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    Mar 6th, 2008 at 06:39:33     -    S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl (PC)

    GAMEPLAY

    The story behind Stalker is still rather cryptic at this point in the game, but the main quest line seems to promise answers. So far, the missions have largely involved me meeting with people who have information about where to find a certain person that I need to kill, with said meetings happening under extraordinary circumstances. Ensuring the safe escape of another character whose base was being raided by the military so that he could give me information was exciting and unique, with panicked movement through a base as a war that I had no part in took place around me. This portion really solidified the feeling that the NPCs had their own roles, lives, and agency in the world, and that it certainly did not revolve around me, as is the impression in many other first-person shooters.

    The weapon selection continues to expand, and has actually changed gameplay in significant ways. With the discovery of a scope that can be attached to certain weapons, the combat has changed from spraying from cover to strategic sniping, picking off enemies in as few shots as possible. Whereas before the player was mostly concerned with keeping their ammunition count as high as possible via dispatching human NPCs, the scope necessitates a balance be struck between carrying enough ammunition to be prepared for many firefights and carrying not so much as to weigh you down significantly. Ammunition is one of the heavier things you need to manage inventory-wise, with movement speed and stamina affected directly by how much you are burdened; however, since ammunition is a necessity for surviving, taking small amounts is very risky.

    The environments continue to be of amazing quality and detail. All of the game world areas make logical sense, and the player is given more the impression that the NPCs are utilizing the environment rather than having it built around them. Every aspect of the art design in the game is gritty and run down, and every location and item is intensely lovable as a result. Ironically, the buggy nature of the game itself contributes to this, as its state is almost parallel to the environment it is set in - pieces are hanging off, it's largely utilitarian, but damned if it isn't beautiful in its own way.

    DESIGN

    It is honestly difficult to tell whether the people who created this game were brilliant or just incredibly lucky. Every major aspect of the game falls into place and works in tandem with the other elements in a way that feels natural enough that it seems almost unlikely that it was engineered. The fact that the player is given extremely minimal instruction on how to play the game and none on how the core mechanics function make the player feel like they have figured the game out entirely on their own, exploiting certain mechanics and taming others, and the fact that the game can actually get away with what is for all intents and purposes a broken tutorial (which would normally be a cardinal sin in a game) is a testament to how natural it feels for the player to not have this information handed to them. Again, this plays right into the singular feel of the game as a whole, a scrappy, gritty, and stereotypically Russian vibe that is present in every nook and cranny of the game and its mechanics that I have been able to find.

    The fundamental gameplay here, in very much the same way that Diablo is about equipment selection and management, is about inventory management, primarily ammunition. There are many types of ammunition throughout the game, and different guns use different types. However, since you encounter members of factions (who generally use and therefore supply ammunition for different weapons) in different areas, you have to plan out which type of weapon you are going to take in order to maintain an ideal ammunition level in the areas you are going to be in. Choosing to take along an inappropriate weapon can be crippling, as you can end up running out of ammo with no source to replenish it. A weight system for the inventory has a direct effect on your speed and stamina while moving, limiting the player in what the can take along with them. This makes it infeasible to take more than two large weapons, meaning that the player can not simply take along one firearm of each type and simply be set. The weight system ultimately ties immediately back into ammunition management, as ammo is one of the heaviest things that the player can lug around. This means that the player is not able to simply stock up on obscene amounts of ammunition, either. The player is driven to maintain a constant ideal level of ammo on their person at all times, and has to choose the correct equipment and change their tactics accordingly to do so.

    Stalker also strays from normal FPS fare in its level design. The game world consists of nearly twenty expansive, largely open, interconnected areas, ranging from forests filled with wildlife of varying hostility to decrepit train yards watched over by trigger-happy snipers to old factories populated by squatters to underground military and scientific facilities being used for questionable purposes. More impressively, a constant level of detail is maintained between all of these areas, meaning that the game world feels contiguous and like it really does all exist in the same world. I've seen transitions between interior and exterior environments handled poorly in many games, but Stalker has managed to pull it off flawlessly.

    The artificial intelligence in Stalker is also of note. Human NPCs in the world use the environment astonishingly well, taking cover in bushes and behind trees and debris in exterior environments and using cover just as competently inside of structures. Their AI permits them to perform nearly every action the player can take, save a few odd omissions that, as I understand it, were removed to avoid breaking the game. They are capable of moving between areas in the game just as the player is, for example, which certainly has an impact when you recognize a character you remember from earlier in the game in later places. The human NPCs also have a complex faction system, where their reaction towards you depends on your interaction with members of certain factions, with the player given the chance to aid in a serious change in the factional topology of the game world. The creature AI is not to be underestimated either, with creatures assaulting you effectively in packs but fleeing when alone, and battles for food between different types of animals in the game world. The player is also given the option of driving attacking creatures away without having to kill them (and thus saving precious ammunition), as a few well placed shots will send certain types fleeing towards the hills.

