Thursday, November 13, 2008

DEMO-LITION: A Taste of Bird, Bear, & Zombies

While I usually don't take time to delve into demos unless I'm really curious about a game, or want it and can't afford it, I've checked out a couple demos lately and am here to report on 'em.

Banjo Kazooie: Nuts N' Bolts

I enjoyed the original BK, but my wife Maureen was an absolute fanatic about the two N64 games in the series. She played them non-stop, has a stuffed Banjo-Kazooie plush (which compliments my Mumbo Jumbo plush quite well) and used to draw several cartoony pictures of the bird and bear duo. You'd think we'd both be excited about the new Xbox 360 version, but we're not. We've been skeptical about the whole "Nuts N' Bolts" part, as while building a variety of vehicles may be cool, it seemed too much of a deviation from the original formula. Still, over the weekend when I was looking for the Left 4 Dead demo and couldn't find it, we downloaded this and gave it a try.

The game is beautiful and the character models have been updated and redesigned well. The music is true to form and initially, the gameplay seems fairly intact. Unfortunately, Nuts N' Bolts is one of those annoying Xbox 360 games where only HDTV owners can actually read the in-game text. This was a major bummer, as the game starts out in a town, where a computer screen faced robot, Mumbo Jumbo (in overalls), Grunty the witch and several other anthropomorphic animal characters all have something to say—including how to play the game and build vehicles. This doesn't make the game unplayable, just confusing, as only by leaning in and squinting and working together could we get the essential instructions on what to do. You’ll need to follow instructions too, as initially, the town is blocked by some red force field looking thing which only opens up for exploration after you complete an assigned task. After some fiddling around, it seems Kazooie now has a tractor-beam ability, which allows her to pick up various parts in a level, and flip them or place them elsewhere (like a designated area). There are also vehicles, which presumably you can modify to be a variety of things, but without textual instructions, we had no way of knowing how to do this (plus there weren't too many parts in the opening area).

There is some small amount of good platforming to be had, and the one vehicle we found controls well, though figuring out what to do seemed to be too challenging, because everywhere we went different instructions were being told to us in lengthy text increments, and it got to be too much. The game, at least the opening, is very heavy on dialog. This reminded me of Kameo, which I was excited about ever since it was announced for GameCube but found it disappointing when I finally played it on 360. It was an amazingly put together game, but it just seemed like there was too much of everything. I could wander around the town and talk to people multiple times with them saying different things each time; there were so many moves; so much story... It was a little overwhelming. Of course I only played a little of Banjo Kazooie: Nuts N' Bolts so I can't say it's like that for certain, but it kind of feels like that already. Rare has seemingly (and increasingly) always been about “more of everything” though sometimes less is more. Again though, I only sampled BK: NnB so I should shut the fuck up.

We did make it to the customization part of the game, which is a garage run by Mumbo, and it seems like there are a plethora of ways to customize your vehicle from parts you acquired down to the color scheme. Seemed neat, but there was too much tiny text to try to make sense of it.

Bottom Line: Even if I had an HDTV, I don't think I'd be interested. There's a little bit of the old stuff in there, but it's too different and (apparently) too vast to pull me in. New is good, but I’m not a fan of the little I played and could not understand. Take that as you will. But please, we'll take those XBLA downloads of Banjo Kazooie and Banjo Tooie ASAP!

Left 4 Dead

Dustin called me Tuesday to inform me the Left 4 Dead demo was finally up, and though the jerk never called me back after work to try out the multiplayer, I still put the demo to the test. If you haven't seen the opening film yet, go watch it right now. The game plays out very much like the cinema which establishes the story, as zombies are literally everywhere. Just when you think you’ve killed them all, one (or some) will pop up from behind you, burst through a glass window, or wrap its super long tongue around the neck of one of your teammates (or you!) and start dragging them off—seemingly from completely out of the blue. Sometimes, a zombie mob will come running out from areas you have just come from, meaning there’s no safe angle to turn your back to. On top of all that, these aren’t the slow ass Romero shuffling zombies either, these fuckers run, and climb and jump so you’re really going to need to be on the look out at all times.

Along with the mad amounts of zombies, there are a couple specialized types of undead, like the giant tongue ones previously mentioned. There are orca-fat zombies who will explode if you get too close, spewing zombie-horde-attracting goo all over you, leaving you and your team to be pretty much fucked. However, these fat bastards can be taken out with a single shot from a distance, providing another incentive to proceed carefully. There are also guys called “Hunters” who can jump very high and come at you very fast and ferociously. And don’t be fooled by the cries of what sound like a sad little girl sobbing… The swarms of undead themselves can be a lot to tackle at times too; get too far away from your group and you could be surrounded, with several teeth gnashing at every side of you.

That’s where teamwork comes into play. Again, I was only playing the single player mode with my teammates all computer controlled. Their AI was pretty good though, as they stuck together in a tight knit group unless I boldly led them forward, and would cover my back and each others’ quite well. Having four people on your team means you can fend off the seemingly endless waves of zombies pretty well as long as you work together and cover different sides. It also means you can heal each other after particularly intense fights or give out pain pills that temporarily boost health. I presume there are opportunities to switch weapons with your cohorts as well. Any time you get too far away from the group, you’re asking for trouble; Left 4 Dead is definitely a game that requires you to progress slowly and cohesively as a team if you’re going to do it safely.

The graphics are really excellent (even without having an HDTV you can see the immense detail that went into this game), and depict the action very well. Music is minimal, jarring notes, which is perfect. Gameplay is spot on, as there isn’t just killing undead, there’s times when you want to avoid them, by turning off your flashlight or being careful not to set off car alarms. It’s a really good FPS and I can only imagine it gets four times as sweet once you get a crew together to play. If I’m able to do that soon, I’ll definitely post impressions.

Bottom Line: I didn’t need to play this to want this game. Now that I have, I at least I know the money will be very well spent. It is awesome and exceeds my expectations, despite the fact I’ve only played single player so far. I can see my friends and I playing this one a ton in the coming weeks and months.


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