Keith's Crappy Videogame Blog

Red Ocean (PC, 2007, Germany): Dry As A Bone
September 20, 2012, 2:03 am
Filed under: Red Ocean (PC, 2007, Germany)

Developed by German-based Collision Studios and published by DTP Entertainment AG (Germany’s second biggest independent games publisher), “Red Ocean” earned itself the German Developer Award “Deutscher Entwicklerpreis” in the “Best Action Game” category in 2007. A star-studded affair covering more than 30 categories and including hundreds of entrants, the “Deutscher Entwicklerpreis” has also bestowed awards upon the likes of Crytek (for several of the “Crysis” games), publisher Ubisoft GmbH, and a bevy of other high profile game organizations and titles over its eight-year history.

But, you say, you’ve never heard of “Red Ocean?”

OK then. Collision Studios licensed and modified the pretty-much-famous Gamebryo Engine to build the game. You know, the same engine behind the likes of “Fallout 3,” “Epic Mickey,” and several Sid Meier titles. You’ve heard of them, haven’t you?

Oh, but you’re sticking to your guns and telling me you’ve never heard of “Red Ocean?”

Well, where the hell have you been??!! Oh, that’s right. You were probably off somewhere playing a good game instead. (Insert groan here.)

Well to get you up to speed (even though the game is five years old and I’ve only gotten around to playing it now myself…), the developer says their semi-sci-fi-contemporary-shooter is characterized by “firefights in collapsing underwater tunnels, structures that are obliterated by flooding, sinister frogmen hunting for the intruder, volatile explosives everywhere, and a conspiracy involving deadly biological weapons.”

Oh, so that’s what this game was about. Okay, I guess.

Alright, enough smugness. In “Red Ocean” you play as gruff-voiced Jack Hard (hmmm), an ex-military officer who has blown all his savings on a boat. To get by, he now runs his own diving business “Treasure Dive Inc.,” taking wealthy clients on exotic treasure hunts to sunken wrecks all over the globe (at least that’s what the game manual says). In the game’s brisk and barely explained introduction, a mysterious individual named Hammerson has hired you to explore a WWII-era Russian U-boat lying dormant at the bottom of the ocean 200 miles off the coastline of the Corvo Islands. The two of you jump in together, but Hammerson swims away from you quickly, finds a kind of door into the U-boat (or maybe near it), he disappears into it, and leaves you cold. Next thing you hear over your headset is his anguished cry. Intriguing!

Or, at least, that what I think happens. You see, much of the action surrounding this hasty introduction remains unseen with just some vague watery images accompanied by confusing voiceovers to guide you. Before you get your bearings, the game changes into first-person perspective, and you’ve entered an underwater facility of some kind. Welcome: Now you’re playing. In the first few feet, you find Hammerson’s dead body, and you snatch his revolver.

Suddenly, a voice pipes up over your comm channel. It’s a CIA operative explaining that Hammerson was an agent tasked with investigating the defunct, sprawling Russian underwater science facility that you are now standing in. You were simply his unwitting cover.  Apparently, terrorists have taken over the facility and have reinitialized some of the old Soviet research into high-tech weaponry…or whatever. After taking a few more steps into the facility, trap doors lock behind you (of course), and the rest of the game consists of a race to escape the same old metal-and-glass hallways, natural caves, labs, elevators, and storage rooms you’ve seen countless times before, taking down angry terrorists with guns. Of course, the CIA operative dude in your earpiece guides your every step and peppers you with forgettable banter and bad one liners the whole time. Sounds like a standard shooter to me. Let’s go!

But back in 2007, Collision Studios claimed it was not making a standard shooter, not by a long shot. Their hook? Oh, the water. Much in this game would be water-driven. For example, the company line touted that “the player has to use the immense power of the ocean for his means. The unique twist: Players will deal with water in all 3 states of aggregation. In liquid form, it not only enables you to approach enemies unnoticed by diving, but can also conveniently drown a baddie. At sub-zero temperatures, it quickly becomes a dangerously slippery surface, and hot steam is nothing to mess with either. Whether above or below the water line, Red Ocean by Collision Studios will literally take your breath away.”

Sounds good, yes? The problem is that when all was said and done, water dynamics barely appeared in the game at all. There is a room or two that must be flooded so you can float through, and another very short section where some swimming-and-shooting is necessary (although I’m still not sure how guns work properly when submerged exactly). But I was never offered the opportunity to use water as a weapon to drown my assailants. And what about slippery ice? I never encountered any. And steam? Well, there is a vent here or there blowing steam, but it never had any ill effect on my health bar and was nothing more than an environmental effect. In short, the entire water hook advertised by Collision clearly…evaporated (heh heh)…as the game was developed. Except the title; it’s got the word “ocean” in it, after all.

