The trajectory of the PRINCE OF PERSIA series is fascinating. The prince started out strong (PRINCE OF PERSIA), and showed off some great moves (PRINCE OF PERSIA II), but got too carried away, fell off a cliff, hit several rocks on the way to the bottom, where he stayed with all his limbs broken and his organs punctured, nearly dead (PRINCE OF PERSIA 3D). It took time, but he healed and climbed all the way back up, finally reaching the top again. Strenghtened by this traumatic experience, the Prince was in better shape than ever (PRINCE OF PERSIA: THE SANDS OF TIME), but he was overcome with a sudden wave of angst and, unable to concentrate and with his emo haircut getting in the way of his eyes, fell off another cliff (PRINCE OF PERSIA: WARRIOR WITHIN), this time managing to get ahold of a barely firm ledge (PRINCE OF PERSIA: THE TWO THRONES). He gave in to drugs and after a bizarre acid trip (2008’s PRINCE OF PERSIA), finally decided to use the sands of time to go back to the point where he found himself at his best, just before falling into the second cliff.
And so we get to PRINCE OF PERSIA: THE FORGOTTEN SANDS, or as I like to call it, PRINCE OF PERSIA: VASEBREAKER, set right after the events of SANDS OF TIME. The Prince, whose face now looks like it was repeatedly slammed into a wall, is sent to the kingdom led by his brother Malik, in order to learn from him how to be a king. However, when the Prince arrives, his brother’s palace is being invaded by an enemy army, and Malik promptly teaches the Prince his first leadership lesson: when fighting an army much stronger than yours, release an ancient force of countless evil sand warriors that’s a hundred times worse because you think you can control them. Obviously this doesn’t go very well, and the palace is overrun by sand creatures, with all the people in it turned into sand statues, except for the Prince and Malik, who are in possession of the two halves of the amulet that released the army. Malik’s half, however, is affecting his mind and making him power-hungry, which doesn’t happen to the Prince because a friendly djinn named Razia enchanted him. Strangely it never occurs to Razia to enchant Malik as well. In fact, it never occurs to Razia that if she just gave the Prince a bunch of powers right away instead of giving him one every two hours she could help him get to Malik much faster. Also, there is an evil djinn named Ratash who is the main villain and must be stopped. So off you go, swinging your way around the palace, breaking every single vase in your path for red and blue orbs, since the Prince no longer recovers his energy by drinking water like a normal human being.
As you might have guessed, the story isn’t one of this game’s strong suits. The good news is that the Prince has recovered his likeable personality. He’s voiced again by the competent Yuri Lowenthal, who also voiced him in the other two above-average games in the series, SANDS OF TIME and THE TWO THRONES. After having my ears tortured by the eternally typecast Nolan North in 2008’s PRINCE OF PERSIA, who along with the writers turned the Prince into Nathan Drake from the UNCHARTED series, Lowenthal is a relief. He remains consistent throughout the game, with a present but restrained sense of humor, and despite the character’s bizarre face he resembles the good old Prince written by Jordan Mechner in THE SANDS OF TIME. Sadly, everything else is rather weak. Malik is never developed by the plot, and it would have been interesting if you could actually help each other for a while, developing a bond, before he starts feeling the effects of the amulet — you do actually help each other out a bit, but never enough to make you actually care about Malik, who, after all, is the prick who started all the trouble. Razia, the friendly djinn, shows up only to babble exposition and give you convenient new powers. She does have a good line of dialogue near the end of the game (you’ll recognize it, it involves a sword), but maybe it just sounds good because most of the dialogue is rather insipid, except for one or two fun lines said by the Prince.
The writer(s) deserve credit, however, for not trying to make the Farah lightning strike twice. For those who don’t know or don’t remember, Farah was your A.I. partner in THE SANDS OF TIME, easily one of the best and most likeable A.I. partners in the history of gaming. 2008’s PRINCE OF PERSIA, a game that pretended to be really original and artsy, tried to bring back this dynamic but the uninteresting story and poorly written dialogue prevented this. THE FORGOTTEN SANDS doesn’t even try it, keeping its eye on the plot and not giving in to any distractions, and for this it deserves applause.
And the story’s weaknesses aren’t solely the writers’ fault: the gameplay itself is a problem. The Prince has a number of new moves that are frankly hard to believe. In SANDS OF TIME, you could convince yourself he was just a fantastic acrobat. Here, it’s like he was bitten by a radioactive spider. He can jump on a wall then run up it, he can run up walls from whatever position he wishes — in fact, he no longer runs up or along walls, he strolls. Previously the Prince could barely sustain his momentum, his feet moved rapidly to keep himself from falling, like in a sideways tapdance. In FORGOTTEN SANDS, it’s like he dipped his boots in glue. No hurry, just strolling up a wall because fuck you gravity.
Even worse, at one point he’s given the power to solidify water. This way, he can turn waterfalls into poles, pillars and walls he can interact with. Which sounds okay until you remember that solid water is ice. Sorry to pull out the SANDS OF TIME comparison again, but remember how in that game, if the Prince’s feet were immersed in water, he slipped when trying to run up a wall? Yeah, and now he can run up walls made of ice. Why not give him the power to solidify sand instead? Okay, sand is already solid, but you know what I mean. It would even fit the game’s theme.
This also results in one of the series’ long-standing problems, the level design. The architecture, as beautiful as it is, always has to be built in contrived ways so the Prince can move around on it: conveniently located poles, suspiciously well-positioned debris, etc. Add water to that and it becomes inexplicable; holes in the walls that squirt water in the middle of a room? What purpose does that serve other than being turned into a pole by a Prince with instant ice powers?
This does have the advantage of allowing really tight acrobatic sequences, or would if the camera was on your side. In SANDS OF TIME (back to memory lane we go), you could change between a landscape view, a first-person view and a third-person view to fully understand your surroundings. In SPIDERMAN OF PERSIA, the camera control is often taken away from you and automatically positions itself to provide a good angle, but incredibly the camera some times doesn’t move as fast as you, and forgets to show you what you’re supposed to be jumping onto next. There was one sequence where I had to swing along a number of poles, and the camera faced the opposite direction I was supposed to be going to. And during combat, the camera some times forgets to zoom out to let you see your enemies properly.
Ah, yes. The combat. This series has always been clunky in this regard. Even the excellent SANDS OF TIME was heavily criticized by its simplistic combat system (which I happened to like). WARRIOR WITHIN complicated things, but made them more fun (while fucking up absolutely everything else). TWO THRONES tried a few new moves, then 2008’s PRINCE OF PERSIA kicked everything back to square zero with a combat system for retards. THE FORGOTTEN SANDS tries a new strategy: bury the player in enemies. Pretty much every combat encounter has you surrounded by countless sand monsters, and the game gives you three attacks to deal with this: sword attack, kick, and jump (aside from a few magic attacks). The result is insane amounts of button-mashing until everything around you is dead. The Prince can no longer block, having to roll out of the way of incoming attacks, except it’s not easy to see an incoming attack amidst the crowd of sand creatures around you. It’s an obnoxious and repetitive combat system; I lost count of how often the game made me fight some giant monster with slow attacks and a big health bar. Not to mention that they took the big muscular fellas from BATMAN: ARKHAM ASYLUM, covered them in sand and put them in this game. Just like in ARKHAM ASYLUM, they charge at you and you have to sidestep so they hit a wall, getting dizzy and allowing you to attack them.
The Prince is a bit rebellious this time around too, not satisfied with being under your control. He often failed to understand I wanted him to run up a wall and grab a ledge instead of running along the wall and down a bottomless chasm. Or that when I told him to jump, I meant to the next ledge, not to the nearby cliff. And why is it that when the Prince grabs hold of a pole, he stops swinging if you let go of the analog stick? What is the purpose of this? There is no other use for the pole. If you grab onto a pole, you have to swing on it them jump to something else, so why doesn’t the prince automatically keep swinging, and changes direction with a flick of the analog stick, instead of having to keep the stick pressed toward the direction you want him to keep swinging in (a direction that the Prince often misinterprets with his usual distaste for taking your orders)?
