Tomb Raider review


Lara Croft’s latest adventure is easily her best

 

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Lara Croft is dead. This time, she was ripped apart by wolves. Death had also come in a variety of other forms before: boulders, bear traps, spikes to the throat–each over-the-top execution a display of vulnerability. These shocking moments were heavy-handed with their message, but it came across loud and clear: Lara Croft, the newLara Croft, isn’t a pistol-wielding superhero. She’s an inexperienced adventurer caught in the middle of a harrowing sequence of events. The only thing more surprising than the brutality Lara endures during Crystal Dynamic’s Tomb Raider reboot is just how polished the whole experience is. Tomb Raider is a fantastic game and an excellent origin story for one of gaming’s original treasure seekers.

After getting shipwrecked on a mysterious island during her first-ever archaeology expedition, Lara finds herself in one life-or-death situation after another. Her crew is missing, and the island’s cult-like inhabitants are eager to kill her. The narrative’s dark, distressing tone is established right from the onset, and never once does it stray during Tomb Raider’s 15-hour campaign. This consistency builds a great deal tension and intrigue, and you’ll be eager to keep playing to see what will happen next.

Throughout the game, you’ll be tasked with solving elaborate puzzles and taking on sporadic groups of enemies in addition to plenty of platforming and exploration. After you finish Tomb Raider’s long-winded tutorial, it easily rivals the best Uncharted has to offer–and that’s not a claim made lightly. Where Uncharted props itself up on Nathan Drake’s charm, platforming prowess, and ability to shoot dudes in the head without getting bummed out, Tomb Raider’s foundation comprises excellent pacing and an ominous story of survival.

 

 

“Tomb Raider’s foundation comprises excellent pacing and an ominous story of survival.”

The development of Lara’s character is an integral part of that experience. She’s a far cry from the stylish adventurer you used to know. In the stead of a dolled up gunslinger is a do-what-it-takes female lead who’s intelligent and capable. It’s unsettling to watch her brave some truly disturbing situations–at times, Tomb Raider is more survival horror than action adventure–but she deals with it because death is the only alternative, culminating in her gratifying evolution from a green explorer to a seasoned survivor. It’s a shame that caliber of character development doesn’t extend to the supporting cast. Her shipwrecked friends are pretty generic characters who, while rarely annoying, just aren’t memorable.

But what those characters lack in magnetism is more than made up for by the incredible personality and mystery of the island setting. It’s a bizarre place filled with ancient shrines, World War II-era bunkers, and all sorts of relics and trinkets spanning multiple centuries. It’s always clear that something strange is going on, and the island’s secrets will tease you right up until the very end. You’ll explore a huge variety of environments, sectioned off into hub-like zones, while uncovering its enigma, too. From underground ruins and snow-laden mountain tops to lush forests and grim oceanside cliffs, no one area ever feels like a rehash of another, and the sheer amount of detail in each is impressive.

 

 

“…the island’s secrets will tease you right up until the very end.”

During Lara’s journey, you’ll encounter plenty of dangers. Traps, hostile cultists, and vicious animals alike will stand in your way. Nearly every battle feels like an intense battle to the death instead of just another shootout, and you’ll rarely encounter more than five or six enemies at a time. The enemy AI is great for the most part, as foes will kick over tables to form barricades or shoot off flares to call for help. Best of all, they often react realistically to your shots. Cap an enemy in the leg, for example, and he’ll go down to the ground where you can finish him off with a melee execution. 

Lara’s inexperience shows through early on, as her shots are pretty inaccurate and weak. By defeating enemies, solving puzzles, and finding the many collectibles hidden on the island, you’ll gain experience points and resources for upgrading Lara’s skills and weapons. Other games that try to emulate the growth of an unseasoned shooter don’t pull it off quite like Tomb Raider does–by the end of the game, Lara’s transformation into a powerful heroine is noticeable and feels natural.

 

 

“Every encounter feels like an intense battle to the death instead of just another shootout.”

But Tomb Raider isn’t all about fighting. It’s totally common to spend five minutes exchanging fire with a group of enemies, then go 45 without seeing a soul. These breaks in battle are filled with great platforming segments, clever puzzles, and adrenaline-pumping set piece moments, and the pacing throughout is unrivaled by any other game in the genre. Even the rate at which Lara obtains new weapons and equipment–like rope arrows that open up new sections of some zones on the island–is admirable, as you’ll snag gear right up until the final chapters.

