Monday, December 22, 2008

Tomb Raider The Last Revelation

Tomb Raider The Last Revelation
Puzzle Platform - Dreamcast
Battery Backup - 10 saves
1 player

The Last Revelation is the fourth game of the series. Tomb Raider II sort of took the title in a different direction, by having more human enemies to shoot and more ordinary settings to interact with. I didn't play much of II, but I distinctly recall a stage set in Venice, where you jumped on balconies and rooftops. The Last Revelation mostly goes back to its roots, with the bulk of the time spent in exotic locales. It feels very ambitious, with interconnecting stages that offer a long adventure for explorers. It's just too bad that when I think of this game, I can't help but utter obscenities. The Last Revelation is the only game reviewed here I have not completed.

Let's get this out of the way. The Last Revelation has some programming glitches that completely ruin the game. I know I said this with my last review of Bionic Commando Elite Forces, but this is much worse. Once you trigger the bug, your game is stuck forever. Worse yet, they are situated towards the end of the game, so if you trigger one of the bugs, and are left without a fresh save, you have only two options: 1) Quit the game, and start over from the beginning. 2) Quit the game, curse its existence, and expose its shoddy quality to any would-be player. Guess which category I'm in? After clocking in about 20 hours, I encountered a puzzle which requires pushing three stone blocks in specific sequences to open up several gates. But if you push the blocks in the wrong order, you almost always trigger a bug that prevents you from resetting the blocks, so you're unable to ever push them again. In fact, even if you push the blocks in the correct sequence, the bug could still occur, thus locking you out of some passageways that are required to finish the stage. I've read that it's been patched for the PC versions, but Playstation and Dreamcast owners are completely out of luck. The only workaround is having multiple save files, and hope that at least one of them doesn't have the bug triggered. Even then, you won't always know immediately that you've triggered the bug. Since I didn't have any uncorrupted saves, I was completely screwed and consequently, gave up playing it.

I did, however, go through most of the game, so I can discuss those items. A friend of mine mentioned that Tomb Raider is best in tombs. Given that developer CORE went further and further away from tomb exploration with TRII and TRIII, it's not as obvious as you might think. The Last Revelation thrusts you into an ancient tomb right from the get-go, and it's better for it. The sense of discovery and wonder from the first game is very much intact. The added bonus is that The Last Revelation ends up being a lot more creepy. Whereas the first TR had booby traps to guard treasures, The Last Revelation adds ancient curses to the mix. The atmosphere is much darker as a result. But, as a nod to the previous games, The Last Revelation still tries its hand at being an action game. There ends up being a fair amount of shooting. In addition to the animals, there are enemy ninjas, soldiers, and automated gun turrets to keep Lara busy.

At its center, The Last Revelation offers much of what the series has always offered. It's focused primarily on discovery and puzzle-solving. The puzzles in this outing generally require more logic than the original. That's one aspect I enjoyed. Many times, your next step may not be obvious, but if you took a moment to observe your surroundings, the answer will become clear. Tomb Raider excels at building subtle clues to the solutions into the environment. For the most part, you just have to pay attention. Many of the stages are connected to one another. This gives the game a less linear feel, as sometimes you'll need to backtrack through a previous stage to access your next destination. The upside is that you can utilize the level boundaries to regain all your health - each time you enter a stage, you start with a full bar. But one thing that is lost from previous games, are the summaries of stage results, such as number of secrets found, how long it took you to complete the stage, etc. Instead, you only have a cumulative count of those statistics. So if you discovered only 40 of the 70 game's secrets, you have no indication of which stages you're missing secrets in.

