Gun

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Gun (Giant Bomb|Wikipedia) is a third person action adventure with a western setting. Developed by Neversoft, makers of the Tony Hawk series. Released right around the launch of the Xbox 360, and was on every platform under the sun at the time. I do remember this game being released, but I never picked up a copy until recently – it was just one of those titles that slipped through the cracks.

The game starts out with you hunting with your dad. After a quick tutorial, you head out to a steamer and all hell breaks loose. During the chaos, your dad tells you he’s not really your father and that you should head to a brothel and talk to someone named Jenny who will have some information for you. Shortly after this, the steamer explodes killing your father and sending you flying. While not the most original of starting points, it’s delivered well and gets the story moving. I have no idea if the rest of the narrative will pan out, but the beginning is promising.

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Gameplay is typical 3rd person open world, with you able to ride horses and equip various guns. This all seems pretty standard now, but the setting was new at the time – eventually this would be outdone by Red Dead Redemption, but I can appreciate what Neversoft was going for. I see it as a great amount of praise that I compare this favorably to that game. Controls all felt tight, intuitive, and responsive here even on horseback. To be fair, I’m not sure how much of an ‘open world’ game this is, but the levels I did play were pretty expansive. During combat, you can activate a meter that slows down time and allows you to line up several shots. This meter refills as you kill enemies and added a nice touch to the otherwise fairly standard shooting. One odd thing I’ll mention is that you drink whiskey to refill your health – yeah.

Visuals were a definite strong suit here, and never disappointed. Textures were excellent for a PS2 title, and animations were quite good. I did see some frame rate issues in town when there was a lot going on or when explosions were happening, but these dips were not common and didn’t bother me much. I didn’t test it out since I’m playing on a CRT TV that doesn’t support it, but there was support for progressive scan in the menu – not a common option on PS2.

Sound was great as well – sound effects and music were fantastic and helped give the game its gritty feel. What little voice acting I heard ranged from excellent to acceptable – considering the era though, this is definitely above par.

Overall, I had a great time playing this, and I played much longer than I normally do for these impressions which is always a good sign. Gun is available on Xbox, PS2, Gamecube, and PC (steam too!) and I would say is definitely worth picking up and giving a shot. 

Verdict: Play again! I had a blast with this and plan on revisiting it for sure.

Images courtesy of Giant Bomb

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Shadow of Rome

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Shadow of Rome (Giant Bomb|Wikipedia) is a hybrid game – it contains equal parts stealth and hack and slash action, both taking place in the third person perspective. Developed by Capcom exclusively for the PS2, it was well reviewed but it did not sell very well and it’s sequel was canceled and turned into Dead Rising. I’m always fascinated with these hidden gems that will likely never be re-released on more modern platforms – there is just a sense of discovery playing something that most people didn’t and that’s actually good while trying to see if you can figure out why it failed commercially. Or maybe that’s just me.

Set in an alternate timeline based around the murder of Julius Caesar, Shadow of Rome takes place from the perspective of two protagonists – Agrippa who is a roman soldier turned gladiator, and Octavanius – Caesar’s nephew. Agrippa does the action heavy hack and slash portions of the game, while Octavanius’ chapters are more about stealth. During my brief time with the game, Agrippa was the main character I played as and therefore most of what I’ll be basing this post on. The game begins with a fairly long cinematic laying out the characters and ending with Caesar’s murder. The intro started with a scene pulled directly from Gladiator starring Russel Crowe (barbarian hordes taking on the roman legion) – which I think is hilarious. The development team clearly used this movie as a baseline and they don’t even try to hide it. This game has a TON of cinematics – every small section of gameplay seemed bookended by them. They look good, especially for 2005, and I bet Capcom spent a fortune on them.

Gameplay has you locking onto targets with R1 and then using various attacks. You can pick up various weapons in the environments and they act differently depending on their type. Weapons degrade as you use them and eventually break, forcing you to switch it up (something they kept for Dead Rising). When not locked on, I found myself sometimes swinging with my back turned to the enemy. I’m not sure if this was due to camera controls being too touchy (or not touchy enough) or being locked into swing animations, but it was my only complaint about the combat. Occasionally, you’ll kill an enemy and a phrase will pop onto the screen – I ran into about a dozen in my time with the game and they were always different. Here is an example:

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While funny, they do feel a bit out of place with the rest of the game having a fairly serious tone. Despite this, I like them and it makes the game have a little more personality than it normally would.