But underwater sequences in games are notoriously problematic anyway, so it might be a good thing that the promised watery gameplay never really materialized. And the truth is that “Red Ocean” doesn’t suffer because of this. It is simply an average shooter, and there’s no way it could have ever been anything else.

Trudging (on dry feet) through the underwater facility, encountering hallway after generic, cookie-cutter hallway, while fighting three to five frogmen/terrorists at a time and crouching behind large wooden crates is acceptable at best. The game looks okay for a 2007 title; lighting is well done, and there are a few attempts (with underwater vistas) to make you feel like you are far under the surface of the ocean. Color is at a minimum but not completely absent. At least once per chapter there is a larger room where a battle or boss fight occurs—in one case it is a dry dock enclosing a sub, and in another, it is a large circular room that houses what might as well be a nuclear reactor. These rooms tend to break up the monotony to some degree, but “Red Ocean” is a very old school corridor crawler through and through. Make no mistake about that.

Alas, much like the paper-thin narrative here, the characters are nobodies. I believe Collision tried to paint your character, Jack Hard, as a kind of burned-out beach bum, a low-key figure who simply wants to hang out and fish on his boat but finds himself embroiled in a shootout against terrorists while locked in this underwater semi-sci-fi facility and “making nice” with the CIA operative guiding him on the communicator. But none of these actors feel like real people by any stretch of the imagination. The voice acting is sub par, mechanical, unconvincing (say it’s not so!…at this point if I play an eastern European game that actually has good voice acting, I will probably faint dead away), and the dialogue is poorly written (probably due to a stiff translation).

But nothing in the game is absolutely atrocious, honestly, and nothing is broken. Overall, the title runs in a fairly confident way; everything works well enough. As is my regular modus operandi, I played it using my Xbox Controller with my Wireless Receiver for Windows and the keyboard emulator Xpadder to map the controls. The game ran smoothly, didn’t choke. The majority of the weapons fit the standard pistol-rifle-shotgun-grenade profile, and they do the job. The skins on the weapons looked pretty good for 2007, I thought. Thankfully, though, there are two experimental guns you acquire rather early in the game that help to give the title a little bit of character. One of them is a plasma gun that throws balls of light and knocks enemies to the ground. Not particularly exciting, but as your projectile travels towards its target, it can pick up and drag moveable items in its path (say, barrels or crates, for example) which are then hurled at your enemies. Kinda fun. Also, the plasma ball bounces off every surface until a living target is hit, so doing ricochet shots around corners can be fun.

The other less traditional weapon is a laser gun, which acts more like a machine gun, with an extremely high rate of fire. Ammunition is carefully placed (so it is not super plentiful nor too scarce), exploding barrels abound, and the game uses medkits and not regenerating health (typical for the time period this game was made). Overall I’d say the combat balancing is just right. Enemy AI is probably best described as half-aware: Sometimes they dodge, sometimes they don’t; sometimes they’ll advance to your position, and sometimes they will hang back and wait for you. The variety, again, seems well-balanced for a title from 2007. The catcalls from the enemy terrorists get repetitive and tiring, but that’s a standard complaint. The music was highly polished overall, actually, and it was a symphonic score (probably synthesized, but well done—as usual, I killed the music track after the first chapter, so I don’t have too much to say about it). I didn’t come across any puzzles, and there are no step-n-fetch quests here at all. The entire point of “Red Ocean” is to get from entrance point A (at the beginning of the game) to exit point B (the end of the game). Keep it simple, stupid.

This faint praise aside, there is one glaring issue. And that is the length of this point-A-to-point-B excursion. For an advertised “full fledged” game, made in the year 2007, this puppy is incredibly short. Yes, I’ve played even shorter games made after 2007 (I think I finished the “Terminator Salvation” movie-tie-in game in something like three pathetic hours, wtf), but I think I may have found one of the earliest instances of a game’s length being abbreviated yet still being hawked as a full-length feature. Clocking in at a short 7 chapters, which anyone could probably blow through in a single evening (though I tried to take my time), it is kind of hard to think of “Red Ocean” as a complete game, and the short length makes it difficult to connect to the game’s already flimsy narrative and characters. I mean, it has the requisite beginning, middle, and end, but any fat (or uniqueness) that might have been there has been completely trimmed. Oh, maybe that’s not a bad thing either. Just surprising though.

So, just like this game, I’m going to keep this short and…well, short. Can I go play “Borderlands 2” now?


