Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Death Penalty

Here we are, once again, in the Halloween season, and as has become custom I've caved and stuck to the general pattern that every other writer on the Internet has followed and tracked down a crappy Halloween-themed game to review. It seems to me that, more often than not, my Halloween pick has tended to have something to do with zombies. I'm not entirely sure why - perhaps it's the popularity of zombie movies and my own fondness for the genre that makes me gravitate towards them so much. There's also the fact that most zombie games tend to be violent shoot-'em-ups that allow the player to pile up huge numbers of bullet-riddled, undead corpses, which I for one can attest is quite cathartic after a long day.

Unfortunately, like so many zombie films, zombie games are an incredibly mixed bag. For every fun-filled romp like Zombie Hooker Nightmare, we get a dull and frustrating title like the subject of this week's review, Death Penalty. Taking its cues from the superior Zombie Baseball, which had you decapitating ghouls by smacking them with baseballs, Death Penalty goes for an English variation. You take on the role of a soccer player who has arrived to find the opposing team have succumbed to the zombie plague. As your team mate throws you balls from the sideline you try to land a well-placed volley into the faces of the deranged cannibals. The game is nice enough to let you play in your favourite team's colours, so I went with my childhood favourites Blackburn Rovers, figuring that if they got devoured no one would miss them.

The first level is a perfectly fine introduction to the finer points of play. Using the mouse you can move the player back and forth, and a click of the left mouse button will have him kick with all of his might. The trick is to time your kicks just right to get the maximum force behind the soccer ball, sending it across the pitch and into your undead opposition. And hey - while the game may have other faults, the controls work. Hitting the zombies won't really be much of a problem, and you can get a second kick of the ball if it bounces back towards you, effectively doubling the damage. You also have the ability, once per level, to kick a zombie in the balls and put it down permanently. I'm pretty sure that's a red card offence, but I guess the referee has more important things to worry about, like trying to find his missing liver.

So, I don't have anything bad to say about the actual gameplay. Once you've successfully completed a level, you get the opportunity to improve one of your stats, either kicking power or the speed with which your team mate throws in the balls. And as the game progresses you'll get new types of ball that will help you kill zombies faster. But it's from the second level onwards that things get a bit iffy.

At first impressions, it looks no worse than before. Naturally, there are more zombies, including one or two who climb out of the ground (what they were doing there in the first place, it's hard to say, but as far as I know the Stadium of Light isn't built on an Indian burial ground.) But really, it shouldn't be a huge problem - just make sure every shot counts and use the metal-plated ball for maximum damage. No, it shouldn't be that much harder than level one. And yet, it is - much harder, to be exact.

I don't think the zombies are moving any faster, nor are they any stronger. Indeed, I should have the advantage here, what with my upgrades. So how come I kept getting eaten again and again by the zombies? Well, the first reason could be because the stat upgrades are of little benefit. I tried increasing the speed of throw-ins - no luck. I tried upgrading the power of my kicks - same result. The metal ball certainly did a better job than the original leather one, but other than that I saw no significant change in skill between levels.

Another problem might have been the sheer idiocy of my team mate. Although I could move my character more than halfway across the game screen, the other guy only threw balls to the same spot. So if I can't control where the balls will be thrown, and if the guy throwing them only ever picks the same spot, what's the point of moving around? Sure, I guess it gives me a chance to kick the ball again, should it roll back to me, but other than that there's no real reason.

I wouldn't mind except, even when I'm trapped at the very edge of the screen and a zombie is bearing down on me, that son of a bitch still throws the ball to the same damn spot. What am I supposed to do, weave around the zombie? This isn't the FA Cup final - I don't really have that option!

I probably wouldn't get so annoyed about dying so often if there was some kind of save feature. Considering the overwhelming likelihood of death, having the chance to save the game or including a lives system would have been a godsend. Naturally, the developers of Death Penalty don't bother. So I was trapped in a vicious cycle, playing my way through the piss easy first level only to get chewed up (literally and figuratively) in the second. And if you do happen to get through level two, things don't get any better. From zombies wearing road cones over their heads to a weird combination of a soccer player and the Black Knight, you're not just thrown into the deep end - someone forces your head under the water and keeps it there. And of course, dying only means you're sent all the way back to square one.

I know for a fact that it is possible to make a decent game like this, and I know that there are plenty of zombie titles that entertain gamers the world over. But, once again, I have stumbled upon a putrid pile of rotting flesh, the electronic abomination that is Death Penalty. There's no fun, no scares, and no way I'll be going back to this game any time soon.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Miss Manhattan

Wow. Um, OK… Look, I usually don’t review dress-up games, largely because they’re self-explanatory. I know they wouldn’t interest me and I’m not in their target audience, so it really doesn’t matter. I may be a dick, but I’m not a total ass, so I leave dress-up games to the eight-year-old girls they’re designed to entertain and focus on more general fare.

But this…

This warrants further investigation.