Tomb Raider’s single-player campaign alone is worth the price of admission, but its multiplayer component will be a welcome addition for those looking for a bit more longevity. Multiplayer maps are filled with climbable ledges, zip lines, and level-specific traps that are perfect for scoring easy kills. There are some pretty decent modes to keep things interesting for awhile, too, such as Cry for Help in which one team must capture a series of control points before the other kills and loots 20 players. That said, the multiplayer doesn’t feel fully realized, as it doesn’t really introduce anything new to keep you interested after a dozen matches or so.

 

 

“…the multiplayer doesn’t feel fully realized, as it doesn’t really introduce anything new to keep you interested…”

Even if you’ve never been a huge fan of Lara Croft’s fortune-hunting adventures, Tomb Raider is sure to impress. Its expert sense of pacing, captivating setting, and dark tone create a truly memorable experience that’s further enhanced by an immense level of detail. Lara Croft, the old Lara Croft, is dead. In place of a dolled-up gunslinger is a do-what-it-takes survivor–and we hope she hasn’t had her fill of adventuring just yet.

This game was reviewed on Xbox 360.

 

Strike Suit Zero review


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From shooting down TIE Fighters to dogfighting with anthropomorphic animals, space combat games have given players plenty of ways to experience the dead of space. The genre isn’t as prolific as it was during its ’90s heyday, but some developers are trying to rescue it before it completely falls off the map. Strike Suit Zero is the latest of these crusades and pays homage to the heavy hitters’ of the genre. It may not be a groundbreaking display of ingenuity, but SSZ captures the scale and volatility of this genre all the same.

SSZ places you in the cockpit of a fighter pilot for the United Nations of Earth (UNE) during an impending attack on the planet. The plot itself is told through the game’s 13 missions, which include summaries, briefings, and in-game transmissions informing you of the UNE’s progress and directives. Not only does this make you feel like the story is unfolding in real-time, but your teammates will be directly engaging you in conversation and yelling out orders making you feel like you’re part of the action.

Missions are divided into primary and secondary objectives for you to complete. More often than not, these objectives involve shooting down specific targets or ensuring your allied ships survive an ambush until you reach a checkpoint. Destroying enemies and defending your allies are the bulk of what you’ll be doing in the game, and SSZ’s biggest problem is its lack of variety. Whether it’s bombing a heavily armored cruiser with your torpedo ship or quickly destroying an enemy’s communication system aboard your stealthiest fighter, the only change you’ll experience is in your environments. You can unlock more guns and ship upgrades as you achieve better scores in each mission, but this customization does little to change up the dynamic of the missions themselves.

 

 

“…customization does little to change up the dynamic of the missions themselves.”

Secondary objectives don’t have to be finished to continue on with a mission, but ignoring them can not only hurt your chances of achieving a high score, but some can also negatively impact the game’s mutable story. If you let one of your UNE ships get destroyed in one particular instance, for example, you’ll never see it again unless you replay the mission and save it from destruction. These secondary objectives add a welcome layer of challenge and difficulty to the game and test your skills at multitasking. Not only will your hard work pay off in the form of upgrades and leaderboard rankings, but you’ll also be rewarded with various different endings.

SSZ also boasts an impressive scale that truly captures the feeling of being out in space. You’ll often find yourself circumnavigating giant frigates looking for turrets to shoot down or engaging in wide-open dogfights with the enemy. The scale adds to a great experience–if you manage to hit your targets, that is. The sheer size of the maps can make missions drag on longer than they should. Some objectives require you to shoot down a large number of ships, making it a hassle chasing them all down. And if you happen to die, you’ll need to restart everything from the last checkpoint regardless of your progress. Retracing open expanses isn’t very fun after a few continues.

The more enjoyable missions take place aboard the Strike Suit, a transforming ship that lets you glide through space with ease. Though controls for your other ships are fluid and responsive, piloting a Strike Suit gives you so much more freedom to fly around space in all directions that you’ll wish all missions let you use it. You still have only guns and missiles to play with, but Strike mode makes it easier to auto-target your enemies and pummel them with an endless supply of missiles. Though it may feel slightly overpowered, Strike mode only lasts as long as your energy meter is full so you’ll need to destroy more enemies to stay transformed. This ship also adds a layer of strategy to some missions, letting you decide when to enter Strike mode or when to wait until the time is right.

 

 

The more enjoyable missions take place aboard the Strike Suit, a transforming ship that lets you glide through space with ease.”

Despite being set in the cold reaches of space, SSZ features diverse environments offering a rich blend of warm colors and swirls. Some backdrops resemble giant paintings, and the game’s calming soundtrack gives it a sense of elegance amid all the shooting and killing. This overall ambience is further heightened when you first pilot your Strike Suit and hear singer Kokia’s Japanese vocals offering a reminder of the game’s tactful fusion of Western and Eastern influences.

