Keith's Crappy Videogame Blog

Psychotoxic (PC, Germany, 2004): Not Psycho, But A Little Toxic
August 28, 2010, 7:36 pm
Filed under: Psychotoxic (PC, 2004, Germany)

(EDIT: I was missing one crucial bit of information when writing the following review. Namely, that SIX FREAKING PEOPLE MADE THIS GAME. I wrote the review about 15 minutes before the end credits rolled, but just now finishing the game, I saw the pics of the studio (with “HalfLife” poster on the wall), family members, and all six effing developers at work. Six of them; that’s it. In some ways, this very fact makes me want to censor any of the heavy-handed criticism I’ve spewed below and simply praise the title for what it is–clearly a labor of love that ate up years of these dudes’ lives. I’ll nevertheless let the following review stand. But my overall mixed reaction to the game makes a lot more sense to me now. BTW, the devs say “We hope you had some fun!” at the end. Wanted to let you know: I did.)

Inconsistent is probably the best word to describe the apparently long-in-German-development modern-day semi-supernatural action-shooter “Psychotoxic.” The game, like many titles, was hyped early in its development (“You must see it to believe it!”—IGN) only to be hoisted with its own petard after release due to some intermittently cruddy visuals, sketchy voicework, jagged controls, and bugs on top of bugs inside of bugs. If it means anything, the website created for the game is officially defunct (and this is not always the case with some of these older games. For example, at the time of this writing (2010), developer JoWood’s original “Chaser” (PC, 2003) website is up and running and still hosting patches (even though four people on the planet are still playing that title).

But I choose the word inconsistent to describe “Psychotoxic”  because the game actually has some middling-to-admirable highs, and the requisite barrel-bottom lows which, oddly, when added together—well, they can’t all be added together to simply make the game average. That’s one of the strange qualities of this game. It is a patchwork of inspiration conjoined with some truly haphazard (and sometimes, it seems, uncaring) implementation. Before an explanation, the plot:

You play as leather-clad, bob-haired Angela Prophet (balloon boobs and punky white-streaked hair included). With parents who died in an accident when she was young and raised by her Aunt in New York, she has lived a protected life until she reaches adulthood and moves to DC and starts work as a barmaid at a dive. Sounds promising (not). She has always had special powers (could stop time, things can bounce off of her in shield-like fashion, she can enter people’s minds, etc.), but she keeps it to herself for fear of being considered a freak. Then, Armageddon: The FBI appears at her front door telling her she has to help stop nuclear bombs from being detonated in New York by some Satan-loving terrorist named Reverent Aaron Crowley and his gang. Apparently, the government has known about her powers all along—complete with hints that she is some kind of “angel”–and the world needs her assistance.

SPOILER: As the narrative eventually reveals, you are a government-sanctioned experimental test-tube baby [named Angel One, har har] whose genes have been fused with “ancient alien material” [specifically nanobots dubbed “the fourth horseman] discovered at some point while a subway was being dug in NY, or something like that. Your stand-in parental figure, Aunt Julie, was actually the secretary to the governmental body overseeing your development—so your parents did not die, they just never existed. At some point in your development, around your teens, the powers you had been developing through your nanobot-infused body simply disappeared, and the government abandoned the project [ie. they dumped you]. A “fortunate” lab accident involving electricity around the same time as the demise of the project wiped your memory clean, and hence you began your life as Little Orphaned Angela Prophet being raised by Aunt Julie. The current crisis—Armageddon in NY—is actually “the fourth horseman” nanobots which suddenly became active and are roaming free through the city creating havoc [specifically, making folks super violent]. The impending nuclear missile attack has actually been ordered by the government itself to cleanse the city of the nanobots. Since you have the same nanobots in your bloodstream, you’ve been called in to rescue the planet to maybe avoid that “final” solution. Ultimately, the only interesting thing in all of this is that while the game (according to its general look and feel, as well as its “gothicky” title) appears on the surface to be a “supernatural” type shooter, it actually would be more accurate to categorize it as a science-fiction shooter…but whose counting those beans. Oh, I guess I am. SPOILER ENDS.

Half the game takes place in the real-world of DC and NY (gunning down Satanists, thugs, and wayward policeman in deserted airports, office buildings, Central Park, sewers, etc.), and half of the game takes place in people’s minds you must enter for various purposes (and the playspaces can be incredibly abstract, comical, horrific and are populated with various monsters formed from the individual’s psyche). At one point, you even have to enter your own mind to uncover some bit of relevant information. The real-world and dream-world sections alternate.

Now to the highs and lows that characterize the inconsistency of this game. Some lows first: Par for the time, the cutscenes are pre-rendered, maybe even with the graphics engine itself. But even if not, they are crappy, inappropriately cartoonish, fuzzy-looking, stiff…just awful. The voicework doesn’t sound professionally recorded (or at least mastered properly), and the acting is sub-par, even if the actors are clearly not native English speakers. The writing of the dialogue is weak, nonsensical at times, but not so poor to the point of being entertaining (boo).

