Friday, April 19, 2019

Singularity (Xbox 360) Review

Game development isn't an easy business.  Compared to film-making, creating, developing, and shipping a video game is a rather time-consuming affair.  The teams are made up of individuals all in pursuit of one goal: to create a fun, compelling experience, but factors such as time, money, technical issues, or publisher interference can derail things quite easily.  In doing research on Singularity, I was a bit surprised to learn the game was developed and shipped within the span of ten months.  This is because developer Raven Software struggled for nearly two years trying to develop the game, and then Activision told them to finish the game within the allotted time, or else it would be cancelled.

Captain Renko and his partner Private Devlin are sent to a remote island off the coast of Russia to investigate reports of unusual signals coming from the area.  Once they arrive, an electromagnetic burst erupts from the place, disabling the helicopters and causing Renko and Devlin to crash-land.  They survive, only to learn the location is Katorga-12, an island used by the Russians during the Cold War to research an unknown element called E-99.  An accident there has turned Katorga-12 into a ghost town populated by an assortment of nasty creatures spawned from the incident.  Renko is searching for Devlin when he is suddenly transported back to 1955.

He saves a man from being crushed by burning debris; afterwards, he's sent back to the present, except the world is now occupied by a man named Demichev.  Renko reunites with Devlin, but they are shortly captured by Demichev's forces and Devlin is executed.  Renko escapes and encounters Barisov, a scientist who claims to know how the timeline can be fixed to prevent Demichev's rise to power.  Using a device called the TMD, Renko must travel between the past and present to correct history and stop Demichev.

Time travel is a tricky subject to tackle in entertainment due to the plot holes that can arise if the rules aren't clearly explained or are broken by the actions of the characters.  Unfortunately, Singularity falls into this trap.  The story is easy to follow, but problems arise as the game progresses.  Without spoiling too much, the game treats a plot twist that occurs towards the end of the game as this huge surprise, even though said individual was encountered early on in the campaign.  Additionally, much of the information regarding how things are is found through audio logs and notes scattered around Katorga-12, so if you ignore them, chances are you'll be lost.

These guys look like if Sloth from The Goonies fell into a vat
of radioactive waste.
It also doesn't help that Renko is a silent protagonist, and given the subject matter, it's odd the developers chose to go with this direction.  There are some interesting concepts the narrative toys with, but it never expands upon them.  For example, there are a few instances where Renko must use the TMD to travel from the present to the past to change events.  However, these sequences are incredibly short and only offer a small glimpse at what could have been.

Most of these problems can be traced back to the troubled development the game went through, and though the plot has its faults, the look and feel of the title is what saves it.  The abandoned, rundown facilities and landscapes of Katorga-12 call to mind the real-life town of Chernobyl, as well as media such as Stalker, Metro 2033, and Bioshock.  The first hour, where Renko is exploring the island is quite eerie as he works his way through places once filled with life which are now decaying, empty, and littered with skeletal bodies and other sights.

Take Call of Duty, mix it with the powers of Bioshock, and the alternate history motif of Wolfenstein, and that's Singularity in a nutshell.  The gameplay follows many of the tropes associated with shooters from the early-to-mid 2010's, including very linear levels, a two-weapon limit, and a six-to-seven hour campaign.  What sets Singularity apart from similar ilk is the ability to manipulate time, which opens up plenty of creative opportunities for how to take on enemies and solve puzzles.  At first, Renko has nothing but guns he finds to protect himself, but after meeting Barisov, he obtains the TMD, short for Time Manipulation Device.  This gadget is outfitted with a variety of abilities centered around the concept of time.

With the TMD, the player can cause soldiers to age rapidly and turn to dust, restore metal crates and use them as platforms, or generate a bubble so everything in its vicinity is frozen in place.  The device also has a telekinetic function, which allows Renko to grab objects, including grenades and rockets.  Initially, it can only age or de-age something, but new powers will be acquired as you progress.  The TMD runs on E-99, which does slowly regenerate over time, but it can be refilled quickly by finding energy cells.  E-99 also doubles as a currency used to upgrade the TMD and buy perks such as increased health or the ability to carry more energy.

