Tag Archives: Video Games

Review: F.E.A.R. 2 – Sweet, Sweet Parthenophobia

Let’s not delude ourselves any more than necessary. F.E.A.R. 2 is little more than a long string of horror movie and shooter cliches strung together into one tidy package.

Stop me if any of this sounds familiar: creepy little girl, long black hair, scientific experiments gone awry, traveling through subways, hospitals, and elementary schools…

You get the picture.

But as such, it becomes a prime example of how a game can be perfectly enjoyable despite not bringing much new to the table.

In F.E.A.R. 2, you play as a different character than the undoubtedly poorly-fated soul you inhabited in the first game. This fresh perspective on the world allows the game to retell and clarify much of the backstory. F.E.A.R. 2 even begins before the ending of the first game. Far from seeming redundant, this recapping actually managed to tell many of the hazy details of the first outing better than the original, so it is much appreciated.

Our dear little psychotic Alma is now all grown up, on the loose, and seriously pissed off. You will spend most of the game chasing after her and trying to put an end to her shenanigans. That’s pretty much what you need to know. It’s a simple setup, but since the game carries the added burden of making sense of the original’s heap of poorly-told nonsense anything more would have bogged it down too much.

Not to worry though, as there are plenty of twists and turns in store and the yarn is much more satisfying and clearly delivered than in the first game.

The gameplay will also seem familiar, but in a pleasant, comfort food sort of way. Not much has changed, but it’s so well crafted that it didn’t really need to. A few new guns are added to the mix, the AI has received a notable boost in intelligence, and you can now make cover for yourself in case you ever felt jealous of the enemy’s ability to do so in the original F.E.A.R.

The combat isn’t terribly original, like the rest of the game, but it’s immensely satisfying and provides that perfect roller coaster of fear, tension, and release as the game moves from scary bit to action bit. Adding to this are a couple of sections where the player is given the opportunity to control a mech and mow down legions of enemies. Monolith has totally nailed the sensation of piloting one of these things like no other game I can remember, and if these mechanics aren’t fleshed out into a full game it will be a true shame.

Even the slow-mo, which could feel seriously dated, unnecessary, and overused, remains great fun. It’s hard to define exactly why slowing time and blasting foes into tiny bloody bits never gets old in this game when it wears thin so quickly in so many others.

The gorgeous graphics and terrifically disturbing blood effects certainly don’t hurt. This is one extremely gory, visceral game. In fact, the presentation here is easily one of its biggest strengths, from sound design to graphics to special effects. The whole shebang is quite an impressive package.

Occasionally, however, the lights do shine a little too brightly in this haunted house and expose a few of the more shoddily built props for the cheap skeletons they really are.

Most notably for fans of the original F.E.A.R., Monolith doesn’t seem to have learned too many new scare tactics for this newest outing. Alma still pops up randomly, lights flicker on and off, and hallucinations haunt you from time to time. The entertaining “dream” sequences from the prior outing are also more infrequent than I would have liked.

This, by far and away, is my biggest complaint. The atmosphere is stellar, the shooting is just as fun, and the environments more varied, yet this one fault comes dangerously close to making the game feel uninspired.

All is not lost, however. The game certainly does have enough cool, creepy, and even genuinely scary moments to keep you on the edge of your seat. I’m not about to spoil them here, but there are definitely some treats in store.

Monolith has thankfully addressed one of the biggest complaints about the original F.E.A.R., and to great effect. The environments are both impressively detailed and varied. Gone are the days of the endless series of cloned office corridors. Sure we may have seen the themes before, but never once did they feel sterile or uninspired, as if they simply chose these overdone location themes because they couldn’t think of anything better. All of them served their intended purpose and were suitably creepy, unnerving, and memorable.

Also, other games should pay attention to F.E.A.R. 2 when it comes to endings. It’s no secret that few horror stories, no matter the medium, actually end properly. The first F.E.A.R. was certainly an example of this and the sequel is no different.

What separates Monolith’s two games from the rest of the crappy horror endings (and indeed the innumerable games of late that seem to relish in not having an ending, instead choosing to set things up for the inevitable sequel) is how well they are constructed. In the first F.E.A.R., you knew Alma was far from gone and the story far from over, but the arc of your particular character, and that of the game’s slice of the overall story, had been told and concluded, in suitably epic fashion.

F.E.A.R. 2 is even more of a cliffhanger than the first game, but the ending is so spectacular that it doesn’t matter. The entire sequence, from the last level to the final confrontation to the story twist saved for the very last moments, is one of the outright coolest endings I can remember playing in a long time.

