Ratio: Silent Hill – Shattered Memories

December 19, 2010

Not marketed by its publishers, ignored by Alan Wake-hypers and too different from its origins to be loved by old fans: That would be the most fitting description of Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, at least when you´re looking at only its surface and its surroundings. What Shattered Memories actually is would be one of the most immersive, engaging gaming-experiences that have ever been created. That doesn´t mean that this 2010-game is flawless, but what it did was spectacular. Why Silent Hill: Shattered Memories shouldn´t be missed out by any fan of rich, detailed virtual worlds – you´ll find out in the following review.

The game starts out very abrupt, showing how Harry Mason, the game´s protagonist, and his daughter are having a car accident. Harry loses consciousness only to find out that his little, cute girl is gone when he finally reawakens. The game then switches over to a psychologist´s bureau, who welcomes you and eventually starts asking you questions about the accident … which apparently has happened in the past. You can look around the room while sitting still in your chair, but be careful: that´s already part of a vital segment of Shattered Memories´ gameplay. The psychologist´s questioning divides the game into several chapters, though it doesn´t break up the game flow by suddenly changing you previous location. It´s just a narrator-function in that way, changing between past happenings and your current session with the psychologist, though it is important in its own way. Probably the most popular game mechanic of Shattered Memories is the actively changing game content, depending on not only the way you answer to the psychologist´s question, but also how you perceive the environments of Silent Hill. This goes from houses or persons that you encounter having different colors, to enemies and persons looking different, all the way to scenes playing out completely differently, leading to up to five different endings. It´s these interactive changes that at least partly balance out the game´s biggest flaw, which would be its short playtime of about six to seven hours. But don´t be deceived: These few hours are packed with atmosphere and tense situations.

I have only played the Wii-version of this game, but nonetheless do I believe that it is the best way to experience this title. Other than the intriguing change-mechanic, the motion controls really make this game the unique blockbuster that it is. Using the wiimote´s pointer-function as your ingame-flashlight is but the most obvious use you will encounter, yet it is undoubtedly implemented in a very fun way, made even better by Shattered Memories´ fantastic lighting effects. Each object or person that you point your source of light against will realistically cast a shadow, changing its form depending on angle and distance. Often times will you find yourself just playing around with what kind of silhouettes can be created. It´s redundant to mention how much these effects add to the creepy atmosphere that will never leave you for the whole trip. Besides the clever flashlight-mechanic, you´ll use the wiimote´s built-in speaker as your mobile phone, holding the controller against your ear to listen to phone calls. Which you can make yourself by finding new phone numbers scattered all over the city of Silent Hill, simply by looking at advertisements or posters on walls or otherwise written down numbers. The game doesn´t expect you to call anyone, but it´s exactly that kind of optionality that makes it all the more endorsing. On other occasions you will use the pointer-function on minigames that are realistically put into the game, like opening a locked door by guiding different parts to their right position. The most action-focused motion control-mechanic will be defending yourself against nightmarish creatures. Often times, people complain about how the shaking off-mechanic doesn´t work that well, thus resulting in failure, but as far as I´m concerned, it works perfectly fine. When one of those creatures jumped on your back, simply follow the on-screen icon and shake the wiimote in the exact same way. Or even less complicated: Act like you would in real-life. When a creature hangs on your right shoulder, raise your hand to the left and hit it down to the right. No science, really.

Mentioned creatures will only attack during pre-defined nightmare-scenes where your one and only goal is to reach a certain place. On this run, without any option to fight back, numerous of the horrifying monsters will run and jump after you. To gain distance, you can throw over objects to slow your enemies down, or sometimes find and activate a torch which temporarily holds off any attack. These chase sequences will make you lose your head and set you into an incredibly panicking state, the only thing on your mind left: Where the hell do I have to go?! And you´ll lose your way many times, that´s for sure, but it isn´t a problem due to the beginning of each chase being a check point. What helps you finding your goal are blue marks on doors or fences that indicate interactivity, as well as your mobile phone´s gps-map. In terms of Shattered Memories´ creepiness-factor, a lot of people argued that due to the knowledge of the absence of enemies during non-chase sequences, the rest of the game is boring. Can´t say I agree with that claim .. at all. It is true that your ingame-character´s life won´t be in danger outside of the chases, but at least on your first playthrough, you don´t know when the world around you turns into the scary nightmare-version of Silent Hill. And it can happen any time. Sometimes you pass one of the many doors and suddenly find yourself in the ice-nightmare, sometimes the streets transform before your eyes, not hiding the mystical happenings. Even outside of the chases, the environments are so well-designed and dark and little inviting that most gamers that get into the virtual world of Silent Hill will find themselves playing a true nightmare.

