Stop! Hammer Time! (Tomb Raider Underworld again, this time for 360, and some other stuff)

I’m kind of rubbish at summer. While I don’t exactly fear the daystar, I do find the heat a nuisance and nowhere near the unalloyed, positive force that tabloid newspapers and their readers declaim every heatwave to be.

As such, I’ve been spending a lot of time indoors. A brief bout of Acheivement Fever*, and a renewed taste for the Tomb Raider franchise following completion of the rather good Anniverary on PS2 led me to finally complete Legend on 360, and while I was on a roll revisit Underworld for the 360 as well. Legend is notable for having most of its peaks in the second half of the game, unusual for the TR series which tends to pack its big moments up front and then descend into a bit of a slog later on. Instead, Legend has some great later stages – the very concept of the Cornwall level is witty and well-thought through, a nice spin on the series, especially when Lara gets in a forklift and demolishes a corridor of traps with it.

Underworld plays a hell of a lot better on this, it’s lead (along with PS3) format as opposed to the cut down PS2 version I reviewed a while back. It’s actually not as different in terms of level layouts as I would have thought, and the extra enemy types are not that big a deal. Aside from the big changes – some of the PS2’s interminable motorbike sequences replace cleverer sequences in the big boy’s version, like a wonderful underwater section in the arctic, for instance – it’s really a question of execution. What were dull grey corridors on PS2 are, with the souped up engine of a current-gen console, sinister and spectral environments dripping with moisture, the dim light barely illuminating the lost realm of the ancients. Tomb Raider has always thrived on isolation – its why Legend is undermined by its chatty supporting characters always blathering over Lara’s headset – but Underworld, at least in this form, is the first to be actually spooky in places. There’s a dash of the Mountains of Madness in the ancient, desolate ruins Lara finds, and a bit of Clive Barker in those echoing corridors. It’s a lot better game in this version, and I’m quite tempted by the two DLC levels. Eidos are promising a full scale revamp for the next one, but here’s hoping they don’t leave it too long.

Elsewhere, I’ve been continuing my catch-up with PS2 titles I missed first time around. Cold Fear got a bit of a slating on its release in 2005 for being a Resident Evil 4 knock-off with repetitive enemies and environments, but as far as I’m concerned Capcom haven’t capitalised on the strength of Resi 4‘s over-the-shoulder survival horror formula, so it’s good to see someone stepped in there.** Survival horror is a tricky genre to do without an AAA level budget, and even big franchises like Alone in the Dark and Silent Hill have been fumbled in recent years. As such, it’s good to see smaller teams trying the genre and getting things right. Darkworks, who most recently worked on the forthcoming I Am Alive, clearly approached Cold Fear with an intelligent sense of economy, with a tight storyline that sees you as a gun-toting coast guard exploring a mutant-infested Russian whaling ship and, later on, a mining rig.

Cold Fear doesn’t have the sweep and scale of a big budget game, but makes up for it by making you weave through the two main environments in different directions, opening different doors along the way. Thanks to tough enemies and some well-spaced savepoints, it’s also a bit of a challenge compared to more leisurely games in the genre. Most importantly of all, the mechanics are solid – the over the shoulder camera means enemies are occasionally difficult to see, but otherwise the controls work well, and the various water and weather dynamics are impressive even four years on. Trying not to get washed overboard as you attempt to shoot savage mutants, in a three way battle with gun toting Russian mercenaries, is the kind of challenging, scary experience that I look for in a survival horror game.

It’s not mind-blowing, but Cold Fear is a solid entry in the genre with enough unique qualities to be worth seeking out, especially now PS2 titles are so damned cheap. It’s not Silent Hill 2 or Resident Evil: Nemesis, but bloody hell, what is?

Mark

* Sufferers of Acheivement Fever will have occasional periods where they concentrate on playing games with steady progression and gamerpoint rewards, piling up a few hundred points per game until they pass some arbitrary milestone or otherwise snap the fuck out of it.
** Besides, its highly unlikely the resemblance is more than coincedence – the two titles were in parallel development, and the similar control system doesn’t feel like a last-minute bolt-on.

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July 12, 2009. Tags: , , , , , . Uncategorized. Comments off.

Tanks for nothing.

I’ve been busy with a couple of things which have kept me largely offline for the last couple of days, and have cut into my blogging time.

Firstly, the pace of wedding preparations has picked up, and involved a couple of difficult nights of expensive dining to establish a venue for the wedding breakfast. It’s a hard life, I can tell you, especially when followed by Valentines Day chocs and cakes. Tough, tough life. It’s Ryvita and Special K for the rest of the week, I think.

More importantly though, as previously recounted I’m on X-Box Live for a month, a free month’s trial which will almost inevitably become a year’s subscription. My copy of Left4Dead arrived the other day, and barely a day goes by where I don’t manage to squeeze in a quick campaign, usually with Mr Lavington of Shiny Shelf fame. Having enjoyed playing the game offline, online was initially more of the same. It’s a great ‘the same’, with all the emergent situations that everyone else has been going on about for ages, whereby the combination of co-operating players and the super-smart AI Director create situations you’d never get in a more scripted game.

Today we stepped it up a notch, with another friend and his girlfriend joining the party. It’s the first time I’d played with an entirely human team, no companion AI (although one of our team did have to back out at one point, and it’s a great credit to the game to see the AI jump in their and get playing, seamlessly). An all-player team really ups those opportunities for the unexpected – the finely balanced AI players are never either mercilessly thick (as in any Resident Evil support AI ever) or inhumanly competent, instead hovering around, keeping their end up without either dragging you down or stealing the glory. An all-human team, however, will be beset by errors and prone to sudden triumphant moments of victory, and it’s all the more exciting. What a great game.

