Saturday, 25 September 2010

Alan Wake (8.5/10)

Creepy atmosphere, fantastic combat, and clever storytelling make Alan Wake's quest thrilling from beginning to end.

Until last night, you had never fired a gun before, but priorities tend to change when you're being hunted by unholy creatures of the night. In Alan Wake, darkness is your most fearsome enemy. The shadows are home to monsters who shun the light, growing more powerful as they slink through the jet-black unknown. You hear a noise behind you and spin around to examine your surroundings, pointing your flashlight from tree to tree, scanning the ground while you ready your trigger finger for the imminent attack. The world of Alan Wake is one of fear and tension--a place where it's perfectly acceptable to be afraid of the dark, because if you're not, you'll be enveloped by the evil forces that dwell just beyond your field of vision. The foreboding atmosphere that permeates every inch of this wilderness never lets you forget the dangers that await the unprepared, but the feeling of dread that defines the early portions dissipates as you get deeper into this moody adventure. Alan Wake doesn't offer enough surprises to keep you unhinged, but the storytelling is so enthralling and the combat is so frantic that you'll be sucked in until the thrilling conclusion.

A vivid imagination can be a dangerous thing. Alan Wake has been suffering from writer's block ever since he released his most recent best-selling novel two years ago, but he soon realizes there are much worse things than being unable to put pen to paper. A story he's written but has no memory of has come to life, flooding a quiet mountain village with demonic creatures that torment his every waking hour. The dark forces that populate this night-time adventure should be familiar to anyone acquainted with the horror genre, but the unique storytelling gives this game an identity all its own. The acerbic protagonist relays his thoughts on the outlandish events happening all around him through incisive yet oddly poetic prose that breathes believability into these supernatural events. Alan Wake's brash nature makes him unlikable at times, but his unwavering focus to save his wife at all costs makes it easy to empathize with him.
The most interesting aspect of the storytelling comes in the form of optional collectibles you find as you wind your way through dimly lit forests. Pages from your unpublished manuscript lie just off the beaten path, and it's in your best interest to snatch these up even though you have to venture deep into the deadly forests to do so. These passages frequently foreshadow events, giving you a snippet of something terrifying waiting for you around the bend. Other times, they fill in details tangential to your own quest, giving you a peek at what other people in the town are up to. These pages flesh out the story in fascinating ways, but there are even more elements tucked away if your eyes are sharp. Abandoned TVs and radio sets can be switched on to trigger brief expositions that give you another look at what is going on just beneath the surface. The television show is particularly intriguing. Modeled after The Twilight Zone, these creepy scenes contains all the twists and moral lessons the classic series is known for.
The excellent combat builds on the fantastic storytelling, ensuring there is never a dull moment during this roughly 12-hour adventure. Alan Wake has a handy way of dealing with dark-fueled creatures: shine a flashlight on them. You carry said light source in your left hand, and you use this to weaken enemies who dare to challenge you. By pointing it at them for a few seconds, you destroy the darkness inside of them, making them vulnerable to your firearms. This mechanic is not only original, but also leads to thrilling situations. When you're surrounded by a gang of growling beasts, you have to choose one individual at a time to spray with your life-sucking light, and balancing your aim to keep all attackers at bay is exciting. If baddies get too close to you, you can duck out of the way at the last second, triggering a slow-motion dodge that lets you quickly retaliate before they have a chance to attack a second time. Because there is so much ammunition sprinkled about and your health regenerates after every battle, you'll rarely succumb to their aggressive advances, but each encounter is still exhilarating.
Exploration is as important as combat when trying to make your way through these haunted woods. Going off the beaten path is the only way you can find the missing manuscripts and television sets, and there are hidden weapon caches that aid you in fending off this unrelenting horde. Aside from your standard pistol, you can nab a hunting rifle and a shotgun, which make short work of poltergeists at close range, as well as a few explosive weapons that quickly dispose of anything that fears the light. Toss a flashbang grenade into a cluster of foes and watch them melt away into nothing. There are also little touches that add to the tension. Rapidly tapping X reloads your ammunition more quickly, and your frantic button taps mirror Alan Wake's movements as you both try desperately to stay alive. At times, you'll find generators that, when activated, energize nearby lights for you to take shelter in. But starting these up requires a few precise button taps that can be mighty stressful when an axe-wielding ghost is breathing down your neck.
The prologue starts things out with a heart-racing encounter. Seemingly alone in the woods after a brutal car crash, you make your way slowly through the foggy forest to the lighthouse oasis on the other side. Of course, a peaceful walk in the woods soon takes a deadly turn, and you find yourself sprinting for your life toward a cabin, barricading yourself inside moments ahead of the imminent danger. This electrifying scene sets up the tension that hovers above you at all times, but sadly there are few instances during the rest of your quest that match this confrontation. Alan Wake's moon-lit wanderings become predictable just a couple of hours into the game. There are a few different takes on the core action, such as escort missions and a novel twist on the classic turret sequence, but not many genuinely surprising or completely unexpected events. Because the storytelling is strong and the combat is rousing, the game never becomes stale. But the lack of memorable moments weakens the impact of the chilly atmosphere, and you're rarely startled despite the supernatural events happening all around you.
Thankfully, the eerie forest you spend most of your time in is so well realized that you'll hardly notice you're doing the same thing for much of the game. A cloud of fog blankets the forest, adding an extra shroud on top of the suffocating darkness. The thin beam of light produced by your flashlight offers a glimpse at what's hiding behind the pitch-black cover, but it cannot produce enough light to ever make you feel safe. Enemies circle around you like wild raptors, luring you into thinking they're coming from your front side, and then when you least expect it, you'll find an axe implanted in your back by a demon who snuck up behind you. Foreboding music increases this desolate feeling. The subtle score that underlines your quest for survival keeps your nerves on edge and your neck hair raised. The slight awkwardness to Alan Wake's movement is easy to ignore once you become entrenched in this gripping adventure. The mood is so beautifully represented and consistent throughout the game that you'll be hard pressed to tear yourself away.
Above all else, Alan Wake’s gripping storytelling really sells the protagonist as a famous author. Every moment of this story is fraught with tension. Wake's narration is filled with as many questions as answers because he has no explanation for the strange events occurring all around him. And the missing pieces from the manuscript, radio program, and television show are doled out in such deliberate chunks that they slowly string you along until the full secret is revealed at the end. The clever storytelling ties in with the dreary atmosphere, building on the fear established from the very beginning with subtle use of lighting and a moody musical score. Unfortunately, the path you march down rarely offers any surprises, which makes your actions take on a by-rote feeling after a while. But the combat is so satisfying that it's largely able to overshadow this misstep. Alan Wake is a riveting adventure that will keep you glued to the screen until the very end.