Just so I know we’re on the same page here, a short history lesson. For those of you who don’t know, in 1986 writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbon, with the assistance of colourist John Higgins (who doesn’t get enough props), created Watchmen. A twelve issue limited series comic book, it was eventually compiled into a graphic novel, and is considered one of the finest pieces of 20th Century literature. Concerning the lives of a bunch of middle-aged former superheroes in an alternative universe America who are forced back into spandex when one of them is murdered, it’s a remarkable read.

Of the masked heroes, the only one with any actual superpowers is Jon Osterman, who was involved in a lab accident that turned him into a being able to control matter at a molecular level. Dubbed Dr Manhattan, he spends much of the book walking around naked, so cut off from society that he no longer sees the need for clothing. This proved to be a quite the bone of contention when Zach Snyder's film adaptation was released earlier this year. But the important thing to remember is that Dr Manhattan is basically God and he has a real desire not to wear pants.

So how exactly do we get from this:

To this?:

I really don't know what the train of thought was here. I'm honestly stumped, and I've played some really out there games in my time. I mean, if this game was based around any other superhero I wouldn't bat an eyelid. If this game was based around any other hero in Watchmen, I'd probably be more amused than anything else. But... why Dr Manhattan? Dressing up is the one thing he doesn't do. Is this the product of a Watchmen fan working for who really, really wanted to do something to celebrate the movie? Or is a clever net nerd giggling away at the thought of little girls playing with Rule 63 Manhattan? Or maybe this is just a precursor to the eventual Saturday morning Watchmen cartoon show? Don't you want to see a spunky, young female sidekick to Dr Manhattan? No? Oh.

I don't want anyone to think I'm upset about this, just confused. I guess, as dress-up games go, it's pretty good. I don't really know - like I already noted, these games usually aren't on my radar - but you can pick a few different poses for Miss Manhattan, each one with a slightly different skin tone. The faces are kind of cool, varying from from ice cold evil devil queen to cross-eyed blue-skinned Valley Girl. I was able to make a really nice sparkly Manhattan with an outfit made of stardust and rainbows... or something.

And then I went in the total opposite direction and made an evil space bitch with an S&M style bikini. Wow, I just read that last sentence back and it's only hitting me now that I made a female Dr Manhattan with a fetish for leather and BDSM sex games.

Just when you think you've finally got a handle on things, the Internet finds another way to out-weird itself.

So, Miss Manhattan - it's... I don't know. I mean, it's well-made, for what it is, but God damn, why? Seriously, why Dr Manhattan? Why the naked blue guy that blows people up with a thought? I always figured there was very little overlap between the readers of Watchmen and the players of dress-up games, but clearly I was mistaken. I'm sorry, but you can only look at this game for so long before you have to say "What is going on here? What am I looking at? Why am I bleeding from the ear?" I accept a hell of a lot as a comic and sci-fi fan, but this really doesn't compute. Am I overthinking it? Am I putting too much energy into trying to rationalise what cannot be rationalised? I don't know. All I know is, I need a lie down.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Professional Sniper

I must apologise for my disappearing act last week, but I've been incredibly busy working on a project these last couple of weeks. I had fully intended to write a review, but alas it, like many of my other pieces, had to be postponed. I was pretty much drained of all energy last week, and then, after playing Professional Sniper, I was practically comatose.

Now, I'm a big fan of sniper games. I think I would have made a pretty kickass sniper, if I had decided a career of killing strangers was preferable to screenwriting. So it takes an awful lot to make me dislike a sniper game to the point of reviewing it on Big Mean Flash Gamer. In that way Professional Sniper is unique - it has found a place here that few other sniper games ever will.

All in all, it's a pretty straightforward stick figure sniper game, hardly all that different from any similar titles. But Professional Sniper has a couple of big handicaps. The first is mentioned on this notice screen, the little note that you have to keep your sights on the target for 0.4 of a second to make the shot register. It might not sound like much, but that half a second will make all the difference in later levels.

My second problem is this. I hate any sniper game that fills most of the screen with black nothingness. There isn't any option to see the whole screen or zoom in on specific spots, and you aren't able to increase the size of your sight or the accuracy of your gun. All you can really do is swing your sight back and forth across the screen searching for your target, never sure if you've already missed them. It gives the game an unfair advantage, like being forced to bob for apples using only your tongue. And the apples have razors in them.

The earlier levels, ones that don't require lightning fast reflexes and a psychic ability to tell where a target might be, are actually somewhat enjoyable. I quite like the level where you have to shut up some noisy neighbours without killing any of them. While I can understand how annoying a belligerent neighbour can be, I can't help but feel shooting their television with a sniper rifle is the appropriate response. But hey, I just work here.

While the first half of Professional Sniper doesn't blow my mind, it does come across as a decent, efficient sniper game. But that's because the player doesn't have to deal with that tricky 0.4 second delay. Without warning, it pops its ugly head up and smacks us across the face with the chain mail glove of hopeless frustration.

