Monday, December 17, 2012

Hitman: Absolution

I’m pretty new to Hitman.  A long time ago, I saw a lengthy gameplay walkthrough for Absolution, which honestly made the game look pretty damn rad.  So, partially out of interest in the series and partly out of interest in Absolution, I picked up Blood Money during Steam’s Summer Sale.  It’s a great game, though flawed in minor ways.  There’s something really satisfying about the open nature of Blood Money, where you’re spawned in a level and asked to seek out and kill one or more NPCs however you see fit and make it out alive.  Hitman games challenge you to be more than a simple mercenary though, gunning your way to your query.  They encourage subtlety, making your kills discreet or even look like complete accidents.  As they describe the game’s highest score ranking, Silent Assassin, the best Hitman is one who leaves no effect on the world around him.

Hitman: Absolution is not like Blood Money.  And from what I’ve seen of previous Hitman games, it’s not like Hitman in general.

Just as in all previous games, in Absolution you play as Agent 47, a top tier hitman employed with The Agency, some sort of paramilitary organization that contracts hits on the scum of the world.  47’s been tasked with killing Diana Burnwood, who has betrayed the Agency by making off with one of the organization’s vital assets: a young girl.  The problem is that Diana was 47’s former handler, and the closest thing to a friend he’s ever had.  As someone who was also raised in a lab, the normally all-business hitman takes pity on the girl.  Swayed by Diana’s attempt to save the girl from a similar upbringing, 47 goes rogue, taking her with him to safeguard her from the Agency.  Seeking to find out precisely what it is that makes the girl so important, he soon finds himself in trouble with the law and chased by a sinister industry magnate who also wants her.  What results is essentially an international manhunt, where everybody wants both the girl and 47’s head.

But let’s face it: the plot of Absolution isn’t really that good or interesting.  It does a great job stringing together gameplay segments, but you’ll never find yourself expecting much more than that.  Instead, Absolution’s narrative strength resides in its presentation.  The game takes place in a serious world filled with dark themes, touching on corruption of the law, drugs, and the seedy underbelly of industries and corporations.  This is not a cheerful setting in the slightest, and yet there is an element of mature humor that constantly permeates the game experience.  You meet a corrupt sheriff who spends his free time on the receiving end of a whip from his dominatrix, for example.  One of your targets—due to an unfortunate childhood experience—hates pigs, and has taken to doing his job testing landmines by releasing a herd of pigs to run across a fake setup and get blown to bits.

This humor is more evident than ever in the many NPC conversations you’ll overhear.  The very first one you hear is from a guard talking on the phone, overjoyed to hear from his doctor that he does not in fact have prostate cancer.  He happily claims that nothing can ruin this day before you pull him out of a window, sending him careening into the rocks below.  While on the lam, you might overhear a cop making a vain attempt to question a mentally retarded hobo about your whereabouts.  Midway through the game you’ll encounter a wrestler who fervently believes that his stuffed teddy bear is a lucky charm, and will whine and complain to his coach and managers if you steal it.

Absolution’s presentation extends to its visuals, which are phenomenal.  There is an ever so slight filter applied to the graphics that gives the world a constant and subtly oppressive look.  On PC, the game does lighting and depth of field like no other game I’ve ever seen.  When you open a door from a deserted alley and find yourself facing a hugely crowded plaza, it feels just like it would to have all this new information suddenly flooding your eyes.  There is a moment midway through the game where you find yourself emerging from a desert cave in broad daylight, and as you pass through the cave’s mouth, you’re temporarily blinded by all the light hitting your face.  Textures are also detailed and the modeling work is very good.  The only facet that is weak in comparison is the animation, which is good but not exceptional like the lighting.  It is overall a very good looking game, however.