"He chose...poorly."
Weapons can also be upgraded by finding kits and visiting a weapons' locker.  When the game begins, ammo and health are in short supply, yet it becomes less of a concern down the road.  The guns consist of genre standards such as an assault rifle, a shotgun, a sniper rifle, and an incredibly weak pistol.  There are only a handful of unique firearms to find, including a minion and a special grenade launcher.  My personal favorite is a modified sniper rifle called the Seeker, which fires an explosive bullet that can be guided towards its target; however, ammo is limited and it can't be equipped at weapons' lockers due to it only being a prototype.

Guns and the TMD will be useful against the bevy of mutated creatures and Demichev's forces scattered about Katorga-12.  The mutants include tall, shriveled beings, beasts capable of phasing in and out of reality, and really annoying ticks which explode within the player's vicinity.  There are two boss fights, both of which are disappointing since all you do is expose their glowing weak spots and shoot them until the boss is dead.  Equally lackluster are the human soldiers.  You'll fight regular ones armed with an assault rifle or shotgun, as well as heavily armored variants equipped with a mini-gun or rocket launcher.  It would have been cool to see special types of soldiers armed with E-99-infused devices, but this isn't the case.

There's a right way and a wrong way to play Singularity.  If you only use the guns and barely the time-manipulation powers, then the game is a competent-but-unremarkable shooter.  I made this mistake the first time through and as a result, I found the experience underwhelming.  After a recent play through, though, I realized the true potential of the combat by using the abilities much more often.  When played this way, the game is a lot better, but it also highlights the untapped potential this title had.  Although there is a lot of shooting, there is the occasional puzzle to solve, most of which are uncomplicated and easy to figure out.  Expect to raise a lot of steel shutters using a metal box.

Puzzles generally amount to "FIX/DE-AGE ITEM, PUT ITEM HERE."
Additionally, things become a cakewalk the more you upgrade the weapons and abilities.  Ammo, health, and E-99 energy become so readily available it's kind of ridiculous, and chances are by the campaign, most, if not all of your abilities and whatnot will be maxed out.  As mentioned earlier, levels are incredibly linear, so the audio logs, notes, and other goods are pretty easy to find.  A new-game-plus option would have gone a long way to giving players an incentive to restart the campaign with everything maxed out but have tougher enemies.

It's been almost a decade since this title came out, but the graphics still look good.  The visual effects for the different powers of the TMD are cool to look at, such as when you turn a soldier to dust or unleash a time orb, shoot a nearby barrel, and witness how the explosion is frozen in place.  The rugged, dreary landscapes of Katorga-12 are creepy, desolate, and look like you just walked into Chernobyl, which contrasts with the clean and colorful look of the island during the 1955 sections.  Voice acting is competent, although the lack of subtitles is distracting since the audio levels feel off, even after various adjustments.

On paper, Singularity is a great game, but in execution, there's a lot of untapped potential.  I give Raven Software props for pulling this off within a short timeframe, but at the same time, the troubled development and rushed production does show in the final product.  The story is a bit messy and all over the place, while the gameplay is equal parts routine and clever.  The gunplay is run-of-the-mill, but the TMD is a great tool to use and there's a lot of ways to mess around with time.  Had the game received proper development time, it would have made a huge difference.  As it stands though, Singularity is an amazing title trapped within a decent shooter.



Friday, April 12, 2019

Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus (PS4) Review

Wolfenstein: The New Order is one of my favorite shooters and was also responsible for getting me interested in the Wolfenstein series.  Growing up, I had heard about the games and how Wolfenstein 3D laid the groundwork for the first-person-shooter genre to take and evolve into its own things, but I never played any of the games, part of it stemming from the fact I grew up in a household that didn't want me to play M-rated games when I was a young kid.  When I got a PlayStation 4 in 2015, one of the first titles I purchased was the New Order.  Thanks the New Order, I'm a fan of the games.  The 2014 soft-reboot did a great job modernizing the old-school gameplay of prior entries, while also telling a great story about a man from a bygone era trapped in a world dominated by Nazis.

