Sunday, April 26, 2009

Game Reviews

Ever since I had my PC upgraded last month, I've been dipping my toe in higher-end games that didn't work with my previous system (that's one reason why I've spent so much time on DOS-era material).

Spider-Man: Web of Shadows is the latest from Marvel, a third-person action game with a bit of a twist. Once a certain plot-related event is completed (fairly early in the game), you're given the ability to switch at will between Spider-Man's classic suit and the Black Symbiote. Unlike "X-Men Legends 2", where the difference in "skins" was cosmetic, your appearance has a real impact on how you play. In his original outfit, Spider-Man is fast and uses web-related attacks; the Black Suit slows you down but gives you a massive boost to strength, as well as the ability to project tentacles that can snag a target from across the street.

The graphics are astonishingly detailed, with a real sense of scale attached to the game's version of Manhattan: you get the feeling that every street and building in the city is right there, along with some famiilar fictional locations like the Daily Bugle and Stark Tower (continuity alert: it's got that bizarre Sentry-related hologram on top of it, which probably dates the game more than Marvel would like). It's the most realistic virtual representation of Manhattan that I've ever seen.

Gameplay can be a little confusing at first, but only because this is the closest emulation I've ever seen of Spider-Man as he appears in the comics: swift, agile, able to take down a dozen criminals without touching the ground, swinging between skyscrapers and bouncing off flagpoles... some battle sequences even take place entirely in midair. It's very easy to lose your sense of direction and get entirely turned around, especially since the camera changes angles every time Spidey sticks to a wall and starts climbing. But once you get the hang of it, it's a lot of fun.

Which isn't to say the system's entirely without kinks. For starters, the auto-targeting feature has an annoying habit of locking onto random objects regardless of what you're actually aiming for; in a regular fight, that's not such a big deal, but having your attacks directed at minions in the middle of a boss fight? Irritating.

Another problem has to do with the various missions you receive throughout the game. You'll initially want to complete every objective, even the optional ones, since you're rewarded with points you can use to unlock additional skills. But it doesn't take much to max out both suits' capabilities, and you don't have much incentive to follow the "side-quests" after that. It doesn't help that the objectives tend to be repetitive: save 5 civilians, save 20 civilians, save 150 civilians, etc. At some point I just decided to get on with the main assignments.

The plot's not much to write home about, though that's where you'll find the twist I mentioned: after a confusing prologue (later revealed to be a flash-forward), the game starts by pitting you against street gangs and the Kingpin. But the plot takes off in the second act, as Venom starts infecting people with symbiotes and SHIELD responds, turning Manhattan into a war zone.

Here's the interesting thing, though: at various points in the storyline, you're presented with a choice between the Red Path and the Black Path. The Red Path is typical superhero fare: subdue an enemy without excessive violence, choose your long-time girlfriend over your sexy-but-amoral partner, wielding great power with great responsibility, etc. The Black Path sees Spider-Man being corrupted by the power of the Symbiote, gradually becoming darker and darker until he finally starts killing his enemies. The story develops in rather different ways depending on your decisions. There's an alignment meter that charts your current situation, though as far as I can tell the only gameplay-related effect this has is to limit your choice of allies: as you progress through the game, you gain the ability to summon backup in the form of Luke Cage, Moon Knight and Wolverine, as well as Black Cat, Vulture, Rhino and Electro. Obviously, the heroes won't help you if you go dark, and the villains won't turn up if you stick with the good guys.

All in all, it's a fun game; not very long, even with two play-throughs to cover the different paths, but it'll definitely hold your attention while it lasts.

Lord of the Rings: Conquest is also a third-person action game, based primarily on the Peter Jackson films. The player is able to choose from four classes - Warrior, Archer, Scout and Mage - each with his own strengths and weaknesses. You must then navigate various locations seen in both the novels and the films (ie: Rivendell, the Pelennor Fields, the Shire) and follow various objectives; the challenge, of course, is figuring out which class is best suited for those goals. For example, if you have to carry an object from Point A to Point B, your best bet is the Scout, as he can maintain an invisible cloak for a certain amount of time. On the other hand, if you need to fend off waves of enemies in close quarters, you're better off with a Warrior. You can switch classes at various "safe zones" in each level.

Almost every mission unlocks a Hero character as you near its end: these range from Aragorn to Gandalf to Sauron himself. Though these heroes may seem impressive, they're actually just more powerful versions of the pre-existing classes, with largely the same abilities. And, oddly enough, they're just as vulnerable to the various "instant kill" traps as anyone else, so Sauron can get picked up and eaten by an Ent just as easily as a common Orc. Also, only Mages can heal, so if you're stuck with a Hero from another class, you have to be as cautious as you would in regular scenarios. I thought that sort of defeated the purpose of having these heroes, being able to finish various missions with style, but...

Anyway, at first you can only play through the Good campaign, which is basically a retread of the films: you go from Helm's Deep to Moria to Minas Morgul, and finally go up against the Mouth of Sauron at the Black Gate. But once you complete the Good campaign, you unlock its Evil counterpart, an alternate-history version where Frodo dies at Mount Doom and the Nazgul reclaim the One Ring. Revitalized, the forces of Mordor turn the tables on their enemies and sweep across Middle-Earth. Here's another quirk, though: both campaigns rely on cinematic cutscenes taken directly from the films, which means the Evil campaign basically consists of various clips taken out of context. Hugo Weaving's narration helps with that, but it's still kind of a stretch. CGI might've been more appropriate.

Like "Web of Shadows", little effort was put into creating real variety for the missions here: regardless of the campaign, you're pretty much tasked with slaughtering never-ending waves of enemies while moving from Point A to Point B. Again, it's certainly a lot of fun to play, but you won't find much to keep you going after that.