Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Not Without Its Faults pt 1

I’ve ploughed through two more games recently, seeing through to completion both Disney’s Epic Mickey for the Wii, and Warhammer 40,000: Kill Team for the Xbox 360. Each of these games presents a case study in defied expectations.

Epic Mickey is a big budget, high-profile release from Warren Spector’s Junction Point Studios with some collaboration from Disney animation and Pixar Studios. The idea originally was to reboot interest in Mickey Mouse as a character, trying to shed some of his goody-goody image and go back to his roots where he tended to have more curiosity and mischief in his makeup. Mickey’s bad judgement in Fantasia might seem out of place to modern folks used to his squeaky clean image as Disney’s figurehead, but a look at his cartoon shorts from early in his career shows a much more troublesome mouse.

At any rate, all this high-concept thinking, pushed around with high-power talent and technical ability should’ve resulted in a game for the ages. That’s what the hype machine was saying prior to the game’s release (of course) and nostalgic as I was to see THAT old Mickey (not to mention some of the other characters being touted) I bought into it. Once reviews got actual hands-on time, they were less than fulsome in their praise. But I thought they were just strung out on dope, not really ‘getting’ how the awesome concept should override petty concerns like the odd bad camera angle or repetitious quest. My kids saw the ads and really wanted to play a game that plopped happy lil’ Mickey Mouse into such a Tim Burton-looking game world. So even if the game turned out to be not-so-good to me, they’d probably love it (not being so picky). I was so confident they’d love it, I bought the guide at the same time. I’d insist they NOT use the guide for their initial play-through if possible, but have it around to manage the huge collect-a-thon that I knew the game was going to be after they’d beaten it. And the book is pretty nice, a decent collectable in itself.

Well, I was right about the kids. They do love it. My son is on his second playthrough. My daughter hasn’t finished it, but only because she’s been really distracted by DDR. She just broke her dance pad (wore it out actually), so now she has no excuse. But who gives a crap what they think? They’re just dumb kids. This blog is what I think.

Epic Mickey is pretty damn good looking. The visuals are amongst the best I’ve seen on the Wii. Maybe not quite Muramasa great, but pretty far up there. Being a third-person 3D platformer, the graphics are all polygonal but they have a very moody hand-painted style. And the soundtrack is terrific. Composer Jim Dooley did a great job of coming up with original tunes and riffs on well-known songs (like It’s A Small World and the Pirates of the Carribean leit-motif) and imbuing them all with a Danny Elfman tinkle-tinkle creepiness. If you’ve seen any Tim Burton film that Danny has scored you know the kind of music I’m talking about. The game is not as dark and edgy as the ads made it sound, mostly because the game is almost non-violent (little in the way of real threats for most of the game takes a lot of edge off), BUT the aesthetic aspects and parts of the narrative (lost and forgotten cartoon characters) do imbue a lot of atmosphere and melancholy into the game.

It also does make Mickey an adventuresome hero once again. Plumbing the archives for the old Mickey and bringing along Oswald the Lucky Rabbit and plenty of other little-remembered characters was a great idea. Mickey has to own up to his mischief and deal with its serious consequences. You do this by performing tasks (a lot) and defeating minions and bosses (not so much) in order to undo YOUR original catastrophic mishap.

The controls worked fine for me. I’ve never really understood flat out hostility or antipathy for the wiimote controls. For older games come down the Virtual Console pipe I’ll use a joystick or the classic controller. But for modern Wii-designed games I never seem to have a problem using the waggle stick. For running, sneaking, jumping, and pointing at the screen to stream paint or thinner, the standard controls were fine.

But even with all this, it turns out much of the critical sniping is spot-on with my own opinion. The camera IS pretty effin' bad. I read a lot of 'kills you during critical jumps' complaints, but actually since you can have go pretty slowly and carefully you almost always have time to swing the camera around with the d-pad. If anything, actual onscreen visibility was more of a problem when making harrowing jumps. The game is dark, so the questions of whether you need to jump or where you could safely land seemed to crop up periodically. My problem with the camera was during combat. It tries to keep the same perspective as it does during most of the exploration time, but this is not the best choice in a fight in this particular game, especially where multiple enemies are involved. Honestly, the camera chooses not to be helpful even in battles with a single large beastie. I spent more effort trying to run and keep the camera facing the foe, than I did dodging or shooting paint. The battles aren't actually all that hard, but making the view work for you is an additional challenge that just did NOT need to be there. If I'd had a say in this particular aspect of the game, it'd have been to probably zoom out and up to give a higher, more encompassing isometric view, sort of like Powerstone 2. You'd sacrifice some detail during battles, but you'd know where everyone was at all times, and not have to fuck with camera facing. Again, this is a fault that is manageable, but because you're under duress in the battles, managing the camera while trying to dodge and shoot will seem a lot like patting your head and rubbing your tummy at the same time while driving a car in traffic.