At the end of the New Order, B.J. Blaskowitz is wounded after defeating long-time nemesis General Deathshead.  Before Deathshead's bunker is nuked, B.J. is rescued by the Kreisau Circle and taken back to Eva's Hammer, but he slips into a coma.  A few months later, and he wakes up in the middle of a firefight between the resistance and the Nazis, who have managed to track down the submarine they're on.  Unfortunately, B.J. is in poor shape and can't walk, so he grabs a wheelchair and makes his way up top to where his wife Anya and the other members are holding off the Third Reich.  B.J. has been labeled a criminal and Frau Engel from the last game wants him dead.

They manage to escape their pursuers but need to come up with a new plan of action, one which involves tracking down the pockets of resistance scattered across America.  However, B.J. is struggling to cope with the fact he's barely holding on to life, and he doesn't want Anya to share his suffering, especially since she's pregnant with twins.  During the journey to liberate America, B.J. confronts some skeletons from his closet, and is given a new lease on life, one which re-motivates him to go after and kill the villainous Frau Engel after all the crap she's put them through.

Wolfenstein II is probably the darkest entry in the series, for the first half at least.  Whereas the New Order and the Old Blood had a nice balance of story and gameplay, the sequel puts a bigger emphasis on narrative and character development.  B.J. Blaskowitz is a broken man, his entire body is messed up and he's conflicted, emotionally speaking.  This is a far cry from the badass Nazi killer of prior installments, and in a first for Wolfenstein, the game delves into his past and suffice to say, he had a messed-up childhood.  Through various flashbacks, the player learns about B.J.'s abusive, racist father, who constantly berated both his wife and son and figured the best way to make a man out of his child was to beat the snot out of him.

No, your eyes aren't deceiving you...
Traumatic childhoods aren't the only way the game attempts to shock us, as like in the New order, the portrayal of a Nazi-occupied America is a frightening sight.  At one point, B.J. travels to Roswell and sees how the Third Reich has managed to brainwash the country into thinking fascism is better than democracy.  Listen closely amongst the civilians talking and you'll learn slavery has been re-instated, not to mention the KKK and Nazis are good friends with one another.  Scenes such as these are less shocking and more satirical, and the writing during these moments wouldn't seem out of place in a Paul Verhoeven flick.

At times, though, it feels like the gameplay takes a back seat to the story.  The gameplay isn't bad, but it's clear developer MachineGames wanted to focus more on what makes Blaskowitz tick and how he tries to struggle with the fear of dying and not being able to witness the birth of his kids.  Yet, the dramatic moments are juxtaposed against comedy which often doesn't gel with the rest of the experience.  During one cut-scene, B.J. and Anya are arguing when all of a sudden, a man bursts out of the bathroom talking about how great the toilet is.  Things take an even sharper turn in the second half of the game.

MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD, but B.J. gets captured while revisiting his childhood home and is executed in front of a live audience.  However, the Kreisau Circle gets his head and manage to reattach it to the body of a cyborg, turning him into a Nazi-killing RoboCop.  From there, the plot becomes noticeably more upbeat and fun, with plenty of over-the-top action and ridiculous moments. It's a bizarre case of tonal whiplash.  It's like going to a funeral for a loved one and then the next day, you go to a strip club and have a wild time, almost as if the previous day never happened.  In short, the New Colossus' story isn't bad, but it is all over the place.

Wolfenstein II's gameplay is largely unchanged from its predecessor; in other words, it's still an excellent blend of old-school and modern shooter mechanics.  From the introductory sequence up until his execution, B.J. is a glass cannon.  His armor count is high, maxing out at 200, but his health remains at 50, so taking on any Nazis requires an extra bit of caution.  Keeping in tune with the last game and its prequel, the Old Blood, every level provides players multiple options for either stealth or going in like a wrecking ball.  Be careful if you choose the latter, as there are a lot more with officers than before.

