Keith's Crappy Videogame Blog

The Hunt (PC, 2008, Russia): Worth Tracking Down, Heh Heh
July 27, 2011, 5:14 am
Filed under: The Hunt (PC, 2008, Russia)

While developing the first-person survival-horror brawler “Condemned: Criminal Origins” (2005), it seems highly likely that some of the dudes at Monolith got their hands on the Russian game “Chernaja Metka” (also known as “The Hunt,” “Black Label,” and released in French-speaking territories as “Traque”) and exclaimed: “Oh shit! We have to make a game like this!”

Yeah, that would be neat. Except, since we’re talking about an eastern European game, it’s the other way around. What I mean is, as usual, the developers at Orion Games in Russia must’ve obtained some beat-up, used copies of “Condemned,” which then led to a bunch of brainstorming and chin-stroking. Yup, “Condemned” (2005) predates “The Hunt” (2008) by three years, so this is yet another case of an earnest Russian developer attempting to emulate a triple-A title…and sort of succeeding. (Oh, and throw some “Manhunt” into the mix for good measure.) Mimicry is the best form of flattery, as they say.

No surprise, there are so many similarities among these titles—beyond the mechanics and extending into the atmospherics—that a lawsuit, rather than a coincidence, seems more likely. Since it is actually a highly competent, relatively high-quality title, I imagine copyright issues are probably why the game was never released domestically in the west. Of course when we’re talking about bottom-shelf games, none of that is a black mark.

For those players who have walloped their way through “Condemned,” here’s a quick list of stuff that will sound familiar: Regular hobo-type folks (though crazed) instead of monsters as enemies? Check. Dirty urban locales, burned out warehouses, underground tunnels, an abandoned church, and a dump? Checkeedoo. Emphasis on up-close brawling and melee weapons, like fire axes, pipes, wrenches, machetes, wooden clubs? Checkeriffic. Guns that are scarce and cannot be reloaded—you chuck the firearm, and snag a melee weapon, as soon as the firearm is empty? Checkeroni. You can only hold one weapon at a time, which means constant thieving of weapons from downed enemies. Checker-yupper. Generally dark, gritty, forboding fighting environments, leading to a lot of creeping around waiting for the next arsehole to jump out from behind a door and slam you in the face? Checker checker. Minimal sound design emphasizing the creaking of girders, the hissing of steam pipes, and the skin-crawling buzz of flickering fluorescent lights? Chicky check. A deliberately slow pace designed to induce dread? I’ve run out of stupid ways to say “check.”

I’d say that “The Hunt” is indeed so close to “Condemned” (either one in the series), that if you played the latter title, but then got seriously cracked on the head by a real-life hobo and forgot, someone could slide the former under your nose and you might not notice.

Of course, “The Hunt” isn’t a carbon copy. The two games do diverge. One unique element is the narrative, and in this regard, honestly, I think “The Hunt” actually comes out on top. (I don’t know about you, but the story in either “Condemned” game made my head spin). The (probably way too complex) near-future dystopian backstory in “The Hunt” goes like this: In 2025, after the 5th Reform, Moscow is in better financial and technological shape than ever. So why is everyone so depressed? Outbreaks of violence pepper the streets, all out of boredom. Citizens line up for mood-altering prescription drugs. Psychologists call it the “Mass Depression.” Then, an internet gaming sensation called “Black Mark” comes to the rescue. Nothing more than a child’s game of cops and robbers, people begin buying small kits of radio beacons and radar detectors. After planting the beacon on some unsuspecting victim, “Hunters” find the victim who carries the beacon and is accosted with water pistols. If the victim is smart and fast enough, he or she may be able to pass the marker on to some other unsuspecting player before being discovered. The game takes the country by storm, and the depression seems to lift.

But then everything changes. A powerful television station, in partnership with the totalitarian government, creates a new show with the same name “Black Mark.” Only in this version, called an “important social experiment” by influential politicians, a new twist is added: Death. At random, innocent citizens are implanted with a viral tag that, if removed, will kill the recipient. Then sanctioned groups of brutal Hunters track the victim, who can remain alive only by evasion or by standing toe-to-toe with the psycho hunters–all of it televised, not only for the public to see, but to also place bets and win money. Ultimately, the idea behind the televised event is to quench people’s bloodlust so that they stop randomly terrorizing each other on the street—and also to show the populace that violence (specifically, violence not sanctioned by the government) will be dealt with swiftly, even to the unsuspecting.

In the midst of all this, you play an unassuming, 30-year-old web designer, Nicolai Kamalov (I’ve also seen it as Nicholas Comolo) who lives in a small apartment. A phone call wakes you up one average evening, and the stranger on the other end of the phone explains, simply, that you’ve been given the black mark as you left a bar the night before. You are now the not-so-proud owner of the viral tag that makes you the unwitting enemy for all the hunters and the star of the TV show. You turn on your TV to confirm, and indeed, according to the female host of the “Black Label” television show, you are the new “Running Man” (I didn’t say that out loud, did I?), and the hunters are on their way to your place. Shit.

Unfortunately, there’s one hiccup. While the marker can be passed surreptitiously from one victim to another to escape a violent end (you can basically let someone else die in your place if you’re sneaky enough), there is, eventually, an “end of the line,” where the marker can no longer be handed off. You, as it turns out, are the last recipient of this particular marker, and you’ll have to see it through to the end. The voice on the phone says he might be able to help you eliminate the marker—through the efforts of an underground social movement who are radically opposed to this brutality, called the “Anti-Label” or “White Label” group. So, off you go into the dark streets, empty subways, sewer tunnels, (and a freaking bizarre amusement park, more on that in a minute) to try and find the promised help. And who knows? Maybe you’ll take a side trip to the damn television station that is airing this awful program to give the management a piece of your mind.

Things go sour pretty quickly. Almost as soon as you open your apartment door and step out into the stairwell, you are accosted by freako hunters with drooling lips, hideous masks, and big, bladed whatzits—all of them looking to rip you apart. Better get running!

