Sunday, September 4, 2011

Two to get ready for 3

This Tuesday marks the release of Insomniac Games latest title, Resistance 3.  As a way to build excitement for their latest shooter, Insomniac and Sony have released a bundle pack of the first two PlayStation 3 titles in a Dual Pack collection.  Both games were titles that I was aware of but had never really any strong desire to play.  That is until this teaser trailer for Resistance 3 came out.

I'm not sure what suddenly made me really excited for the franchise.  Perhaps the desolation, or the weariness trapped in these folk's face or the droning pulse of the fantastic "Masters of War" cover.  Something clicked.  I was faced with a double edge sword of wanting to learn more about the series but didn't want to read any spoilers.  Of course since Fall of Man was a PS3 launch title all sorts of stuff has been written.  When Resistance 2 came out many fans of the original were disappointed.  Having avoided much of the Internet's impressions of the game I finally took to playing the series last week.

As I mentioned above Resistance Fall of Man was a launch title for the PS3 back in November 2006.  As a fan of pretty much every type of game, I've played my fair share of first person shooters.  I'm not a big fan of the Call of Duty stuff, or any standard military shooter for that matter.  I prefer shooters with a little more imagination, the little man going against the odds a la Half-Life, or Half-Life 2 (gee go figure where my blog icon comes from?).  I find myself enjoying FPSs that tend be a bit more fantastical, like Killzone or Borderlands or anything else that doesn't necessarily fly in your face at a hundred miles a second yelling at you to "Go Go Go".  Additionally I prefer to play games that tell a story and aren't just a second thought put in place to satisfy a small crowd while focusing solely on mindless multi-player deathmatch.

Fall of Man supposes an alternate history to that of our own.  Instead of World War II happening, an alien force has wiped out most of the eastern hemisphere. You play as Nathan Hale, a soldier that has mysterious ties to the invading plague known as The Chimera.  Hale is infected with the virus that has wiped out most of humanity (or at least Europe and Russia) but somehow survived and due to his exposure is now able to face insurmountable odds, battle the Chimera and live while troops all around fall like so many red shirts on an away mission.

The first thing that struck me as I started Fall of Man was just how much it feels like an early PS3 title.  The environments are built with a level of detail that when compared to PS2 titles would seem amazingly rich.  Compared to PS3 titles now and the game oozes freshman status.  Building models have plenty of detail, but character animations are very static.  There are very few times when another character is on screen, looking directly at the player camera and talking.  When this does occur, the voice work barely matches the mouth and facial movements.  To get around this early console development limitation, most of the narrative is delivered through voice over work and animated cut-scenes.  Debris that would be almost overdone in newer titles starts to flesh out the world, but only seems to really become apparent in later levels.

Insomniac Games are known for the wide array of weapons in their games.  Fall of Man continues that tradition with standard military assault rifles, sniper rifles, alien rifles, and then some big guns.  The Chimeran Bullseye has an alt fire mode that tags an enemy and then all ammo fired after it is tagged will course correct and find the target.  The Auger is another great weapon that fires through walls or other obstacles to hit their mark.  Hedgehog grenades explode in a shower of large stakes.  Weapon play is very good and one of the key things to Fall of Man is Hale carries all of the weapons once he's come across them.  The weapon wheel is something that should be put in more games.  Sure it seems silly that one person would be able to carry 9 or more weapons and all the associated ammo, but it is a video game.  A video game about shooting aliens mutated from humans.

I bring this up because Resistance 2 does not have the weapon wheel.  Resistance 2 (R2) picks up basically from the end cut scene in Fall of Man.  A brief VTOL (Vertical Take Off/Landing) ride later and suddenly the action picks up and never stops.  As I mentioned above, Fall of Man felt very obviously like a freshman launch title for the PS3.  Resistance 2 sheds that feeling in a major way.  Battles are vast, huge in scope and visually jaw dropping.  The story picks up with The Chimeran forces now making their way to the United States and quickly spreading the virus to eradicate humanity in the Western Hemisphere.  Interestingly, while Europe and Russia are devistated by the Chimera, US isolationist policy has kept our troops out of battle and seemingly allow science and man to build up defenses to combat the impending invasion.

Of course defenses are broken and every level show homes destroyed, cities crushed and the only humanity left are the ones running along side Hale fighting off the overwhelming odds of the Chimera.  One mantra I've always been told with writing is show don't tell.  Meaning convey the message in action over direct exposition.  R2 still has semi-hidden intel scattered throughout the levels, but a lot more story is revealed through cut scenes, voice over during battles and my favorite, radio broadcasts.  The battles and pace of the game are metered with large waves of enemies and then quiet (almost eerily quiet) calm, allowing the player to reflect on the devastation brought by the Chimera.  Most levels have an area where a radio can be found that triggers a broadcast coming from Philadelphia.  The broadcast can be overlooked or missed as the sound from the radios doesn't travel  very far, but the human story that unfolds is so rich.  The desperation emitted from Henry Stillman during these radio broadcasts point out just how badly the Chimeran forces have destroyed the US.  Thinking back I'm sure that I've missed one or two of these gems and I am tempted to replay the game just to find out if I did indeed miss any.