Red Dead Redemption (9.5/10)

This stunning Wild West epic raises the bar for open world action games, and stakes its claim as one of the most engaging games this year.

As you ride the train west from the northern city of Blackwater, you have no idea what's waiting for you in the frontier town of Armadillo at the end of Red Dead Redemption's intro sequence. Conversations between other passengers clue you in to the state of the nation, and a quick look out of the window tells you that the territories are as untamed as they are beautiful. But it's not until you step off the train in the well-worn boots of protagonist John Marston and have to sidestep a drunk staggering out of the saloon that you realize how alive the world feels, and how much fun you're going to have exploring it. Similarities with recent Grand Theft Auto games are immediately apparent in the controls and the HUD, though both have been improved in subtle but important ways. Those basics, in conjunction with excellent gameplay, a great story, and a sizable multiplayer suite make Red Dead Redemption something very special.

When you arrive in Armadillo for the first time, you're a small fish in an extremely large pond. None of the townsfolk have ever heard of John Marston, and they're too busy believably going about their business to pay you much attention unless you bump into them. The gameworld stretches for miles in every direction beyond the confines of the modest town, and if it weren't for a number of mandatory missions that deftly familiarize you with the controls and gameplay mechanics early on, the prospect of venturing out into the wilderness could be daunting. Marston is a deeply flawed but very likable protagonist, and therefore it doesn't take long for him to start making friends in the New Austin territory. One of them, a ranch owner whom you meet early in the game, gives you both a place to stay (which doubles as a place to save your progress) and a horse to call your own, and it's at this point that you're more or less free to do as you please. Marston's lengthy and occasionally surprising story is linear for the most part, but it's told through missions that don't always need to be completed in a specific order, and you're free to ignore them for a time if you'd rather just explore the giant Wild West sandbox you're playing in.
Whether you're galloping between locations where there are missions available or just trotting around aimlessly, Red Dead Redemption's world is a far easier one to get sidetracked in than most. That's because in addition to the dozens of excellent and varied story missions, there are countless optional undertakings to enjoy--most of which offer some tangible reward in the form of money, weapons, or reputation. While you're in town, you might choose to gamble at card and dice tables or tear a wanted poster from the wall and do some bounty hunting, for example. And when you're in the middle of nowhere, opportunities for gunfights and the like have a habit of presenting themselves or even forcing themselves upon you. Random strangers in need of help can show up at any time, and while it's a little jarring to find two or three strangers in the same predicament back-to-back, most of their requests are varied and fun for the short time that they take to complete. You might be called upon to retrieve a stolen wagon, to collect herbs, or even to rescue someone being hanged from a tree. There's no penalty for ignoring strangers, but when you help them you collect a small reward and become a little more famous in the process.
Fame is interesting in Red Dead Redemption, because it's measured alongside but independently of your honor. Regardless of whether you're doing good deeds or bad, becoming increasingly famous is inevitable as you progress through the game. How people react when they recognize you is determined by your honor, though, which can be positive or negative. If you spend your time acting dishonorably, townsfolk might be terrified of you, but if you're considered a hero, they'll go out of their way to greet you and might even applaud as you ride into town. Either way, there are pros and cons to becoming something of a public figure. People won't bother to report you when you steal a horse if you're famous, and any bounty hunters or posses that come after you when there's a price on your head will take twice as long to try again after failing the first time, for example. On the flip side, as you make a name for yourself you become a target for gunslingers who are looking to make names for themselves, and so you're challenged to duels that play out entirely using the game's slow-motion "dead eye" mechanic.
In duels, even though speed is a factor, dead eye affords you an opportunity to place your shots precisely. The head is the most obvious target, but occasionally you might be required to (or wish to) win a duel without actually killing your opponent. With practice, you can shoot a gun out of an enemy's hand as he makes his move, which is especially satisfying and makes you more famous than killing someone outright. Dead eye can be used in much the same way during regular play, but a slowly replenishing meter limits how often you can trigger it, and given how effective the lock-on targeting system is, you're unlikely to need it much. With the exception of sniper rifles, you can lock on to enemies from a great distance with any weapon. Then, once you're locked on, you can tweak your aim to target a specific part of your enemy. Nudge your aim up just a touch, and there's a good chance you'll get a one-hit-kill headshot. (You do that so often that it's likely to become a reflex every time you raise your weapon). However, you don't always want to kill your enemies, because, for example, once you learn to use a lasso, you have the option to bring bounties in alive. It's more challenging, but it also doubles your reward, and it's extremely satisfying to shoot a criminal in the leg so that he falls to ground and can only try to crawl away, hog-tie and slump him over the back of your horse, and then deliver him to the local sheriff.
