It’s been a while since I did a game review on this blog and there’s a very good reason for that. After spending a solid few months developing Geon (and subsequently relegating myself to rewrite it again) I fell hopelessly back into my old addict, World of Warcraft. The lure of defeating the nemesis that Warcraft 3 created in the Lich King was too tempting and I was soon caught up in the rough and tumble world of raiding once again. Still I found myself with less tolerance for some of the crap the game throws at you (although I admit most of it has been removed, thank heavens) so I’ve been dabbling with a few other games. Just Cause 2 happened by my way through several recommendations from friends so I ponied up the US$50 for the game and gave it a good slog over the past couple weeks. There’s a couple unique things about this game that got me hooked and one external thing that changed the game fundamentally for me.
The name has been subject to both ridicule and praise amongst the gaming community and rightly so. Whilst I think that the actual thrust of the name is supposed to be that you’re fighting for a just cause (although that’s questionable) it can also be taken as a light hearted stab at the core of the game: fucking around. Probably a more apt name for the name would be Grand Theft Democracy: Panau, but then again I’m not really in the business of making up game names now am I? 😉
Right off the bat the game is quite a looker. I caught myself on several occasions just flying around the island of Panau and checking out the scenery. You’re not left wanting for various methods to see the scenery either as nearly every form of transport is represented on the tiny island nation. The attention to detail also extends to the little things like the constant stream of explosions you’ll be setting off, and all the glorious debris that follow it.
The story itself is a little thin on the ground. You’re an Agency Agent named Rico Rodriguez (wait it gets better) who’s being sent to Panau to figure out why the island has severed all ties with the glorious USA and to hunt down one of your former colleagues who’s gone rogue. Nearly every character is some kind of overblown stereotype and realistically the game wouldn’t have suffered much if they replaced everything with just text boxes instead of in game videos. Not that I come seeking a deep story from an sandbox action game but the deliberate attempt to be completely cheesy and bordering on the racist, whilst amusing, became almost a chore to sit through towards the end.
Combat in Just Cause 2 is a ludicrous as it comes. The main objective of the game is to cause chaos by any means necessary which mostly means going around and blowing anything and everything up. For such a small island nation Panau seems to have an extremely healthy and incompetent military with fully armed helicopters, aircraft and land vehicles all laying about just waiting to be driven away. This leads to a game where you spend most of your time looking for somewhere to lay waste to or laying waste to something. Realistically though you’ll usually end up trying to find a helicopter with rockets on it as it’s the quickest way to blow up a whole mess of things and it provides you a quick getaway once the fuzz gets on the scene.
Now I’m not one to complain about a game that enables, nay encourages, you to unleash untold destruction on the world they’ve thrust you into. I’m known for being a complete ass in games that let you do this, leading to me spending many hours loading up a save game and wrecking havoc on the in game world. My better half has grown used to me cackling madly as I set up elaborate contraptions in games just to see the NPC crowd explode in a flurry of ragdoll physics and giblets. Still after a while I became bored with the whole untold destruction thing, opting more to try and do missions that would grant me more chaos so I could progress the damn story. To be honest I lasted about 7 hours before this got extremely tedious, so I started to look for other solutions.
You see it wasn’t too long after I got the game that someone put me onto this video of someone having some fun with multiple grappling hooks (yet another one of the games unique features). Intrigued I started hunting down the mod that he made reference to called Bolo Patch which, amongst many other things, enabled this multi grapple ability. Included in the usual money and upgrade hacks there was also the ability to change how much chaos you had, and I couldn’t resist setting it to its highest setting. Now many people will say I was missing the point of the whole game here but hear me out, I was completely and totally bored with what it had to offer. Really all I was after was some closure on the thin plot they had got me interested in and hopefully something different than blowing up yet another military installation.
Playing just the agency missions would see this game done in about 3 hours so you can see why they padded it out with the various faction missions as well as the traditional sandbox chicanery. That wouldn’t of been too bad except for the fact that many of the missions felt like I was doing the same thing just in a different area. Additionally there are whole parts of the game rendered completely moot, such as the black market dealer. Why would I bother buying something from him when realistically I was only 5 minutes away from having something infinitely better? I can’t tell you the number of missions were trivialized by just finding a helicopter and then raining hell from the skies or how every stronghold mission seemed to have a mounted gun that I could take with me for the whole ride.
In the end I turned on god mode and gave myself a fully upgraded rocket launcher with unlimited ammo and honestly the last few missions were a blast. There’s nothing more fun than juggling your enemy in the air with a relentless chain of RPG fire which every so often would land directly at my feet sending Rico flying skyward in a hilarious rag doll spin. There’s also some fun to be had with stacking 50 triggered explosives under your feet and doing the same, as you can actually throw yourself up so high that you can sky dive back down to the ground.