The problem with going back through the game to find if I did miss any broadcasts, is that I would have to go back and play through the game again.  Now that's not necessarily a bad thing, but my overall experience is that the game overdoes the grandiose at almost every turn.  First off without a weapon wheel I found myself struggling at times to finish off waves of enemies that swarm in large fast numbers.  Second, most sections of battle put you in combat with one or two squad mates.  The problem with that is they can be stone cold stupid.  Waves of Chimera run at you and your squad will stand facing the direction the Chimera come from and don't turn to face any that got past them.  I encountered two very specific moments where this happened.  Once a room with three other commandos were waiting for the trigger to occur for them to attack the impending rush, but apparently that trigger never fired because I fought off ravaging hordes of Chimera, their bodies bumping into and over the commandos, and not one of them fired a damn shot.  Such a disappointment.

Add to the broken AI for squad mates, the sheer number of Chimera rushing at you at any one time is just mind boggling.  Sure I don't mind one type of enemy in large numbers coming at me.  But add two, three, or SIX types all at once, oh and also add in the new special "Predator" type Chameleon that one hit kills you charging through the other six types of bad guys and you are faced with insta death and respawn on a highly frustrating level.  Fortunately R2 has a more liberal checkpoint system.  Sadly I had to find out how quickly the game could load from checkpoints more often than I would've liked.

I enjoyed Fall of Man because of the sense of discovery and unraveling a mystery at my own pace.  It was basically me as Hale (which felt like playing as a hero without the bravado) fighting enemies at a pace that was controllable.  Resistance 2 takes a different view of Hale.  He speaks with a machismo found in dude-bro shooters.  Fall of Man felt like it was clearly set in the 50s with little in the way of modern or futuristic weaponry or body armor.  Resistance 2 environmentally is still set in the distant past, but that's about it.  Apparently when the rest of the world is being devastated by an alien scourge, US scientists are given a research boost to advance military weaponry and personal communications to levels found in today's military.  The idea of show don't tell is almost brought to full realization, but instead of showing with lots of flashy cut scenes or static intel to be discovered, story is related to the player through commando voice communication.  While it works, the sound is still a little off putting, as the audio comes across as if being heard through distant radio waves with squawks and crackles even when the person speaking is standing directly in front of you.

I liked Hale, or the idea that he represented in Fall of Man but I found myself disliking him more and more as the game progressed in R2.  His interactions with the other commandos seems selfish and uncharacteristic to what I had projected his personality to be from Fall of Man.  Fortunately (and while yes this is a spoiler--it is  a spoiler that even Insomniac has openly stated) Hale is killed by one of your dude-bro commandos, Joseph Capelli.  Capelli, like Hale, is one of the few humans to survive the exposure of the Chimeran virus and even admits earlier in the game that he should've died in a crash but his regeneration kicked in at the last minute to save him.  My guess is Hale will return in Resistance 3 much to Capelli's potential demise.

This is what irks me about the story up to this point.  Hale and Capelli, plus other commandos, are all known as Sentinels because of their resistance to the Chimeran virus.  It makes them capable of sustaining all sorts of damage and regenerate health.  This is all fine and dandy as a game concept.  In fact the history and research presented by another central character introduced a the beginning of R2, Doctor Malikov, is completely fascinating.  I just wish more of that was the focus of the game.  Instead it is relegated to cut scenes, hidden intel, or even to a broader extent a web based promotional game that teased and helped build a lot of the story before the game was originally released.  Sadly the web based stuff is exposition that can be easily overlooked if you are an average game player who only wants to shoot things.

A comment was made to me on Twitter about how much R2 seems like Half-Life 2.  I can see how some comparison could be made, but overall HL2 beats R2 in spades with storytelling and pacing.  It is curious though how much I find Fall of Man to be a close attempt at being the PlayStation 3's Halo.  The female narrator/guide, the various aliens with more advanced combat routines, the almost gleeful chatter from said aliens when they die.  All remind me of Halo.  The fact that Fall of Man even had story mode co-op really touches on that title trying so hard to be a Halo game.  Sadly though a lot of the stuff that made Fall of Man good were overlooked in R2.  It is almost as if Fall of Man tried to be Halo and R2 tried to be Gears of War.  Too much dude-bro.  Too many over the top epic battle set pieces.

Now that's not to say that I didn't like R2.  I enjoyed a lot of the game.  Survival horror elements creep in and really give a sense that all of humanity is gone and the only things left are mindless Chimeran converts swarming to take the next prey.  Tension is built to some degree by the lack of weapon wheel.  You have to make sure every shot counts.  Attention to environmental detail is top notch.  Debris and textures never feel  like you are looking at the same ten re-used objects. Navigation through levels is linear to a point, but never feel like a narrow corridor.  Weapons are scattered throughout often hinting that a new battle is about to being.  The key to progression I found was making sure you have the best weapon to get through the forthcoming battle.

Playing through R2 was a chore at times.  But well worth the experience of learning more about the Chimera and their past.  If you are a fan of story driven games, both Resistance games are worth playing through.  Just be ready to die, respawn, die, respawn until you figure out the best approach to many encounters.  Insomniac Games knows how to make rich worlds with interesting characters.  I may not like every character they have created in the Resistance series so far, but the world is deep enough to really make me look forward to Tuesday's release of Resistance 3.

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