Wendy, I can fly!
In the New Order, enemy officers could call in reinforcements if they or a Nazi soldier spotted Blaskowitz, and if you took them out, then it's no additional support.  The sequel amps up the number of times where enemy officers are present, to the point you spend a lot more time sneaking around than participating in full-fledged firefights.  One of the problems with the Old Blood was that the first few hours were nothing but stealth, and given how fragile B.J. is for most of the campaign, expect to sneak around a lot.  Keep in mind, I'm not saying the stealth is bad, it works, and it's satisfying to sneak up on a soldier and cut him in two with a fire-axe, but the actual combat feels dialed down.

When there is shooting, the gunplay is satisfying and is supported by a varied selection of weapons.  B.J. can wield pistols, shotguns, SMGs, assault rifles, and a grenade launcher.  Depending on who you save in the opening prologue, you'll either obtain the Dieselcraftwerk or the Lasercraftwerk.  The Dieselcraftwerk fires sticky bombs that can be remotely detonated, while the Lasercraftwerk, a returning weapon from the New Order, is a laser cannon.  Even better, you can dual-wield any two weapons you want, so if you want to tear through Nazis with a shotgun in one hand and an assault rifle in the other, knock yourself out.  Firearms can be upgraded via kits found in each level; additionally, there are three skill trees tailored to each play style.

Unlike in the New Order, where skills and other perks had to be unlocked by doing specific actions, the New Colossus streamlines the process to where all you have to do is perform X number of kills of pick up a certain number of items to unlock a skill.  After B.J. becomes a cyborg, he gets access to one of three abilities, the other two not chosen can still be acquired through side missions, more on this shortly.  Ramshackles turns Blaskowitz into a Nazi-killing Kool Aid Man, as it allows him to pummel through certain walls and enemies.  The constrictor harness lets him squeeze into vents and other tight spots to get the drop on bad guys, although spending too much time stretched out slowly drains health.

Finally, the Battle Walker lets B.J. reach high spots through special leg extensions.  The new abilities are a great way to mix up the gameplay since each one accommodates how one plays the game.  B.J. will need all of the weapons and abilities he can get if he wants to take down the Nazis.  Enemies include soldiers and the obtrusive officers, as well as heavily-armored soldiers who dual-wield laser cannons, incendiary shell launchers, or .50 Cal shotguns.  Plus, there are robots, dogs, and the occasional 200-foot tall mech to contend with, but the AI is spotty.  During shootouts, they're competent enough, but in stealth, they're completely oblivious to your presence.  There were plenty of instances when I killed a Nazi and his comrade didn't bat an eye, especially when said soldier was standing right next to him.

They see my ridin', they see me rollin'...
Wolfenstein II is a lengthy game, taking anywhere from ten to twelve hours to beat, depending on how much time you spend with the side missions.  Halfway through the game, B.J. can start going back to previously explored areas to find and kill high-ranking Nazi commanders.  To access these missions, you need to collect a certain number of Enigma codes and then decipher their location via the Enigma machine.  Though optional, the side missions do allow you to go back and find any collectibles you might have missed the first time around, such as gold, letters, toys for Max Has, or albums.

Visually, the game looks excellent.  Wolfenstein II runs off the ID Tech 6 engine, which was also used for the 2016 Doom title, and the game boasts excellently detailed characters and environments, plus well-edited cinematic and ridiculously gory violence.  The locations, though, lack variety, since a lot of the action occurs in factories and other, similar-looking industrial areas.  Also, the game crashed once, but this problem never occurred again.   Meanwhile, sound is excellent.  The voice cast, particularly Brian Bloom as B.J. Blaskowitz, is great, as is the music.

Wolfenstein II; The New Colossus lacks the surprise of its predecessor nor does it have the tight balance of story and gameplay.  Much of the game is dedicated to plot rather than action, and B.J. spends a good portion of the experience in a sad, broken state, until he's resurrected.  From there, the game becomes a fun, pulpy adventure in line with past Wolfenstein games, although it does come to a close rather abruptly.  Similarly, the gameplay, though solid, tends to emphasize stealth over shooting, although the gunplay is satisfying.  Despite its problems, the New Colossus is a good game, albeit one  which emphasizes story, for better or for worse.