Archive for the Video Game Reviews Category

Video Game Review: HEAVY RAIN

Posted in 2010, Michael Louis Calvillo Columns, Video Game Reviews with tags , , , , , , on September 1, 2010 by knifefighter

HEAVY RAIN
Video Game Review by Michael Louis Calvillo

As a gamer with 25 years of gaming under my belt, I’m always looking for a fresh experience. From age 10 – on, I’ve played every kind of game under the sun and though there have been plenty of stinkers along the way, I’ve always looked forward to picking up the sticks, dimming the lights, settling in, and starting a new adventure. But lately, for some reason or another, I just can’t seem to get into it. I sit on my couch and stare at my systems and…well…I’m not in the mood. I’d rather veg out or read or write.

A few months back I took advantage of a GameStop sale, purchased two games, got a third one free, and then proceeded to tear through Gearbox’s BORDERLANDS (which was pretty cool and will get reviewed soon). Then I started the next title, played through about half of it, then lost interest and let it go. The half complete game (EA’s disgusting, but fun, DANTE’S INFERNO) and the as yet un-played title (Rockstar’s RED DEAD REDEMPTION) are currently gathering dust.

So, what gives? Am I finally growing up? Am I ready to retire my systems and move on? I hope not. I still read gaming magazines and I still find the industry vastly interesting. I still even feel that little thrum of excitement when I read about some cool future-tech on the horizon. Oh, and regardless of what’s going on inside me, I’ll never give up my Singstar (you’ll have to pry the mic from my cold, dead hand); the PS3 (XBOX 360 with my Rockband library) stays.

Maybe the monotony has finally caught up with me? There are only so many similar games I can trudge through. The aforementioned DANTE’S INFERNO is visually arresting, but it’s yet another GOD OF WAR clone. I played through three volumes of GOD OF WAR and still want more – the storyline and the game mechanic kick mucho butt. DANTE’S INFERNO is a good little sheep. It does what it’s supposed to do and it does it well, but I’ve been there, done that (and done that and done that), and I guess I’m over it. Same with Rockstar’s RED DEAD REDEMPTION. It’s one of the best reviewed games of the year and I’m sure it’s every bit as wonderful as the geeks say, but I’ve played every edition of GRAND THEFT AUTO, and I’m just not too jazzed about sinking another fifty hours of my time into the same old same old.

Okay. Wait. Hang on a sec. To be completely fair, I actually stopped this review, blew the dust off the RED DEAD disc, and put about two hours in. Now that I’m back, I can attest that it’s a beautiful, beautiful game, and I can fully appreciate the artistry that went into it (come on, Roger Ebert! I love you, but you need to do more than concede – you need to wake up!), but in the end it’s GRAND THEFT AUTO with horses. I prefer running down hookers and drug lords with cars to chasing outlaws on horseback (a personal preference, I know), but still, regardless, I’ll keep at it (if I can get myself motivated to do so) and see if it joins its predecessors in burrowing its way under my skin.

Maybe this particular gaming cycle has finally run its course. Consoles generally gives us a good four to six years of entertainment before making way for shiny new systems, but with the current generation’s online capabilities, the holy trinity (Sony and Microsoft and Nintendo) keep issuing firmware updates and developing add-ons (Microsoft’s Kinect and Sony’s Move are due in the next few months). They’re trying to squeeze every last dollar out of their aging tech and while this generation’s games are world’s better than the ones that came before it and on and on, it’s definitely time for new consoles and new games that make the current crop look as dated as they are becoming. Come on, you greedy bastards! Let your techies unveil their latest and wow us!

Anyway, right before the Gamestop sale got me down, I played a game that really got me going. Maybe it’s to blame for my funk. It did what a great game is supposed to do – it sucked me in and kept me up long past my bedtime. When I wasn’t playing, I couldn’t wait to get back to it. Ladies and germs, my I present…Quantic Dream’s HEAVY RAIN.

Whew, just typing the name I feel a resurgence. I can see a light. Like all forms of media, when things stagnate, it takes an Auteur to work their funky vision and shake up the status quo. HEAVY RAIN’s lead designer, David Cage, has done just that. While system makers milk old tech for all it’s worth and developers keep grafting new skins atop old engines, Cage and Quantic Dream are building the future.

The game first caught my eye way back in 2006 when some demo footage was shown at E3 to tout the power of the PS3. The non-playable demo, called The Casting, featured a virtual actor staring directly into the camera waving a pistol around. The character displays a crazy range of emotions and the footage was pretty compelling, given the games on the market at the time. It looked great, but then, here we are in 2010, and for the most part today’s game graphics are all rarely less than stellar. This generation’s game machines are powerhouses when it comes to rendering visuals and whether you like or dislike the look of a game has more to do with stylistic choice than shoddy design. Games cost way too much to make and the suits aren’t willing to pony up for subpar graphics. Gameplay makes or breaks a title, but visuals sell it.

