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AudioSoldier Blog

Half-Life 2 Episode One Review - Thoughts?

It might have HDR lighting, but Half-Life 2: Episode One feels like mere filler.

In light of having just completed Episode Two, I though I'd write this. Thoughs?

Written with the recently digested Episode Two in mind, it's glaringly apparent how lackluster Half-Life 2: Episode One really is. Originally titled Aftermath, it depicts the repercussions of the Citadel's explosion, Though, truth be told, nothing really happens in Episode One. It feels like a stilted stopgap between its predecessor and the recently released second episode. It might be a good game in the broad scheme of things, but it doesn't do its heritage justice.

Core to this bite-sized shooter is character development. Alyx accompanies you (Gordon) throughout the three hour journey, though she seemingly serves as a gameplay device armed with fistfuls of hints rather than being a meaningful addition to the story. She is an object of annoyance throughout, bumping you out her way in a most un-lady like manner as she strides down her pre-determined route. Her aptitude for continually perking up with: "Hey Gordon, why don't you try X or Y is a frustration too, since it's such an obvious gameplay mechanic that feels wholly unnatural to this ingenuous series.

Maybe I'm nit-picking, but the overall scope of Episode One is severely lacking. It doesn't feel as ingeniously weaved, it's too obviously forced and, parallel to the abridged length, it lacks necessary variety (they seem to run hand in hand: less game, less scope). Sure, you get to escort hapless allies outside during the final fight, but the ensuing gameplay is uncharacteristically formulaic.

Arsenal increments are ominously lacking too, though the visuals are improved through the use of HDR-Lighting. It's still a legitimately good looking game with the trademark facial animations heightening your sense of immersion. Though, coupled with the realistic physics, it's a shame Valve didn't feel more ambitious throughout the truncated adventure.

In saying this, it's more Half-Life 2, a commodity I'd be hard pressed to condemn. And, given the quality of its successor (Episode Two), you can write off Episode One as a bridge between Valve's more obviously inspired efforts.

At any rate, Half-Life fans will eagerly devour this, and so they should. It's another notch on Gordon Freeman's journey. Nonetheless, we are deserving of better.


Max Payne 2 Review

Max Payne might be ageing, but his ability to launch into rooms guns ablazing is no less breathtaking.

I wrote this a while ago. Why not post it here?

Incidentally, it was the Reader Review of the Month in PC Gamer UK. Around the June/July/August 2006 issue I think.

Max smiles grimly. The grunts in the adjourning room are oblivious to his presence. Only seconds earlier he had dived in with marked aplomb, relying on his trusty slow-mo, "bullet time" moves to get one up on the potential enemies. Except, he had been outnumbered. He had been unprepared, never CERTAIN there would be enemies waiting. He had died.

But thanks to the handy quick-load feature, masquerading as an unassuming F9 button, Max is breathing his laboured breaths once more. He smiles grimly again, confident that he can pull off the move. Because he knows...he has knowledge and with the pistols nestling in each paw, there's absolutely no way he'll die again.

The sequel to Remedy's critically acclaimed 2001 blockbuster third-person shooter has received a graphical polish-up, but it retains the undeniable "Max Payne" bits. There's shooting, there's dying and there's plenty of quick-saving. But most importantly, there are countless moments where you'll sit bolt upright in amazement; desperate to replay the expertly executed dive you've just performed. Max Payne 2 has the irresistible ability to make you feel worthy of such a beautiful game.

Our main character is ageing, yet he's still as suave as ever. The game's story is of no less importance, however, and you'll find Max's tale of love and lust as intriguing as his previous exploits in snowy New York.

Remedy hasn't tampered with the original formula. The game really succeeds at all because of this. There are no frown-inducing puzzles, for instance. The action is kept at the fore of proceedings and the action is largely relentless throughout the brief game.

Brief, yes. It's certainly no forty-hour trek through a land of mystical creatures. Levels are grounded in the realms of the "real world". We have warehouses. Grime-encased apartments. Max Payne 2 paints a depressing picture, but the standout moments are the expertly crafted storybook scenes; a feature of the original game that caught the attention of many.

Max Payne 2 is devoid of a multiplayer component, but the single-player experience is a thoroughly enjoyable one. This is a game to sit back and relax with, stretch and indulge in some outlandish shootouts. The pacing is impeccable too, and labelling Max Payne 2 as the definitive third-person shooter is entirely correct.