What pushes Shattered Memories beyond its great story and great visuals is the incredibly interactive gameplay. Where other games focus on some parts and dismiss others, developer Climax managed to successfully deliver a complete experience. Exploring environments from a behind-the-shoulder view with a directly controlled flashlight, using your mobile phone to call people, read messages, look at a map or take photos, opening doors just a little to peak into the next, unknown room, smoothly climbing over obstacles or hiding inside them – it all comes together more than nicely and is one of the very few games that don´t leave you wishing “awww, if only I could somehow interact with that“. Visuals and soundtrack are masterful and probably around the best the Wii-system has to offer. Not only are there these convincing lighting effects, it is the textures that will take you by surprise. Instead of the usual blurry mess that most non-HD-games make use of, Shattered Memories lets you actually read anything you can see and thus creates a higher sense of exploration. The weather-effects are superb, too, really adding to the atmosphere when snow starts falling.

I didn´t talk much about how exactly the story unfolds or what changes your own decisions can and will make. And I won´t do that. Silent Hill: Shattered Memories is a masterpiece, a truly immersive experience that should be undergone without any detailed knowledge, spoiling fun and interesting scenes. To add this: I hate horror-games since I´m a scaredy cat, but the gameplay possibilities and atmosphere convinced me to give this game a try, and damn, do I not regret that decision. Shattered Memories will suck you in and keep chewing on you until the very end. And then you´ll want to play some more, since you remember all the places you could have tackled in a different way. Thanks for not marketing this game, Konami, you brought gamers the most unknown treasure of 2010 (or 2009, if you´re from the USA). No, seriously, add in a dialogue-system like Mass Effect has and it´d be the best video game, haha!

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Ratio: Mass Effect 2

February 15, 2010

The first Mass Effect-game was a milestone in terms of cinematic video gaming. Unlike other so-called cinematic games, Mass Effect actually managed to turn the cinematic part into gameplay. No passive cutscenes, no flashy over-the-top action only to return to ingame-gameplay that is a lot more toned down. Mass Effect throws you into an original world (actually, universe, haha) and leaves any further decision to you, the player. Of course, the realm of choices isn´t as open as some fans sometimes make it sound, but that´s maybe why Mass Effect works that well: You´re given a linear path that you have to follow. But what you experience on that way is totally up to yourself.

Mass Effect 2 took that concept and improved upon it. The moment you start Mass Effect 2 is like beginning to watch some epic scifi-movie. Only seconds later, you´re given control over your character. The whole entrance scene, which I am not going to spoil, is brilliant. The mood, the visuals, the sound, the plot contents of  just the very first minutes grab your brain and won´t let you go for hours. It´s one masterful cinematic game experience. You never feel as if control is taken away from you. Yet, every single moment could be from a movie. Where Mass Effect 1 was a great start of a new franchise, Mass Effect 2 simply feels so much more massive, polished. The way your character moves, the way you fire your weapon, the way you talk to people. The basic mechanics are all there, but they´ve been improved upon tenfolds.

Mass Effect 2 is the second act of a trilogy. That means that the game functions as a preparation for the grand finale that will be Mass Effect 3. While Mass Effect 2 is very well capable of existing by itself, the man plot is this game´s weak point. Mass Effect 1 gave you a clear enemy, Saren. Each and every mission in that game built up to a final confrontation with the corrupted Turian. Such an arc nemesis is missing in Mass Effect 2. There is a main plot, but it isn´t until the end part of the game that you get a feeling for that story. But Mass Effect 2´s strength is somewhere else.

The first game within the franchise introduced some characters to the player, but neither of them was worth more than an optional sidequest that didn´t feature much story in itself. In Mass Effect 2, your crew is the star of the game. Instead of the five long main missions in ME1, now you have a vast variety of shorter missions awaiting you. Each of these new missions won´t take you much longer than thirty minutes each. That comes with both positives and negatives. On the one hand, many missions lack the variety of decisions that you had in ME1. Just think of all the different possible outcomes on Noveria. Everyone that finished ME1 several times will know about that. Mass Effect 2 still features important story within these missions, but they´re more to the point. You´re fighting your way through enemy-contaminated areas, then you reach a check point where a cutscene (again, “cutscene” within the ME-franchise means that some talk is going on) starts and where you might be presented with making one of several decisions. That´s due to the linear structure of these missions. Mass Effect 2 is less about exploration than ME1, and more about decision-making. The whole way the game is made really invites you to replay it many more times. You still have your Paragon- and Renegade-options, your “gray“-options, and sometimes a newly introduced action-option, where Shepard will do something, like pushing an enemy through a windows as one early trailer-video showed.