So, when HEAVY RAIN came out, I wasn’t clamoring to be the first in line. Like The Casting demo, it looked great, but I’m not a big fan of interactive movies. Visions of Sega CD’s NIGHT TRAP or point-and-click adventures like MYST kept me away. I hate games where you just watch then click something or make a decision ala a Choose Your Own Adventure novel. I’d rather just watch a real movie or read a real book and I figured HEAVY RAIN would be more of the same. The reviews (all positive, mind you) warned that it’s not for everyone (after playing, I have to vehemently disagree – I think that ANYONE who gives it a chance will walk away thoroughly impressed).

Okay then, where to start? Cage and his team have crafted an innovative piece of gaming art. HEAVY RAIN is different from anything you’re playing and I’ll even go so far as to say it’s better than anything you’re playing. At its core, it reminds me of Cinematronic’s Don Bluth animated 1983 coin-op, DRAGON’S LAIR. For those of you in the dark, DRAGON’S LAIR was basically a beautifully animated cartoon with branching narrative paths. All a player was tasked with doing was hitting the joystick up, down, right or left (maybe diagonal too, but it’s been a long while since I’ve given it a go) in response to an onscreen prompt. If you hit the stick in time, your hero, Dirk the Daring, passed the level and move on to the next animated clip. If your timing was off or you flubbed the action all together, Dirk would die. It was basically a big memorization exercise, but it was totally worth it, because it was so wonderfully drawn that you had to absolutely see the next scene.

So it goes with HEAVY RAIN. Gameplay is basically DRAGON’S LAIR dragged into the modern era. You walk your character around and talk to other characters and gather clues to a compelling murder mystery, all the while following onscreen prompts and moving your control sticks this way or that or pressing and holding buttons in (sometimes weird) patterns. Cage’s genius here is that in innovating, he hasn’t come up with some convoluted control scheme. I’m a hardcore gamer and like using every button on the controller, but sometimes simple just works better.

Like DRAGON’S LAIR, HEAVY RAIN is less about game and more about story. Ordinarily, I would balk (though I loved DRAGON’s LAIR, its follow up, SPACE ACE, proved it a one trick pony). I like a nice balance of the two (hence my dislike for interactive movies), but the Quantic team gets it right and it all works very, very well. The narrative centers around the Origami Killer, a serial murderer who abducts boys, leaving an origami figure at the scene of the crime. The boys don’t actually turn up dead right away because the killer times his actions with weather patterns, storing his victims in storm drains, allowing the rain to drown them. You take control of four different characters, all tied to the mystery in a different way. The game is structured like a feature film, jumping between the characters and turning the screws for maximum emotional impact.

You spend a lot of time guiding your characters through menial tasks – opening cabinets, cooking breakfast, playing catch with your kid – and at first I was little reticent. Boredom threatened. But hot damn, as it all comes together these small actions actually endeared me to each of my four avatars. The game isn’t about loud, frantic action; instead, it’s filled with quiet moments of characterization that really stay with you. It’s kind of like a video game gone art film.

The central characters – a father desperately trying to save his son, an FBI agent investigating the elusive killer, a reporter with insomnia, and a worn out P.I. trying to crack the case – really get under your skin. I actually came to care about them and when those oh crap moments hit (there are a number of doozies), they hit hard.

I played HEAVY RAIN during my summer break (Teaching rules!) and once I got going I couldn’t stop. I put in about sixteen hours over the course of three days. Though things started off a little slow, the game hooks you with its intriguing premise. About half-way through, I lost one of my characters (I ended up losing three of the four). There’s no “game over” screen, no chance to replay actions. Once a character dies (because you screw up) they’re gone and that’s that. The narrative jumps to one of the surviving characters and carries on. This really screws with you, because more than any video game I’ve ever played, you really do invest yourself emotionally. By the end, I actually felt like crying (I didn’t – I’m sensitive, but not that sensitive). The storyline is dark and haunting and while the credits rolled I sat there a little stunned, kind of like I did after watching David Fincher’ s movie  SEVEN for the first time.

So, look, maybe I’m in a funk. The new semester has started and my mind is constantly on teaching and writing and these poor video games are feeling the squeeze. Maybe once I’ve settled in and gotten back to the grind I’ll be ready to tackle more of those familiar brawlers or the sandbox titles that I’ve loved and hated over the years. In the meantime, David Cage and his team have restored my faith. HEAVY RAIN is something special. Buy it now!