It's just too short. And Max Payne was before it. But by all means, sample the sequel if you found Max's original adventure captivating.


Grim Fandango Review

An early scene from Tim Schafer's labor of love.

True story: I cried after finishing Grim Fandango. I never cry. But as the curtains closed on Tim Schafer's labor of love, I couldn't help myself. I did not wail. I did not howl. I simply allowed a teardrop to fall. It spoke volumes.

Why exactly did I cry? I'm not sure myself. It doesn't finish on an unhappy note. It doesn't make you cry from the sheer pain of the experience. It's simply the most amazing story you can ever wish to experience. It moves you. It absorbs you. Once you've reached the dénouement and return to normality, you feel like you've been wrenched from a world so powerful that no other action is apt. A good story - it's the most powerful medium.

Grim Fandango is THAT good.

Numerical additives are tricky things. Grim Fandango is far from perfect; yet awarding it less than a "10" feels wholly unjust. Its irksome keyboard controls and occasionally frustrating conundrums are mere imperfections on its impeccable sheen. It transcends traditional game-reviewing formalities and affects you so profoundly that it has to reap such a mountainous score. Yet, even AWARDING it a score feels wholly forced, fake and unnecessary. It shouldn't need to be backed up by a number to galvanize people into EXPERIENCING it.

It's an experience, you see, not merely a game.

In fact, if you want to know what its like to care about virtual characters so greatly that you cannot bear to tear yourself away, you have to insert Fandango into your DVD ROM. Indigo Prophecy might get close, but its numerous implausibility's (ancient mythos and that sort of rubbish) ultimately remove you from the experience. Fandango, on the other hand, might be set in a world that is, from the outset, implausible, but it draws you in with its wholly believable story. It traps humane sentiments into its twenty-hour journey, dealing with death and the way we get there.

The story is comical at times, but you're never laughing at Grim Fandango, merely with it. The humor is derived from the characters; it doesn't poke fun at itself so much as present situations that are funny. In fact, it never tells you when to laugh, as Manny deadpans his lines with vague indifference. This is one game that finds a perfect balance between deadly serious and outright funny. It's an insidious kind of humor.

Thankfully, there isn't a branching ending, which makes the experience more impacting. You see the intended dénouement. I wouldn't be able to sleep at night knowing there was another route Manny could take. I laud developers for trying different things (again, Indigo Prophecy and its set of different outcomes), but it simply wouldn't work with Tim Schafer's creation.

It almost feels needless to explain Fandango's gameplay intricies. They're merely a means to an end. A way of telling the story. The 3D visuals that were cutting edge in 1998 are still wholly acceptable now. But the game doesn't need to look good. Its tale is so wonderful, so intricately weaved, the characters so realized, that none of this really matters.

It is accompanied by a fantastic musical score that compliments the Mexican theme; never too brooding yet never overly lighthearted, a balancing act that compliments the game's overarching humor perfectly.

I seem to be saying perfect a lot, which brings me back to the game's scoreline. It isn't a perfect game per se (what is) but is absolutely deserving of a "10". It's the type of game you'll never forget it. It's a moving experience. It's a journey you'll never wish to end. Having re-played the game years after its original release, I found it just as memorable, just as impacting. I might have known how it was going to pan out, but it in no way lessened the relief I felt when I had finally guided Manny to a safe exit.

Don't miss out. Grim Fandango will change your life. Truly.


Bad Day LA Review

Whatever American McGee was attemtping to convey through Bad Day LA, it's lost in the woeful gameplay.

Bad Day LA



What is Bad Day LA? Is it a blithe GTA? Or is it a shameless attempt at satirical hilarity that fails on all accounts? The latter, I'd say. American McGee's latest stab at video-gaming is a tremendous waste of his quirky talents. His vision is lost in a half-baked mess of a game, though, in all honesty, it's hard to see what he was striving for at all. I've waded through the drudgery and I'm still at a loss, sadly.

Bad Day LA's supposed driving force is a ridiculing of USA's paranoia. What we're left with is a bare-bones arcade game that is, it seems, so desperate to reinforce that satirical point of view that it strips away anything that could distract you from this point.