I can only hope that the, yes, inevitable sequel will make good on it, because they’ve already sold me.

So while it may not be astoundingly original, while it may have lost a little bit of its fright factor compared to the first game, and while it could still be accurately described as a “ride” just as much as a “game” at times, it is still an experience most certainly worth undertaking for those that fit its target audience. There’s nothing wrong with creating something that’s simply fun, and that’s what F.E.A.R. 2 is: a fun experience that, for the right audience, will provide thrills, chills, and plenty of memorable moments.

For those that don’t fit its target audience, well, I feel sorry for you, because if this game is a ride, it’s a hell of a trip that will leave you wanting more at the end. And that’s what any good story should do.


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This Week in Gaming – Week of February 9, 2009

Here’s a little experiment I did for a new weekly feature that I think it would be fun to start doing. Who knows, maybe I’ll actually stick with it. I do already have a lot of ideas for how to make the second one better. If you have any feedback, send it my way. Tell me what you think.


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Retro Chic

So apparently someone came up with the idea that it would be pretty cool to see what it would be like if classic games were rereleased many years down the line the same way classic books are now through those wonderful, cheap Penguin editions and such that you probably bought so many of for those high school English classes you loathed. The concept has now had time to germinate somewhat and crafty Interweb denizens the world over have gotten their hands on the concept. Some awesome things have resulted. Take a look at some of them for yourself, I highly recommend it.

See more: Let’s Go Play Some Books!


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Best of 2008 Awards: Best Shooting Game

Zestful Contemplation’s Best of 2008 Awards

Way the hell after 2008 is a thing of the past, it’s Zestful Contemplation’s Best of 2008 Awards.  I’m not pretending to make my awards comprehensive or unbiased or any of that other pretentious crap.  The fact that these awards reflect my own personal experiences, tastes, and dislikes is exactly the point.  I haven’t played every game that came out this year and I’m not going to consider a boatload of titles I never played.  But I did play a huge number of games this year, and these choices reflect my personal tastes and thoughts about the games I spent time with in 2008.

Best Shooter

  • Gears of War 2
  • Left 4 Dead

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Shooters are quite the competitive category these days. It is a genre I enjoy, but one in which it is easier than some of the other crowded categories for me to choose a favorite. This is because I tend to be rather selective with my shooters. It is a genre from which I accept no mediocrity. The primary reason for this is honestly that I get bored of any shooter that isn’t fantastic, so I don’t waste time or money on anything that’s not pretty much spectacular.

Thus, for me, a game like Call of Duty 4 was only a rental. I haven’t even bothered to play Resistance 2 yet. Call of Duty 5 and its WWII setting holds no appeal whatsoever. You see my point.

Two shooters in particular managed to sneak their way into my lineup last year. For me the choice was clear. Gears of War 2 was a brilliant dose of high-octane, testosterone packed, spectacular action fun. It was also immensely predictable, bogged down with poorly told story points, riddled with a few too many moments that were overly frustrating, and set damn near entirely in drab underground environments.

Left 4 Dead, on the other hand, is a game that is brilliantly simple. There’s no unnecessary story. Just four people, a few guns, and a whole hell of a lot of zombies. The environments themselves tell all the story you need to know (and do a great job of it). It is one of the best cooperative experiences I have ever played in a game. While there are perhaps fewer levels than I might like, you can go back to them countless times without getting bored thanks to the AI Director.

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This artificial puppeteer keeps things so consistently intense that you’ll never once be bored, changing things up every single run through a level just enough to keep you on your toes and avoid too much predictability, but at the same time rarely lets things feel frustrating or needlessly difficult (unless you happen to be playing on Expert of course, but the entire point of that difficulty level is to be stupidly hard, so I can’t really fault the game for delivering there).

I even enjoyed the online play and the versus mode, which are things I normally don’t even touch in shooters. Now that’s an impressive feat.

Left 4 Dead is one of the most intense and consistently fun games I have played in a long time. It nails the aesthetic, the difficulty, the co-op mechanics, the online play, the versus mode, and pretty much everything else (hell, even the achievements are pretty well done), making it clearly my favorite shooter of 2008.

Now come on, Valve, just give me a few more levels.

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Best of 2008 Awards: Best Racing Game

Zestful Contemplation’s Best of 2008 Awards

Way the hell after 2008 is a thing of the past, it’s Zestful Contemplation’s Best of 2008 Awards.  I’m not pretending to make my awards comprehensive or unbiased or any of that other pretentious crap.  The fact that these awards reflect my own personal experiences, tastes, and dislikes is exactly the point.  I haven’t played every game that came out this year and I’m not going to consider a boatload of titles I never played.  But I did play a huge number of games this year, and these choices reflect my personal tastes and thoughts about the games I spent time with in 2008.