On the other hand, the half of the game that takes place in the “dreamworld” (the scenarios when Angela is poking around in a person’s brain and fending off psychological demons and monsters) can be absolutely striking—or at least surprisingly goofy, creative, and inspired. Walking around inside a security officer’s hellish nightmare as he sleeps (scanning every nook of his brain for the numerical code to a locked door which is halting your progress in the real world), fighting off ghosts and avoiding large monstrous faces protruding from walls, demons losing all gravity and tumbling crazily to the ceiling when you dispatch them…well, it’s really fun, frankly. And strange. Oh, and it adds variety too: One level takes you by surprise by teleporting you into a neon-pink-and-green cartoon world where explosive bunny rabbits pursue you across floating land masses with stupid, helium-voiced rap as the background track—in this case, the graphical representation of a politician’s mind who has lost his sanity. Anything goes!

Oh, but then, if you find that security code (or whatever the objective is in the dreamworld), the game switches back to reality, and in this game, the ordinary world is often (but not always), cramped, mundane, and poorly drawn. Critics (all 3 of them) who reviewed the game argue that they wished the whole game could take place in the various whacky / abstract / unsettling “dreamworlds,” instead of having to switch back to the dismal grays and browns of Angela’s trudge through DC and NY. I don’t personally mind many of the suitably-deserted, industrial real-world settings (these can be convincing enough, even intimating a semi-effective creepy atmosphere from time to time). However, on this point, I’d have to agree with the critics. In this game, ordinary is REALLY ordinary.

Equally ordinary in the real world sections of the game are the enemies. There’s nothing interesting here, just dudes and gals with guns—they may be police officers, SWAT or other spec op folks, a gangster or two. Ordinary-world enemies are relatively easy to take down, have a limited number of moves, and repeat the same taunts ad infinitum—this is a special bête noir of mine. The repeated phrases are monotonous and supremely irritating; the fact that the background sounds are unreliable and are triggered only intermittently doesn’t help (since these endlessly repeated taunts are usually front and center in the mix and the broken background sounds are not doing their job of covering them up, errr). The “dreamworld” enemies are slightly more inventive—ghosts in one map, zombies in another, half-people crawling around on their elbows, some automaton-type dudes—but still not much to write home about. 

The game is crazy long—about 30 levels or thereabouts. Great game to get your money’s worth (I paid about $8 for a used copy)…or is it? Some reviews make the case that the game is in need of some serious editing—having been in development for so long, the game may have grown to an unwieldy size. In a way, it falls apart under its own length. I am never one to complain about a game being too lengthy, as long as the gameplay is halfway interesting—even if repetitive. In this case, the runtime is a bit of a mixed bag. For example, ultimately, you do not have to use your special powers (shield, health restore, time slow, invisibility), though they are provided to you—the game just doesn’t seem to require their use, so I forgot about them most of the time. The AI is, about half the time, acceptably real, but the other half they have that early Y2K habit of standing around corners, just barely visible, waiting to be shot—something you cannot help but take advantage of…endlessly. You are given a usable variety of guns, but I never employed more than one of them in any consistent way. The game can be played using only one gun the whole time—most likely whichever gun you choose will do the job if you handle it well enough and if you have ammo (which is plentiful, so you never have to scrounge). Simply put, there’s no motivation to experiment (though some of the environments are partially destructible and can dispatch enemies as well). There are timed sequences where you must complete a jumping puzzle, or kill a room full of enemies, before such-and-such happens (complete with timer on screen), but the game likes to crash in the middle of these exercises, creating frustration and requiring repeat playthroughs. And somehow, though I tried to “give in to it” as much as possible, the game avoided generating any real tension (with some levels you can virtually run through without firing a shot); even the various time trials are oddly tensionless. This is a letdown. But on the upside, some of the action in the last chapters rival HL2 at times (or is at least appropriately inspired), and the “this isn’t actually the last chapter” twist at the end is both amusing, effective, and unique (in my experience.)

So, what you get is a lengthy, average shooter with some very experimental, innovative, environmentally creative sections that shine well enough that the rest of the game looks careless. Oh, also the game is VERY TOUCHY in regards to modding any files or even trying to simply apply the developer-made patches that are available for download. Anything and everything I tried would immediately crash the game.

The Suffering II: Ties That Bind (PC, 2005): It’s About Time
August 17, 2010, 4:05 am
Filed under: The Suffering II: Ties That Bind (PC, 2005, US)

Confession time: I’ve been a fair-weather game-player. Translation: I have not consistently played videogames over the years. I had my high and low times. As an adult (or as a perceived adult, anyway), there were actually periods of time when I didn’t play videogames at all, for years. (Did I just say that out loud?) I was beginning work on my Ph.D. (yeah, I finished it), moving around the country getting an education and trying to look for a position as a professor (yeah, I found one), living out of boxes. You know, like last week.