I say "supposed" since the satire is neither deep nor particularly funny. While it would be acceptable as an accompanying facet to a meaty first-person shooter or a third-person action-adventure scripted tight as a drum, Bad Day LA has a jarringly aimless feel about it.

Not that you're given freedom; instead, Enlight's adherence to prehistoric game design pulls you down one pre-conceived path after another. You end up questioning your motives for struggling through the set of shakily weaved missions.

More than anything else, Bad Day LA smacks of a rush job. It's an exercise in repetition as you're forced to clear out one set of nefarious wrongdoers before moving on to the next. You have to clear out every last one, too. You're left to scour the terrain for the final target (like you're playing a cumbersome RTS and wading through the fog of war) wasting minutes of your time in a homage to the dark days of gaming.

Bad Day La's aversion to modern convention is astounding at times. It could be a joke on the parts of McGee and co., but it's a joke they're sharing between themselves. Wanton heights of frustration are forced upon you, your ears reduced to rubble as NPCs utter the same cries of help over and over again. It's stagnant game design at its most glaring; game design Enlight should have recognized as boring.

The game defies typical review convention with a shambling grace, at least. It's visually messy, sure, but charm abounds. But for all the appeal of the visuals, the opening level does its best to erase that allure. It's a crammed, dastardly enjoyable mess that serves as precursor to the repetitive and wearing path that Bad Day LA runs. It's not a long game, but you'll feel strained by its dénouement.

You might persevere (despite your inner pleases for sanctity) to sample the subliminal messages. But you'll realize how they were masked by gaming restriction. Ironically, despite the adult themes (swearing and satirical pokes), even children will grow quickly bored.

In fact, it may round up staples of American culture and whack them around the head with an irony stick, be fueled with boundless cheek and a desire to be unique, but Bad Day LA is reduced to nothing more than a wholly unmemorable arcade game (one that fails to get its message across on all accounts) by its aversion to the first rule of gaming: Make it fun first.


Halo 3 Review

Halo 3 Review



"Hardly the rip-roaring denouement to a wildly popular series, Halo 3 pales remarkably in the face of other shooters"

I do hate starting reviews with a cliché skewer of insight. In Halo 3's case it's impossible to avoid - such was the heavy hype placed on this trilogy-completing shooter that expectations (mine included) were exceptionally high. But a seven-hour singleplayer campaign riddled with a middling plot and frustrating level design hardly justifies the wave of enthusiasm surrounding Halo 3.

Of course it's a solid shooter and of course it's the sequel to a wildly popular cash-cow, but why all the fuss? Halo 3 introduces nothing groundbreaking and while its opening level is about as removed from Halo 1 and 2's as you could get, it's actual gameplay is the same staid run-and-gunning that we've been seeing all too frequently over the last decade. The original Halo may have popularized the recharging energy shield, but the series as a whole has done significantly less for the genre than Half-Life. This final notch on its studded belt is yet another example of the series' firm adherence to convention - Halo 3 introduces one or two gameplay additions but there's the prevailing sentiment that Bungie ran out of ideas after the original.

Resultantly there's the Halo feel but, at the same time, nothing inherently new. Even the visuals scarcely scale the technological tight-rope with muddy textures and glaringly wooden character models. Granted, the variety of locales on offer is pleasing, though Bungie runs the gamut by forcing you to repeatedly re-trace your steps through these missions. Moreover, it's far too easy to get lost. NPC's run off without you and bark orders from Heaven knows where. You stumble around looking for the correct door, all the while losing that sense of immersion. It's not scripted as tight as a drum. It's not like a Half-Life where you witness every set-piece as if it were a wonderfully engaging film. The game's expansiveness is partly at fault; while I don't advocate corridor-crawlers, any game that offers up freedom of movement should be replete with a mini-map. An internal GPS is not too much to ask of Master Chief, is it? And while the game occasionally plays the sympathy card and presents a directional arrow, this only prompts the question: why couldn't it appear all the time?

To the game's credit the Scarab encounters are tremendously satisfying and the enemy AI displays astute tactical intuition. There are no shortage of weapons, either, though constantly being asked whether you'd like to swap Gun X for Gun Y becomes frustrating - in all honesty, I would have just liked to have been able to keep the magnum and standard assault rifle, but there seems no cohesion to the weapons loadout and you wind up filching fallen enemy's weapons (which are of an alien variety, and far less concussive).