And WHO was the absolute cretin who included the puzzle where you have to get a gear into position to close a gate? Aside from the puzzle being simply infuriating to solve, it’s a goddamn gate, why isn’t the mechanism to close it a fucking lever?
You might have the impression I didn’t like THE FORGOTTEN SANDS. Actually, I found it to be surprisingly entertaining. Above are the reasons it’s not more than that. Even though the camera and the controls had their problems, I could perform some breathtaking acrobatic sequences, and even though the combat is obnoxious, the cool finishes and the well-implemented ragdoll physics ensured they were at least a bit fun. Not to mention the ending has a fantastic acrobatic scene. The level design might be contrived, but it’s inventive and the Prince’s powers, along with the usual time-rewinding, are well-implemented (even if the instant ice one is conceptually ridiculous). Graphically, the game is above-average with some nice special effects (such as the water and the sand), with its only real problem being the Prince’s strange face. The sound effects are competent and the soundtrack is memorable, with a number of epic melodies that make the platforming even more exciting.
It isn’t a great game, but it’s a good one, enough to get the series back on track (and in Persia, something the people responsible for 2008’s PRINCE OF PERSIA seemed to forget). Maybe now would be a good time to bring Jordan Mechner back to the writing desk, to avoid falling down any further cliffs.
PART ONE – THE SPOILER-FREE REVIEW
David Cage has a serious problem as a game developer. His style is cinematic and deeply story-driven, to the point where Quantic Dream’s previous game, INDIGO PROPHECY (also known as FAHRENHEIT, also known as WTF PROPHECY), was practically an interactive movie. Cage and his company favor storytelling, refusing to push it aside in favor of graphics or gameplay as so many games do. Admirable.
But David Cage proves with HEAVY RAIN that he is indeed an atrocious writer. I had suspected of this when the plot of INDIGO PROPHECY went completely batshit, going on a crescendo of stupidity and finally falling apart into a disastrous mess involving mystical children, superpowered Mayan sorcerers and a general lack of anything making sense. But still, I decided to put my opinion of Cage’s writing on hold, after all… it was ONE game. So he went a little overboard. Okay, so he turned the board over and had sex with it, but still — it was just one game. I hadn’t played Quantic Dream’s previous game, OMIKRON: THE NOMAD SOUL, so that was my first experience with Cage’s writing and it was too early to have an opinion of Cage as a writer, although more than enough to have an opinion on INDIGO PROPHECY being a preposterous overdone piece of shit with a few good moments – most of them in the game’s competent first half.
HEAVY RAIN, at least, does the courtesy of being narratively awful on both halfs, so I never had my hopes up. I mean, it’s a whodunit involving a serial killer called The Origami Killer whose efficiency partially depends on the accuracy of the weather forecast. The story rarely sinks to a level of mediocrity that is actually funny; one of the few moments I can remember is when someone is asked how long they have to save a victim of the Killer, and the reply is, “If this rain keeps up, less than 72 hours”. Because when I think of something stable and unchanging, I think rain, with wind as a close second. Mostly, though, HEAVY RAIN’s story is just the kind of bad that is so bad it’s shit.
As a game, though, it strangely succeeds. The control scheme Cage and his team designed is extremely effective for conveying tension, and fun to explore. The reasons I wanted to keep playing were to find out how they would be implemented next, and a morbid wish to see just how ridiculous the story would get — and it managed to sink even lower than my expectations already were.
We control four characters. Ethan Mars, a traumatized architect whose son, Shaun, is kidnapped by The Origami Killer; Scott Shelby, a middle-aged private detective investigating the killer; Madison Paige, a hot chick that serves the purpose of getting naked and being the shoehorned romantic interest; and Norman Jayden, a drug-addicted FBI agent with access to stunning technology who is brought in to investigate the killers with the police. Jayden is the only of the four characters who is mildly interesting: with a boyish voice and vulnerable attitude (not to mention a funny accent that turns out to be endearing), he’s clearly intelligent and committed. Although he hardly needs to use his brain when he has access to the magic sunglasses he wears for the entire game, which highlight points of interest in crime scenes and are even capable of changing the environment around him to virtual renditions of valleys, the seabed or even a planet’s surface. As fun as the sunglasses are, it’s hard to believe that in 2011 (when the events of the game occur), we’ll be able to put such staggering processing power in a pair of lenses — hell, the fucking things can detect a faint pollen trail in the air at ten feet of distance. Even more bizarrely, when changing the environment, all other exterior sounds disappear and we hear only the sound of the virtual environment around Jayden.
Excuse me, it’s a pair of sunglasses. How does it do that? We never see Jayden put anything on his ears – and we should, since every time he puts on the sunglasses, the game always shows a little montage of him doing so and then wearing a magic glove as well. And in a scene that I’m fairly sure is a virtual rendition created by the glasses, Jayden appears leaning heavily over a piano that doesn’t exist. Could be just a dream, though.
Ludicrous or not, that makes him more interesting than any of the other characters. Ethan Mars goes through the same sacrifice-themed, self-destructive character arc as Lucas Kane (protagonist of Fahrenheit), and Mars is so ridiculously jolly and happy in the game’s prologue I couldn’t really feel sorry for him or his family when something (predictably) terrible happens. Mars also has “blackouts”, which result in him showing up in places with no memory of how he got there and with an origami figure in his hand.
You might have noticed by now that subtlety isn’t Cage’s strong suit. In fact, when it comes to Cage as a writer, I’m still trying to find one, but moving on…
Madison Paige is the typical romantic interest, treated by the game as a convenient pair of tits. She’s introduced in a ridiculous and completely unnecessary dream sequence (where you can get her naked by having her take a shower) which features an action scene where she has to fight burglars in her underwear… yeah. Sounds suspiciously like someone’s (*cough* Cage’s *cough*) wet fantasy, doesn’t it? Oh, and later Madison’s forced to strip at gun point. I guess this is what Cage calls a “mature gaming narrative”. Her romantic relationship with another character is painfully forced and unintentionally funny, since every time he appears in her life, he’s more physically injured than the last time. Towards the end of the game I half-expected him to be reduced to a brain in a jar.
And then there’s Scott Shelby, the middle-aged, asthmatic and overweight private detective who doesn’t really have a personality, something that becomes even more evident as the game progresses, although his relationship with a girl named Lauren is far more interesting than any other relationship in the game.
You control these four characters in the same way: for some absolutely unjustifiable reason, you press R2 to make them walk and move the left stick to direct them, instead of, y’know, leaving all movement to the left stick, which most games (including INDIGO PROPHECY) have already established as a quite functional idea. In order to interact with objects, you mostly use the right stick in combination with all the other buttons, depending on the action. When next to an interactive object, a prompt will show up — it could be an arrow pointing to the right, or to the left, or a half-circle arrow, etc. — indicating the movement you have to make with the right stick to perform the action. Some actions must be made slowly to avoid, for example, making noise or breaking an object, and others are a little trickier. There’s some particularly interesting moments that require you to hold down a button, then another, then another, until you’re keeping up to five buttons held down to advance an animation. Start doing this with the wrong finger and by the end of the animation you’ll be in danger of breaking your hand. This might sound like a bad thing, but these moments are meant to convey complicated actions and in fact work quite well. The entire control scheme is based on cleverly realized variations of quick time events, with classics such as repeatedly tapping a button or pressing a series of buttons as quickly as you can when prompted.
The latter two are very used for action scenes, which are clear and directed with energy, but try too hard to be intense — becoming unintentionally funny as a result. There’s a chase sequence in which the suspect throws chickens at Norman Jayden, in a moment worthy of THE NAKED GUN. They’re also preposterous: in one of them, a character storms a mansion and shoots several trained security guards who are just as armed as he is. To make things worse, their death animations are the work of particularly bad stuntmen, since they react to every bullet as though the bullet is a car, hurling themselves backwards in a manner that would make John Woo cover his eyes in shame. But the pinnacle of bad action scenes is when a character is chased around the apartment by a shotgun-wielding lunatic who repeatedly fails to score a single hit with a shotgun at point-blank range. Sadly, these ridiculous moments aren’t limited to the heat of action scenes: there’s a point when the police captain asks Jayden to tie his necktie for him.
