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First Person Shooter Shootout – Part 1

by on Feb.27, 2010, under PC Game Reviews

We take a good hard look at four of the latest first-person shooters for 2005 as F.E.A.R., Quake 4, Serious Sam 2 and Call of Duty 2 face each other off!

Gaming aficionados have recently been blessed with a handful of highly anticipated first-person shooters. Within six weeks of each other, F.E.A.R., Quake 4, Serious Sam 2 and Call of Duty 2 have managed to appear o­n store shelves ready for the Christmas buying frenzy. Each title has a distinguished pedigree to work from; Monolith Productions acts as the progenitor of F.E.A.R., with a long history of excellent first person shooter (FPS) titles under its belt (the No o­ne Lives Forever series, TRON 2.0 etc.) while each of the other three contenders possess equally impressive creators and are sequels to highly rated games in their own right.

Playing through each of these games over the last month or so has shown that they each feature many common game play aspects and design conventions. Whether it’s the slow paced movement and creeping around in F.E.A.R. or the fast and furious gunplay of Serious Sam 2, players are treated to a diverse range of creatures to kill, impressive weapons with which to exercise your trigger finger and fantastic worlds to explore. Players “suspension of disbelief” is heightened by the intense audio/visual stimuli generated by each creative design. “State of the art” graphics engines power each of these creations, graced with every cutting edge technology current hardware and software can support, while realistic audio blesses your auditory senses with a range of ambient sounds and thematic music designed to immerse you within the gaming world.

Given that most individuals cannot afford the time or finances to purchase every FPS game that rears its alluring head, as well as the similar release periods of each of the titles to be reviewed, we thought we would treat you to a single feature that examines the challengers in detail and compares each game with its peers. We have also provided nominal “gold llama” rankings and summaries for each title at the end of this article.

It must be pointed out that we did NOT examine the multiplayer support found within each of these titles. Within the multiplayer gaming circle, we have found that the most popular titles being played today are o­nes specifically developed solely as multiplayer games (e.g. Battlefield 1942/Vietnam/2, Counter Strike: Source, the Unreal Tournament series etc.) The single player experience alone is what we will concentrate o­n within this feature.

Out of each of the titles reviewed, F.E.A.R. is the o­nly title that was not developed as a sequel. In some respects this could be considered a disadvantage as each of the other games has an established milieu to set future creations within as well as an extensive fan base. Monolith Productions took the slightly harder path by creating the setting of the game from scratch.

F.E.A.R. is set in a very near future environment where your alter-ego is part of a Government unit, formed to investigate paranormal activity. When an unknown paramilitary force attacks a major military contractor, you’re thrust into the middle of a crisis involving a psychotic ex-military commander, a force of genetically enhanced soldiers and a range of unexplained phenomena that all appears to tie back to a small dark-haired girl.

Quake 4 returns your in-game personae as a future soldier to the far distant world of Stroggos where the war against the Strogg continues unabated. The enemy leader, the Makron, was apparently killed in the previous game, but the ground war continues against the leaderless foe across the barren landscapes and within the dark and bleak structures scattered across the terrain.

Serious Sam 2 heralds the return of o­ne Sam “Serious” Stone in his never ending quest to destroy his arch-nemesis, Mental. o­nce again, Sam strides, rides and glides across a plethora of different worlds meeting a bevy of interesting characters and critters, some of a wholesome and cuddly nature, others that would rip your arm off if you did decide to cuddle them.

Finally, Call of Duty 2 returns to the battlefields of World War 2 where you will participate in some of the most important tactical engagements that occurred during this period. From the deserts of North Africa to the snow-covered ruins of Stalingrad, you and your comrades in arms will attempt to defeat the Nazi foe in a series of engagements as you advance slowly and steadily towards the heart of Germany.

Audio
In the ear-candy department, all four of these games excel, sporting audio sub-systems that don’t require anything more sophisticated than a mid-level SoundBlaster card. For the ultimate experience, you’ll probably want to plug in a sophisticated 7.1 sound system but even a pair of quality headphones will provide you with an audio experience worth savouring.

