Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2013/02/08/game_column_feb/
Bioshock Infinite, Devil May Cry, SimCity
The latest videogame releases reviewed... and more
Game Theory The first few months of the year are, as ever, a time for the public and publishers alike to draw breath after the Christmas frenzy. Only a handful of full-price games launch, giving gamers time to catch a breath and ponder what they’ll spend their money on in the year to come. That said, this period is already clocking up casualties and controversies. And no more so than at the now defunct THQ.
THQ was ever one of those publishers that you couldn't help but wonder how it survived so long – it being ever present since way back in 1989. Its latter day franchises included the likes of Metro 2033, Homefront, Saint's Row, Red Faction and Darksiders, all full of potential perhaps, but none which could be said to have stood out as the flagship example of its genre.
OMG, they killed the publisher
Perhaps THQ's next wave of titles might have finally broken through that quality barrier, with the promising South Park: The Stick of Truth, Metro: Last Light, Homefront 2 and Turtle Rock's latest - it developed Left 4 Dead - among the games under development.
Sadly, however, it's now too late for the publishing house. We’ll still get to see all of the above titles, each franchise being auctioned off by the company during its death throes to appease the circling creditors.
So it is that Crytek is now the proud owner of Homefront, The Stick of Truth is in the hands of Ubisoft, Metro: Last Light will be published by Deep Silver, and 2K Games takes on Turtle Rock. Indeed only Darksiders developer Vigil Games was left without a suitor, Crytek stealing in at the eleventh hour to take mercy on “key” team members for its newly established Austin, Texas division.
Surely THQ's woes must send out a worrying signal to its former rivals, a message if any were needed that to survive you must produce quality titles and memorable brands – not simply look to mimic the wares of other publishers. Don't agree? Then take a look at Darksiders, Homefront and Saint's Row versus Zelda, Battlefield 3 and Grand Theft Auto and draw your own conclusions…
Walking on air: BioShock Infinite
Quite the opposite of generic is BioShock Infinite, a game long in the development, but one that looks well worth the wait. I had chance to go hands-on with the latest build, starting at the start – not as common an occurrence as you might think in preview events – and was left to my own devices in the floating city of Columbia for a full hour.
A district of Columbia
Taking advantage of all the best aspects of DirectX 11, the game looked nothing short of stunning. Dynamically shifting water, reflective surfaces, draw distances you'd need binoculars to truly appreciate, and more lens flare than a modern day Star Trek movie.
More importantly, there looks to be just as much optional background story there to be discovered as was true of its predecessors. Not to mention a whole menagerie of miscellany to witness within Columbia’s beautiful environments, as NPCs go about their business, or else interact with player character Booker DeWitt.
Indeed, during my all too short time with the game, I regrettably had to run past all manner of bizarre sideshows, from a floating ticker tape parade to a pro-slavery rally, in my haste to cover as much ground as possible. And yes, you read that right - the abolition of slavery is far from a forgone conclusion onboard Columbia as Irrational Games’ creative director, Ken Levine, sets his keen sights on exploring the notion of American exceptionalism. Infinite is clearly full of lofty ambition in more ways than one.
Boy in the hood
Interestingly, and despite such leanings toward the intellectual, Infinite is also one of the most violent games I’ve played in recent times. Take the first weapon you’re handed, a motorised blade, perfect for slicing and dicing opponents who scream and fall apart in entirely gruesome ways. Think Kill Bill or Django Unchained and you won’t be too far off.
The whole then is something of a contradiction in terms, a thoughtful and thought provoking narrative, that same considered and tactical combat, but then soaked in a bucket of violence. It’s a dream to play through, but I suspect misgivings and controversy are sure to follow when its 26 March 2013 launch date rolls around.
Guaranteed to be less divisive is SimCity, Maxis’ reboot of the classic town builder. It’s shaping up very nicely if the recent closed beta was anything to go by.
Macroscopic and microscopic in its detail, as mayor you can survey the whole region from a god-like height, or else follow your individual sim citizens around to spy on their habits and follow them home. Waste management, powerflow stats, education, road networks, sewerage flow and the daily commute of your town's residents - all are within your control.
You can even trade commodities with other mayors from your region, buying in extra coal or else sharing resources such as garbage trucks and fire service coverage. Then there are the so-called “regional works” - airports and the like - which can be built alongside nearby cities to benefit the whole area.
SimCity: as safe as houses?
Sadly, the beta was set to time out after a solitary hour of play, but still afforded a tantalising glance into a deceptively deep interface designed for intricate levels of management. Whether you're looking to build the all-singing, all-dancing future city of mankind, or a dingy, dusty one horse town.
However you decide to do it, expect to sit and stare at the constant thrum of the city as your people work, rest, play and get blown to smithereens by invading UFOs when the PC-only title hits on 8 March 2013.
Far East feast: Ni no Kuni
Aside from tempting us with games to come, the last month or so has also seen its share of releases, many of them no doubt pulled back from a pre-Christmas rush with designs on capitalising on all that money sent by relatives who don't know you enough to risk buying anything beyond a pair of socks or a shaving kit.
Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is precisely one such title, a beautiful work of art designed in tandem by Japanese animation experts Studio Gibli and Level-5, and released by Namco Bandai. The tale of a boy looking to bring back his recently departed mother, by crossing into the world of fairy folk, is at once one of the most affecting and engrossing RPGs to originate from the Land of the Rising Sun for some time.
