Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Sleeping Dogs Review

Every year, hundreds upon hundreds of titles across the entertainment industry are announced and subsequently go into production.  While many of them see release, there are a few that are cancelled for varying reasons, whether it's because the project dealt with financial issues or a lack of interest, its cancellation elicits disappointment from both the creators and the general public.  Yet, some manage to get saved by a company and receive new life, such is the case with Sleeping Dogs.  Initially a revival of the True Crime series, the game was cancelled by its original publisher Activision not too long after being announced; a few months later, Square Enix came in and revived the project and changed its name, releasing the title in 2012.

Sleeping Dogs follows Wei Shen, a San Francisco police officer who has returned to his hometown of Hong Kong on assignment from Interpol.  Unbeknownst to the police working there, Shen has gone undercover in order to infiltrate and dismantle a local division of the Triads known as the Sun On Yee.  He teams up with his old friend, Jackie Ma, and through a series of events, the two end up becoming high-ranking members for the Sun On Yee.  Unfortunately, Shen's involvement with the gang starts to put a strain on his mission for Interpol, with the leader of the operation, Thomas Pendrew, questioning Shen's loyalty to the organization and his role as a police officer.  As tensions rise in both the Triads and Interpol, Shen begins to question if his involvement with the criminal underworld is threatening to put him back on the road to crime which he tried to flee many years ago.

Though it doesn't break new ground, Sleeping Dogs' narrative offers a compelling tale featuring an equally memorable protagonist.  Wei Shen's rise through the Triad ranks and personal conflicts with those he trusts are the driving forces of the story; in fact, the plot is very reminiscent of last year's Mafia III, but whereas Lincoln Clay's character arc was rooted in the seeds of revenge, Shen is merely doing his job, but how far he goes in the assignment jeopardizes his mission.  The other highlight is the setting; though many games have utilized the Far East as their main location, Sleeping Dogs is one of the few to offer an in-depth recreation of its nation and culture.  Developer United Front Games did a great job at making Hong Kong feel like a living, breathing city, and a place filled with many interesting sights and sounds.

Whereas the game takes many risks in the story department, the gameplay is rather safe, offering a fun but familiar open-world experience none too different from the likes of Grand Theft Auto and Saints Row.  Over the course of the game, Shen will complete a multitude of missions for both the good and bad guys, all the while exploring Hong Kong.  A majority of the activities available to do are standard fare, such as participating in street races, dismantling gang operations, helping people of interest, or finding collectibles that reward you with different upgrades and other rewards.  These are fine, but the best ones are the karaoke and cock-fighting mini-games, which fit in with the Far East setting.  Additionally, Shen will meet up with multiple women over the course of the game, and each one is capable of being dated with, which unlocks additional rewards if one pursues this option.

Whereas most sandbox games put an emphasis on shooting over punching, Sleeping Dogs flips the equation around, offering robust hand-to-hand combat and downplaying shoot-outs for most of the game.  The combat is very good, featuring a variety of techniques and finishers for Shen to use on the criminals of Hong Kong.  Besides using his fists, he can also use the environment to his advantage in different means, such as grabbing cleavers or knives off of the ground to attack with, or by grabbing his foes and shoving them into a nearby item of interest, which results in him pulling off a brutal finisher reminiscent of the takedowns from Madworld.  While the fighting is solid, the gunplay is rather weak and simplistic, but not without its moments.  If you find yourself in a high-speed chase when trying to eliminate pursuers or a target, you can pop out of the car and shoot an opponent's tires out, causing the vehicle to flip over and crash in satisfying slow-motion.  Unfortunately, the only way to obtain firearms is from fallen enemies, as there is no weapons shop.

Shooting is not the only area where the game falters, as the morality system offered doesn't feel as if it's been implemented to its best potential.  During story missions, there are two meters that also double for XP, one for the police, and the other for the Triad.  The police rank can degrade if you cause property damage or hurt civilians, but the Triad ranking increases when enemies are dispatched, and having a large amount of both meters is necessary in order to obtain experience needed to receive points to spend on upgrades.  The problem is that this doesn't extend to what the player does outside of the story; it's possible for one to go on a rampage, terrorizing the populace, and though the police will come for you, there are no other repercussions, which is a shame, as the system could have been used to decide how people view Shen during the storyline, either treating him with respect or criticizing him.