The core of Absolution—the gameplay—doesn’t shine as brightly as its exterior elements, however.  To begin with, Absolution is structured differently from its predecessors.  Whereas in past entries you had the entire level open to you, and your only goal was to accomplish your objective and take the designated exit before moving on to the next level, Absolution is generally more linear.  Levels are fragmented, and there are plenty of gameplay segments where your objective is simply to get to the end of the level alive (and ideally without being seen).  Furthermore, levels vary wildly in their construction.  There are some levels that could have been plucked right out of Blood Money, so similar are they in structure to Absolution’s predecessors.  Some gameplay segments task you with killing someone, but many do not.  In many segments you’re simply passing by, or trying to accomplish something else, like disabling security measures or evading law officers.  This gives the game a feeling of inconsistency; like they knew what direction they wanted to go in with the series but didn’t go all the way through it.  It should be noted that I’m not really saying that the levels themselves are bad.  In fact there are some that are downright brilliant, such as one that has you hunting three targets across an entire neighborhood, or another that has you stalking targets in tall corn fields under a clear starry night.  It’s the overall structure of the game that comes off as feeling slapdash to me, not its components.

This issue is nonexistent in the game’s Contracts mode, however.  Separate from the main campaign, in Contracts all of the game’s environments and scenarios are available to play through individually.  The difference is that here you can play through them however you like.  You kill whoever you want, using whatever tools and disguises you want.  These parameters (who you killed, what you used to kill them, etc.) are then used to set up a custom mission, or contract that other players can then go through, attempting to one-up your score in the process.  It’s basically a combination of a level editor and H-O-R-S-E.  Not only is Contracts a brilliant twist on the concept of creating and sharing your own levels, by focusing on individual levels it escapes the inconsistency present in the story mode.

The game’s structure isn’t the only thing that’s changed.  The core gameplay has been refined in some ways and revamped in others.  For the most part, I like what they’ve done.  Absolution controls better than any other Hitman, for one thing.  The series has always had trouble wrapping its gameplay mechanics around a decent control map, but I think with Absolution they’ve managed to change that, and largely without relying on QTEs, which is admirable.

Furthermore, as a stealth game Absolution does a good job of keeping you informed about your situation.  UI elements like an arrow indicating NPCs that are onto you are standard, but you also have a minimap that color codes each NPC by their level of suspicion, so you know at a glance how information about you might be spreading.  You’re able to summon tooltips telling you things like the current capacity of storage containers (they’re able to hold two bodies now), the access level for areas you’re looking at (in case you’re about to cross an invisible line), and even what a disguise is, before putting it on.  The new Instinct mode—not unlike Detective Vision in the recent Batman games—allows you to see enemies through walls, and will even trace the path an NPC is walking, allowing you to immediately predict their route.  The Instinct mode also allows you to use Point Shooting, which is a feature lifted straight out of games like Splinter Cell Conviction and Red Dead Redemption, allowing you to mark and execute targets with increased precision.  Finally, Instinct mode makes you immune to having your disguise detected; causing 47 to discreetly pull down his hat or hunch his shoulders, deflecting suspicion.  This last bit is pushing suspension of belief, but alas, videogames.

Instinct mode sounds like and often is a crutch, but its use is limited.  How limited depends on what difficulty you’re playing on, but in general you’ll find the ability to use Point Shooting and hide your disguise limited by a meter, which depletes during use and is regenerated mainly by accomplishing objectives.  However, the higher you go in difficulty, the more restrictions you’ll find placed on not only Instinct mode, but the play experience in general.  The highest difficulty—Purist—does away with both Instinct mode and the UI (only the crosshair is spared), in addition to boasting the most enemies and the fastest detection rates.

Hitman has always been about a different sort of stealth than most in the genre.  Whereas series such as Metal Gear and Splinter Cell required you to hide in the shadows and duck behind walls and around corners to stay undetected, Hitman’s is more of a social brand of stealth; being invisible in plain sight.  To this end, disguises have always been an integral part of gameplay.  In past games it was pretty difficult to get far without a disguise of some sort.

The disguise system has been changed in Absolution.  You can still knock out dudes and take their clothes, letting you pose as them, but rules governing how NPCs detect you are different.  Now, only NPCs wearing the same clothes (and thus likely of the same profession) will be able to see through your disguise.  All others will be none the wiser.  As GameTrailers’ review succinctly puts it, it makes sense…except for when it doesn’t.  For example, it makes sense that, while infiltrating a laboratory using a scientist disguise, only fellow scientists would be able to see through my disguise.  It doesn’t make sense however, that a street vendor would be able to see through a street vendor disguise, does it?  Especially not when his stall is on the opposite side of a crowded plaza from my stall.  Furthermore, NPCs are able to see through your disguise from unbelievable distances.  Essentially, establishing line of sight tends to be all you need to be in danger of having your cover blown, even if someone is standing on the other side of a street.  I found that all of these changes discouraged me from using the disguise system at all.  It doesn’t help that it’s not often you encounter an area where it’s particularly difficult to just sneak through the old fashioned way.