As you run, and attempt to defend yourself, you learn bits and pieces of the current state of affairs (the backstory)—through laptops strewn about filthy basements and industrial sites. Also, interestingly, you’ll come across televisions that you can turn on, and the same live host of the “Black Label” TV show will discuss your latest victory clobbering some hunter, while urging viewers to call in their bets. Sound like the movie “Running Man?” (Wait a minute! I didn’t mention that again, did I? This is a videogame blog, not a movie blog.)

One thing never really discussed in a sensible way is the mark itself. What exactly is this “black mark?” Well, wanting a precise definition is simply asking way too much. In some cases, it seems like it is something that can be foisted upon you, like a piece of lint from the bottom of your coat pocket, or someone else’s $80 parking ticket. But then in other instances, it is called “viral” (and it sends out a signal that actually allows the hunters to locate you), and it can only be removed by an injection of something or other, although removing it may cause death. While this might make sense, then a new question arises: If it is biologically implanted, how can you obtain the marker without being aware of it (which is exactly what happened to the character you play)? Also, how precisely can it be passed from person to person? Literally, the game says if you want to get rid of it, you can secretly pass it onto someone else, who then has the bullseye on their forehead. Either way, it’s never clear exactly what the marker is…but hey, it’s the near-future, and you wouldn’t understand it anyway. And stop asking questions before I hit you upside the head with this lead pipe…

A few other interesting mechanics diverge from “Condemned” as well, and most of them work. While in “Condemned” (the first one anyway), Agent Ethan Thomas conducts investigations of crime scenes to further the plot, in the “Hunt,” you have a PDA which serves as a similar “something to do other than brawling” gameplay device. All around the dirty urban landscapes, there are “wifi” connection points which your PDA can access (you have to run around with your PDA in your hand—instead of a weapon and hence vulnerable—tracking signal strength…sort of like an investigation, I guess). Once you get close enough to a wifi point (there are actual wifi junction boxes stuck to the walls that are hard to see, but they are always there where a signal has been detected), you can connect and open locked doors, scan for lurking enemies through cameras, etc. Also, at some of these wifi points, you may place your own bets on your own performance on the show that you are unwillingly starring in, just like all viewers can. Want to place a bet that you’ll be able to stealth your next enemy and take him down with a special finishing move? Then go for it! (By the way, there are some timed-sensitive neckbreaking moves that are nothing special, but stealth kills get you out of having to take damage if you can successfully sneak up behind a hunter.) But beware: If you end up not using a finishing move but instead alert him to your presence and have to chop him into pieces, you lose your money. If your bets are accurate, it is one way to quickly increase your cash reserves, which can used at vending machines throughout the game (placed here and there) to buy medkits, mines (which are damn fun to use on the violent hobos and mask-wearing freakos), nightvision goggles, degradable armor, etc. Why can’t the vending machines outside Walmart sell cool stuff like that?

One last mentionable that strays from the “Condemned” recipe: “The Hunt” makes some attempts at dark humor and half-succeeds. There is one chapter of the game that takes place in a garishly bright, neon-colored, sunlit amusement park that has been inhabited by bloodthirsty clowns, all of whom are hunters out to kill you with their yellow and red clown axes and their bright blue, ridiculously-oversized clown hammers. Pretty fun, and it reminded me, at least in flashes, of running around the amusement park in “Left for Dead 2.” There is a forced minigame in this section (a shooting gallery), and you also get a paintball gun to splatter the killers (which is pretty much ineffective, except as a gag.) Orion got this dead-on right.

In fact, there’s a host of gameplay elements that Orion Games got right. First, you’ve got pretty much a full screen to play in, with a dissolving HUD.  Love it. While the guns feel weak (they aren’t really the focus of the game anyway), the sledgehammer , fire axe, and crowbar—indeed all the melee weapons—feel appropriately weighty, and they swing like they are heavy weapons. They look realistic too. The enemies gradually get tougher as the game progresses (and ultimately you defend yourself against “The Censors,” who are basically paramilitary troops with automatic guns who work for the television station that you infiltrate), and the game doles out suitable weapons to do the job, but you never feel overstocked or cocky. So Orion nailed the resource management part of the game. The gameplay never lagged—the path was usually relatively clear, though some sections took some thinking, and I never really felt stuck. I did, however, get wonderfully lost in the game’s tension, just like when I played the “Condemned” titles, and that says a lot. Overall, this really is a gem—utterly and completely an unapologetic “Condemned/Manuhunt” ripoff—but it is exceedingly well done, really from beginning to end. (Though warning, the end falls off the map entirely…why do these Russian games always melt under their own weight at the end? But ah, that’s part of their…uhhh…charm.)

ENGLISH TRANSLATION STUFF: If you want to play the English-spoken version of the game, the voiceovers aren’t that bad. To get the English-spoken version, you should look for the game as “Traque,” which is the French version—yes, the French version is English-spoken. Otherwise, you’ll have Russian voices. The problem is that all the text in “Traque” (menus, notes, etc.) is all in French. So, you should also pick up the translation materials created by yours truly (they are not perfect but serviceable) that will put most of the text in the game into English too. So, if you play the French version “Traque” with the English translation materials inserted, you get the game in all English, yay. Following is a link to 3D Shooter Legends. Just use the search bar and type in “Hunt” then look for the translation materials link:

Tiny postscript: Orion Games also developed the mindbendingly wtf “kitchen sink” title “Hellforces” (see discussion here on this blog). Unbelievably, in one room in “The Hunt” right before a mini-boss battle, I came across a wooden crate stamped with the words “Hacksley: The New Dawn,” just sitting by itself in the corner. I immediately stopped. Why the hell did that sound familiar? What does it mean? It took my brain 5 minutes to engage properly, but then it dawned on me:  Hacksley is a character (and The New Dawn is his religious group) that plays a prominent role in the absolutely bizarre, confusing plot in “Hellforces.” Talk about an inside joke. But lo and behold I got that inside joke.

And that most assuredly makes me a mega loser.