What greatly helps to make the more linear missions fun is the completely new combat-system. It is also where Mass Effect 2 decided to become a real role-playing game. Instead of relying on skill points, combat now feels more like that of a real shooter-title. You´re aiming by yourself, no skill points for higher accuracy. Duck and cover-mechanics have changed. It´s a bit disappointing that you cannot crouch at will anymore, but the new cover-system couldn´t be that much better. Hiding behind objects to avoid enemy fire works very well, as does jumping over these objects by double-clicking the A-button. The quick-button inclusion for biotic-attacks also comes in handy. Using “Burn” on an enemy feels great, especially if you have it leveled up that much that it one-hit-ko´s him. What really makes the difference, though, are the weapons. Instead of four weapons that only differ in terms of dealt damage, Mass Effect 2 features a relatively enormous arsenal of guns, rifles and other awesome stuff. My favorite item is the fast-firing sniper rifle. To give an example of how full of love for detail the game is, if developing it far enough, you gain the passive ability of getting a short slowmo while aiming with the sniper rifle. And not only is the slowmo-effect nice visually, it also takes effect on sound effects. Which at times is annoying if you wanted to listen to your crew members.But it really emphasizes the feeling of being a badass sniper that enters his own world where there´s nothing but himself and his target.

Mass Effect 2 let´s you visit the home planets of some of the alien races. Where the game still fails is to finally show us how female Krogans, Turians and Volus look like. And that´s not the biggest tease, without giving any more hints. Yes, Mass Effect 2 feels a bit too humanoid just about everywhere. The crazy alien worlds are missing. Still, the locations you get to visit are built with a high level for detail. Omega alone is such a varied place, stuff going on at every corner. Then you have the old citadel, that is a lot smaller than the original citadel, but still features nice scenes. And then there are more planets. A lot more. There are no more open planets like the ones in ME1. This doesn´t give monotony a chance, but surely it takes away from the fascination of space and the unknown. To find new, optional planets to land on, you have to use the new scanning-feature. Using it, you can mine different minerals that you´ll need for upgrading your equipments. Mass Effect 2 doesn´t have loot in the sense of its predecessor. You don´t pick up new weapons and suits all the time. Instead, you collect minerals and money and buy add-ons later on. These add-ons have to be attached manually. Again, stuff like that is what makes Mass Effect 2 feel more massive. you´re really adding this new stuff by yourself. And you can see the differences.

The best way to describe Mass Effect 2 is in saying that it is what it is: The dark, second act. Unlike Mass Effect 1, where you had to explore space in search of evidence for the danger that the Reapers are, you already know about that danger in Mass Effect 2. It´s all about preparing for facing off this known danger. By doing that, the game will introduce one of the greatest casts of characters and propose you to some of the most spine-chilling decisions you ever made in a video game. And so much more than the first game, or any video game at all, Mass Effect 2 makes you permanently think:

What if…?

And that is probably what makes Mass Effect 2 the greatest of modern gaming: With all its cinematic presentation, it induces the player´s curiosity to play over and over again. Where all the usual big, hyped “blockbuster games” are lacking in the end, Mass Effect 2 proves that lacking in content and interactivity is not the medium´s fault. And to think that a thirty-hour game features such a level of replayability is remarkable – and embarrassing for most other developers.

And that´s just the start. A new crew-member is announced for the near future, as well as the so-called Hammerhead-DLC, the successor of ME1´s Mako, including a set of missions designed for this vehicle. And besides all the new content upcoming, don´t forget about the sheer variety the game features as is. Not only can you decide within cinematic talks, the game also heavily changes depending on what class you chose. Each class has special abilities. My favorite, the Infiltrator, can turn himself invisible for a short period of time. And that´s really just one class you can choose.

To conclude: Even if the main plot is weaker than its predecessor´s, Mass Effect 2 is the single popular video game that puts emphasis on the medium´s strength: Interactivity. A piece of advise: Do never reload a previous save just because of a seemingly wrong decision. When the credits start rolling, it´ll have been your own adventure. With all the personal decisions you made. In that respect, Mass Effect 2 has become a real role-playing game.