Wait a second: a veteran police captain doesn’t know how to put on a tie himself? What did he wear for work all the years before Jayden showed up, a Batman costume?
But still on the action scenes: a lot has been said about the game only giving you the illusion of danger, since most of the time the four characters cannot die (although at some points they all can) — the story goes forward no matter what. Regardless of your choices as a player, all the scenarios in the game move the story forward. Therefore, you don’t even need to press buttons during several action sequences, since the only difference is that your character will be a little more injured by the end of it, or fail to achieve a certain objective.
But newsflash: every game only gives you the illusion of danger. And thank fuck for that, obviously. In most games you can die, and what happens? You reload to right before you died and do it again. HEAVY RAIN is actually more unforgiving in this aspect: you can’t reload by pausing to the menu. But you can by going to the main menu and selecting the “Chapters” option, although if you really want to have a tense experience, you won’t. It’s better if you just accept whatever happens to keep the story going, and the lack of a “RESTART SCENE” option in the pause menu is a clear incentive towards that.
Also, on your first playthrough, you won’t know which scenes are a real danger to your character and which aren’t — and HEAVY RAIN does indeed have multiple endings and significant changes to the storyline based on your choices. Shame the plot remains strikingly stupid regardless, but still.
There’s moments when David Cage and his team deserve applause — such as a tense sequence involving a tunnel and matches, or the one with several sharp objects, a camera and a table. Scenes involving split screens have become a specialty of Cage as a director: while something urgent and threatening happens on one of the screens, you are controlling your character on the other. Therefore, you must find a way out of the situation before whatever’s happening (or about to happen) on the other screen affects you directly, the greatest of these moments being a police chase in the subway.
By pressing L2, you can hear the thoughts of the character you’re controlling at the moment. But you’ll wish you couldn’t, and that the game had found another way to suggest what you have to do next. The quick monologues are hideously written, with such gems as “Shot between the eyes. Instant death.” This goes well with the game’s dialogue, which is almost as bad. Neither of these is helped in the slightest by the homogeneously weak voice acting, although, to be fair, Cage’s dialogue requires quite some talent to be said in a believable manner. Also, the thought system creates a number of narrative problems, as I’ll discuss in part two of this review. Even some sound effects are unconvincing, with the guns sounding like toys. The music, however, is excellent and the themes that play during action scenes or tense moments are remarkably efficient.
Graphically, HEAVY RAIN is mostly exceptional, but has a number of notable problems. The photography is well-realized and the character models have detailed modeling and textures. Except for the bad stuntmen in the mansion scene, the motion capture is fantastic and the game has an admirable attention to detail: in some scenes, characters can be seen putting clothes on, and the fabric reacts fairly realistically; notice how naturally Shaun Mars slings his backpack over his shoulder. The rain effects are mostly believable as well, with water trails running down characters’ faces and dripping — but the hair is never wet, and considering how hard it’s raining, characters should be completely wet, not just with drops of water trailing down their fac — okay, okay, that’s too nitpicky, it still looks nice. But the glistening of the wet environment is always well-done, and the environment themselves are very well-designed (Ethan’s house, for example, looks worthy of an architect). However, the game has a serious problem with loading — textures will take time to appear, several seconds after the beginning of a scene.
But the game’s worst graphical problem is facial animation. It looks impressive during the loading screens — all of which feature a close-up of the character you’ll be controlling next — but that’s because the team paid special attention to them, adding a subtle tremor of the iris and mouth contractions. During most of the scenes, though, the characters’ eyes are dead, moving only when necessary, and the team seems absolutely unable to convey intense emotions — this is particularly noticeable when characters argue with other characters and look like puppets doing so — the lip-sync impeccable and the rest of the face blank. Often characters’ faces will just stop moving until they have to speak again, and there’s even moments when they do inexplicable expressions, such as Ethan sketching a tiny smile (or at least that’s how it looks from the chosen angle) as he opens a package The Origami Killer sent him — not the cheeriest of correspondents. Also, when two characters kiss, it looks incredibly awkward — it’s like they’re trying to eat each other’s heads.
But despite all the aforementioned problems, HEAVY RAIN is a strangely fun game to play even when all you’re doing is getting your character to shave his facial hair. But it never achieves its two main goals: to tell a good story and to be mature. The thought system is expositional and in fact completely unnecessary and the dialogue doesn’t seem to be written with adults in mind (or by an adult, for that matter). And the revelation of the killer’s identity is one of the stupidest twists in recent memory and the final nail in the narrative’s coffin, as I’ll elaborate about in part two.
Put simply, HEAVY RAIN falls very short of its ambitions as a story. In fact, it doesn’t even fall short, it falls backwards: this storytelling revolution Cage wants to start has already started and is going fairly well, in fact. Games such as GRAND THEFT AUTO 4 and MASS EFFECT 2 are masterpieces of storytelling (not just in games, but in general), and I could cite older examples such as the unforgettable MAFIA: THE CITY OF LOST HEAVEN. For all its campiness, METAL GEAR SOLID 4 is full of amazing moments, and despite having a silent protagonist, DEAD SPACE is a carefully-written, brilliantly-paced horror. HEAVENLY SWORD is a beautiful tale, HITMAN: BLOOD MONEY has excellent writing directed with amazing style and CALL OF DUTY: MODERN WARFARE 2 has one of the best action-minded plots I’ve ever seen in gaming (not a single setpiece was gratuitous, and they were all part of a greater scheme). Fuck, even BIOSHOCK, with its ridiculously preposterous plot twist, at least had a phenomenal and unique setting.
With games such as these (and I’m sure I’m forgetting many), what HEAVY RAIN does is set the bar lower, with its painful dialogue, cliched whodunit structure and bad characters. I admire ambition, but David Cage seems to have an ego just as big — an assumption I had when during this game’s opening credits, “written and directed by David Cage” stayed more time onscreen than any other credit and, in fact, more time than the game’s title. And if I’m right and his ego is indeed this big, it’s hard for this man to realize how far back his storytelling abilities are in relation to the current state of gaming narrative.
But HEAVY RAIN is enjoyable, entertaining and has a few good moments. I played it twice despite all of its problems, and the second playthrough wasn’t as fun as the first, but it wasn’t dull either. It’s greater than the sum of its parts, but ultimately forgettable. I hope it works as an incentive towards more good narratives in games, since it (utterly) fails as an example.
PART TWO – WHY THE STORY SUCKS (SPOILER WARNING – READ THIS ONLY IF YOU HAVE PLAYED THE GAME)
Before the revelation of the killer’s identity, decidedly the worst part of this mess, the story already had a number of problems: the happiness of Ethan’s life before his son Jason dies is overdone to the point of parody, and pretty much yells that something horrible is about to happen; the dream sequence that introduces Madison, as I mentioned, is more like a David Cage wet dream instead of anything useful to the plot; the dialogue is consistently ridiculous and obvious (“It’s a painkiller. It’ll help reduce the pain.”) and the characters are either uninteresting (Ethan), preposterous (the police captain who lacks the ability to put on a tie) or cliched (Madison and Blake), with Norman Jayden being the only hint at an exception.
Before I knew the identity of the killer, it was clear to me that Cage was attempting every trick in the book to mislead the player. Having Ethan suffer convenient blackouts, show up holding origami figures (where they come from is never explained) and considering himself to be the killer are by far his most forced, ridiculous attempts and those alone should be enough to consider HEAVY RAIN’s story mediocre. There’s also borderline subliminal attempts to fool the player — like a moment when Ethan, escaping the police, has to worm his way across a number of vertical bars — exactly in the way the kid later revealed as young Scott Shelby does in the flashback when playing with his twin brother.
Then the killer is revealed and I realized Cage wasn’t trying to mislead the viewer. He was outright lying to us, in a blatantly dishonest narrative. You could say it’s too much assumption to say Cage is being dishonest, but if he failed to see the immense holes in his narrative, then I must put his intellect in doubt instead.
