Sunday, July 2, 2017

Three-paragraph reviews: Prey, The Surge, Nioh

Hi. I have a new installment of Review Shots coming up soon, but first, I wanted to dive just a bit more deeply into three games that warrant a tad more conversation. Allow me to put my opinions of these games on record.

Prey (PC)

I expected this game to ride the Doom train from last year, since that was always my image of the original (with which this reboot apparently has nothing in common). As much as I'm thirsting for more Doom, I'm glad Arkane didn't go that route. Prey's gunplay is hardly the best thing about it, and a level-based structure would have done a disservice to all of the world details that only emerge when players are forced to look carefully. To my mind, that's the mistake that Arkane's Dishonored series made by focusing on linear storytelling, which the studio just isn't good at. Even the Hollywood-grade talent that they always bring on board can't elevate the listless dialog they're regularly cooking up.

Prey succeeds because it is a game about small details. Talos I, the space station on which Prey is set, will likely be the most believably-realized video game setting of the year. The game features decades of alternate history backing this place up, and its layout is arranged in such a way that it could easily function as both a living and working space. The station's hundreds of employees are all in the game and accounted for, and countless email conversations and bits of environmental storytelling build a world that didn't just start existing when we arrived there. The entire exterior of Talos I can even be freely explored; if someone were to collect the game's collision data and assemble it all into an interactive 3D map, as was done with Dark Souls, I'd be surprised if there was any geographical cheating involved. It's that convincing.

What it amounts to is a BioShock clone that's better than BioShock - deeper, richer, more open to experimentation (in both navigation and combat), and with moral choices displaying shades of grey. It runs 25-30 hours and could easily have lasted me far longer. In fact, my only real issue with Prey, though it is a major one, is the rushed and underwhelming manor in which it concludes, hurrying through a high-stakes finale for a final twist that severely undercuts the complexity of the game's world-building. That sour final note dampened my enthusiasm, but nevertheless, this is one of 2017's mot\re pleasant surprises so far. 8/10

The Surge (PC)

I'd like to be constructive about this one. Lords of the Fallen released when we were still regularly getting new Souls games, and as such, there was little room for a surface-level mimicry that utterly lacked the depth and finesse of the series that inspired it. But now that From Software is taking a break from these sorts of games, I expect more developers to take up the mantle and cater to this niche. Deck13 Interactive has made another attempt, and while it's not great, it's a step in the right direction and, I mean, hey, now we know that they're really serious about this, so I'd honestly like to see them continue to fine-tune their take on the formula.

The Surge offers two major improvements over Lords. The first is that the combat is not only functional (i.e. what you expect to happen actually does, and collision doesn't suck) but actually offers its own new twist - players can use the right stick to target individual body parts, either to deal more damage to unprotected areas or to harvest pieces of armor. It's a neat hook that works well. Secondly, rather than just flatly copy the Souls series' dark fantasy aesthetic, Deck13 sets this one in an industrial future that looks more than a little similar to Neill Blomkamp's films (specifically Elysium, to which there is an unsubtle reference). So it's the rare Souls clone that doesn't feel like a straight rip-off.

They still got a few things wrong, however. The final third of the game feels incredibly unbalanced - the last two bosses are beyond tedious, and the concluding level is full of enemies who don't seem to abide by the same rules regarding stamina that players do. Objectives are also unclear sometimes. While that's a characteristic of Dark Souls, it's a poor fit for The Surge's world design, in which backtracking isn't particularly intuitive. Finally, the story is terrible, despite some clear attempts at political commentary regarding corporate greed. So keep tightening your screws, Deck13, and hire some real writers, and your next release might be a real winner. For Souls fans seeking a fix, eh, this one's worth checking out when the price drops. 6/10

Nioh (PS4)

While I've never been a fan of Team Ninja, they're a major and experienced developer, and the first AAA studio, to my knowledge, to attempt a Souls clone of their own. Nioh has the polish and the sheen to drastically outdo The Surge in the presentation department, and the core combat feels excellent. It's also one of the rare console games to offer a 60fps option at the cost of some slight graphical fidelity, which a framerate junkie like myself appreciates. All good first impressions, and yet I ultimately walked away believing The Surge to be the superior game. How can that be?

Well, for one, Team Ninja seems to believe that the combat alone made Souls great, and ignored that series' penchant for rich lore and intricate world design. Nioh's plot is drab nonsense. Its setting apparently has basis in Japanese history, and most of its characters are actual figures from the 17th century, but Team Ninja makes little effort to fill in the details for Western players who aren't as knowledgeable on the subject. Nioh is also level-based, meaning the labyrinthine structure of the Souls series is lost. The visual style looks interchangeable from Koei Tecmo's other big franchises (particularly Toukiden), and the levels, mostly quaint Japanese villages and forests, run together after a while. And the majority of the game is just too damn dark, set mostly at night despite no element of horror. Sunlight is a thing, Team Ninja.

These aren't inherently major flaws, but I need something, some unique hook. Nioh presents no substantial new ideas, while its annoyances pile up. In particular, while the game's stamina system works well at a glance, certain bosses and powerful enemies are given way too much of it, leading to battles where I have to constantly stop for breaks when my opponent doesn't. It completely throws the balance off, and had my friend and editor Brad Gallaway not alerted me to a slow that drastically slows enemy movement, I might have lost patience. For 50 hours it drags on, with uninteresting levels, only a handful of standard enemies and nothing in the narrative department to keep me engaged. I don't know who I'd recommend this to outside of loot fanatics. 5/10

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