Monday, March 21, 2011

Dead Nation

I quite enjoy twin stick shooters. It’s a genre that’s never failed to entertain me. I picked up Super Stardust HD as soon as a heard about it, and have enjoyed it ever since. It makes sense, then, that I would be interested to know what Housemarque, the creators of SSHD would be up to in their next endeavor. It turned out to be a nice little game called Dead Nation.

Dead Nation is a twin stick shooter as well. Except you’re not shooting rocks in this game; you’re shooting zombies. Lots and lots of zombies. You have the option of playing either a male or female survivor, in yet another world plagued by the zombie apocalypse. Instead of simply being dropped into an area and being basically trying to survive for a set amount of time before being whisked away to another level (like in SSHD or Zombie Apocalypse, a conceptually similar game), Dead Nation features a full campaign and plot. Housemarque doesn’t try to put any spin on the classic zombie formula, though; the story and setting aren’t anything you haven’t seen a few times before.

As in any game of this nature, you have a lot of weapons at your disposal. At the beginning of the game you start with a basic assault rifle. Though you still have to reload, you have unlimited ammo with this weapon, and you can charge it up for a power shot that will score automatic headshots on zombies and also scythe through and hit any ones directly behind them. As you progress through each level, you’ll encounter a number of rest stops along the way, which each hold shops where you can buy additional weapons and ammo. Such additonal weapons include standard fare like the SMG, shotgun and flamethrower, and less-than-standard fare like the blade gun, which shoots saw blades that rip through zombies (think the Ripper from Unreal Tournament). Shops are also where you’ll go to buy upgrades for your weapons. Each weapon can be upgraded in a number of categories, such as clip size, damage, and fire rate.

Scattered around the various levels are various chests. Some are easier to find than others, but all of them hold either ammo, money, or points for your score multiplier. Most importantly however, some of them hold armor pieces. Different armor pieces can give different stat boosts; endurance is for HP, strength for melee damage, agility for running speed, etc. You can choose your armor loadout in shops.

Like I said before, Dead Nation will throw a veritable horde of zombies at you, on a fairly regular basis. And sometimes they don’t always just come from the front. Sometimes they come from the back simultaneously; sometimes they drop down on you from above. There will be times when you fumble switching weapons or reloading, and that’s all it takes for them to bear down on you. For those times, you have the Rush technique and melee. Rushing is a technique carried over from Super Stardust HD. Basically, it’s a brief, headlong charge where you quickly sprint in one direction. You’re invincible during a Rush, so it’s a great way to evade attacks and escape being cornered. It takes several seconds to recharge a Rush though, so it’s not something to be used lightly. Melee is for those times when you can’t Rush, and you don’t have time to reload or switch weapons. It does enough damage to incapacitate most zombies in a single hit, so meleeing is often an effective way to take care of any strays that manage to get past your hail of gunfire.

You’re also able to carry a number of consumable weapons and items. Flares emit a pillar of light and smoke, attracting nearly every zombie in the vicinity, and in turn taking a lot of heat off of you. Grenades work similar to pipe bombs in Left 4 Dead, beeping to attract attention before exploding. You also have access to mines and molotov cocktails.

The levels in Dead Nation are pretty giant. It usually takes me 30-45 minutes to complete each one, and they’re filled with side paths and various nooks and crannies. A couple times each level you’ll come across a set piece, usually in the form of something that needs to be activated, and of course, will attract a lot of zombies in the process. One instance had me fending off a legion of the undead as I activated a switch to extend a bridge across an otherwise uncrossable gap. Another showdown occurred in a construction area as I warmed up an exterior elevator to get to the top of a sky scraper. Conveniently, it was filled with volatile gas tanks. The game was released with no loading checkpoints between levels, which meant that if you quit before finishing, you’d have to start that entire level over. That has been changed, recently with a patch, however.

While Dead Nation’s gameplay is definitely fun, what I found to be its greatest aspect is its visuals. For a top down game, it features some surprising production values. Explosions send debris flying every which way (including upward; I’ve had a chunk of zombie flesh fly directly into the camera from a grenade explosion), and the game really plays well with light and shadows. You’re constantly equipped with a flashlight, which is beamed in the direction that you aim. That flashlight is a lot more important to your survival than you might think. Most areas are very darkly lit, requiring you to constantly shine your light in every corner to check for danger. One area, for example, was flooded with a thick fog, making any lurking enemies appear as little more than shadows. Another area, which served as a set piece, gloomily lit and had zombies flooding out of buildings from nearly every angle. The orange glow provided by flares and frequent explosions served as my primary source of light as I frantically checked each direction. The result of all this is a remarkably immersive game, despite being a top down shooter.