Instinct (PC, 2007, Russia): Another Mediocre Russian Gem, No Apologies
July 23, 2011, 1:34 am
Filed under: Instinct (PC, 2007, Russia)

I’m already an unapologetic sycophant when it comes to “You Are Empty” (PC, 2007, Russia). So you already know where this post is going. Digital Spray (who birthed that oddity) also had their hand in developing “Instinct” (PC, 2007, Russia). Strap in.

Before I started writing this post, I trundled over to Gamespot to glance at the user reviews for this unassuming kinda-zombie shooter. Although I wasn’t surprised by what I found, ouch anyway. There are a lot of people who really, really, really despise this game. In fact, one 13-year-old hater says poor little old Digital Spray (and co-developers Wild Hare) should burn in hell.

In the next meandering 2,500 words, I’ll explain in detail why that 13 year old is wrong (as well as the other 223 Gamespot readers who have vented their hatred for “Instinct”—OK, not all of them are haters). And since my reviews are balanced (if not fair, eh?), this will also include some well-deserved finger-wagging at the developers for their missteps and a little bit of justified gushing for what they got right.

In “Instinct” you play three characters who comprise a team of special operatives—two dudes, Eighth and White, and one chick, Arrow (alternating between them, all in first-person perspective). The three are infiltrating a North Korean military testing facility to (kidnap? rescue?) a scientist. (Their actual relationship to said scientist is never adequately explained, or it slipped right past me.) As a military trio, it is kind of an interesting dynamic (though I don’t want to give any kind of impression that characters are at all even slightly fleshed out). Arrow and White are a couple, which at least gives the otherwise humdrum narrative a little color (well, it provides a miniscule human-wrinkle to the story, though not much). Anyway, at this North Korean facility, a new protovirus “capable of decaying the mind but strengthening the body as a new type of warfare” has gotten loose and infected the base personnel. To make matters worse, the helicopter delivering the squad encounters some enemy fire from the Koreans and crashes, killing the pilot. So, the three spread out in different directions (without a clear plan of escape) to complete their mission anyway. The timeline of the game seems to flow back and forth—so you may play a section of Eighth’s narrative, but then slide backwards in time a bit to play some of that same timeline from Arrow’s perspective, and so forth. In addition, the game begins “in media res,” and then later on shifts backwards to show you what occurred before that point. Eventually you also become infected with the protovirus (since you are, after all, crawling around inside the ventilation shafts at ground zero), there is some dirty double-dealing within the squad itself, some shadowy government figures get involved at some point, and there’s a last-minute “let’s attempt to escape the complex while jets are dropping bombs on it and reducing it to rubble” ending (which ain’t half bad).

Having shared the plot-like-substance, let me now say that when playing, I could not in any sense, shape, or form tell you that this is actually what was happening. As it is presented within the game, the narrative is a complete fuzzy cloud of…whatever. The structure of the plot, for me, was impenetrable, most likely because the story is not told in a linear fashion (which I don’t necessarily mind). Oddly, the game moves forward confidently as though it is making complete sense in a linear fashion anyway, as though it is transparently straightforward and comprehensible, which is kind of funny. (Indeed, the game somehow feels very confidently made, if that tracks. More on that in a minute.)

What follows is a kind of mid-paced corridor crawler with a standard set of weapons (though the shotgun is woefully and disappointingly underpowered), strategy-less AI pseudo-zombies and military personnel (they’re not reanimated dead folks, but they’ve become infected with the virus, basically turning them into drooling, lumbering killing machines), and the requisite button-pushing, access card gathering, door opening, red barrel exploding stuff you’ve done a billion times before if you are an FPS freak. It’s the kind of game that wouldn’t exist if “Half Life” was never born, plain and simple. But sometimes familiar is OK. As I just said, the game moves along at a steady clip—it’s not a whirlwind, but it doesn’t stall, not even for a moment. It runs smoothly, and the action, while completely repetitive and old-school, strolls along…confidently. That word, confident, keeps coming to mind. The game knows what it is, has no aspirations of greatness, and knows what to do to keep up minimal interest. It just goofily strides along with its head held high…whatever that means. In fact, this confidence is displayed in the way the game willfully telegraphs its own ending; each chapter fades in with ominous words on screen declaring “11 hours and 36 minutes before the explosion” or “4 hours and 17 minutes before the explosion.” That, if you were wondering, means everything is going to turn out just fine in the end. Also one of the trio (that you play) actually dies in combat about two-thirds of the way through (in a cutscene), which at least provides a mini-twist. Other nasty things befall the rest of the squad too, but I’ll keep it hush-hush. Like I said, it’s not much, but it’s far from the travesty many reviews claim.

There are at least two items in “Instinct” that deserve a bit of special attention and discussion. First, perhaps one of the smartest moves the developers Digital Spray/Wild Hare made (and I would bet my next paycheck that it was a case of necessity being the mother of invention) is that they left the original, perfectly serviceable Russian voice acting in place, and they did not attempt to localize it using half-assed English voice actors, who, frankly, always suck. (If a 13-year-old know-it-all can tell the devs to burn in hell, then I’m allowed a little hyperbole too, damnit.) So, the com chatter we get amongst the three main characters here sounds and feels authentic, natural, smooth. Indeed, this was the developer’s intention; the game’s manual claims that “Instinct is a game created in Russia by a premiere game developer. Voices throughout the game are in the original Russian in an effort to showcase Russian culture and to maintain the true feel of the game.” It may be nothing but a well-worded excuse (and the “premiere game developer” line sounds a bit self-aggrandizing… come on this is Digital Spray after all), but I’m buying their justification. To me, their reasoning has integrity, plain and simple. In order for English speakers to understand the dialogue, a “journal” page is available that can be called up with the press of a button (a semi-transparent page that overlays the main action screen, so it does not completely remove you from the game), and you can read the dialogue as it is being spoken. Simple, clean-cut, beautiful. Of course, the “professional” review on Gamespot complains that the publisher should’ve spent the extra money to localize the voice acting and that having to activate the journal page to read the dialogue was a hassle. I am diametrically opposed to this opinion. People are idiots sometimes. (That includes me, though not often.) Moving on.