© Copyright 2010 by Michael Louis Calvillo

MASS EFFECT 2

Posted in 2010, Michael Louis Calvillo Columns, Video Game Reviews, VIOLENCE! with tags , , on June 30, 2010 by knifefighter

MASS EFFECT 2 (Video Game Review)
by Michael Louis Calvillo

Every few years, we get some video game or other touting the latest in technological innovation. Sometimes they make good on their promise, raising the bar and spawning an army of clones. Sometimes they don’t live up to the hype. When Bioware’s MASS EFFECT 2 was released a few months back it did well critically and commercially. It gets a bunch of Editor’s Choice Awards, and sold a ton of copies (half a million right out the gate). It made about as big a splash as any other AAA title, and then it had its day in the sun and made nice, dropping off and making room for the next shiny game. When I finally got around to playing it, I expected to get my money’s worth, no more, no less. I enjoyed the first installment and was ready to hero my way through another rousing space opera. What I didn’t expect was just how monumental the damn thing would turn out to be. Though video game pundits aren’t exactly doing back flips, I kind of think they should. The game play elements are all in place and everything looks phenomenal, it’s technically sound, but Bioware has done something truly revolutionary with story.

Like most video game sequels, MASS EFFECT 2 is bigger and better than its predecessor. The game play is refined, graphics sharpened, and everything runs as smooth as butter. Unlike movies, where sequels tend to suck, games fix things the second, or third or fourth time around, and since story is generally secondary, these improvements work well enough to keep me intrigued. While I enjoy a solid video game story as much as the next geek, they’re rarely deal breakers. So long as I can still blow crap up and do cooler stuff than I did the first time around, most sequels can skate by on a thin narrative.

Here is where MASS EFFECT 2 brings the innovation. For the first time ever (as far as I’m aware), the game imports your save file from the first MASS EFFECT allowing you to continue the story with the same character from your first play through. Decisions you made the first time around actually come back to bite you in the ass. NPCs (non-player characters) react accordingly. I remember reading about this while playing the first MASS EFFECT and I thought it sounded cool, but I didn’t really grasp just how awesome it is. I figured, neat-o, my stats, and weapons, and powers, and what not, will carry over, but no, in fact, none of that crap survives, what remains aren’t your ancillary tools, but your consequence-heavy sense of morality. I played the first title as the biggest a-hole in the galaxy. I even named my guy Action and every chance I had to screw someone over I took it. I trashed talked and was disrespectful and uber-selfish. Well, Action is back and many of the characters from Game One are none too happy.

Morality is so important to the MASS EFFECT universe, that the story arcs aren’t just window dressing. Your interactions have lasting consequences and blowing crap up (oh, how I love thee) plays second fiddle to intrapersonal relationships. Usually when I play these things, I get a decent handle on the narrative and then power through, splattering pretty backdrops with the blood and guts of my adversaries. If you asked me to wax poetic on sci-fi epics like RESISTANCE FALL OF MAN 2 or HALO 3, I’d probably be able to rattle off a few broad impressions, but my mind would be more apt to hone in on strategic battle plans and intense firefights. A review would detail weaponry and talk tactics. This is all well and good, nothing beats carefully wrought death and destruction, but with MASS EFFECT, I actually feel like I am taking part in a really cool science fiction trilogy. I actually feel like I am an integral part of the story, a driving force, a vital protagonist, not just a faceless cog in the ever-churning war machine.

It breaks down like this: in the far future, alien technology has enabled intergalactic travel via Mass Effect Relays, huge hubs that utilize dark matter to instantaneously blast spaceships from one relay to another. Turns out, the universe is bristling with sentient life. In fact, humanity is a little late to the party. By the time they discover a relay and begin galaxy hopping, a UN like outfit, The Citadel, has already been established. Eight different species hold court, some welcoming of humanity, some less receptive. Humans being humans, work themselves right in and begin politicking. The game story picks up a few hundred years later and though all seems peachy keen, tensions run deep. Soap operatic resentments generate heat between each of the alien races and this friction gives MASS EFFECT an emotional heft worth investing in.

Everybody has a modicum of disdain for humanity – we are kind of like the selfish rich kid who has everything and wants more. The Krogans, warrior toads with bad attitudes, hate the Salarians, science geek lizard types, because hundreds of years earlier the two species aligned in battle against the nefarious Rachi (long extinct) and then after the war, the Salarians introduced a genophage (disease) into the Krogan gene pool to thin out their battle hungry population and quell the possibility of a Krogran uprising. Fighting extinction, the Krogans have extricated themselves from the Citadel and distrust all species. The Quarians, nomadic humanoids in full body suits (since they live in hermetically sealed space stations and ships, they are allergic to EVERYTHING terrestrial), are responsible for creating the Geth, super-smart, sentient machines that have turned on organic life and have become the scourge of the living universe. Needless to say, everybody hates them. And on and on and on: the drama doesn’t stop there. There are twenty distinct races in the game (four of which have gone extinct) and they each have mountains of baggage and interconnected back story.