What's more, the localisation treatment applied is a rare treat, as translations and voice work combine to elevate the work still further. I mean, where else are you going to get led about a gorgeous, living fantasy tale by a stocky creature with a lantern for a nose and a thick Welsh accent? Ni no Kuni is truly a mesmerising affair and one that leaves you crossing everything that Studio Ghibli decide to test themselves further in game design. Any RPG aficionados looking for something to do with their PS3 – for this is a PlayStation exclusive – need idle no longer. Recommended.
Devil of a reboot
And so we come to DmC: Devil May Cry, a game that has courted controversy ever since it was announced: the series has been transplanted from its Japanese studio to Cambridge-based Ninja Theory.
Fans have supposedly been united in the condemnation of this decision, and are equally upset at Dante's shift from middle-aged silver-haired hero to cocksure angsty twentysomething brunette. Why? I have to wonder.
You see, for me the series has never quite lived up to the promise of the short sample supplied on the demo disc - remember those? - which came packaged with the first wave of PS2s. Sure, the original had its moments, but DMC 2 was abysmal, DMC 3 good but no world beater, and the fourth - the first current-generation entry - largely forgettable. Why then be precious about Capcom trying something different?
Kiss my axe
Presumably Platinum Games was too busy working with Konami and Nintendo on, respectively, Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance and Bayonetta 2 to collaborate on another project. But in Ninja Theory, Capcom has found a studio entirely capable of delivering the series’ high-octane action fundamentals, while re-jigging the engine and platform sections to suit the tastes and expectations of the modern gamer.
Fans of the action-adventure will be reminded of Platinum's Bayonetta at every turn, regardless of that studio's lack of involvement – enough to conjure the image of Capcom turning up at Ninja Theory with a copy of Bayonetta in one hand and a wad of cash in the other. But channeling Platinum's stiletto-heeled witch is undoubtedly a smart choice, and Ninja Theory has certainly done it right.
Relentless combos, a stack of angelic and demonic weapons and a vampy, if somewhat generic plot, combine to create an arena in which flawless execution of your enemies is within your grasp. All that's required is swift assessment of any given situation and lightning-fast reflexes.
No vest for the wicked
There’s even the addition of some genuinely interesting boss fights that use the environment nicely, as well as some stand-out backdrops to do battle in as Dante flips in and out of the real world and the twisted Limbo City which the forces of evil are intent on dragging him into.
A little on the short side perhaps, but there’s no denying the compulsive combat with a depth that more than makes up for the comparatively superficial plot. DmC: Devil May Cry is out now on Xbox, PS3 and PC.
Some people call me the space cowboy
PC gamers of a certain vintage will no doubt recollect LucasArts' games of the late 1980s to mid-1990s with the kind of reverie usually reserved for film makers at their pomp. Not only was the studio busily churning out brilliant point-and-click adventures, but it was also cashing in on Star Wars in a manner fully befitting the original, proper trilogy.
Of those Star Wars titles it was always TIE Fighter that most appealed to me, a game that set you on the dark path of the Imperial pilot. So much fodder for Luke and his chums you might think. Except, brilliantly, LucasArts thought nothing of letting you decimate the Rebel fleet single-handedly, even acting as bodyguard to a certain fallen Jedi with respiratory troubles.
Plasma bolts away
Back then, the space combat genre was at its height, as galactic dog fights, spiraling plotlines and the fact gamers knew no better, had us happily replaying missions - yep, from the start, imagine the horror - ad nauseum in a bid to stop that last Imperial corvette from getting blown apart and so ruining our secondary objectives score.
All at once, however, the space combat genre died a death, with only a few exceptions – the X series and Freelancer most notably – carrying the torch into the 2000s. Crowd funding site Kickstarter looks to have changed all that, with not only a reprisal of Elite on its way, but also such projects as Strike Suit Zero, Born Ready Games’ attempt at making space combat games relevant in an industry singularly obsessed with first-person shooters.
After such a build-up, I really want to say they nailed it. Trouble is they haven’t… at least not quite. While Strike Suit Zero - out on PC, via Steam - does bring space combat kicking and screaming into the modern era, it hones neither visuals nor implementation to the required standard.
Graphical shortcomings are dismissible if the other ingredients are right, but reviving antiquated mission types – particularly that old chestnut known as ‘escort’ missions – doesn’t really demonstrate an attempt to push the boundaries of the genre. Particularly when the gigantic craft you’re escorting is some kind of Mecca for missiles.
At least the ability to transform the titular Strike Suit into a craft reminiscent of mech suits from Japanese anime is something a little different but, again, the game falls short. Not least because the suit’s main reason for being – a supposed tactical advantage when facing waves of foes – falls flat through a targeting system which is sluggish at best.
Not quite a reprisal of all that was grand about TIE Fighter then, but perhaps a wake-up call to Disney that its freshly acquired Star Wars franchise might be worth investigating thoroughly for more than simply inspiration for more films.
Suits you, sir
And that just about does it for this look at 2013’s games so far. I’ve not mentioned The Cave (not bad), Anarchy Reigns (pass) and the just delayed Scribblenauts Unlimited (fun if simplistic) but you can’t have everything. Stop-by next month for Dead Space 3, Aliens: Colonial Marines, Crysis 3, Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance and the tiny matter of Sony’s PS4 announcement... ®