You can also use your lasso to rope wild horses, which is a fun way to upgrade or just replace the mount that you spend so much time with. After catching a wild horse, you wait for just the right moment to mount it and then, via a simple minigame in which you maintain your balance as the horse tries to buck you, you break it. Initially, you might want to change your horse just to get a color that you like (there are lots to choose from), but it's also fun to keep a lookout for rare breeds, because they not only look a little more impressive but are also noticeably quicker. Regardless of what kind of horse you ride (including those that are pulling carts and wagons), the responsive controls work in the same way and make it easy to adjust your speed from a walk to a trot, canter, or gallop. You also have the option to match your speed with that of any character you're riding alongside, which is incredibly useful.
As you spend more time with the same horse, it rewards your loyalty by increasing the length of its energy bar, which determines how long it can sprint at full speed. You shouldn't become too attached to your mounts, though, because Red Dead Redemption's world is both a dangerous place and one in which horses occasionally behave unpredictably. There's nothing wrong with a horse walking around a little when you climb off it, but if you leave it close to a deep river, you run the risk of losing it if--as we witnessed on one occasion--it stupidly steps in, because, like you, horses can't swim. Horses also have a habit of not staying put when you tie them to a hitching post, so you then need to whistle for them to come to you from wherever they've ended up or run the risk of inadvertently stealing someone else's identical mount. Other, more avoidable ways to lose a horse include its getting shot by enemies or attacked by wild animals, though the controls for shooting from the saddle are good enough that you really have only yourself to blame if that happens.
Red Dead Redemption's varied wildlife adds a great deal to the world and also makes it a dangerous place to let your guard down. Crows, hawks, eagles, and vultures fly overhead; armadillos, raccoons, deer, and skunks try to stay out of your way; and cougars, coyotes, wolves, and even snakes can be dangerous if they see you before you see them. All of these species and lots more inevitably cross your path, and whether they're solitary creatures or hunting as a pack, their behavior is always believable. Furthermore, all of these animals can be hunted and then--via an animation that sees blood spattering on the screen--harvested for their skins, meat, and other valuable body parts. Beavers, boars, bobcats, bears, buffalo, bighorn--all have something to offer, and all pose a slightly different challenge.
Other than the fun of the hunt, the main reason to kill most of these animals is so that you can sell the aforementioned body parts to a store owner the next time you're in town. Sometimes, though, there are additional incentives in the form of ambient challenges that, as the name suggests, reward you for objectives that you might complete in the course of regular gameplay. For example, sharpshooter challenges include shooting people's hats off and shooting birds out of the sky from a moving train. Hunter challenges, on the other hand, include one-shotting grizzly bears and taking down a pack of wolves using only a knife. For a change of pace, treasure hunter challenges present you with a treasure map that often amounts to little more than sketches of a landmark, and challenge you to locate the treasure hidden nearby. You become a little more famous every time you complete one of these challenges, and beating a significant number of them is a requirement for unlocking at least one of the different outfits that Marston can change into.
Marston is an impressively detailed character whose scarred face and default outfit play big parts in making him wholly believable as a 30-something gunslinger. Other than donning a bandana that covers much of your face (and hides your identity so that you don't affect your fame or honor while performing certain actions), there's nothing you can do about the scars, but by putting on a different outfit you can change how certain people react to you. There are more than a dozen different outfits to discover and unlock. Some of them, like the duster jacket and the poncho, are easy to unlock and offer no real benefit other than making you look even more dangerous. Others, though, such as military and gang uniforms, can be obtained only after completing multiple challenges, and wearing them makes certain factions more accepting of you. There are even a couple of outfits that can make gambling more fun: one gives you the option to cheat anytime you deal in a game of poker, and another--acquired by signing up for the Rockstar Social Club--grants you access to a high-stakes game.