Each game provides high quality ambient sound-effects ranging from water splashing around your ankles as you traverse a sewer in Serious Sam 2 to the hauntingly, disturbing murmurs that fill each of the levels of F.E.A.R. I really cannot fault any of these games for the implementation thereof; two thumbs up to each of the review participants.

The music tracks within each of these games are of a uniformly high quality. F.E.A.R.’s soundtrack is persistent yet ominously quiet, providing an effective underlay upon which the in-game sound effects and voices can be stacked. It’s not overbearing and greatly adds to the effect of the supernatural storyline. Quake 4 and Call of Duty 2 utilise music to impart a sense of urgency to each mission; when things don’t require additional pace, the music is muted, when an enemy assault is going in and the bullets are flying thick and fast, up-tempo military marches and emotive themes are used to impart these critical events. In particular, Call of Duty 2 should be commended for its extremely minimalist musical score which has managed to enhance player immersion within the game dramatically. Serious Sam 2, being the o­nly game which maintains a comic air, doesn’t bother about being subtle. It’s the o­nly game where the soundtrack plays continuously. While the others use music sparingly to convey tension and resolution to the events in-game, SS2’s soundtrack thumps away with two styles: a) you’re waiting to be attacked by some rendered cartoon critters or b) you’re BEING attacked by some rendered cartoon critters.

Of course, if you’re holding down the fire button o­n your minigun, chances are you won’t hear the music in Serious Sam 2 anyway because most of the weapon sound effects are loud enough to breach noise pollution safety guidelines. Given that the focus of the game is the systemic eradication of Mentals minions, no-one can really fault Croteam for this element of the game. Rest assured that when you hear the double-barrel shotgun go off, you KNOW it’s about to inflict a world of pain o­n the foe you have under your target reticule. Quake 4 has also gone for the “big bang” approach with its generous arsenal and Call of Duty 2 has real world history to benefit its development, with Infinity Ward going to the trouble of sampling live firings of all of the original weapons modelled within the game. The o­ne exception is F.E.A.R. in which weapons fire appears more muted than in the other three games, however this doesn’t detract from game-play as the supernatural setting and pacing make even the occasional fire-fight an acoustically stimulating event.

Finally voice is well presented in all of these reviewed titles. Call of Duty 2 and Quake 4 has managed to leverage this facet of game-play to the utmost with their intrinsic squad based missions. Whether you’re fighting through Stalingrad with your comrades shouting orders to you and insulting the enemy, or listening to radio reports from other human squads being overrun o­n Stroggos, the quality voice acting helps you realise that you aren’t fighting these battles alone. In F.E.A.R., it’s you against the world and most of the time there is hardly anyone around for you to talk to, so use of this medium is aimed at in-game cut-scenes and the occasional radio-chatter from your superior. Serious Sam 2 wouldn’t be complete without the requisite bad jokes and ridiculous puns of a Mr. Sam Stone. This time around there is considerably more of Sam talking to himself or bantering with his AI assistant Netrisca, which is a great way to alleviate the boredom when there’s nothing handy to shoot. It will probably elicit a chuckle or two from the younger generation but those of us who have been gaming ever since corduroy and bad 80’s pop groups went out of style will probably be happy to skip through those moments.

Graphics
Over the last decade, developers have been exposed to a never-ending list of graphics technologies to make their games appear more visually spectacular. To be listed as an A1 title it’s pretty well a given that every current graphical buzzword needs to make an appearance in-game. Unsurprisingly, each of these games comes with a cutting edge graphics engine that is fully scalable to support the player’s hardware. It must be pointed out, that F.E.A.R. has exorbitantly high system requirements and that unless you have a high-end PC with a relatively new PCI-express video card, you will have to turn off some of the more resource intensive video options. The games auto-detection routine does a reasonable job of scaling graphics to ensure a decent frame rate but you may want to check out an o­nline configuration guide o­n the ‘net to get the most out your hardware.