The next special item has to do with the aforementioned pseudo-cel-shaded graphics of the game. Interestingly, the game can be played with traditional “realistic graphics” (I’ve included some shots here), but in the graphics setting there is a box labeled “Comics Style,” which produces the mutated-“Borderlands”-like images in most of these pictures. (Of course, when the game was released in 2007, that convenient reference wouldn’t have been possible, and indeed you might consider it inaccurate.) It is, of course, not nearly as skillfully or artfully done as that Gearbox title, but it is also, once again, an eastern European game that predates “Borderlands”—and the current videogame love affair with cel-shading—by at least 4 years. What other game was around that looked like this in 2007? Or better yet, what game was around in 2007 that allowed you the option to make your game look like this if you wished it to? For that matter, when was the last time you played a game where you were given a choice about how you wanted your game to look? I’m sure there are some, but this sort of playful, forward-thinking approach still impresses me. The Gamespot review calls this interesting but ultimately irritating. I’m not going to use the “opinions = assholes = stinking” quotable again, but it sure would be appropriate.

And to further pat Digital Spray/Wild Hare on the back, the “Comics Style” presentation isn’t just tacked on weirdness. No, there’s an actual stylistic reason why they included it. You see, all the cutscenes in the game are indeed in the form of a graphic novel of sorts—they are presented in comic book form. So my guess is that the “Comics Style” graphics option was included to provide a more complete, seamless kind of “theme,” I’d guess you’d say. Now don’t get me wrong—the comic book-like cutscenes in “Instinct” are leagues below some other games that have done the same thing since (“Infamous” on the PS3 comes to mind, whose comic art style is striking), but again remember where and when this game came from. I’m still impressed. And, I had fun turning the effect off and on all throughout the game (which you can do on-the-fly without having to reboot the game) to see what different environments looked like. Totally engrossing. I’m such a child.

But one note about this graphics option: While most of the game’s environments are small to midsized hallways and rooms, some limited areas can be a little more expansive. (Later in the game there is a train/warehouse and a vivarium [a terrarium] that are larger than most of the other environments.) While the “comics” style option works fine in the smaller areas, when the maps (and draw distance) increase in size, things get increasingly difficult to make out when using this highly stylized perspective. The cartoony lines converge and diverge confusingly, making it nearly impossible to discern enemies at a distance. I also noticed that the “bloom” effect on the high-dynamic-range lighting (when using the “comics” option) tends to brighten things up perhaps too much, since part of the effect is to draw white lines around most items. So, turning the brightness and contrast down in game or on your TV/monitor might be useful. Since you can pop in and out of this effect quickly, it’s easy to experiment with what looks cool to you. Or you can just ignore it all and play it on the more realistic graphics setting.

OK, that was the gushing part, so let me bring it down a notch by highlighting some niggling items. Ultimately (except in one chapter that takes place in the mountains), this is an old-school, linear, corridor crawler (and even in the mountainside chapter, there’s a corridor made of mountains, so…). That’s just to say that if you plan on playing it, keep your expectations in check. Of course there are some gameplay shortcomings beyond the generally semi-incomprehensible narrative. The animations of the NPCs and enemies are stiff (though they outshine those found in “You Are Empty” by a loooooong shot). There is no run function (remind you of anything? That’s right! “You Are Empty” had no run function either. Though these characters move along at a slightly more brisk pace than the protagonist/cop in “You Are Empty,” there are moments when running would of course be the sensible thing to do. But you can’t, so deal with it, while getting shot in the back of course.) There is an alternate fire on the shotgun—which takes the form of a pretty decent gun butt, handy for close encounters or for smashing the glass out of first-aid kits hanging on the wall. But the shotgun is the only weapon that has the gun butt function. Why the hell is that? Can’t you gun butt stuff and people with an assault rifle or a pistol too? Apparently not. Also, when playing Arrow, the female operative, she does not have a gun butt move at all, even when holding the shotgun. Forgetful programmers perhaps, or some chauvinistic statement about the physical strength of women? Hmm. I’ll choose the former, since they included a tough, capable woman as a combat soldier in the first place. Oh, the jump is weak, the sniper reticle slides around a bit too much when focusing (though I think crouching may help to stabilize it a little, or I was hallucinating), and the sound design was merely functional, not outstanding (except for the use of dynamic music, a la “Half Life 2,” when larger encounters were about to occur). In general the selection of weapons is unexciting to use (the bow with exploding arrows is a noted exception). There’s a whole list of items I could include here, but I could also say these same things about a dozen other games.

But I liked this game—not in the same way I am beguiled by “You Are Empty.” Nothing in “Instinct” has the same half-realized grandeur and sense of eerie isolation, narratively or graphically. But it is a confident game that zips along, isn’t too demanding, and is over before you know it. Maybe in my case, the game came along just at the right moment when I needed something of this middling caliber and simplicity.

And on that note, here’s an odd little rambling postscript with a point buried so deeply and articulated so poorly I might not be able to find it myself: Like a lot of you, I usually have a few games going at once—something on the PC, something on a console or two, etc. At the point in time when I was playing “Instinct” and making notes about how I wanted to defend it (my daily modus operandi), I was also slowly making my way through “Heavy Rain” (PS3, 2010). (I exercise and lift weights regularly, but I have real serious chronic back pain, and to engage in daily aerobic exercise, I use a recumbent exercise bike, which provides back support, and even more important, allows me to sit on my ass and play games while I work up a sweat. Yeah, it still counts as exercise!) “Heavy Rain” is not a title I’d write about on this blog, because I sort of don’t see the reason. There are more qualified reviewers (dozens of them) who played the game upon its release and thoroughly discussed its merits and shortcomings—I’ve got nothing to add to that conversation. Anyway, one day I sat down on my bike with my water bottle, cranked up my PS3 and…POOF! My game save was gone, vanished, kerploofed. Total mystery. I had progressed about three-quarters of the way through the game, at least 10 hours of play. But rather than despairing or chucking the console out of the second-story window, I sort of shrugged my shoulders, said “Eh,” popped the game out of the console, and put it up on the shelf. I was completely uninterested in starting it over. I just wasn’t enthralled by it, I guess. So, instead I booted up “Instinct” and got my sweat on, totally engrossed, happy as a fool.  Why would I have such a lopsided response to a crappy, four-year-old, eastern European FPS over a beautiful, state-of-the-art PS3 game that is barely a year old? What is that all about? I fear it’s my truly bad taste shining through…I just hope it doesn’t bleed over into my sartorial choices…