Ultimately, I found it difficult to play Hitman: Absolution entirely like a Hitman game.  The moment I stopped trying to use disguises and just played Absolution like a straightforward stealth game was when I immediately found the game to be more enjoyable.  And frankly, as a straightforward stealth game it’s pretty great.  But the problem is that’s not how you should have to play a Hitman game.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

I wish I could make a separate page just for blog posts.

This sounds silly, but I don't really like doing a whole bunch of what are essentially diary entries in between actual game posts.  But I also don't like there being whole months where I don't post anything.

This wasn't an issue when I was back in high school and had all the time in the world to sit around playing games and writing, but that's not how it is any more; it's tough to dedicate an entire evening to sitting down and writing a decent post.  Moreover, part of why I made this blog was to express thoughts on games and the industry as they came to me, which is more difficult when I'm limiting myself to big writeups.

So in short, everything is 'effed I guess.

Anyway.  Due to bandwidth constraints I'm abstaining from anime until early next year.  I'm finished with Nichijou and Amagami, just about done with Hyouka, and powering through Star Driver when I can.  They're all great shows.

Nichijou is not only just simply entertaining, but it's well-produced.  The animation is great, the music is generally good, and the voice acting really delivers.  I suppose it's a good example of where the resources can go when they're not being put towards making any sort of long-running narrative (though the anime is an adaptation, so that might be a moot point anyway).

Solid gold, baby!

Amagami SS+ is more Amagami.  I really really enjoyed Amagami SS, and Amagami+ is basically an epilogue for each route.  Since they've already established a relationship between Junichi and the girl, there's no pressure to have any development and they can instead just focus on how their relationship has panned out.  I'm undecided on who had the best story.  It was great to see Rihoko finally get her due, since she got the short end of the stick in by a long shot in the main series (she's the only one who fails to end up going steady with Junichi by the end of her arc).  There's also another Miya arc, but it's not so much a Miya arc as it is a girls-only fanservice episode.  But yeah, Amagami SS+ is great if you're down for more Amagami.  I really wish they had released Amagami (the visual novel) on PC.  I would have thought having two anime series would have gotten them enough publicity to consider re-releasing the game (as VNs get re-released quite often, especially higher profile ones), but alas the game remains PS2-only.  I don't even need it to get translated; I'd be willing to work through it as an exercise in polishing my Japanese.  But currently the only way to play it for me is to emulate the PS2 version, which seems like jumping through a lot of hoops.

Best girl.
Hyouka is...weird.  If nothing else, it's incredibly well-produced, like Nichijou (Kyoto Animation really does seem to take pride in their releases).  It's extremely well animated, with surprisingly good cinematography for an animated TV show and expressive movement.  The dialogue is consistently engaging and the show is decently paced, which is more than I can say for most anime that I've seen in the past couple years.  It's a textbook example of how to make an anime that just glimmers with production value.

The odd thing though is that it's not some sort of high-action plot.  It's basically a slice of life show with a bit of light mystery here and there.  Almost none of the mysteries are really that compelling, but I sometimes wonder if that's the point.  The mysteries are usually very mundane in nature, typically based off of everyday mysteries that we all encounter and typically dismiss.  Like one mystery is why some library book has, over the past five consecutive weeks, been checked out on Friday but promptly returned by the end of the day.  Another one has the main character theorizing on the story behind an announcement made over the intercom at school summoning someone to the principal's office.  It's a peculiar show that would not have worked if it wasn't so well executed.  But it's interesting to watch, nonetheless.

Anyone whose seen Star Driver would understand when I say that there's really only one word to describe it, and that is "fabulous."  The show is silly, yet it takes itself just seriously enough to make you wonder if it isn't somehow a commentary on the medium.  I don't think I'm going to give it that much credit, but it is a very interesting show.  The reason why I find this show so...curious, begins with its protagonist Takuto, otherwise known as the "Ginga Bishounen"......or "Galactic Pretty Boy."  Yes, that is what they call him.  Let that sink in for a moment.