Ratio: Wii Sports Resort

December 28, 2009

Only three days to go and the year will be over. Little time to get a review out there, but one game, at least, has to be granted that honor. This is the first review, or what we call it here, ratio on Flying Fisch. Wii Sports Resort was released in the first half of 2009. Its most noteworthy feature was the reliance on MotionPlus, which didn´t debut in this game, though. Grand Slam Tennis and Tiger Woods PGA for Wii were released prior to the Nintendo-developed sports-game, and both came bundled with a MotionPlus-device. What is maybe the biggest advantage of Wii Sports Resort over these third-party games is its sheer variety. And sword-fighting.

The moment you start Wii Sports Resort…you want to punch the TV. An introduction video of how to put the MotionPlus-attachement onto the Wiimote that cannot be interrupted is shown. About three to five minutes later, you can finally proceed in the game. And for anyone that wants to rewatch that video, there´s an option in the menu. For whatever twisted reason one should want to do that. You´re on an airplane. The screen is shaking. It´s your turn to jump out. And off you go. You´re free-falling down the sky. You can feel the air while passing through it. You can feel the speed. And you can freely move your Mii-character. The Wiimote perfectly matches your ingame-avatar. Turn the Wiimote upside down to make your Mii fall faster, get it into a horizontal position to slow down. Move it in ways to make your Mii fly forwards, backwards, whatever way you want. It is only seconds later, at least that´s what it feels at that time, that you´re reaching the planet´s surface. Your paraglider opens up and your fall comes to an abrupt stop. The camera moves upwards, showing the scenery from above, as many other Mii´s join you. When all is ready, the paraglider reads “Wii Sports Resort” and thus, the game welcomes you.

One great thing about Wii Sports Resort is that you never feel obligated to do anything. You are free to choose from all the different kinds of sports. Within these sports, you can also decide what to do and most importantly, how to do so. That is rooted into the title´s genre, of course. Wii Sports Resort is a game-compilation. You have various disciplines to choose from the very beginning. There is, however, an unexpected depth to each of these games. Mainly because of the MotionPlus-controls, but that´s not all there is to it. Let´s take cycling for an example. When I played that my first time, I thought of how annoying it would be to have to shake both Wiimote and nunchuck in rhythm to drive my way through the race. Reality is, you only have to shake the controller so much as you have three hearts that will deplete if you keep shaking. If only one heart is remaining you´re better off stop shaking, unless you want to exhaust your Mii for a short amount of time, making him lose all speed. Instead, you can look for one of thirty opponents and drive inside his slipstream. That will not only give you additional speed, but also replenish your empty hearts. If the chance arrives, start shaking and passing the opponent. There´s also a lot of environmental structures to look out for. Steering is a bit clunky, which seems weird due to MotionPlus enhancing motion controls, but it´s nowhere near broken. Just more rough. In the end, you´ll find yourself driving upwards, downwards, around sharp corners and other interesting areas, only to reach for the top of the group. It´s fun as it is, but that´s just where the fun starts. After finishing a race as explained above, you get more modes to choose from. That is, leg races. Now it´s not just a single round around the course, it´s a multi course-race. There´s about fifty opponents now and it´s rather impossible to come in first after just the first round. You give it your best and maybe make it into the top 30 after the first course. Some stats and on to the next course of the race. You make another ten ranks, and it´s the last course of the race. That´s it then. If you chose a three leg-race, that is. You can choose an even longer lasting race. It is that kind of depth that no one expected from Wii Sports Resort and, unfortunately, still doesn´t expect, which is why the game earned itself a weird niche-position around self-proclaimed core-gamers, while still selling millions of units to the rest of the gamer population. Let´s just say that the above makes only a single sports from overall twelve. And every single one shows a certain kind of depth if only you´re willing to give it the time to show that depth.