But..this is a top down shooter, with arcade elements to prove it. Dead Nation provides for you score junkies out there with leaderboards and plenty of ways to multiply your score at the end of each level. Chief among this is the score multiplier. As you kill zombies and loot cars and chests, you’ll find two things: money and score points. Score points add to your multiplier, which, if you can sustain it until the end of the level, can accumulate a handsome bonus at the results screen. Every time you get hit though, your multiplier decreases, so the challenge is on! You can also tackle the game with a friend in local and online coop (voice chat has recently been patched in). The only quirk with this is that the co-op isn’t drop in/drop out. Co-op play has it’s own campaign, meaning you can’t have a friend join you in a level in your singleplayer campaign, and you can’t take a solo stab at levels unlocked in in co-op campaign. But the campaigns are exactly the same, in terms of plot and content.

Dead Nation’s name comes from its metagame. Each nation is plagued by a virus cycle, and to defeat it will require the death of many, many zombies. More than one person (or even a few dozen of people) could typically slay in a reasonable amount of time. So every time you finish a level, your performance is uploaded to the game’s servers, joining your efforts with that of everyone else in the country who’s playing the game. You can view each nation’s ranking and progress in realtime; right now the US is in the lead, followed by Japan.

Dead Nation is not a unique game. The setting has been done over and over again, sometimes better. The weapons, the items, the score system--aside from the metagame, there’s almost nothing about this game that is innovative. Instead, Housemarque took a tried and true concept and polished it to a sheen. They gave it a full campaign and story, graphical fidelity suitable for a full retail game, and an engine that runs smooth as butter. It’s an old, almost tired concept, polished to a bright sheen. What does this mean? It means Dead Nation is fun, that’s what it means. And really, that’s all that matters, isn’t it? 8.5/10

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective

I think text adventure games might be starting to grow on me. It’s nice to be able to settle back during down times and enjoy some good, humorous writing accompanied by an entertaining cast of characters and some light gameplay. After finishing Trials and Tribulations, I heard about Ghost Trick. And my interest was piqued. Ghost Trick is a DS game, from the same mind that created the Ace Attorney series, Takumi Shu. And it shows, in many ways.

Like any Ace Attorney game, the game features a convoluted story filled with twists, turns and secrets. The immediate plot--which stretches over the course of a single fateful night--begins with Sissel, who has come to realize that he is in a bit of a predicament. He’s dead, you see. Not only that, he can’t remember why or how he perished. Or even why his consciousness still exists. Really Sissel can’t remember anything at all. To make matters worse, the only person who might have some insight as to how he kicked the bucket--a young woman we later learn is named Lynne--is currently being held at gunpoint herself by a hitman. See? He’s in a bit of a pickle.

But all is not lost, as is soon pointed out to Sissel; he’s been given special powers. These abilities, known as Ghost Tricks, let Sissel possess various nearby objects and manipulate them to varying effects. For example, Sissel can possess a nearby guitar and strum it to spook Lynne’s hitman, distracting him just long enough for her to attempt to make a break for it. In this case, it changes her fate only slightly, however, as the hitman soon catches her once more, and this time he manages to kill her. And this is when we’re introduced to another of Sissel’s abilities. Though he can’t manipulate corpses, by interacting with one he has the option of rewinding time to exactly four minutes before that person’s death, with the aim of altering their fate.

This is where the heart of Ghost Trick’s gameplay is. Many times throughout the game, you’ll witness the death of important individuals, only to rewind time. You’ll then have a limited amount of time to use your Ghost Tricks to somehow prevent the person’s death from happening, before the tragic event simply repeats itself. In Lynne’s case, after distracting the hitman a couple more times, I was able to goad the hitman into standing in just the right place to get squashed by a wrecking ball dropped when I possessed the overhead crane (the game’s prologue takes place in a junkyard). And thus Lynne’s fate is changed for the better. For the people he saves, Sissel’s Ghost Tricks are not without side effects, though. After dying once and having access to the Ghost World (where time stands still), characters gain the ability to mentally communicate with ghosts--namely, Sissel. Furthermore, even though they’re alive, they still remember the experience of their death.