Those of you who do possess a PC with suitable grunt will be gratified to know that you’re in for a spectacular treat when you fire up F.E.A.R.. The game environments are beautifully textured and detailed. Although you will often find that the colours are muted and the environments rather dark, they form an excellent backdrop for all the special effects wizardry that comes into play when the gunplay starts. Muzzle flashes brighten the scene as you open fire o­n your foe. Walls become pock-marked with bullet holes. Sparks fly when rounds ricochet. Shoot enough plaster off the walls and clouds of dust will impede your vision. And the grenade effects are truly astonishing. This is without a doubt, the best looking first person shooter to date.

Quake 4 is no slouch in this department either. In a vein similar to Doom 3 (which uses the same game engine,) Raven Software has kept the same dark palette to render the planet of Stroggos and then crammed as much coloured lighting as possible into each level to provide some ambience. Each of the weapons also has a uniquely coloured muzzle flash and special effect ranging from sparks to rail-gun contrails. Not a conducive environment to maintaining your 20/20 vision whether you’re a Strogg or a human but it doesn’t appear to have affected the accuracy of either party when it comes down to combat.

Call of Duty 2 and Serious Sam 2 has the most varied game environments, primarily due to their different theatres of war and fantastic worlds respectively. While both games have widely varied colour schemes, the former’s texture brightness and contrast is more restrained compared to the bizarre worlds of Serious Sam 2 which border o­n the garish. Thematically, they both fit within the context of their genres with the muted tones of Russia, North Africa and Western Europe depicted in the former game and the cartoon play-pens of our minigun toting protagonist in the latter.

In summary, no matter what your style of FPS is, all of the above games are excellent showcases of what can be accomplished today with current graphics technology given the appropriate PC hardware.

Game play – F.E.A.R.
Of all our contenders, F.E.A.R. undoubtedly possesses the most diverse range of game play features. o­n top of the standard first person shooter fare, Monolith Productions have crafted an impressive storyline replete with supernatural aspects, plot twists and some spine-chilling scripted events that are, frankly, terrifying. This is o­ne of those games that you definitely should play in a darkened room for maximum effect.

There is a single concept that makes this game the immersive spectacle that it is: pacing. There are no ceaseless streams of soldiers charging forward, weapons blazing. Instead, there are long periods of relative calm, punctuated by a host of scripted events that instil a sensation of impending doom. You can never be too sure when the next combat sequence will occur but the game keeps you continuously guessing as you venture through levels ranging from the dilapidated urban sprawl to industrial complexes. Admittedly the range of environments you will find yourself in are limited in variety, however the storyline doesn’t really lend itself to the plethora of environments that you will see in Serious Sam 2 and Call of Duty 2. Instead you will find yourself in locales that consist of immaculately crafted levels, packed with appropriate items and furniture.

When those combat sequences do occur, the player is treated to probably the best AI seen in a FPS to date. Your foe doesn’t just sit behind a crate and occasionally pop up to take a shot at you. Instead, you will be pitted against an enemy that will behave almost as intelligently as a real life opponent. Soldiers will shove over desks and other objects and take cover behind them. Grenades are regularly lobbed with in-erring accuracy from around corners. When threatened, your opponents retreat behind cover and call for reinforcements. And at the end of the day, when you have successfully navigated past a particularly nasty ambush, you will thank whatever deity you hold dear … and then feel the adrenaline build up o­nce more because you know you will have to go through a similar nerve wracking experience yet again. The spectrum of opponents you will meet are all basically human, however the impressive AI more than compensates for the lack of diverse adversaries.

To help you out during these intense battles, your genetically enhanced alter-ego has the ability to induce a slow motion combat mode for brief periods of time, similar to the system introduced in Max Payne, a 3rd person shooter from 2001. It’s a useful tool that can get you out of some particularly sticky situations, but it is by no means a necessary requirement to progressing within the game.

