NYR: Revisitation writes

I began writing these two reviews separately but they ended up so thematically similar that I figured I would combine the two. This will also help make up for last week’s über-short review.

These are two tales of game redemption that tie in quite neatly with Dylan’s Dark Souls II piece on Monday and our recorded email exchange from a couple of years back.

Thematically it is also a funny coincidence – and by ‘funny’ I mean ‘tragic’ – that both games’ publishers no longer exist: THQ and EA Partners have both shuttered in the last year.

Sobering thoughts.

The Outfit

In my review of Warhammer: Space Marine I made some disparaging comments about Relic’s only other notable attempt at a non-RTS game. I picked this title up in a sale during my fervour for achievement hunting and dipped in with a friend for some splitscreen action. Used to third person shooters like Brute Force and Gears of War we found the game impenetrable and frustrating. The weapons felt flimsy whilst the vehicles handled poorly and never took more than a few direct hits before being turned into scrap. There were infinite spawn points that took excruciating amounts of time to overcome. After a couple of levels we gave up and the game ended up languishing on my ‘unfinished’ pile for five years.

It is weird revisiting it now. Not because of the horrendously outdated graphics but because of the realisation that The Outfit was way ahead of its time.

The game nevers looks this good

At the time The Outfit looked like an evolutionary dead-end – a bloated World War II game with poor handling – but now with the genealogy of game genres so thoroughly mutated it is natural to see a Tower Defence hybrid like Dungeon Defenders and Orcs Must Die straddle the Action RPG and Tower Defence styles; The Outfit looks more like the missing link as to how we ended up with so many awesome games in that category.

My initial bafflement with the game had to do with the fact that its rules flew in the face of what I knew. The tanks and weapons have limited use, but that is because there are other tools at your disposal. Namely turrets: lots of them.

The avatar – one of three awful stereotypes – and the squad of soldiers who accompany him are only there to set up initial kills, which fund calling in further support and these are key to real advancement.

There are an array of AI-controlled turrets at your disposal from anti-personnel Calibre 50s to anti-vehicle and anti-air. All need to be used to control choke points created by the infinitely spawning enemies.

Each level, as it turns out, is well laid-out, with resource bases – edifices, well huts really, that allow you to expand your arsenal – and waves of opposition staged efficiently.  When I first played it the game felt cheap but now, with the knowledge that it was a tower defence game, it became easy to identify bottlenecks and place suppressing fire appropriate to enemy type. This is when the game genuinely became fun.

Right, that’s my job done: let the ‘Sexy Nazi ladies’ google hits roll in!

The Outfit even goes to great lengths to expand on its core by opening up later levels and offering multiple approaches as well as giving the player secondary objectives on timers that force you to adopt a less methodical approach in order to complete them. In the very late game there are bigger and more aggressive enemies that will break through weaker defenses if you let them. These are all hallmarks of a good Tower Defence game – I just didn’t see it at the time.

That is not to say that the title isn’t without its faults. The AI can be erratic in its choice of targets and the turret operators are also prone to making sure they’re perfectly positioned to be taken out by ‘random’ fire.

There are also some balancing issues too: due to the length of some levels by their end far too much cash has been generated for anything to provide much of a challenge. Although the level design is generally well thought out it never feels inspiring; for a game full of doomsday weapons and preposterously attired soldiers who absorb millions of bullets the settings themselves are composed of bland browns and greys.

However, The Outfit’s main problem is that it has now been superseded by other, better games. This is not the same as a bluegrass artist who can be appreciated for their warts-and-all delivery; this is more like experiencing the first microwave after using modern day equivalents. There are games that have taken elements of what it had and done it better to the point of its obsolescence.

I am glad that I returned to this game and gave it the shake that it deserved the first time. That doesn’t mean that you need to do the same.

 

Shadows of the Damned

I gave Shadows of the Damned short shrift back in 2011.

Produced by Shinji Mikami, for whom I have a lot of respect, and Goichi Suda, for whom I do not, I played it for  a good number of hours and it came off as a very colourful, wittily-delivered game with wonky, unsatisfying combat.

The Resident Evil 4 influences are obvious; the player character takes up most of the screen and when you trigger the aim it might as well be Leon Kennedy you’re looking at. There is one evolution: you can now move and aim simultaneously, although that doesn’t feel like much of an advancement given other games released before it (Vanquish, for example, another game helmed by Shinji Mikami) have done far more with the third-person action genre.

The game also sets up player expectations poorly; in the opening segment if you successfully pull off a headshot with the first connecting bullet you are rewarded with a slow-motion demon head explosion. All single head shot kills do the same and it seems fair to deduce that you are encouraged to line up your shots and show restraint with your ammo. This is further supported by there being an achievement for getting five head shots in a row. As a result, I found myself slowly shooting enemies that were too fast and too numerous for this to feel particularly enjoyable.

Worse than that is the turret sequence which appears  around two thirds of the way through the game. It is among the worst committed to a video game. Enemies have the ability to instantly kill you when they are in range and death results in having to watch an unskippable cut scene before listening to the main character, Garcia Hotspur, repeat the same two or three barks. On top of this you are forced to repeat this scenario three times as the difficulty escalates. This completely killed the mood and pacing the first time I played it.

Some have suggested that this was a playful Suda thing, given his enjoyment of poking at the conventions of video games and their need to repeat certain rote actions. All it did was sap my will to finish the game.

That was almost two years ago. After looking at my list of games I figured that coming back for a few hours would be bearable so I dug up my save, took a deep breath and then watched the game crash during the loading screen, corrupting my progress.

This turned out to be a blessing in disguise because revisiting the earlier stages giving less of a fuck made them pretty damn entertaining. As soon as I dispensed with the concerns of ammunition conservation or headshots, and concentrated on just letting rip with any given weapon, a lot of my gripes evaporated. Instead of a slow trudge each level became a series of escapades primarily focused on exploding as many demon limbs as possible, and the excess that ensued more closely resembled the action portrayed in cut scenes.

That turret sequence is still excruciating, and the taunt ‘suck on my big boner’ will haunt me until the day I die, but the revisit to this game was more than worth it. The script can be genuinely funny in places and the voice acting is top notch. The colour palette is also as vibrant as the dialogue and it is certainly gratifying to have a game not just be several shades of bland.

Unlike The Outfit I can say that there is good reason to go back to Shadow of the Damned, if only for the rather nice tribute to Evil Dead which appears about half way through.