Would I recommend Just Cause 2? That depends, you really have to be a fan of sandbox type games to enjoy the things that this game provides. Whilst it does have its moments (and really some of them are just spectacular) the real meat of the game is just too much of the same thing and after a while you’re longing for something other than blowing up another village or fending off an endless horde of Panauian soldiers. The redeeming feature of Just Cause 2 are the stories you’ll tell with your friends, like that time you hijacked a plane, flew up to another plane, grapple hooked them together and then watched them collide as you parachuted back down to earth.
Just Cause 2 is available right now for PlayStation 3, Xbox360 and PC right now for AU$99, $99 and $78 respectively. Game was played on hardest difficulty setting for the entire game, with the last 3 out of 10 hours game play spent cheating like there was no tomorrow.
Thanks to the engineer in me I’m somewhat of a hoarder. My wardrobe at home is littered with components of PCs gone by and hundreds of CDs that contain various drives and backups that I will probably never, ever end up looking at again. My garage is filled with all manner of junk that I’ve kept on the off chance that I might have a use for it some day in some weird project and every box of every product I’ve bought over the years if I ever want to sell them. It comes as no surprise then that I also have an extensive range of old video games around the place, from my goold old NES (which currently resides at my parent’s house) to my original Playstation games.
In all honesty I haven’t played any of them in quite a long time. Every 6 months when the big clean up and chuck out comes around I always look on them fondly, but none of them make the transition to the lounge room for a playthrough. The same could be said for the games folder on my PC which I’ve only ever deleted games from when space was getting critical (and thanks to my new 1TB drive for it, that won’t be for a while now). Still they remain there should I find myself in a situation like I did a couple years ago where I was without Internet for a week or so when moving house. Warcraft 3 and Freelancer are still my fallbacks during these times.
More recently it seems that many publishers are looking to cash in on our nostalgia. At the end of last year I picked up the Eidos pack (mostly for Batman and Tomb Raider… don’t judge me bro) and noticed that it included Deus Ex and Deus Ex 2. They were definitely a bonus as I tried to run the original from my massive game folder only to find it threw up some strange errors that my Google-Fu was unable to fix. Talking to a mate who had also bought the pack he said it worked without a problem and I saw him playing it a couple times over the next few days.
Getting past the fact that I got these titles for basically free (They’re $10 each on Steam by themselves) it still took me back that in essence I had paid again for a game that I already owned. My original install of the game refused to run properly under Windows 7 so I can understand that at least some effort went into reworking it but I wasn’t paying for the game per say, I was paying for the transition of format. The sour taste this left me with only got worse when I found a few people who had got the game to work without incident which in essence meant I had paid for a service I really could have performed myself.
Eidos aren’t the only one cashing in on fan nostalgia and format transitions. Nintendo has the virtual console which has a selection of games from many of Nintendo’s old systems as well as some of their former competitors (Sega being one of them). Sony brought out the PSOne Classics section of the Playstation store to do much the same thing, offering up a catalogue of games that can be played directly off the hard drive. That also opened up the option for those who purchased a second generation PS3 fat or any slim console to play old games that their hardware no longer supported. Microsoft, as far as I can tell, hasn’t got a service like this for the Xbox360 but since it can play nearly all the games (with 470 verified as supported) there’s probably not much of a market for it. Plus the Xbox hasn’t been around as long as any of Nintendo or Sony’s consoles, so there’s little for them to cash in on there. Still they’ve done well with their online marketplace, which is arguably the best out of the big 3’s offerings.
Still for someone like me who does actually have a rather large collection of old games the thought of paying for them again feels a little rough. I’ve got original PS1 games that still work in my PS3 that I’d love to be able to rip to the hard drive for those times when I might enjoy a 10 minute bash on something, but despite the fact that the technology is obviously there Sony will never let me do it. I’ll admit their service does provide something that is worthwhile (like when your originals are scratched to hell) but what about us long time fans who have massive backlogs that we’d love to play on our new consoles?
The primary argument from Sony et al is that most people buying new consoles are doing so to play new games, and I agree with that sentiment. The occaisions when I bust out an old game are few and far between, especially when I struggle to finish one game a week these days. Still asking long time fans (and let’s be honest here, these are the guys who are buying the old titles) to pony up again for games that they more than likely still have doesn’t do them any favours. I can understand that opening up such a service would present quite a few problems (how do you verify that the ripped game is playing on one console only?) but it’s still something I and many other fans would love to see.