You got a nice feel for this in the first game – your character, Commander Sheppard, dealt with all kinds of racism. MASS EFFECT 2 takes everything up a notch. It works the bigotry angle for all it’s worth, imbuing choices with complex moral decisions that (sometimes) force you to choose sides. It’s just a game, I know, I know, but things can get a bit uncomfortable. The overall goal is to solve the mystery of The Collectors, evil aliens that are abducting humans, but the majority of the game’s plot revolves around building a team to fight by your side in the final battle. This team-building component takes you from one end of the universe to the other, where you mediate racial and personal feuds in order to keep your crew happy and willing to assist you in your mission. You recruit a Salarian and a Krogan and a Quarian (amongst others) and get to play Dr. Phil while fending off baddies and saving the universe (which is actually a lot more fun than it sounds).

The game is billed as an RPG (role playing game) and for the most part it is, you still level up and assign attribute points, but Bioware has streamlined it in such a way that it feels more like an action-adventure title. There’s no pesky inventory system or need to worry about over-encumbrance (the bane of RPGs) and while the combat occurs in real time, it utilizes RPG elements to enhance the action. You can blast away with your M-4 Shruiken Machine Pistol and fire Biotic powers (space magic) ala third-person action adventures like GEARS OF WAR (though the combat isn’t nearly as intense), then you can pause the action and bring up a Power Wheel that allows you to assign your party members to attack or evade or use a particular weapon or a Biotic power. The combat is a little rudimentary at first (especially for someone used to games like the aforementioned GEARS OF WAR), but it gets cooler and cooler as you get stronger and stronger. Unlocking new abilities allows you to combine Biotic powers. This livens things up considerably and brings a bit of depth to combat scenarios. Assigning one party member to fire off something like PULL (it does exactly what you’d think – pulling a victim toward you) and then another to use WARP (which hurts!) and then finishing up with say…SHOCKWAVE (a powerful blast), ignites a combo that whips your enemy into the air, cripples him with some agony, and then racks him with a burst of white-hot electric death. Awesome! A nice arsenal and a slew of upgrades rounds things out, bringing the pain to wave after wave of organic and mechanized foes.

You spend just as much time talking (probably more) as you do blasting, so manipulating the Conversation Wheel becomes just as vital to your character’s success as do weapon load outs and Biotic combos. I choose to remain vigilant in being the biggest jerk in the cosmos and I only selected the crummiest things to say. I wasn’t too happy with some results – being a douche kept me from certain side quests (though unlocked others not available to those golden boy hero types). If you really can’t get into the involved story and are too ADD to take the long conversations, then the MASS EFFECT series might not be for you, but if you can give yourself over and get lost, every little exchange is inspired. The game features zillions of hours of audio and each NPC has their own distinctive personality. Seeking out side missions and exploring bits of the universe not crucial to the main storyline deepens the experience and fleshes out the world. And watching what you say (or how you say it – it’s all about tone) means all the difference in matters of love (yes, you can have relationships, and yes, you can consummate them) and allegiance. Characters you invest in (spending attribute points to upgrade them) can (and will) die, if you make careless decisions or piss off the wrong people. The conversation system is impressive, nuanced and your choices really do matter.

The rest of the game play is filled out with mini-games. Hacking involves memorizing and then linking diodes. It doesn’t sound that interesting, and it’s not, but I didn’t mind, especially when success unlocked a secured door or rewarded me with a cache of loot. There’s also a planet mining game which is equally blasé, but oddly addictive. As you traverse the galaxy, steering your ship from planet to planet and then through Mass Effect Relays from system to system, you are given the opportunity to scan and harvest planets for precious minerals that you can use to upgrade your character’s abilities. Watching the mining process is akin to witnessing paint dry, but collecting scores of Element Zero or Iridium, or any of the other precious minerals needed to boost Biotic power or max out gun damage, kept me at it (for hours upon hours).

If you haven’t played the first MASS EFFECT (or if you were unhappy with your initial character), you can start fresh and still enjoy the ride. But then, it’s just like any other slick RPG space shooter. To truly get the most out of the game you need to dig your heels in and tackle the whole trilogy from 2007’s MASS EFFECT through the forthcoming MASS EFFECT 3 (rumored to drop in 2012). And don’t worry, if you were a goober the first time around, though some of your past transgressions will haunt you, a fresh storyline gives you the chance to redeem yourself. Not that I took it. I went on being the biggest jerk in the universe and I look forward to behaving just as badly in MASS EFFECT 3. Action, out!