Sound is fantastic throughout – music is orchestral and epic and sound effects have weight and always feel fitting to the action they are tied to. Usually games of this era have compressed music but I didn’t detect any compression artifacts at all – the soundtrack really is something. Voice work was fair to good, with nothing in particular standing out as great or terrible.

Visually, Shadow of Rome may be one of the best looking PS2 games I’ve ever played. Textures were far more complex than I would expect from the time period and hardware, and character models and environments were very detailed. I really can’t get over how great this game looked – it’s clearly not a modern title but it holds up very well.

Overall, I had a good time with Shadow of Rome. I didn’t get an opportunity to try much of the stealth sections, which may have changed my opinion, but as it stands this is a fun game that’s visually stunning with a fantastic soundtrack – what’s not to love?

Verdict: Play again!

Images courtesy of Giant Bomb

Gladius

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Gladius (Giant Bomb|Wikipedia) is a game from one of my favorite inconsistent developers – the late, sometimes great, Lucas Arts. I say inconsistent, because titles developed and published by them are rarely great, and usually mediocre to terrible. Despite this, they occasionally released a game that is utterly fantastic – they released some of my favorite games of all time. Thankfully, Gladius seems to be on the good end of the spectrum and I’d consider it a hidden gem of the PS2 library.

The game has a fairly deep story – the world was almost destroyed by an ancient evil who was slain last minute in a large battle by a sacrificial warrior. Years later, it is mostly forgotten, and the world entertains itself with gladiatorial games. You play as a child to a king who is attempting to build a gladiator academy to bring honor and glory to yourself and your kingdom. While this is all pretty cliche, the production values in the cut scenes is quite impressive, and I get the feeling the story is going to take some turns and not end up being completely by the book.

Gladius is a strategy RPG, and all combat is turn based. They do spice this up by making the effectiveness of your attacks tied to a meter similar to a swing power gauge in a golf game – hit the sweet spot and you’ll get a critical hit, miss and you’ll do less damage. I think it’s a neat mechanic that makes you more involved in the actual combat, something most strategy RPGs are missing. During combat, you give move or attack orders to the members of your team – some contests require different types of participants so your party will be forced to be switched around frequently. In between battles, you can purchase equipment to alter the stats of your gladiators using your winnings. You can also apply stat upgrades when your gladiators level up – I know this is fairly standard for the genre, but I was surprised at how deep it appears to be. There are several upgrade paths that lock your character out of others, adding to the replayability.

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Visually, the game is unimpressive – the character models and environments are no where near the best on the system, but they are serviceable. I did not notice any frame rate drops, and to its credit the game’s menu system was well laid out, legible, and easy to use.

Sound was acceptable, the main theme was quite good and it was stuck in my head for the rest of the day – in a good way. The rest of the soundtrack was fairly forgettable, but I can forgive it as nothing was grating. Sound effects and voice acting were very good – above average for the time period.

Verdict: Play again! This was a great experience and I ended up playing longer than expected. I would recommend this to fans of the genre or anyone looking for a cheap, accessible strategy RPG on the PS2.

Images courtesy of Giant Bomb

Freedom Fighters

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Up this week is an overlooked gem that takes its story beats from Red DawnFreedom Fighters (Giant Bomb|Wikipedia). Freedom Fighters is a third person shooter focused on squad based combat, with you taking control of a plumber after the Russian Army invades the US. While this is hardly an original premise, this game is well regarded in the years since its release, and I couldn’t wait to try it out.

The game starts with the main character on his way to a plumbing job for a local news anchor – his brother is working with him and can’t stop talking about all the womanizing he’s been doing. You both arrive at the apartment, but no one is home – just then, the Russian Army barges in and takes your brother hostage. It’s up to you to join the resistance and get your brother back. Like I said before, not an exactly original story, but it’s not a bad premise either – it gives you motivation to fight back, and it’s fun being the underdog. I can’t say where the story goes, but I imagine it’s fairly predictable. Not every game needs to have a deep and involved story, and if that’s what you’re looking for I think you’d be better served elsewhere. As far as gameplay is concerned, the controls are responsive and fairly intuitive (except for jump being mapped to L1 – who thought that was a good idea?) and the weapons sound and feel good. I will say that between loading the different locations through the sewers and performing auto saves, you will be waiting a lot to get to the action. Overall, the minute to minute gameplay is very fun and it’s quite rewarding blowing up some Russians.

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Sound is something that I had some issue with here, not that it’s bad overall – it’s not – but that if some parts of it had been better it would have elevated it that much more. For example, sound effects are quite good, and surprisingly the voice acting is excellent. This is all let down by the really mediocre soundtrack. Some of the tracks fit well but others are so bland that they color my memory of the entire music selection.