There's just so much about this show that is just so odd and wacky, but at the same time, not only do they take it seriously, but they use this backdrop as a vehicle for some legitimate themes, like cheating in relationships and family strife.  And it doesn't hurt that the actual mech battles are usually fantastic, albeit brief.  Like Gurren Lagann, Star Driver kind of feels like a super robot show for the modern era.

So that's what I've been watching.  I've already got my next shows lined up.  I'm gonna see about starting MS Gundam Zeta (either that Victory), and I'm also probably going to blow through Gunsmith Cats and Ano Natsu de Matteru.  For romance, probably Koi to Senkyo to Chocolate.  It looks mediocre to be totally honest, but I'll give it a shot.  The real star for me though, will be Binbougami Ga!  Fuck, that show looks hilarious.  I can't wait.  If it's as awesome as it looks, hell I'll start reading the manga.

I was actually going to talk about what games I've been playing, but then this turned into a huge anime post.  Oh well.

There's a review for Hitman Absolution coming...sometime later.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

New Rating System.

I mentioned implementing a new rating system a while back.  Well, it's partially in effect now, starting with the XCOM review.

I don't like using a 10 scale very much, because it's heavily weighted towards the upper 5 points.  After all, when games are coming out with a typical MSRP of $60, who cares whether a game gets a 2 or a 4?  Ultimately, they both spell the same message:  Don't buy the game.

So, because I think the lower half is unnecessary, I decided to remove it and just go from 10 to 4.5.  Let's be clear: this is basically the upper half a 10-point scale cut down a few notches.  So, 6 stars is a 10.  5 stars is a 9.  3.5 stars is a 7.5.

What this means is that unless a game gets 1 star or less, I expect there will always be plenty of people out there who love the game regardless of what I score.  After all, you see plenty of games with 6.5's garner cult followings.

So, the Rating Scale has been updated.  The next step is to adapt the Ratings Index.  I haven't decided if I'm going to go back and retroactively convert each review score though.

Monday, December 3, 2012

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

A city terrorized by aliens.  The report came in while I was in the middle of some important research.  I’d have preferred to ignore it, but you don’t get to choose when duty calls.  The team I deployed was a bit unfamiliar.  Lion and Buster were in Psi training, so I took to the opportunity to give some new recruits a shot, including a promising Support gal the team had nicknamed “Mother Bird” for her handy use of Medikits, and the new Hover S.H.I.V. heavy weapons platform the engineering guys had cooked up.  Sheriff would head the team, just as she always did.

It was a civilian evacuation mission; things went well at first.  A two-story building, looked like most of the action would take place inside.  Mother Bird would head around back with the S.H.I.V., scooping up any civilians they came across.  Sheriff and Ace would go right for the front doors; Sheriff in particular always had a tendency to jump into the frying pan.

We cleared the first floor with little incident.  I should have regrouped before storming the second floor, but I was confident from the mission’s progress so far.  Mother Bird and the S.H.I.V. climbed the stairwell and ran right into a squad of Mutons and Berserkers.  It would be a couple turns before the others were in a position to assist.  By then, the S.H.I.V. had been smashed to pieces, and a Berserker had shattered clipped Mother Bird’s wings.  That evening I lost a great soldier, and it was entirely my fault.

Despite the presence of an overarching plot, it’s personal narratives like these that form the heart of XCOM: Enemy Unknown.

Aliens have invaded Earth.  People are being slaughtered or worse, abducted.  You are the commander of XCOM, an international coalition formed to combat the alien threat.  To do this, you’ll need to hire, train and maintain a diverse contingent of troops and regularly deploy them to various locations across the world to complete missions, while simultaneously developing your facilities to keep pace with the growing threat, upgrading your equipment, and researching alien artifacts.

Gameplay in XCOM: Enemy Unknown is comprised mainly of two aspects.  When you’re not on missions, you’ll spend your time overviewing XCOM headquarters.  From here you can conduct most of your business as commander of the base.  You can research everything alien—from artifacts and technology recovered on the field, to corpses and any aliens you manage to capture alive—in the research lab.  Research works very much like it does in the Civilization franchise, where you assign one thing for the lab to work on, and wait for it to complete before assigning another.  The fruits of your research come to life in the engineering section, which is where you’ll build and upgrade all of your equipment—including guns, armor, ships, and satellites—and your base facilities.

