Wednesday, December 11, 2013
Games: Although there are still a few weeks left in 2013, we’ve finally hit that lull that comes only after all of the big games have been released for the holiday and the pressure of trying to cover everything is off. I love this time because my backlog is enormous, and it’s one of the few periods when I can safely start chipping away at it without feeling bad for neglecting something that needs to be reviewed.
Case in point, ZombiU.
I’ve had ZombiU in my backlog since the day I bought my WiiU, and I’ve never had time for it until now. I guess it worked out since we decided to cover it as a group for the next @Gamecritics podcast, but I’d have to say the wait wasn’t worth it.
The gist is that you play a survivor in a post-zombie London, taking advice from an unseen voice who guides you through the city and helps you do what needs to be done. One twist is that the game runs on a permadeath structure, so every time your character falls, he or she turns into a zombie (with a backpack full of your items, by the way) so your next character needs to track down the old one, kill them, take their stuff, and continue the mission.
The other twist is that the developers have incorporated a number of novel functions into the WiiU’s gamepad. For example, when going into the inventory, it must be managed on the gamepad touchscreen. At the same time, the character in the game is “looking” into his backpack. He looks in his bag as you look at the gamepad, essentially. It’s kind of neat. Another common usage is to use the game pad to “scan” an area in order to detect items and zombies.
Anyone who knows me knows that I’m usually interested in zombie games that try to do something besides the average shoot-em-up, so ZombiU seemed like it would be right up my alley. Unfortunately, I’ve had a devil of a time staying interested enough to make real progress.
One of the problems I have is that in a game where supplies and resources are quite precious (you’re counting every bullet) I take issue with the developers having zombies pop up out of nowhere to surprise and ambush.
In one instance, I was in a completely cleared-out building looking for supplies, only to come around the corner and see a zombie waiting which had obviously been placed by the developers to catch me-off guard. In another, I was trying to reclaim gear left on my last character and I was literally (literally!) watching zombies spawn on top of a roof and then stumble down to the street to surround the resources.
The way I see it, you can’t have it both ways – if the resources are tight and I’m expected to manage them, then you can’t break the rules and surprise me in a fakey-gamey way after I’ve done due diligence and been sufficiently cautious, i.e. - zombies appearing in locked areas. On the other hand, if you really want to do the jump scares and go for something on the action side, then don’t be so stingy with the items.
Another problem is that this is one of the only games I’ve ever played where my character feels slower, clunkier, and less competent than the zombies. It’s incredibly easy to get surrounded and overwhelmed, and playing in the first-person perspective doesn’t help. The melee using a cricket bat feels slow and awkward, and there aren’t any new techniques to learn or any power-ups to get for it. With bullets in such short supply, that bat is going to see the majority of the action, yet it’s the most awkward, boring thing to use.
To thing that kind of sealed the deal for me is that the very features which are supposed to make it stand out -- the gamepad augmentation -- only serve to take me out of the game and destroy my immersion.
Honestly, despite what the current trend seems to be, it’s a royal pain in the ass to constantly look back and forth between two screens. It just breaks my focus and distracts me from what’s going on. It would be pretty cool if second-screening was only required once in a while, but taking my eyes off the action every time I needed to access my inventory (often) or to scan the area (constant) just became a chore.
I’m still pretty early in the adventure, less than half, but I feel absolutely no desire to go back to it and when I do, it just can’t hold my attention. The systems in the game don’t work for me, and with all of the second-screening, I feel like I’d rather be playing something else that I can really sink my teeth into.
Speaking of which, it’s been a very long time since I played a Zelda game which I genuinely enjoyed a (I think Spirit Tracks was the last one) but I’ve been spending time with A Link Between Worlds while I’ve ignoring ZombiU, and I think it’s probably the best Zelda Nintendo has turned out in quite a long time.
What I like is that it does away with a lot of the baggage that’s dragged the recent iterations down – there’s no longer constant repetition of things the player already knows, the game is open to exploration from the start, and the dungeons can be tacked in nearly any order, so it becomes a fairly self-directed experience with little impedance save for the occasional sticking point here and there. In fact, it generally moves at a rapid clip, which I appreciate. It’s nice to jump into something like this and have it wrap up long before I’m sick of it.
That said, the game is far from perfect, and it stumbles in a few places that were a little surprising.
To begin with, my good friend @Duckols took the game to task for something that I agree with – despite giving the player nearly all of the tools from the beginning of the game, the dungeons are still constructed around using only one. From start to finish, I can only think of perhaps two instances where I actually got some benefit from having another piece of equipment besides the one that was “recommended” and that seems a bit wrong. It’s odd to think that Nintendo trusted the player to be smart enough to handle a more open structure and a lack of handholding, but they clearly didn’t want even the possibility of going into a dungeon without everything needed to complete it.
The weapons all seem overly-dedicated in their purpose, as well. I got through the game never needing to use the bow or boomerang, and the sand rod doesn’t even do anything outside of the desert. Half of the weapons could have been cut.
Speaking of lacking functionality, the game’s big trick is that Link can “flatten” himself and walk on walls in 2D fashion. It’s a neat idea and there are a few places where it really wows, but in general it feels like it’s half-baked. Sadly, this mechanic is mostly used to help Link cross gaps and reach elevations which don’t have any other way up.
For instance, he can climb a ledge on one side of a room and then flatten onto the wall. When walking, he’ll keep the exact same altitude as he walks his way around to the other side. Naturally, the developers go a little crazy with minor height differentials, and I got really tired of looking for ways to boost up to things that were just a little out of reach. Adding insult, there were too many times the developers lazily stuck a little brick or some type of broken surface to prevent link from taking a shortcut, and there were other times when it seemed like he should be able to slip through somewhere but couldn’t.
It was also disappointing to find that Link doesn’t really do anything when he stuck to the wall except walk. There are no enemies to kill and he can’t use items or jump Mario-style, and I almost wanted to cry when I realized that there really wasn’t much to this power except simple traversal. I mean, there could have been all sorts of interesting 2D sidequests or activities, not to mention the different ways the items could have been implemented, but none of it ever happens.
Although I’ve listed out more negatives than positives, don’t get me wrong... I definitely feel like Link Between Worlds was a worthwhile experience, and I certainly enjoyed it once I was able to put the overfamiliarity aside. For people who aren’t as burned out on Zelda as I am, I would imagine the enjoyment to be even greater.