Believe it or not, even while cheating at cards and gunning down hundreds of enemies, it's possible--with only one exception during a plot-critical mission--to make it through Red Dead Redemption's entire story without ever getting on the wrong side of the law. It's fun to play as a heroic bounty hunter, but it's also fun to be chased by one, or several. Much like the system in GTA, being spotted committing a crime alerts local law enforcement, and until you outrun them, they pursue you relentlessly. Your crimes aren't completely forgotten the moment you escape in Red Dead Redemption, though, because every crime that you commit raises the bounty on your head, and the only way to clear that is to visit a telegraph operator and either pay the amount of your bounty yourself as a fine or present him with a letter of pardon--which isn't easy to come by. It's a great system, because in conjunction with fame and honor it really makes you feel like your actions have lasting consequences.
Depending on how much time you spend completing optional challenges, Red Dead Redemption's single-player mode can take you anywhere from 20 to 40 hours to play through. If you're in a rush to get through the game for some reason, you can use stagecoaches and quick travel options to move between key locations on the gigantic map instantly, but there's so much fun to be had out in the wilderness that bypassing those areas isn't recommended. You should also know that while bugs and glitches are few and far between, there's at least one stagecoach driver who apparently isn't great at math and might inexplicably charge you $100 (not an insignificant sum of money, given that it's enough to buy property) on top of the quoted price for a journey. Other problems worthy of note during our 30-plus hours in single-player included a conversation between Marston and another character in which only Marston's lines could be heard, an attempt to crouch behind a decrepit overturned wagon that resulted in Marston being thrown high up into the air, and a cutscene in which two versions of the same character--one injured and animated, one neither--appeared alongside each other. You might also notice characters having some pathfinding problems when confronted by hitching posts, stacks of crates, and the like, but beyond these extremely rare issues, the world of Red Dead Redemption is very difficult to find fault with. It looks incredible, it sounds superb (though the excellent soundtrack occasionally swells up without reason), and it's just a fun place to spend time regardless of what you're doing or whom you're doing it with.
In addition to its lengthy single-player offering, Red Dead Redemption boasts a good number of multiplayer modes that support both competitive and cooperative play. No matter which mode you want to play, all multiplayer sessions start out in Free Roam. Here, you and up to 15 other players are free to do whatever you please with the entire gameworld at your disposal. You can shoot each other, you can cause trouble with townsfolk, you can form posses to complete gang hideout missions, or you can become the session's most wanted outlaw and then kill or steer clear of any other players who come looking to collect the bounty on your head. Your character in Free Roam mode is persistent, and as you earn experience points you gain access to additional character models, better weapons, and superior mounts. It's unfortunate that you don't get to design a character from scratch, and it can be frustrating to enter Free Roam as a level-one player riding a burro and armed only with a pistol, but it doesn't take long to level up, and even high-level players can be killed with just a few bullets if you can get close to them.
When you enter competitive online modes, you don't get to use your persistent character, and everyone is on a level playing field. The five modes on offer are free-for-all and team-based versions of Shootout and three versions of Capture the Bag. Clearly, these modes are variations on the traditional deathmatch and capture-the-flag themes, but they do more than just apply a Wild West lick of paint to them. For starters, all multiplayer games kick off with an awesome standoff in which all players stand around in a circle (or in two opposing lines if it's a team game) and wait for all hell to break loose when the word "Draw" appears on the screen. And in Capture the Bag modes, the bags of gold that you carry weigh you down so that you move more slowly, making you an easy target in the free-for-all Gold Rush and making escorts or cover fire vital in the team-based Hold Your Own.
Between the Free Roam and competitive modes, there's enough great multiplayer content to keep you playing Red Dead Redemption long after you've watched the credits roll at the end of the superb single-player mode and gone back in to finish up any optional challenges and missions that you missed. This is an outstanding game that tells a great story with memorable and occasionally laugh-out-loud-funny characters. Think about great moments that you remember from spaghetti Western movies, put them all into one 20- to 40-hour epic feature, and picture yourself in the starring role. Now you have some idea of what's waiting for you in Red Dead Redemption.

