Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Hands-On Previews: Mass Effect 3, Super Mario 3D Land, Silent Hill Downpour

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.
This week, in the penultimate report, Mass Effect 3, Super Mario 3D Land and Silent Hill Downpour go under the microscope.

MASS EFFECT 3 (BioWare, EA - PS3, PC, 360)
It surprised me that Mass Effect 3 didn't draw longer queues at the Expo, considering it is one of next year's most highly anticipated games. Although I had never played an ME game before, my guess was that given how these are games where a significant amount of appeal comes from the player carrying over stats, choices and attributes from previous games, being thrown into a fairly short demo with a generic male Shepard (no luck for the FemSheppers) might not have been all that interesting.

That guess was at least partly motivated by what the demo had to offer being rather underwhelming, considering the enormous reputation behind it. Had I known more about the story and a greater investment in the character, perhaps the sequence would have been more engaging.

The demo was entirely action-based and though I assume there was the option of communicating with my two AI teammates - insert here my ongoing gripe about the Expo not providing sheets listing the controls for noobs - they proved fairly useful on their own, taking down the occasional enemy without overdoing it and seeming to play the game for you, as per the Battlefield 3 demo. They took up decent defensive positions, didn't run into my line of fire and avoided making a nuisance of themselves, thereby putting them up there in the highest pantheons of gaming's AI partners.
From my point-of-view, the action was perfectly serviceable, but lacking in any particularly interesting qualities. The demo consisted of a linear run from one gunfight to the next, occasionally breaking up the action with the age-old gaming cliché of requiring you to press or hold down a button to progress. Apart from the series' trademark unsettling facial animation, the visuals were as sharp as expected, although no great step-up from what I have seen of previous games. The environment was pretty generic sci-fi: call the planet Naboo and swap one set of 'droids for another, and the level could easily have been taking place in the Star Wars universe. Glossy floors and computer panels, blue skies and white buildings surrounded by dense green fauna in the exterior areas, etc. You know the drill.

Combat was the usual cover shooter stuff. Everything worked fine, with ducking in and out of cover being quick and with no noticeable detection issues. The machine gun I was using felt rather underpowered - although there was the option to upgrade several of Shepard's skills from a tree on the pause menu - so I mostly resorted to either using grenades, or getting up close and stabbing enemies in the face with the orange energy sword that passes for a melée attack. The only enemies on whom this didn't work were those with body-length shields, but defeating them involved the usual drill of shooting through the rectangular peep-hole at their eye level. Although a few of the rooms were multi-layered, meaning an advantage for whomever held the higher ground, there wasn't much variation between each battle.

The demo ended with a shoot-out against a significantly larger boss robot, albeit one which didn't move very fast and had a fairly prominent weak spot on its back, meaning that taking it down simply meant running around the back and gunning away while it was distracted by the AI team-mates. Even with my dismal dual-analogue aiming skills, it didn't take too long to defeat. It isn't really fair to pass judgment on Mass Effect 3 based on my solitary experience with the demo, which only showed off one aspect of what is obviously a complex games that relies on players' previous experiences for a significant portion of its appeal, but as someone who had never played the series before, what was on offer didn't exactly fill me with a desire to get started.

SUPER MARIO 3D LAND (Nintendo - 3DS)
If the Mass Effect series represented an unknown quantity, there is no game series I am more familiar with than that of Nintendo's plumber mascot. Along with Rare's 1998 FPS GoldenEye 007, Mario was my entry point into the medium and every one of his main games has been a day-one buy. Given how I have no plans of buying a 3DS anytime soon, Super Mario 3DS Land will be the first Mario game proper that I will not be investing in.

That's not a reflection of the game, though. Those who have accused the series of falling back too readily on nostalgia will find plenty of ammunition for their latest round of attacks, but at least this time those fond memories are used in a clever way that affects the gameplay rather than just aesthetics. The layout of the game is somewhat similar to the Mario Galaxy games, in how you are navigating a series of levels apparently suspended in space, but rather than a hunt for stars, 3D Land is a run to the finishing post more akin to the Super Mario Bros games from days of yore (aka: the Eighties).

Exploration is forcibly limited, but there is no shortage of secrets: most of these involve finding Star Coins dotted across each level, hidden in the usual easy to spot, hard to reach places. (Although I am pleased with myself for finding the final one in the Battleship level, concealed in a more subtle location). There are also warp pipes, extra lives and clocks to find, the latter arriving straight from Super Mario Bros 2 and adding more time onto the clock rather than stopping it. There wasn't much need for this on the Expo's straightforward levels, although who can imagine what Nintendo will dream up for later, more complex designs.

The game pushes heavily for the player to leave the 3D effect on, with each level's nooks and crannies easier to spot with the help of the simulated depth, and visual gimmicks such as enemies spitting ink onto the screen or coins lined up in a facing direction. It borders on the garish, but is at least blatant enough that the effect feels useful. One thing it cannot resolve is the odd feeling of navigating a 3D world that looks like it should be operating on a 2D back-and-forward axis. It is quite possible to accidentally leap to your doom because the analogue stick was mindlessly nudged up or down in directing a jump, which wouldn't matter in a 2D platformer where left and right are the only options, but here sends Mario off in a different direction and tumbling to his death. This happened a few times and while it is certainly the sort of thing that most people will adapt to quickly enough, it remains initially jarring.