The sports that the whole world waited for, though, is the sword fighting. Not that sword fighting is something rare among videogames, but Wii Sport Resort has what certain Wii-game´s developers claimed to have at launch, and other console manufacturers make their fan population believe only they are going to do it right. Wii Sports Resort does it right, now, ever since it was released: 1:1 sword controls. One to one means that however way you move the Wiimote, your ingame-sword resembles that movement. There is a certain aspect that remains to be seen if it can be solved for future games (the sword has a fixed neutral point and is moved only from there. You cannot move the hilt by will.), but it isn´t a problem in this title at all. The moment you start your first round of sword fighting is a magical moment. Remember when the Wii launched and you realized how great the Wiimote-pointer worked? It´s that same feeling. It just…works.  You´re lifting the Wiimote and thus you lift your sword. You lower the Wiimote and your sword is lowered. You turn it right, it turns right. Turn it left, turns left. It´s a moment of sheer joy. They even included a forward thrust, though that move feels more like a typical triggered movement instead of 1:1 movement. Aside from that, you can do whatever move you want with your sword. That´s when you enter the fighting stage and find yourself in front of your first enemy. You hit him from with a slash from the upper right to the lower left. You follow up with a horizontal slash and finish him off with a thrust, that makes him fall of the platform down into the water. While still in awe of the natural feeling controls, you want to try out the next sword discipline, where objects are thrown at your and you have to slice them from a certain direction, being faster than your opponent. I swear to god, give me a game where I can run around freely and cut things like that and I´d love to pay a lot of money for that. That slicing-mini game is a masterful combination of three components: 1:1 controls, that let you slice all the different objects (bread, water melon, diamond, wood, etc.) exactly the way you want to. An unexpected level of detail to all these objects that, if you cut them, show their proper innards. And last but not least, the perfectly subtle rumble effect for each of these objects. Destroying stuff has never been as fun before. And that´s when you discover the third and final sword fighting-mode: The Zelda-mode. Okay, that´s not its name, but if they´d just let you control your Mii yourself with the nunchuck´s analog stick, it´d be exactly that. Here, your Mii is running on-rail, on a set path, while a plethora of sword-wielding enemies comes running towards you. Your task is to make beat every last enemy, and you have only three hearts, so you cannot let yourself get hit more than two times. Easy in the beginning, this becomes a real effort after a few of the surprisingly many levels. If you didn´t play the duel-mode more, you´ll finally find yourself to use the B-button to use the defense stance. Here your Mii will hold the sword in front of his body. It´s not automatic, though, so you still have to closely watch how an enemy is about to strike you. If he´s hitting from above, you´ll have to hold the sword horizontal. A crucial mechanic once you encounter enemies with more than just one heart of life power. And that is sword fighting in Wii Sports Resort.

I guess you noticed, but I am honestly enthusiastic about this game. Which is why I chose to write this ratio. There are ten more sports, and I could write texts like the above about each of them. Of course, you won´t like all of them. That´s why it´s that great to have that many. Canoing is kind of clunky, and Wakeboarding seems too random. But that´s just two out of twelve I didn´t grew to like. Other people might love these. Aside from all the gameplay-depth all these sports feature, you have your scoring-system from the first Wii Sports, that kind of rewards you all the time. It´s a strange motivation, but every time that little graph grows a little higher, you feel like you have accomplished something. And don´t think that there´s no stuff to unlock. Regarding that matter, my second, no, third, no…forget it, I cannot decide how to rank them. Regarding that matter, the airplane discipline is a shining example. Look forward to unlock the stuff in just that sports, really rewarding. Not to speak of how great controlling the airplane feels. The Wiimote literally becomes the airplane. Remember how you played with little airplane-models as a kid? Yeah, it´s exactly like that, only that now you´ll have a little bit more response from moving an object in your hand.

Wii Sports Resort is a Wii-game, and a great-looking one. Visuals are sharp, but stylized enough to keep the game from looking too bare. One nice decision the game made was to let every sports take place on one island. Wuhu Island is the place where every discipline is set up, and if you keep an eye on it, you´ll find all the tournament places while flying the airplane. I´ve never been someone that judges a game´s quality by its resolution, so maybe there´s something my eyes just cannot see. But the game looks really good, at a fluid, constant framerate. Games with such a refined visual look are a rarity, and sometimes, when you´re flying at night, the moon in front of you, you forget that you´re playing a sports collection. Then you´re out there for adventure and nothing else. And that is where Wii Sports Resort´s limit is reached. There is no adventure. Wii Sports Resort is a great compilation, an even greater tech demo for upcoming, more complex MotionPlus-games…and thus the first glimpse at The Legend of Zelda Wii. But let´s not brand this game with any sort of “it´s just a demo“. Wii Sports Resort is the real deal, it´s 1:1 controls right there, done right. It´s what all future videogames will be based off. In other words, it is the Super Mario 64 of the successor to the third dimension. And to finish this text, let´s just say: I didn´t even mention that there´s also local multiplayer. Thanks for reading. Your feedback is appreciated.