Even though it borrows heavily from past games, SSZ tries to be more than just a rehashing of an old genre. Its inclusion of a multiple-objective system adds difficulty and depth to its missions, even if they do get repetitive and tiresome at times. Piloting the Strike Suit, however, is the highlight of the game and the reason why you’ll want to play it. It may not be very innovative, but SSZ offers plenty of challenge and fun that make it worth revisiting the space combat genre.

The Walking Dead game review


 
 
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By and large, most choice-driven games have followed the same formula, inviting you to make your mark in the world by deciding if you want to be “good” or “bad,” and accepting the binary nature of existence. But in the post-apocalyptic world of The Walking Dead, where the titular dead walk the decaying earth, the notion of good and bad is somewhat dated. There’s no “right” when right can mean shooting an innocent child before it can turn into a flesh-eating beast, and there’s no “wrong” when wrong can mean stealing the supplies you need to survive from those just as needy as you. The Walking Dead is the story of the choices you can’t live with, and the choices you can, coming together to create an experience as depressing and pessimistic as it is remarkable and memorable.

The Walking Dead never pretends to be anything less than a cruel, dour analysis of humanity’s downfall. You’re tossed into the cuffs of Lee Everett, a convicted murderer on his way to prison when the first episode begins. In the opening moments, his police escort is sidetracked by the zombie apocalypse, freeing Lee into a world that’s not nearly as comfortable as a jail cell would’ve been. Soon, he’s joined by the young Clementine, a child left on her own after her parents took a poorly timed vacation and her babysitter contracted a bad case of the flesh munchies. And off into the new, horrible world Lee goes, hoping to find Clementine’s parents despite knowing that they’re likely dead; off to find sanctuary when he doubts one even exists.

 

 

In stark contrast to the rest of gaming, The Walking Dead is more focused on what you do than how you do it. There aren’t many traditional puzzles, per se, as much as there are tasks that you’re asked to perform to move the story forward. Menial activities like finding batteries for a radio or starting up a train aren’t all that engaging by themselves, but they serve a very necessary pacing purpose, as well as give you a chance to explore the world a bit and get to know the characters better. If you’re looking to rampage around Georgia popping the heads off of undead monsters, you’re better served by one of the many other zombie games on the market.

Though some might be turned off by this minimization of traditional gameplay, it works well in the context of the game. The effect you have on the world is fairly minimal by design, mixing together Telltale’s point-and-click adventure game style with a smattering of quick-time events and choice-driven dialogue. This amorphous take on gameplay works very well to make you feel like you’re a part of the world, without allowing you to go too far off the rails. But just because you’re not allowed to stray too far off the beaten path, doesn’t mean you don’t have an actual influence–on the contrary, your words and actions actually play an integral part in crafting the world.

 

 

Incredibly strong writing and voice-acting give the narrative the spotlight it deserves. The vast majority of the characters you interact with are well-developed, and it’s hard not to feel compassion for even the meanest of the bunch, making you actually care about who you foster relationships with and who you choose to disappoint. What’s more, your actions have an impact not just on the events that you encounter, but in how people treat you. Don’t back up Kenny when his son is accused of being bitten, and he might not have your back a few episodes later when you need him to. Side with Lilly when she’s trying to ration the food, and she might respect you enough to help you in the coming episodes.

Your choices, both large and small, have repercussions, and can change the course of the remaining episodes–even if it’s only a slight shift. Split-second choices made later in the game can rewrite how people react to you regardless of how you’ve treated them up to that point, making each and every action all the more important. Inaction, too, is usually an option, amplified by the inclusion of a timer that makes it possible to completely miss a chance at making a decision, forcing you to sit on the sidelines and watch whatever your indifference hath wrought.

These decisions wouldn’t be as emotional if it didn’t feel like there was something on the line, but there is: Clementine. The hopelessness of the world would be infectious if not for her constant optimism, giving you something to fight for. She’s slow to adapt to the fact that good and evil are now meaningless, and her innocence keeps the concept of hope alive in the survivors. More importantly, it makes it harder to justify going against what you think is truly “right,” since you know you’re going to have her big, sad eyes staring up at you. It’s heartbreaking and motivational, inspirational and depressing.

 

 

The Walking Dead’s success isn’t in creating a Choose Your Own Adventure game with hundreds of possible outcomes and limitless plotlines. Instead, it reflect the reality of life, reminding you that many of the choices you’re given have predetermined outcomes, and some things simply can’t be changed. And yet, this undermining of everything that makes The Walking Dead unique is arguably its greatest triumph. Despite not always being in control, The Walking Dead makes you feel as though you are. Even though you can’t always save someone from death, you can give it your best try, shaping the person you are. And it’s up to you to decide if it’s worth the effort to change what, in all likelihood, can not be changed. 

