Saturday, January 31, 2009

Rez HD

Even for when it was released, Rez feels uniquely old-school. One only has to look as far as the "Story" page in the Options. That's right: rather than convey the story through the game itself, Rez explains the relevant background information through a page of text that you'd really only find if you just happened to stumble upon it. That's not all that far from the days of the NES, where the most likely place you'd find story to put the game in some context would be the accompanying instruction manual. Aside from some extras (of which there are a surprising amount), the game is comprised of five relatively short stages and, on top of that, the gameplay is, despite all it's fancy trappings, a rail shooter.

The core gameplay feels like StarFox without direct control; the game takes your constantly morphing avatar on a scripted trip while you move and fire with a targeting reticule. It's fairly simple and not all that original, but the presentation is where the game really hits off. The first comparison that comes to mind is the Disney film, Fantasia. Rez portrays a world where music exists not only as accompaniment, but also takes the place of incidental sounds and finds its way into the player's interaction with the game. There are no explosions or laser noises to be heard. Each shot fired has a corresponding musical result, usually adding to the overall song in the background. Single shots result in single staccato notes, while targeting multiple enemies, fire multiple shots, creating 8-note sequences.

The game is at it's best when the main track and the music created by the player's actions sync up well. One great example is the boss fight from the first stage, a floating machine encased in a disco ball shield. Chipping away at the shield produces a thumping sawtooth rhythm (I found myself naturally hitting the fire button to the rhythm); taking down the swarms of missiles fired your way produces a hail of snare hits; after taking down the shield, the song triumphantly shifts gears with a synth flourish while the boss morphs into another form. The psychedelic visuals, the music, the games fantastic trance vibration system, and the naturally emerging rhythm from your own hands comes together to produce this sense of interaction with the soundtrack that I've rarely seen in other games, no matter how obviously scripted these interactions are.

Rez is a product of a fantastic, unified vision, where the music is complemented heavily by the visual design. Each stage is a highly scripted track that pulsates and changes with the music. Produced by then-SEGA employee Tetsuya Mizuguchi, the world of Rez (a computer simulation) shares much in common with the visuals of Mizuguchi's other games: neon-bright, polygonal shapes that are low on detail by high in polish and, most importantly, sit well with the electronic soundtrack (a recurring theme in Mizuguchi's work.) The game plays up it's raver visuals with various references to enlightenment and eastern philosophy (one of the player character's forms appears to be a man floating around in a state of meditation.) One of the best examples of the developers tailoring the visuals to the music occurs in the game's third stage. As the player approaches the Sphinx-like gateway to the stage's boss fight, the screen's bright colors suddenly go negative and washed out just as the usual techno fair ceases behind a slow, distorted bass drum beat.

While I've never played any of the previous versions (I didn't own a Dreamcast back in the day, nor a modded PS2), the claims I've heard of Rez HD's triumph over them holds true: mainly, there is almost no slowdown. This keeps the game as fast and fluid as possible. Not much can be said about the HD component other than that it looks great. Rez is a game that wanted to be HD when it came out, and now it really has it's chance. With, the caveat of not having previously played the other versions of Rez, this one feels like a special edition Criterion Collection-esque release. There are a surprising number of extras to be had: visual and sound filters (if you ever wanted to play Rez in Sepia with your ears underwater), an option to play through through the entire game in one run (which I feel should have been an option from the beginning, but whatever), a "lost" level, a score attack mode, and multiple play modifiers unlocked throughout the game.

Perhaps the game's most annoying attribute (to once again bring up the game's archaic nature) is the esoteric manner in which these things are unlocked. The optional things i.e. using First Person Mode are strange enough: Rank 1st in Area 5 on Score attack mode. Who would just know that right off the bat? But things like that are forgivable due to their optional nature. The game's final stage must be unlocked in a similar manner. Each stage has a number of cubes that must be shot to gain 100% analysis rating, but these cubes are easily missed in the hail of shots and colors the game is constantly throwing at you. Without 100% analysis on the first four stages, the player cannot progress to the fifth and final stage. The final stage of a game is most certainly not "optional", and I found it frustrating that I had to replay two of the stages just to unlock the final one. As I said before, archaic is the right word; I wouldn't have thought twice about something like this in the 90's, but doing this in modern day feels strange and out of place.