    S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl is an excellent game in an unusual position. While it is somewhat marred by the fact that it is incomplete in places and buggy in many others, it is also very much enhanced by the fact. The state that the game is in works astonishingly well with the themes and feel of the game. Stalker is an absolute gem if you can tolerate the slightly dysfunctional state that it is in, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

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    Mar 5th, 2008 at 23:41:49     -    S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl (PC)

    SUMMARY

    S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl is a first-person shooter blended with a healthy dose of traditional role playing game elements, such as inventory management, small-scale objective based gameplay, and complex interactions with non-player characters. The gameplay ends up heavily focused on ammunition and inventory management, with the player challenged to avoid taking so much as to weigh them down significantly but enough so to be prepared for a majority of challenges ahead. The game is set in a alternate-reality version of Chernobyl and its surrounding areas, and the expansive environment plays a very important role in the game, both in terms of narration, combat, and movement. Players in the game are set upon a main mission-line which pushes them through the game world, supplemented with side-missions that the player can complete at their own choosing. Missions usually require killing certain NPCs, retrieving certain items, or defending certain areas from assaults.

    GAMEPLAY

    The gameplay of Stalker follows a precedent set by the very beginning of the game. The rough translations from Russian to English (and complete lack of translations in some non-vital areas), the way the other characters immediately treat you as a means to their own ends, and even the starting tutorial (in which at one point the person explaining the player's PDA cuts the tutorial short, commenting that "it's all very simple, I'm sure you can figure it out") all contribute to a feeling that the game is neither going to hold your hand nor limit you in many ways. The game thus far has maintained this feel, with the interactions with the NPCs open and free, and the player allowed to approach missions in a variety of manners.

    The game is intensely atmospheric, with the player being drawn into the game world easily. The grittiness of every aspect of the game helps facilitate this, with a constant film grain effect over the player's view, excellent use of color tone and temperature, solid sound effects, and every object in the world being in extreme states of disrepair and decay. A constant level of detail is maintained both in interior and exterior environments, something that is not usually seen in games that span both areas and which helps contribute to the believability of the world.

    Stalker starts by throwing the player right into the wilderness, literally handing them a pistol and telling them to go clear out a camp of bandits. The combat involves a good amount of bullet spamming at this point, with all of the starting weapons very inaccurate. The human AI is competent and at times lethal, with NPCs using cover in an effective manner, flanking the player, working as a team, and generally being much more intelligent than you would expect at first. The monster AI shows no lack of depth, either, with fighting between creatures over territory and food, weaving movement when assaulting the player, and startlingly effective pack behavior that genuinely puts you in danger.

    The game is fun and has moved quickly so far, and promises to expand a great amount. I look forward to exploring more complex AI interactions and seeing the path the combat takes as the game progresses.

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    Feb 21st, 2008 at 03:17:11     -    Shadow of the Colossus (PS2)

    GAMEPLAY

    The second session with Shadow of the Colossus both resolved some issues and brought up some new ones. I have become more accustomed to the controls through further gameplay, and while the camera controls and I still refuse to talk to each other, I have somewhat come to terms with the situation. Instead of relying on direct visual contact to track the colossi at the expense of sight of myself, I simply track them by sound, periphery glances, and memory (as they have tended to be rather slow so far).

    The battles with the colossi are, not surprisingly, the highlights of this game. The frequency of near-slips of your grip and of being flailed around like a toy create the impression that you are almost always under the threat of being dislodged, and when it does happen it tends to do so in a spectacular manner. The portions of the battles against the colossi when you are ascending them and striking blows are near-perfectly executed, generally thrilling and interesting all the way through (with the bonus of looking completely awesome to onlookers when you make a daring leap off of one part of the colossus onto another while it roils and heaves beneath you).

    Unfortunately, the manner in which you need to grab your first foothold on their bodies is not always readily apparent, nearing the point of obscurity in some situations. Half the time I have to wait until a blunt and immersion-breaking message is delivered to me by a literal god floating in the sky, which it then proceeds to repeat constantly through my many attempts to decipher and execute the unusual hints. Most of the tactics require that you visually grasp and identify aspects of the environment and actions by the colossus, a task which is hindered by the fact that sometimes these things are not actually visible to the player unless they actively know to investigate it. In several situations the advice delivered to me by the game actually put me in a situation where I was not able to see the action I was supposed to react to.

    The game has more than a few brilliantly designed but poorly executed aspects. One of the colossi, for example, shoots lightning bolts from its mouth at regular intervals, which then proceed to electrify the impact area for a prolonged time, during which if the player wanders into them, they will receive damage. Problem is, not only are the effects that signify the area is electrified very missable, but there is absolutely no feedback that you are taking damage when you are standing in such an area.

    The art design in Shadow of the Colossus is absolutely brilliant, with a muted palette, effective use of bloom lighting, and wonderfully detailed texture work on characters and geometry. The colossi and architecture in the game have a distinctly Aztec feel to them, with a heavy focus on repeating geometric patterns and orthogonal line work. The environment makes good use of vertical space, with leaping canyon walls and diving basins, waterfalls tracing the path down and accentuating the dizzying heights. Lighting also is utilized well, with shifts between bright and dark areas emphasizing the geometry. Artistically, this game is a masterpiece, and by and large, the game is brilliant, innovative, beautiful, and a blast to play, but simply lacks polish in portions.

