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Monday, July 21, 2014

"Murdered: Soul Suspect" Review

Murdered: Soul Suspect is another game I was highly anticipating if for no other reason than it's original storyline. But is it a game worthy of investigating or does it deserve to be dragged to hell (much like that God-awful movie of the same name)? Well, like usual, let's find out... 

Murdered: Soul Suspect takes place in none other than Salem, Massachusetts, and for good reason. You play as a detective Ronan O'Connor who immediately gets killed and is tasked with solving his own murder as a ghost. Along the way he meets Joy Foster, one of the only humans who can see and talk to ghosts, and together they must solve the mystery of the Bell Killer while simultaneously looking for Joy's lost mother. 

On paper this sounds interesting, and would actually make a great movie. But in video game form it can be a hit or miss, depending on who you are. Murdered: Soul Suspect is in every way, shape and form, an investigation/mystery game. The core gameplay involves going from Point A to Point B, investigating a crime scene and then moving on once you've successfully solved the current mystery. It's like if you took the investigation parts of LA Noire and that's it and made a game out of them. Mix in some stealth, exploration and collectibles and you have a game. 

Outside of the game's core element there are sections where you must stealthily avoid demons who try to drag Ronan's soul down to hell. If you're spotted you must hide in ghostly apparitions until it's safe to come out and try again. To take the demons down you must sneak up on them and... well, I'm not entirely sure what you do to them exactly but whatever it is, it works. Outside of this, you're free to explore the city of Salem, possessing people, reading their minds and looking for collectibles. You'll also see other ghosts and ghostly walls and structures that the humans can't see mixing with the normal environment. A lot of it is meant to halt your progress until you gain abilities necessary to progress. Some of your fellow spirits are recently deceased and confused about their current state. You can choose to help them find peace by investigating their death but this involves more or less more of the same investigation gameplay. One of my favorite aspects is that you can possess a cat, yes a cat, and use it to reach high ledges. You can even make it meow. That's game of the year material right there. But seriously... 

Murdered: Soul Suspect, outside of having a pun for a title, has a interesting story. I actually found myself getting immersed in it. I'm a fan of a good ghost story and a nice murder mystery, of which this is both. You solve not only your own murder, but that of other recently departed denizens as well. Not to mention that every level has this age old artifacts and if you find all of them you are treated with a haunting tale that will send chills up your spine. The main story itself is an engaging tale with a few twists and an ending you may or may not expect. With only one human able to help him and the ever present danger to her by the Bell Killer, Ronan is tasked with more unfinished business than one dead person can handle. 

For the most part the characters are engaging but it doesn't say much when the dead are more interesting than the living. Joy appears to be the only interesting human character. Ronan, however, comes across often times as a dick who's just using Joy to meet his own needs. He's a hard character to like at first but will eventually grow on you. Most of the cops are dicks and some of the dead are even unsettling, purposely stalking the living because they're mad and causing demons to appear from their negative emotions. It's a regular grab bag of colorful characters, some likable and some not on both ends of dimensional planes. 

Murdered: Soul Suspect stands out in one more area, atmosphere. While it is not a horror game by any means it does provide a creepy and unsettling atmosphere in many ways, especially in the deformity of some of the dead. The town is misty, dark and too quiet. It certainly comes across as a place I'd rather avoid, much like Silent Hill. 

Overall, Murdered: Soul Suspect is far from perfect but it fun in it's own rights. If you're looking for a high speed action game with guns and violence, this is not the game for you. However, you're looking a slow-paced murder mystery with a haunting atmosphere, you've come to the right place.

My Rating: 7/10             

"Watch_Dogs" Review

After much anticipation and being pushed back a couple times, Watch_Dogs FINALLY makes it's appearance on the gaming market. But does it live up to the hype, and were the delays truly worth it? Some say no, others say yes, and some even say "what the hell is Watch_Dogs?" But the real question here is what do I say? You didn't come here for other people's opinions and to be frank, I never have and never will care what other people think of video games. I'm an individual. So, without further delay... let's get to it... 

Watch_Dogs is an open world action/adventure game that shares similarities with Grand Theft Auto and one of Ubisoft's most popular series, Assassin's Creed. The core element and selling point of the game is hacking. Using his smartphone Aiden Pearce can hack anything electronically connected from traffic lights to generators to even underground steam pipes (don't ask me how that one works but it looks cool and makes a loud noise so we're gonna go with it). The hacking can be used to stop cops and gang members chasing you in vehicles, tap into citizen's bank accounts, or stealthily take down guards protecting a ctOS server.

While the hacking is essentially the core element of the game it is not alone what makes Watch_Dogs so fun. Which is a good thing seeing how the hacking mechanic can tend to get a bit over-saturated after awhile. I remember numerous occasions where I would hack a citizen's phone only to end up eavesdropping on the same conversation I've heard once or twice before already. It's understandable that some things will eventually repeat, but one of Watch_Dog's main selling points by Ubisoft was that every citizen would be unique and have a different occupation, income, and special fact about them. While this is true in theory, I see a lot of repeats, just on citizens with different names. But overall this is a nit picky observation and does not take away from the game's enjoyment.