In between I’ve been getting back to Tomb Raider: Legend (super competent, a little too linear, not exactly the 360 state-of-the-art this far after release but nonetheless way ahead of the PS2 port of Underworld I recently played), and even a bit of FEAR (nothing to do with the sequel coming out, more because another of my Live friends has FEAR but not L4D, so I suspect it’s going to be the multiplayer of last resort with him for the moment).

Oh, and Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney arrived. And House of the Dead: Overkill for Wii, which I’ll be playing once I get down to the missus place, where my Wii resides. And while I’m down there, I’ll need to get around to playing more Trauma Center, and maybe turn my attention to the PS2 and Tomb Raider: Anniversary, and, and…

So yeah, a lot of games to get through. This could take a while.

Mark

February 15, 2009. Tags: , , , , . Uncategorized. Comments off.

Tomb Raider:Underworld (PS2) – a short review (‘If I had a hammer…’)

So, I played the latest Tomb Raider title over the weekend. And I mean played it – as in from start to finish – and I also mean weekend – as in I started the game on Friday night, and finished it on Sunday lunchtime.

Part of the reason for this very rapid runthrough might be that I was playing Underworld on the PS2, rather than the 360 or PS2, which are presumably the ‘lead’ platforms for the game, from which all other iterations are but ports and shadows. Aside from the fact that I’d played the demo on the 360, and could therefore spot the odd deviation and shrinkage of the Thailand level, there’s some dead giveaways in the use of FMV – not only do the cutscenes have the fuzzy look of footage sourced from a different, more graphically advanced system altogether as straight video (see also the PS2 Resident Evil 4), but some of the unplayable cutscenes looked suspiciously like a recording of gameplay from those snazzier next-gen versions.* Oh, and they feel brutally spliced into the PS2 game, with horrible jumps in the music and a mismatch between the environments, character positioning and so-forth.

It’s interesting, the first Tomb Raider game I’ve played in a ‘secondary’ iteration, rather than on it’s host platform. I’m always slightly fascinated by the DS versions of home console games, a throwback to the days when software companies felt the need to do conversions of arcade titles and major 16-bit releases for the clunky Spectrum or C64.

I will get around to playing either the 360 or PS3 version of Underworld at some point, at least partially to compare, as I suspect I can see some of the tricks used to squeeze a current gen game on to next-gen tech – Lara spends a lot of time running around windy, empty stairwells, which create a sense of space without ever having particularly open environments, and there are some bits where the same rooms and physics are replicated a few times in a row. The motorbike sections – which are a pain in the arse – are more open but incredibly sparse, turning the game into a long episode of Junior Kickstart. I imagine the game would be an even shorter experience without these padding techniques, but all the same they’re a bit tedious.

There are some technical compromises which are less ideal as well, with some chronic slowdown at particularly active moments, with gameplay coming to an actual halt now and again, which is pretty much inexcusable. However, in spite of this sluggishness, and the odd bit of clipping here and there, this isn’t a botched or unplayable port, and although compromised it’s far from unprofessional.

In fact, it’s either a testament to the skill of the codeshop or a damning indictment of how little the new consoles have done to advance the exploratory platformer that I didn’t feel like, graphical and space compromises aside, I was missing much playing this on the more ‘primitive’ console. The core Tomb Raider gameplay is here – the running, the jumping, the pushed blocks and levers which open big stone doors. The combat is, as it should be, a matter of bouncing around like a tit in a kind of acrobatic circle strafe until the enemy drops dead.

There are a couple of decent innovations here, as well – healthpacks are gone, replaced with an FPS style replenishing health bar, so the trick is to back off from a hazardous situation and recover rather than pause and dip into your items menu. Ammo shortages are gone, and weapons selection is largely replaced – in every stage you have a secondary weapon to accompany your pistols, which differ from level to level for no clear reason, and these have infinite ammo. I’m not sure whether this streamlining is dumbing down by taking out inventory choices, or just stripping away a lot of irrelevant crap that just got in the way of the core game (if long time TR players will excuse the pun).

Locations are diverse, with a nice sense of design and some decent puzzles and a couple of the kind of set-pieces that the series used to come up with in it’s early days – the game opens with a run through a burning building, and includes a similarly hectic escape from a sinking ship. Without going into spoilers, Lara also gets some fun temporary abilities and weapons which add a twist to existing gameplay – minor twists, for sure, but in a series of this vintage then minor twists are pretty big deals. The storyline is both convoluted and oddly stiff, and relies very heavily on plot elements from Crystal Dynamics’ TR debut Legend as well as their excellent remake of the original game, Anniversary.

Underworld, at least in this conversion, isn’t a brilliant game. It’s short, and in this version if in none of the flashier ones there are plot elements which you never get to have any in-game contact with, with them only appearing in cutscenes. However, if the PS2 is still your platform of choice (or you’re presented with a large price difference between this and the flashier versions), and you’re a big Lara fan, then this is still a pretty solid entry in the series with plenty to enjoy.

Mark

* My presumption that this is a secondary version of the game is compounded, incidentally, by the fact that a quick google search didn’t throw up any obvious reviews of the PS2 version of the game, so even people who write about these titles don’t think the PS2 version matters. Hence the fussily precise title of this post, so it might actually, possibly, be useful to some poor sod.

Update! I’ve now got around to playing Underworld on the 360, and talk about it here. 12/6/09

February 2, 2009. Tags: , , . Uncategorized. Comments off.