Even THAT is actually not the games biggest fault though. Some reviewers refer to 'tedious fetch-quests'. And boy are they right. That's all this game really is. I bitched about the fights up above, but they only constitute a fraction... a frustrating fraction... of the overall game time. Everyone in the game has some goshdamn thing or other that they need you to do. And you will back track over and over again, to make things happen for the NPCs. And many of the deeds have multiple layers. So you might have to ferry ingredients back and forth between two locations more than once, or have the same mission repeat but with a bit more challenge. You learn several of the levels and their connecting 2D stages far more than you'll want to. You'll be able to navigate 'em with a blindfold on. Bafflingly (and also frustrating) there are a number of levels you CANNOT get back to. So if you fuck up a quest, you're done. I don't have a problem with that, but trying not to use the guide, I didn't know if I exited certain levels I'd never be able to get back... because many levels you can. Ugh. Points I guess for so much non-violent challenge. But it's a challenge just staying awake or maintaining interest in monotonous tasks, finding another flower or rounding up more annoying Bunny Children.

What really gets me about the fetch-quests though, is not the number of them, the repitition or the happy banality. Its the 'guide-itis'. This is where a game contains a puzzle that cannot be solved with normal logic or without a working knowledge of what the games' designers expected from you strategy-wise.

Spoiler alert: Here's an example. At one point the game wants you to find 'power boxes' scattered around a level. These are more or less analagous to the electric meter that every home (in the USA at least) has located on the outside of it. The game shows you one on the outside of a house-- blue with a voltage symbol on it. Then it says 'find three more'. So naturally I go looking all over the other houses. On the back of the buildings, like the one shown. But when that fails to turn up anything, I figure it's a game so they might be stuck on roofs or cornices or something. So I get on top of buildings and look. This turns up an additional one. I cannot find the final two anywhere. After way too much time spent looking, I crack open the guide.

One is located behind in an alcove INSIDE A WALL. The other is in a pit UNDER SOMEONE'S LAWN. What the fuck? Yeah, I could've found them... IF I'D SPRAYED THE ENTIRE LEVEL WITH THINNER... to uncover these hidden spaces. Another time I got stuck, and the answer this time was a hard-to-see route that again, YOU SPRAY WITH THINNER TO UNCOVER. After those two times, I never had another problem finding shit, because the answer is SPRAY EVERYTHING WITH THINNER. There are no hints from the NPCs, no 'fault' in the walls or ground like almost every other video game has in similar circumstances to keep you from hitting every possible spot on a stage. Nope. You pretty much have to thin ever goshdamn spot that looks like it can be thinned. And not only was this tedious, but it was antithetical to how I was trying to play the game. I was kind of playing like Mickey was unhappy that he caused the 'thinner disaster' that started the bad stuff, and created the villain. So I tried to be as positive and lean toward the constructive 'paint' end of things. Covering a whole level in thinner was just NOT what I wanted Mickey to do, purely from a character standpoint, let alone it's just dumb and arbitrary. End spoilers.

So I went to the guide twice to help me get on with the game. I'm not proud about it, but I maintain that I just couldn't get my head around what the game was after from me, the player. AFTER that, no difficulties. I didn't even try to do every quest that came my way. About 60% of the way through the game, the endless whining needs of the game world just stopped mattering. Some of the quests even 'improve' the ending cutscene, but I just didn't have the stamina.

The cutscenes were good, though I'll agree with the majority of critics that not having them fully voiced was odd. As much of a budget as this game obviously had, you'd think having Mickey and company talk would've been a no-brainer... at least during the cutscenes if not during all the in-game conversations. But no, it's all exclamatory oohs and ahs and the occasional grunt of effort. That's it.

Whatever the faults, the game's final act was pretty cool and I'm glad I stuck it out. That game becomes much more what I was hoping the whole game would be like actually. More focused on play skill with some timing on the jumps and peril from enemies while you are trying to perform other tasks. There's a fake-out with the final boss that works better than most final boss fake-outs.

I have NO desire to run through this game again and find more shit. I did do that for Brutal Legend and a few other games, but this game just emphasizes the wrong things for me. It certainly isn't the lack of violence or relative lack of difficulty. Not all games need to be as bloody as Mortal Kombat or as challenging as Ketsui. At first I welcomed the change of pace afforded by Epic Mickey. But it got old pretty quickly. It is hard for me even to say this game is great for little kids and their patience for fetch quests because the game is so damn long, and it does have that camera. My own kids like it, but they are nearly in middle school. I think younger gamers would get totally bogged down on the first run-through.

Unless they have the guide. But you didn't hear that from me.

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