This led to some weirdness. “The Suffering II: Ties That Bind” falls into the incoherent category. What I mean is this: While I managed to finish the original “The Suffering” in a normal run on PS2 several years back (and enjoyed its gritty, serious, bizarre, wicked nature), I haphazardly played the sequel intermittently over a period of years and in different formats. I bought and played part of “The Suffering II” on an old PS2. The game–as well as my memory card with several corrupted gamesaves–got lost in the shuffle of life. Then I’d see used copies in stores and wondered what happened to mine. Feeling guilty at never having completed it, I finally bought a beat-up PC version for like a buck with the intention of finishing it. Even then, it took a long time for me to get around to it; it stretched for maybe 3 years (longest-game-ever?). My experience with this title is…fractured, at best. This is not because I did not feel compelled to play it—it was just always interrupted by…something else.

But I’m a superfool for a serious horror game, and I knew I’d be burning my way through it eventually. Let me trot out my pedigree, please: Siren? Played it. (And who the hell actually played through this?) Siren II: Going to play it. Siren: Blood Curse? On the shelf, waiting. Silent Hill 1, 2, 3, 4, 5—played them. Rule of Rose? On its way. Haunting ground? Yup. All the F.E.A.R games? Check. The Darkness? Ditto. Condemned 1 and 2? Yessir. Cryostasis? Yup. All 3 Fatal Frame games? Uh-huh. Obscure 1 and 2. Check. (Wait, do I actually want to admit that?) I’ll stop there for brevity’s sake, err.

But I can now add the long-awaited “The Suffering II” to the list. Reviews of the game exist all over the net, and generally speaking the game was not as well received as the original one. I agree with those sentiments, but I earnestly enjoyed the game. An anything-but-brief narrative follows: You play as Torque. In the first game, you are in prison on Carnate Island (what a name!) for possibly having killed your wife and kids (gruesome). Supernatural shenanigans at said prison literally tear the prison apart, freeing you. In the course of the game, you slowly make your way off the island, coming face-to-face with all sorts of demons and creatures—many of whom are seriously warped and mutated reincarnations of prisoners who have been executed over the years. Your nemesis is a whacko prison psychiatrist Dr. Killjoy (who happens to enjoy experimenting on inmates). “The Suffering II” picks up right as you exit Carnate Island  on a boat and enter the much more horrifying town of…get this crazy name…Baltimore. (Where do they come up with these?) By the way, in the game, Baltimore has been ripped to shreds by the same supernatural phenomena as Carnate Island and abandoned by most folks (you know, just like in reality). You travel back to your homestead, besieged by some secret government organization and creatures of all types, including the chiding ghosts of your wife and two sons (and your ghost-wife Carmine can be a real bitch, too). This is one of the earliest games that included a “moral meter” that would be pushed to the good or bad side depending on choices you make during the game (who you kill, who you save, who you ignore, etc.) which would affect one of several different endings you may see. Ultimately, you are looking for the once-real-world character, Blackmore, who may have killed your family and framed you and who may now be a supermonster of some kind, but none of this is ever totally clear. The game can be played in first- or third-person, which was neat (but not entirely effective). The ending was all crazy gobbeldy-gook I could make little sense of, ultimately. But you do confront Blackmore.

Oh yeah, and you can transform into a hideous monster that kills everything on screen with a swipe of your hand. Forgot that part.

Other than boasting a title that sounds like a fetish porn flick, the game’s blocky graphics and crude textures (it is from 2005 after all) belies its seriousness. The story confronts drug addiction and alcoholism, poverty, the murder of children, conspiracy, issues of class and race; the language is raw (for the time); the characters are ugly (meaning they are generally distasteful, unlikeable). Not for the kiddies. Similar to the first game, the tone is over-the-top serious—I don’t think there is a joke to be found anywhere here, which is fine by me. I don’t need my horror balanced out by kindness or humor.

If anything, the weakness of the game may be in the absence of anyone who is truly likeable; it is a difficult prospect playing a game that does not seem to include anyone you can relate to, or only offers you characters that are challenging to care about. Even the character you play, Torque, can be exceedingly ugly (especially if you go the evil-moral-route), and the world around him seems already hopelessly lost in the bowels of hell. Even the people you may choose to help or save in the game are not particularly attractive—in more than one instance, the game asks if you are interested in accompanying this or that junkie or thug to safety, or if you want to help this killer or rapist dispatch some monsters on the street. It’s gray, but not head-scratching; it’s all terribly ugly. And this is clearly the tone the developers wanted; it’s all very deliberate.

One last note: Unlike many of the games I mentioned earlier (most of which come from Japanese developers), “The Suffering” series seems to have a distinct American flavor to it; I’m not sure how to expound on or support that notion, other than to say the game’s horror is visceral and big. The horror is not hinted at like a Japanese ghost-shadow lurking around a corner; the horror is screamed at you. The game is not dark and creepy per se, like many Asian horrors; it instead splashes itself across the screen in vivid colors. The horror in this game is not wistful or romantic by any stretch; it’s just nasty and loud. Yeah, like most Americans (me included).