Sure, you can replay it to see what else would happen, but that won’t change anything. It won’t change that you’re not going to leave The Walking Dead happy. You’ll feel like you made mistakes. You’ll feel like you could have done better, if you gave it another go. At best, you’ll leave without any regrets, knowing that you did the best you could do. The Walking Dead deals in a spectrum of emotion that few other games dare to take on, and it does so with aplomb. It’s utterly triumphant, crafting a narrative that proves the power of the medium by embracing what makes it unique, leading to one of the most memorable gameplay experiences ever created.

Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time review


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Thieves can’t really steal from other thieves–they can only liberate that which has already been stolen. Such is the practice of the eponymous raccoon thief in Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time, the fourth installment in the sneaky platforming series. The triumphant return of Sly and the gang in their first PS3 adventure will have you feeling sentimental for the timeless gameplay of the PS2 era. But this is no mere rehash of previous heists–the slew of new features mixed with classic stealth and platforming bits easily make Thieves in Time worthy of the Cooper legacy.

The game borrows its basic premise from Marty McFly’s book, as Sly and co. travel back in time to foil a continuum-wrecking group of villains. Playing as members of the larcenous raccoon bloodline has an invigorating thrill akin to being a G-rated Batman–performing daring leaps across rooftops, sneaking up behind enemies, then walloping them with a stealth takedown is incredibly satisfying.

 

 

“…[the gameplay] has an invigorating thrill akin to being a G-rated Batman…”

As with previous Sly games, each aspect of Thieves in Time’s presentation has been polished to a mirror finish–but this time around, the PS3 has the power to add flourishes that earlier games couldn’t. These includes graphics that look like a playable Dreamworks movie, massive draw distances, and greatly improved facial animations (most apparent during the multitude of entertaining dialogue exchanges). The only technological drawback comes in the form of overly long load times. Though they’re not a crippling hindrance, the overworld load screens can feel like spike strips when you’re cruising down Sly’s road of thieving fun.

Tight controls are the most crucial element to a great platformer, and Thieves in Time effortlessly nails it. Sly and his entourage all control as smooth as butter, and rare are the moments when a missed jump feels like anything other than user error. New abilities come in the form of era-appropriate thief costumes, and as you build up your wardrobe, you’ll have the satisfaction of approaching enemies from different angles, as well as the option of revisiting previous time periods to access previously out-of-reach areas. Each mission is smartly paced to feel like a vital chapter leading up to a grandiose heist, and fresh mechanics get peppered throughout the stages with a pleasant regularity.

 

 

“Each mission is smartly paced to feel like a vital chapter leading up to a grandiose heist…”

The only hiccup in the pacing comes in the form of mandatory minigames, which sometimes miss their mark by dragging on instead of keeping you on your toes. Bentley gets the bulk of the good ones, with hacking scenarios riffing on classic arcade games like Marble Madness and Gradius. But poor ol’ Murray stars in minigames that stay way past their welcome, and will have you begging to get back to the outstanding running-and-jumping bits. Thankfully, though the minigames are far from brainless, you should be able to clear them without much fuss and return to your regularly scheduled platforming.

Level designs follow the basic blueprint put forth by the previous games: A lavish, detailed overworld acts as a hub for missions, and each visually distinct time period is littered with secret treasures and imaginative enemies just waiting to be pick-pocketed. The series’ staple of safes housing invaluable power-ups returns, and veterans will be tickled by how tricky it is to track down all the cleverly hidden collectibles. Any thought that this is strictly a kid’s game will be shattered when you just barely secure a time-sensitive treasure, or finally find the last clue bottle that’s eluded you for the past hour. As an added bonus for the game’s Cross-Buy feature, you can use a Vita to help you scope out the most artfully concealed secrets, and your save games will carry over between systems.

 

 

“Any thought that this is strictly a kid’s game will be shattered when you justbarely secure a time-sensitive treasure…”

It’s fortunate that the game’s hidden valuables are so rewarding, because the ending is a bit of a cliffhanger. Though Thieves is a consistently fun, 10-plus-hour ride, the wrap-up feels abrupt compared to the great storytelling up until that point. That said, it’s a tribute to how enjoyable the game is when you find yourself wanting a sequel long before you’ve beaten the campaign.

Sanzaru Games did its homework with the Sly series, and the result is a sequel that handily does justice to Sucker Punch Productions’ originals. It doesn’t have to change the face of platforming as we know it to be a thoroughly delightful trip through time, with gameplay that will enchant you no matter your age. If you’re a fan of the classic PS2 platformers, consider the budget-priced Thieves in Time a steal.

This game was reviewed on the PS3.