Just like the other playable characters, you can hear Scott Shelby’s thoughts throughout the game. Among them, are lines such as “I hope it stops raining soon” (although the Origami Killer depends on rain to kill his victims) and “Can’t sleep since the murders started again” (what a way to refer to your own work). Even worse, in his thoughts, Shelby refers to The Origami Killer as… “The Origami Killer”, rather than, y’know, “me”.
In fact, I was suspecting Scott Shelby before he was confirmed as the killer — after all, he seemed to be the most mysterious character, and the one the story was trying the hardest to sanctify. But I had to drop the suspicion after I heard his thoughts, and also after the scene where a masked and heavily clothed Origami Killer fights Norman Jayden. I paid attention to the Origami Killer in this scene. No signs of fat — he seemed well-built, not fat, and Shelby’s proeminent belly would show even if he was wearing a circus tent.
And then there was the scene in the antique shop, when Scott pretty much witnesses the Origami Killer killing Manfred: he finds the body immediately after it’s been murdered, and reacts to his death with genuine shock (either that or he was pretending shock to fool… no-one, since he’s alone in the room). At this point, the player is controlling Scott, so nothing should have happened to him without our knowledge.
Turns out it had. A flashback later reveals Scott killed the man (somehow he bludgeons him silently enough not to alert the woman right in the next room), while we were controlling him. And in the flashback, Scott doesn’t react with shock, but with coldness — in other words, the game contradicts itself and breaks its own established rules, completely hiding from us something we’d usually know with the character in our control.
There’s other obvious problems with the identity of the killer: why is Shelby so compassionate? His thoughts towards other characters show genuine care and affection, even though he’s a man cold enough to keep his cool while talking to people whose life he, as The Origami Killer, completely ruined. After he’s revealed as the killer, he becomes a cold, cruel bastard, but before that he even partners up with the mother of a kid he secretly killed. And how to explain his anger towards Gordi Kramer and his father? Isn’t it later revealed that Kramer’s father is utterly devoted to his son? Wasn’t a devoted father what the Origami Killer was after in the first place? What about these two could have possibly riled Shelby up to the point of risking his life (and his plans) and storming Kramer’s mansion, which is full of trained guards? And after he skillfully kills every single one of them, how come later in the game he’s unable to kill Ethan and Madison, both of them unarmed (in the ending I got on my first playthrough)?
Because David Cage is a bad writer — you could call him a lazy writer instead, but guess what a lazy writer is? A bad writer. The story of HEAVY RAIN is a mediocre first draft at best. I’m all for opinions, but I will never take seriously anyone who hails this game’s story as a masterpiece in gaming narrative (a surprising — and disheartening — amount of people). So many tight, well-balanced and intelligent games out there, and we’re going to applaud this piece of shit because it ACTS like it’s clever when it’s anything but? Since when being pretentious became an admirable thing? Sure, it looks intelligent. It looks moody and emotional. It looks believable.
Is it? No. Maybe you liked the dialogue, or found the characters interesting and appealing, and didn’t think the romance between Madison and Ethan was forced and ridiculous. That’s your (perfectly valid) opinion. But if you think this game’s story makes sense, your brain did not come with Logic installed.
I am being nice to the game. Stories like HEAVY RAIN actually disgust me, with their carelessness and cheap shock tactics. It’s my strong wish that narrative in games never allows itself to sink to this level of mediocrity: making the story the center of the game and then fucking it up with no care at all. However, as a GAME, it’s solid (but forgettable) entertainment and worth a rent.
But it convinced me David Cage is not the right guy to lead this revolution in gaming narrative. Leave that to people like Dan Houser, writer of the brilliant GRAND THEFT AUTO series, whose dialogue and creativity never ceases to amaze; and Jesse Stern, writer of the absurdly intense MODERN WARFARE series, who managed to connect all the action scenes and setpieces in the games with intriguing, thrilling and even meaningful plots; and Tim Schafer, writer of FULL THROTTLE and PSYCHONAUTS, who has a fantastic sense of humor and an imagination the industry badly needs; hell, even Hideo Kojima, writer of the METAL GEAR SOLID series, who despite his shortcomings, has a pretty much unmatched ability to create gripping yet delightfully campy (and some times surprisingly poignant) narratives.
HEAVY RAIN’s story is a pretentious, poorly-conceived mess that acts like one of the big boys, but can’t even be held in comparison to them.
The first ASSASSIN’S CREED was barely a good game. The potential had been buried under repetitive missions and a story that just tried too hard. The first game made a revelation in the first five minutes, that the real protagonist of the story was a clueless dipshit called Desmond Miles who is caught in a battle between templars and assassins in the present days. Captured by the templars, Desmond is forced to interact with a machine called “Animus”, which sends his mind into the incomplete memories of an assassin called Altair back in the Crusades. The templars believe Altair knew of something they want, and therefore they force Desmond (and the player) to live Altair’s memories, completing the gaps.
The failure with this story’s structure was that Altair was a more interesting protagonist than Desmond, and that his storyline was far better: young and impulsive, Altair commits a serious mistake that strips him of his rank within the assassins, and in order to recover his reputation he must kill a number of difficult targets. Meanwhile, Desmond is just a shithead who must do things for a powerful organization fighting another powerful organization. Simply put: Altair deserved more than being just a mere cog in a weak story designed to be a trilogy, and keep in mind neither Altair or his storyline are that interesting; but when you compare him to Desmond, well…
The great thing about this sequel is that the developers tried to improve every single thing about ASSASSIN’S CREED that people had the slightest problem with and surprisingly, for the most part, they succeeded. What they failed with was finding some way to make Desmond Miles less of a wanker, or to make his storyline more interesting than the one happening in the Animus. In fact, the gap in quality between the two stories is exponentially widened: while Desmond Miles continues to be a clueless dipshit, Ezio Auditore da Firenze is a genuinely good protagonist in a story that does a fantastic job of fictionalizing history to fit into the game’s plot. Unlike Altair, Ezio isn’t interesting when compared to Desmond; he is interesting, period.
We control Ezio literally from the moment’s he’s born. ASSASSIN’S CREED 2 deserves applause for being brave enough to take its time in developing the character; I was well into my second hour of gameplay when I finally got the chance to wield an assassin’s wristblade, but I wasn’t annoyed by this in the slightest. To the contrary, I was happy to play a game that is just as concerned with its story as it is with gameplay.
Aside from a complex, rich protagonist, the Animus narrative gains two things the first game lacked: properly directed cutscenes, and interesting supporting characters. In ASSASSIN’S CREED, you could move Altair around during cutscenes, and cycle between angles at your leisure. This made for very boring — and unskippable — cutscenes. In the sequel, the cutscenes are well-directed, with special mention to a beautiful moment when a group of assassins perform a leap of faith from the top of a tower, one after the other, as the camera moves closer.
And the supporting characters, based and named after historical figures, are surprisingly convincing (of course, within the game’s plot and context). Leonardo Da Vinci isn’t portrayed as a wise, serious man, but as a young artist full of enthusiasm and a prodigious mind. Rodrigo Borgia, the infamous Pope Alexander VI, works fairly well as a villain, despite the unnecessary use of a hood that makes him look like a fat Emperor Palpatine. Sadly, these characters, and the entire plot of the story within the Animus, are in service of a weaker story. I believe both the first game and this sequel would have benefitted from being self-contained narratives that dealt with events of the time period they happen within without any relation to an overarching, present day plot. The ending of this game (which I won’t reveal) shows what a liability Desmond’s narrative has become (skip to the next paragraph to avoid a minor spoiler). By pushing the interesting Ezio aside in favour of the dull Desmond, the story shoots its own foot.