Fortunately, the game is so crammed full of trademark Mario charm that such irritations represent nit-picking at its most pedantic. As easy as it is to be cynical about the return of the Tanuki Suit - and I have been - in practice it is wonderful geeky fun and almost impossible not to experience a spasm of joy at the first goomba dispatched with that marvellously iconic stripy tail. The only other power-up available was the Fire Flower - no Boomerang Bros suit, tragically - which works as well as it did in the Galaxy games.

The only levels available were those that have been fairly extensive shown already - underground; green climbing frame; standard grassy area; battleship - which is why I haven't gone into any detail about them: there are walkthroughs of each on YouTube. They are all great fun, even if the ship proved to once again be disappointingly easy. While these are obviously early levels in the game, my abiding memory of the ship is still of the first from SMB3, with Bullet Bills flying at Mario from absolutely everywhere, so facing only two or three at a time felt like a bit of a comedown. Boomer, meanwhile, is as tame as ever.

My only genuine reservation would be with how short each level was: perfect though it may be for a handheld game, probably allowing the player to complete at least two within the duration of an average bus journey, it does mean that there will have to be an awful lot of them for the game to offer a respectable total playtime. If the game is as joyously entertaining as the demo suggested, though, even a briefer-than-usual Mario outing still looks like something to cherish.

SILENT HILL DOWNPOUR (Vatra Games; Konami - PS3, 360)
In the interests of full disclosure, it's worth mentioning that I did not get on at all well with the last Silent Hill game, the Wii exclusive Shattered Memories, which was hailed in some quarters as a return to form for the series. That said, based on the Downpour demo, I cannot for my life see how this will turn out to be anything other than a disaster unless some serious work is undertaken on it between now and the game's 2012 release date.
Fair enough to say that it was probably an early build, given how the game is still at least several months from hitting shelves. It is a fair guess that the staggering number of crash bugs, which resulted in almost every playthrough crashing and requiring the console to be reset (not just mine, but across all six screens), will be ironed out by then. More worrying are the heavy controls, boringly predictable 'scares', overfamiliar environments and puzzles, lacklustre combat, shoddy writing, and feeling that the player is being treated like an imbecile. Even worse is that one would assume the developers chose one of the more interesting parts of the game to show off, beggaring belief at how dreadful everything leading up to it must be.

The demo took place entirely in a mine, one which will be strikingly familiar to anyone who has played a videogame with a mine section in it before. Wooden platforms, underground rivers, clunky lifts, narrow rocky passageways, cordoned off areas that have to be made safe before progressing... there isn't a cliché conceivable the demo didn't hit, to the point of being almost impressive in its thoroughness. Hanging on the walls are signs giving background information on the town and the company which dug the mine: these would be almost insulting if the writing weren't so amusing in its ineptitude. One mentioned the percentage of workers who died down the mine, only to feel the need to spell that percentage out in the next sentence - you know, just in case. Gamers aren't known for being good with numbers, obviously.
That insulting mundanity isn't just a visual issue, either: puzzles and scripted events are equally reliant on hitting the most generic notes for this kind of environment. Aqueduct puzzles to drain an area up ahead? Check. Minecart pushing? Check. A creaky old lift going wrong and plummeting to the ground? Check. 'Suspense' sections forcing you to use a limited light source, but offering zero threat until hitting an obvious marker? Check. Monster appearing as soon as a console is activated, or lever pulled? Check. Suspense and fear relies on the unknown, yet everything in the Downpour demo could be predicted way ahead of time by any remotely experienced player. With no shock value or tension, the slow-pacing made it an arduous slog from start to finish.

Slogging was preferable to fighting, though, because what passed for combat was perhaps the worst part of easily the Expo's shoddiest game. Collision detection was horrible, with attacks frequently missing despite the main character being positioned right in front of the enemy he was supposed to be attacking. The slow-moving camera didn't exactly help matters in lining anything up, but that's no excuse. The main enemy type on show didn't exactly try and play around this weakness, spending most of its time jumping down from the ceiling, attacking, then going back up, meaning the player had to attack very accurately, in a very short space of time. After landing a few hits, it was easier just to give up and make a run to the next checkpoint - fortunately, being an evil monster of the night with nothing but slaughter on its bloodthirsty mind, it gave up the chase as soon as I had climbed the nearest staircase.

While the game seems to be aiming to create suspense by suggesting the player needs to arm themselves with makeshift weapons like planks of wood, that idea is severely undermined by the number of heavy-duty axes left lying around. It is one of the better of the game's many mixed design messages, though, if only because I dread to think how long it would have taken to defeat a mutant mini-boss when armed only with a kettle and some string. Even for fans of the series, I would say that the scariest thing about Downpour is the very real threat of it dragging a once respected, innovative survival horror series in the depths of inane predictability.

In the final set of Hands-On Previews... Journey, Halo Anniversary and my experience with the PlayStation Vita.

1 comment:

CaptainHowdy said...

Nice job with the previews. Sucks about Downpour.