Best Racing Game

  • Burnout Paradise
  • Mario Kart Wii

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As much as I love Mario Kart and as great as I thought last year’s particular rendition of the game was, let’s face it, it’s not really in the running here.  Mario Kart is fun but this iteration was probably even less innovative than the GameCube installment.  There’s nothing wrong with that mind you, and I had plenty of fun with it, but come on, it’s up against Burnout Paradise.

Mario Kart Wii’s biggest new feature was probably its motion controlled steering, which nobody who actually cared about winning every once in a while actually used.  On the other hand, Burnout Paradise took an already awesome racing series, took a rather spectacular leap into an open-world setting, and made it significantly more awesome in the process.  Seeing your Miis cheering from the sidelines of the race courses, while awesome and much-appreciated, just can’t compare.

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Rarely does an open world game truly feel like it needs to be open world to me.  Most of the time all it means it that you have to walk farther to get to where you need to go instead of being able to select it from a far more convenient menu.  Sure Burnout Paradise should have given up some of its realism for a restart option, but it used its open world setting to its fullest.  Just driving around randomly at top speed for no reason was immensely entertaining.  Every street had its own records to set.  Every stretch of road contained its own challenges.  Showtime mode is addictive in its simplicity and can be played at any time the player desires.  The game is filled to the brim with fun stuff to do and is one of the most refreshingly fun racing games to appear in quite some time.

On top of all that, the developers have produced what has to be one of the more impressive efforts of post-release support for a game seen outside of the Rock Band platform.  The sheer amount of cool free stuff they have released for the game combined with the paid content that is quickly forthcoming has kept this game relevant and continually fun and fresh for far longer than it would have otherwise.  The motorcycle content alone could have been its own $10 download and few probably would have complained.

Plus, we’re getting our restart option now too.  And for free.  It’s nice when a developer listens to its fans.

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Press X to Not Die

All right, that’s it, timed button pressing minigames have got to stop invading my videogames.

I know it’s some sort of shiny fad or obsession or fetish or in-thing, but they’re not fun.

You hear me developers? Not bloody fun! Unfun. Anti-entertainment. Enjoyability factor zero. Stupendously unentertaining. Spectacular fun-fail of the highest order.

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The only reason these stupid things even exist is because developers get on their cinematic high-horse and want to have the spiffy-ultra-cool protagonist do some insane, needlessly showy, bring-in-the-stunt-double move and can’t figure out a way to make it actually, you know, interactive or enjoyable or fun or involving for the player.

“Hey, I know! Let’s throw in some parts where the player will have to randomly press a button that flashes on the screen during the scene suddenly and without any warning whatsoever! That’ll be great! That’ll solve all of our problems! That won’t be distracting or repetitive or annoying or cliched or old or not actually all that interactive at all! It’ll be like a miniature rhythm game slapped in the middle of our super-ultra-shiny-superfluous cutscene. Only without the music. Or the fun. That’ll totally draw the player into the experience and make them forget that our canned movie scene is having all of the fun instead of the player. I’m a freakin’ genius.”

Yeah, right along with the fifty gazillion other people who have now done the same thing.

You know, the idea was acceptably unique when Dragon’s Lair tried it in 1983. It added a small dose of interest to Shenmue. It provided for a few cool moments in God of War. It allowed a couple of tense actions scenes in Resident Evil 4.

But the concept is dead. Done. Overcooked. Destroyed. Played-out.

Take Prince of Persia, for instance. Clearly this was a team that had no earthly idea how to make an enjoyable combat system. I mean, I don’t think these poor guys even knew where to start.

First of all, the whole “combo memorization” thing got old just shortly after Mortal Kombat II. I prefer something slightly less putridly archaic in my action-packed battles, thank you very much.

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Secondly, there’s nothing quite as jarring as having the fighting system randomly determine that it’s time to take control completely out of your hands and test your reflexes instead of your skill.

“All right, Prince! Yeah! Show that enemy who’s boss with your sword-slinging prowess. You’ve got him right where you want him. Now, use your skills to — HOLY CRAP PRESS THE SQUARE BUTTON RIGHT NOW!”

“Oops, too late. You fail.”

Now that’s my definition of fun combat, let me tell you.