In Ubisoft’s credit, though, they do try to make Desmond’s story more interesting by adding more characters and action sequences, but ultimately I just wanted to go back to the Animus to see what would happen to Ezio and jump around Florence, Venice and other Italian cities which the game does an absolutely magnificent job of recreating. They not only look very different from one another, they’re all uniquely beautiful and manage, at the same time, to be easy to parkour around. I could easily find a ledge for Ezio to climb on whenever I needed, and I was astonished by how immersed I felt into the Italian Renaissance. ASSASSIN’S CREED 2 is a fantastic achievement in this regard, to the point of having explanatory text entries pop up on the side of your screen every time you meet a new historical figure or approach a famous building. The only mistake the developers made here was forgetting to portray the aging of the supporting characters; Ezio eventually gets a goatee, but Leonardo Da Vinci and the others look the exact same for two decades.
How did the game expect me to give half a shit about Desmond and his boring present day situation when I could see what happened to an interesting Italian assassin in the Renaissance? That is, in a nutshell, why I think the sci-fi plot of this series can go fuck itself.
One of the game’s main strengths is how fun it is to control Ezio. After you get the hang of it, it becomes intuitive, in large part thanks to the intelligent control scheme and to the small graphic on the top right of the screen, which shows the face buttons of the controller and the actions they will perform if you press them. In order to parkour, you need to keep two buttons pressed and move the analog stick. This might sound easy, but you still need to watch out for jumps even the skilled Ezio can’t make (and there’s quite a few), and trying to sprint along a street will just result in hitting a lot of passersby, which will slow you down and/or make you fall unless you press the “tackle” button; you’ll push aside everyone in your way like a rhino, but at a slower pace than sprinting.
Of course, I can hardly think of any reason to worry about that. Fleeing from guards? Why would you do that, when Ezio is capable of turning a measly, half-hearted wave of an enemy’s sword into a fantastic counter-attack that will make at least three of your enemy’s major organs explode? The combat system in ASSASSIN’S CREED 2 is even more unfair to the NPCs than it was in the first game; Ezio not only masters the use of a sword and a knife — he can fight with his wristblade now, or even his fists, not to mention disarming the enemy and using his weapon against him — and those weapons can go from a mace to a goddamn spear, all with their own counter-attacks. And it’s such a fun combat system that every time I got the attention of some (or several) guards, I never fled. I just killed the shit out of all of them. Hey, the game’s called Assassin’s Creed, dammit.
Which isn’t to say the combat is a cakewalk. Some enemies are covered head to toes in armor, and are immune to counter-attacks; the same goes for the spear-wielding fucks. Strategy is important, and by strategy I mean sneaking on a group of guards, target-locking on the bastards who wield armor and spears, and killing as many as possible before the others realize what’s going on.
In fact, ASSASSIN’S CREED 2 improves immensely on the first game on what, judging by its title, is its most important gameplay feature: killing. The game offers a great variety of ways to kill people. Stick a wristblade in their faces or into their guts; impale them from behind with a sword; poison a guard so he’ll go berserk, wave his sword around, possibly kill some of his colleagues and then die; jump from a height and land between two enemies, killing them smoothly with the double wristblades; put your weapons away, grab the enemy’s spear and kill him with it; or just use your fists all the way if you’re really into humiliating your enemy. Sure, he won’t die if you use your fists, he’ll just fall and stay there writhing in agony — at least until you pick him up from the ground, carry him to the nearest edge and drop him off of it. After all, you’ve got a reputation to maintain.
Those deaths also received some attention to detail from Ubisoft. Although the transition from pre-rendered animation to ragdoll physics isn’t as smooth as it should be, it’s certainly impressive to stab your enemy and see the blood spread from the wound, wetting the fabric of their clothes. Not to mention the excellent pre-rendered animations, and the ragdoll physics that are quite believable except, as I said, during the jerky transition from one to the other.
Another problem with the first ASSASSIN’S CREED was its repetitive mission structure: do the same three side-quests to unlock an assassination, and the assassinations are heavily scripted, not coming even close to giving you the level of freedom to approach your target as in, for instance, the superb HITMAN: BLOOD MONEY. This sequel, though, does offer more ways to decide how your target will be killed, and the side-quests relating to each of the game’s (many many many) targets are all original, in a mission structure that reminded me (pleasantly) of the GRAND THEFT AUTO series. In fact, the developers and writers have some moments of brilliance, like when you fly one of Leonardo’s contraptions to reach a target, or when, in order to kill another target, you need to use a weapon that at the time was very uncommon. Additionally, you can look for codex pages (which increase your health when you take them to Leonardo) or find artifacts that, when put together, will unlock the game’s best armor: Altair’s. The latter might sound like a boring scavenger hunt, but it isn’t; every artifact is pointed out in your map, but to get to it you must go through surprisingly well-designed missions.
Adding even more variety to the gameplay, there’s also a management aspect to ASSASSIN’S CREED 2. You’ll get money for your assassinations, or for exploring the cities and finally, from the villa that your family owns. You can use the money to re-build decaying parts of the villa, which in turn will generate more money, which in turn you can use to buy more weapons and armor. I ended up, however, getting way more money than I really needed, rendering this aspect of the game discardable. But it is nice to see Ezio tending to other affairs not related to killing, and thanks to the game’s fast-travel system and its amazingly well-rendered world that’s always a pleasure to roam around, getting to the villa to do the repairs wasn’t bothersome for me.
The graphics are very impressive, but not technically: the modeling and the textures aren’t as good as we’ve gotten used to, presumably due to this being an open-world game that happens in very detailed and populated cities. But it should be clear by now that artistically speaking, ASSASSIN’S CREED 2 is fantastic, and the animations bring the characters to life — from the competent motion-capture during cutscenes to the way passersby react when a body you threw from a high ledge falls in front of them. The one badly-animated moment that caught my attention was a character lying on the ground and being kicked by others, since the kicks didn’t seem to connect at all.
In the sound department, though, there are practically no shortcomings. It’s good to see Nolan North (Nathan Drake from UNCHARTED and the Prince from PRINCE OF PERSIA) playing a character who doesn’t try cracking a joke every two seconds, even if that character is Desmond. But it’s Roger Craig Smith who stands out as Ezio, giving the character a determined, but eternally young and slightly naive voice, portraying the way Ezio is practically frozen in time by the quest he dedicates his life to; I can’t comment on Kristen Bell’s work as Lucy Stillman since it’s such a boring, cliched love interest that I failed to notice it, and I doubt the actress could have saved it; the excellent and versatile Fred Tatasciore lends a wise yet amusing tone to uncle Mario (who introduces himself as “it’s-a me, Mario!”, and I can’t really blame the developers for not resisting this joke). Finally, Carlos Ferro gives Leonardo Da Vinci a funny enthusiasm, almost child-like. The voice acting is, all in all, homogenously exceptional.
But it’s Jesper Kyd’s music that absolutely amazes, surpassing even the high expectations I tend to have toward the composer responsible for the brilliant score in HITMAN: BLOOD MONEY. His soundtrack has an Italian feel to it without going for any cliches, and it’s beautiful regardless of whether it’s composed for quiet moments of free-roaming or tense action scenes. Allied to good sound effects, it is vital in immersing the player into the game’s world.
Very long but intelligently built to bring something new to the table in every chapter (or, as the game calls them, sequence), ASSASSIN’S CREED 2 is, for its setting alone, a unique experience. How many games immerse you into a plot happening during the Italian Renaissance? It has its flaws, but it’s mostly a triumph — not only an immense improvement over the first game, also a genuinely excellent game on its own. Some people will certainly not enjoy the slow pacing, or some mission objectives, or the underwhelming ending. But it’s a game with so many qualities, so many tricky things the developers managed to get right, that the flaws can almost be overlooked.
Now let’s hope that in the next installment Desmond is electrocuted to death by a malfunctioning Animus and the supporting characters have to go look for a replacement protagonist who isn’t such a wanker.
It feels kind of useless to be reviewing “Batman: Arkham Asylum” at this point. It’s like a band that’s just finished performing a fantastic single, received a five minute long ovation and I only started applauding halfway into the next song. But for a game like this, the developer Rocksteady deserves all the praise it can get, so I throw my two cents into the wind in the hopes someone will read yet another opinion on how good “Arkham Asylum” is without going “nooooooooooooooo shit.”