 

 

FLIGHT: Review


 

As Lloyd Bridges says in Airplane!: “Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit drinking!” – a declaration he later famously modifies to take in smoking, sniffing glue and doing amphetamines. Before seeing this, I had thought that, between them, and from different directions, Airplane! and the real-time 9/11 drama United 93 had more or less finished off the aeroplane disaster movie. But this flawed yet enjoyable film from screenwriter John Gatins and director Robert Zemeckis proves that it can still be kept airborne, with a little re-invention.

  1. Flight
  2. Production year: 2012
  3. Country: USA
  4. Cert (UK): 15
  5. Runtime: 138 mins
  6. Directors: Robert Zemeckis
  7. Cast: Adam Ciesielski, Brian Geraghty, Bruce Greenwood, Carter Cabassa, Denzel Washington, Don Cheadle, John Goodman, Kelly Reilly, Melissa Leo, Nadine Velazquez, Tamara Tunie, Timothy Adam

Flight looks very much like a fictionalised true story, based on some New York Times bestseller. Actually, it isn’t. Gatins has built his film around a single extraordinary detail that emerged from a real-life US air disaster in 2000: the hair-raising theory that a passenger jet in apparently fatal freefall can be made to level out and go into a safe glide, if the pilot can just pull off one particular, terrifying manoeuvre. To try it, he has to be desperate, and probably very drunk.

There is some terrific white-knuckle tension: but where the genre traditionally puts the high aeronautical drama at the very end, Zemeckis wrongfoots the audience as to where in his film the oxygen-mask-dropping crisis is going to come, and what kind of film it is therefore going to be. As well an airplane-disaster movie, Flight is a solemn and faintly anti-climactic tale of personal growth and moral choices, with some religiose murmurings about survival and fate. The story’s central love-interest strand is a bit superfluous (and the movie frankly sags in this area) but its star, Denzel Washington, tackles the juiciest of lead roles with gusto, and the finale is entertaining, when it looks as if our hero’s life has once again gone into a screaming nosedive and is about to make what the airline industry euphemistically calls “uncontrolled contact with the ground”.

Washington is Captain Whip Whitaker, a highly experienced airline pilot who is also a functioning alcoholic. We first see him in a hotel room on a stopover, and here I thought John Gatins was obeying a law of “sexposition”, using sex to spice up exposition scenes. One of these is that when two sleazy guys need to discuss something, they have to do it in a pole-dancing club; another is that when a sleazy guy has to wake up in a hotel room, a naked woman must be getting dressed in the background. Actually, this isn’t quite what’s happening: Whitaker is having an increasingly serious affair with a stewardess, Katerina Marquez (Nadine Velazquez), and poor Katerina is one of Whip’s enablers, the people who cover up his addiction.

Peter Bradshaw, Catherine Shoard and Xan Brooks review Flight Link to video: Flight

Whip has awoken with a massive hangover, so to cure it and generally stay sharp, he takes a python-sized line of coke before heading out to the airport; he struts authoritatively on to the plane (discreetly later than Katerina) and to his young co-pilot’s horror, treats himself to an oxygen livener before takeoff. He and his passengers are to face a horrifying situation, but for Whip, matters just keep getting worse. Using some pretty hefty plot tweaks and narrative contrivances, Zemeckis’s movie plays out to a watchable conclusion. With the help of a beautiful recovering smack addict Nicole (Kelly Reilly) and his toughly loyal colleague Charlie (Bruce Greenwood), Whip must figure out what he must do to stay true to himself. But it could also be that he might need one final volley of substance abuse courtesy of his unspeakable dealer, Harling, played by John Goodman.

In some ways, Washington is giving us a variant on the character he played in Training Day: the uniformed authority figure with some serious off-the-record habits. There is something in Washington’s natural gravitas and bearing which looks fascinating when it is mixed with sin. Washington is also very good at showing how skilled an addict is at “presenting” – at putting on a show of nothing being wrong.

Weirdly, this movie reminded me of an anecdote I heard the veteran performer Thora Hird recount about her father, who told her never to drink before going on stage, and to make a point of telling everyone about this rule. He admitted that she could probably drink a good deal without it affecting her; but the point was that if she made any innocent mistake at all, everyone would say she was a drunk. Poor Whip feels guilty, yet knows that he technically isn’t. Maybe the zing of coke and booze even gave him inspiration at the controls on that terrible flight, but of course Whip knows that whatever the truth, his whole life is crashing. Flight is one of those films which starts to come to pieces when you start thinking about it afterwards, but with Zemeckis at the controls, it’s a very enjoyable watch. Maybe not in-flight, however.