Unreal II: The Awakening (PC, 2003): In Retrospect, A Real Gem
August 17, 2010, 2:13 am
Filed under: Unreal II: The Awakening (PC, 2003, US)

Regardless of how famous the “Unreal” games franchise is (and the Unreal engine which apparently powers every domestic, non-Valve game ever made), I never played any of the 3 or 4 iterations of the title. How could this be, you ask? This is mainly because, in my addled mind, the title “Unreal” signalled an online, multiplayer game–in other words all I ever really thought about was the fabulously popular “Unreal Tournament” games.  (Thanks to Bernd for the clarification on this–Ed.). As such, I avoided all the “Unreal” games because I assumed they were not in my mileau. I play games to have a hand in unfolding the (oft mediocre) narrative, to witness the (oft confusing) character development, to whoop up on some (oft brainless) AI enemies of the monstrous variety, and to do some awesome and scary virtual sightseeing, snapping screenshots along the way. On the contrary, I never cared to jump wildly around a map at breakneck speeds, endlessly cycling through the same maps, getting shot in the head by 14-year-olds—rinse, repeat…and repeat and repeat.

That’s why “Unreal II: The Awakening” never caught my eye. Whenever I saw the title, I simply assumed it was another chapter in the multiplayer-centric franchise that I wanted nothing to do with. But I was wrong. “The Awakening” is a singleplayer, story-focused, nonmultiplayer sequel–and unfortunately, this may also be the reason why the game was burned in huge piles in parking lots by aforementioned 14-year-olds. Well, not really, but many hardcore “Unreal” online fanboys don’t consider it to be a “real” part of the “Unreal” franchise. (In fact, the whining of said 14-year-olds got so annoying that a second version of the same game, with online multiplayer support, was released soon after.) But as a singleplayer campaign game, it was reviewed rather positively by most critics, garnering a 75 Metacritic score in 2003. It was called “pretty.” Having been released one year (almost to the day) before “Doom III,” this game has a lot in common graphically speaking, use of colors and light, the similar blockiness, and tight indoor sci-fi lab spaces. It looks really good for its time. The AI enemies are fast and aggressive, also like “Doom III.”

Frankly put, the game is impressive on almost every front. This is an old-school first-person shooter at its best, really. The plot is neat, involving 7 ancient alien artifacts possessing arcane powers spread out across several galaxies. To make things interesting, approximately 6 warring races/intergalactic conglomerates are vying to collect and exploit said artifacts. Your character, John Dalton, is basically a low-level space marshal whose only wish is to re-enter the Marines (something shady in the past went down that forced him to resign), but his application has been repeatedly denied. (This is actually the note the entire game begins on.) He and the 3 crewmates he commands (one who is a grade-A smartass; one who is a disheveled, recovering alcoholic weapons expert; and one who is an alien butchering the English language) sign on to help recover as many artifacts as possible before the other nefarious groups swoop in.

But when it comes to the artifacts, even we don’t know what to do with them: In one mission, a deep space arms-development lab (which was conducting experiments with one of the artifacts for military purposes) on an icy moon covered in toxic snow (nicknamed “Hell”) goes silent unexpectedly (yes, sci-fi cliches abound, but who cares?). You shuttle down to the moon as a one-man force to see what transpired. It wasn’t good. While scientists passed high energy beams through the artifact, some local insectoids crawled their way into the test chamber and grew to enormous, aggressive sizes, killing everyone in sight. You arrive at the wrecked, overrun lab, flamethrower in hand. Yup, had to go “Orkin man” on them and nab the artifact. Many of the missions are structured like this. You collect (or try to collect) each artifact in turn, taking you to all corners of the universe. The game is visually fabulous for its time, with a great mood, and snappy characters overall whose pasts are complicated with one another (which, by the standards of today’s multilayered, movielike, sandbox FPS/RPG hybrid games, would seem terribly weak—but we’re talking a super-linear 7-year-old game at the time of this writing, folks). Unlike so many other early-2000-era videogame heroes who are faceless no-names with zero personality (yeah, I’m looking at you, “Doom III”), the protag in this game is quirky and oddly low-key, whose intercom banter with Aida (his busty, bitchslapping bridge officer) during missions feels ad-libbed, off-the-cuff, extremely relaxed—even while crawling along poorly lit corridors haunted by otherworldly things. It is a neat vibe.

