Monday, July 4, 2011

Call of Juarez

The last Western game I played was Gun. It had a plot I needed to follow with an open world Wild West to roam around it finding side-quests and looking for gold. I thought it was kind of fun, but it was a little rough to play as it was an original Xbox game converted to 360. Call of Juarez is none of that, but much more intently Western. As a side note I should point out it's $20 from Games on Demand.

Call of Juarez is Spaghetti Western: the Game. This is the genre as conceived by Polish developer Techland. I don't think American Westerns are quite this dark in theme and storytelling. This is mostly narrative you are playing through, as there are no side-quests or any exploration but what is right in front of you.

What is right in front of you? You play one of two characters: Billy "Candle" who is unjustly accused of murdering his mom and step father; and, Reverend Ray who goes on a blood thirsty crusade as the Sword of God to hunt Billy down. The tale is told across 15 chapters where you alternatively run away as Billy, then for a couple chapters switch to the Reverend as you basically run through many of the same boards (sometimes with a time limit) to keep up with him. This is both good and bad, because each tackles the road ahead differently. Billy can go stealth by hiding in bushes and creeping around, as well as having a whip that aids him in climbing. The Reverend has gun skills and just blasts his way through things. Only in one spot did it seem lazy when the Reverend has to move through a mountain pass you already played as Billy, killing the same enemies you just cleared out. Each character has a hard past, some of which comes out when the character you are playing talks to you. Billy was abused a lot and The Reverend wasn't always of the Lord.

There is gold in this game. Legend has it that the Aztecs payed a ransom for the release of Montezuma but the gold was lost in what is now Juarez, Mexico. The Call of Juarez is a curse that draws men to search for this gold. Billy just prior to the start of the game went to Juarez to find it, but failed, little realizing that his mom had given him a necklace and a nursery rhyme to help him. Through the game the hunt for the gold by others will drive Billy back to Juarez to find it, and his real father. During the search for Billy, the Reverend will have an epiphany that maybe he isn't the most righteous of individuals, and maybe Billy needs help. Some of this is told though narration during load times that are blessedly short.

To round out this Western you will pretty much see one of everything you think you are supposed to, except John Wayne. You will have a good number of run-ins with bandits in the hills. There will be a fight on an ambushed train. You will get to ride a horse and eventually chase a carriage to save a girl. There are Texas Rangers so you will be in Texas. Juarez is in Mexico, so you will also get to be in Mexico. You will get in duels. There is a Mexican mansion that reminded me a little of The Alamo. There is a church with graves that hide a treasure. And you will meet Apaches, on the wrong side of their guns. One of which is Calm Water, a medicine man. You must pay him back for saving your life.

There was a moment in Gun when my character was on a carriage or something and an Apache (I think) attacked me with a tomahawk. I shot him point black with a shotgun on gamer instinct. I immediately felt really really bad. I rarely have guilt for ending a character for trying to end me. I didn't have a choice, though. I couldn't negotiate with him, his only programming was to kill me. But with the weight of history in my head I sort of thought maybe he had a right to try to kill me, he wasn't a gameplay obstacle. I don't think killing anyone in a game has bothered me so much, except that mission in Grand Theft Auto III when you have to use a flamethrower in China Town. Here I am again as Billy, trying to negotiate a mountain pass and Apache's have set up multiple ambush parties. Then they started shooting at me, and my first thought was, "who sold them guns"?

You do have to play this story, it is a game after all. There are some hit or miss ideas in here, but for the most part it's solid. What works is the Reverend's gun play with "bullet time", and exploration work with Billy. What doesn't is the dueling system (it just seems odd), platforming with the Reverend (you have to stack boxes), and stealth missions. There are a couple missions with Billy that are totally Tomb Raider inspired, which I found fun because it's you against the environment. He can also carry a Bow and there is a whole chapter dedicated to you using it on Silver Mine thieves. Dueling just didn't work for me, but when you die you can restart at the duel and not waste time. Platforming is difficult when you have to line up boxes just right. But, it feels like you're gaming the system, not solving the puzzle. Some stealth missions (Billy only) will take a minute and involve you hiding in a bush for a moment; others will take several minutes, and are excruciatingly boring when you don't know what the goal is.

Visually the environment is its own character. I love the look of the West. Unfortunately I use a 6-year-old DLP 1080i TV with bad contrast and all the levels set in the dark were unplayable. I can set the brightness up in-game but it just washes out the color and looks muddy. I don't know how much was the game or my TV but I suspect the weight of the issue was in the game. I played dark levels in Earth Defense Force 2017 with only a little trouble.

Even though you are just playing through the plot of the game there is a lot to like, which is to say the story. There is a gaming thing attached where you can collect wanted posters to unlock Super Hard mode or get an achievement. Once again there was no real incentive to play on a harder difficulty, so I knocked it out on Easy to for a more relaxed game. The only replayability is to do it again on Super Hard. There was some multiplayer options that didn't really appeal to me, so I didn't try them. Before Red Dead Redemption there was Call of Juarez. It's a decent game that gets over the pitfalls of Gun and has an even better story. Play it for $20, it's worth it.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Earth Defense Force 2017

I love this game. As soon as I started the first level I was hooked. This was a budget title release in 2007 for $40, but I downloaded it from Games on Demand for $20. The sequel, Earth Defense Force: Insect Armageddon, is scheduled to be out in the next week, so I wanted to catch up on this title. There are pure ideas in this game that I don't know if they can be done in a higher-budget sequel by a different developer.

