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Thursday, August 26, 2010

Hole in the Wall Review

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It seems like a great fit for the Kinect, but Hole in the Wall doesn't quite line up.

The Good

  • Striking poses is silly fun  
  • Two-versus-two competition makes it even sillier.

The Bad

  • Body tracking is inconsistent  
  • Feedback is unclear  
  • Lame presentation.
As a game show that challenges contestants to strike and hold a variety of strange poses, Hole in the Wall seems like it would be right at home on the Kinect. In the game, as in the show, a series of walls advance on the player, each with a shape cut out of it that the player must match. These shapes include human figures, abstract blobs, and simple polygons, and scrambling to position your body to line up with each shape creates some goofy fun. Trying to make your shadow look like an arrow or a cowboy can be amusing, especially for any spectators nearby, but there are some bothersome technical shortcomings that keep Hole in the Wall from maintaining that appeal. Furthermore, the silhouette feedback mechanism isn't always reliable, leaving you to wonder why your seemingly spot-on pose isn't scoring you points. Though these problems don't plague every round of Hole in the Wall and you can still enjoy some silly living room shenanigans, the flaws in the core mechanics make it hard to recommend.

Well, yes, that's technically true, but 'Holes in the Wall' just sounds weird.
 
There are only two modes in Hole in the Wall; you can face an unending series of walls and see how many you can clear consecutively, or you can play a show. Shows are themed contests that consist of three normal rounds and a final round. Normal rounds present you with a set of about 10 walls and allow you to miss up to two; if you get three strikes in one round, you fail the show. When you make it to the final round, you are often met with a slight variation on a normal round. The lights may be dimmed, making it tougher to see the hole in the wall, or the walls may come faster than usual. You earn points for every wall you clear in a show (faster clears earn bigger bonuses), and at the end of the show, your score is posted to online leaderboards.
So how do you actually clear a wall? It's as simple as positioning your body to match the cut-out hole. If you see a tall rectangle, you stand straight with your arms at your sides. If there's something that looks like a dog, you get down on all fours. And if you see a cowboy with arms akimbo and his foot up on a hay bale, well, you'd better hope you can raise your leg off the ground long enough to match the shape. As your silhouette gets closer to matching up with the hole, your image turns from red to orange to yellow to green, with the latter color indicating that you've reached the optimal position. The better your pose, the faster the clear meter fills up and the quicker you clear the wall. The walls come in fairly quick succession, so you might strike a baseball player pose, have to look like a big cactus, and then shrink down to the floor to fit into a box shape. The parade of poses is naturally silly and can generate a good amount of fun for those inclined to enjoy this mildly aerobic, utterly ridiculous endeavor.

The first few shows are relatively easy, but as you progress, you begin to encounter trickier poses that some players will find difficult. Holding your leg aloft at varying heights for seconds at a time presents a challenge to your strength and balance, so make sure you have heeded the Kinect's warnings and moved your furniture a good distance away. Harder poses can also be fun because they require more skillful maneuvering to successfully execute, but they also run afoul of Hole in the Wall's technical problems more frequently. The game is fine when you have to pose with arms and legs splayed out like a starfish, but the closer your limbs get to your body, the more problems you encounter. Slight elbow bends are problematic, and minor squats can be finicky as well.


Sometimes you can get your pose to register properly with slight adjustments, but such attempts are not always successful. The visual feedback only indicates that you are doing it wrong; there is no limb-specific feedback to say, "Just move your leg a little to the left!" You should be able to adjust by trying to fill the hole more fully with your silhouette, but it's unclear how Hole in the Wall detects your body. Bigger individuals might get away with simply making themselves loom large (the Hole in the Wall equivalent of brute force), but on another similar wall, this technique might fail. Sometimes your silhouette can line up almost perfectly and still register as red, but other times, you can be off by an entire limb or two and still earn green. Detection is particularly spotty when you have to get down on the floor. These issues force you to try to learn how to game the game, rather than follow the simple and intuitive rules. It's possible to play entire shows without encountering these problems, but the threat of inconsistency looms over every session.