The Batman captures The Joker. Again. Only this time, The Joker seemed to go down far too easily. Suspicious, Batman takes him to Arkham Asylum, from where so many inmates escape I expected its main gate to be a revolving door by now. When The Joker finally finds himself out of Batman’s reach, he escapes the guards and Harley Quinn is revealed to be in control of Arkham Asylum’s security system — which turns Batman into a guest of honor in a party thrown by The Joker.
The plot is written by comic author Paul Dini, who does an excellent job for the most part. He understands that Batman is, after all, totally fucking nuts. Let’s describe him, shall we? A multi-billion-zillionaire who wears a costume that only very vaguely resembles a bat and that looks quite ridiculous to be honest and refuses to kill anyone even after said anyone has murdered half the supporting cast and fails to be contained by any institution or prison you throw him in.
A particularly interesting moment is when Batman can stop the Joker before the shit hits the fan, but doing so would result in The Joker’s death: so Batman stays his hand and lets The Joker go ahead and murder… a lot of innocent people. So, as it is quite obvious, Batman is a genius crimefighter and also completely insane. It’s one of the things that makes him interesting and believable, and Dini fortunately understands that, toying with the notion especially on the sequences when you’re fighting Scarecrow’s fear gas.
But there are some nitpicks, like some of the moments Batman is talking to himself — one hilarious bit is when we see a bunch of dead guards and Batman goes, “The Joker’s been busy. These poor guards didn’t stand a chance!” Kind of strange why they’re EMPLOYED then, isn’t it? You’d think being a guard in Arkham Asylum would train you to handle murdering clowns, but then again it’s been established by now that the asylum might as well be a hotel for nutcases for all its efficiency.
Dini only truly fails in the ending, where he seems to decide that, this being a game, the narrative should end with a bombastic, action-packed climax rather than a more appropriate, cerebral one — and it could end with a combination of both, but he preferred to solve all the questions raised about Batman’s sanity and his relationship with the Joker with a simplistic one-liner and an ending that… feels like it doesn’t really end anything. In fact, like most games these days, the ending screams SEQUEL, and I really, REALLY wish game developers would worry more about telling a story with a beginning, a middle and an end before they start to even consider another one.
Still, the plot is always interesting and there’s just the right amount of story and gameplay. Setting the whole thing in Arkham Asylum is an obvious excuse for Batman to fight his most famous villains, and the game delivers on that in varied and interesting ways. Each villain has their own style of fighting Batman — the Scarecrow uses the fear gas, the Killer Croc is sneakier than he seems and just as dangerous as he seems and Poison Ivy protagonises a “Dead Space” like boss fight. This is hugely important in keeping the game always fresh.
Mostly, the gameplay is divided in three: sneaking sequences, fighting sequences and going-from-one-place-to-the-next sequences. Rocksteady shines in all of those, adding brilliant gameplay elements to all of them. One gadget that is important for most of the game is Batman’s detective vision, which allows you to see through walls, find secrets, spot enemies and even see their heartbeats, all with a bluish filter. Some have asked, “why the fuck should I turn that OFF, then?”. I have to admit it’s a pertinent question, but the game does look way better on normal vision, so do train yourself to switch it on and off regularly. You whining little bitch.
The sneaking sequences usually consist of Batman and a room full of heavily armed thugs. In order to proceed, you must clear the room, and the game gives you a large number of options on how to do that. You can either do it at ground level, or climb on conveniently-placed gargoyles on the walls with the help of your quite staggeringly efficient grappling hook. From up there, you can oversee the whole room and take the thugs out one by one. Or three at the same time, if you wish.
You can drop down from a gargoyle, grab a thug and go back up, proceeding to hang him from the gargoyle by the foot. Or you can drop down from a gargoyle, open your cape and glide all the way to a thug for a meeting between his face and your boots. You can use the grappling hook to grab three thugs at the same time, pull them over a railing and have them fall ten feet to uncounsciousness (it’d be quite funny if one of them fatally broke his neck, but I guess their rippling muscles and the fact they all look like even tougher versions of Mickey Rourke make that impossible). You can use your explosive gel to blow up a weak wall next to a thug, or the floor below him, or above him. You can sneak up to one and perform a silent takedown. And the best part is that the more thugs you neutralise, the more nervous the remaining ones get, until they are shooting their guns blindly at loud noises and begging for mercy while Joker teases them from the intercom.
You have, of course, to suspend your disbelief at the fact that even if they spot you on a gargoyle, if you escape their shooting and hide yourself again, the thugs forget about the gargoyles like nothing happened. They are kind of idiots, but sneaking in games often requires a lot to be overseen, like in the Splinter Cell series, where enemies always fail to notice the three glowing, bobbing green dots from Sam Fisher’s goggles in the shadows. And to the game’s credit, the thugs do booby-trap the gargoyles later in the game.
More and more options keep opening up as you upgrade Batman’s arsenal with the points you get from your overall performance in the game, not just on the sneaking sequences, but also on the fighting ones. The combat system is nothing short of superb. You hit square to attack, triangle to counter-attack when a little warning shows up over an enemy’s head, circle to stun enemies with your cape and x to jump over their heads. The more attacks you successfully perform without missing one or being hit yourself, the more your combat multiplier increases, giving you the chance to perform takedowns or throws, and also handing out way more upgrade points. The objective is, whenever possible, to take down an entire room of enemies in a single, flowing combo. And not only the game manages to make that intuitive, it looks INCREDIBLY good. Batman’s animations are flawless and the punches and kicks are painfully strong, with a good variety of enemies that require different techniques to be taken down. And the only little, stupid nitpicks I have are regarding the fact that, while connecting combos, Batman can leap from one side of a large room to the other with preposterous agility, and that, when being knocked out by a final, overwhelming hit, the enemies clutch the area of their bodies where they were hit — which looks realistic most of the time, but some times it looks amazing that they can still be conscious enough for that after some of Batman’s bone-shattering kicks.
As the icing on top of the cake, there’s an action camera that beautifully captures the last thug in a room as you kick his ass into dreamland. Gorgeous stuff.
However, to say the gameplay is “divided” into those sequences is a bit unfair — “Batman: Arkham Asylum” struggles to be constantly fresh and varied, and it really is. Over the course of the game, you find yourself fighting huge aberrations, sneaking silently on sewers, looking for Riddler’s riddles (an interesting and surprisingly addictive mini-game that is entirely optional), fighting several different thugs, fighting the dark corners of Batman’s mind (courtesy of Scarecrow), gliding enormous distances with your cape — way more variety than you’d expect from a game that happens in a small island. It’s all thanks to Dini’s story, which always finds new situations to put Batman in, and Rocksteady’s good gameplay ideas. There’s some welcome little additions too, like character biographies that are far from being a boring read.
Technically, “Arkham Asylum” is amazingly competent. What immediately stands out aside from the good sound effects are the voiceovers. Guess who steals the show. As the Joker, Mark Hamill does his typically excellent job, even making some of Dini’s less successful one-liners into something acceptable. As Batman, Kevin Conroy’s strong voice is efficient, if ocasionally a bit cheesy (“These poor guards didn’t stand a chance!”, for example, even though this is largely Dini’s fault). The cast as a whole is efficient and Ron Fish’s soundtrack fits the gameplay and the mood of the story well, and has some memorable tracks.
And while I concede I’m sick of the Unreal Engine used for EVERY GAME these days… “Arkham Asylum” looks very good. The level design is exceptional, the animations are amazing, the modeling can look a bit stony but this is clearly part of the game’s visual style. It should also be said the physics are very well-implemented, and the way thugs react to your punches and kicks, aside from the aforementioned nagging nitpick of clutching their wounds, couldn’t be better.
With a single-player campaign that’s lengthy enough, and challenge rooms and riddles to keep you occupied for a while after it’s over, “Batman: Arkham Asylum” is a brilliant game that marries gameplay and story in a very balanced way and provides a varied and fresh experience. It also gets the main thing right: you feel like Batman while you play this.