Other than the horrible QA, there are plenty of other issues that make The Last Revelation a drag to play. The biggest problem of all is that the game is way too dark. Unlike the previous games which had a brightness adjustment in the options menu, it has been removed here. Sure I could adjust my TV brightness for one stupid game. Or maybe the game shouldn't have been designed this way in the first place. The game is so dark, that half of the time all you see is a Lara in pitch darkness. To compensate, Lara can light flares, which emit a small radius of light for 20 seconds. But since they're of such limited quantity, you can't really use them every 20 seconds. Another option is to fire your pistols. When you fire your pistols, it lights up the immediate area around Lara for half a second. Since you have unlimited ammo, it works as a cheap-man's light source. But the area of light is much smaller than the flares, so it's easy to miss item pick-ups and clues to your next location. So what's the other workaround? You have binoculars in your inventory. Luckily, the binoculars have an illuminated view when using them. This is probably the preferred method, because you can always reuse your binoculars. But what this means is that every time you enter an unfamiliar area, you will bring up the Options menu, select Inventory, select the binoculars, then wave the camera around while holding the light button to see what's around you. Then you unequip the binoculars, face a different direction, call up the options menu, select inventory, select binoculars and do it again so you can finally get a good look at what is around you. Remember, observation is -everything- in this game. Making everything ridiculously dark was obviously an intentional decision by the developers. But it's obviously also such a horrible decision, that it makes playing the game a chore. Some other sore spots include rope swinging and motorcycle levels. There are a few segments in the game where you need to swing on one rope, jump off it, and grab onto another rope during your descent. If you're misaligned even a little bit, you will plummet to your death. Turns out... at least one rope jump segment will kill you if you line your trajectory up correctly. You have to be off to the side by a centimeter in order to correctly grab the next rope. What on earth was Core thinking? Core also thought it'd be fun to include a motorcycle to ride. So there are a series of stages in the second half of the game where you are forced to ride a bike around. It's not enough that the motorcycle handles like a pig, and has the turning radius of a plane. No, sirree. The developers thought it would be fun to have Lara pilot a motorcycle IN PITCH DARKNESS. To be fair, the bike has a headlight, and that automatically makes it a little better than the pathetic options Lara has on foot. But it exemplifies exactly what's wrong with the game.

Tomb Raider The Last Revelation tries so hard to be the epic Tomb Raider. It features huge levels that interconnect, unique puzzles to solve, a creepy atmosphere and a dramatic story. The glitch that ultimately ruined the game for me is one thing. But the poor judgment in making the game as dark as possible was already grounds for dismissing this game entirely. I tried to like The Last Revelation. Occasional glimpses of the original Tomb Raider shown through. But ultimately, every positive attribute was obscured by darkness.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Bionic Commando Elite Forces

Bionic Commando Elite Forces
Action - Gameboy Color
Battery Backup - 3 saves
1 player

Not to be confused with the Gameboy Bionic Commando, the Gameboy Color Elite Forces is the third entry for this series. Capcom hasn't really utilized this property much over the years, until they suddenly revived it by announcing titles for the HD systems out now. So what's a better way to celebrate than to go through the older titles?

Despite being in the same series, Elite Forces has a very different feel than the NES and Gameboy Bionic Commando games. Sure it's still got the same basic elements. You still choose a weapon, accessory, communicator and armor prior to entering stages. You still use your grappling arm to swing across chasms and scale heights. And you still can run into enemy trucks on the map to collect extra lives. But the visuals have changed dramatically. The character designs and backgrounds have been totally transformed to have sort of a cartoon-ish look. To complement the cartoon visuals, the developers gave your character much more fluid animation that's almost as nice as Prince of Persia and Flashback. But the overall effect of the new look is a turnoff for me. The architecture of the buildings and things you can grapple onto aren't very recognizable. It's almost like as if everything is just blobs with different colors. That might seem harsh, but the objects in the game don't really resemble anything. Compared to the detailed visuals of its Gameboy predecessor, Elite Forces is a giant step backwards, animation excluded.

Capcom introduces a couple of new elements to spice things up, but they are of dubious value. Now you can actually choose between two characters. This might sound like a cool option, but the male and female heroes don't seem to differ at all, other than one having longer hair. They both have the same abilities, are the same height and everything. No. I don't get the point either. Another addition to the game is sniping. In a handful of stages, you can interact with specific buildings and initiate a sniper event. The screen will switch to a first-person zoomed view, and you just point the camera around and shoot when an enemy is within the crosshairs. The enemy never notices you even if you miss, so the sniper segments are more about finding enemies with the lousy camera rather than the sniping itself. These sniping sequences aren't particularly interesting, and they break up the flow of the rest of the game.

Luckily, Capcom left the grappling gameplay intact. The Gameboy BC had some really tough segments at the end of the game, but was too easy for the bulk of it. Elite Forces, on the other hand, has you swinging around, letting go, extending your grapple hook at the right time and grabbing another object for the bulk of the game. There are challenging segments from early on, and despite the fluid animation of your character, your grapple arm is plenty responsive and quick. Looking only at this component, Elite Forces might be my favorite of the three games.