Mindjack (XBOX, 2011, Japan): Oh, This One Hurt
September 5, 2012, 10:35 pm
Filed under: Mindjack (XBOX, 2011, Japan)

Every once in a while, I have someone (often a student) ask me how I can possibly play (and even finish!) cruddy games…and even worse, spend so much time writing about them. My answer is simple: This blog is not really a review site; it is more accurately the chronicle of a great big videogame treasure hunt. I play poorly received games because I’m always looking for those gemlike qualities that unsympathetic reviewers gloss over or ignore or deny. I’m trying to sense (and honor) the human endeavor and commitment buried underneath the mess of code. That (ill-advised?) treasure hunt is a lot of fun for me, and it provides a different kind of challenge that you cannot find in a triple-A videogame with a Metacritic score of 98. As I’ve said before, it’s easy to love the “Mass Effect” trilogy, and even easier (and incredibly satisfying) to play. Where’s the challenge? To me, the real challenge is trying to love a bizarre, crappy title that, by all rights, probably shouldn’t exist. Twisted? Yep. Damaging? Most assuredly.

But then reality sinks in, and I find myself obligated to play and write about a soulless game like “Mindjack” (2011) which, besides being poorly executed in countless ways, doesn’t seem to have any humanity behind it. Even worse, when I discover that I already agree with just about every negative review that exists regarding a game, I’ve got nothing to push against, which makes my job even harder–in other words, the many reviews on the nets bashing “Mindjack” are completely justified. Of course, I cringe because of this awful pact I have with myself to play as many “bad” shooters as possible and to write about them at length on this blog, hoping to find something redeeming. It’s seriously like a pact with the devil, and it creates a lot of pain and suffering. Wait a minute: Why the hell am I doing this?

Better not think like that or I’ll need to be hospitalized. So, onto the game: I’m not going to lie to you. As multiple reviewers say, the story in “Mindjack” is paper thin. I’ll warn you ahead of time — there are some major spoilers here, plot points that are left unrevealed until the final moments of the game, but I can’t imagine anyone caring enough to be bothered. Transporting us to the year 2031, “Mindjack” suffers from the overused “corporations and governments are evil” meme, as well as the “technology may be destroying us” theme. Amazingly in a mere 20 years from now, humans have developed the ability to hack into a stranger’s mind to control him or her like a puppet. Sound dangerous? Sure, but our good-natured milquetoast hero, Jim (whose last name completely escapes me at the moment) would only use such a power for the benefit of all mankind. How was this power developed? Some scientist named Gardner (the head of a corporation which originally was just a broadband technology developer or whatever), overwrought at the death of his daughter, decided to try to hack into her memories and to bring her back to life… in a virtual fashion. His experiment failed (something we find out at the very end of the game), but as a byproduct of his experiments he discovered this mind-hacking ability. Of course, once the United States government hears about Gardner’s accomplishment, they want a piece of the action. Gardner, however, is not willing to simply hand over his discovery to any government because he fears how it might be used to harm others. Wrongly suspecting that he might be planning to sell it to the highest bidder (especially a rival government), the good old US of A sends in agents to secure the technology… and to also quietly kill Gardner. This brings us to the present–where the government may be mind-hacking folks and making them do naughty things…and they don’t even know it. Oh, and a side-effect of this process might be death. Ooops.

The game actually begins with Jim covertly tracking a blonde woman named Weiss (through an “airport of the future”) who is thought to be a techie terrorist. Soon after he makes contact, floods of federal agents (FIA, Federal Intellignece Agency–creative, huh?) wash over the lobby and escalators and ticket counters, all of them keen on taking you and she down. Of course, the two of you bond together, and you find out (through excruciating quips and astonishingly poorly written dialogue delivered in the most stiff voice acting I’ve ever encountered) that Weiss is actually on the same side as you. She is investigating a high number of deaths that seem to be related to Gardner’s mindjacking tech. From this point on, you and she fight enemies (most of them brain-dead AI soldiers on foot, with some of them occupying mechs or various flying machines– there are also a few small robo-sentries involved) side-by-side through subway tunnels, laboratories, construction sites, and the streets of a futuristic city (which is completely devoid of any kind of character). The final destination is Gardner’s giant, glass-walled and stainless steel corporate headquarters where the mindjacking technology originated. (Actually, everything in the future is apparently large, glass, and stainless steel, superclean…and extremely dull-looking and fake.) Throughout the story, there is one major double cross that occurs…which might add excitement to the narrative…or it might simply be completely unrealistic and unbelievable depending on your point of view. I opt for the latter. But go ahead and play it to decide for yourself.

There are many reviews for this title all over the Internet. And since I generally agree with all of them (rare but not unheard of), I’m going to keep this post shorter than usual (and this time I mean it) because I have very little to add to the conversation. In my mind, a reviewer from nailed the problem with this game in a single statement: “‘Mindjack’ is a perfect example of lazy, corporate-mandated cash in.” Yep. One of the joys of playing poorly received games as I do (and I need all the joy I can get in this endeavor) is that while a game may be glaringly bad on all fronts, often the hearts and souls of those hardworking artists (sweating bullets to make it the best game possible) shine through. Behind the garbled mess that is a crappy game, if you look real hard, you can see the guys and gals pouring themselves into this piece of  “art,” or “crap,” or what-have-you. And often, as a player willing to wade through the muck to the painful end, you can imagine what greatness these code jockies originally intended (though they missed the mark by miles). Most of the time, that’s all I need in order to at least try to enjoy myself on this masochistic journey. But in the case of “Mindjack,” the game is not only crappy on many fronts, it is also sterile and devoid of human care. Damn.