I compared the game to “DOOM III” earlier, but how about a slightly more recent comparison (by a stretch, of course): Considering the game’s character development and overall mission structure, see if this rings any bells. You command a spaceship; you get orders from your superiors at a military base which you visit; some of your crewmembers are aliens; you have an armory specialist who outfits you before each mission; you have a female bridge officer who gives you briefings in front a rotating 3D map before every mission (of which there are 12—one common complaint about the game is its short duration; according to, something like 6 whole missions were cut from the game, as well as a handful of vehicles and alien races, material which exists somewhere in beta form); you shuttle down to planets where your missions are located; there are some (quite scant) dialogue choices when interfacing with crewmembers; you engage with native populations during missions, solve problems, fight, etc… UH “MASS EFFECT” ANYONE? I mean, I’m talking some grade-A similarities here. Of course, this is NOT “Mass Effect” or any of its sequels, but more and more I can see how very little in videogames is unique—everything began somewhere else, it seems. Of course, that’s only natural.

SPOILER: In the final stages, the game takes the unlikely leap from very good to simply great. Two chapters before the end, while you are planetside, you hear over com chatter that your quirky crew of 3 is being attacked in orbit. Then the ship explodes—gone, goodbye, crew and all. Marshal John Dalton, the character you play, drops to his knees. As a player, you simply don’t expect that. Then, during the epilogue, after defeating the evil (which, no surprise, were the folks you were fighting FOR the entire time), as you float through deep space in an escape pod, you find and listen to a final transmission made by your crew—they knew they were doomed and they are posthumously saying their goodbyes. Ne’ban, the niave alien pilot, thanks you for giving him a meaningful task to fulfill before the end of his overprotected life; Isaak, the now-sober engineer, thanks you for believing in him and asks you to go back to the “old club in Quantico” and buy one last round for everyone; Aida, the bridge officer said she never really believed in much, but that she believed in you. Then you are alone in your pod…and the game ends. Roll credits. Great, and even moving. SPOILER ENDS.

For a game of its time, the cast of characters (your crew) works well. You only sorta get to know them, but they are not entirely cardboard cutouts and actually have complex relationships with one another.

In 2003, critics busted the game’s chops for being too short—but by today’s standards (“Terminator 3” tie-in game anyone? I finished it in 2 nights, uh…), the game’s length is just right, clocking in at around 13 or so hours. BTW, something I did not realize even though I DID know this was published by Epic Games: Cliff Blezinski (Gears of War) was executive producer.

Chaser (PC, Slovakia, 2003): Infinite Meh
August 17, 2010, 12:54 am
Filed under: Chaser (PC, 2003, Slovakia), Slovakia)

“Chaser” is a (better-known-than-most) eastern European game that feels like it will never end. I’m a tortoise in the gaming department (and here I am playing this game a mere 7 years after its release—yikes), but I logged in at least 30 hours finishing this opus. Unlike some of the other bottom-shelf, infinitely-long, non-domestic titles I’ve played however, the massive duration of this shooter didn’t excite me too much. Given the time period when it was produced, the graphics generally don’t look as dated as I thought they might (most of the static interiors, lighting effects, textures, colors are fine). But the character models and animations have not aged well at all (I mean, at all).

You play as (gasp!) Chaser, an amnesiac tracking a shadowy man named Scott Stone–from an exploding space station to New York slums and the Russian Tundra on near-future-Earth and back to a prison and hi-tech rebel base on Mars–just to regain his memory (fractured pieces of which are revealed as the story, and his journey, progresses). Further surprise, the narrative becomes so convoluted and double-crossey with so many sketchily drawn characters it’s difficult to know or care who is who and why the action is taking place. SPOILER: The game ends on a negative note–you, as Chaser, are told by your nemesis that you actually ARE Scott Stone (no!), the same man you’ve been chasing after all this time. You are then tricked into killing a rebel colleague who has been assisting you, and then you too are shot and dragged off screen, with nothing but a quizzical look plastered on your face (which looks dumb—I already said the character models were poor). The ending stinks of an impending sequel, but here we are 7 years after the game released. I don’t think Chaser 2 is in the offing. No big loss, I guess. SPOILER END.

The many environments–from the aforementioned space station, to Earth slums, to Russia’s tundra, to  hazy-red prison hallways on Mars—are varied, but like I said, it’s all a bit too mundane. It’s not weird or scary or alien enough. It’s too near-future and not enough far-future, I guess. This is just a matter of taste. All the weapons are conventional–nothing neato or lazer beamy or whatever. It’s more like a tactical espionage shooter than it is a sci-fi thing. My reaction to it is the same as I had playing “Rainbow 6: Vegas” a few years back in cooperative mode: I played it because it was cooperative, but shooting terrorists hanging around slot machines or thugs in hotels or mercenaries in warehouses just ain’t my thang. Give me a big, gooey scary something in deep space to shoot, and I’m on board—even if it’s been done 4 million times before. I don’t care. But there’s just nothing like that in “Chaser.”