Evil Resistance (PC, 2008, Russia): Russkies Do Romero? Yup.
July 18, 2011, 5:10 pm
Filed under: Evil Resistance (PC, 2008, Russia)

I’ve played some real junk in my lifetime. I mean, anyone who is a serious gamer has done so, either because we were seeking a guilty pleasure or because we didn’t know better. In either case, the sign of a hardcore sucker is whether or not, after suffering through an entire trainwreck of a game, do we feel regret? If you don’t, then I salute you!

I’d say probably half of the posts on this blog are thinly veiled excuses for games that are, frankly, just hamfisted, confusing, cancer-inducing junk when you get down to it. But as I’ve said before, I am forever beguiled by playing these trashy titles and attempting to find some redeeming quality about them. Shine that turd up! Why? I really don’t know—I need to ask my therapist about that. Probably has something to do with the fact when I was a child, no one had very high expectations of me. Eh, they were right.

Anyway, why not add another excuse to the pile? This gem is one I would almost guarantee you’ve never heard of. And if you have heard of it, then you probably wouldn’t admit to spending the 5 or 6 hours playing it (like I am admitting here, since I have no sense of self-worth). Ponder this: What kind of game would be produced if a low-rent, no-name Russian developer with minimal talent and tech wanted to ripoff a stinking (but lovely), subpar western turd like “Land of the Dead: Road to Fiddler’s Green?” Well, of course, something like that would never happen, right?

Except it did happen. And because I am now convinced it is an actual REQUIREMENT when discussing eastern European developers trying to market their earnest wares here in the west, the westernized title of “Evil Resistance: Morning of the Dead” (huh?) pales in comparison to the actually OK original title of “Moscow and The Dead.” Anyway, that’s the game I’m discussing in this post.

Regardless of what title you play it under, it’s a pretty rough-hewn, graphically challenged, zombie shooting “Hey didn’t I already do all of this in another crappy George Romero FPS?” affair. The story can be summed up accurately in three rambling statements: Natalia Budnik, a motorcycle-riding, hard-shootin’ policewoman, is on her way to her new station assignment outside of Moscow. On the way, everyone somehow turns into zombies, and from there you shoot them—on the road, in a police station, in a parking garage, in a warehouse, at a shopping center. Then the game ends by showing you (well, actually it just tells you) in a final scene with jets flying into an orange sunset what happened to create the zombie-hordes…go figure, it was a 10-kilometer-wide industrial accident involving radioactive waste and some experimental chemicals being developed by the army to change human DNA that poisoned the air and mutated about 2 million people, all of it ending in martial law. (Oh, P.S.: The only way I know this is because I’ve now added this to the list of illustrious Russian-language only titles that I spent a wee bit of time translating just so I could play it. If you, intrepid English-speaking player, plan on diving in, you might want to pick up the translation files hosted on 3D Shooter Legends at ).

Sound original? Nope. That’s why I love it. So I bet you’d be surprised if I told you the game was original after all? Yeah, you’d be surprised. And unfortunately I’d be lying. This game not only doesn’t bring anything new to the table, it is so roughly constructed, it is actually only sort of playable. You know how sometimes you come across a retail game that feels like a mod made by one person, but it isn’t? That’s what we’ve got here—but it is not a mod. It is a retail title developed by Openoko Enetrtainment (never released domestically in the west, of course…and the chances of that happening are seriously zero.) So, here’s the expected caveat: Only if you have that zombie-shooting gene in your bloodstream should you fiddle with this game. But if you DO have that zombie-shooting gene, then hold your nose against the stench and give it a go. You might actually enjoy it. For me (I have the ultra-mutated super-zombie-shooting-gene, so resistance is futile), something about the simplicity of the game, and the fact that it has no air of greatness about it at all, means it provided a diversion for a little while without too much damage being done.

Actually, that’s an understatement. Shamefaced, I must admit that for at least a few hours, this game had me under its spell. This is because it uses one mechanic very well—this game’s single trick (which it uses relentlessly, until all the magic is gone) is to pile hordes of zombies at you (usually in waves of 5 to approximately 20 at a time on screen), right in your line of fire (sort of like a freight train coming straight at you) so you can mow them down with any number of weapons without having to aim too much (the trick is to reload at the opportune time)—rifles, shotguns, pistols, staple guns, and a plethora of melee weapons like electric drills, swords, butcher knives, golf clubs, boards, and bats are at your disposal. Every zombie, just about, carries a weapon, and when the slaughter is over, the ground looks like a weapon supply store threw up all over the place. And although I didn’t count, it seems as though you can pick up and carry every single weapon you encounter simultaneously, which is nice (though cycling through them all is a bit of a pain and time consuming in the heat of battle).

While I wouldn’t call the AI smart by any means (they walk right into your line of fire after all), the game uses a technique that really spooks you. As you are focused on mowing down the oncoming train of stiffly walking/running zombies in front of you, another train has started up behind you, or just beyond your peripheral vision—so before you know it, you are dead but not sure why. This takes some getting used to, and it is a challenging way to do combat and creates a kind of frenzied, paranoid environment that forces you to frantically scan in 360 degrees pretty much constantly. Backing yourself into a corner quickly becomes your best defense.

Another perhaps unintended effect is this: A horde of 15 zombies stands behind a door (they’ve forgotten how to use doorknobs, thankfully), and as you approach said door, you can hear the awful ruckus behind it. All them know you are there, just waiting to be eaten, and you can hear their trademark shuffle and tortured cries through the door. That makes you not want to open it—but you have to in order to proceed (it is, obviously, a linear game). The fun of this is holding your breath, positioning yourself as best as possible, opening the door, and hitting the trigger to mow down all of the beasts trying to exit at the same time. It’s creepy fun. I imagine this effect is why the publisher (Akella, of all companies) even bothered with this low-rent, bottom-feeder at all.