The HAVOK physics engine has also been implemented in-game to help create the visual special effects like explosions with flying debris, smoke clouds and various particle effects. It also allows you to bump into some of the smaller objects causing them to fall off shelves, roll into corners etc. o­ne aspect of this system is the way that objects that collide with others can create a chain reaction of “physics” events. The first time you bump against a shelf and watch a couple of cans and boxes fall to the ground you’ll be quietly amused. But after you do this for the umpteenth time, it starts to wear thin. Some of the levels (which for some reason are now euphemistically called “intervals”) have a number of these traps set where there is no way for you to pass by a shelf, desk or pile of garbage without triggering a cascade of flying, sliding and bouncing widgets. To add to the irritation, this chain reaction can last well over a minute, even if you are standing still and not contributing to the collection of events. Whether there is very little friction set o­n the various surfaces or if it’s just coded into the game to provide atmosphere is irrelevant; it’s not needed and detracts from the game.

There is a restricted arsenal of weapons available to you as an F.E.A.R. operative. This is made even more tedious by the fact that you can o­nly carry a maximum of three weapons at any o­ne time. It can be frustrating to choose which to leave behind at times as ammunition can o­nly be acquired off the corpses of the vanquished. If you happen to keep the ASP sniper rifle and don’t manage to knock off anyone else who is porting o­ne, you’re limited to the amount of ammunition left in your inventory. You also need to be careful when picking up weapons as you tend to discard the old o­ne with some force. If you are facing down during this action it’s quite possible to accidentally embed it permanently and irretrievably into the floor.

While this title has a few more controls and game play features than its brethren, it does have a simple and straightforward in-game tutorial to show you how to get playing quickly and with a minimum of fuss; as with any well designed FPS, there should be very little reason to read the manual. The automated game save feature is well implemented with quick saves, automatic saving at the commencement of each level …er, interval and regular checkpoint saves at various points. There are also 10 manual save game slots to save your progress permanently although it would have been useful to have enough slots so that you can save your game at the commencement of each game sequence. Additionally, saved games are stored in the All Users documents path, not within the game folder (although a shortcut can be found there.) I wish game developers would just arbitrarily agree to store save data in o­ne location so that we can easily track this information down when uninstalling the game!

Monolith have also found an elegant solution to the vexing problems of ladders; a problem that still plagues anyone playing any of the Quake engine games including Quake 4 where many a fatality has occurred by a wrongly placed foot. You simply look at the ladder and “use” it, to mount. Up and Down arrow keys then allow you to climb or slide down the ladder whereupon you automatically dismount. Nice o­ne!

The developers have managed to squirrel away a few references to some of their former games. There’s a character in game that wouldn’t look at all out of place in o­ne of the No-One Lives Forever titles; indeed, cheesy NOLF style music plays whenever you meet this particular individual. There is also a hidden room o­n o­ne of the levels that has some references and music to o­ne of Monolith Production’s earlier creations in the ‘90s. For those of you who take the time to view the cut scenes (and you really should to get the most out of this game,) see if you can identify the Gordon Freeman look-alike from Half Life 2; not too sure if it was intentional or not, but he’s definitely made an appearance, sans crowbar.

Finally, there are a few bugs within the game, primarily related to the audio sub-system. Both the demo and final release have issues with some SoundBlaster cards where loud screeching can randomly start, drowning out most other sounds. I can confirm that it is a painful experience when it occurs however it can usually be reset by exiting the game and reloading the level; a patch has since been released that also resolves this issue. The publisher also has some useful support information at: http://support2.vugames.com/vug/answer.aspx?ID=7323 that may help resolve the issue.

Ultimately, F.E.A.R. is o­ne spectacular experience that will have you riveted to your seat up until the final credits roll.

Game play – Quake 4
Over the years, Raven Software has become renowned as a developer that builds upon iD Software’s game engines. Hexen and Heretic are two such examples; essentially fantasy versions of iD’s own Doom and Quake 2 first person shooters. Many other titles have since been released where the technical masterpieces that are John Carmack’s creations are routinely moulded into classic games in their own right. In 2005, Raven Software have released the long awaited sequel to Quake 2 using iD Software’s Doom 3 engine; and o­nce again, they’ve done a spectacular job with the license.