© Copyright 2010 by Michael Louis Calvillo

Video Game Review: DARKSIDERS!

Posted in 2010, Michael Louis Calvillo Columns, Video Game Reviews, VIOLENCE! with tags , , , , , on May 20, 2010 by knifefighter

VIDEO GAME REVIEW: DARKSIDERS
by Michael Louis Calvillo

I didn’t expect to like Vigil Games’ DARKSIDERS. I mean, look at that name! DARKSIDERS. Again. DARKSIDERS. Ugh. Lame. I’m not exactly sure why I don’t like it. I’ve polled a few friends and they all just sort of shrug, ambivalent, much more concerned with why the name bugs me so much than with their own opinion of the actual name. DARKSIDERS. Something about it just smacks of generic, bargain basement piffle. DARKSIDERS. It seems too familiar. Like it’s been used before (it hasn’t – which is good, because used or not I still think it sucks). It brings to mind a bunch of car club dweebs (no offense, car club dweebs) rolling around in lowered mini-trucks, pleased as punch with the Darth Vader and Storm Troopers stickers mucking up their back window tint and the word DARKSIDERS stenciled in that ubiquitous STAR WARS font.

Uck!

Okay, anyway…um…where was I?

A review?

Right, a review!

Without further adieu…

Turns out, DARKSIDERS is a pretty damn solid action-adventure game. After reading a few reviews (eighty percents across the board) I decided to dive in and give it a shot. GOD OF WAR III was still a few months off, I had just finished MASS EFFECT 2, and I needed some mindless action to wile away the time in between those AAA titles. Reading EDGE or Play or Game Informer or any of the other zillions of gaming rags I flip through each month, I’m usually in the know about new games months to years before they actually come out. So it went with DARKSIDERS. I followed the build from early screenshots to in-depth features, and all along I kept thinking I should be impressed. It looked pretty cool, but…I don’t know…I just didn’t feel it. Why? I’m not quite sure. The stills in the magazines featuring skulls and swords and demons seemed kind of cheesy. Don’t get me wrong – I love skulls and swords and demons, there was just something that seemed ho-hum about this title in particular.

Even now, writing this review, I’m having a hard time drumming up enthusiasm and tapping into my inner geek. Usually, these reviews pour out of me. Usually, I can’t wait to put my fingers to the keys and get it on. But man oh man, this feels like work! Which is weird, because I really did enjoy my time with DARKSIDERS, honest, I swear, I had fun! Honest.

Okay. Focus. Focus. Focus…

Write. Write. Write.

All in all, the game looks pretty great. Joe Madureira (known as Joe Mad in comic book circles), a long-time penciler on UNCANNY X-MEN and creator of the sword and sorcery comic BATTLE CHASERS, is billed as Creative Director, and his style comes through nicely. At its best DARKSIDERS looks like HEAVY METAL magazine in motion (which is way awesome) and the bulky sprites that initially struck me as boring in the gaming magazines are actually rendered quite beautifully. They’re large and slick and vibrant, and best of all, it’s very easy to keep track of your character during hectic action sequences (a slight issue with other titles of this ilk – sometimes avatars are swallowed up by the carnage and players have no choice but to keep mashing buttons and dodging until their character gets free from the tumult).

The story is a bit more convoluted than need be, but I still found it interesting (if not completely engaging). It goes like this. The angels of heaven and the demons of hell are constantly on the brink of war and have been going at it forever and ever. A group of demonic mediation specialists – The Charred Council – regularly intervene, sending their enforcers, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, to keep the peace. As the game begins, the apocalypse has seemingly begun and angels and demons are ravaging the earth, killing each other and pesky humans with wild abandon. One of the Four Horsemen, War, is summoned to restore order and then do what he does best, facilitate the apocalypse properly. But, when he arrives he is surprised to find that his brothers have yet to show up and the seventh seal (the true signifier of the true apocalypse) is still intact.

After a lengthy battle with a smoldering fire demon, War is killed then resurrected and taken before The Charred Council. They accuse him of prematurely trying to initiate the apocalypse and sentence him to death (even though they just brought him back to life!). War pleads innocence, claiming he was called to duty, and he asks for the chance to seek out the responsible party that framed him. Thus begins a blood-soaked detective yarn that has War murdering demons and angels in his quest for the truth.

Sounds pretty cool? It is, but then, the plot veers off in so many disparate directions that I have to admit I had a tough time following it. There were stretches of the game where I didn’t know exactly who I was fighting or why. The narrative revolves around demons double crossing demons double crossing angels, and while I’m all for complex (I love complex!), I have a problem with unclear. Things eventually come together and after a quick refresher (via Wikipedia), everything makes sense. Still, a tighter storyline would have definitely sweetened the experience.