Graphics are quite good and hold up really well – I was surprised at how good this game still looks. The frame rate is mostly solid and the special effects (explosions, fire) look great for a PS2 title.

Verdict: Play again! I can see why this is so well regarded – it’s incredibly polished and it’s fun as hell. I’ll definitely be playing this again.

Images courtesy of Giant Bomb

Fur Fighters: Viggo’s Revenge

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Fur Fighters: Viggo’s Revenge (Giant Bomb|Wikipedia) is a game that I had never heard of until recently. Originally released for the Dreamcast as Fur Fighters, this game is a souped up port designed for the Playstation 2. This is a third person shooter with a heavy emphasis on multiplayer, which I did not get a chance to try. The developer was Bizarre Creations, makers of the Project Gotham Racing and Geometry Wars series.

In Fur Fighters you play as one of 6 anthropomorphic stuffed animals. The villain of the  game has gone to your island home and stolen your families to be used as collateral while he takes over the world. Your goal is to rescue your family and stop him. This is pretty basic, and even though it’s a T rated game, it seems very Saturday-morning-cartoonish. Throughout each level there are floating bubbles where you can switch to a different character – each has their own set of special abilities and health meters as well as weapons. Pick up a shotgun with the cat, and the kangaroo won’t have it available until you find one with him. In order to rescue the children you must use their parent – the kangaroo can’t rescue the cat’s kids and vice versa – thankfully it seems that there are convenient switching orbs near the kids I found. While this is definitely a mechanic, I’m not sure it’s a good or interesting one.

Graphics are actually quite nice and have held up well – I think this is mainly due to the cel shaded styling used. Performance was good, and I only encountered one momentary slowdown of the frame rate. I didn’t see many effects other than water (which looked really good for a PS2 title) so I can’t comment on any of that.

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Sound was fitting for the mood and there was one or two songs that got stuck in my head for a few hours. The characters do have voice acting behind them, and it was pretty good across the board – up to Saturday morning cartoon standards at least.

My major complaint with the game, and this is a big one, is the control scheme. I rarely have come across one that frustrated me more consistently than the default in Fur Fighters. The left analog stick, traditionally used for movement, is used for camera control – and on top of that it’s inverted. The right analog stick, traditionally used for camera control, is used for character movement. During game play there is an options sub menu in the pause menu that contains a section for controls – but inside the game, all you can do is change whether vibration is on or off. That’s it. According to the manual, there are different layouts, but I’m guessing you need to change them before the game starts. Even though this was released in 2001 when camera controls hadn’t been quite figured out yet, this is completely inexcusable.

Verdict: Back on the shelf. The controls in this game make it incredibly frustrating to play. Disappointing.

Images courtesy of Giant Bomb

Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction

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Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction (Giant Bomb|Wikipedia) is a little slow to start. You are given a lengthy briefing (styled like a powerpoint presentation) and then thrown right into the game world with only a vague message about where you are supposed to go. I’m not sure if it was dumb luck or great game design, but either way I figured out what to do and where to go pretty quickly once I figured out the controls. Despite the slow start, I found a lot to like about this game in my time with it.

I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. Mercenaries, for those unfamiliar, is a third person action game set in a fictitious North Korea. You play as one of three mercenaries, each with some slightly different strengths and weaknesses.  I only played as one of them, and because my time with the game was short, I’m not sure how different they really play. Basic flow of the game seems to be gun down some enemies and blow some shit up in the course of performing some arbitrary mission such as defend a base or capture an enemy leader. You are given some fun tools and let loose. It reminds me a lot of Just Cause – in a good way. You receive money for blowing up enemy vehicles and completing missions, but I didn’t see a way to spend it on anything – perhaps that comes a bit later. The core of this game is the destruction you can cause with the various weapons available, and I think the payoff is pretty good, even in the very beginning. You also can drive around in vehicles and I saw several that would feed well into this destruction focused gameplay, including tanks and APCs.

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Visuals are more than adequate – while the game wasn’t the best looking PS2 game I’ve ever played, it looked at least as good as Psi-Ops and ran at a very solid frame rate. In fact, the only time I noticed a frame rate drop was when there were a ton of explosions happening at the same time, and even then it was negligible. Overall, I was pretty impressed with this one.

Sound was good – the music was a little catchy and sound effects were fitting. There were a few effects that really didn’t fit all that well, but it wasn’t distracting.

Overall, I really enjoyed my time with Mercenaries – I have a feeling the game is going to get better the longer you play when more weapons and vehicles open up.

Verdict: Play again! I had a blast.