Again, many of the previous reviews regarding this game expertly discuss all of the shortcomings, so I’ll just make a short list of it: the environments are bland, textureless, uninteresting, and mostly empty of detail or character of any kind; as mentioned, the voice acting is abhorrent, stiff, mechanical, inhuman; the story is not only clichéd, but is tiresome, dull, slow, and far from immersive; the gameplay is repetitive in a way that maybe you’ve never seen before, with the same waves of enemies repeated over and over again as you enter each new bland, featureless area; character control is stiff and unforgiving, and aiming can be a frustrating wrestling match; the AI characters fighting on your side have the worst aim ever, and they are experts at getting themselves killed, which creates more work and more frustration; some of the boss battles seem endless, requiring you to use specific tactics which are never clearly presented to you in any meaningful way…which can lead to hours of fruitless play with no progression through the campaign. In short, there is a significant amount of poor (and inconsistent) game making on display here. Yeah, a cash-in.

I understand however that I may have not played this game properly. As a singleplayer campaign-focused gamer, I may be completely missing the point of “Mindjack,” which really wants to be more of a multiplayer game than anything else. The big idea that Square Enix had for this game was to seriously toss the singleplayer/multiplayer salad, blending the two together into this seamless awesomeness. It was all supposed to work this way: Here I am sitting at home playing through the campaign, and my console is connected to Xbox live (or the PlayStation Network). Depending on the portal settings I have for the game, someone (or anyone) can sneak into my campaign and fight alongside me…or against me. This is accomplished using the central mindjacking mechanic of the game. Literally, a real life player on the network could infiltrate the mind of one of the characters in my singleplayer game and play along–and I might not necessarily know. Likewise, even if disconnected from the net, this same approach in the game allows me, as the main player, to occupy the minds of enemy AI characters and to get them to turn on their own squad mates. Frankly, it’s all very interesting, and few games have really tried to utilize this sort of “possession” interface.

In “Mindjack” this mechanic actually works. For example, when you enter an area where a major battle is about to occur (which is pretty much all the game consists of), one of your initial tactics is to try to “mindslave” as many AI characters as possible, so that you literally build up your own squad person by person. The NPC’s (that basically are turned into PC’s) take two forms: First, there are always innocent bystanders crouching in the corner, trying to avoid being hit by flying bullets, and you can make them work for you. (Once you possess them, a weapon of some sort magically appears in their hands.) Second, enemy soldiers you fire at will eventually fall to the floor, and right before they expire, if your timing is right, you can “mindslave” them as well, and they will turn on their colleagues and fight in your favor until they croak. The one problem with this mechanic, however, is this: When you leave the main character’s (Jim’s) body to inhabit someone else (you literally turn into a floating ball of light–the game calls it “Wanderer” status–scouting the entire arena looking for someone to inhabit), then Jim himself becomes an AI character who begins to run around on his own, inevitably putting himself in immediate danger. Once Jim goes down, and if your immediate partner (usually the Weiss woman discussed earlier) also goes down, it is game over. Regardless of this little wrinkle, the mind hacking mechanic is intriguing. But it is the only interesting element this game has going for it–see the list of complaints I stated earlier…or simply consider the appalling Metacritic score of 43 (which in my mind is a little too forgiving).

Also I think it is only fair to point out that some of the common gripes against this game might be ameliorated if you consider the title to be a multiplayer game instead of the singleplayer game. For example, though there are a handful of exceptions, many of the bland, featureless arena-like areas you inhabit in the game are clearly designed for large multiplayer battles instead of sightseeing. If you play the singleplayer campaign only and you want to wander through a landscape that is interesting and immersive, you can simply forget about it. Similarly, if the game is viewed primarily as a multiplayer experience, then who seriously cares about the skeletal story or the stiffly voiced actors? Again, it is entirely possible that I played the game in the wrong way…although clearly a singleplayer campaign is presented for your…ahem… enjoyment.

I almost gave up on completing “Mindjack” half a dozen times due to frustrating gameplay and confusing directions. I can suffer a dull game any day of the week; things only get hairy when a game is boring and then also becomes so difficult that I feel like breaking my controller in half. In one sense, I wear it as a badge of honor to have actually completed this game (only on normal setting by the way). But I’m not sure that is a badge anyone else needs to have on their lapel. Make sure you choose your battles wisely; I am apparently incapable of doing that.