Hole in the Wall is neither technically flawless nor visually appealing. The walls themselves often feature crude line drawings meant to give context to the shape of the hole, but they are simplistic at best, indecipherable at worst. The meager stage and braying audio are thankfully deemphasized during actual gameplay. In addition to competing against the walls, you can challenge another player or team (up to two versus two) to see who is the best poser, and getting more people in the mix can increase your likelihood of having fun in spite of the technical shortcomings. Unlocking and beating the 10 shows is likely to take you a few hours, and the poses get trickier and faster as you progress. The challenge of contorting yourself into mildly awkward positions is pretty amusing, but having your performance derailed by spotty detection is frustrating. Though it does have some entertainment value, Hole in the Wall is still a tough sell at 800 Microsoft points ($10).

Friday, February 26, 2010

Deus Ex: Human Revolution Review

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Deus Ex: Human Revolution is an engrossing and atmospheric adventure that keeps you guessing.

The Good

  • Varied mechanics allow you to accomplish missions the way you want  
  • Evocative futuristic atmosphere  
  • Engrossing story with themes that resonate  
  • A long adventure that invites replay.

The Bad

  • Poor boss fights remove the element of choice  
  • Long load times, dated facial animations, and other technical drawbacks  
  • Weak AI detracts from both the shooting and the stealth.
Choice. Many games provide the illusion of it; fewer deliver it in any meaningful way. Deus Ex: Human Revolution is one of those few: a first-person shooter/stealth/espionage/role-playing hybrid that allows you to overcome obstacles as you see fit. Let's say you require access to a guarded apartment building. You can shoot your way past the patrolling sentries. But maybe you'd rather sneak past them unnoticed, silently knocking them out as you go; hack an electronic lock on a side entrance; or find a hidden vent and shimmy your way inside. Play the way you want: It's up to you. In Human Revolution, this kind of flexibility can be awe inspiring, but like with many ambitious games, the individual parts and pieces aren't always satisfying on their own terms. Neither the shooting nor the stealth is best in class, and a number of flaws disrupt your suspension of disbelief. But even if the details don't stand up to scrutiny, taken as a whole, Human Revolution is an excellent game with an unsettling vision of the future we face.

David Sarif is worried more about profitability than ethics.
In that future, human augmentation has changed the way we live. Augmentation technology makes the more fortunate among us stronger, faster, and hardier--for a cost, of course. It's the year 2027, and the world is divided. Some believe that augmentation is the next step in evolution; others think it strips us of our humanity. Sarif Industries is one of several companies that research and manufacture such technology, and you play as Adam Jensen, Sarif's security expert. Scientists are on the verge of a mysterious breakthrough when high-tech soldiers ransack Sarif's headquarters, making off with important info, murdering scientists and leaving Adam for dead. Sarif rehabilitates Adam with the help of augmentations, turning Adam into both man and machine: something beyond human. As Adam, you set off to discover who was behind the attack and what, exactly, they were trying to find.

As it turns out, you uncover more than you expected. You explore Shanghai and your home city of Detroit, along with other locales, to piece together clues. Some of them illuminate plot elements; others flesh out the world as a whole; while still others provide unexpected personal data and set the stage for a surprising turn of events. In this grim vision of the future, anti-aug demonstrators hang on their prophet's every word; sexual deviants seek augmented prostitutes for extra thrills. Human Revolution explores the symbiotic relationships binding the press, the government, and big business--a modern, relevant theme that gives the story an air of disturbing authenticity. If you played the original Deus Ex, you will appreciate seeing the origins of the turmoil to come, before nanotechnology further revolutionized the human condition. Electronic books you stumble upon hint at the coming innovation; newspapers document increasing social tensions (and, cleverly, refer to how you completed your most recent mission); and emails and PDAs provide insight into the minds of the game's key figures.

