Sunday, November 27, 2022

First Play Review - Sniper: Art of Victory [2008]

I heard good things about Sniper: Ghost Warrior 2 even as a relatively lower budget game than I'm used to and was waiting for it to go on sale to purchase. I was fortunate enough to get it and it's two predecessors Sniper: Ghost Warrior and this game bundled together for €0.95. While I'm not expecting much from Ghost Warrior, I was expecting even less from the very first game in Polish outfit City Interactive's long running series. I do look at other reviews for games before I buy them just to get a vibe but as this was essentially 32 cents, I simply installed and tried it before reading anything.

What was not promising was wherever video intro technology being used to display the opening logo or cutscene didn't show for me. I heard the narration but I got a 1024x768 blank screen before the main menu. Not a good start, but the game was made for Windows XP so... Changing the resolution involved editing a config file in the game's directory. Once that was done I was on the right track and I can safely say I has no other technical issues beyond that. All the issues I did have were with the gameplay itself.

Sniper: Art of Victory is clearly a low budget FPS which favours the sniper rifle as the base weapon and puts you in the shoes of a Red Army sniper tasked with various missions on the Eastern front in WWII. The graphics would have already been dated looking in 2008 when compared to the likes of Far Cry 2 or Battlefield: Bad Company 2 that were released in the same year. City Interactive however, were only just then trying to level up from the bargain bin low budget games tier at the time of release so I was willing to ignore graphics if the gameplay was good. Spoiler alert: It wasn't!

The actual sniping was neat enough, the game takes account of wind, your breathing, bullet drop etc. which is certainly not the norm in most FPS. Unfortunately the enemies you are actually shooting at are are what ruined the experience. The AI was shockingly bad, they were either dumb as a brick and stood motionless as shots were going off nearby or they were magically endowed with the power to see you even if you were prone or in cover. I was on board with the fact that you alert a camp full of guards once you fire the first shot, but I was not on board with the entire camp firing accurately on your position (with machine guns that should be relatively out of accurate range) before anyone could have seen your muzzle flash? No! Absolute nonsense! The credits list four play-testers who I must conclude were drunk while testing.

I shot this Kraut several minutes ago...

The sound was generic and passable but the voice work was a shambles. Your character doesn't speak much but when he does your voice is that of an American sounding stock voice artist reading the lines emotionlessly, not even a fake Russian accent attempt. I stuck it out for about 90 minutes before I got stuck in scenery and was then killed jumping off the roof of a shed. Something I've done in real life without injury, but a death sentence for a Red Army sniper apparently.

There was only a handful of good shooters out in 2008. Far Cry 2, Battlefield: Bad Company 2 and Call of Duty: World at War. Actually I didn't even play World at War because I was still playing some Crysis, Half Life: Episode 2 and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare from the previous year. All games mentioned I have and will gladly play again today. But if Sniper: Art of Victory had somehow found it's way to me then I can safely say I wouldn't have been installing it today.

Final Verdict: An interesting idea that was seemingly done better three years earlier by Rebellion with Sniper Elite. Just because this can still be played doesn't mean it should be. So don't. Ever!

Technicals: 1.5 hours playtime through Steam using a Nvidia 3070Ti @ 3440x1440 @ 175Hz with max settings on Windows 11. A DirectX 8 game, it forces 60FPS as a cap. Windows HDR provided no enhancement.

Bugs: Blank screen on startup until menu. Resolution needs to be manually edited in config. AI is just incompetently coded as opposed to bugged.

Sniper Art of Victory is only available from Steam for €2.99 when not in a sale. Review copy purchased from Fanatical (with both Sniper: Ghost Warrior and Sniper: Ghost Warrior 2) for €0.95 in December 2018.

Series:

  •     Sniper: Art of Victory [2008]
  •     Sniper Ghost Warrior [2010]
  •     Sniper: Ghost Warrior 2 [2013]
  •     Sniper Ghost Warrior 3 [2017]
  •     Sniper: Ghost Warrior Contracts [2019]
  •     Sniper: Ghost Warrior Contracts 2 [2021]

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

First Play Review - Heavy Rain (2010)[2019]

I played Quantic Dream's Fahrenheit in 2005 introducing me to a very different style of adventure game where cinematic storytelling was the focus rather than pointing and clicking. Despite being a french outfit I granted a pass to Quantic Dream created for what it was. Later in 2006 I recall being awed by the reveal of the tech for their new game called Heavy Rain. Producer David Cage gave interviews explaining his technology and motion capturing efforts drumming up tremendous excitement. Sadly it was later revealed that the new game was going to be a PlayStation3 exclusive and in 2008 the cover of an issue of EDGE led me to my first of very few cases of console envy. 