But Elite Forces is also riddled with problems that make it my least favorite game overall. First of all, there is a game destroying bug. I've heard it happens whenever you play Elite Forces on GBA or the GB Player. I've heard that it even occurs sometimes when you play it on the GBC! Basically the game will freeze whenever you complete an enemy truck encounter, and start a mission afterwards (ie. all the time). It doesn't matter if you reset the game. The bug will continue to lock-up the game. Someone found an odd workaround that works: Basically, every time you turn on the game, start a New Game, kill yourself until you get Game Over, then you can Load your Saved game without encountering the bug. I'm glad that there is a fix at all - the game is virtually unplayable otherwise - but having to do this trick every time you want to play, gets old.

Some of the other poor design issues do little to alleviate my irritation. Your character sprite is rather huge, and it affects the game a lot. For instance, when you swing around with your grappling arm, it's very easy to crash into enemies because of the sheer size of your character. I've also noticed that when you pull yourself up to a ledge, one of the frames of animation forces you to stand up, even if you're holding down to duck immediately after climbing up. I've been hit by bullets on a few occasions just because the pull-up animation forces me to stand for a split second. And just like the Gameboy Bionic Commando, Elite Forces makes the power reactor segments more difficult by adding more bosses to fight and requiring more shots to destroy the core, compared to the original NES game. But the boss fights here are extremely annoying. It seems as if you are forced to take hits from them, because they move at such a faster speed that they wind up bumping into you and causing you damage. I like that bosses generally have a window of timing in order to damage them, but I really oppose games where I'm forced to take damage no matter what. Finally, the audio is just plain bad. From the horrible quality of the voice and music sampling to the limited tracklist of 3 songs that loop over and over, this is one game that is better with the volume turned all the way off.

For all its fluid animation and spot-on grappling, Bionic Commando Elite Forces manages to bungle some of the simpler aspects of making a video game. Couple that with the game crashing each time you turn on the system, and you've got an unpolished, underdeveloped product. It almost feels unfinished at times. The one saving grace is the core underlying game, using your grappling arm physics to navigate stages, is pretty solid. Still, it's hard to recommend Elite Forces when you could simply be playing the vastly superior Gameboy or NES versions.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008


First Person Stealth? - PC
Hard Drive
1 player

I've been itching to play a FPS for the longest time, and then I recalled a recommendation from years back. My favorite FPS is Goldeneye007 on the N64, and someone mentioned I might want to look into Thief since I liked the more stealthy aspects of GE007. I guess what I didn't realize was that Thief wasn't so much a shooter at all, with very limited bow & arrow use. Still, the thought of a first person game with stealth mechanics appealed to me so I decided to give it a go. Thief won several gaming awards when it was first released back in 1998, and it's not hard to see why.

As the title suggests, you play the role of a thief. The first stage acts as both a tutorial and the setup for the game's premise. You begin by being trained by a Master of a Thief Society. With that kind of training, you acquire a bit of self-awareness about how adept you are at being hidden. The two primary elements are sight and sound. When you move into the shadows, you will be completely undetected unless an enemy bumps into you. Stepping out into the light will give you various gradients of visibility. In addition to using the dark to cloak you, you have to be careful about sound. As you interact with objects laid around, you may end up dropping an item, which will alert guards to a presence. Your footsteps also play a huge role, with the type of ground you walk on having a huge effect on the loudness. Luckily you can simply walk slower to deafen a lot of the footsteps, but some floor surfaces require more care than others. Since your thief character is pretty mindful of sight and sound, the game gives the player an indicator of how visible and audible you are to the people around you.

The game is structured as a series of missions with particular objectives. An example might be: 1) Find a way to get into the building. 2) Steal the master gem. 3) Loot as much as you can (Min. 500 gold). 4) Get back to the city streets. Occasionally objectives may change or be added as you go through a mission, but it doesn't really alter the game all that much. You still pretty much will pursue whatever the mission objectives say at the time.