Your soldiers reside in the barracks.  Here you can view each of your soldiers individually, as well as customize everything from their looks and name to their equipment load out.  Disappointingly however, the ability to change your soldier’s armor colors is relegated to DLC.  Soldiers come in four classes: Sniper, Heavy, Assault, and Support.  Snipers utilize sniper rifles to strike from far away.  Heavies use a combination of a light machine guns and rocket launchers to keep enemies suppressed and at bay.  Assaults are designed to jump directly into the fray with their shotguns.  Supports specialize in field assistance with smoke grenades, enhanced Overwatch, and better, more efficient Medikits. 

The more you use your soldiers, the more you’ll find them carving out individual reputations for themselves.  New recruits will be classless, but after a mission or two you’ll discover their aptitude for one class or another.  From there, each class has a tree of perks that you’re able to progress through as that soldier gains promotions through experience in the field.  Soon enough they’ll have their own nicknames, and you’ll find yourself building a narrative and backstory for each soldier.  They become more than just units to command; they become characters in your story.  Sharon “Sheriff” Roberts wasn’t just any Canadian soldier.  She was a badass; someone the others could look up to on the battlefield.  She would leap into every battle and laugh in the face of danger.  Luck was always on her side.  Joan “Lion” McIntosh started as Kitty, but when we saw how sharp her claws really were, she was renamed “Lion”.  Everyone knew that someday she could be the next Sheriff.  Soon enough, my soldiers became more integral to the plot than any of the other characters that would appear in XCOM’s occasional cut scenes, and that’s something I really came to admire the game for.

You can view your current progress and objectives in the Situation Room.  Here, you have a world map and a listing of every country enrolled in the XCOM program.  As you neglect countries, their panic level rises.  If a country is allowed to reach maximum panic, they will withdraw from the program, taking their financial support with them.  The Situation Room also allows you to launch any available satellites at your disposal to monitor a country.  Having a satellite over a country not only increases the amount of money and resources that country gives you each month, but it also decreases its panic level.

Satellites also often pick up flying UFOs, in which case you have the option of launching interceptors to try and shoot down the UFO.  If they succeed, the UFO is downed and you can proceed to send in a team of soldiers to sweep the area.  I’ve found this metagame to be the challenging aspect of the game, however.  Just as the enemies grow in power and number as you progress through a campaign, so too do the UFOs you encounter.  Developing and maintaining an air fleet that is both large and powerful enough to consistently deal with any detected UFOs is extremely costly and time consuming, and whether or not it pays off in the long run is questionable.  I’ve had to ignore a number of UFOs, simply because I knew that my planes wouldn’t be able to down them.

Nearly everything in XCOM: Enemy Unknown takes time.  It takes time to research things, it takes time for wounded soldiers to heal and for new recruits to arrive, and it takes time to build and launch satellites, among many other things.  It even takes time to swap the weapons on your interceptors.  You’ll have to pass the time in Mission Control, scanning for alien activity.  Every few days you get an alert.  Sometimes it's a bomb that needs to be disposed of, or a VIP that needs to be evacuated; other times it's a UFO picked up by a satellite.  Whatever it is, if you’re lucky it will be only one instance.  But more often than not, it will be multiple simultaneous abductions occurring in different parts of the world.  You can only deal with one, and the countries you ignore will have their panic level rise.  Whatever you choose (unless it’s to ignore the contact entirely), you’ll then pick your squad and their loadout, and deploy to the area in question.

Combat in XCOM is a turn-based strategy affair.  Each soldier has two movements they can use per turn.  Once you’ve moved all of your soldiers, your turn ends, and the aliens have their turn, and so on.  Though you’ll most frequently just be using your movements on moving and firing, units have a variety of actions they can use; many are class-specific, others much more general.  All units are able to use an ability called Overwatch, which sacrifices your remaining actions for the ability to automatically shoot at any enemy that moves within a unit’s sight range, albeit with lessened accuracy.  Heavies and Supports can use Suppression, which pins an enemy down, lowering their accuracy and also grants the soldier suppressing a free Overwatch shot if the enemy moves.  Snipers can use Headshot, which is a normal shot with a substantially higher chance of critical damage.