The visual design does a great job of setting the stage for those tensions. Human Revolution's color palette makes frequent use of gold and black, which results in eye-catching visual contrasts. Take, for example, a nightclub in Shanghai called The Hive. The honeycomb design stretching across its neon yellow exterior is not only striking, but also similar to interface elements associated with augmentations. This kind of thematic and visual consistency is common and makes for a cohesive atmosphere even when trotting across the globe. Human Revolution takes great pains to be believable and immerse you in its world, which makes its technical deficiencies all the more noticeable. The city districts you explore are good sized but not enormous, which makes the extended loading times between them seem drastic. You spend minutes at a time in lengthy conversations, staring at the dated, mechanical facial animations. On the Xbox 360 in particular, the frame rate can take a hit as you pan the camera around--a distraction in any case and a greater annoyance during firefights. On consoles, it feels like developer Eidos Montreal tried to squeeze a bit more out of its graphics engine than it could handle. On the PC, the game performs adequately but still looks slightly dated. But this is a case in which good art design overcomes the technology that renders it. The game is as much about places as it is about people, and it does an excellent job of giving its environments character and grit.

And so you perform story missions and side quests in these cities, where hobos huddle around flaming barrels for warmth and private security firms intimidate the locals. You find answers for a grieving mother, publicly humiliate a cowardly murderer, and seek a dangerous hacker. And in most cases, how you accomplish your tasks depends on how you wish to play. Let's say you must make your way through a heavily guarded facility. If you prefer the direct approach, you could shoot your way through. During the course of the game, you find or purchase pistols, revolvers, combat rifles, shotguns, and more--and you gain access to augmentations that further support your violent tendencies. As you play, you earn experience; in turn, you then earn praxis points used to unlock new skills and enhancements. Players into bloodshed should appreciate the dermal augmentations that increase your armor, reduce weapon recoil, increase inventory space, and improve resistance to concussion grenades. From the action-packed perspective, Human Revolution plays like a cover shooter. When you snap behind cover, the camera pulls into a third-person view, and you peek out or pop up to load your enemies with lead.

The shooting mechanics are fine but not outstanding. The cover system works well, but even with dermal upgrades, you are still fragile enough to feel in danger when you engage the enemy. And ammo is scarce enough (though not frustratingly so) that you'll want to make every shot count. Unfortunately, the none-too-smart AI frequently diminishes that sense of danger. It isn't uncommon for enemies to empty clip after clip shooting at the wall you are hiding behind, refuse to shoot back even when you're pumping bullets into them, or jump en masse into a grenade rather than away from it. Actually, it isn't just enemies that act in unconvincing ways. In many cases, you can tap away at people's computers right in front of them, saunter into a shopkeeper's storeroom to steal credit chips and ammo, and emerge from air ducts right in front of fellow Sarif employees. For what it's worth, the previous Deus Ex games also featured such illusion-breaking details. And like before, those details stand out because the game otherwise works so hard to create a believable cyberpunk world.

You don't have to shoot anyone on your way through that aforementioned facility, however. There are good reasons to take the nonlethal route. One is that you earn extra experience for leaving your foes alive; another is that it's more satisfying to sneak than to shoot. That isn't because the AI magically improves when you go stealthy; while you are crouched, a guard might walk up to you, his crotch in your face, yet not notice you. But patrol patterns make it challenging--though hardly impossible--to elude notice. If you played Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Conviction, the stealth gameplay will feel familiar. You can tumble from cover spot to cover spot or press against walls and obstacles to remain out of view. And again, the right augmentations can complement this play style. In this case, they take Human Revolution from plain-Jane sneaker into fully featured stealth game. Eventually, you can observe enemy figures through walls, see their cones of sight on your minimap, or mark them with pips to make them easier to track. But even while sneaking, you can feed your hunger for violence with a melee attack. If you're feeling generous, you can clobber your enemy but leave him alive and earn a few extra experience points for your kindness. Or, you can forfeit the extra experience but get the rush of a vicious assassination.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Driver: San Francisco Review

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Driver: San Francisco's inspired shift mechanic and wealth of action-packed content make it an absolute blast that revives the franchise.

