Sam & Max 203: Night of the Raving Dead Review

6 06 2008

Title!
Developer: Telltale Games
Platform: PC
Genre: SAM & MAX, WHAT PART OF THAT IS UNCLEAR?

Warning: I spoil all!

This game has zombies in it. Do I need to go on? I guess if you for some reason are not the zombie-obsessed type of person, more convincing is necessary. New York, and indeed the entire world is overrun by zombies. The zombies are by all accounts largely well behaved and aren’t really being too much of an inconvenience, but that doesn’t stop Sam and Max from feeling obligated to trying to stop them anyway. Unfortunately, firing bullets at them seems to have little to no effect, so they have to rely on the usual combination of puzzle-solving and wit to see them through.


Zombies!!!

Most of the regular characters have returned for 203, with the exception of Bosco who is pleasingly absent from this entry. Bosco is an okay charcter, but he sort of wore out his welcome in the first season where the writers never gave him anything to do other than put on his accent of the week and overcharge for vital item. Other returning characters are Cybil Pandemic, Stinky, the ever awesome Agent Superball and some minor characters from episode 102 show up again.

You may remember that I had beef with the puzzles in the previous episode, I am pleased to report that the puzzles in this episode are a lot better, and while some are relatively fiendish, it never delvolves into illogical nonsense. The limited number of items and locations in each episode means you should never get stuck for too long anyway, as you can always try everything with everying relatively quickly if needed.


Jurgen got back to stuttgart in time to see Kraftwerk

The investigation eventually (quickly) leads you to Stuttgart which is the source of the zombies. A euro-emo-vampire named Jurgen is creating a zombie army for reasons that could probably of been explained better. Jurgen has quite a prominent role in the episode, so it’s fortunate he’s such an amusing character with great voice acting. Most episodes only have the main baddie showing up at the end, so it’s good to have him around for most of the episode.

The new location in this episode is Jurgen’s castle exteriors and interior. They seem to be limiting themselves to 3 new screens per episode, which is perhaps a bit too little? The new areas look very good though, and could almost be described as atmospheric. This episode also features more Flint Paper than ever before, which is totally awesome for the following reason: Flint Paper is totally awesome. If that wasn’t clear, he’s Sam and Max’s psychotic PI neighbour who solves crimes using bullets and fists.


A gun in one hand, a brain in the other. Fully awesome.

There a lot of refferences to zombie culture, like Resident Evil, George Romero and his films (and John Romero who I’m glad isn’t too obscure a referrence to make yet). The zombies themselves are they type that like brains, which might turn off zombie purists, but it’s fine here because brains play an important role in some of the puzzles. The episode has one of the best twists yet in half way through, and if you are planning on playing it at this point, I strongly advise you not to look at this image, as it will spoil the suprise totally.

One of my favourite aspects of Season 2 has been what they have done with the driving sequences. In the first season they were incidental and poorly developed. In this season they have become full blown mini-games complete with easter eggs. In the first two episodes of season 2 the sequences involved Sam and Max are driving along a neverending road, and you are challenged to run over various things. In this one, the perspective has change to a sort of Paper boy like setup, and you can chuck SOL discs at zombies which works okay even if it is a horribly dated joke).


Is this the zombie of the good lincoln or the evil lincoln?

In these sequnces, if you play them long enough you’ll see some odd things that if shot or run over will unlock a decal for your car. You get these from running over zombie parties, shooting down blimbs or swinging pianos, etc. If you collect them all you get an entirely cosmetic car upgrade like a giant engine. The best thing is that the decals and upgrades are persistent between episodes which means that I obsessively collect them all. Not that it takes very long or anything, but it’s a nice touch.

Overall, this is a much better episode than 202 or even 201, but still not as good as 104 or 105. I talk in code! The next episode looks to be Bosco centric, which I’ll have to see how well works out.

Arbitrary Rating: 8 – Zombies





Sam & Max 202: Moai Better Blues Review

1 04 2008

 Title!
Developer: Telltale Games
Platform: PC
Genre: Adven…It’s Sam & Max, dammit!

Warning: This review is positively spoiler-stuffed.