Rez HD feels like a labor of love. It's a classic, unappreciated title who's extras feel like the man behind it loved it too much to simply give the game a cursory 720p face lift and throw it out on the market. Rez HD is a unique audio-visual experience; an interactive visualizer that should be played by anyone with a love of video games and music.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Resident Evil 5: Demo Impressions

I am one of the few. Is Resident Evil 5 really Resident Evil 4.5? Possibly. Does that diminish from my experience? Not really. True to form, Capcom's demo (released several days early for Xbox Live Gold users. Sorry, have-nots) is short and to-the-point, showing off two fairly intense scenes from the game. The unfortunate thing about the Resident Evil 4 style is that it's not very conducive to being cut into a demo. What made the game great was it's unparalleled sense of pacing; the player was constantly put into different situations with a solid sense of when to play it slow and when to ramp up the action. In that sense, I think the more frantic moments in Resident Evil 4 were best taken as part of the whole. That's what this demo is: two scenes, both of which are essentially kill-rooms (or, in the first one's case, a timed kill-room). While I think both are well done, I feel Capcom could have done a little more to show of the variety that I'm sure will be in the game. Sure, they probably don't want to spoil much, but we've already seen videos of Chris and Sheva fighting off zombies on a truck; couldn't we have played some of that?

It feels weird to say, but this demo combined with the previous trailers have really made the quality of the game a foregone conclusion to me. It's roughly the same team working on a similar game to one of my all-time favorites, and if the videos are any indication, the sense of variety and pacing, what made the game truly great will certainly be there. The menu's are refined, and now support in-game weapon selection (a feature the series has needed since it started.) The enemies, while not all that different from Los Ganados, are still every bit as good at creating that sense of a mob bearing down on you. The numerous message board complaints of the game feeling outdated by it's "walk or shoot" controls worried me. Then I played it and remembered that the limited controls were one of the best parts. Having to pay attention to when to stop, fire, reload, and get out of the way added to effectiveness of the mobs of enemies who weren't all that fast. People seem weirded out by the idea that controls they consider "bad" were made that way for a reason.

It also feels weird to admit that, honestly, the only true innovation we've seen (and now played) so far is co-op. I have to admit that without the addition of multiplayer in the demo, I probably would have been more soured by the same-ish content. The old adage of "games are always more fun when you're playing them with other people" holds here. Not to say that Resident Evil 5 isn't fun on it's own; it's just that the cooperative play fits so well with the Resident Evil formula. I've played through the demo's two stages with multiple people, and already the moments of shared panic and elation rival some of my favorite Left 4 Dead stories. The second stage (Shantytown) involves taking down a tenacious, chainsaw-wielding psychopath amidst a mob of zombies. The level design deserves praise; we were able to find multiple strategic points within the area and, after dying several times, we actually took the time to plan out the attack. After multiple close-calls (the chainsaw is a one-hit-kill) we managed to take him down with my last pistol shot. It was epic; a fantastic moment made far better with a friend playing and shouting out internet high-fives.

When it comes down to it, I'm more excited about Resident Evil 5 than I was when I saw the first trailer. I was expecting"more of the same", however fantastic that "same" is; what I got was "more of the same that I can share with a friend". And that makes a difference. Co-op made Too Human bearable for me. For a most-likely great game like Resident Evil 5, it'll make it that much better.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Game Log #10

  • Perhaps against my better judgment (and the judgment of most of my 360 owning friends), I've been playing Call of Duty: World At War. "Against my better judgment" because, despite the insane amount of time I've put into the multiplayer, none of my friends are really playing it all that much. If they're playing a Call of Duty, it's Modern Warfare (I was told as much by most of them; I ignored them based on the fact that WaW was 20$ off at Target.) The latest of my long list of weird perspectives on games is that I have yet to play Modern Warfare. In fact, other than playing a lot of CoD 2 at a LAN Center, this is my first Call of Duty in a long while.
  • I was pretty steadfast in my personal decision that Fallout 3 was my game of the year. And then I played Left 4 Dead. We all knew Valve had a winner on their hands over the game's long PR cycle, and finally playing it confirms that. My review is in progress, but I'll give a couple thoughts here. I really believe that more than any other co-op game I've ever played, Left 4 Dead succeeds at it's team dynamic. The usual subversive magic of Valve's games are present, this time in gameplay mechanics designed to encourage staying together. The AI director is every bit as effective as you could hope. The 360 controls are some of the best console shooter controls I've ever used. It doesn't match the speed or precision of a mouse, but with it's subtle auto-aim tweaks and quick but manageable turning speeds, it definitely approaches it more than anything I've ever played. More to come.
  • Mortal Kombat V.S. DC Universe has been my big in-person multiplayer game. Not sure what my thoughts are about this game other than "hilariously unbalanced." I'm sure that's what they were going for, though.
  • Fable 2's been played a lot as of late. I'd have to say that of any game I've played with a customizable character, Fable 2 has possibly created (somewhat without my help) the most accurate portrayal of myself in a video game. And by that, I mean a great big fatty with sideburns and a pirate hat. The horns and the three consecutive divorces are creative license.