Luckily, the game play kept me going throughout. I’ve read numerous reviews that peg the game as a cross between Nintendo’s LEGEND OF ZELDA and Sony’s GOD OF WAR. Even the sales guy at Gamestop told me as much. Well, Zelda and Kratos have some pretty big shoes to fill – collectively they represent two of the greatest video game franchises ever devised, and while DARKSIDERS as a whole doesn’t quite measure up, War does a decent job aping the greats.

Combat-wise, the game plays just like GOD OF WAR. If you enjoy GOW, you’ll enjoy bashing DARKSIDERS’ bevy of baddies. It features like-minded combinations, magic powers, and an upgrade system that is fueled by collecting souls from your enemies and various chests scattered throughout the world. It even utilizes QTE (Quick Time Events) button presses to execute finishing moves and take down big bosses. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then GOD OF WAR should definitely be flattered. DARKSIDERS has plenty of balletic panache and its hack ‘em up swordplay hooked me for hours. Is it as awesome as eviscerating Centaurs or pulling the eyeball clean out of a Cyclops’s bloody eye socket? No, but then jacking up demons and blasting angels from the skies comes a close second.

Typical of hack-and-slash action adventures, War begins his journey with a piddly pool of anemic powers and a single weapon, a monster blade called the Chaoseater. By the end, he has a sizable arsenal of upgraded arms and a variety of kick ass skills. The combat gets richer (as the combos deepen) and each newly acquired item generally unlocks a previously inaccessible part of the game world. Here’s where those Zelda comparisons come in and just like Nintendo’s sterling franchise, DARKSIDERS’ puzzles are all handled with finesse. They are well designed (sometimes maddeningly so) and do exactly what they were designed to do (recycle areas in an effort to ramp up scale and make the game map appear larger than it really is). Like Zelda titles, you engage in a lot of back and forth, clearing one area of the map, questing off to another and then returning once you’ve retrieved something of note and on and on. The key then is to mask the slog with enough cool crap so that each journey feels fresh. DARKSIDERS does a good job. I never felt bogged down by the monotony of fetching.

To be fair, it’s not all GOD OF WAR and ZELDA (though if you go back and count how times I’ve name checked each title you’ll find seven GOW references and four ZELDA mentions). There are some nice original flourishes. Vulgrim, the demonic shopkeeper who sells War his upgrades, is pretty freaking awesome. He’s got the vilest, ugliest, most hair-raisingly perverted voice I’ve ever had the displeasure of hearing. Every time I stepped into his circle to power up, my wife stopped Facebooking or working on preparing her classes or whatever it was she happened to be doing on her laptop, and made a cute, scrunched, little face of disgust. The foul demon says fairly innocuous things like, “Yesss,” and “Mmmm, nice sword,” and “You like?” but there is something uber-slimy about his tone and inflection.

Another great mechanic comes in the form of War’s trusty steed, Ruin. You recover the horse about halfway through the game (during a very cool gladiator-style arena battle) and are thenceforth able to summon him with the press of a button. He makes traversing the world a snap and running down baddies becomes great fun, freshening up combat at the midway point.

So then, you got GOD OF WAR (8 name checks) + ZELDA (5 name checks). You’re probably asking yourself, why bother? Why not just play GOD OF WAR (9) or ZELDA (6)? Good question. The answer? Go play GOD OF WAR (10) and ZELDA (7). The problem? There are only so many GOD OF WAR (11) and ZELDA (8) titles available. When you’ve exhausted them, well, then you’ve got DARKSIDERS, and at the end of the day it’s well worth a good fifteen hours of your button mashing time (crank the difficulty settings to Apocalyptic and you can probably squeeze a good twenty hours out of it).

Oh, by the way, despite all of the backhanded compliments, this is a positive review. DARKSIDERS has everything going for it and it truly deserves your hard earned cash, but…well…

It’s hard to put my finger on.

There’s just something missing.

The buttons do what you want them to do when you press them, and everything looks splendid, but…well…

I don’t know, maybe it’s the name.

Maybe it’s the sinking feeling that I’ve already played the game in one incarnation or another?

Look, just so we’re clear, this really is a positive review. I swear it. I liked it… I-

Wait.

Stop.

Okay, a compromise? Take my recommendation. Play DARKSIDERS. But promise me you’ll save yourself a few bucks and pick up a used copy.

© Copyright 2010 by Michael Louis Calvillo

GOD OF WAR III

Posted in 2010, Michael Louis Calvillo Columns, Video Game Reviews, VIOLENCE! with tags , , , , , , on April 21, 2010 by knifefighter

REVIEW OF THE VIDEO GAME GOD OF WAR III
by Michael Louis Calvillo


Hell yes! I am pleased to announce that I will be kicking off my inaugural Cinema Knife Fight column with a review of one of the best games ever made. And no, no, no, this is not foolish, overblown hyperbole. Oh no, my friends, this is gaming perfected, this is button mashing refined, this is the gloriously gory GOD OF WAR III!!!

