Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Eurogamer Expo 2011 Reports (Part III) - Uncharted 3; Kid Icarus Uprising; Modern Warfare 3 (multi)


I attended the Eurogamer Expo in London a few weeks ago, where attendees were able to play demos for many major games yet to be released. I'll be bringing reports for the games I played over the next few weeks, with each article covering three games at a time. Games that will be covered include, but are not limited to, Battlefield 3, Batman: Arkham City, Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, Mario Kart 7, Sonic Generations, Journey and a hands-on with the PlayStation Vita.

Previous reports have covered The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, Resident Evil Revelations and Saints Row: The Third, followed by Batman: Arkham City, Mario Kart 7 and Rayman Origins. This week, Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception, Kid Icarus Uprising and Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 go under the microscope.
 

UNCHARTED 3: DRAKE'S DECEPTION (Naughty Dog; Sony - PS3)

Given how highly spoken of Uncharted 2's multiplayer was, I was a little surprised at how so poorly balanced the Eurogamer Expo demo for the third entry in the series was. It certainly has its merits, and I freely admit that I am nowhere near as good with twin analogue FPS' as I used to be - since I do the vast majority of my shooty gaming with mouse and keyboard or Wii remote and nunchuck these days, it feels like quite a large jump backwards in speed and precision - but even when weighed against my own inadequacies, there was a definite feeling among those I played with and against that the game needed some work.

The main problem is how weak the weapons are. It can take more than an entire magazine from the weaker ones to take an enemy down, which is even more of a problem when taking into account how fast the characters can move. The more powerful weapons also come with heavy kickback, which would be a decent balancing tool were it not for the bar for usefulness being set so low. It didn't take long for players to cotton onto the fact that a more effective strategy than engaging in gunfights was to weaken opponents with a burst of fire, then finish them off with an overpowered melée attack. When engaging in long-distance shoot-outs, damage is so low that it is almost impossible for either player to kill the other, as it takes a prolonged burst of fire to take anyone down, by which time even the slowest player will have ducked back to cover and replenished their health. The strong kickback, meanwhile, means that headshots over range are far more difficult than they should be.

On the plus side, the customisation options are fun: being able to mess around with most aspects of your character's appearance makes him (or her) feel more like your own, while the weapons mods and boosters go a small way towards mitigating the damage issue. The constantly rotating game modes, meaning that a team deathmatch can turn into a VIP hunt or have double damage initiated seemingly on a whim, might annoy those looking for a 'pure' experience, but do force players to stay on their toes to gain the maximum number of points.

The most enjoyable part of the multiplayer was the sense of momentum, which is every bit as exciting as you would expect from a game of Uncharted's reputation. Maps (I played in a ruined desert city and on the upper floors of a skyscraper still under construction) are designed to be multi-layered and full of opportunities to climb to higher vantage points or make thrilling escapes by leaping from ledge to ledge. It actually turns out that trying to escape enemy players is a lot more fun than trying to shoot them, which takes us back to the balancing issue, but unlike the run-to-cover mechanics of a Call Of Duty, Uncharted is practically begging players to keep moving. In that respect, I can understand why gun damage is set lower than in Activision's series: to discourage sniping. Unfortunately, the game seems to have gone to the other extreme, where shooting is barely a viable option at all.

The single player was inaccessible on the show floor unless you had some special Sony pass, which I didn't, but new footage was shown off in a developer talk. It was a short sequence following Drake's plane crash in the desert, where he stumbles across the ruins of an old city - seemingly the same one as the multiplayer map mentioned above - and finds a small pool of water by climbing down an old well. Fans of Nolan North's voicework will be pleased to know that Drake blathered to himself throughout the entire sequence.

After emerging back into the city, he is ambushed by a squadron of goons, leading to one of the series' trademark set-pieces. The most notable element added to the mix was a more versatile set of takedowns. Drake is now able to catch weapons dropped by defeated enemies or pull the pins from grenades on their belts. One new move that got a big laugh was Drake casually tossing an enemy soldier over his head in a sort of reverse suplex. There doesn't seem to be anything significantly different from how Uncharted 2 played, but given that game's critical and commercial acclaim, refinement is probably the best way to go. The game is visually rich and the characters animated with with real weight. The multiplayer needs some tweaking, but the single player mode looks to be every bit the polished experience that fans have come to expect.

POTENTIAL - 3/5 (The video demonstration of Uncharted 3's single-player mode showed a few neat new tricks added onto the celebrated template of its predecessor, but the multiplayer's low damage and strong kickback is in desperate need of balancing. Navigating the maps is a lot more fun than actually participating in the matches, which is both a credit to how exciting the game's sense of momentum is and a warning of the improvements needed elsewhere.)


KID ICARUS UPRISING (Nintendo - 3DS)

I had already played Kid Icarus Uprising at a 3DS event shortly before the console launched and come away unimpressed, but given how extensively the game has been delayed since then - originally set to be a day one release, now tentatively pencilled in for sometime in early 2012 - my hopes were high that the prolonged development time would have ironed out its kinks.