The only exception being, of course, that he’s nuts and you’re probably not.
Two games that are very similar in concept but very different in execution, “Infamous” and “Prototype” have been the stars of “versus” features all over the internet, trying to decide which game is better. Which I think is an exercise in utter futility, considering both games are extremely solid, ambitious and manage to deliver on their promises despite the inevitable nagging issues. This review will talk about both side by side, and there’ll obviously be comparisons, but always keeping in mind both are excellent, entertaining games.
When it comes to story, “Infamous” easily has the upper hand. Cole McGrath is a courier. One day he’s tasked with taking a package to the center of Empire City and opening it. Upon unwittingly doing so, it explodes and partially destroys the place, killing thousands of people. Cole himself, however, not only survives: he develops a variety of powers related to electricity, like shooting bursts of lightning from his hands and sliding power cables. Trying to come to terms with his new life and being used by several authority figures to achieve mysterious ends, Cole has to decide how to use his powers, and the game gives you the binary choice of being good or evil. And that’s the one glaring flaw in the game’s narrative — there’s no middle ground. You’re either child-rescuing good or child-raping evil. You choose a path and you get going, so the choices the game puts before you aren’t going to take a moment’s thought — if you’ve chosen to be evil, just take the evil route, and so on. In fact, being evil for a while then deciding to be good is not a clever call, because “good” powers and “evil” powers are different and only accessible if you’re one of either. So if you choose to be good or evil, you should keep that up all the way, because going from “Infamous” (the most villainous rank) to “Hero” looks like a lot of effort (I didn’t try it, since it seems very unrewarding).
However, once you get used to the black-and-white moral system, the story is intriguing enough to keep your attention, the dialogue is well-written and the characters, interesting and likeable despite their flaws — Zeke is a good example. An utterly selfish prick, he is however very funny and captivating in his child-like enthusiasm. And the moral system may be simplistic, but the choices you make DO affect the game’s story directly, and the way people see you and react to you. And intelligently, the writers always tell the story with a light, fantastic tone that allows for some campy elements, like monsters made out of trash and the twist in the ending of the game, which would sound ridiculous in a realistic game but in “Infamous”, fits the world established by the story.
“Prototype”, however, is about a man with no memory who is the victim of a military super-human virus and we hear his story as he tells it to us, via flashbacks. I counted three major cliches so far. This is not a game that focuses on its story, but instead, on its premise — allowing the player to control a mega-powerful superhuman in a destructible New York city full of pedestrians that apparently have ten liters of blood in their body rather than the usual five. The story is just an excuse to give you a sense of purpose as you blow up the place and cause mass murder.
The protagonist, Alex Mercer, has the obvious problem of lacking a personality. After all, while he claims to be interested in saving the city from the virus (which turns people into zombies and other types of monsters), he won’t hesitate to cause so much collateral damage I couldn’t help wondering if the virus was really the greater threat. The writers were clearly at a loss on how to portray Mercer, so they just give him a sister to care about and a sub-plot involving the recovery of his memories so he has more reasons to stop the virus, since “I want to save the world” does not fit well with a guy who can’t swing his claws without killing five pedestrians along with his intended target.
And the story itself is uninteresting and cliched, with characters you could care less about. You feel compelled to progress due to the excellent upgrade system, which offers so many new powers and moves that the next mission becomes suddenly very attractive due to the XP it will give you (or EP, Evolution Points, as the game calls them). In fact, the developers were VERY creative with Mercer’s powers, like the one were he sticks his claws into the ground and, several feet ahead, they erupt like spikes, impaling targets from the bottom-up. Not to mention he can kill and consume people to regain health and take on their appearances, a system that works quite well.
The upgrade system in “Infamous” depends a lot on your moral choices. For example, you have the power of throwing shock grenades — if you’re evil, they’ll FUCK SHIT UP upon exploding. If you’re not, the enemies knocked down by it will simply be restrained by lightning handcuffs upon hitting the floor. It has to be said the evil powers ARE more attractive than the good powers, but that’s only natural — when you play a game, it’s FUN to be evil and unwind a bit.
And the powers in “Infamous” are generally cool, but the XP system is remarkably cheap. All the game’s 40 main missions add up to 20.000 XP, which is barely enough to fully power-up your main lightning power. The game rewards you for kicking ass in style, but the rewards go from 1 XP to 20 XP, so patrolling around the city in search of enemies isn’t that attractive. And the side missions give you 100 XP each, regardless of difficulty — and some are remarkably hard, opposed to some that barely feel like a mission at all.
However, the side missions in “Infamous” are well-developed and have a quick but relevant back story to them. Pedestrians will ask you to destroy surveillance equipment in their buildings, or to recover a friend or sibling from the hands of enemies, or to disband a crowd of protesters. Every time you finish a side mission, the area it happened in is generally free of enemies spawning in it, too.
Meanwhile, the side missions in “Prototype” are more like challenges — and all of them have a time limit. They offer shitloads of XP but simply add an “arcade” aspect to the game rather than making the city feel more alive — stuff like, “kill this many enemies in this time limit”. There’s even medals. I didn’t feel like wasting my time on it, since it didn’t contribute to the story — except for the “Web Of Intrigue” side mission, that consists in finding people who are tied to the game’s main story and consuming them (and therefore, their memories), which unlocks a quick (optional) cutscene and an EP reward. And some side missions, like destroying a hive (a building infected by the virus) or a police HQ have their rewards, and sneaking into the HQ is fun due to Mercer’s powers — if you’re under disguise, you can accuse an enemy soldier of being you, and his friends will shoot the poor twat and only afterwards realize their mistake. And within HQs, there’s enemies that will offer you special skills upon being consumed, like piloting helicopters or using guns.
Yes, combat IS that diversified in “Prototype”. You can pilot tanks, APCs, helicopters, shoot machineguns, bazookas, grenade launchers, assault rifles, use five different main powers (claws, hammerfist, muscle mass, extendible tentacle and blade), two different defensive powers (armor and shield), hand-to-hand combat, grab enemies and throw them, and so on and so forth.
And in “Infamous”, it’s always related to electricity. There’s some nice melee combat, but even your blows electrify the enemy. And while blowing them up never gets old due to the nice looking visual effects — well, imagine slicing several people in half in “Prototype” with one single blow, as blood washes the sidewalk and their upper halfs shower over bewildered soon-to-have-the-same-fate pedestrians, and you’ll have to agree Cole McGrath is a bit of a pussy next to Alex Mercer. Something that is also reflected in their acrobatic skills, by the way. While McGrath jumps from ledge to ledge, surely but slowly climbing the side of a building, Alex Mercer SPRINTS THE FUCK UP THE BUILDING, somersaults upon reaching the roof and jumps again to another roof. Yeah, there is no doubt who’d win in a race, really.
But despite McGrath’s limitations, he can be powerful if the player uses his abilities strategically — like electrifying a puddle of water with enemies on it, or landing heavily from a large height on a crowd of baddies to send them flying in all directions. His health is shitty, depleting fast under fire, but his abilities can make up for that if you use them wisely — and if you drain electricity from nearby objects, you can regain health almost immediately. There is, of course, the tiny problem of enemies being S.A.S. level marksmen, capable of hitting you from two roofs away — but thankfully, “Infamous” has a balanced difficulty curve that always keeps the challenge up without ruining the fun, and the missions have well-placed checkpoints.
Mercer also gets to use some strategy before FUCKING SHIT UP. For example, some of your powers are practically useless against tanks, and ALL of your powers are useless if you’re trying to bring down a building. Therefore, hijacking armored vehicles to do so is vital, and so is choosing the right weapon to do the job. Once you do, though, your enemies are fucking DOOMED. While McGrath needs to use a relatively lenghty “drain” power to regain health from enemies, Mercer just CRUSHES THEIR HEADS AND EATS THEM THE FUCK UP YUM YUM NOM NOM. You become a force of nature if you choose the appropriate powers to fight an enemy, and yes, that is as fun as it sounds.