Images courtesy of Giant Bomb

 

SOCOM: US Navy SEALs

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SOCOM: US Navy SEALs (Giant Bomb|Wikipedia) is a third person shooter released for the Playstation 2 in 2002, and was a massive success for Sony’s initial foray into online gaming. Using the new network adapter, you could play online with or against friends and complete strangers – this was nothing new in the PC world, but for consoles this was uncharted territory. Unfortunately, the online services for this game were shut down in 2012, so I was unable to try that out. What’s left is the single player campaign – a realistic-ish third person shooter that’s simply middle of the road.

Gameplay revolves around completing objectives in a given mission, which in the first mission involve boarding a freighter and securing it (AKA kill all the guards without being detected), disable communications, gather intel, and finally scuttle the ship. Before each mission you can review the objectives, change your team’s load-out, and review maps of the mission. This reminds me of the planning phase of old Rainbow Six missions, but is not as deep. During the mission you are fairly fragile, and so are your enemies – take one or two hits and you’ll die and need to restart from the beginning. There is some pretty generous auto-aim and if you keep to the shadows you should have no issue eliminating threats before they see you. If you make a lot of noise or get spotted and allow an enemy to call out, you will have a harder time surviving – stealth is the name of the game. You can also move bodies to hide them from being discovered, which is a nice touch. You can give orders to your teammates and they seemed to follow them fairly well – even if they were a bit robotic. For instance, I accidentally ordered a squadmate to throw a frag grenade in a small room – which he did. Then he stood there motionless until it exploded about 2 feet in front of him. While it was pretty funny at the time, I imagine that in later missions you will rely on your squad for certain objectives, and the brainless behavior could be frustrating.

Sound was good, but there was barely any music other than in menus – this is to help immerse the player in the world and also let’s you hear if enemies are coming. While there is a good reason for it, it is a bit disappointing considering that the composer is Jeremy Soule, who is better known for composing the Elder Scrolls series. I would have loved to hear more of his music since what little is there is excellent. That said, sound effects were good and directional audio was for the most part excellent.

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Visuals are fairly good for a 2002 PS2 game, but there was some serious frame rate drops in certain spots. The level I played wasn’t very large, so I can’t speak to how big the environments get. Characters animated well, and the effects were more on the realistic side (grenades flashed and there was a cloud of smoke – no fireballs).

Verdict: Back on the shelf. While SOCOM isn’t a bad game in any way, the gameplay didn’t grab me and the lack of multiplayer servers sealed it’s fate. This was a revolutionary game when it released, but time has not been kind.

Images courtesy of Giant Bomb

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver 2

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Sometimes when I go to select a game to play, I find a sequel in which I haven’t played the first installment. Normally, this doesn’t cause any issues – most sequels give you a brief overview of the relevant story bits from the previous entry in order to get you up to speed. Unfortunately, that was not the case with this week’s entry, Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver 2 (Giant Bomb|Wikipedia).

You begin with a cutscene that seems like a continuation of another – but this is the first one in the game. I’m assuming that if you’ve played the first, this lines up perfectly. Unfortunately, I did not and was a bit lost. In my brief time with the game, I noticed that it was extremely heavy on story and exposition – lots of haughty dialog delivered with pretentious British accents. I don’t know if the story will pay off in the end, but they are sure trying to sell that it’ll be an epic of betrayal and retribution.

The graphics look nice – not bad for a 2001 PS2 title, but they didn’t blow me away. The frame rate was nice and solid with no slow downs. The cutscenes were mostly prerendered and looked as you would expect from a game of this vintage. The style of the game is distinctive, and from looking through screen capture galleries on Giant Bomb, the environments seem to be varied.

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Sound was middle of the road, none of the music stood out to me, but it was all fitting. Sound effects were good in general, and I did notice that your footsteps sounded differently depending on the surface you were walking on, which is a nice touch. There is a lot of dialog, and the voice actors are decent, but the script is a bit full of itself and a little cheesy.

Gameplay was similar to the PS1 era Tomb Raider games – some combat but the primary focus is on exploration and puzzle solving. This is good, because the combat is not great – you lock onto an enemy then hack them until they die. They can counter attack, and have some predictable animations, but the combat doesn’t feel particularly satisfying. Exploration is another focus, but I wasn’t able to fully experience it with my time with the game.

Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver 2 is a game that I wished I had both played the previous entry, and had more time to play for evaluation – but the point of this series is to spend some time with each game and move on. I’m sure I’ll be back.

Verdict: Play again. Preferably after I’ve played Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver.