Alpha Protocol (6/10)

Alpha Protocol's astounding intricacies are tarnished by bugs, clumsy gameplay mechanics, and rough production values.

Playing Alpha Protocol is like putting together a 5,000-piece jigsaw puzzle with 500 pieces missing: You get a sense of what the big picture should have been, but the final product is still maddeningly incomplete. This intriguing role-playing game boasts an extraordinarily flexible plot, in which your choices have real consequences both on the story and on the gameplay. Sadly, almost every other element has been skimped upon, resulting in an awkward amalgam of half-baked gameplay elements that never come together. On paper, Alpha Protocol sounds thrilling: You can go into each mission guns blazing, sneak up on your enemies to take them down before they see you coming, or mix and match methods as you see fit all while hacking computers and picking locks to uncover the enemies' deepest secrets. In practice, none of these mechanics work out very well. Terrible AI, a too-close camera angle, and other annoying inconsistencies make the stealth route feel random and unsatisfying. These issues, along with the unreliable cover system and a number of bugs and weapon imbalances, make shooting feel equally clumsy. It's easy to appreciate Alpha Protocol for its high ambitions; it's just not that much fun to play it.

The game begins with a bang--or more specifically, a horrific explosion. Taking a cue from our modern political climate, the opening scenes depict a missile colliding with a commercial airliner. Shortly thereafter, you meet the game's protagonist, Michael Thorton, who is being inducted into a top-secret United States government agency known as Alpha Protocol. Your first mission: travel to Saudi Arabia and investigate the terrorist group responsible for the bombing. Of course, nothing is ever as it seems, and Mike's first mission ends like it began--with the explosion of a well-aimed missile. Thus, a globe-hopping journey through Russia, Italy, and Taiwan ensues as Mike sifts through the information he gathers and follows the necessary leads. The story plays out more or less like a season of 24, though in this case, you get to decide how you to proceed toward the final hour.
Alpha Protocol's greatest asset is, by far, the complex workings behind its plot progression. Conversations with other characters bring with them broad dialogue choices. Most of them boil down to one of three attitudes: aggressive, professional, or suave. Different characters react to you in different ways depending on what approach they most appreciate. A sweet-natured fellow agent may enjoy your flirtations, for example, while a tough-talking Russian vixen may not be so enamored. These characters may stay neutral toward you or they may take a liking (or disliking) to you. If the individual is your handler--that is, your mission guide--you may receive a bonus perk, such as a boost to your endurance levels. In other cases, an allied faction may fight alongside you in battle or provide access to weapons you wouldn't otherwise encounter. In extreme cases, there are life-or-death consequences in which you must weigh the risks of allowing a nemesis to live against the potential benefit he or she might offer: guns, information, and so forth. Many of the plot essentials are more or less static, but how you discover them and the people that join you on the journey can differ from one play-through to the next. Few games can truly make you feel as if you are having an impact on the story, but this is the one area in which Alpha Protocol delivers--and extraordinarily so.
Unfortunately, the storytelling gets bogged down by its own ambitions. What with all its complicated machinations, the game doesn't have much heart, which in turn makes it difficult to feel invested in its branching plot developments. At one point, you may receive an in-game e-mail from a female character that references the sexual tension you've apparently developed, but the story never adequately demonstrates that tension; the e-mail comes as a complete surprise. You may even get the opportunity for a few sexual dalliances toward the end of the game, but because the story never builds on these relationships, these scenes seem forced and mechanical. By the time you reach the final mission, you get the sense that developer Obsidian Entertainment had no idea how to wrap the story up. One potentially emotional moment is treated so flippantly that it's almost insulting; another major revelation foreshadows a confrontation that never comes, making the development feel more cheap than shocking. You sense that the voice actors have done their best to lend some humanity to the story, but Alpha Protocol is all business and no fun; all plot and no character. There are light moments, such as some hysterical news reports on the television (a story about children and sugar is a fun highlight), and Mike's cocky half-grin is occasionally disarming. But these are small delights in a robotic narrative that may stimulate your intellect but not your emotions.
Like the story, the character progression offers a good number of options for letting you advance as you see fit. You decide what abilities to focus on, what weapons to take into battle, and what gadgets to equip. You choose a specialization for Mike early on, which is tantamount to choosing a class or profession in other RPGs. This discipline then determines the depth of your skill trees, from pistols and submachine guns to stealth and endurance. As you'd expect, each time you level up, you then spend points in these various disciplines, which in turn makes the associated actions more effective and unlocks new abilities. For example, leveling up your shotgun tree opens up the room sweep ability, which adds a critical knockdown to every shot; upgrading the martial arts tree adds the fury skill that enhances your hand-to-hand effectiveness. Armor and weapon modifications, as well as a healthy array of different weapons, ammo types, and gadgets, allow for further customization. The resulting flexibility is incredibly impressive.
Unfortunately, the basic gameplay mechanics prevent the wealth of options from getting the justice they deserve. It's clear from the moment that you move around in Alpha Protocol that something isn't quite right. You control Mike from a third-person perspective, but the camera is often zoomed rather close to him, which is a hindrance to taking in your surroundings or navigating close spaces. If you stoop, the camera pulls away somewhat and you get a better view, though the way Mike scuttles about while crouching is laughably awkward. As you progress, you find the camera can cause mild headaches in other ways as well. For some unknown reason, descending a ladder or jumping from a ledge (always a contextual action, never a freely controllable one) causes the camera to swoop to an overhead view and remain there, which is unhelpful and disorienting. At other times, you might pop up from behind cover to take a shot, only to have the camera shift into a useless position or even have your own body get in the way. These gaffes seem odd, considering most game developers seem to have worked through such basic obstacles years ago. You get accustomed to them, but these problems make the simple act of moving from place to place feel uncomfortable.