With Lynne saved, after establishing that she is clearly connected in some way to Sissel’s death, the two decide to work together. Thus Sissel embarks on a long, bumpy road to figure out who killed him, and why. The story will take you to something like a dozen a different locations, and you’ll have run into over thirty characters by the time Sissel’s journey has reached its end. Some of them are more integral to the story than others, but rest assured you’ll end up changing the fates of each and every one of them. And because this is a game from the same mind that spawned the Ace Attorney series, you can expect each character to have their quirks. For example, Lynne dies so many times in the story that it becomes a bit of a running gag, with her more or less waiving away each death without batting an eyelash. Her mentor figure of sorts, Inspector Cabanela always arrives on the scene with a hop and a skip, finishing with a pirouette and a flashy dance step. The Justice Minister is a squirrelly, distressed man prone to heart attacks, while his wife, who has temporarily left him due him not succumbing to her demands makes her livelihood writing trashy romance novels. Always seen with a full wine glass in hand, she will toast to anything she deems fit. Sissel himself sports a gel’ed up hairdo, and his lack of any memory of his life in the human is sometimes used to comical effect.

As a ghost, Sissel has only two forms of movement. He can move through areas by moving from one object to the next, but can also travel greater distances by moving between the phone lines. By possessing a phone while somebody is using it, Sissel can also not only listen in on their conversation, but also trace the number of the person on the other line, thereby opening up a new area to explore. There are limitations, however. Sissel can only possess objects that are within his fairly short reach. He can only use the phone lines to travel when the lines are active, and only to phones whose numbers he has traced.

Despite the apparent freedom that being able to visit most places you have unlocked anytime you have access to a phone grants, Ghost Trick is actually quite linear; almost restrictively so. There are only certain items you can possess, and even fewer that you can manipulate. There is definitely a very arbitrary limit to what can and can’t be done with Sissel’s Ghost Tricks. Despite what the concept of being able to manipulate many things in an area to change a given situation might imply, there’s only one solution for virtually every predicament presented to you. The challenge then, is not figuring out what to use, but when to use them. Timing is a key aspect of Ghost Trick. Certain objects must be activated in a specific order, and at specific times, forming a carefully orchestrated Rube Goldberg-esque sequence of events. Understandably, this will sometimes require a lot of trial and error; luckily, Sissel can rewind time and return to the four minute mark as many times as necessary until you get it right, with no penalty.

Ghost Trick’s writing, characters and story are all very intriguing and very entertaining, but what really caught my eye as I got acquainted with the game were its visuals. During dialogue, characters are represented by portraits, just like in most other text adventures (such as the Ace Attorney games); and visual novels, for that matter. The art style distinguishes itself from the crowd, however, by being extremely sharply drawn, and well defined. Better still is the animation. I can’t quite place my finger on what makes the simple fluidity of the characters’ movements so visually appealing, but it’s not something you see often in a 2D game.

As a text adventure, Ghost Trick’s audio is understandably the smallest part of the package. The character’s aren’t voiced, and there it feels like the soundtrack is composed of a mere handful of BGMs. It’s a good thing, then, that each of the tracks are pretty good listens, and manage to complement whatever situation they play under nicely.

Ghost Trick is, overall, a very good game. The premise--a protagonist who is already dead--is fascinating enough to drawn you in, but it’s the sustained variety that will keep you going. New recurring characters are introduced on a frequent basis, and it’s never long before the game is sending you to a new location. Sure, you revisit places as well, but you never feel like your backtracking or seeing recycled content. The plot quickly snowballs into quite a tangle of events, but I’ve gotten used to that. All things considered--there are some tropes introduced into the plot later in the game that have historically been very difficult to pull off without leaving the reader behind--the story actually ties together pretty well. The one true flaw to the is its overall lack of replay value. The story is pretty meaty, featuring about 18 chapters, but the single solution approach to each puzzle means that once you’ve figured them out the first time, you’ll at least have a pretty good idea of how to progress during subsequent playthroughs. 8.0/10