One of the most fun elements of Watch_Dogs is vehicle chases. The cops in Watch_Dogs will chase after you when a citizen calls them because you stole their car or because they heard gunfire. Often times you weren't even the shooter, but Aiden is a wanted man and they'll come after him anyways. You can stop these phone calls before they have time to respond, but here is the fun in that? During these police chases you have numerous tools at your disposal to stop your pursuers, and the more upgrades you unlock, the better tools you can use. There's something satisfying about being in a high speed chase, dodging in and out of traffic and then driving over a manhole cover, hacking it as you go, and looking back to see a cop car go flying sideways into a wall or another car and cause a pileup. Destruction, be it taking down a gang, blowing up a gas station, destroying transformers, or desecrating cop cars, is so much fun and I dare say, even more so than the hacking element.

I heard a lot of players complain that the vehicles controlled like ass. Bouncing around like cartoons, spinning uncontrollably, and other such debauchery. But, in my personal opinion, this is a good thing. And I might be in a minority here but I feel like expecting 100% realistic car mechanics in a fantasy based video game is simply folly, and, if anything, would take away from the fun. In real life, jumping a raised bridge would blow your suspension upon landing, your tires would fall off and you'd probably be injured. This is an action game, therefore it should play as such. You don't go to a Fast & Furious movie expecting them to obey traffic laws. So don't play an open-world action game expect Gran Turmiso level realism.    

Much like Fast & Furious (speaking of the devil), all the entertainment value lies in the action and eye-candy and the story is unfortunately, sub-par. In Watch_Dogs you play as hacker vigilante Aiden Pearce who's mix-ups with the wrong people cost him the life of a loved one, for which he constantly blames himself. And instead of doing what any sane person would do and calling it quits before anyone else gets hurt, he continues his underground work with revenge on the mind. While he is overall a good person who seems hellbent on doing the right thing, often times his motives, methods and associates are all questionable. The story itself actually picks up halfway through the game but the main characters all remain so-so throughout. Aiden's main posse in particular never really grew on me. In fact, it was one of the villains, a gang leader named Iraq whom I took particular enjoyment from if for no other reason than his portrayal as a black gang leader was so over done and borderline racist that it made me laugh uncontrollably. The game's ending felt cliche and anti-climatic as well, and in fact does not end well if you mess up the quick time event. Overall, it was ok to say the least but I feel like Ubisoft put most of their effort into the gameplay, eye-candy and hacking and not enough into story and character development. Not to mention that some of the story missions include frustratingly difficult stealth sections, especially near the end. I understand Ubisoft's love of stealth, I'm a fan myself, but some things don't need to be THAT difficult.

Now, I want to take a minute to talk about the multiplayer as well. I don't normally do this but I had a chance to dabble in it a bit and I must say I was pretty impressed. I played a few game modes in a party with a few people and we had a blast. Free Roam can get frustration because you can never find anyone, but I rather enjoyed Watch_Dogs' take on Capture the Flag. In a game of 3v3 one player steals a data packet while their teammates try to protect them, meanwhile the opposing team must try to steal the data and hold onto it for as long as they can. I rather enjoyed it. Another fun aspect was the ctOS app on smartphones and tablets. You can use it to hack into a players game and send cops and helicopters after them, hacking street lights and whatnot in an attempt to stop them from reaching their goal before time runs out. This mingame was loads of fun on both ends. But the most creative aspect of multiplayer that I must commend Ubisoft for is the way they handle social interaction. At random intervals of the game a player may drop into your server and attempt to hack you and it is your job to find and stop them before they succeed. You and the player both look like regular citizens to each other, making this easier said than done. Whether you win or lose this little confrontation matters not, the game proceeds as normal afterwards. The transition is so seamless and well executed you wouldn't know it was another player if the game didn't tell you.

Overall, Watch_Dogs shines mainly in gameplay. There's so much to do in this alternate version of Chicago that you can get lost for hours on side quests before even starting the next story mission. From saving citizens to taking down convoys to having digital acid trips and fighting off aliens or bouncing around on huge flowers Watch_Dogs has something for everyone and is a game with high replay value. I simply cannot ask for more for $60. It may not have lived up to ALL the hype, but it certainly matched most of it, and that's good enough for me.

My Rating: 8/10      

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

"Outlast" and "Whistleblower" Review

It's very hard these days to come across a good horror game anymore. So many once terrifying franchises have slowly but surely started to transition into action shooters with the occasional jump scare. Long gone are the days of our youth where we would stay up late sneaking out of our bedroom to watch our mom's boyfriend play Resident Evil 2 even though it gave us nightmares... Or maybe that's just me. Anyways, you get the idea. I have longed for a good true survival horror game for a long time, so as you can imagine, Outlast peeked my interest. But the question is... is Outlast truly a horrifying experience worthy of the "most times some has changed underwear in 24 hours" award? or is it a overhyped snooze-fest loaded with cheap scares, gore and not much else? Well, let's find out.... 