Gaming fiends like me have been waiting for years upon years (okay, only three, but in video game years that’s like forever) for The Ghost of Sparta to return and extract his revenge upon the mother of all assholes, Zeus. We’ve been dreaming geeked out fever dreams about killing the King of the Gods in full HD and anxiously theorizing about nerdy computing thingies like power and architecture and how SCEA (Sony Computer Entertainment America) will get all futuro on our asses, milking the PS3’s powerful processors for all they are worth. The last two games in the trilogy ran smooth as butter and harnessed every ounce of tech running underneath the PS2’s hood (and they looked damn good – even for last gen’s pixilated crop of 64 bit offerings), but the tech has changed exponentially since and it’s high time we had our favorite anti-hero tearing up that nuclear powered, 3.2 GHz, beast of a processer beating at the PS3’s digital heart.

So then, Kratos, everybody’s favorite, ash-covered (FYI – the ashes staining his muscled skin belong to the charred remains of the wife and daughter that he accidentally killed) Spartan is back to kick mucho ass and–

Wait.

Hold it.

Before I go on I have some business to settle…

You see, I teach high school English, and even though I am a million years old (which translates to thirty-five in teen speak), I still play these damn games. I can’t help it. I’ve considered selling off my systems and giving it up. But dammit, I can’t! I was raised on Intellivision and then Nintendo and then Sega and then more Nintendo and then Sony and then Microsoft and then more Sony, and the damned technology keeps improving and improving and I just can’t seem to keep my anxious thumbs away…

In any case, many of the kids that I teach play the same games I do, and if you know anything about teenagers it’s that many of them are narrow minded (but lovable) little bastards. One kid in particular swears by Microsoft’s XBOX 360 and hates Sony for some pea-brained reason or another. He enjoys calling me a Sony fanboy (even though I have both consoles and play both systems equally) and taunting me and telling me that the PS3 is the worst system ever made. Well, that little booger can suck it, because GOD OF WAR III is a PS3 exclusive and his bullish myopia is preventing him from experiencing gaming nirvana.

Okay then, where was I?

Kicking mucho ass?

Right.

Okay, here we go…

GOD OF WAR III is all about vengeance, baby. It’s KILL BILL meets CLASH OF THE TITANS and if that sounds awesome to you that’s because it is. The story so far? Here you go… Kratos, a badass Spartan in life, nearing death on a blood soaked battlefield, prays to Ares, the God of War, for the strength to carry on and kick as much ass as possible before checking out. The Olympian answers Kratos’ plea and turns the war-hungry Spartan into a killing machine, fusing a pair of nasty blades to a pair of nastier chains woven deep into the skin, muscle and bones of his forearms. Reinvigorated and fueled by rage, Kratos decimates an entire army’s worth of foes and triumphs in battle, but Ares, enchanted by his new plaything, doesn’t let up. He sends Kratos into battle after battle until our hero is savage, amped on bloodlust, and out of his mind. Worn down, less a man and more a murderous beast, Kratos begs for release, but Ares pushes and pushes until at long last, he agrees to free the Spartan so long as Kratos consents to giving it his all in one, final battle. Kratos consents (as if he has a choice), and anxious to be freed of his burden, anxious to die, swings his blades into action. But, at battle’s end, Ares, the cruelest of all the Gods, tricks Kratos into murdering his own wife and daughter and then leaves him to wallow in misery.

Kratos is pretty broken up, but he isn’t the wallowing type. Instead, he vows to do the impossible and kill the God of War.

That’s the set-up for the first game, and with a little help from Athena (who isn’t too fond of Ares herself), our man manages to carry out his mission. Along the way he kills plenty of popular players from Greek Mythology, even dying in the process and clawing his way out of hell (thus earning the ominous moniker, The Ghost of Sparta). At game’s end, Kratos succeeds in killing Ares and is ready for relief. But, lamenting his family and longing for death, he is forced into taking Ares’s throne and becoming the new God of War.

Part two opens with most of the gods pissed at the newly minted Olympian. They can’t believe a mortal killed one of their own and they want Kratos out. Zeus sort of agrees (we learn that Kratos is actually one of his many sons) so he double-crosses Kratos, strips him of his godhood, and then casts him out. Kratos, already angry at the world, vows revenge for a second time and makes it his mission to kill Zeus for betraying him. He kills tons of beasties and few big names (Perseus, Icarus) and even aligns himself with the Titans, but Zeus defeats him at the game’s climax and he is unable to kill any of the other Olympians. Down, but not out, the game ends with a whopper of a cliffhanger – Kratos riding on gargantuan Gaia’s back as she and her Titan brethren ascend Mount Olympus to stick it to their divine oppressors.