The camera isn't the only issue with the cover system, which is generally workable but also inconsistent and occasionally buggy. At a basic level, cover works as it does in a third-person shooter like Gears of War: You press a button to take cover behind a barricade or wall and peek over or around to shoot at enemies. But like much of Alpha Protocol, cover wasn't implemented well. Sometimes you encounter walls that you can't take cover behind for no discernible reason; at other times, the stickiness of the cover mechanic combined with the close camera can make it awkward to get out of the way of an incoming grenade. You might also run into glitches and bugs where cover is concerned. Some of these are bizarre but not likely to bother you too much, such as weird animation glitches or moments when you might slide a few feet to the side like the ground is coated with ice. Other bugs are more annoying. You might pop up from behind cover only to discover that your targeting reticle is missing and you can't shoot your weapon--a problem that can only be fixed by extricating yourself from cover. Or for some reason you won't be able to toss a grenade from behind a barricade. Again, basic mechanics gone bitter distract from the complexities that make Alpha Protocol special.
The shooting isn't great in Alpha Protocol, but you may have some fun with it, assuming you choose the game's most effective loadout. If you want to take the shoot-first, talk-later approach, you should almost certainly take an assault rifle with you. They are the game's most powerful weapons, and when used with the auto-targeting ability you unlock early on, they can make you almost unstoppable. Alpha Protocol is not a straight-up shooter, however. Under-the-hood calculations figure into your abilities in the field, so just because you aim directly at a bad guy's head and pull the trigger doesn't mean you're going to lodge a bullet in his skull. If you expect your shooting prowess to translate to battlefield superiority, you'll find that it's only part of the equation. It's too bad it isn't a bigger part of the equation where pistols are concerned. Pistols feel relatively weak, which is to be expected, though they would seem an attractive last-resort option if you pursue the stealth angle. But you are often put in situations that can only be solved with firearms and are clearly designed with long-range weaponry in mind. In these situations, a pistol/shotgun combo is often ineffective. If you focused on stealth and melee at the expense of ranged weapons, expect some frustrations in certain combat scenarios and boss encounters.
The combat challenges come primarily from such imbalances, not from the opposition's desire to stay alive. The AI is pretty dreadful. Security agents and mercenaries run about the levels in haphazard ways, may start climbing ladders as you fill them with lead, will kneel on top of exploding barrels, or might stare directly at you but fail to react unless you take a shot or give them a good punch. There's a weird sense of randomness to your enemies' behavior that diminishes the impact firefights may have had. Other flaws also conspire against the shooting--flaws so simple it's surprising they made it into the final product. For example, when you activate a power, the screen takes on a bright yellow tone, as if someone turned up the light bloom setting extraordinarily high. Unfortunately, your targeting reticle is a dull yellow and can become practically invisible when the effect occurs. The effect can even obscure your target. This is a big inconvenience when using the chain shot ability, which can also cause your screen to jitter uncontrollably. There are chances to get behind turrets and take aim, but the loosey-goosey controls keep these moments from being much fun--a drawback that also applies to a few sniping sections. We also ran into some bugs here as well. On several occasions, manning a turret caused the screen to become painfully blurry and moving the camera resulted in egregious screen tearing.
Not every section requires you to shoot, however. The stealth skill tree harbors some of the more helpful abilities, such as master awareness, which pinpoints nearby enemies automatically. The higher up the tree you go, the more viable stealth becomes. Yet Alpha Protocol is no more a proper stealth game than it is a shooter. As with the shooting, the inconsistent AI provides a major hindrance, and the typically close camera can get in the way of locating nearby enemies. Instead of offering typical stealth game tropes--a minimap with vision cones or the ability to hide in the shadows, for example--the game gives you superhuman moves, such as temporary invisibility. Sneaking up on an enemy and taking him down with a minimum of fuss is mildly rewarding, as it tends to be in most games. But the actions you take leading up to that point involve activating certain skills and scurrying around in your silly crouched position--not outsmarting sharp AI or using the environment in clever ways.
An espionage RPG wouldn't be complete without a bit of hacking and alarm disabling, and to that end, Alpha Protocol features three corresponding minigames. One of them is not so bad: You identify a sequence of mazelike lines in the correct order. It feels just right--not too easy, and not too challenging. It's just enough to keep you on your toes, but another minigame isn't quite as successful. Here, you must identify two lines of stationary code in the midst of a busy grid of moving characters. It can be a challenge to identify the code, which is great. But the still bits you need to identify will be repositioned after a few moments, and the cursor you must position over the matching code moves too slowly. It can be exasperating to isolate the code, only for it to be relocated while you're trying to move the overly sluggish cursor to the right spot. Lock-picking can be equally tense, at least in the console versions, but it's a much more sensible mechanic. Here, you need to position the depicted rods by finessing the left trigger into a specific spot. This takes some getting used to, but it's challenging in just the right way. Sadly, that's not the case in the PC version: You just move the rod into position with the mouse and click. It's super easy.
Alpha Protocol utilizes the Unreal 3 graphics engine, though the only sign that this modern technology was used occurs with the engine's telltale texture pop-in. The pop-in is barely noticeable on the PC, but it's quite an eyesore in the console versions of the game. Sometimes, it takes up to 10 seconds or more for higher-resolution textures to appear, and at rare but noticeable times, they may never appear at all. The pop-in is a distraction, though it may have been more forgivable had the game compensated for it with great visuals. But Alpha Protocol is not a looker on any platform. Environments are plain and textures lack detail, and you won't encounter the quality lighting and shadows you might expect to see in modern games. Animations are stiff and occasionally buggy and often appear to be missing multiple frames, which contributes to the game's overall inelegance. Alpha Protocol is not ugly, however; it's just behind the times and artistically uninspired. Nevertheless, the safe houses Mike operates from between missions have some nice views, and some of the outdoor missions throw in some welcome flashes of color. Similarly, the sound design gets the job done, though without much style. The voice acting is at least solid, and the generic action-movie soundtrack ramps up at the right moments but otherwise stays out of the way.
Alpha Protocol's ambitions are commendable, and if you're a role-playing fanatic, you'll enjoy investigating its intricacies. It's unfortunate that its various ingredients are so undercooked. The flaky cover system, the mediocre production values, the fundamental blemishes gone unchecked--these elements add up quickly and drag the experience down. The elaborate storytelling and character progression are impressive. It's too bad that the gawky, glitchy gameplay can't rise to the same standard.