As a shooter from 2003, it was very well received, especially online multiplayer; but by today’s standards, the single player campaign just feels like a…standard linear shooter, and taken in the context of 7 years ago as of this writing, forgiveness is required. Other than a stealth mission or two, the sneak-n-stop-n-shoot gameplay gets repetitive and a bit dull, with little variety in enemies. Nice variety of weapons, though as mentioned nothing cool and futuristic (although as a reader of this blog, googoogjoob, points out, you do eventually procure some lazery-type weapons about halfway through; they didn’t make much of an impression on me though). The one letdown overall: Though it began explosively on a quickly-deteriorating space station (very strong intro gameplay for about an hour which had me all excited), most of the following locales are ho-hum, near-future Earth settings (read: dull), the Mars prison chapter notwithstanding (as googoogjoob also points out).

Final note: Although it is a straightforward FPS, it’s not necessarily an easy game to play. I am not ashamed to say I began the game on “normal” difficulty setting, but it was kicking my arse (“game over” every 4 minutes gets tiresome); 5 hours later, I dumbed it down to “easy” to regain some balance. So I don’t beat myself up too much, some of this difficulty curve comes from using a gamepad (360 controller with a wireless Windows receiver) to play a PC game meant to be navigated with the precision of a mouse. But I like slouching on my couch to play, not hunched over my laptop. Sue me.

Saw (Xbox 360, 2009): Expect Nothing, Get Something
August 10, 2010, 9:43 pm
Filed under: Saw (Xbox 360, 2009, US)

I’m a huge horror movie fan, but I never cared to see the torture-porn flick “Saw” (or its fourteen iterations). This is mostly because I don’t really consider them horror films—at least not in any classic sense—but more like exploitation films (which also have their place, just not in my collection).  Nevertheless, I gladly jumped into playing “Saw” (the game) on the Xbox 360 only because it looked creepy, and I hadn’t played anything creepy in a while (and I considered not having any real familiarity with the films a plus, since I went in expecting nothing at all).

As it turns out, it’s a puzzler, with some basic brawling (which is damn near broken), set in the basement guts, corridors, and ventilation systems of a long-abandoned, terribly unsanitary mental hospital. (My most immediate comparison is to the older, and much-better, “Condemned: Criminal Origins” game.)  And since what I was searching for primarily were spine-chilling, icky environments infected with decay and staphylococcus, I got exactly what I wanted. The atmosphere of the dank, poorly lit, dried-blood hallways strewn with medical waste and tape recordings of insane patients and their equally insane doctors (who leaves these things lying around?) is exceedingly well done. (Actually, the recordings help to flesh out the hundred-year-or-so history of the asylum and the evolution of its questionable practices to cure mental illness, as well as how bad financial times through the decades helped to corrupt the once honorable intentions of the healthcare providers. I was surprised by, and appreciated, this kind of narrative depth from what might be considered a silly horror game.) The creepy rooms with burnt and torn wallpaper, disabused iron lungs, and the requisite flickering, buzzing fluorescent lights is indeed the star of the show. You play as Detective David Tapp from the first film (I am obviously a bit fuzzy on plot specifics not having seen the films) who has been rescued from death by Jigsaw (that serial killer guy with the red and white puppet face thingey from the movie commercials I’ve seen). But while he has plucked a bullet from your chest, he has implanted a key there instead—a key being searched for by every other crazy-ass criminal who has also been trapped by Jigsaw in the abandoned facility along with you. So, since your equally unpleasant and trapped foes need the very key you have under your ribcage in order to escape, they all give chase and are willing to dig it out of you. Oh why can’t we all just get along? I actually like the idea of why everyone in the place is after you—it fits tidily into what I call “videogame logic.”

Though most net reviews kind of shrug their shoulders at the game in typical “meh” fashion, to me there’s a lot to like about the game. One notable: It has no loading screens; it runs seamlessly the entire length. Check. Textures and colors in the dank environment are damn fine. Check. It is a Gamerscore whore’s delight: 20g for dying? Hah! Love it. 5g for being idle for 5 minutes? Check. You play in your barefeet! Stepping on crushed glass on the floor steals health away and leaves bloody footprints for your enemies to follow—clever! Check. The puzzles are not so difficult that gameplay stalls. Check.

Or, at least that’s what I thought early on. Truth be told, as the game wore on, it lost points with me. Repetitive gameplay; the same puzzles repeated too often but just at higher difficulties or with less time allotted; pacing problems and a crazy steep learning curve halfway through when the life-threatening puzzles tripled in difficulty as bombs ticked away at your feet or poison gas filled the room. Sure, this made for tense times (which you want in a game like this), but it also made for unhappy players (one of whom in the room sort of threw his controller in exasperation—it wasn’t me, scout’s honor). The combat mechanic (close-up brawling mostly) was nearly broken, as I mentioned. Finishing moves requiring context-sensitive button presses were ridiculously difficult to time, so it often felt like it came down to sheer luck instead of learning and using the game’s mechanics skillfully. The ending was way mediocre, although there was more than one (and both are relatively easy to see with a little rewinding and extra play, and each have their own gamerscore attached—Yay!). Still, the setting was gritty, the atmosphere thick and creepy. Putting the game on my “completed” shelf, I have one thought: Damn, I wish I could lift the filthy, darkened corridors strewn with mutilated mannequins and drop them into the middle of a Silent Hill game—now that would be hot.