Alas, no. I only played one level of the demo, since I got to it fairly late in the day and still had a number of other games to cover, but while it does seem to have improved in terms of framerate - which was a bit choppy last time - and general visual polish, the gameplay remains as bland and unexciting as before.

It is impossible to know whether or not the game's difficulty was lowered for the show floor, as is sometimes the case - nobody wants to be dying all the time when they have such a short time with the game - but fingers crossed that it was, because the level I played, which started off with Pit taking out enemies in aerial combat before landing in an old Grecian city and continuing his battles on foot, was easy to the point of feeling impossible to fail. There was never any shortage of enemies on-screen, but their attacks were either exceptionally easy to avoid or didn't happen at all, leaving them bobbing around, waiting for Pit to blow them away. The boss at the end, a Cerberus-esque creature, looked appropriately threatening but fell after barely a minute of sustained fire.

There's nothing particularly wrong with the game that some sense of danger won't fix, but in both my times playing it, I have yet to come across anything inspiring or surprising. It's remarkable that Nintendo should have so little new to offer in the game considering 1) this is one of their least tapped IPs, 2) it is a series renowned for its slightly bonkers sense of humour, epitomised by the Eggplant Wizard character, and 3) Nintendo published Sin & Punishment 2 on the Wii last year, a game which fits into roughly the same genre as Icarus but offering a different twist on its core gameplay with every new level and with an insanely, delightfully high difficulty level to boot.

The game's controls are solid, helped by the improved framerate. In the flying sections, Pit moves around the screen with the analogue stick, while the stylus directs his aiming reticule and the L-shoulder button is used for firing. In the on-foot sections, the touch screen controls both aiming and camera, which can feel a little disorienting but isn't something that takes too long to get used to. Honestly, it feels like the least of Kid Icarus' problems.

POTENTIAL - 2/5 (Even with the lengthy delays, Kid Icarus Uprising struggles to make any sort of impression. Giving the benefit of the doubt to the ludicrously low difficulty still doesn't excuse the generic and unexciting gameplay. There are some pleasant visuals on offer and the flying sections make decent use of the 3D, but it's no surprise that Nintendo seem to have been shifting focus away from this game since it missed its first release date.)


CALL OF DUTY: MODERN WARFARE 3 (Infinity Ward/Activision - PC, PS3, 360, Wii)

The Call Of Duty games come in for a lot of flak, but the truth is that the series' success is first and foremost grounded in it being one of the most finely-tuned and addictive FPS multiplayer experiences around at the moment. Bobby Kotick may be the last person that anyone wants to see at the top of gaming's top publisher, but as cynical as his views are, the games released under his Presidency of Activision have been consistently well-made and with a clear view of what their audience are looking for, offering a reasonable amount of innovation along the way.

The Modern Warfare formula has been so well perfected by now that it is no surprise the third entry in the series plays much like the previous two, for better or worse. The 'new' Survival Mode was the only thing on display at the Eurogamer Expo, with 'new' in parentheses because though it is a lot of fun, it does not amount to much more than bolting the upgrade system from Treyarch's zombie modes in their COD spin-off lines (or is Modern Warfare the spin-off? Tough call) onto one ongoing siege set-piece from the single-player mode.

You are thrown into your map of choice - my game took place in Paris, which was the usual COD mix of tight alleyways, interiors and staircases running between courtyards and open spaces of varying sizes - with only a pistol. Money is earnt for each slaughtered enemy (with bonuses for killstreaks), which come in waves of increasing strength and number. Much like in the World At War/Black Ops zombie modes, you invest that money into buying new weapons, armour and backup. The first waves consist of brain-dead enemies bearing shotguns and AK-47s, but the difficulty increases sharply enough that careful consideration needs to be put into where you spend your money and when. Waste it all buying a power weapon too early and you may not be able to equip yourself properly once attack dogs, suicide bombers and heavy infantry starts pouring in, but leave it too long and you may well be cut down before getting the chance to rectify your mistake.

The action intensifies quickly and offers a distillation of the high-octane thrills that are the benchmark of the Modern Warfare story mode, only without any of the story. The core gameplay is effectively identical to the experience offered by every other COD since 2007, but that's no bad thing. It's a formula, but one which works and doesn't require big changes. If you are among the tens of millions of people who have put countless days into this series, I would suggest alerting your boss that there's every chance of your catching a sudden bout of flu for the week following November 8th.

POTENTIAL - 4/5 (It's more of the same, but since Modern Warfare already has its multiplayer formula perfected to a tee, having a new mode to test those refined gameplay mechanics in can only be a good thing. Survival Mode is exciting, expertly-paced co-operative FPS action. Cynics may not be converted, but fans won't care.) 

In the next Eurogamer Expo Report... Battlefield 3, Sonic Generations and Metal Gear Solid 3D.


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