    DESIGN

    Said lack of polish is found in the areas traditionally associated with shortcomings. Minor gameplay oversights, such as the obscuring of view of significant geometry during colossus battles, argumentative camera controls, and jerky player movement could all probably have been ironed out through additional playtesting, as these are readily apparently and easy for people to give feedback on. The game is oddly hindered by perhaps too much artistic direction; for example, the lead designer apparently insisted that the horse not always respond to player commands because real horses do not always do so, either. Unfortunately, it is not communicated to the player that this is what is happening, and the person is left with the impression that the horse simply controls poorly. Another example is the character animations. The player character flails about awkwardly, stumbling upon landing from jumps (if not sprawling completely). While this certainly adds to the drama and feels very fluid, it tends to give the player the feeling that they are stumbling around on the verge of falling throughout the entire game.

    The movement of the boss battles into the space of level design was a brilliant and innovative move that works very well. The player ends up performing actions while ascending the colossi that are more similar to those typically associated with environmental puzzles than with boss encounters, such as climbing, leaping, locating specific places, and avoiding getting displaced to an undesirable location. The actions typically associated with boss encounters are less prevalent, with the player mostly fighting to avoid being dislodged, timing their stabs, and avoiding blows. Many traditional boss activities, such as dodging patterned attacks, are absent in favor of more environmentally-focused activities.

    The lack of structured activities to be performed outside of the hunts for the colossi is also notable. There are no items to collect in the game, and generally exploration will yield nothing but vistas. The player character also has a distinct lack of gear, wielding only a blade and a bow. This puts an emphasis on the player's wits instead of their gear for the purpose of downing a colossus. The simple (if not always perfectly responsive) controls also free up the player to simply think about the game in an environmental puzzle sense instead of demanding their attention for complex actions. The intention of the design of this game is clear. It strives to push the boundaries of games and move into new territories in storytelling and drama. Shadow of the Colossus is a brilliant game slightly hindered by artistic ambition.

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    Feb 21st, 2008 at 01:55:21     -    Shadow of the Colossus (PS2)

    SUMMARY

    In Shadow of the Colossus, you are charged with taking down a number of colossi throughout the game world. This task is made complicated by the fact that they are on average well over a hundred feet tall, not to mention your arsenal is distinctly limited. Instead of taking them by force, the player has to climb upon the beasts, ascending to certain points to strike with their blade. This usually involves much jumping, being thrown about, and hanging on for dear life as the colossus flails beneath them. The battles are environmentally-focused puzzles and a good deal of platforming, moving the creatures themselves into the area of level design.

    GAMEPLAY

    Perhaps the most distinctive element of Shadow of the Colossus is the colossi themselves. Whereas in most games boss encounters and the level design tend to be relatively separate in that the boss resides in the level and sometimes interacts with it on a limited basis, the colossi in this game function as level design themselves, with the player navigating their bodies, clinging to them as they heave about, and attacking certain points. A majority of the effort against the bosses consists of scaling them and locating their vulnerable points, and virtually none of it consists of standard action/adventure combat activities (such as predicting sequences attacks). By and large, Shadow of the Colossus provides a new and refreshing take on the genre.

    Another unusual deviation from the status quo is the presentation of the world outside of the colossi battles. The world is large, fully open from the start, and has no monetary units or trinkets or goodies to collect. The player is simply tasked with locating and navigating to the next colossus, and is free to simply admire the scenery and wildlife along the way. Unfortunately, this does tend to get boring after a while, especially when the trips out to the locations of the colossi tend to lengthen. I found myself actually looking away from the screen and even actively engaging in other activities while en route to some locations. The environment was not really interesting enough to keep my attention for anything but vital tasks at times, as the areas tended to be barren, devoid of interesting features in many places, non-interactive, and repetitive.

    A major pitfall for the game is its control scheme and the camera. The player character tends to bob and weave like a drunk turkey independent of the player's degree of input, leaving me constantly struggling to get my character oriented correctly and moving in the right direction. The horse is no better, as it has an incredibly slow turning speed, takes a frustratingly long amount of time and button mashing to get to any decent speed, will lose said all of said speed in an instant if you manage to clip a wall, and generally weaves in the same manner. The horse has proven to be nothing more than a "go faster and do weird things to the controls" ability to me, and has in fact been a liability fairly often when I get into combat with colossi. The camera only facilitates the awkward controls, with it swinging wildly and insisting on an artistically interesting but functionally frustrating framing of the character in relation to the environment. Often the player will be pushed almost entirely off screen, meaning that you can either watch where you're running and not be able to see the colossus, or be able to track the colossus but not be able to see where the hell you're going. Even the player-enabled camera movement is sluggish and off-kilter, with it significantly disrupting your movement and other actions.

    Shadow of the Colossus is undeniably fun, interesting, and unique, but is marred by simple flaws that can make it frustrating. I genuinely look forward to playing more, and hope that I get accustomed to the movement and camera soon.

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    1Hotel Dusk: Room 215 (DS)Stopped playing - Got frustrated
    2Rayman Raving Rabbids (Wii)Finished playing
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    4Shadow of the Colossus (PS2)Finished playing
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