Green Day: Rock Band (7.5/10)

While it doesn't spring any surprises, Green Day: Rock Band packs high-energy rock into a solid package.

Last year, The Beatles Rock Band demonstrated how a rhythm game dedicated to the songs of one band can create a uniquely immersive and enjoyable plastic rock experience. Green Day: Rock Band follows in those footsteps, and while it doesn't rise to the same lofty heights as its predecessor, it is still a solidly entertaining package. There's a good amount of music, including three full albums, though your affinity for the Bay Area band's work will likely be the determining factor in whether or not you think the game is worth full retail price. The unlockable photos and videos are a nice touch, but Green Day: Rock Band lacks the artistic ingenuity to broaden its appeal much beyond its established fan base. Still, there is some high-energy entertainment to be had here, and interested parties won't be disappointed.

The 47-song tracklist includes three full albums (Dookie, American Idiot, 21st Century Breakdown), as well as a few selections from Warning, Nimrod, and Insomniac. The game also incorporates the six downloadable Green Day songs available for the original Rock Band and Rock Band 2, provided you shell out the funds to download them. The youthful energy of Dookie contrasts nicely with the more melodic 21st Century Breakdown, and though the drum parts in many songs feel a bit too familiar, there is a substantial degree of musical diversity.
Unfortunately, the presentation doesn't do much to highlight that diversity. There are only three venues to play in, and the band members wear only three different outfits (and hairstyles/colors). Career mode is centered around these venues, and as you progress, you unlock new setlists and new songs to play (though all are available from the get-go in Quickplay). There are no music videos to accompany each song and differentiate among them, only a live performance scene featuring avatars that, while recognizable, fail to capture the band's dynamic energy. While the unique videos in The Beatles: Rock Band helped create a sense of progression and novelty from song to song, the forgettable visuals in Green Day: Rock Band practically beg to be ignored. More venues and some of the artistic variety shown in the band's videos would have made this a more unique experience; as is, it feels more like a track pack.
Of course, Rock Band has always been about the experience of playing, not watching, and Green Day: Rock Band is a lot of fun to play. There is a good range of difficulty, ensuring that rockers of all skill levels will have something to enjoy. Each instrument has a number of standout songs, and the three-part vocal harmonies pioneered by The Beatles: Rock Band are on full display here. It's still great fun to chime in on vocals, especially while playing an instrument, making a mic stand an increasingly valuable part of any living room rocker's gear. Venue repetition aside, the setlist format works fine for Career mode, and the unlockable challenges repackage songs in different ways, providing a refreshing change of pace.
You can also unlock pictures and videos from throughout the band's career that include amusing behind-the-scenes profiles and electrifying performance recordings. You can play Quickplay, Career, and Score Duel (a competition against an opponent playing the same song and instrument) either locally or online, and you can export all the songs on the disc to your hard drive using the code on the game manual and 800 Microsoft points/$9.99. As far as value goes, 47 songs for full retail price isn't a great one, but there is more than enough music here to keep Green Day fans rockin' into the wee hours. It goes without saying that Green Day haters should stay away, but those on the fence will find that there is plenty of fun to be had with this solid new entry in the Rock Band lineup.

Naughty Bear (5/10)

This flaky action game falls short of the darkly funny teddy-bear rampage promised by the concept.

Naughty Bear is an action game with one joke, and it's in the title. You play as Naughty Bear himself, who flips out after not being invited to a birthday party. The proportionate response for the fuzzy psycho is, naturally, to terrorise, maim, and murder the other bears living on Perfection Island. Although the sight of one teddy bear bludgeoning another to death is as arresting as developer Artificial Mind and Movement presumably intended, the bear-on-bear extreme violence is the game's only real hook, and it's stretched thin over the course of a full-sized game. Couple that with some shaky basic mechanics, and Naughty Bear becomes a hard sell.