Telltale games have done an excellent job being the only developers actually able to produce the much vaunted Episodic Content that everyone was blathering on about a while back. Episode 202 is the 8th episode they’ve managed to get out, and they are still as reliable as ever. Unfortunately, this probably the weakest of the ones I’ve played so far. The worst episode in the first season was episode three or 103 – ‘The Mole, the Mob, and the Meatball’, which was mainly far shorter than the other episodes, and not really that funny or interesting.

Episode 201 was a great start to the season, and had Sam & Max going to the North Pole to deal with an out of control Santa. Rather than that reasonably solid premise albeit slightly borrowed premise, Episode 202 has you going to Easter island, to do a succession of unrelated tasks that might stop a volcano, or Bermuda triangles, or become a priest, or something.

Like most Sam & Max episodes, this one starts in your office. By this point in series, the majority of the actual objects in their office have been replaced by references to the earlier episodes. I was fine with this when it was limited to the items in their closet, such as Brady Culture’s afro, and Leonard Steakcharmer, but now it’s a totally insane pile of crap that I can barely remember where half of which came from.

Triangle
I hope you like triangles, because this episode is stuffed with them.

A scream from outside shows that Cybil is being chased around the street by a floating triangle thing, and the first part of the game involves working out how to stop it. This section is fine, and by the numbers. You wander around and talk to Stinky, Bosco, the usual. There’s nothing especially wrong or difficult about this section, infact the solution to the triangle puzzle is remarkably simple (It involves triangles).

After you’ve stopped it, you go through the triangle and wind up on Easter Island. It is populated by Ocean Chimps, Moai heads, and the baby versions of famous lost people, like Glenn Miller and Amelia Earhart. Now I’m all for having new characters in these games, infact I would say that the desperately need as many of them as possible, but seriously? 5 new characters who are all babies? It’s just disturbing.

Urgh
Oh good, babies.

Anyway, it’s in this section that the game really starts to break down. For the first time in the series, I got the feeling that I was fighting against obnoxious adventure-game logic that would make the Gabriel Knight developers choke on their biscotties. You want an example?

So….

There’s a baby version of Jimmy Hoffa guarding a cave that you wish to enter. Hoffa is thirsty, and you have to give him some water from the nearby fountain of youth in order to de-age him out of existence. The fountain of youth is full of piranhas that are preventing you from scooping up any water. There are some sentient Moai heads nearby who control the elements. There is a head that can control the wind, but is too depressed to demonstrate it’s power. There is another Moai head that is buried in the earth which controls thunder, and will produce a miniature thundercloud above it’s head when angered. There is also a series of Bermuda triangles that can be moved around the area by shooting colour coded poles.

Stupid bloody puzzle
That giant sandal shows up in your office in the next episode. Oh, the referenceness!

What do you do?

Naturally you adjust the triangles so that one is opposite the Moai head that will blow wind when happy, and the other is near the Fountain of Youth. You play a conch recording of baby Glenn Miller’s latest hit (inspired by your car horn), which will make the wind-controlling head start whistling. You then shoot the buried head so that it creates a thunder-cloud. The cloud is blown through one triangle, out the other and over the fountain of youth. The thunder cloud emits lightning that kills the piranhas. This allows you to safely collect the water, and de-age baby Jimmy Hoffa out of existence and enter the cave.

…huh.

Can’t I shoot the fish? Can’t I just shoot Hoffa? Why didn’t the fountain de-age the fish? Isn’t it awfully convenient that all these portals are all over the place? Why is any of this logical? It’s all too computer-gamey! Now I’ll be first to admit that complaining that a computer game is too computer-gamey is inherently dumb, but then SO IS THIS FUCKING PUZZLE. Yeah, I showed you!

On top of that, the writers seemed to of forgotten to write jokes, and a plot at this point. The game just sort of ends without much of a climax. Something about an evil fish? I dunno. The hint system which amounts to Max almost telling you the answers to the puzzles should get you through it, so you don’t have to keep alt-tabbing to a walkthrough, it’s just a shame that the puzzles aren’t logical enough to be worked out on their own.

Anyway, if you are playing through these episodes it’s not like you should just skip this one or anything. It’s also incredibly unlikely that you would start the series at this point, so this is a review for people who are going to play this game anyway, or not at all regardless of what I say. Oh well, at most it’ll only consume 3 hours of your time, and is still vaguelly amusing. The next episode is about zombies, and from what I have played of it is much much better. Zombies always makes thing better.