Visually, Sleeping Dogs looks solid, with well-detailed environments that bring the city to life, and characters whose activities further enhance the mood of Hong Kong.  The audio is quite unique; although the voice-acting is top-notch, featuring many well-known celebrities in both major and minor roles, an interesting touch is that Asian characters mainly speak in the Chinese language, shifting back to English when necessary.  This East-Meets-West mentality carries over into the soundtrack, as the radio stations offer a slew of Asian and English takes on multiple genres including hip-hop, pop, and rock.

Sleeping Dogs doesn't shake things up significantly for the open world genre, and while the experience is an overly familiar one, what redeems this title is its sense of uniqueness.  Its usage of locale brings the player to a place many have yet to travel to, and the gameplay differentiates itself from other titles in the genre by putting a large emphasis on melee combat, making the game feel more in line with a brawler than a shooting gallery.  Though not without its faults, Sleeping Dogs is a fine time.

Final Score: 6/10

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Cubed3 Exclusive Review: Aqua Moto Racing Utopia (PS4)

JUMPING GIGAWATTS, IT'S A BRAND NEW CUBED3 REVIEW!! This time, I cover the racer Aqua Moto Racing Utopia, a racing game where you can't brake or reverse.

Link to review:

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Dead Island Riptide Review

Sequels, by nature, are designed to not only continue where the story of the first entry left off, but to also correct any problems that were prevalent in the first and introduce new ideas which can make the experience refreshing or raise the stakes.  In the video game industry, whenever a title comes out that is immensely popular, publishers will find a way to capitalize off of its success, whether it means turning the game into a franchise or creating a follow-up that comes out not too long after the first, such is the case with Dead Island Riptide.  The first game was a surprise hit and it help put publisher Deep Silver on the map, but less than two years after the release of the first entry, a new one came out that continued the story of a rapper, a washed-out football player, a security guard, and a creepy Aussie trying to escape an undead nightmare.

Picking up immediately after the events of Dead Island, Riptide begins with the protagonists getting captured by the government after landing on a nearby ship in a helicopter they acquired.  A man named Frank Serpo wants to conduct experiments on them with the intent on figuring out why they are immune to the infection that consumed the island of Banoi.  While in captivity, the group encounters John Morgan, a marine who is also immune to the disease; before long, the ship capsizes during the middle of a storm, allowing the infected to get onboard and attack the soldiers and crew-men stationed on there.  After escaping captivity and the boat, the group ends up on an island called Palanai, and they learn that not only is the place infected, but the government plans on nuking the area, so the group, along with the survivors they meet, decide to head to the city of Moresby in order to find a way to get off the island.

Keeping in tune with the first game, Riptide's plot is a cliché-heavy narrative lacking in memorable moments or compelling characters.  Though it makes an attempt to flesh out the world and hint at something bigger to come, it isn't enough to save the narrative, and adding salt to the wound, the game ends on an abrupt cliffhanger that leaves the fate of the heroes on an ambiguous note.  Also, the serious nature of events clashes with the fun and riotous gameplay in a way that does not gel, and it makes one wonder if developer Techland is unsure if they want the game to be gritty or zany.

Much like the previous entry, this is a first-person shooter/RPG hybrid that's Dead Rising Meets Borderlands.  In fact, the game is less of a true sequel and instead a gigantic expansion pack, which is both good and bad.  Over the course of this experience, players will complete a multitude of story-related and side quests across Palanai and Moresby.  Along the way, hundreds of zombies will be killed with an eclectic selection of melee weapons and firearms.  Combat is primarily based around the usage of melee weapons, with guns not being prominent until one reaches the city.  At first, attacking zombies using items such as baseball bats, knives, and sledgehammers is tricky given the first-person perspective, but you get adept at it rather quickly.

