Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Hands-On Previews: Battlefield 3; Sonic Generations; Metal Gear Solid 3DS

These previews are still based on my day at this year's Eurogamer Expo, but since it has been such a long time since that event, the articles are now going to be written under a more generic banner. In addition to the three games covered here, there is still plenty more to come, including a hands-on with the PlayStation Vita, Super Mario 3DSLand, Journey, Halo Combat Evolved Anniversary, Silent Hill Downpour and Mass Effect 3.

Previous reports have covered Uncharted 3, Kid Icarus Uprising and COD: Modern Warfare 3; Batman: Arkham City, Mario Kart 7 and Rayman Origins and The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, Resident Evil Revelations and Saints Row: The Third. This week, Battlefield 3, Sonic Generations and Metal Gear Solid 3DS go under the microscope.
BATTLEFIELD 3 (Dice, EA - PC, PS3, 360)

I managed to get some time with both the single and multiplayer components of Battlefield 3, although not nearly so much as many people on the latter count, with some Expo attendees seemingly spending the entire day in the game's enclosure. The multiplayer is indeed pretty compelling, even if it has more than its fair share of similarities to what has come to be expected of Call Of Duty. That said, only one map and game mode was available, so there's every chance that things will be mixed up in the full game.

The mode in question was 'Rush mode', which involved capturing an enemy position by rigging it with explosive charges. The games took place across a series of environments, which actually turned out to all be from a single map. It looks as though the levels are going to be much bigger and more multi-layered than the average COD arena. The first area was a large green park, overlooked by bridges and other such vantage points - it was certainly a relief to see some colour in the game after countless grey-and-brown preview videos. The Assault class, which was the one I chose, comes with a defibrillator that allows you to revive fallen comrades. There's a fair bit of physical dynamism in the movement, with your character's limbs reaching out before vaulting over an object, giving a greater sense of being part of the world than COD's rather more mundane hopping. The park area of the map was nothing extraordinary, but didn't have any noticeable choke points, but had plenty of places for snipers to take up camp and assault combatants to take cover.

The second game, in an underground train station, was much more fun for this particular mode. Reaching the enemy objective meant going full-on assault through a series of long and narrow corridors, with plenty of branching paths for the defending team to cover. It lead to some fantastic long-range firefights, but with plenty of opportunities for sneakier players to get the drop on opponents by taking an alternate route around the back of them. It also appeared to be that rarest of beasts: a decent indoor level for snipers, courtesy of the narrow width and distant length of the station platforms. What was shown of Battlefield 3 didn't do a lot that will require much adaptation for COD regulars, but is a very solid and exciting experience with well-balanced weapons and maps.

The single-player demo, unfortunately, was significantly less interesting. If the multiplayer did what COD does but tweaked it here and there for improvements, the campaign level in question - an extract from 'Operation Guillotine' - pretty much satisfied itself with replicating the same old COD experience, but enhancing its worst aspects. The mission started out with your team making a run on an enemy stronghold in a Middle-Eastern city. From the outset, the illusory nature of the game's spectacle was revealed by the fact that it took me a minute or two to find the dash button - these days I do my gaming on Wii and PC, so 360 controller layouts are less than second nature - meaning my character dawdled unharmed through the explosions and gunfire going off all around me. There wasn't much room for deviation from the set path (obviously), but it quickly became clear that I was under no danger whatsoever.

Finally arriving at the checkpoint, a mortar was set up and a wall scrambled over, both involving nothing more than button presses at the relevant positions. This is something that COD does as well, but the mortar felt especially meaningless: it fires somewhere into the city and you don't see what it is targeting or the effects of its impact. You just press a button, watch it being set up, then move on. COD generally asks some tiny degree of interaction with its scripted set-pieces, but no such luck here. Over the wall, it was familiar assault territory, pushing forward through wave upon wave of enemies.

The guns feel fine, even if the arsenal is the same old, and the enemy animations are pretty good. The path was linear and very narrow, but that was as much a result of the city environment than anything. AI team members didn't get in the way and were useful in combat. After a while, though, it became clear that enemies only existed so long as I didn't keep moving forward - in other words, reach a new checkpoint and all enemy troops behind suddenly go quiet. With careful navigation, I managed to negotiate several parts of the level without firing my gun. Whether or not this is a good or bad point - again, COD is similar but disguises its limitations better - will be up to you. Is a Pacifist playthrough of Battlefield 3 possible, I wonder?

The final part of the level involved kicking down doors in a block of flats and taking out enemies in slow motion. I wonder what this reminded me of? On the other side, the demo ended just as a vehicle section seemed prime to begin. Recent iterations of COD have also featured vehicles, so it is difficult to imagine how Battlefield will differentiate itself there, but fingers crossed that it manages to: while the multiplayer offers an exciting tweak to Activision's behemoth series, the single-player demo was a generic and underwhelming clone that seemed more concerned with ticking boxes than trying anything new. No amount of shiny graphics (of which the novelty value wore thin very quickly anyway) will cover that up.


Sonic Generations will be out next month, and with it the Sonic cycle will be complete once again. Long-time fans will know what I'm talking about - a new game is announced, fans are cynical; the developers say the right things, fans get more excited; the game nears release, fans believe it will be the one that reverses the character's horrible run of form in the modern gaming era; the game is released, fans discover that the producers were all talk and every old problem continues to exist, then go back to despondency until the cycle begins again.