Arbitrary Rating: 6 – Babies





Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door Review

13 03 2008

Developer: Intelligent Systems, Nintendo
Platform: Gamecube
Genre: JRPG

Thousand Year Door Title

Warning: In this review I may use the word ‘juxtaposition’. Please treat it accordingly.

Taking an existing franchise into a different genre is always a risky proposition. Fortunately for developers Intelligent Systems, Squaresoft made this particular leap for them 8 years prior with the magnificent Super Mario RPG for the SNES. The original Paper Mario came out towards the end of the N64’s life, and no-one really played it despite it being critically acclaimed. I recently played through the version on the Wii Virual Console, and can highly recommend it to anyone who thinks they can stomach playing an N64 game in this day and age.

Paper Mario is a weird idea in itself. In these games, the characters and large portions of the scenery are apparently made of paper. The original game didn’t do much with this idea, but they’ve totally taken it to the next level here. By that I mean that Mario can turn sideways, into a tube, and occasionally he turns into a paper aeroplane or boat. Great stuff. I’m really not sure at how the ended up at the idea of having Mario made of paper, no seriously what the hell was the thought process behind that? The only thing I can possibly think was that it had something to do with developing a simple art style that the N64 could handle.

Nice art style
It’s best not to ask really. Looks nice though.

With the additional power of the Gamecube the character detail has been improved a lot, so the camera can zoom right up close without them going all pixely and crappy looking. I could hardly say that this game pushed the graphical capabilities of the Gamecube particularly hard, but it doesn’t need to. The art style works, and it’ll probably still look passable in a million years if you’ll forgive my hyperbole.

Mario RPG games always start in Mario and Luigi’s house. Yes, for some reason they share a wooden house, and sleep on bunk-beds. I guess it makes sense. Anyway, Mario gets a letter from Princess Peach inviting him to come and assist her in a far off city. Mario dutifully rushes off to the city called Rogueport which serves as the game’s main hub (it is a port with rogues in it, if the name wasn’t clear enough). Once there he discovers Princess Peach has been kidnapped. If I were Mario I’d just assume that if she left my field of view for any period of time then she’s probably already totally kidnapped. While attempting to find her, Mario ends up trying to unravel the mystery of a giant door beneath Rogueport. This adventure sends him off all over the world to find 8 brightly coloured thingymabobs that’ll will apparently open the door once collected.

Much of the charm of the game comes from the juxtaposition of having cutesy mario creatures in an actually well realised and slightly dark game world. Rather than in other mario games where a koopa’s soul job is to walk along a path, here you meet a koopa who is trying to overcome his cowardly nature, and having a hard time with his girl-friend. Rather than being stomped on by Mario and blown up as usual, you meet a bob-omb who is in mourning for his deceased wife. These oddly realistic situations are forced on cute characters to hilarious effect, and overall it’s extremely effective in making the mario universe, such as it is, a rich enough backdrop to have an RPG on.

Giant Boss battle
Some of the bosses struggle to fit onto the battle stage.

Combat in the Paper Mario games is a turn based jrpg style affair. Unusually for a jrpg though, the numbers involved are really small. An enemy will likely have less than 15 HP, and your normal attacks will do 1-8 damage or so as the game goes on. This makes a welcome change from the meaninglessly inflated values of recent Final Fantasy games, where the hardest boss has 50 million HP, rather than the mere 200 HP in this game. Most of the actions you take in combat have some sort of skill test that if you do correctly will make the attack more powerful, or an enemies attack less powerful. This usually involves hitting A at the exact moment the animation of the attack connects with the enemy. If you are feeling risky, you can defend using the B button which not only negates all the damage of an enemie’s attack, but actually does some damage back to the enemy. This is appropriately hard to pull off, but very good when you do get the timing down. Every enemy’s attack has different timing, and a lot of the attack animations are designed to confuse you as to exactly when the damage is going to occur.

A new aspect to the combat is that the combat scenes take place on a theatrical stage, in front of an audience. The stage is dressed with a rough impression of the area you were in before, but obviously done like stage backdrop. If you do impressive moves, you will win over more members of the audience, who throw crap at whichever side they don’t like, sabotage the stage dressing, and occasionally get eaten by the more ferocious enemies. This doesn’t add an awful lot to the combat as the things they throw do very little damage. It is fun to hear the roar of the crowd when you pull of an impressive move though. As you progress through the game the stage becomes more elaborate, and eventually gets wrestling-style fireworks going off at the start of each battle.