All items are rated on a rarity scale, with white representing common and orange being highly rare, while green, blue, and purple encompass the rest of the scale.  Each melee weapon has a durability meter that degrades as the weapon takes damage; fortunately, work benches scattered around allow you to repair them, and the benches also allow the player to increase the item's durability or create special modified weapons capable of annihilating the undead.  Additionally, gunplay is much improved here, as firearms are capable of doing more damage to the zombies than they could in the first, and ammunition can be found everywhere in Moresby.  By killing enemies, completing missions and challenges, and finding new locales, experience can be earned which in turn, allows your character to level up and earn a skill point that can go to one of three skill trees.

As one can tell, the gameplay follows the same set-up of Dead Island almost word-for-word, though it means the combat is as fun as ever, the problem is that outside of a couple of additions, it's basically the same game, complete with many of the same design problems the first one had.  For starters, a majority of the tasks are fetch quests that involve collecting a certain number of items for someone or something, and though the rewards are beneficial, you'll often find yourself relying on the sprint button and vehicles in order to reach the required location as fast as possible.  Plus, many of the weapon and enemy types, and even blueprints for modified weapons, are rehashed too, which further adds to the feeling of Deja-vu.

Interspersed among these missions are segments where your main character and their allies have to hold off a certain number of the undead by creating defensive measures such as fences and mini-guns; once the particular amount of waves is defeated, the enemies will retreat.  Prior to the beginning of a defensive mission, you can increase the chance of your survivors' ability to hold their own by finding key components for them.  Even then, the zombies will still pose a problem because new types have been introduced, including screamers, whose shrieks can disorient your character, grenadiers, hazmat scientists that throw their guts like grenades, and infected who have a large, club-like lump encompassing their arm that they can use as a weapon.

Dead Island Riptide, besides utilizing the same gameplay structure, also utilizes the same graphics engine, which is equally hit-and-miss.  Though the locales are beautiful and the zombies are grotesque, the humans you help are stiff mannequins lacking in emotion or variations in design, as many of them share the same outfits and body builds.  On the plus side, there aren't as many glitches as in the original, aside from the occasional bug including dead bodies getting stuck in the environment or the waypoint flickering on and off of the in-game map.  The voice acting is fairly poor, save for the growls of the infected, but the music, with its synth-heavy ambience, helps create an unsettling mood while traversing Palanai.

Dead Island Riptide is a polarizing game; since it is not a true follow-up but instead a stand-alone expansion, it means the core experience is the same as the first, and one's enjoyment will depend on whether or not they liked the first.  Although the combat is still entertaining, the title's repetitive nature, lack of improvements, and weak storytelling hold it back greatly, as does the game's conflicting tone.

Final Score: 5/10

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Doom (2016) Review

2016 is a year that will be remembered by many as one filled with loss, tragedy, and surprise, with events such as the departures of many well-known people and the presidential election causing many to conclude that this was one of the weakest years in the 21st century to date.  On the flip side, the gaming industry enjoyed a successful year, showing that not everything was as dismal as it seemed.  Among that many games that were released, one that stood out was Doom.  For twelve years, the series has been shrouded in silence since 2004's Doom 3.  When Doom released in the summer of last year, the title showed the general public a side of first-person shooting action that hadn't been seen since the '90's, one that makes for a rollercoaster ride of an experience.

Taking place in the future, this semi-reboot follows an unnamed character only referred to as the Doom Slayer.  When the story begins, he wakes up to notice that he is bound to an ancient slab and is about to be encapsulated in a tomb before he manages to escape his confines, find his armor, and figure out what's going on.  As he learns, the U.A.C. Corporation has accidentally unleashed Hell on Mars in an attempt to try and harvest an energy source known as Argent which could save Earth.  Through the guidance of Samuel Hayden, a former human-turned-android responsible for the research of Argent, the Doom Slayer takes on evil by going through Hell and back in an attempt to stop the infestation from spreading elsewhere.