Hitman: Absolution


 

 

Hitman: Absolution is an intense mix of serenity and obscenity, its foul-mouthed criminals and grubby henchmen adding a layer of thick grime to otherwise quaint small-town streets and warm desert sands. Returning antihero Agent 47 is a ruthless contrast to both the beauty of his surroundings and the foul crooks he butts heads with; he’s a steadfast and well-dressed killer who finds pleasure in careful planning and clean kills. Once again, he dons his brightly buffed shoes and exercises a combination of stealthy maneuvering and brute force to end the lives of those most deserving of their demises. Not every method of murder is as satisfying as you’d want, but Absolution plays well and looks sumptuous.

 

More intriguingly, it fills its world with such disgusting wastes of space that you’re happy to lodge bullets in their heads. The best missions immerse you in Hitman: Absolution’s twisted look at Americana and are teeming with contemptible characters drawn from the bottom of the cultural barrel. You may even find 47’s initial actions hard to witness: his first contract is to assassinate his former handler at The Agency, Diana Burnwood, who has apparently gone rogue. Her last wish as you watch her perish by your own hand: that you protect a girl named Victoria and, in turn, be branded as a traitor.

The primary villain is a snarling crime lord with a big cowboy hat and a down-home drawl named Blake Dexter. Every rank word that oozes out of this snake charmer’s mouth is pure poison, though the human stains that assist him strive to outdo his obnoxiousness at every turn. The crudeness can become overbearing; one target’s dying observations are so crass that it’s hard to imagine that even the most dirty-minded players would snicker at them. Elsewhere, you encounter a team of assassins called The Saints: women dressed as sexy nuns for no obvious reason other than, well, that’s just what they do. In such cases, you get the sense that the game is trying too hard to be edgy. Other events and characterizations are more successful, often because they’re steeped in dark humor–such as a hysterically memorable moment involving you, a food delivery man, and an elevator.

This sequel embraces the mechanics of previous Hitman games in the ways that matter most. You enter a level with an objective–generally, to off a mission-critical hooligan–and you can accomplish it in any number of ways. The most satisfying and challenging method is to sneak about, crouching behind cover to avoid being spotted, choking enemies from behind with your garrote, or diverting their attention by throwing a brick or some other object. As in most stealth games, you want to remove any bodies you leave behind, lest your victim’s cronies come sniffing around (and they most definitely will). Usually, that means dragging the corpse to a bin or wardrobe and dumping it inside.

 

 

All sorts of objects are scattered around for you to use, beyond distraction items like bricks and screwdrivers. You come across gasoline canisters (shoot them for a nice big boom), proximity mines (place them just right and your target explodes into bits while you watch from the sidelines), microscopes (hide in plain sight by pretending you’re a scientist), and so forth. Of course, the distinctive-looking 47 wouldn’t pass as a scientist in his smoothly pressed suit, so you should probably look the part by punching out a researcher, donning his clothes, and throwing him in a closet.

And so you move through each environment, poking around to see what tools the level might offer for the quietest kill–or the most dramatic, or even the sloppiest. There is great satisfaction in coming across a sniper rifle and landing a sequence of headshots from a window above a crowd, particularly given how you can steady your aim by gently squeezing the trigger before fully depressing it and firing your shot. You might clear out the majority of the level this way, but as you slink toward your destination, you notice all these baubles that you missed, all those lost chances to distract guards by triggering car alarms, all those disguises you never wore. Those lost opportunities, the chances to improve your score by treading even more carefully, and the game’s built-in sub-challenges (wear every possible disguise; don’t wear any disguise) inspire multiple replays.

On the default difficulty, getting caught doesn’t have to be a big deal. 47 can take a lot of damage, and he can use a number of weapons to help him out of a jam. You come across pistols, machine guns, shotguns, and so forth: all the tools of the killing trade. You approach the action as you would in a cover shooter, crouching behind obstacles or pressing against pillars, and then popping out to fire a few shots. You won’t be running and gunning, though it is possible to be overwhelmed by sheer numbers if you’re particularly careless. Should this happen, you can perform point shooting, which allows you to slow down time, mark your victims, and then fire a succession of bullets with a single button press.

 

 

Point shooting is visually stimulating. The camera closes in on the victim, and you watch his head thrust backward from the impact of the bullet in slow motion. In the soundtrack, rising dissonant chords underscore the violence, the music culminates in a cry from the trumpets, and the phrase comes to a rest on a single, unison drone. If only the standard shooting had substance to accompany that style. Your enemies aren’t very smart once they get to shooting a gun. Sometimes they continue to fire at the spot where they believe you to still be, even once you have moved out of the way. But all too often, they just waste countless rounds trying to shoot through doors when they have no line of sight, run directly past you toward some cover location on the other side of the room, or pay no attention when you snipe the guy standing right next to them. This doltish behavior takes the bite out of the direct approach–as does the occasional sight of a limb or gun barrel clipping through a wall.