Let’s get this out of the way:  XCOM is a difficult game.  You’re given all the control you’d expect from being commander, but also all of the weight and responsibility.  If you make a mistake, however slight, those are consequences that you’ll have to deal with.  Even something as seemingly minor as a soldier advancing just one tile farther than he/she should have can lead to disastrous situations.  Soldiers that you’ve grown to like and invest in can die, and at some point almost certainly will.  Missions with everything banking on them can be failed.  The game will move on.  A string of bad decisions can lead to outright failure in XCOM; the aliens will have won, and it will have been entirely your fault.

You’re frequently both outgunned and outnumbered in XCOM, which means that every move you make has to be thought out.  Every option must be weighed before taking action, lest that action be the last one that soldier ever makes.  This is a strategy game; if you don’t think strategically, you will lose.  Even if you do think strategically, sometimes you’ll still lose.  Even the best-laid plans can fail, after all.

For an internationally funded paramilitary organization, XCOM is tragically under-supported, which means this element of pressure and responsibility permeates the entire game experience, not just combat.  Though you’ll pick up some extra bits of pocket change doing missions and selling spare alien artifacts, your main source of income arrives on a monthly basis, when all of the countries still enrolled in the program chip in to send you more staff and money.  But it’s never enough.  The battlefield isn’t the only place you’re constantly forced to make hard decisions in XCOM.  Hard choices await you in the research lab, in Mission Control, and perhaps most tragically, in the ledger.  All the time you’ll find yourself presented with a choice between things to buy; things to invest in.  You need all of these things if you want to keep up with the alien threat.  But too often, you can only afford one of them.  Every decision requires you to consider the cost of each option and weigh it against how long it will take to bear fruit.  For example, it’s absolutely crucial that you regularly buy more satellites, as that increases the amount of money you get.  But satellites take almost a month to build, and still more time before they’re operational (and that’s assuming you have the facilities to maintain more satellites in the first place).  You’re throwing money at something that you won’t see the benefits from for a very long time; money that could be better used to build things with more immediate utility, like better equipment for troops, or a new upgrade that would be invaluable on the field, like larger weapon cartridges or increased squad sizes.

Despite being a game that demands a tactical, systematic approach to succeed, there is a large element of randomness to XCOM: Enemy Unknown.  Though you can customize them later on, new recruits’ names, nationality, and appearance are all random, as are their nicknames.  Mission encounters are largely random, as are the maps and their layouts.  Missions and campaigns never go quite the same way.  All it takes is a stray explosive to blow up a new path and totally change the way you progress through a map, for example.  This has the effect of keeping the experience fresh, but it also introduces a tangible element of fortune and chaos to the gameplay.  Sometimes this element works in your favor, like when you nail a shot that only had a 35% chance of hitting.  More often than not however, it tends to feel like its working against you, when Heavy's light machine gun not only misses, but the stray fire destroys the cover of one his colleagues, leaving him/her totally exposed.  It's times like that where I felt like the game was bending me over the barrel.

XCOM is, overall a pretty looking game.  Everything from character animation to object modeling is above average, and the game features surprisingly robust environmental destruction.  It runs on Unreal Engine 3, which is evident enough in its slightly oversaturated effects.  The missions start feeling a bit recycled towards the end of a campaign, but it’s mostly a non-issue.

What was an issue for me were the bugs.  I’ve had the game freeze on me, and clipping issues weren’t uncommon.  I’ve also had enemies literally spawn right in the middle of my soldier’s ranks, as well as have enemies disappear right before my eyes, ending the mission early.  Most of the time these bugs are either comical or minor, but still prevalent enough to scare me away from trying the game’s Ironman mode, which prevents you from saving.  It’s one thing, after all to fail a mission due to my own incompetence, and quite another to fail because the game crashed on me.

Playing XCOM—whether on the field blasting aliens or at base conducting regular business—often feels like balancing a series of spinning plates on your arms and head, where it only takes one movement to cause everything to come tumbling down.  Yes, XCOM is a difficult game.  If you’re not careful, you will fail at it.  You might fail at it even if you ARE careful.  But it’s also one of the most rewarding games you’ll play this year.  When you make the right decisions, and those decisions pay off, it’s a real feeling of triumph; a victory you achieved all by yourself, without anyone holding your hand.

*Note - I did not try the multiplayer, but the singleplayer alone was enough to earn the game its score.