What works:

The stealth action is done pretty well. Using the shadows to hide your presence and moving slowly on tiled floors is very intuitive and realistic. Your character cannot take a whole lot of physical damage, so although you could go the brute strength method and fight everyone you meet, chances are that you won't get very far. But there is an option. Similar to MGS, if you manage to sneak up behind enemies undetected, you can take them out with little fuss. In Thief, you can use your sword and hit them from behind and it counts as a backstab. Unfortunately, using your sword leaves blood stains and that alerts guards to a problem. You also have a mace that will knock enemies completely unconscious, so that's a great alternative. In both cases, you have to be mindful to carry the fallen bodies to areas where an enemy won't discover. But sight and sound don't only apply to yourself. You can detect nearby enemies by listening for their footsteps approaching (or departing). So it's neat how your senses are critical to your in-game success.

In addition to being mindful of lighting and the sounds your character makes, you possess some useful tools. My favorite tool is the rope arrow. If you aim and shoot a rope arrow at a wooden or clay surface, a rope will dangle down from it, allowing you to scale heights that were previously inaccessible. This causes you to be observant to your surroundings, and often times you'll be rewarded with the next step of your path, or some optional loot. There are also other tools like water arrows that you can use to douse torches, and thus create more darkness or lockpicks that help you unlock doors. There's a little bit of creativity in using these tools to suit your needs, and that's one of the strongest aspects.

Thief also excels in its exploration aspects. In each stage, you are thrust into a completely unfamiliar environment. It can be tense when you are sneaking around, not knowing where you're headed. There will be times when you are seemingly stuck, and some deliberate observation of your surroundings is necessary. In these aspects, Thief reminds me a lot of Tomb Raider. You really do feel as if you are this character, trying to make it through your unknown surroundings. Thief even has you exploring tombs for loot, so the comparison isn't that far off. Both games have you forming a mental map of your area, that gets more elaborate and focused as you explore and discover. Thief offers that kind of immersive experience.

What doesn't:

This might be a personal complaint, but I often felt as if the level layouts were at times too overwhelming to figure out. The exploration is a positive attribute overall, but sometimes you'll hit a crossroads with several branching pathways, and if you take any of those, it'll lead to more branching pathways. It can be confusing, and with little aid in the form of a map, the game occasionally feels bigger than it should be.

A bigger annoyance comes from the setting. I think Thief would have worked better if it were more focused on thieving from people. Instead, the developers have incorporated tombs, zombies, poison-breathing dinosaurs, demons, balls of fire and lobster men into the mix. It clashes with the realism presented elsewhere in the game, and frankly, it's just plain silly. Tomb Raider works on the mystical level, simply because we think of ancient tombs having booby traps. Plus most of the enemies in Tomb Raider are actually natural (bats, wolves, and male stalkers). Thief has LOBSTER MEN. I can't tell whether Thief wants to present an immersive experience or shove a hokey game in your face. It ends up straddling both sides, and this is probably my biggest problem with the game.

Some other problems occur due to some design decisions. One thing I didn't like is that there's no quicksave or quickload. You have to go to the option screen, select a file, then select save/load. It's a three step process, which is kind of annoying. But more importantly, I think some of the stealth parts are a bit wonky. You are free to play Thief in super stealth mode, trying to be unnoticed by anyone. Or you can try to take people out from the back, still in stealth mode, but you eliminate the opposition. Or you can simply fight people head-to-head. The problem is, if you are detected, the game often treats it as an all-or-nothing situation. An enemy might spot you, raise an alarm, and then the rest of the 50 guards in the stage will be on the lookout for you. In that heightened state of awareness, many of your stealth tricks no longer work. You can't do one-hit knockouts from behind, and even moving quietly seems to provoke them. In MGS, the enemies cool off after maybe two minutes of not detecting you. Here in Thief, once you piss them off, they're pissed off forever, and they tell their buddies to be pissed off too. You could always restart the mission, but it's not always fun when this happens 45 minutes in.

I do think Thief is a clever game for the most part. The stealth aspects are pretty sophisticated, making you aware of your movements and those around you. But its problems are too significant for me to simply ignore. I feel as if the stupid zombie and demonic crap ruins what would otherwise be a solid, focused game. I also enjoyed the actual stage layouts more when it was a mansion to explore, rather than cursed ruins. Perhaps what Thief is, is inconsistent. It has all the right elements to be good. But as an entire package, it falls short of the mark.