Oh, the shortcomings are severe and will stop all but the most brave and tolerant from even attempting to play this. Let me enumerate some of them. First, the character you play from first-person perspective, Officer Natalia Budnik, walks like a damn drunken sailor. The vomit-inducing camera movement is the pits, plain and simple. Whoever in the world thought this seasick-swaying perspective was a good idea needs to lay off the Meclizine. (Meclizine is the main ingredient in motion sickness pills. See, if the devs were popping them regularly, then they wouldn’t see the camera movement as a problem. OK, so I guess it’s not a good joke if you have to explain it.) Anyway, her movements are so back-n-forth that at times I wondered what direction I was actually travelling in and whether or not she could make it from point A to point B—on a flat surface no less. She can get easily hung up on incidental flotsam, like pieces of paper on the floor, or a broken floor tile, and this most assuredly means death. There is a run function, but she tires quickly and cannot shoot while running (the gun lowers automatically). The animations of the zombies are no better—they are stiff, awkward semblances of people –and we’re talking way beyond rigor mortis setting in. Interestingly, in a few of the chapters, you come across NPCs who are not zombies and who attempt, in some nascent fashion, to fight alongside you. But they, too, look more like mannequins on wheels than actual human beings, and all of them die almost instantly when a chapter opens up. Their help was not requested and is not necessary.

Graphically, the game is dark (I have lightened up the images here some so at least they can be viewed), which is, of course, on purpose. Darkness equals scariness, or something. To provide illumination, Natalia carries flares which can be launched for some temporary light, and she also finds and uses nightvision goggles (in green). But I didn’t bother with either of these much, and just decided to squint instead (and play with all the lights out). To complicate matters, in addition to the dark environments, the graphics have a slightly fuzzy, Vaseline-lens haze to them which can be headache inducing.

While those issues are trying enough, what really makes this game a test of endurance is the fact that THERE ARE NO SAVES. More accurately, the game consists of 8 or 9 chapters, and you must play through the entire chapter from beginning to end without dying. If you get chomped, back to the beginning for you—even if the finish line was one drunken lurch away. As you finish each chapter, it is permanently unlocked, and you can go back and play any of them again if you wish (yeah, like that’s going to happen).

In sum, “Evil Resistance: Morning of the Dead” (I like “Moscow and the Dead” sooooo much better) is one of those games that the bad presentation and implementation actually becomes part of the tension while playing it. Will you die due to the poor game mechanics, wonky movement, blindspots, and confusing directions? The tension created by these realities may not be intentional, but it undeniably adds to the horror of it all. You just have to decide whether to accept it as part of the package. Chances are, you won’t play this game. Hell, here in 2011, only 3 years after the game was made in 2008, I doubt you’ll even find it lurking around on torrent sites for too much longer. But if you are a self-diagnosed zombie-shooting completionist, then I hate to say it, but you’re obligated.

Deadly Premonition (Xbox, 2010, Japan): 25 Hours–and Several Years–Later….
July 16, 2011, 5:50 am
Filed under: Deadly Premonition (Xbox, 2010, Japan)

Oh “Deadly Premonition,” I knew ye and dreamed of ye before your publisher forced that stupid twelfth-hour name change on you. Even though you now sound like an embarrassingly campy soap opera starring Juliet Mills as a small town psychic—a soap opera that was cancelled after a dozen episodes by the way– in my heart you will always be “Rainy Woods.”

OK, I confess. That is almost a word-for-word ripoff of how I began my previous discussion of 2010’s “MorphX/The Swarm,” with a few quick edits. But strangely, the narrative fits just as precisely.

If you’ve read any of these posts before, you know I’ve described myself as a lowly lurker who trawls the cobwebbed archive pages of videogame sites looking for neato screenshots, videos, and titles to vaporware, just so I have at least a little unrequited love in my life for drama’s sake. (Ever visited the website UNSSEN 64 that exclusively chronicles unreleased, unseen videogames? Do yourself a favor and Google it.) At least five years ago, I stumbled across “Rainy Woods” and began pining for its funky strangeness, even though the game had already been given the kiss-of-death “TBA” release schedule.

Like my experience with “MorphX” (which I had three years previously discovered on Russian videogame sites as “The Swarm” then suddenly found myself out of the blue buying it on Amazon for my Xbox in 2010 one day), “Deadly Premonition” seemed to follow the same path. Though the game had been in development, oh, like forever—in fact, originally for the PS2 of all things—suddenly I was playing it with my Xbox controller in my hand, marveling at…

…well, marveling at how much it still looked like a crappy PS2 game from 10 years ago (or more) even though the date on the back of the box said copyright 2010. But here it was on my TV! Rainy…err, I mean “Deadly Premonition!”

To the quickly growing (rabid?) fanbase surrounding this truly unique title, I would be considered a pathetic lightweight. Other than finishing the main story quest (and accidentally completing 3 sidequests early on before I got the hang of the game and knew they were actually sidequests), I only dedicated 25 hours of my life to it. 25 HOURS FOLKS! Yes, like “Fallout 3,” “Oblivion” or any other open-world-grinding-for-pleasure game, “Deadly Premonition” could easily gobble up half of your year, and you might not even know it. The game is deep, long, convoluted, quirky, complex, clunky, and (if you are at all familiar with the title)…extremely difficult to look at given its circa 1995 visuals (which, of course, make some people love it all that much more).

