F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin

Any FPS being released at the moment is taking a risk by coming out in the shadow of Killzone 2 and its unstoppable hype machine, but F.E.A.R. 2, which I’ll hereafter refer to as Project Origin for the sake of my sanity, has been getting some praise of its own. It even controversially scored higher than Killzone in the latest issue of Edge, which has caused consternation in some circles.

F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin

When my copy arrived, I must admit that my first impressions were slightly underwhelming. The first ‘interval’ – that’s ‘mission’ to you and me – takes place in a plush office block and has you fighting your way to the top against some generic special forces guys with a basic SMG and no sign of the game’s standard bullet time feature, and even the scary horror flashes toned down from how it bashed you over the head with them in the early stages of F.E.A.R. It’s really nothing more than a prologue, though, which becomes apparent when it ends in the wake of the first game’s finale.

Once you’re playing Project Origin proper, special abilities and all, it gets much more interesting. In the first few chapters after the prologue you get more variety of enemies – including my favourite: a trooper with a gas tank on his back that will make him blow up in a puff of smoke and giblets if you shoot it – and the scares come in, mostly consisting of apparitions and random psychic attacks on you and your enemies, with sneak attacks from a new kind of baddie that I won’t spoil coming in later. Continue reading F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin

Killzone 2 First Impressions

I’m as frightened as the next person about the ravenous cult that this game seems to have built up over the last year or so, but very occasionally the fanboys do pick a winning horse. I’m saying this having been impressed with the visuals of the demo but been left underwhelmed by the gameplay, where I felt that a combination of the PS3 controller and the game’s attempts to convey weighty realism combined to make it feel clunky and imprecise.

But then I borrowed a promo copy and played through the first two missions…

Before I go any further, I’m going to mention specifics of gameplay and what happens in these missions. If you’ve played the demo and seen the gameplay trailers you’ve seen most of what I’m going to talk about, but I know some people are going dark on spoilers now.

Killzone 2

Aside from a short sequence on your ship at the beginning, the demo is the first part of the game itself, and it’s essentially how that entire mission progresses. You have a set piece on a mounted gun that culminates in the very impressive collapse of a building and a sequence in a tank – this bit wins praise for being a vehicle section in an FPS that isn’t shit – at the end of the level, but other than that you’re playing an extended version of the demo.

The second mission is far more impressive. It’s the same sequence shown in the E3 2007 footage, set in the night-time streets as you attempt to take out the Helghast arc cannons – those are the big lightning guns – while facing heavy resistance from some of the bigger enemies, a couple of which you would have seen in trailers. It’s grimy and atmospheric, and despite being set on an alien world it feels as real as, say, the Middle Eastern streets in something like Call of Duty 4. Very impressive, and the end hints at bigger things to fight than just a bloke in heavy armour.

Now you don’t need me to tell you how good it looks, so I’ll just go as far as to say it looks magnificent and like being almost certainly the best-looking console game yet. What few flaws I saw – the occasional jagged shadow and physics glitch, mainly – were minor next to how incredibly solid everything looks, with a real sense of weight to things that I haven’t seen matched, and I’ve seen plenty of games that go for a similar style recently. Expect this to be the benchmark for any console game with lofty graphical ambitions for a long time to come. The textures, the effects, the staggeringly believable animation – all top drawer.

If I was being really picky, I’d complain that it brings you out of it when you see half-arsed effects like the medical gun thing used to revive downed allies, which looks like a sprite popping out of the barrel. But I’m not, so I won’t.

The sound is what I found most deserving of praise, though, and I haven’t heard it talked about nearly as much as the visuals. On my modest 5.1 system I was getting DTS sound that was constantly active, both with action going on around me and with atmospheric sounds in the background, and one sequence in particular where I was fighting in an underground drain in which every shot rang out with echos off the metal walls blew me away. It sounded notably different both to fighting in the open and in enclosed areas with concrete walls.

And to think that on a better setup I could be playing it with 7.1 PCM audio…

The presentation combines with the sensation of weight that the game carries to really make you feel like you’re inhabiting a physical body, firing actual bullets. There’s just enough inaccuracy to your fire to feel realistic without frustrating you when your shots don’t connect, and you quickly realise that it’s more about pinning enemies down with fire – something that works well with the highly impressive AI – and popping off a few shots at them when an opportunity presents itself than it is going for one-shot-one-kill accuracy.