Earth Defense Force 2017 is about an alien invasion of overwhelming insect and robot forces, known as the Ravagers. You are Storm 1 and in proper third-person you will run around and shoot every alien in sight, from the insect horde, to city destroying robots, to troop transport ships and many others. It's not a cover-based shooter, but you can hide behind buildings until something blows it up. This entire game is 53 levels of Gears of War 2 Horde Mode. It is exhausting and exciting, and draws you in as you are surrounded by a 100 giant ants all at once. Usually you are the last one standing from your unit.

Developer Sandlot managed to fit all this in less than a 2Gb download, but it certainly tasks the system. By the way, I hate to say this, but as much fun as it is, the game is deeply flawed. With so much happening at any one time the frame rate can barely keep up. There will be a dozen giant ants coming at you, two dozen ships in the air shooting at you or your team, a giant robot firing plasma bolts and drop ships sending in a dozen more ants and spiders to replace the ones you just killed. It is pandemonium. No wonder the Xbox 360 has trouble. The ideas are so ambitious for a budget title I really wonder if the system could handle it in full HD texture.

I could easily compare the bad designs in this game to Duke Nukem Forever, they both have many of the same issues, graphically I mean. The scenery is bland, but everything is destructible. There's nothing going on that looks to be in HD. There is so much clipping that aliens get caught in buildings and you often times walk through stuff. Dead aliens drop off collectibles, but they are 2D sprites like in Doom. What? Who still does that? There is no perpetual world, which means if you destroy a building, it will be there again in the next level. The missions either put you in a city (with Japanese signage), a hillside, a beach, or an underground nest (the worst idea in the game). I think developer Sandlot made one enormous level containing all of this and dropped you in the parts you need to fight. There are a litany of other issues I'm not getting into.

None of this matters. You will ignore most, if not all of the shortcomings. This game is so much fun on a fundamental level. Even the little details like bullets hitting the enemy, everything reacts a little different, but you know you're doing damage. As I played, it evoked movie moments from Starship Troopers, Independence Day, Aliens, Godzilla and even Battle: LA (even though that came out after this game). I want a game from each of these movie franchises that uses this game's engine. I bet this is exactly how the Battle of Klendathu went down. Google it.

There are five difficulty levels, from Easy to Inferno. The higher levels are impossible to get through, but here's where the game shines. As you kill Ravagers they might drop a health item, an Armor item, or a Weapon item. These last two are the ones you want, because at the end of the level the game tallies up what you collected and ads Armor to you overall stamina. You start with 200, but soon enough after a few levels you'll be at 300, then 400, then you start thinking about grinding for a while on a level to build up enough stamina to move to higher difficulty levels. After playing through both Easy and Normal I accrued over 2000 stamina. This builds up a good desire to replay levels.

But I forgot to talk about the weapons. There are 171 weapons in the game. You can use two at a time: I usually chose a machine gun and a rocket launcher (I'm a big fan of the Goliath D1). To get weapons, collect weapon icons, and at the end of the level the game will randomly decide which weapons you get. Not all weapons are available at the start, you have to be on or past a certain level and predetermined difficulty to receive most of the weapons. On Normal you can get 77 weapons. There is only one to get for beating Easy and all the rest are on the last three difficulties. With a combination of better weapons and grinding for more Stamina this game is suddenly winnable at the highest level. I can't think of another game in recent years that has me playing again and again just to build up enough strength to beat the hardest levels.

Even though a voice is telling you at the beginning of the level what to do, the plot of the game is a worldwide failure to fight the Ravagers. This is a real disconnect from what you are doing as you will hear that the mission is a failure but you win the level because you killed everything. Many times I thought I did something wrong, but it was just the plot in the background. Also in the background is your team. You can ignore them, but they do manage to kill a fair share of aliens, but if they all die it doesn't matter because you can always survive. I did feel bad every time they died because they tended to yell and scream on your radio. Take a hint from Independence Day, if you're trying to destroy something huge, wait for something to open on the underside and shot it with as many rockets as you can. Then get out from underneath it. Not that it will hurt you, but it looks awesome to shoot down a troop transport and watch it fall on buildings, leveling them. Explosions are intense and amazing. The screen will shake and dim, the controller vibrates, dust and smoke cover everything and the framerate craps out (which actually seems more realistic like you took a blow to the head). I even like the plasma bolts that dim the screen and look extra bright, as if they are washing out your field of vision.

The price is right and the gameplay is strong. Everything else is pretty bad, but that doesn't matter in the long run. Achievements don't stack. There are only six, one for each difficulty level and one for getting all the weapons. There are some great "Oh, s**t" moments most games don't have. Even the reveal on the first level when you see the Ravagers for the first time is unsettling. Sandbox did a great job of proving gameplay is the key to gaming. I will likely keep this game on my system and just grind levels for some time to come.