be fired until your ammo runs dry. Maps are complex and three-dimensional, often non-linear, and full of valuable secrets that encourage exploration.

While there’s no regenerating health or cover mechanics the march of time has changed some elements. In the original games swarms of enemies were often peppered across a level, creating a constant mix of combat and exploration. Here most combat takes place in discrete arenas. You enter an area, the doors seal, and waves of demons teleport in until you’ve killed them all. 

The Martian vistas drive home the destructive scale of the invasion.
The creatures of DOOM’s bestiary are far faster, smarter, and more dangerous on a one to one basis than their sprite-sheet ancestors. They also take up a lot more processing power. As a technological necessity you’re generally fighting a dozen demons at most, rather than the mobs that could populate the original game’s levels. 

Rip and Tear…

Above all else DOOM rewards speed and aggression. The best way to stay alive is to stay in motion. Hell devours the indolent. As in the original games the Marine is faster and more nimble than most of his foes, able to dodge most attacks and (new to DOOM) rapidly pull himself up onto any ledge he can reach. The level of mobility and lack of falling damage is intoxicating, especially once you unlock the double-jump.

The biggest addition to combat is the new takedown mechanic, dubbed “Glory Kills”. When a demon is near death they’ll reel in place while their outline flashes red. Get close enough and tap the appropriate button and the Marine lunges at the afflicted demon and kills them with his bare hands.

Battles are highly mobile affairs. Keep moving.
By design Glory Kill animations are as short as they are brutal, which is good because they’re central to the DOOM combat loop. They save ammo, buy you a few frames of invincibility, and (with the right upgrades) can even function as a sort of battlefield teleportation to stay one step ahead of your enemies. Most importantly, Glory killed enemies yield health, with a higher payout the closer you are to death.

While health can be found in the environment, the most reliable source in the heat of combat is beat it out of the enemy. The lesson is clear. If you’re getting your ass kicked don’t run away and hide. Attack harder and faster to survive. 

…Until it is Done

Both the chainsaw and BFG return, but with some design tweaks. The chainsaw instantly kills any non-boss, causing them to erupt into a fountain of gore and ammo pickups. Every chainsaw kill depletes a limited stock of fuel, and bigger demons take more fuel to saw through. The BFG is simply a breathtaking emergency “Kill Everything” button.
The UAC's attempts to blend high science and demonology went predictably poorly.
In keeping with modern game design, DOOM has a generous helping of character and weapon advancement systems. Probably at least one more than it really needs. There are alternate fire modes to unlock, suit upgrade tokens to hunt down, demonic runes to earn and level up and more. It could be argued that RPG elements detract from the purity of the combat, but they reward skillful play and dedicated secret hunting. Some of the demonic runes are almost brokenly powerful, but all the upgrade systems are rewarding and combine to give you a sense of steadily increasing might across the campaign.  

Man and Myth

While story has never been a core element of the Doom series there is one to be found, if you care to look. This time around the Union Aerospace Corporation (A corporate entity that appears in every Doom game) has literally been exploiting Hell as an energy source. This went predictably, spectacularly wrong. The head of the UAC, a cyborg named Samuel Hayden with a smoothly authoritative voice, periodically attempts to explain and justify this to the Marine. The Marine, in turn, ignores him whenever possible and destroys every expensive machine Hayden asks him to gently power down. 

The most fascinating character may well be the Doom Marine himself. If this DOOM he’s not just a grunt in the wrong place at the wrong time. He’s a figure of myth and dark legend. The UAC recovered him from a sealed tomb during one of their forays into Hell, and the Marine is clearly not native to this place and time. He’s an unstoppable force, loosed upon Mars to wreak a terrible vengeance upon demonkind.

Hayden has a lot to say, but the Marine isn't interested in his excuses.
The Doom Marine never speaks a word, nor should he. This does not mean he is devoid of personality. The Marine talks with his hands, and he talks the loudest when he gets those hands on his enemies. The “Glory Kill” animations tell you everything you need to know about the Marine’s relationship and history with the forces of Hell. 

The Marine will wrench horns and limbs from a foe and use them to bludgeon or impale. Smaller monsters are brutalized or bodily torn in half. Bigger demons are force-fed their own explosive body-parts. 

The Marine HATES the demons. There’s no fear in him of their monstrous nature, no respect for their power. Only contempt and endless fury. He wants them to suffer, but even more than that he wants them to die. The moment his latest victim is dead the Marine discards them and moves on, already seeking another.

Map and Tear

DOOM nails the soundtrack perfectly. A thumping onslaught of power metal with a generous slathering of synth, the music beautifully matches the tone of the game. Many of the tracks pay homage to signature tracks from the previous games. Keep an ear out for the remix of the immortal “At Doom’s Gate.”

DOOM’s robust single player campaign is more than strong enough to carry the game on its own, but it also comes with the expected multiplayer mode and an unexpected level editor.

Snap Map is the built in level editor. As an introduction to level building and scripting it’s an amazingly accessible piece of software. Between the tutorials and intuitive interface anyone can be slapping together a playable level within minutes.

Unfortunately Snap Map has some odd limitations that hold it back. Unlike in the campaign you can’t hold more than two weapons at once, and demons don’t spawn properly if you have too many already in play. Some sort of proper system for debugging scripts as they are executed would be a godsend.
Some familiar foes return.
Snap Map also restricts you to using its set of prefabricated rooms, which sharply limits the kind of levels you can build. Play enough Snap Maps and you’ll start to see a LOT of the same rooms over and over. With no way to import custom assets or build your own rooms or terrain I don’t see it as having anywhere near the longevity of the modding and mapping community for the original Doom

Frag Fest

The multiplayer component of the game was developed by the same studio that does a lot of the CoD and Halo map packs, and it shows. Classic free-for-all death matching is oddly absent. You are restricted to a two-weapon loadout going into the match, although powerful demon transformation runes and limited use superweapons keep map control and awareness important. Winning (or even finishing) a match showers you with cosmetic rewards like armor customization options and taunt emotes.

To the developers credit the high speed and mobility of combat remain carried over from the single player campaign, and the basic act of tagging an enemy player with a direct rocket hit or super-shotgun blast remains viscerally satisfying. Less effective are the inclusion of a class of expendable “Hack Module” items that provide brief benefits, like displaying the location of the highest scoring enemy. Try as I might I never felt like I understood how to properly manage, conserve, or trigger these items, and couldn’t really find any documentation explaining them.

Sections of classic levels are hidden across the campaign.
Finally there were a number of unexplained crashes to desktop. These happened just enough to be annoying but not crippling, and didn’t seem to be associated with any particular level, weapon, etc…
None of these minor issues should discourage you from getting DOOM. It’s the best shooter yet of 2016 and more than earns its name. 

Reasons to play: Glorious classic Doom gameplay brought into the 21st century. High mobility combat, levels that reward exploration, and brutal Glory Kills. Great soundtrack. Highly accessible level editor.

Reasons to pass: Odd lack of classic death-matching. Slight technical instability.

Articles copyright James Cousar, games and images copyright their respective owners.