Saturday, January 29, 2005

Halo Combat Evolved

Halo Combat Evolved
First Person Shooter - Xbox
1-2 players campaign / 1-4 players deathmatch

Yup, I'm quite a few years too late, but that's ok. Bungie's Halo series is well known, and probably THE reason that most people bought an XBox. It's a celebration for console owners, because there's been a great gap since the phenomenal Golden Eye 007 for a quality FPS. Is Halo all it's cracked up to be? Well, yes and no.

Let's get this straight. Halo is pretty darn good. Multiplayer is what everyone talks about and yes, it's an awesome party game. A variety of locales, weapons, and vehicles make each stage unique. The controls are extremely tight, and I especially love the intuitive dual analog control. Makes sniping people an absolute hoot.

But as nice of a deathmatch game it is, I care more about the campaign. What makes Halo noteworthy is the 2p co-op. Yup, 2 players can have at it taking down Covenant scum, and certainly adds a new dimension to the game. But a partner isn't needed. At its heart, it's a fulfilling 1 or 2 player experience. It plays out like modern FPS where there are story cutscenes, but also in-game dialog between your character and NPCs/AI-controlled allies. Sometimes the action going on will impair hearing of this dialog, but perhaps that makes it more realistic.

Where it shines is the environments. The scope is unmatched of any FPS I've played thus far. The outside scenery is absolutely huge, spanning a lot of ground and height. Many of these stages give you ground and air vehicles in order to traverse them quickly. This gives the game a very epic and expansive feel that most other FPSs lack. There is a lot of wide open space for varying tactics. Where it falters though, is the interior environments. Level design for indoors is extremely repetitive and lacks personality. It comes off as a big disappointment because its contrasted by the amazing outside environments. One stage for example has the same floor layout for each of its 10+ rooms, and it made you wonder if you were really getting anywhere. Also it made me wonder if Bungie could be any lazier.

But getting past that one flaw, you'll see why Halo is so highly regarded. It's an excellent multiplayer game, whether campaign or deathmatch. And the amount of effort put into making this a living breathing world is incredible. While the game has lofty goals, the fact that it misses the target on the interior levels drags the game down a bit. Still, it's one of the finer examples of the genre on any game system.

Friday, January 28, 2005

Fatal Frame

Fatal Frame
Survival Horror - Xbox
Backup memory - 8 save slots
1 player

If you told me 5 years ago that a video game could scare the pants off of me, I wouldn't have believed you. Fatal Frame, or Zero, as it's known in Japan, is Tecmo's entry into the crowded Survival Horror genre. And boy does it do its job.

The moment you step into the game world, you live it. The lighting (or lack thereof), silence, camera usage and sparse use of ominous music all make for a perfectly crafted Japanese horror experience. You don't just buy into the world, you feel it. It also helps that the vibration effects in the controller helps to maximize that. It's everything I like about Japanese horror films - suspense, disturbing imagery that lingers in your mind, mysterious vibe, and that unsettling feeling - only extended for many hours. This is a game where you may have to turn the game off for the night. It truly is that creepy. The only sour point is that the English dubbing kinda hinders the serious feel, as there are definitely badly acted parts. I saw the Japanese version, and it's far more convincing. The dubbing is the only minus I can give to the game.

What's incredible is that it's not only the use of artistic direction that makes Fatal Frame scary, but the game mechanics support it too. Normally you walk about in third person, similar to Resident Evil or Silent Hill. It has normal controls meaning that up means walking up, down means walking down, etc, which I'm sure haters of the RE "tank-controls" will be happy about. However, the only weapon in the game is a camera, and when you want to use it, it puts the game in first person. The first person view enhances the claustrophobic feeling because it's not always easy to see where the ghosts are. It totally puts you into the shoes of the main character. The only quirkiness is that in third person, left analog controls movement of your character. But in first person, left analog is for controlling the camera and right analog controls movement of your character. It's a little disorienting at first to have that reversed, but you quickly get used to it.

It's a clever combat system though. It's like a slower-paced FPS, with an emphasis on timing and precision. See, while you can take pictures in rapid succession, you do the most damage when your camera is charged up. Charging requires that you point the lens directly at the ghost. So the longer you wait before you shoot, the more powerful it is. But the longer you wait, the more chance the ghost has to attack you and dish out a lot of damage. On top of that, the more accurate the photo of the ghost, and the closer the ghost is to you, the more points you get to upgrade your camera. So there is this system of maximum risk = maximum reward. It is by far the most sophisticated game system of all the survival horror games.

All of this is contained in nice package. Yes, it does come with more than one ending, an additional difficulty level, a score-based battle mode, and its fair share of unlockables. But at its roots, it's an engaging adventure game where you unravel the plot by searching for clues and solving puzzles. The fact that Tecmo coupled it with a frightening atmosphere and made a genuinely good game out of it puts this at the very top of my list. Definitely one of the greatest games to come out in this generation.