Naturally, it begins with that staple of the sniper game, the moving car level. Finding the driver you're supposed to shoot isn't a problem. Actually nailing the son of a bitch, however, is - a really, really big problem. Trying to keep your sights on the driver as he speeds across the screen, trying for that one good shot (and you will only get one good shot) inevitably leaves you screaming in agony as you repeat the level over and over again, your hand slowly cramping while you grip your mouse. But that's nothing compared to the Chinese water torture that awaits anyone lucky enough to kill the driver.

In this level you've been hired by a film director who wants you to shoot a stuntman while he jumps between two buildings. Apparently the director really needs this to make his movie awesome and doesn't realise that you can recreate this stunt without having to shoot your stuntman in the face. You have to shoot the stuntman while he's jumping; nailing him during takeoff or just as he lands won't count.

Just two small problems:

1. Depending on where you place your sight, you won't see the stuntman take off.
2. The stuntman moves too fast for you to perfectly track him all the way, so you really don't have any choice but to pick a spot and hope for the best.

Sniper games are supposed to be a test of a player's skill and reflexes, but all this level tests is your luck. Keep in mind that you still need to keep your sights on the stuntman for half a second before firing, by which point he could have moved completely out of shot. I really can't tell you how many times I had to repeat this level before I finally managed to beat it once, and I think if I counted I would probably break down and cry. I've dealt with many a difficult level in a sniper game, but this really just takes the piss. For something that looks so simple, it's a huge pain in the ass to complete, and I wouldn't be surprised if most people gave up at this point. Hell I gave up the first time I played. And it's not like there's much incentive to beat it anyway, other than some stubborn desire to win.

All that's left is this final level where you have to kill all of your former clients, just in case any of them rat you out (classy.) This isn't that hard to beat once you've figured out what order to kill each figure, but you need to hit each one with a single shot or you'll fail the level. The slow rate of fire never gets more frustrating than right here, and you'll feel royally ripped off when all you get at the end is some bullshit congratulations on becoming a professional sniper. It's the final spit in the face after having your gonads pummelled for the better part of ten levels. With its combination of uninspired art, overly simplistic gameplay and unresponsive controls, Professional Sniper is decidedly amateurish in design.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Box Office

It's almost 1:00AM as I write this and I'm still up for a reason that only baby Jesus knows, but since I am awake and as lucid as I ever get, here is this week's Big Mean Flash Gamer. The target of my never ending rage this week is a title from our buddies at Free World Group. Now, usually I'm a fan of FWG; their games are never overly complicated, well-designed, and generally entertaining. They don't produce many games that I'd call all-time favourites of mine, but I have enjoyed a lot of their stuff. However, it seems that on an almost weekly basis Free World Group release a game like Box Office: a title that perfectly captures the soul-sucking, mind-numbing reality of life in the retail industry.

Box Office puts you behind the counter at the refreshments stand of a cinema - pretty much the worst job outside of chasing away the bums who sleep in the screening rooms. As customers step up to the counter it's your job to put together their orders, clicking on icons around the stand to collect popcorn, drinks and tickets. The goal of each level is to earn a certain amount while pleasing as many customers as possible. Naturally, this is done by getting orders as quickly as you can before pocketing the cash.

On a related note, while I'm well aware that cinemas charge an exorbitant amount for refreshments, this place is just taking the piss. $560 from maybe a dozen customers? That better be some damn good popcorn! Every level is the same monotonous pattern of jumping from one corner of the box office to another, only with more customers and shorter time periods as the game progresses.

As soon as you start raking in the dough you'll be able to buy upgrades such as different movies, new and more varied snacks and special items such as VIP tickets. You'll need to buy a few of these things as it means more money from customers, but it's not like it grossly raises the difficulty. And one thing I've never been able to figure out about games like Box Office - how come you can buy all sorts of crap to sell, but you can't hire some staff? I'm making all this money; are you trying to tell me there aren't any acne-riddled sixteen-year-olds I can have come in on Saturdays? I guess not - even though I'm investing in this one box office, I'm still clearly so low on the ladder of power that I can't even hire a part-time assistant. Either that or my character is paranoid that any new employee might steal his job. I'm pretty sure a committed lemur could do this gig, given the right training.

And so on it goes, with each level marginally more complicated than the last. There's no real puzzle or strategy involved; it's all just based on reaction and your speed with the mouse. It's one long, continuous chain of repetitive, pointless effort. If Box Office is supposed to entertain, it fails miserably. Indeed, the only thing it did do was remind me how much I hate working in retail.

I mean, look at that facial expression. Anyone who's ever worked in customer service will instantly recognise it as the rictus grin of a man who is dead inside. This is a character who's one difficult customer away from pulling out a shotgun and hitting back at a cold, oppressive world. Why would I want to play a person like that? Hell, there have been occasions when I was a person like that, and it sucks balls. So not only is Box Office a tedious waste of time, it also perfectly captures the feeling of helplessness experienced by anyone wearing a name tag and hairnet. Thanks for opening old wounds, Free World Group. Thanks a whole lot!