By the time Heavy Rain was actually released (after considerable delay) in 2010, the capabilities of the PC had by far exceeded those of the game and I enjoyed a far superior catalogue than any console but I had enjoyed Fahrenheit so much that I did for a time consider becoming a PS3 owner. However the ROI was deemed too negligible to get a console for a single game even one that was getting the press and accolades. It would be another eight years before it was revealed that Quantic Dream would release Heavy Rain and the studio's subsequent games for the PC. However there would be an additional delay as the initial PC release was limited to the hideously substandard Epic Games Store platform for a year, netting Quantic Dream another round of "exclusivity backhanders." But it was OK, I had waited for nine years and as I'm only playing it now, I actually waited for twelve.

Much like it's predecessor Fahrenheit, Heavy Rain is a cinematic story-driven adventure game with QTE actions and choices that determine how the story unfolds. Quantic Dream pushed the boundaries of character modelling for the age and with significant motion-capture development it has the production quality of a movie with it's camera views and angles, high quality voice acting and a Hollywood class score delivered by the late Norman Corbeil who also contributed to Fahrenheit.

While not named, Heavy Rain's setting is a bleak urban industrialised area of Philadelphia and as it's name suggests, is rains significantly as if to punctuate how depressing life is for it's despondent inhabitants. The plot is centered on four characters which you control through various scenes and take part in their lives as they intersect a police investigation into "The Origami Killer", a serial killer who preys on young boys by drowning them in rainwater leaving origami figures at the scene. We follow Ethan (Pascal Langdale - Killjoys) a family man whose life is shattered when one of his sons is killed in an accident and later his remaining son is kidnapped by the killer. Scott Shelby (Sam Douglas - Snatch) a P.I. perusing his own investigation. Norman Jayden (Leon Ockenden) an FBI profiler assisting the police with their investigation. Lastly Madison Page (Judi Beecher [voice] - Taken 3 and Jacqui Ainsley [model] - King Arthur: Legend of the Sword) an insomniac journalist  who becomes embroiled with the investigation.


What annoyed me about Fahrenheit is that the story fell apart when it introduced the prophecy and the supernatural elements, distorting what was shaping up to be a fine psychological thriller. Such mistakes are not repeated here and the game is firmly rooted in realistic drama that slowly unveils the root of human madness - or plain evil depending on your own views. While it's fair to say the story is significantly better than Fahrenheit's, it's clear from the construction of the narrative that David Cage is not the best writer when it comes to plot holes. While he nails the drama and emotional intensity of a scene; the technical issues in constructing a believable story without some gaping plot holes are sadly beyond Cage's reach. The most egregious and largest amount of issues by far are the almost complete incompetence on the part of the police. Granted some of them are corrupt but the way they are portrayed in the game as so inept they make Frank Drebin look like Columbo. Plot holes and dumb plot elements are fine in something like an FPS but in a narrative-driven game they can be distracting. To be clear these issues don't ruin the game but prevent it from being a masterpiece of interactive storytelling.

Much more improved upon from it's predecessor is the control system of Heavy Rain, some of which was apparently borrowed from Shenmue. Deft mouse movements as you press and hold your mouse to create patterns as well as quick snap clicks of associated keys are used here instead of the somewhat awkward "Simon Says" colour-coordinated gameplay of Fahrenheit. Unlike it's predecessor the game is much more forgiving for mistakes, you need to do certain sequences again if it's a necessary plot point but often you just might need to live with the failure and carry on with the 'failed' state into a different branch of the story than you would have had had you passed the QTE trial. This mechanic is a much more interesting way of presenting the content as success, failure or even inaction can produce different consequences making the story not only adapt to your choices but also your skill.


As documented in my review of Aspyr's port of the Fahrenheit remaster, that port was deeply flawed with  an initial inability to launch as well as progress-debilitating save-file corruption. Heavy Rain by comparison is technically flawless having been ported by Quantic Dream themselves and ran without a single issue on Windows 11 save for it not adapting to 2:9 resolution, keeping 16:9 even when the former is selected. It's engine performs admirably and it's visuals are superior to the original, having received some class of remaster itself for the PS4 in 2016 which was then carried over to the PC port.

Final Verdict: A deeply atmospheric, emotional and suspense filled adventure that had some remarkable twists and turns depending on your choices and actions (or inaction). While the story is flawed, the game's technical presentation, music, incredible voice acting and one's connection to the characters overshadow any faults with the plot. In Heavy Rain, success was achieved in pushing the boundaries of interactive cinematic storytelling and cemented Quantic Dream as masters of the genre. 

DLC: None

Technicals: 9.1 hours playtime through Steam using a Nvidia 3070Ti @ 3440x1440 @ 175Hz with max settings on Windows 11. Game capped at 60FPS and forced to 16:9. Win 11 HDR provides satisfactory enhancement.

Bugs: None.

Heavy Rain is available from Steam for €19.90 with significant sales occasionally. Reviewed copy purchased from Steam in 2020 for €8.16.

Quantic Dream releases (PS3/Console)[PC]

Wednesday, November 02, 2022

First Play Review - Metro 2033 Redux (2010)[2014]

Note: While Metro 2033 was released by THQ in 2010, Deep Silver later released a Redux (enhanced) version. The latter release is reviewed here.