Goombella and a Koopa
This koopa may look all cutesy, but he’s probably worried about his mortgage repayments.

As you progress through the game Mario gets seven different companions who are roughly gender swapped versions of the companions from the first game. There is a Goomba, a Bob-omb, a Koopa, a Yoshi, and some other random ones. These party members participate more in the combat now, and have their own HP, which has made the combat a bit deeper. Outside of combat you can have one selected at once, and they will do all the talking for Mario who is largely mute as always. They have written unique conversations depending on which companion you have for some of the game, which is a nice touch.

There are 8 main chapters in the game, each concerned with Mario recovering one of the 8 thingumies he needs to open the door. Structurally, you usually have to go to a new town, then onto a dungeon where you will face a boss. One of the chapters mixes things up by having you have to work your way up through a fighters arena to claim the champion’s belt which has the needed thingy attached to it. This overall structure hasn’t varied massively from the first game.

Also carried over from the previous game are the intermissions between each chapter. During thse you take control of Princess Peach as she explores the weird futuristic base where she has been captured, and befriend a creepy computer who develops a crush on her after watching her take a shower. This game also adds a second sequence between each chapter where you get to play as Bowser. Bowser is annoyed that it isn’t him who has kidnapped the princess this time, and is following Mario around trying to work out what the hell is going on, which results in him constantly turning up too late to get anything done. These sequences are hilarious, and as a bonus it occasionally cuts to a Super Mario Bros. style side-scroller sequence where you control Bowser, and smash your way through World 1-1 of the original Mario.

Super Bowser Bros. World 1-1
“Have some of this!”

If I had to find criticism with the game, I would suggest that the side quests involve slightly too much tedious backtracking. These side quests come from a job board that gets a few jobs added to it each chapter, buy they invariably involve revisiting a ton of previous locations for very little reward. Another annoying aspect is that certain enemies can lock you in to a stun cycle. There are these flowers-enemies that cast ‘Sleep’ on you every turn unless you can hit a very hard defend move, and the sleep lasts for 2 turns. It doesn’t take a genius mathematician to see the problem with this. I’d also say that the mana/flower points are largely useless due to not enough ways to refill them. I’d advise anyone starting the game to only ever upgrade their Badge Points and HP when they level up.

Overall the game is probably slightly worse than the original. It copies the formula almost exactly so comes off as a sort of retread with better graphics. I’m glad they chose to mix up the formula as much as they did with Super Paper Mario, which I will presumably get around to playing now that I have finished the first two games.

Arbitrary Rating: 9 – Mario è fatto di carta





Tomb Raider Retrospective Part 3 – Tomb Raider III (1998)

8 03 2008

Platforms: PC, PlayStation 

Tomb Raider 3 Logo

Facts

  • Was set in India, Nevada, A South Pacific Island, London and Antarctica.
  • Lara could now crawl, sprint, and swing from monkey bars.
  • Was the one where she went to Area 51
  • Added water currents, a Kayak, and a freeze-to-death bar.
  • Biggest breasts ever.

Now here we have the game that caused me to originally give up on the series. Core’s engine programming dudes had been hard at work splitting the virtual atom into it’s component triangles. By that confusing statement I mean that their engine was now capable of rendering three-sided shapes, and did so with reckless abandon. Harnessing the power of triangles, they were capable of creating the most realistic environments yet in the series. That isn’t of course to say that they looked particularly good, or even slightly good, but the environments didn’t look just like a stack of deformed crates any more which was refreshing if nothing else.

The first level is set in an Indian jungle, and it showcases what truly amazing environments can now be made. Or rather, it looks fucking terrible. Every cheap trick to simulate vegetation is used, the most common being just a flat sprite with some leaves on. The whole effect is that pretty much everything in the first four levels looks like the stage dressing in a primary school play. The first level also introduces insta-kill quick-mud (which looks just like regular mud. Have fun with that.), irritating water currents that stop you from getting where you want to go, and has you shooting hundreds of innocent poison monkeys.

A jungle, apparently.
Tomb Raider 3 was an ugly ugly game.