Story is light in Doom, but it works to the benefit of this game by allowing it to keep the focus on the intense action, and when the time calls for it, to progress the plot.  The set-up and motivations of Samuel Hayden and the villain, Olivia Pierce, rely on familiar narrative devices, but the lore that can be discovered via data logs fleshes out the game's world in a way that interests the player.  The files detail the struggles of a corporation coming to grips on what they have found, but also believing it can be used for a good cause.  The lore also explores a mythological being whose sole duty is to take care of evil, that person being the Doom Slayer.  While he doesn't utter a word, his actions throughout the campaign allude to the player that he is well aware of what is happening, and he intends to not only prevent evil from spreading, but he does not want the U.A.C.  to try and find a way to continue their studies of the malicious force the Doom Slayer is destined to destroy.

Doom's gameplay takes a back-to-basics approach in its structure and mechanics.  The game is old-school to a fault, there is no regenerating health, and players must instead find health and armor in order to ensure the Doom Slayer's survival, and taking cover when attacking is never an option, as it leads to death.  Its style is very reminiscent of Wolfenstein: The New Order, yet whereas The New Order had a strong balance of old and modern-day shooter mechanics, Doom is more reliant on the conventions of yesteryear, and elements of modern shooters are sparingly used.  It's also a game that never lets up on the action; from beginning to end, you will face hordes of grotesque monsters looking to tear you apart, and the only option left is to fight back.

Doom features an eclectic selection of weapons, including a pistol, a shotgun, a super-shotgun, an assault rifle, a mini-gun, a rapid-fire plasma rifle, a sharp-shooting plasma cannon, a rocket launcher, a chainsaw, and most important of all, the BFG 9000.  However, the likes of the chainsaw and the BFG have limited ammo, so you can't use them freely, and every other weapon, except for the pistol, shares ammunition with their respective gun type, so smart-decision making in firearm selection is a must, especially as the campaign progresses. 

Then, there are the glory kills; whenever an enemy is damaged enough, they will go into a dizzy stance; in this state, you can perform a finisher on them that varies depending on which area of the body you are currently looking at.  These are not only fun to pull off, but are capable of rewarding the player with health, armor, or ammo, which can mean the difference between life and death in the heat of battle.  Fortunately, smart level design allows for players to easily maneuver around their surroundings in order to fight bad guys, and the pacing of each stage balances out time spent fighting demons and exploring your surroundings.  There are a multitude of secrets to find, many of which reward the player with an upgrade token for either their weapons or the Doom Slayer himself, and additional perks can be unlocked and equipped for usage by completing in-game challenge rooms hidden in each level.

Besides featuring a wide variety of guns to use, the game also has you facing off against an equally diverse selection of enemies.  It starts off simple as you encounter basic foes such as the zombie-like Possessed, wall-crawling demonic imps, and Hell troops, but before long, the game will pit you up against the likes of the flying Cacodemons, demonic Wreavers, and brutal Hell Knights.  As stated prior, it's a fast paced experience that never lets up, yet the game does lose steam towards the climax of the campaign, as all major enemy types have been introduced by then, and the player knows their weaknesses and which weapon is best reserved for use against each monster.  At this point, however, boss fights begin to crop up and are a welcome change of pace, with the likes of the Cyber-Demon and the Spider Mastermind providing tough but fun encounters.

Graphically, this product is top-notch in every technical regard.  The framerate is silky-smooth, and the gunfire and glory-kill animations are a sight to behold, yet the real highlight is the art style.  Mars and the U.A.C.'s industrial facilities call to mind L.V. 426 from Aliens, with many of the clean and futuristic complexes having been consumed by the presence of evil, whereas Hell looks like it was ripped straight from the cover of a heavy-metal album.  Meanwhile, the voice acting, though sparingly used, is well-done, and the soundtrack reflects the intense nature of the game by offering a pulse pounding mixture of hard-rock guitar and rhythmic techno.

Doom is a game that not only revitalizes an old franchise, but also offers a refreshing experience from what is normally expected in the first-person shooter genre.  The gameplay may be old school in design, but its handled in a way that keeps the player thoroughly entertained, which is helped in part by its well-polished combat and level design.  For those that have yet to experience its brilliance, this is a must-buy.

Final Score: 9/10