In Naughty Bear, you earn naughty points for killing and terrifying your ursine neighbours. The more varied your reprehensible acts, the more points you earn, and the game enables this with a good, if not astounding, mix of weapons that includes knives, bats, guns, legs of meat, and the like. Further potential for death-dealing diversity comes courtesy of a selection of traps and contextual environment kills--you can slam a bear's head in a car door before he can drive away to safety, for instance, or cram the phone he was using to call for help down his throat. The violence is strong but cartoony; fluff will fly and your victims will whimper, but there's no damage modelling to speak of--no dismemberment or mutilation that would make it stomach-churning.
Combat is basic and requires little in the way of skill. There's one button for hitting, which can be tapped repeatedly for a combo or held for a heavy blow, and another button to dodge. Once your victim is suitably injured, you are offered an "ultra kill" prompt, triggering an execution move determined by your weapon of choice. These moves are amusingly brutal but, with just one animation per weapon, get old after a while.
It's not all about killing, though. Scaring your neighbour bears out of their wits is rewarded with naughty points as well. You can frighten them by roaring "boo" within earshot, by having them come across a dead body, or by having them witness you murder their buddy. For a more effective scare you can catch them in bear traps first to access a button-prompted "super scare", which amounts to a big "boo!" in their face. Torment them hard enough, and they'll go insane and eventually become suicidal. Making a teddy bear beat himself to death with a stick is a uniquely memorable experience.
Rather than having a linear single-player experience with a straightforward narrative, Naughty Bear has seven collections of increasingly difficult episodes that must be unlocked by winning a certain number of bronze, gold, and silver trophies, given out for high scores in the preceding episodes. For most players, this will mean dipping into the early episodes of each chapter multiple times to pick up enough trophies. Each chapter is themed on a scrap of story to explain Naughty Bear's rampage: in one, he's being spied on with surveillance cameras taped to birds; in another, he has not been invited to a cookery lesson that winds up raising the dead. Like most aspects of Naughty Bear, the promise of humour (zombie bears!) doesn't get fully exploited--each chapter contains much the same micro-story reprised multiple times.
Each of these episodes contains a short chain of smallish areas; you progress by completing an area's challenge and unlocking the gate or bridge to the next. The challenge is generally to earn a certain number of points and kill or scare bears under certain conditions: don't be seen more than five times, for example, or finish the area within a time limit. For extra points, you can destroy special items, like birthday presents, by tossing them in a fire or toilet. Your score multiplier, raised by uninterrupted naughtiness, is key for getting the gold trophies; you can stop it from dropping by destroying smashable items such as teapots and windows between kills and scares. It's a likeable approach that works well because each episode is fairly short and based on a specific challenge, but it still feels like something is missing. Open-world, open-ended play or a straight, story-driven adventure might have been more satisfying; this collection of themed challenges would benefit from something more than high scores and a skimpy plot to tie it together.
Technically and artistically, the visuals are competent; Perfection Island is workmanlike, but perfect it's not. The bears look reasonably good and solid, and they flee for their lives convincingly, but you won't come away from a session with Naughty Bear thinking about how lovely it looked. It doesn't help that the environments are small and repetitive, ranging from cabins in the woods and tea rooms inside cabins in the woods to factories inside cabins in the woods and discotheques (also inside cabins, also in the woods). Stages are set at different times of day to mix things up, and the stormy night of a zombie bear invasion injects some much-needed atmosphere, but it's hard not to notice the same few elements (furniture, vegetation, more cabins) used over and over.
The game mechanics, combat included, are generally rough around the edges in a way that detracts from the point-scoring, multiplier-growing experience. In stealth challenges, for example, it's hard to predict whether another bear will spot you or not. The only surefire method is to stay in the wooded areas into which they can't see until they are far away, which hardly makes for tense, dynamic stealth action. Those rough edges also extend beyond the gameplay: we encountered a handful of crashes in our play-through, with the game freezing up in the transition between zones and during multiplayer.
Besides the actual episodes that make up the game, there's plenty more content to unlock by making progress and getting high scores, including costumes for Naughty Bear, each conferring different degrees of life, strength, speed, and accuracy, as well as badges which act as perks in the multiplayer modes. The crucial issue is that the basic gameplay isn't deep or diverse enough that you want to replay episodes several times to gain access to all of that content. Requiring you to gain a number of gold trophies before you can play later episodes extends the game, but it doesn't enhance the fun.
The four online multiplayer modes, at least, are a diversion from the single-player marathon of unlocks. Cakewalk mode involves holding on to a golden cake for as long as possible, Jelly Wars involves collecting jellies faster than the other guy, Golden Oozy has you fighting for a single all-powerful gun, and Assault is a basic deathmatch. There's also a nice variety of weapon pickups and power-ups--another old-school touch--that give you speed, strength, or shielding. The combat system, however, which at least serves its purpose in single-player, disappoints in multiplayer games, where you mostly find yourself running up to your opponents and repeatedly smacking them in the hope that you'll get the ultra kill prompt first. Still, beating down your friends as teddy bears makes for an entertaining new niche in the online multiplayer arena, and matches are bound to provide a few laughs.
Initially, Naughty Bear appears to have the makings of a darkly funny gem; the teddies are cute, the antihero is unpleasant, and the violence is as jarring as intended. The narrator, seemingly a kids' TV presenter who has cracked under the pressure, is alarmingly creepy. But those bare bones don't get fleshed out. With its key idea, basically a Care Bear on a rampage, underserved by the storytelling, and the basic mechanics not strong enough to carry the game on their own, Naughty Bear is a fun diversion for only a short while. As time goes on, though, it feels like more of a series of missed opportunities than the subversive, jokey action game promised by the title.