Rampaging in “Prototype” is one of the game’s attractions, and while it can be fun to do so in “Infamous”, the former was developed with rampaging in mind — “let’s make this shit as fun as possible”. Pedestrians will be cut diagonally, horizontally and vertically in half, destroy objects when thrown against it, leave blood splatters everywhere and most of all, react incredibly well to your frightening presence. Crowd A.I. in “Prototype” is very well-programmed — some pedestrians run the fuck away, some stay paralyzed in fear, some stay torn between the two, others seem to even try to get everyone to calm down (and these are the funniest ones to brutally murder). “Prototype” lets you be an utterly evil fuck, and in terms of sheer destruction, no other game can touch this one. Using your powers to virtually destroy New York City is an ambitious concept that the clearly misanthropic developers managed to nail. And it’s unfair to request the same of “Infamous” because that was never the game’s focus.
Of course, in order to render hundreds of fleeing pedestrians and large explosions, “Prototype” had to sacrifice its visuals. The polygon count is noticeably lower than you’d expect from a next-gen title, and while things look good on ground level, climb up a building and the draw distance is pitifully mediocre, with lots of pop-in and similar problems. But really, if this is what’s required to keep the framerate steady while I FUCK SHIT UP, it’s a perfectly forgiveable sacrifice — and the attention to graphical detail in “Prototype” is truly remarkable, with blood splatters, cracks, and destructible scenario everywhere, not to mention exceptional physics. And it’s not only you causing destruction in the game — you can always see a battle between the army and the monsters happening in several places of the city, and even without your intervention, said battles look amazing, with pedestrians being brutally caught in the crossfire and casualties happening on both sides.
By comparison, I think “Infamous” could have a larger draw distance, since it comes nowhere close to being as graphically busy as “Prototype” — but the game’s art direction and overall color palette give the visuals a lot of charm, and the buildings of Empire City are far more detailed than the blocky New York City Alex Mercer sodomizes. “Infamous” also has some 2D cutscenes that look just beautiful. However, one thing both games get equally right is the animation of their protagonist — Cole and Alex are amazingly well-done, smoothly transitioning between realistic movements. Cole can target enemies from any position he’s in, and Alex can shoot guns while hopping several feet into the air. Amazing work in both games.
On the sound department, “Infamous” and “Prototype” both have competent soundtracks, but voice acting and sound effects are stronger on “Infamous”, with Cole’s powers sounding appropriately electric and the voices truly bringing the characters to life. A lot has been said about Cole’s voice (as the brilliant Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw put it, he sounds like an “angry blender full of gravel”), but Jason Cottle is very charismatic and delivers Cole’s sense of humour and anger very well. Barry Pepper also does a decent job as Alex Mercer, but the rest of the voice acting in the game is “meh” — while in “Infamous”, everyone manages to do a remarkable job. “Infamous” having a better story and characters clearly is an important factor in this. And finally, “Prototype” could have used some extra attention here and there — I would have expected Alex Mercer sprinting up a building to sound more thunderous than it does in the game, for example.
All in all, both games have strengths and weaknesses, but most importantly — both games are really fucking fun, ambitious and manage to deliver what they intended. “Prototype” is more violent, more brutal, more inconsequent and “Infamous” is better-written, more captivating and more balanced in its difficulty curve. Both games are brilliantly developed and deserve to be played.
Today, I felt a strange urge. My mind kept wandering to the three hundred dollars in my drawer, saved up for complete and utter self-indulgence. I was, basically, wanting to shop. Buy some entertainment. A book, a trade paperback, a game, a movie, whatever would result in a good time.
I did try my best. I slid the money into my wallet and waved for a cab. It was a rare case of a woman driver. In case you’re wondering, she drove just fine. She, however, was from the breed of cab drivers who suffer from ISTFU (Incapacity of Shutting The Fuck Up) syndrome. I don’t mind conversation, much to the contrary, but as a firm believer in common sense, I like it to be about something at least vaguely interesting. This woman’s imagination, however, did not stretch past traffic conditions. “I drove this boy the other day…” and what? You were stopped by the police? Caught in the middle of a shootout? Attacked by dinosaurs? “… and we got stuck in traffic for a good time.” Ah. Wow. How utterly uncommon for a cab driver.
Also, she overestimated my hearing, since she spoke in a barely audible volume most of the time. I pretended I was understanding every word by chuckling occasionally and hoping she wasn’t rambling about her dead mother or something.
We finally got to the sodding shopping centre. The fare was R$8,00 (roughly U$4,00). Feeling an unusual wish to do good by my fellow human being, I said in a benevolent tone, “Let’s round it up to ten bucks”.
And she said, “Nah, I got change here” and gave me two bucks.
I decided she was too stupid to deserve the two extra bucks, so I agreed and left the cab; I entered the shopping centre and decided to stop by the game store right on the first floor.
The overpricing in Brazil makes you wonder if the people responsible understand Math at all, because it’s too depressing to consider they might simply be A-Level pricks. The PS3 games range from a hundred bucks (yes, in dollars) to a hundred and fifty. And there was absolutely nothing worth buying for this price — Killzone 2 might, but it hasn’t been released yet.
I decided to see if the game store on the above floor had better prices — but it was even worse. Just as a test, I surveyed the PS2 section and grabbed a game called “Street Fighter – Anniversary Edition”. It brought the classics Street Fighter 2 and 3 in one package — two old games any person with basic computer knowledge can emulate on their PC. “As a matter of curiosity,” I said to the employee, “How much does this cost?”. He checked and replied: “Ninety dollars.”
Very uncomfortable silence.
“How much?” I asked, trying to hold back the incredulity in my voice.
“Ninety dollars,” he repeated without the slightest hint of shame.
I left the place empty-handed, kept going upstairs and reached a book store. I thought it would be an opportune time to hunt down Warren Ellis’ “Crooked Little Vein” novel — which wasn’t translated to Portuguese, but they should have an imported version for an acceptable price. On the original language, without any money having gone into nationalising it — how much could it cost?
However, the book store’s system was down and the employees were trying to kick it into starting. While I waited for them to do that, I randomly surveyed the book shelves.
I still cannot understand what a number of perfectly excellent comic books like “Planetary” were doing in the “RPG” section.
I tried finding “Crooked Little Vein” on my own. A sign said the shelves were organised by the author’s surname in alphabetic order.
Were they bollocks. So when the system was finally working, I asked an employee for help. After slowly spelling him the title of the book and the author’s name, he told me the book wasn’t available — except for order. But I wasn’t listening. My eyes were gaping at the book’s price on the computer screen.
A hundred and ten dollars.
A HUNDRED AND TEN DOLLARS.
And to add insult to enormous bloody injury, the bastard said the order would take at least ELEVEN WEEKS. And he said all this with a deadpan expression, as matter-of-factly as possible.
Before leaving, I noted the shelves weren’t organised alphabetically. Which he confirmed firmly, in a “and we’re going to do fuck all about that” tone. I also noted the comic books were in the “RPG” section. Same answer. I briefly fantasized about my fist penetrating his eyeball, but didn’t let that through my innocent facial expression.
So I left the store, ate some spaghetti for lunch (nothing went wrong in this bit, thankfully) and, defeated, descended the stairs to the first floor. On the way, I noticed a bit of a depressing sight.
Two escalators, one next to the other, one level with one another, both leading to the same floor — and both going up. I hated humanity in silence as I made my way across the entire second floor to a proper couple of escalators, one of them going down as it was supposed to.
Determined to try my best, I went to another book store on the way home. Now, understand, this was a BOOK STORE. The previous one also sold DVDs. This one was a motherfucking BOOK STORE. Nothing but books. Just books. ONLY. BOOKS.
Not only they didn’t have “Crooked Little Vein”, they also practically had no comics.
I made my way home on foot under searing heat, fantasizing about any person that went past me being shot, stabbed, drowned, hanged, thrown off a cliff, a combination of all of those and also raped by a bear.
A feeling that got even worse when I got home and checked the price of “Crooked Little Vein” on amazon.com.
Sixteen fucking dollars.
I hate this country.