An instinct meter governs when you can perform your stylish slo-mo point shots, and how much time you have to designate your targets. On medium difficulty, you gradually gain instinct as you play, though higher difficulties adjust the specifics–or eliminate the mechanic entirely. Instinct also allows you to scan your surroundings and pinpoint enemy locations, interactive objects, and points of interest. What with point shots, instinct, and tepid AI, Hitman: Absolution isn’t as challenging as its predecessors on standard difficulty. If you’re a series veteran, you should try the more challenging difficulty levels straight away, as they provide substantially more rewarding victories for hardened assassins.

 

 

47 can get even more personal with his victims, clobbering them in a quick-time button event that aims for some of the time-bending style of point shots. Melee combat with your strongest enemies can take long enough to play out that you’ll want to be out of earshot of nearby guards, lest they start shooting while you’re otherwise engaged. The button prompts during these events are occasional problems, because prompts are located on the victim’s body rather than on the center of the screen. Integrating the button icons into the action this way was a smart idea, but prompts can sometimes be out of camera view, or hidden by an interface element. Fortunately, such scuffles are easily won, so this issue is only a minor nuisance.

What a vivid world it is that these characters are constantly soiling. A visit to a druggies’ haven bursts with psychedelic colors; beaded doors flutter as you walk through them, and a bathroom’s deep blue lights and sparkled walls usher you into the New Age. Here, you slink through a crop of shoulder-high marijuana plants during a police raid. In another instance, you step through huge throngs of fight fans as you seek a way to annihilate the hulking combatant in the ring. But even the more pedestrian environments–mine shafts, a train platform, a vehicle repair shop–are strikingly detailed. Lighting of different hues shines across surfaces and on people’s faces, which creates a rich and heightened reality.

 

 

The shallow cell phone conversations and offhand comments you overhear are believable, making it easy to lose yourself in the world. But Hitman: Absolution’s excellent sound design digs even deeper than those eavesdropped details. The voice cast has not a sour note in the bunch; every obscenity is hurled with enough contemptuous force to match the vibrant sleaziness of the visuals. Great voice acting is backed by great sound effects, highlighted by the various whooshes and hums that communicate your enemies’ state of awareness. The whirs and whines of point shooting are also noteworthy, amplifying the tension of the depleting instinct meter.

These environments are host to Hitman: Absolution’s best missions, which give you the greatest leeway to proceed as you wish. But they also house some of the game’s head-scratching design choices, which abandon the element of choice and force you into a single solution. Several key assassinations remove your freedom and arbitrarily usher you into slow-motion point shooting. These are short and disappointing moments, requiring no skill and providing no tension–and thus diminishing any sense of payoff. A few other levels have you escaping from a burning building and avoiding helicopter fire. These scenes have the cinematic style of so many modern big-budget games, but they shine the spotlight on the game’s ledge-walking and cover-to-cover tumbling, which function fine but don’t have the fluidity of similar mechanics in games such as Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Conviction.

 

 

You could get through Hitman: Absolution’s campaign in ten hours, more or less, depending on how you play, and various challenges, unlocks, and assassination methods invite return visits. But there’s another way to play these missions: through player-created contracts. In this mode, you can compete with other players for high scores by seeing who can finish missions most efficiently and stylishly. To create a contract, you simply play a mission, designating up to three targets and then assassinating them in whichever way you wish, and in whichever disguise you prefer. Once the contract is created, other players can show off their skills–which in turn might inspire you to create more difficult, more intricate contracts. Creating a contract is simple, and it’s a neat way to make old missions feel fresh.

Even if you have no interest in contracts, however, Hitman: Absolution’s campaign is fulfilling on its own. There are some stumbles here and there–in the AI, in the mission design, and elsewhere. The story, too, hobbles a bit at the end, leaving some narrative gaps that needed filling in. But one thing’s for sure: it’s good to have Agent 47 back, and he was clearly needed. The greasy world he inhabits was in sore need of cleansing, and it’s a pleasure to have so many ways of scraping the human grime off its surface and discarding it like the trash it is.

Counter-Strike: Global Offensive


 

CS-GO

 

More update than honest-to-goodness sequel, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive maintains much of what made the original Counter-Strike (and Counter-Strike: Source) so fantastic, while adding a couple of new game modes, both of which were based on user-made mods to the original game. In this update, Counter-Strike continues to enjoy the enthralling gameplay and near-perfect balancing that took it from a cult hit in college dorm rooms to one of the seminal games in the multiplayer first-person shooter genre.