I'm doing this review differently. I'm going to review both Outlast and it's DLC add-on story Whistleblower, separately. I feel they are both worthy of their own review. So, first, Outlast. The game is about a journalist, Miles, whom you play as and has a serious mental condition that causes him to purposely investigate dangerous stories, even at the risk of his own life. At least, that's what I assumed, because nobody in their right mind would even THINK of sticking around this blood-splattered hell-hole for more than 5 minutes. I would have left at the FIRST sign of blood. But Miles is a bloody journalist by God and those crazy folk will do ANYTHING for a story. Thus, the plot has been established. But it's not so cut and dry. The idea here is that some bad science voodoo is going down in this asylum and Mile's gets a mysterious email from the inside (we'll get to that later) informing him of the illegal and inhumane activities going on in there, and of course, being the reporter that he is Miles goes to investigate. Everything starts off harmless enough, slowly getting creepier by the minute, until a change encounter with a deformed and overpowered inmate sends him flying right into the hands of destiny. And thus the REAL fun begins. Mile's journey quickly goes from getting his story to getting the hell out. Armed with nothing but a video camera with night vision, and his athletic abilities, Miles is about to take a trip through hell that he'll never soon forget. 

Outlast is, in every sense of the word, a TRUE survival horror game. There's no weapons. Only stealth, speed, agility and smarts. Most of the inmates in the asylum are way too big and powerful for you to take on anyways. Deformed and angry from experimentation, they're out for blood. During the game you go from one objective to the next, never knowing where the next threat may be lurking or what surprise is around the next corner. Your only friend in these dark corridors is your night vision camera and even that isn't promised. The camera runs on batteries which quickly drain and you have to find more laying around. If you happen to run out of batteries, you can't see more than a few feet in front of you and that's no preferable. Since you cannot fight, you must rely on stealth and speed to survive. Many areas involve multi-stage objectives such as flipping a few switches or turning some valves, all while avoiding the big angry inmate roaming the halls, looking for you. If you happen to get spotted, your only hope is to run like hell and hope they don't catch you, close doors behind you to slow them down, and hide in lockers or under beds and pray they don't find you.

Outlast, to me, was certainly a refreshing step in the right direction for survival horror. While it does have some jump scares they are not overdone or cheaply used. Outlast mainly scares players by messing with their heads. It builds up tension by leaving you in the dark (quite literally) about what's coming next. Every corner you turn, every noise you hear, every inmate you encounter could be a potential threat. Then, when the tension is built up, when something finally does happen the player reaction is vastly enhanced. Whereas if they just littered the games with random jump scares it would eventually get dull. But no, Red Barrels was smart. They built the game in such a way that it leaves you guessing and nervous and on edge for awhile and then BAM! It strikes when you least expect it. There where even times I had to take a break because my anxiety would flare up and I'd start having panic attacks. 

This is what separates Outlast from other so-called survival horror games. The horror, the fear, the tension, it's all real. The atmosphere is well done, the gore is disturbing and unnerving and the inmates are creepy and unsettling. Especially the inmates known as the "variants" who are the baddest of the bunch. Which include, but are not limited to, a big muscle bound lummox who can rip your head off with his bare hands, a crazy doctor with a mutilation obsession and a pair of naked twins with machetes who stalk their prey calmly, slowly and quietly. 

Outlast is the survival horror experience I've been waiting for. While some of the core elements can get repetitive and the game can get frustrating at times, overall it was a refreshing experience for someone like me who loves survival horror and games that scare you in genuine, horrific ways. 

My Rating: 9/10

Now, on to Whistleblower... 

The events of Whistleblower overall take place before, during and after the events of the core game. It revolves around Waylon Park, an engineer who signed a 2-week contract with Murkoff to help perform maintenance on the Morphogenic Engine. But Waylon becomes increasingly uncomfortable with the unethical experiments taking place at Mount Massive Asylum and thus sends out the email that Miles receives in the core game, leading him to the asylum. But Waylon is discovered and admitted to the asylum as punishment... and it is not long after this that all hell breaks loose and Miles shows up to witness the aftermath.

Compared to the core game, Whistleblower is significantly shorter but the the creepiness of the inmates and the intensity of the gore and overall morbid tone gets turned up a few notches. But this doesn't necessarily make it better. Part of what made Outlast so amazing was the tone it set, and the fact that you had to sneak around in fear of being discovered in a never ending, heart-pounding game of cat & mouse. Whereas, while Whisletblower does have a few of these sections, it's overall tone is more action oriented. I'm assuming because it's right around the time the shit hits the fan and all the inmates rare running loose. But that doesn't explain why it's STILL like that later in (at one point the game fast forwards 12 hours and there's still a linear chase scene like something out of an action movie). Overall, not much can be said about Whistleblower as it's still part of Outlast but it's worth noting that while the core elements are the same, the tone is slightly different. And let it be known that The Groom is one of the creepiest villains in gaming.          

My Rating: 8/10