Land of the Dead: Road to Fiddler’s Green (PC, 2005, Canada): What Wonderful Rot

“Land of the Dead: Road to Fiddler’s Green,” the low-rent, film-tie-in FPS game from the equally low-rent 2005 Romero zombie flick, is the definition of a guilty pleasure. Apparently, when it was released, thousands of excited fanboys ran to the store with fistfuls of dollars to buy this Groove Games-published “epic” on both the Xbox and PC, all moist with the possibility of decapitating hundreds of zombified housewives, street urchins, and taxi drivers. The result, mere hours later, was an internet that almost committed harikari. Finding a single positive review was pretty much impossible. Even now the game is considered one of the biggest horror-turd-letdowns to ever be released commercially.

The cloudy history of the game’s development goes something like this: The developer Brainbox, located in Canada, was already working on a budget-priced zombie FPS title for publisher Groove Games when George Romero and his movie-crew moved into town temporarily to shoot the film. Seeing an opportunity, the developers at Brainbox took their already completed game (or nearly completed) to the Romero camp to inquire about a tie-in. With some changes to the story and characters, a deal was made, and a new game was hastily crafted using the same Unreal 2.0 engine and character models, etc. It was released, with much anticipation, alongside the flick. So, I guess Romero and cohorts never actually bothered looking at or playing the game? Ooops.

(Interesting side-note: The original game being made was basically scrapped, and that version has resurfaced–as its own complete game–and Groove Games [or some iteration of Groove Games] apparently atttempted to market it in Russia, or somewhere. The title for the never-released game is “Day of the Zombie” [or “Zombie Day” on some Russian videogame retail sites]. Before long, that version of the game appeared on torrents ’round the world for free as semi-illegal download–although it was never actually released domestically. The game, as I mentioned, uses the exact same engine and some of the exact same character models, but boasts its own story and locales, a full-sized game of its own. Uh, also crappy. Double the crap, double the…smell?)

You play as plaid-shirt-and-coveralls-wearing farmer Jack (yeah, that’s it). There’s some grumblings from the city news on the radio that something strange is happening, but it all seems pretty far off. Next thing you know, looking out your kitchen window, you see someone standing–just standing—in the middle of your field. That’s not right. You go outside and–whaddya know! Your farm has been besieged by the undead. Exploring (with handy-dandy headsmackin’ shovel in hand), you find your neighbors’ farms deserted–with lots more zombies hanging around in the cornfield. Evetually, you make your way to the city–yeehaw! Crawling through sewers, destroyed office buildings, vacated movie theaters, and warehouses, you shoot and run away from around 6 basic zombie types (that never really change). You then hear about the existence of a safe-haven located within the city–the big skyscraper that Dennis Hopper runs in the film–and you attempt to reach it. I won’t ruin the ending, since I know you’ll be going to pick this one up like right now.

Anyway, without question, the game-proper “”Land of the Dead: Road to Fiddler’s Green” is unadulterated junk, poorly drawn, repetitive, bland. Textures in the environment are laughable; colors are ugly, improper. The soundwork is passable, but nothing extraordinary (zombie groans, teeth clattering, rotten-sounding breathing). Loading times are painful. Completely dull weapon choices. But it is (I begrudgingly admit) ABSOLUTELY BEGUILING, a grade-Z guilty pleasure. Although it was universally panned upon release, I played it with great relish and finished it in record time (10 hours of play in merely 2 nights–it’s not a long game, but I also couldn’t put it down and felt compelled to rip through it for some reason, hyperventilating the whole time. That’s my bad-taste-gene kicking in, no doubt.) Amidst all the general crappiness, somehow the game manages to whip up some tension with decent pacing that drew me in, hook-line-sinker. There are some rather well-voiced internal monologues by your character as well, which help to distract your attention from the mostly awful animated cutscenes.

Totally junky, washed out, undetailed, blocky graphics (and some really irritating up-on-high sniper sequences where you have to assist someone else make it through a zombie-infested map alive)–but completely addictive and perfectly-paced gameplay dodging slow (but persistent and plentiful) zombies and lotsa headshots. I died about 200 times, but there wasn’t a serious bottleneck in the entire affair. It zipped right along at a 1000-miles-per hour (NOT like “Left 4 Dead,” but you know what I mean). Very fun. I refuse to request forgiveness. A total blast.