Unlike the weapons, aerial fighting is in short supply. While the ability to commandeer a Hornet does make a brief appearance, it's over far too quickly considering the sky high combat marks a nice departure from the standard run-and-gunning. It really is a pity Bungie didn't find more ways to incorporate Master Chief's metallic thighs inside one of these beasts, since Banshee's and Hornet's make a regular appearance throughout the game, just not with the seven-foot-tall gun-toting man/machine inside them.

The pretentious operatic theme song is replete in Halo 3, as are other staple sound effects. The voice acting is acceptable, though the game's adherence to the age-old tradition of cutscenes hardly helps matters. Really, the developers needn't have relied on any storytelling technique considering their contrived, wafer-like plot. In all honesty, a Halo fan merely wants to shoot aliens: it's a pastime I hardly find absorbing, though the masses will beg to differ.

As it is, you could probably glean more from the game if you played it again (that is, you'd spend less time wondering where to go next) but besides experiencing more of the scripted sequences, there's very little else to be gained. In terms of longevity, Halo 3 survives on its well-rounded multiplayer component, though this is no surprise. It's a lot like Pariah in some ways: a purely derivative first-person shooter. And while Halo 3 derives from its own forebear, it does so without the imagination it needed.

Average at best, Halo 3 is a testament to the fallacies of hype and an example of our aptitude for over-excitement. Really, were it not another Halo game, it'd never have been given the time of day.


Halo 3 - What a letdown

I never found the previous Halo offerings at all engaging; I might be predisposed to this disappointment as a result - either way, Halo 3 feels like Pariah did more than a year ago: a dated shooter.

Honestly, why all the fuss? What does Halo 3 do that countless other shooters don't? Granted, its locales are pleasingly expansive at times but I just end up getting lost. Call me an amateur, but I end up missing most of the scripted moments - it's not as tightly focused as Half-Life 2 is, for instance.

Case in point - I'm on Level 2, encountering countless backtracking, then the female commander barks orders at me from I don't know where. Where the heck is she? I meander about until I stumble upon the correct corridor (and I only know I'm going the right way from the checkpoint notification) before another firefight revs up. It's just more of the same.

As far as I'm concerned, Gears of War is the best Xbox 360 game I've yet to play. Dead Rising is not far behind. While Gears isn't particularly original, it is inventive. Its cover mechanics work fluidly with the Xbox 360 control scheme. Its action is impeccably paced. You find yourself at the core of the action, not desperately searching for the NPC barking orders.

Rarely do I advocate corridor shooters and I'm certainly glad that Halo 3 doesn't adhere strictly to such genre-fallacies, but I do wish I didn't feel so bewildered all the time.

Even if this is my own fault, I certainly can't blame anyone but Bungie for the uninspiring firefights, the plodding level design and the lackluster visuals.

Oh, and the cutscenes suck.

Although...I do like the way new chapters are seamlessly introduced by way of a widescreen view.

Saints Row

My second blog post this year is about a game that will seem appropriately archaic: Saint's Row. Yes it's been out a while but I've only just gotten into it. And while it's a shameless GTA clone, it does so well enough to be counted among Rockstar's brethren. If anything, the fact that it could pass as a GTA sequel is testament to the quality of it.

Games I need to play

Here's a mental note of the games I need to play by the year's end. Providing they're all released, that is:

The Darkness
Mass Effect
Halo 3

That's not in preferential order or anything -- though I wish I could add Alan Wake to that list!

Bad Day LA

I honestly didn't expected Bay Day LA to be as awful as it is. The notion that a good premise is everything needed in games today is as unfounded as it is ridiculous. I wish Bad Day had found the right balance between a novel idea and decent gameplay. It seems as if all the time was spent on being outlandishly "different" and, resultantly, Enlight decided they could get away with sub-par gameplay.

I reviewed the game for AmpedIGO and awarded it an appropriately abominable score. The whole scenario is so depressing however, that I can't bring myself to post the link and reveal quite the abomination Bad Day is. If you want to find out for yourself, GameSpot's gamepage under "they said" will have it. Otherwise, be safe in the knowledge that American McGee's ideas don't necessarily translate into a fine title.