The Good

  • Shift keeps the action fast paced and exciting  
  • Huge open-world city to explore  
  • Masses of content to play through  
  • Fun online modes.

The Bad

  • Ridiculous storyline  
  • Frame rate issues with split-screen  
  • Missions get repetitive toward the end.
Chasing down crooks in high-speed chases, performing death-defying feats of driving, or bringing down entire criminal organisations might be a bit much for your average cop, but Driver: San Francisco's John Tanner takes it in his stride. As you take control of him and begin your beat on the mean streets of San Francisco, the reason why becomes clear: Tanner's uncanny ability to "shift" into the body of citizens lets you do things other cops can't, such as instantly drive any vehicle in the city, coax case clues from criminal passengers, or use cars as battering rams, to name but a few. While the premise behind this ability is ludicrous, it all makes sense as you soar over the living, breathing city for the first time, instantly transporting yourself to new missions and swiftly jumping between cars to take down criminals. Shifting is Driver's coup de grace; the feature that puts memories of the mediocre Driver 3 to rest and reinvigorates the franchise.

Chasing checkpoints is a lot more fun in the city of San Francisco.
 
Driver: San Francisco picks up where Driv3r left off; it continues the story of Tanner and criminal mastermind Jericho. After escaping from Istanbul, Jericho takes refuge in San Francisco, only to be tracked down and imprisoned. However, a routine prison transfer gives him the opportunity to escape. Tanner gives chase and--after an explosion-filled action scene of Michael Bay proportions--catches up with the criminal, only to be run down and left in a coma. It's in Tanner's coma-induced dreams that Driver takes place; the battle against his coma manifests itself as the hunt for Jericho and real-life news reports on the TV in his hospital room influence his actions. While the narrative is completely implausible and at times downright confusing, it allows Driver to free itself from the shackles of the real world and introduce the unique shift mechanic that underpins the entire game.

Shifting allows you to take control of any vehicle with just a few buttons presses. Activating shift lets you float above the city, from varying levels of zoom that allow for up-close views of roads all the way to a bird's-eye view. You can highlight any car you like, and with another button press, you're in the driver's seat, ready to take on the criminal horde. With a city the size of San Francisco, the gameworld is huge, and there are hundreds of miles of road for you to drive on and explore. Fortunately, any worries about laborious driving to reach missions are laid to rest with shift. Zooming out to a bird's-eye view allows you to see all of the missions on the map, which are marked by clear icons that, when hovered over, detail the content. You can zip from a mission on one side of the city to another in seconds, minimizing downtime and letting you get straight into the action.


Nothing beats taking a Ford GT out for a spin.
There are a huge number of missions available, with a wealth of types from which to choose. Even for something as simple as racing, there are multiple types, such as checkpoint racing, with marked and unmarked routes; smash racing, where you have to smash objects along the route to gain time; and team racing, where you have to shift between two competitors to ensure that they finish in first and second place. Then, there are the police missions in which you have to chase down criminals by using your boost ability to ram them off the road or shift into oncoming traffic to ram them head-on, with replays letting you view the carnage in glorious slow motion. The stunt missions are the most fun: You have to perform feats of daring driving, such as drifts, handbrake turns, and huge jumps over moving vehicles.

Each of the main missions has a story attached to it. Sometimes they relate back to the main narrative, while others involve ordinary citizens who've gotten themselves into a spot of trouble, such as parents whose child has been kidnapped or irresponsible teens who have entered street races. These stories aren't especially engaging, thanks to corny dialogue and merely passable voice acting, but references to kitsch '70s cop shows and past Driver games let you know the game never takes itself too seriously. To progress, you have to complete most of the story-based missions to unlock Tanner missions, which reveal more about his history with Jericho and his current condition. In addition, there are heaps of optional missions scattered around the city. Completing them awards you with will power points, which are also given to you for daring driving such as overtaking in the wrong lane or big drifts.