For some reason, more and more of these aggravating twitchy tests appear in the combat sequences the further you get into the game. As if that’s the way I want my progress to be rewarded. As if that’s the way I’m going to be able to tell that my skill is growing and the challenge is rising.

But of course! I’m failing more of these distracting button-matching sequences. I haven’t matched this many shapes since I was in kindergarten. I must be getting better at the game! Or something.

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This has to stop.

I’m all for interaction in games. As you might be able to tell from my cleverly subtle wording, I’m decidedly more a fan of games that let you play them as opposed to games that decide to show you crap while you sit back and twiddle your thumbs.

But half-assed, needless, mindless sequences like these “Quick Time Events” aren’t the way to go about it. If you seriously can’t think of any better way to involve me in your sequence, just show me what you have to show me and get on with it. Don’t shove these reflex testers in my face and then smile smugly in the corner thinking you’ve solved the problem of interactivity in cutscenes and created the ultimate involving story sequence.

You haven’t. You’ve created another in a long string of glorified movies that require you to press a button within a half-second time frame to continue watching them.

Would watching movies be more fun this way? Would you finish the ending credits with a smile on your face if you had to press the “2” button on your remote in 3/4 of a second before Neo’s punch landed on Agent Smith’s ugly mug or else it would kick you back to the beginning of the scene?

No, of course not. That would suck. Just like it does in movie sequences within games.

Would Metal Gear Solid have been more fun if, during the interminably long codec sequences, Meryll would have randomly burst out with, “Press the triangle button, Snake!” every few minutes and you would have had to react before the anti-triangle-button explosive charge went off in your head and blew your slimy brain to bits?

Well, maybe, but that’s just because I don’t like Metal Gear Solid anyway.

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The point is, if you can figure out a clever way to bring interactivity into your games, then great. More power to you. Go for it. Even if this happens to involve timed button presses.

For instance, look at Indigo Prophecy. It was flawed, but the buttons you had to randomly match on screen at least occasionally matched up with what was going on behind the prompts. Mind you even then you couldn’t actually see what was going on because you were too busy looking for the damn prompts so your eyes couldn’t actually focus on the action, but it was still better than some other implementations.

Or look at Heavy Rain by the same developers. It’s much the same idea only the buttons to press are floating over the in-game items and actions they correspond to.

Now that’s more like it.

But having Prince’s sarcastic little ass blown across the screen every time I don’t press the square button quickly enough?

Well, you can take your Quick Time Event and shove it down your circle button.

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Best of 2008 Awards: Best Puzzle Game

Zestful Contemplations Best of 2008 Awards

Way the hell after 2008 is a thing of the past, it’s Zestful Contemplation’s Best of 2008 Awards.  I’m not pretending to make my awards comprehensive or unbiased or any of that other pretentious crap.  The fact that these awards reflect my own personal experiences, tastes, and dislikes is exactly the point.  I haven’t played every game that came out this year and I’m not going to consider a boatload of titles I never played.  But I did play a huge number of games this year, and these choices reflect my personal tastes and thoughts about the games I spent time with in 2008.

Contender:

  • Braid

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Few puzzle games have ever been able to grip me, for whatever reason, so in 2008 there was really only one puzzle game that mattered to me. That is to say, it is the only puzzle game I can remember playing. Luckily it was a really, really good one, so even if I am fairly ignorant of the genre, I can be halfway confident in stating that this would be a strong contender even on a list that came from slightly more experience than this one happens to.

Braid is a game that could almost be called pretentious, in a sense. I would argue this is not a bad thing. It is almost the very definition of the type of game the snooty games-as-art people bring up when they say that a game can be more than just mere entertainment; that a game can be considered, rightfully and truly, as something with a deeper meaning, purpose, and connection to the viewer.

For the record, I am one of these snooty games-as-art people and that is why I love Braid so much.

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It demonstrates with wonderful enthusiasm that games can do so much more than just provide the next summer blockbuster where your fingers happen to be pressing buttons to make things happen every once in a while instead of munching on popcorn.

It has a gorgeous and totally unique art style fit for framing and hanging on the wall. Its story is brilliantly told in a minimalistic fashion that doesn’t get in the way, but is still emotionally meaningful and impactful when the big twist comes your way. It uses its level designs to enhance the story.

Perhaps best of all, it shows how a small development team can create an absolute masterpiece to rival some of the best productions of the big studios (in its own little way) and almost singlehandedly shoves downloadable games into the realm of relevance.

Oh, and it has some pretty good puzzle elements in there somewhere too, now that I think about it.

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