The game’s narrative is too much to explain, and to the folks running the “Deadly Premonition” wiki (yup, it exists), I probably wouldn’t do it justice anyway. But in simplest terms you play as Francis York Morgan, an FBI profiling expert with an imaginary friend he regularly consults on cases (read: borderline split personality), contemplates the creamer in his coffee for clues, and is generally unfazed when surrounded by black and white zombie ladies bent over backwards and crabwalking towards him, as though they just escaped a “Silent Hill” reunion party. Francis York Morgan (“Call me York”) enters the tiny, thickly forested northwestern town of Greenvale (on foot, because he wrecks his car in the intro) to find a serial murderer who stuffs his young female victims with red seeds. York (and don’t forget Zach, his invisible sidekick) have been tracking the killer across the country and is closing in on his or her trail. (One cool thing about Zach that I must mention if you’ve not played the game: Agent York talks to Zach on screen often, by putting a finger to his ear, as if he is listening to an earphone. He will ask Zach questions directly [“What do you think Zach? Should we go to dinner with them?”]. In response, the game will give you a choice to make [Go to dinner? Or Go Back to The Hotel?] as Agent York stands on screen with his finger to his ear, awaiting your response. This mechanic is really quite unique. In these instances, the player is of course squarely and obviously placed in the position of York’s invisible sidekick, which of course you actually are, since you are steering him throughout the entire game! This connects you to (draws you into) the game in a natural way, since the characters are clearly aware of your presence on the other side of the TV screen. It’s really quite ingenious, and I’ve never seen this in a game before. OK, back to the discussion.)

While in town, several new victims appear right under York’s nose, and the case heats up. There may or may not be a supernatural force at work here. At certain times, the town and its rich cast of characters seems sort of normal, albeit quirky as hell. But then areas of the town can transform, especially at night, into a “Resident Evil” meets “Silent Hill” meets “Some Other Generic Japanese Horror Survival Game” environment where the undead stalk you and generally hang around as target practice. The shooting mechanic, not broken but not refined, is not too difficult to master. There’s very little sharpshooting here, and much of the action doesn’t require a particularly quick trigger finger. The shooting is over-the-shoulder ala Leon Kennedy in “Resident Evil 4,” complete with laser target on your gun of choice (there are about 5 or 6 guns, as well as a series of crazy collectible melee weapons), and while aiming, you can’t walk and shoot simultaneously.

In between the “shadow” events (which is actually the only time where I remember combat taking place), you hang or drive or walk around town and “interview” the many characters that inhabit Greenvale to gather info to profile the killer. Thankfully for entertainment purposes, few of these townsfolk are actually what you would call “normal people.” There are more quirky personalities here than in the original “Twin Peaks” (which the game is clearly styled after—in fact, it is rumored that one reason for the game’s elongated production schedule was because development was halted at some point due to copyright infringement concerns, since it so closely resembled that David Lynch property). But you have “Roaming Sigourney,” a rather vacant lady in her 60s, who walks aimlessly around town with a casserole pot whose lid is perptually moving, but no one knows what is inside. George Woodman is the town’s sheriff, a snarling man whose mother beat him violently and repeatedly with a whip made from tree branches to the point of permanently scarring him. Then there’s Thomas Maclaine, the crossdressing deputy who wants to be a famous bar singer like his perpetually drunk sister? Or there’s Polly Oxford, the bent-over grandma who owns and runs the crazily massive, and completely empty, hotel in town who loves to talk, yet can only hear about half of what you say in return. It’s all quite funny, disturbing, goofy, and unsettling at the same time. Oh I could go on, but just play the game if this is your cup of tea. I have to say, getting to know the bizarre characters and their motivations as they tell their stories (some of them are regular folks, of course, including a beautiful damsel-in-distress-love-interest for Agent York) is absolutely endearing and is without question the high point of the game.

From here on during this discussion, I don’t simply want to repeat what is already widely available on the web regarding the game’s content. Opinions are like assholes—everyone’s got one, and they all stink. So, instead I thought I’d answer some unasked questions regarding the structure of the game. What I mean is there were some questions I had before starting the game—like regarding the structure of the quests, or the open-world nature of the game—and how those elements compared to other (more recent) open world sandbox games I had played. I was especially concerned about some of these elements considering “Deadly Premonition” had been in development for so long. These were questions that no one really answered in any reviews I read, and I had to answer them for myself by playing it. For example:

Do you have to eat in the game? Yup. As the hours tick by, you have a sleep gauge and a eat gauge which you have to keep an eye on. (Though, to be honest, I never paid a whole lot of mind to them, since they seem to deplete very slowly—if you hate this sort of mechanic, don’t let this stop you from playing “Deadly Premonition” in this case, since it really is a non-issue.) But if either gets too low, you have to correct the situation by eating something (you can carry all sorts of junk food with you) or taking a nap. You cannot sleep just anywhere. There are designated beds all around–in hotels, in other people’s houses, sometimes in sheds—and they all perform the same function. When you sleep, you have a choice of 4 “modes” (light sleep to heavy sleep), and your eat gauge depletes immediately when you wake up and this usually requires you to eat something right away—again, usually not a big deal.

How “open world” is the game really? Ah, good question. The game’s world is surprisingly large, though you cannot traverse all of it. For example, you can drive the many roads in and out of town, but the forests to your left and right are no-go zones (invisible barriers). There are many hidden paths through the forest though, but you cannot wander around the trees at will. In other words, some of this feels like it is “on rails” and is not the open world of “Oblivion” or “Fallout 3” by a far stretch. You can traverse the entire map on foot or in a car. Concerning this, you have to be a little careful—if you set off on foot and try to cover too much ground and find yourself stranded with nothing nearby but thick forest and your sleep or eat gauge is low, it can be game over. Run out of gas in the middle of nowhere, or slam your car into so many obstacles that it stops running and catches on fire? Get your boots on and start walking. But fear not—there is a “flare” in your kit you can use to call up a police car to rescue you. Extra flares can be bought too. In addition to the woods, there is the center of town, with many buildings—the vast majority of which are cardboard cutout storefronts only that cannot be entered. When I first started playing the game and I drove into town, I was excited at the prospect of going into that store or this bar…only to find out that there are actually only about 5 or so buildings in town you can actually enter (the police department, a diner, a convenience store) and the other 40 buildings are just 4-sided empty structures that you cannot interact with in any way (and actually most of the buildings look worse and worse the closer you get to them). I’m not kvetching; I just thought this may be something potential players might want to know. In this respect, the game shows its true age.