Images courtesy of Giant Bomb

Marvel Ultimate Alliance

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I’ve previously posted an entry on X-Men Legends, which is an excellent action RPG based on the Marvel property. That game was developed by one of my favorite developers Raven Software. So when I saw another entry in their 4 title series of action RPGs on the PS2, I knew I wouldn’t be disappointed. Marvel Ultimate Alliance (Giant Bomb|Wikipedia) is the first entry by title, but spiritually the third game after X-Men Legends 2.

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Just like the other entries, you are given control of 4 super heroes with the ability to switch between them at will. As you fight, the characters gain experience, level up, and unlock new abilities and costumes. The game has a fairly large cast of playable characters, each with their own voice acting. I also noticed that there were several in game cutscenes where the characters in your party mattered – if you didn’t have Daredevil for instance, Bullseye would lament that he wasn’t there to see your destruction. These are nice touches, and while the voice acting is spotty in terms of quality, the sheer volume of it and the ambition to include it all is commendable.

Visuals have aged very well, and I think the game looks great  – especially considering it’s running on the PS2. I will say that I noticed the occasional severe frame rate drop. I’m talking spikes down to sub 10 FPS. It didn’t ruin my enjoyment, but if you are particularly sensitive to frame rate you may want to keep this in mind.

I’ve already mentioned the voice acting, but otherwise the sound is good – music is fitting and sound effects are appropriate. I will say that some of the background music sounded a little muddy and compressed. It wasn’t distracting – but I imagine this has to do with fitting everything on the DVD.

Overall, the game plays great and is definitely fun. The enemies, at least in the beginning, show that there will be some variety and the 4 player local coop is the icing on the cake. If you enjoy action RPGs on the PS2 like Baldur’s Gate Dark Alliance or Champions of Norrath like I do, I think you will like Marvel Ultimate Alliance quite a bit.

Verdict: Play again – all of the games in this series are seriously fun, I can’t believe I missed out on them when they were first released.

Images courtesy of Giant Bomb

Dead to Rights

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The Matrix was a cultural milestone. If you look at any popular media from the early 2000s, you are likely to see its influence. No where is this more obvious than games, with the primary example being Max Payne. Dead to Rights (Giant Bomb|Wikipedia) is no different – it cribs certain elements from both Max Payne and The Matrix, but doesn’t provide enough  originality to be remembered in its own right.

In Dead to Rights you play a cop, Jack Slate, who honestly isn’t very cop like – he never makes arrests as far as I can tell and his primary method of conflict resolution is to shoot guys in the face. I even shot a guy in the back once – he didn’t even know I was there let alone threaten me. The basic gameplay is as follows, walk through a corridor, encounter some enemies, kill said enemies, find a key card to open a door, go to the next area. There is some mild puzzle solving where you take control of Jack’s dog, but that’s about it. In an homage, or outright theft, of Max Payne, you also get a bullet time mode. One extra method of taking down enemies is to use your faithful dog. Target an enemy, and if his stamina bar is full, hit the square button to have him attack. If this all sounds dated it’s because it is.

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This was clearly what is referred to as a B tier title – titles with smaller budgets that can be churned out in a year or two of development time. With increasing development times and complexity, most B tier games have been driven out of the market – and I miss them. I miss the days of going to a retail store and seeing something on the shelf that I had never heard of before. Dead to Rights is a great example of this. Is it great? No. Is it fun? For short bursts at least, yes. Granted these days most B tier type games are being made by indie developers, but they seldom get physical releases – and publishers like Namco are unwilling to publish games like this now that the risk level is higher. Enough with budgets and the changing market – let’s get back to Dead to Rights.

There are a lot of noir inspired lines of dialog in this, but the story seems incredibly thin and the dialog is so generic that it seems like wasted effort. The voice acting is particularly bad, and it’s clear that they spent very little money on it. The music and sound effects aren’t great either.

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Graphically, the game has aged pretty poorly. It looks and feels like an early PS2 game – lots of muddy textures, stiff animations, and jaggy objects. The controls are a bit strange too, this was a time when console controls for games hadn’t been standardized. You target an enemy with the R1 button and fire your weapon with X. Camera controls are mapped to the right analog stick as expected though, which is a blessing.

So, reading the above this sounds like a game that is best left on the shelf, but despite the poor sound, graphics, and dated gameplay, I found myself still having fun with this one. I don’t know that I would ever play it entirely through to completion, but as a fun diversion for a few hours I think it’ll fit the bill – just what I’m looking for in a B tier game.

Verdict: Play again!

Images courtesy of Giant Bomb