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.
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.