I heard something about having to shave in the game and change your clothes? Yes, you do have to shave and change your clothes, or else your shoddy appearance will draw flies and apparently turn people off from talking to you. And as a main part of the game, you do need to speak with people. Again if “sim-like” mechanics such as this irritate you, don’t let this be a game-changer if you are at all interested in playing “Deadly Premonition.” I sort of barely paid attention to these elements, and I attended to them haphazardly, and I got along fine with no issues. In some cases, it almost felt like a kooky add-on that really did not change (my) gameplay very much.

Considering the open-world nature of the game, what is the draw distance like? How far can you see into the world, and what does it look like? I would suppose that when the devs started making this game way back when, it would’ve been pretty darn impressive. The draw distance is at least…a mile or so? The game really tries its damnedest to show you how big this world is and that it is your (limited) playground. But of course it can’t do it very well by today’s standards. So, while you do indeed see the mountains in the distance or the road stretching out before you….it is these moments when you find yourself gritting your teeth and saying “Oh, my, it looks….old.” Lots of aliasing everywhere, all the time (those jagged edges). When the game’s distance stretches especially far, it begins to look like some abstract painting not resembling the game’s landscape at all. Do you get used to it? Yup, but it requires some breath-holding, at least until you adjust.

How does time pass in the game? Time does pass, and time is used as marker. For example, you may be given a deadline to be in a certain location at a certain time in order for the game’s main story to continue. George, the town’s sheriff, may tell you to be at the town hall at 3 p.m. for a meeting of the citizens. The in-game clock (on your menu) will show 11 a.m. So, that means you have several hours to kill before the meeting occurs. (This is when you are supposed to begin sidequests and that sort of thing, I imagine…including fishing, by the way, to relieve stress, or collecting random human bones buried here and there in the woods…I told you the game is unique). Don’t want to wait or putz around? You can pull out your special cigarettes “that are so good that York forgets time is passing,” or something like that, and as you puff away, the in-game clock speeds up until the deadline arrives. But you still need to be in the appointed place at the appointed time—and you can accidentally smoke your way right past your deadline if you are not careful! What happens if you miss a deadline? I don’t know; I never let it happen. There are not too many of these deadlines in the game though, and as the game wore on, there were fewer of them.

Is there money in the game? Yup. Money is given as your salary (you are FBI, after all), when you complete episodes/chapters. Money is used to buy food, ammo, guns, the usual. Goods are bought from different folks, and at the (one) store in town (that you can actually go into).

How many saves can you have? Unlike the open-world games made by Bethesda and the like that usually allow as many saves as can fit on your hard drive, you can only have ONE save with “Deadly Premonition.” Sorry. Hope it doesn’t get corrupted…

How do you navigate the game? With the astonishingly awful in-game map. With such a large area to cover, the map is an up-close mess that doesn’t allow you to zoom out far enough to get a sense of where you are and where you need to be. (I understand games like “Oblivion” suffer from this same problem. I never played that game, though I spent the better part of a year playing the entire “Fallout 3” canon, including every single DLC chapter, and I never struggled with the map in that game.) Anyway, I spent a good deal of my 25 hours with this game trying to figure out where the hell I was on the map and where I needed to go. So irritating, and again, in this respect I think the game kind of shows its true age. (The far zoomed-out pic here of the in-game map actually does not exist in reality—this was made by a fan of the game and you never get to see the whole map of the area in this way while playing.) Objectives for your current missions are marked on the map, as well as your current location, but making it all jibe locationally is a serious pain in the ass. There, I said it.

How does the dialogue with characters progress? Are there dialogue trees or options a la “Mass Effect” or “Heavy Rain”? The answer is no. In a game like this, that relies on a good deal of interaction with other characters, you talk to these kooky people quite a bit. But the only choices you have regarding dialogue (in some instances) is whether or not you speak to them at all. Otherwise, if you do choose to begin a Q-n-A, it has already been determined what will be said and by whom. You just sit back and press the A button to march through the conversation. This doesn’t mean that there are no choices you have to make in the game—there are numerous choices to make throughout. But typically, these choices are not embedded in the conversations you have with NPCs. The voice acting, by the way, is decidedly good in most cases.

How does the driving mechanic work? Ah, you get used to it, but the tank controls hearken back to an earlier era of game-playing where everyone had sore foreheads from slamming them against the wall repeatedly…again, this was made originally for the PS2, folks. In addition to the aforementioned gas gauge (which will run out if not replenished, and gas is bizarrely expensive at the one gas station in town whose owner is a nasty, brain-damaged jerk who really dislikes you for some reason), there is an integrity gauge as well, for when you start slamming into…whatever. If your damage meter reaches zero, the car will apparently catch fire and blow up with you in it (so, exit before that happens.) Early in the game, you get the “master key” from the sheriff that allows you to drive any police fleet vehicle, and there are many of them scattered around (especially if you wreck one due to the crappy controls). The environments are non-destructible, of course.

I’ll add more oddball specs if I think of any, but that’s a pretty good overview. Overall, frankly, if you wish there were an experience out there that would take you back to a time where playing a Japanese survival horror game was keeping you up at night…well, this isn’t that good. Mostly because it’s not a horror game, strictly speaking (though the ending, which I won’t reveal here, is straight-up, bizarre, otherworldly, supernatural horror, pretty much). While it dips deeply from the well of horror games preceding it (and there are a few “OH FUCK YEAH!” horror moments), it also borrows from other genres (the detective genre especially, with a little sim thrown in), and this effectively dilutes the horror experience, for someone like me. Of course, I was reading on a forum someone expressing just the opposite: “I wish Swery65 (the lead developer) would make more games like this one…except just not with the dumb horror stuff.” But horror is my mileu, and since I couldn’t care less about collecting every goofy melee weapon in the game or talking with every single side character hanging around on the pixelated street corner (wishing instead to be scared right outta my knickers), the game was just okay. But it was clearly a labor of love for those involved who actually saw the development of this oddity through to the end. Good for them, I say.