GOD OF WAR III begins right where part two left off. It’s a grand opening to the grandest and the best of the GOD OF WAR games. Fighting off sword-wielding skeletons while traversing the overgrown brambles growing out of Gaia’s massive back, Kratos bobs and weaves and contends with the enemy horde while the ground shifts and sways beneath his feet. Though game play is more of the same – you hack and slash and build button presses into balletic combos, eviscerating your foes into symphonic movements of blood and guts – GOWIII ups the ante in terms of scale and beauty. The PS3’s processing power renders some amazing set pieces – fighting atop Gaia, fighting inside Gaia, toppling Cronos (yet another Titan), whose fingernails (which you get to rip off) are bigger than Kratos – these are moments that will go down in video game history as benchmarks ushering in the next generation of graphic prowess and epic magnitude.

Like the other GOW titles, there are some interesting puzzles and like the other GOW titles, the little suckers plagued me and had me screaming at the television. But thanks to the tech push, the new puzzles are interesting, if anything because of their sheer size. Some of them are so freaking huge that they employ multiple rooms and utilize the game’s monstrous scale to drive me even crazier. True, moving this block or pulling that lever or trying how to figure out the best way to keep this pressure plate depressed, I kept thinking, Crap! I just want to tear shit up! Crap! I want to kill, not think! Crap! Crap! Crap! But then that’s the beauty of GOW (it’s not for the impatient) and in retrospect I loved every torturous second.

The aggravating puzzles serve their maddening purpose, but GOW III is primarily about stylish warfare and if I am a little whiner working those puzzles, I’m all wild man sneers and grimaces and groans and elated grunts while destroying those unlucky enough to cross my path. Combat situations bring out the inner animal and taking out hundreds of rushing fodder (skeletons, guards, hellhounds) while battling the requisite gargantuans (Minotaur, Cyclops, gorgon), peppered in to the mix to make shit that much harder, generates a specific kind of bliss that I just can’t put into words. Overwhelmed, fighting off the hordes, my brain exists on an alternate plain of existence. I become a beast, a demon, a bad-ass combo machine. What’s more, GOW III adds in three new weapons. Though Kratos’ trusty Blades of Chaos are still my favorite method in which to dispatch foes (what can I say? I like cutting things up), Hercules’s Nemean Cestus, Hades’s Claw of Hades, and a secret weapon (I won’t spoil it for you) forged by Hephaestus for the sole purpose of killing Zeus, are actually pretty fun to play with and worth putting the Blades aside for a while (a short while). But why put the Blades down if you don’t have to? The coolest thing about the new weapons is that you can swap them out on the fly, mid-combo, opening up some marvelous bone-crushing possibilities. Start with the Blades, hack fools up, switch to the Cestus (huge gauntlets that crush, crush, crush) to pulverize a few baddies and then rip their souls from their bodies with the Claws of Hades. Fun!

Fans of the series and newbies looking for some serious M-Rated action will go giddy over the excessive gore. Kratos disembowels and decapitates (in one the most gruesome segments he rips Apollo’s head from his shoulders in excruciating slow motion detail – Apollo’s head is used throughout the rest of the game as a flashlight) his victims with relish. He tears a Minotaur’s guts from its belly and rips a Cyclops’s eye from its head (complete with bloody, trailing stalk) and each Olympian (Hades, Poseidon, Apollo, Hermes, Hephaestus, and Zeus) meets a disgusting, bloody end that has to be seen to be believed.

Oh, and for those of you excited by animated nudity (I find it kind of creepy-weird), don’t worry, Kratos’ journey isn’t just blood and guts – there’s a little heat. The lovely Aphrodite (who shows up to offer Kratos a good time) and a number of slave girls make bouncing, shirtless appearances.

So then, there’s nothing better than hunting down and killing Olympians and even if you haven’t played parts one or two, most everything will make sense. There are certain sequences that offer a bit more emotional resonance for longtime fans and I really appreciated them (I’ve sunk a good sixty hours of my life into all three installments), but again, newcomers shouldn’t have any issues picking up the sticks and going to town. I do have to admit that there are a few hokey bits and I wasn’t super satisfied with the way things ultimately came together (I envisioned a different ending), but alas, considering the whole package, they’re petty, teeny-tiny grievances. Sony has crafted a truly epic experience and there is no denying the heart thrumming satisfaction gamers will feel enacting The Ghost of Sparta’s final vengeance.

© Copyright 2010 by Michael Louis Calvillo