Now as for the controls, I’m still not entirely convinced, but I’ve found a layout that suits me much better than the defaults that those who didn’t like it may want to try out: I essentially turned it into Call of Duty, swapping to the Alternate 2 preset with hold to aim turned on and x-axis sensitivity bumped up a few notches. Like I said, I still have issues with it, but I wasn’t fighting the controls like I was with the defaults. If anyone knows a layout that can stop my thumbs hitting each other on those sticks and get rid of the occasional Sixaxis control mini-game for turning cranks and arming bombs, please drop me a line.

Expect a more comprehensive impressions post once it’s actually out and I can play more of it, but colour me very impressed so far.

I Love Dead Space

It’s a veritable Halloween in February here, what with this and Left 4 Dead occupying lofty positions in my current playlist and F.E.A.R. 2 shortly to join my collection, but before the inevitable comparisons to Resident Evil 5 start turning things a bit nasty, I have to state how bloody good this game is.

Get it? Bloody good?

Dead Space

I’m not getting into that whole Resi 5 comparison because it only ends in tears – suffice to say that Resi did it first but Dead Space has better controls – and this game can stand on its own merits. Yes, it has obvious filmic inspirations as well, and the similarities between the aesthetic here and stuff like Event Horizon, Alien, and The Thing are so clear as to almost go without saying, but this does its own thing where it matters and has plenty of surprises as it begins to ramp up within a couple of chapters. By that point you’ve been through several of the Nostromo Ishimura’s environments and it starts to mix things up on you a little bit.

It’s actually quite difficult to put my finger on what exactly it is that I like so much because so much has been seen before, so I’m just going to have to shrug and say that it’s just a very good, very polished game. It doesn’t really do anything new, a couple of nifty gimmicks like the dismemberment and zero-gravity sequences aside, but what it does it does well.

Maybe the fact that people have seen a lot of the stuff before is part of the reason why it didn’t set the sales charts on fire, but I don’t think it’s a bad thing. There’s nothing wrong with a game just doing old things in a polished and pretty way. It has fantastic presentation – the graphical quality is obvious from the screenshots and the HUD design is superb, but the audio is beyond stellar – and, if nothing else, the development team at EA Redwood Shores knew which parts of which games to borrow in making a well-rounded horror experience. Nothing wrong with that when it’s done as well and is as fun as this, right?

This may be tempting fate – new EA is still EA, after all – but fingers crossed that Dead Space did enough business to warrant a sequel.

Revisiting Final Fantasy VII

Final Fantasy VII

Final Fantasy VII is a perennially popular game, but one that is almost as fashionable to hate. It’s true that it has its flaws and probably isn’t even the best Final Fantasy game, let alone the best RPG ever made, and it’s probably equally true that the reason for its popularity is because it was many players’ first RPG. But even so, there aren’t many games that have spawned a CGI feature film, an anime short film, several novellas and four spin-off games, and I think the only Final Fantasy that would be more anticipated than XIII would be the much-rumoured FFVII remake. It really is a franchise in its own right.

Anyway, it was the latest chapter in the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII, Crisis Core, that originally got me interested in revisiting this world. The PSP game is very impressive, but I got the feeling that some things were going over my head, given that I’d never finished Final Fantasy VII. I hadn’t finished a Final Fantasy game full stop, with a save at the end of Final Fantasy IV Advance being the closest I’ve got. Yes, I’m ashamed.

Back when it came out I didn’t have a PlayStation and so had little opportunity to play it – I don’t think I even got out of Midgar around release – and my most successful attempt so far was almost three years ago, when I bought a new NTSC copy and actually made it to disc 2 (OMG Aeris dies!!!1) before petering out somewhere on Gaea’s Cliff, about 19 hours in. With custom firmware PSPs supporting multi-disc PS1 games, I worked out how to get my original PS1 save ported to the PSP – it involves a chipped PS2 and some homebrew voodoo -and, after familiarising myself with the abilities that I’d left on the characters, I powered on through the previous sticking point. Continue reading Revisiting Final Fantasy VII