In 2010 Ukrainian studio 4A Games turned Russian science-fiction writer Dmitry Glukhovsky's most famous novel Metro 2033 into a much lauded single-player first-person shooter. The game is set in the underground Metro tunnels of a Moscow which has been almost utterly destroyed by nuclear war. You play as one of the Metro's inhabitants who must brave the perpetually dark tunnels and sometimes harsh winter of the surface as you evade or kill both enemy factions and mutated beasts. As opposed to a military science-fiction shooter as one might suspect, the game falls instead into the category of survival-horror. It's really the worst kind of genre as I generally hate the idea of "ammo conservation", "environmental death" and "jump-scare-enemies". While certainly normally not my thing I decided to at least attempt to play by the rules, and see what 4A Games produced, especially as the series has progressed to a trilogy (thus far).

Following 4A's initial success with the game in 2010, they released a sequel Metro: Last Light in 2013 featuring significant graphical and gameplay improvements. Some of these improvements were then retroactively applied to the original Metro 2033 and 4A created a superior version of both games called Metro Redux the following year in 2014. Naturally I installed the Redux version of Metro 2033 and was greeted with a stable platform with a superior graphical fidelity augmented by Windows 11 HDR.

The central narrative, as with most FPS isn't considerably complex. As Artyom a young inhabitant of Exhibition, one of the underground areas humanity has claimed, you are tasked to bring an important message to Polis, capital of the Metro. You embark on a fairly linear path through the dank tunnels, collapsing walkways, monster ridden sewers and sometimes the even deadlier topside. The game is very atmospheric, everyone speaks English but in their native accents, everything feels broken and filthy, lighting is used to phenomenal effect and you rarely feel alone for long due to a plethora of NPCs you encounter along your route. Listening to others talk earns you hidden humanity which may effect the outcome of the game, much of the NPCs stories are most critical of modern Russia, but satire is not the focus of the game, it simply adds flavour.

Thankfully the game does not seem to fully embrace the harsher survival horror tropes of the genre. This is partly because the "Spartan" difficulty mode was ported into Metro 2033 from Metro Last Light. In this mode one is given greater resources and movement speed as opposed to the default play style of the original version of the game which by all accounts seemed more difficult such as having a less forgiving environment and less equipment and ammunition to collect. I did conserve a lot of ammo in the first half of the game but I became a little more trigger-happy as it went on as I got used to the amount of ammo one picks up with simple exploration.


AI is not the best here and there are not a significant variety of enemies, with some appearing in only one or two small areas of the game. There are not really jump scares or such nonsense but fear and apprehension is forced with the use of sound. When sound stops you know you've killed everything. Weapons are interesting; there are standard "pre war" weapons such as revolvers and Kalashnikovs but many weapons are bastardised makeshift weapons that have been put together from components of other devices such as gas-operated ball-bearing weapons. You can only carry three, so the tactic of picking up something that has more ammo than what you're holding can be used frequently.

There was one stand-out level partway through the game where you have have cross over (or under) a bridge - each side guarded by an enemy faction... who are also against each other! While many of the levels were unique even to a veteran FPS player, this seemed extraordinarily well designed and could be traversed differently, a stealth route under the bridge or a "loud" route across it. I completed one side by popping off each member of the enemy faction on one side with just a silenced pistol. Then I collected all their ammunition which I used on a crazy frontal assault to the other side. It wasn't the only time interesting choices were presented in an otherwise strictly linear game which was a nice touch.

The only issue I encountered during gameplay was a couple of times on the surface - where you must wear a gas mask or die from the poisoned atmosphere - was that I ran out of gas mask filters while exploring for ammo and ironically, more gas-mask filters! The first time it happened I had to replay a significant portion back beyond a number of autosaves to the beginning of the level so I could change my gas mask filter replacement and conservation strategy to have enough to finish the level. The second time it happened I enabled a cheat to put no time limit on the filter. Replaying sequences due to not having resources available wasn't something I was interested in doing. Other than this minor issue the game was great.


Final Verdict: The survival horror genre attached to this game put me off for years, but it's not nearly as harsh as the genre suggests in this Redux version. You have plenty of ways to see by flashlight, petrol lighter and even night-vision goggles. Ammo and equipment was more plentiful than in some WWII shooters so this is certainly a very light implementation of survival-horror, something which will make me less apprehensive now about the sequel Metro: Last Light that I will experience at some point in the future.

Technicals: 12.5 hours playtime through Steam using a Nvidia 3070Ti @ 3440x1440 @ 175Hz with max settings on Windows 11. As a Direct X game, it activated Windows HDR and this provided an unexpected amount of superior lighting.

Bugs: No bugs of note.

Metro 2033 Redux is available from Steam or GOG for €19.99 when not in a sale. Review copy purchased from Humble Bundle (with Metro: Last Light Redux) for €5.69 in December 2019.

Series:

  • Metro 2033 [2010]
  • Metro: Last Light [2013]
  • - Metro Redux [2014]
  • Metro Exodus [2019]
  • - Metro Exodus (Enhanced) [2021]