Hellforces (PC, 2004, Russia): The Kitchen Sink Is Overflowing
August 9, 2010, 4:30 am
Filed under: Hellforces (PC, 2004, Russia)

Videogame purgatory? Sure, why not. “Hellforces” is the epitome of a kitchen sink game. I’ll explain in a minute. But first: Your nemesis and general “bringer-of-darkness” Alex Hacksley has forged a machine to suck the souls out of people and use said souls as an energy force, you know, like to power your air conditioner. (OK, more accurately, innocent genius and biophysicist Henry Alfred Cole [who always “considered the soul to be a thing of fairytales”] created the machine—but then master-exploiter and business tycoon Hacksley imprisons Cole [who later regrets his invention] and brings the machine online.) Problem is, the process leaves soulless zombies behind. Amidst the chaos, a door gets opened to hell, Lucifer and his minions enter our world and begin inhabiting the soulless bodies (transforming t

hem physically too, of course) and generally wreaking havoc. Your crackhead girlfriend wanders into the middle of it. As protagonist Steven Geist (who resembles Keanu Reeves drawn by an untalented middle-schooler, for real), your ultimate goal is to find your girlfriend (which you do, but she’s a soulless mess who attacks you about halfway through, and you end up having to kill her), and then find Hacksley and get him (which you [with contrite biophysicist Cole’s help] do about two-thirds through, and you knock his block off), and then go find Lucifer and kick his butt too. Ambitious. Complete nonsense, sure. But ambitious. The wrap-around story (which is intercut throughout…and by the way is atrociously animated—just awful) involves an FBI agent hanging around with you in your prison cell interrogating you. The game plays out as a massive flashback as you tell your unbelievable story that spans the globe, time, and space…sort of.

Finding any serious or in-depth reviews of this game on the net is not impossible but not necessarily easy—overall it was not received too well (or received at all maybe). But what “Hellforces”  lacks in narrative coherency (and it lacks A LOT!), it makes up for in a kind of gusto, and also what I’ll term the “kitchen sink effect.” There is nary a videogame locale or cliché this game doesn’t touch on. In “Hellforces,” I have bashed zombies / third-world drug runners / futuristic soldiers / cyborgs / prostitutes / thugs / glowing tentacled aliens / four-legged somethings in an urban ghetto, a gothicky underground catacomb, a high-tech facility, a “gangster’s den” (that’s what they actually call it), an alternate reality where buildings and mountains float in a void, and in ancient Peruvian ruins. None of these are connected in any logical way, nor is any real explanation given—you just sort of very conveniently materialize in these various locales to do your dirty work. It seems as though this was clearly developed by guys who have played every FPS on the planet and swiped a chapter from each one of them and plopped it into their game, god bless ‘em. Example: In a far back room of the Peruvian temple ruins, there’s a poster of Angelina Jolie as Laura Croft hanging on the wall, and the soldiers have clearly been using her face for target practice. It might be considered funny, but really it’s not.

Graphics are 2004 eastern-bloc blocky, controls are 2004 eastern-bloc clunky. Actually, as the game progresses, it seems to improve in both areas (I’ve had similar experiences with these Russian games—as if the devs slowly figure out what is working as the game progresses and the game gets better as you push through it; “Vivisector: Beast Within” is the epitome of this evolution-in-action). But on that note I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: PC gaming has one MAJOR benefit over console gaming—and that is customization. Trust me, I’m no console hater by any means, but most folks playing “Rock Band” and little (or nothing) else, just want to pop a game in, grab their peanut-butter-smeared plastic guitar controller, and play for 25 minutes. Rock on. Sometimes the less options the better.

But there are geeks who want to fiddle with their software and hardware and see what it can do. Case in point is “Hellforces.” As soon as you boot up the game (before the game begins), you get a “graphics customization” window that allows you to tweak about 30 different items (this, I’ve come to understand, is sorta typical for these eastern European games). You can tweak how thick the vegetation is and how much it moves; you can tweak how many colors you want displayed; you can tweak how many dead bodies you want to remain on screen for a given period of time and how many simultaneous “ragdoll death animations” will occur on screen; you can tweak how far into the distance the environments will be drawn; you can turn shadows and mirror surfaces on and off and increase their resolution, you can tweak how much of the sky will be drawn and if clouds will cast shadows on the ground—and then it provides a benchmarking tool that will run a section of a map with your selected settings and count your frames-per-second. For those who care, pretty neato.

Other than the aforementioned gusto with which it presents itself, and some well-realized alien locations (for the time), the only other redeeming quality is the unintentional humor which comes from the English localization. Some of the one-liners spouted by the wisecracking main character are incomprehensible and, hence, incredibly precious:

“There were so many noodles in him that they fell over his ears. Ha ha!” (Don’t even ask me what this is supposed to mean…)

“Now, which of these cactuses stink most?” (?)

“Aren’t you willing to fill a glass for a lady, my ill-bred friend?” (Heh heh, Ill-bred—I’m going to start calling people ill-bred.)

“Hacksley! You…you…mongrel!” (Those Russians have some powerful putdowns.)

“Well, everything is not so bad after all. Only the whips are missing.” (?)

“A cave!… Ha! If I meet a bear I’ll pan his face in.” (Those bears are in total trouble.)

“This is how I got into HELL… That’s the world where demons come from.” (Say it’s not so! I told myself this exact thing when I finished the game…)