In case you’re unfamiliar, Counter-Strike is an entirely multiplayer experience. You can play offline against AI bots, but these are still merely simulating what it’s like to play online, rather than really giving you a single-player game. The good news is that this is as good as online team-based shooters get. In the traditional game mode, there are two types of matches and two tiers of play. Casual level is for newer players and removes aspects like friendly fire and the need to purchase armor and ancillary items each round (more on that in a second). Ranked level is the original style of CS, with all the “realism” settings enabled, but it also features a comprehensive skill-based ranking system to try to balance teams and place good players with other good players.

Both of these tiers feature several maps–original CS maps like de_dust are reproduced here and still going strong, mixed in with entirely new maps–and each map is tied to one of two game types. In Defusal, one team (the Terrorists) must plant a bomb at a critical site and defend it until it explodes, while the other team (the Counter-Terrorists) must try to either prevent them from planting it or defuse it before it goes off. The other game type, Hostage Rescue, turns the tables. Here, the Terrorists have taken a group of AI hostages that they must protect until time runs out, while the CTs must assault their location and free the hostages.

 

 

One important facet to both of these game modes is that there are multiple short rounds in a match, and after each round you must purchase weapons, armor, grenades, and other equipment using money you earn for killing enemies, winning the round, or doing other important tasks. Thus, as games go on, winning teams tend to have better equipment, while losing teams tend to be worse off. The disadvantage is never insurmountable, but it does give teams an incentive to work, well, as a team. In serious matches, communication and planning are key, because players who die cannot respawn until after a round is over and cannot communicate with living team members.

The traditional CS modes are excellently balanced. Games are fast-paced without being unmanageable, skill is rewarded in both the planning and outfitting stages as well as in battle, and good teamwork typically beats individual skills. Pacing is fantastic, too, because you will generally die at least a few times, giving you time to observe other players’ work, review your own mistakes, and plan for the next round during the downtime. Heck, even watching other players go at it can be entertaining in and of itself, as you shout at them to do this or not do that, knowing full well they can’t hear you.

If you prefer no downtime, however, the two new game modes that have been added this time around should suit your fancy. Called Arms Race and Demolition, they both remove the classic purchasing mechanic and instead award you with a new weapon, instantaneously, when you make a kill. Depending on server settings, weapon awards generally go up in deadliness from an initial lousy weapon, reach an acme, and then begin to go down in usefulness, usually forcing you at last to use nothing but your knife.

Arms Race also removes the downtime of waiting after you die, and plays a lot more like a traditional deathmatch game, with much less in the way of teamwork since each individual is out to finish his slew of weapons as quickly as possible and get the win. Demolition changes this structure, instead challenging you to continue playing a more traditional CS-style game, but with your weapons getting worse and worse with each kill. Both of the new modes are tremendous fun.

No matter which modes you choose to play CS:GO in, however, you’d better be playing with a keyboard and mouse. On the PlayStation 3, playing with a controller is very difficult because CS:GO lacks the hand-holding auto-aim that console FPS players are generally used to, and because many PS3 players will likely be playing with a USB keyboard and mouse, which are both supported by CS:GO. 360 players aren’t so lucky, unfortunately, as they’re relegated to a controller.

This isn’t really a disadvantage, of course, as everyone else on Xbox LIVE is playing with one, too, but you definitely won’t be getting the ultimate CS:GO experience playing with thumbsticks and shoulder buttons. Regardless of your OS, you’ll appreciate some of the bells and whistles it has appropriated from other Valve games, especially Team Fortress 2. Like in that game, you now have “nemesis” players who can dominate you by killing you consecutively, and you can take screenshots of the moment of your death, should you like to memorialize that kind of stuff.

 

 

When using a keyboard and mouse, you’ll notice the controls are sharp and easily customizable. Unlike the guns in, say, Battlefield, most of CS:GO’s guns do not have an aim-down-the-sight feature. There are no vehicles, special weapons, or power-ups, either. You get your gear, learn the maps, and rely on your skills to take you to the finish line. Graphics, while improved from the Source engine, are nothing fancy, and neither is sound–although veteran players will be gratified to hear that many of their favorite guns’ sounds are retained from earlier versions (especially the thunderous AWP). CS:GO adds a lot of new guns, too, of various types, and even a new grenade, the incendiary grenade, which can light a small area on fire for a short time, preventing players from passing through without taking damage.

Bottom line, CS:GO adds plenty, tweaks a little, and keeps the best parts of the classic multiplayer FPS. If you’re into shooters, team-based gameplay, or just classic games that are updated well, you won’t do better at the moment than CS:GO