Maybe I’m just spoiled since I’ve been doing it for a long time anyway…
Last year, whilst not a stellar year for games due to many delayed releases slipping into 2010, still had many great games towards the end of the year. I’ve played my way through most of them and for those who have been following my exploits over the past 6 months or so know the quality has been pretty high. Naturally after playing AAA title after AAA title my expectations for games have been set rather high and lesser games (namely Bayonetta and Supreme Commander 2) have been left sitting on the shelves waiting for their turn. After looking through my Steam list I remembered that I got Batman: Arkham Asylum as part of the Eidos pack when it was a mere $50 and on the advice of many of my friends I decided to give it a go.
Thankfully Arkham Asylum, whilst drawing on the rich background offered by the Batman IP, isn’t based off any of the Batman movies that have been released. This helps it avoid the usual filter the gaming community puts on movie based games (read: utter rubbish) and gave the developers a lot more creative freedom with developing the story and characters. Still every aspect that makes Batman who he is will be shown to the player at some point so that even dedicated Batman fans will find something in the game that appeals to them.
The story begins with Batman bringing in The Joker to Arham Asylum, a super prison dedicated to housing the myriad of Gotham’s super-villains. Whilst it’s somewhat disappointing that you can’t gallivant around Gotham city like the real Batman the game still does its best to make you feel like the caped crusader, a shining beacon of justice in an increasingly dark world. Whilst I initially felt very detracted from Batman and his supporting characters after the first few hours of gameplay I found myself wanting to know more about all of them, hoping to gain some form of insight into the twisted minds of the characters laid out before me.
My first gripe about the game is that (during the first few hours before I became wholly engrossed in the story) the whole experience feels a little cheap. The graphics for instance aren’t terribly spectacular even when everything is cranked up to the max and the pre-rendered videos were done using the game engine. Whilst I can appreciate that this was done to keep the pace of the game and gloss over loading screens when you have pre-rendered movies and in-game sequences that look the same I start wondering why you bothered pre-rendering them at all. This is probably because the movies were rendered at a much lower screen resolution than my monitor (1680 x 1050), making them appear rather blocky. Additionally the in game dialogue sequences were often rather stilted with the characters barely moving and the faces showing little to no emotion. I know I’ve been spoiled with Mass Effect and Uncharted and it’s probably not fair to compare them, but that still didn’t take away that cheap feeling.
The most enjoyable part of Arkham Asylum is the combat. On first look it appears to be something of a hack ‘n’ slash adventure with a rapid succession of clicks able to take down a group of foes with little trouble. After a while though more and more variables are thrown in that force you to use other moves and combos in order to come out the other end successfully. Just when you think you’re unstoppable the game would throw yet another larger challenge at you, bringing you down a peg. It was this ramping up of the action that hooked me and kept me in my seat for the last 4 hours of the game, giving the bad guys of Arkham a good throttling. The only issue I had was counter moves not working most of the time, but I got around that by throwing Batman wildly all over the place to avoid having to use it.
On the flip side of this rough and tumble action game is a surprisingly well done stealth combat system. So whilst you could happily punch every foe into the ground there are some situations that will be a might be easier if you instead sneak your way around them and take them out quietly. The unlockable upgrades for Batman allow for many interesting ways to take out your opponents quietly, such as hanging upside down from a gargoyle and then swooping down and hanging them upside down by one leg. Since the days of of the Theif games few games have been able to do stealth right but Arkham Asylum gets it just right as it is both enjoyable and as thrilling as punching your way through the game.
Yet another interesting mechanic is that of the good old fashioned platformer. There are several occasions where the camera will become locked and you’re forced into a good old fashioned jump puzzle, with the added complication of avoiding detection by a giant madman with glowing eyes. This psyhcological thriller mini-game was one of my favourite frustrations of Arkham Asylum as it was just so far apart from the regular gameplay in terms of what you do and where you are.
Lastly you’re Batman the crack detective, following evidence and solving various puzzles to move the story along. I’ll admit a few of these had me stumped for a good while, reaching out to the Internet for answers. Still for the vast majority I was able to knock them down without too much hassle, giving me that warm fuzzy feeling that we all get when we conquer something without having to take the easy way out.
Overall Batman: Arkham Asylum was one of those games that was in my to-play list but I’d never really given a second thought to. It’s received wide spread critical acclaim and garnered enough talk amongst my friends to have cemented itself firmly as a must play amongst us all and after playing through it I can see why. It just oozes that classic Batman feel and the little extra bits like the character bios and interview tapes just help to draw you in that much more. The game wraps up beautifully and lends itself to a sequel without leaving too many loose ends, and I for one can’t wait to see what these guys come up with next.
Batman: Arkham Asylum is available right now on the Xbox 360, PS3 and PC for $99, $99 and $49.99 respectively. Game was played on the second hardest difficulty setting with around 12 hours of gameplay and 65% completion on one playthrough.