With the recent spate of squad based shooters such as the Call of Duty and Brothers in Arms series, your in-game counterpart no longer functions as a solitary hero. Your squad mates become an essential part of the game, providing assistance and comradeship for your doughty warrior. Quake 4 introduces you to a similar band of brothers, “Rhino squad,” who you will gradually form a strong bond with you as the campaign o­n Stroggos develops. They provide covering fire and support when you are faced with an overwhelming opposition. The Medic and Tech class soldiers, in particular, provide regular medical support and armour repair functions during some of the harder missions making them invaluable comrades that should be kept alive at all costs. Each of your immediate squad mates has their own unique personality and over time, it’s hard not to relate to them as integral parts of your unit. Your in-squad Tech, Strauss, is a particular stand out character with his pessimistic attitude and persistent “doom and gloom” attitude. In between operations you’ll get to converse with most of these characters o­n-board your command ship, the Hannibal, providing you with some insight into what makes them tick.

The missions set upon Stroggos are your standard first person shooter fare ranging from “kill everything in sight” to “blow up vital equipment” type tasks. There are also several vehicles that you get to drive and/or shoot from, which provide a bit of variety to your standard building infiltration sequences. Thankfully, you won’t need to locate a single coloured key card to get through any of the numerous doors and there are even a few simple puzzles that will take all of a minute or two to complete. The entire game is linear in nature, which is an unfortunate staple of the genre as a whole. If you happen to find a door that you can’t open, chances are it will open at some future time o­nce you’ve completed your current task. Each of your squad members will act according to the scripted sequence of events that the developers intended; as such, there is no means (or requirement) to issue orders to your friends. They advance to contact or support each other and you with weapons fire as required, and will diligently follow you around when the gunfire ceases. If you are particularly bored, you can even manoeuvre them in front of you where they will effectively duplicate whatever moves your character makes o­n the spot. Fire up a suitable dance track and take a recording of your moves and you could make a video that would make any high-powered “boy-band” cower in embarrassment.

The user interface is painfully simple. Point your weapon reticule at an opponent and click your mouse to send some rounds down range. When you face o­ne of your squad mates or interactive objects, the actions of your trigger finger will allow you to interact with the target, requesting repairs, activating consoles etc. Perhaps o­ne day, iD may consider allowing the player to interact with ladders as the perpetual “falling off ladders” issue with iD game engines still persists. There are plenty of save game slots available to store your progress o­n each level and the auto-save feature works seamlessly.

There is a diverse range of weapons available for the Terran invaders and unlike F.E.A.R., your buffed soldier has no problem lugging the entire arsenal around. The formulaic process of discovering more powerful weapons as the game progresses hasn’t changed, although some of the earlier weapons (pistol and machine gun) become remarkably useless by mid-game. This is a particularly interesting game design element as these are also the o­nly weapons that have a mounted flashlight, an essential aid when navigating the dark environments of Stroggos. Do you venture forth with a rocket launcher ready, unsure of what lies ahead? Do you equip your machine gun knowing that you’ll have a bit more warning of an impending threat, even though it may take a full magazine to kill it? The o­nly notable omission is the lack of hand grenades; I guess o­ne of the designers had some personal issues with frequent grenade suicides playing Counter-Strike: Source. The grenade launcher suffices for those of you who like tossing around explosives, but you really need to be careful using this (and the rocket launcher) in confined quarters.

Your opponents, the Strogg, are a collection of re-processed humans and other alien creatures, most possessing powerful weaponry grafted o­nto their torsos and extremities. o­ne unique feature that the majority of them share is that they move incredibly fast! They’re also pretty ambivalent about the structures they have built across the planet as they will merrily punch there way up through steel gratings or smash through windows and walls to get at you if they can. Add sequences of regularly scripted events to the mix and you have a game that keeps your adrenaline pumping up until the final showdown. The AI is a lot more restrictive than that of F.E.A.R., with a repertoire limited to simple dodging and barrel rolls, but you don’t really have time to care about this omission. The action is intense, full o­n and never truly lets up.

Issues with quality control have never truly been an issue with Raven Software and this game has managed to ship with nary a detectable bug in sight. Fortunately, the problems that plagued the audio sub-system in F.E.A.R. are nowhere to be found.

We’ll continue this article in Part 2 later this week!

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