This opening level really was a nightmare, and it even used my favourite trick in which you die immediately upon starting the game if you don’t jump over a pit with pinpoint accuracy. The level design was messy looking and many steps harder to work out where the hell you were supposed to go than the previous game. I had just finished Tomb Raider 2 when a demo of this level came out, and it’s fair to say it put me right off. You can’t blame me for not wanting to play an uglier, more frustrating version of an already ugly and frustrating game, surely?

The overall plot has something to do with a meteorite that split up in earth’s atmosphere a billion years ago, and Lara needs to go around the world collecting the bits of it for some reason. If you are that interested, you can watch the entire plot of the game here, but it really wasn’t the high point of the series if there was in fact a high point. A graph of the plot quality of the tomb raider series would look something like this:

presumably amusing graph

Once the opening bore-fest is out of the way, the game presents you with a list of three locations you can go to next, in a back-of-the-box feature known as non-linear levels! What this really meant was you were screwed unless you went to Nevada first, because there was a sequence in that area of the game where they robbed you of your guns and never gave them all back. So any collected in the other two areas would be lost forever. Great work guys. You eventually unlocked the last level set in the Antarctic, where they stole idea from classic movie The Thing. In fact, a lot of the game seemed to be stolen from various things, which the designers would probably write off as homages.

In Nevada, when not fending off attacking eagles, Lara’s aim was to break into Area 51 of all places. Yep, there was even a UFO there. Lots of army servicemen for her to murder as well. The only explanation I can think of for this sequence is that the X-Files was popular at the time, so they wanted to do something along those lines. Hey Assholes, it’s called “Tomb Raider”. Raiding Tombs. Tombs. Raiding. Christ.

Aldwych
A photo-realistic representation of a tube station.

Lara also went to London in a sequence ripped of from Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. She finds a weird society of people living in the underground tunnels which apparently exist in beneath London. As a resident of London, this part is especially hilarious. I’m really not sure why they bothered trying to do real locations in their engine, because the results are just bad. Lara also ends up breaking into the National History Museum, where there are security guards for her to murder, and an entire sphinx. Now I’ve been to the National History Museum and I didn’t see no damn sphinx, which raises the question once again of why they bothered naming where she was. I think they assumed no-one would ever get past the opening level in order to verify what it said on the back of the box.

Lara murders a lot of people in this game. Well, she murdered a lot of people in the last game as well, but those people were almost certainly evil. In this one she kills US servicemen, and night security guards at a museum. Oh, and the majority of a primitive and previously undiscovered tribe living in the South Pacific. Maybe it’s just me, but I felt that making her into a cold blooded killer wasn’t the greatest move. It’s not like the game presented you with a choice about it either. It was probably a misguided attempt to make the series darker, which designers love doing. Either that, or they weren’t really thinking to hard about it due to the impossibly tight release schedule imposed on the series.

By the third entry in any series is when most series try and get back to their roots in order to recover from the misstep of the second entry. The roots of Tomb Raider are of course the raiding of tombs, and to be fair she does do that at least once in this game, though it’s really more of a temple than a tomb if you have to get all technical. In order to cement this back to the roots direction, the designers decided to stick in yet another lost valley stuffed with dinosaurs. How many of these bloody things are there anyway? It’s truly amazing that no-one who isn’t Lara Croft hasn’t discovered them considering their abundance.

The mansion in this game was expanded with a hedge maze, a 4×4 race track, an enormous fish tank, roof, and tons of other crap. It was the biggest and most secret-stuffed that the mansion ever got, and was probably the best thing about the game. It also had the farting butler that you can lock in the freezer  as well, for all you immature gits.

Next time on Tomb Raider Retrospective, Lara goes back to her roots, in another back-to-her-roots adventure!

Tomb Raider Retrospective
Introduction
Part 1 – Tomb Raider (1996)
Part 2 – Tomb Raider II (1997)
Part 3 – Tomb Raider III: Adventures of Lara Croft (1998)
Part 4 – Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation (1999) – coming soon
Part 5 – Tomb Raider Chronicles (2000) – coming soon
Part 6 – Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness (2003) – coming soon
Part 7 – Lara Croft Tomb Raider: Legend (2006) – coming soon
Part 8 – Lara Croft Tomb Raider: Anniversary (2007) – coming soon