Sonic Generations talks the talk - it looks great, faithfully rebirthing such classic environments as the Green Hill Zone in full 3D, along with new levels - a San Francisco-esque city - to charge through. It's certainly quick, moving as quickly as any racing game and requiring twitch reflexes to make every jump and hit every enemy whilst moving at full speed. The main problem - and while it isn't quite a gamebreaker, it certainly makes the experience far more frustrating than it needs to be - is that there is a tiny, inexplicable delay between pressing a button and having that action relayed to Sonic. I tested this out while standing still and it was apparent even then. The other people playing the demo at the same time as me said they felt the same thing.

The delay is only about as long as that between a sword-swipe in Skyward Sword being translated to Link performing the same action, which is to say almost nothing, but Nintendo's game is relatively slow-paced, making the issue completely negligible. In a game as fast as Sonic Generations, even a split-second hold-up is horribly apparent, meaning the difference between making a jump or missing it. Once you adapt to pressing the button shortly before you normally would, it isn't so much of an issue, but it continues to be a frustration that you have to adapt to the game's shortcomings in such a way. When combined with the occasional framerate issue, which would again be nothing particularly worth noting on a slower game, the frustration is increased exponentially.

If that is the biggest problem, it certainly isn't the only one. In the 'new' Sonic sections - meaning those taking place in 3D environments rather than recalling the classic games - Sonic doesn't react nearly strongly enough to the analogue stick, taking relatively wide turns where short, sharp ones are needed. Unlike button presses, the analogue itself is as responsive as it needs to be, but the lackadaisical results of pushing it seem to require the same advance planning as the button delay. It is possible that there was a button to perform a sharper turn which I didn't find - there was no attendant by the demo televisions - and thus rectify the problem, but it seems a little superfluous to make his standard turn so useless.

The City level ended with the monster truck that had been rampaging through the background (and occasionally bursting into the foreground) finally catching up to Sonic and chasing him to the finishing post. If it seemed strange to you that this article lumps this game with Battlefield 3, here's why: in both games, there is a question as to how much impact the player's actions actually have on the world. This has always been true to a certain extent with Sonic, classic and new, but the truck escape section was a remarkably misjudged interpretation of that: it soon became apparent that beyond moving Sonic left or right to collect rings, the game was controlling itself.

I'm not joking when I say that I set down the controller for the final minute (at least) of this section and allowed it to play itself out. The boost prompts did nothing. The truck came close to Sonic but never actually flattened him. Sure, I missed some bonuses, but reached the end intact without so much as breathing on the controller - at least Battlefield 3 required the player to keep moving forwards. For a game then a little over a month away from release, Sonic Generations never looked like breaking out of the series' old cycles any time soon.


The demo for Metal Gear 3DS was fairly limited, consisting of fairly uneventful treks through a set of small jungle maps. This isn't so far removed from the content of the full game, at least if it is as faithful a port of Snake Eater as it purports to be, but it ended up showcasing how far the game has to go to before making its early 2012 release date. Yes, I'm sorry to report that all three of this week's game previews are of a negative persuasion. Thankfully, things will be much more cheerful next time. Metal Gear 3DS, sadly, is an undeniable mess.

The problem starts with the 3D. The 3DS has a uniform problem with screen tearing when the player is looking at the screen from an off-centre angle, with a differing degree of severity depending on the game. Metal Gear 3DS is the only game I have played with severe tearing no matter where you are looking at the screen from, to the extent that I tried the game on several of the available handhelds under the belief that one or two of them might be broken somehow. Unfortunately, it soon became clear that this was a consequence of the game re-entering a playable section following a cut-scene or transition from one map to the next. Once Snake starts moving again, the images realign and tidies itself up into a sharp 3D image - although if you move your head too much, the problem is quick to reassert itself.

Ironically, when it is working properly, the effect is actually one of the better ones I have seen on the handheld. I would go so far as to say that the game will be a rare occasion when playing the 3D on is almost a necessity, because the muddy colour scheme can make it very difficult to tell enemies and areas of the environment apart on a standard image. A few times, with the 3D turned off, I accidentally walked straight past an enemy because I hadn't noticed him. Camouflage is a big part of the game, but that might be going a step too far. Even though the image is at a decent resolution and the graphics slightly tidier than the PS2 version on which the game is based, the size of the screen means that everything has to be packed just a little bit too tightly together.

The second problem is the unusual controls. Cross your fingers that this game will be compatible with the 3DS second analogue hub (or whatever it is being called), because the absence of a second stick hurts Metal Gear 3DS' controls very badly indeed. The camera and aiming functions are moved over onto the four face buttons, which make a slow and imprecise substitute. Considering how bad the camera is when left alone, readjustments are required constantly and using a button to make them is an unnatural and agonisingly drawn-out.

Worse still is the fact that you also have to aim with those buttons. Lining up a shot takes far longer than it should, meaning that enemies are also forced into either repeated animations (returning to the same spot over and over again) or prevented from moving at all in order to compensate for this shortcoming: trying to hit a relatively fast-moving reptile took an insane amount of ammo. (Inventory swapping is done using the touch screen, incidentally, and firing with the right shoulder). As with just about anything, it is something you can get used to, but never feels comfortable and visibly impacts the design of the rest of the game.

Metal Gear 3DS wasn't unplayable by any extent, and the fact that it is based on an inherently enjoyable game means that flashes of its design excellent still managed to push through ever now and again. The game has already been delayed fairly extensively and it is clear to see that the developers are struggling to fit it into a new form when the gameplay and controls were based around the PlayStation 2 controller. Judging by the demo, fans would probably be better off sticking with that original version than investing in a new one so heavy on compromises.

In the next set of Hands-On Previews... Mass Effect 3, Silent Hill Downpour, Super Mario 3DSLand.


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