Hopefully this is in the right section...

Seems we lost the two hundred-something page "Last Video Game You Played?" thread during the move over to the new forums. Given that the equivalent movie thread was rebooting itself every three hundred pages or so, I suppose this one was close to qualifying for a second edition anyway. I'll kick things off with the last post of the old thread (as with many of my longer posts, I happened to have it on my hard drive):

Driver: Parallel Lines (2006/2007)

To say the Driver franchise has had its ups and downs would be an understatement. The original game was a smash hit on the PlayStation in 1999, providing a ridiculously challenging throwback to the 70’s car chase flicks. I played through a bit of that game again on my PC recently, and (PS1 graphics and dumb cop AI aside) I found it had aged pretty well. It all seemed to go downhill from there, though, with the somewhat disappointing Driver 2 hitting Sony’s first console in 2000 and the hideous broken mess that was DRIV3R arriving in 2004. Developer Reflections Interactive almost seemed to be going out of their way to kill their golden goose, even as Rockstar was refining the genre with their 3D Grand Theft Auto games.

Released for the PS2 and Xbox in 2006 (and ported to the PC by Ubisoft one year later), Driver: Parallel Lines represents something of an apology for its disastrous predecessor. Undercover cop Tanner has taken a game off, as have the awful on-foot controls, rubber-banding cops and mystifyingly invincible lamp posts. Also gone are multiple cities (although Parallel Lines’s depiction of New York City is larger than all DRIV3R’s environments combined) and, unfortunately, the awesome Film Director feature. In other words, at least on the surface, Parallel Lines seems to draw more inspiration from the GTA games than its namesake.

Parallel Lines’s vision of New York in 1978 is very atmospheric, with great licensed music, heavy muscle cars and a warm orange glow combining to make for a pleasant environment. It would be difficult to overestimate how much the 70’s tunes add to the first half of the game — I often found myself just cruising around New York, listening to the music. Via some plot twists near the midpoint (all of which were spoiled by the trailers), the latter half of Parallel Lines takes place in 2006 (hence the title). Minus some details (like Ubisoft’s trademark in-game advertising and the WTC), the layout of the modern-day NYC is virtually identical to the 70’s one, but with cold blue lighting (reminiscent of a CSI episode) and less distinctive cars that make the newer era seem less inviting than before. The newer music is also something of a mixed bag — some of the techno and rock was catchy, but I often found myself furiously punching the “next track” key (even during the middle of an intense car chase) because some unbearable piece of rap had just come on. All that said, the 2006 era does pack a superior narrative, partially because you no longer feel the need to punch the protagonist (named The Kid, or TK) in the face for being such a dork, and partially because our hero finally stops serving as a passive component of the plot, actually taking matters into his own hands in his quest for revenge. Apart from some iffy compression, the pre-rendered cutscenes are very well constructed (which shouldn’t be all that surprising, given that the pre-rendered sequences in DRIV3R were probably the best things about that game).

While Parallel Lines packs its virtual city with a number of side-quests (including street races, legal circuit races and Crazy Taxi segments), the heart of the game is its thirty-two story missions. This isn’t like GTA, where it was easy to spend lots of time goofing off and ignoring the plot altogether — after the fifteen hours or so it takes to reach the credits, you likely won’t be putting in dozens of extra hours to 100% the game. It’s fortunate, then, that most of the story missions (which can be replayed individually, a feature that more open-world games should have) are classic Driver material in the best sense, with armies of cop cars, strict timers and, by the final levels, plenty of keyboard-pounding frustration (as it should be). A couple of DRIV3R hold-overs also show up (including two on-rails shooting galleries and several on-foot levels), and while these don’t live up to the driving missions, they’re tremendously improved compared to the last game. TK and whatever car he’s driving have separate heat meters, meaning that, as long as the police don’t see you get out, you can dump a wanted vehicle and walk away (or immediately steal a “clean” car) to avoid the cops. If TK builds up heat, he can obscure himself in a clean car, although the police will become suspicious (and eventually start chasing him) if he gives them an opportunity to look in his window. On the whole, I thought this heat system and the cop AI worked quite well, minus those rare occasions where I committed a blatantly illegal act in front of a policeman and nothing happened. Cars all handle smoothly — practically a necessity given NYC’s thick traffic. On foot, the controls are a little awkward (with an optional auto-aim that can be pretty clueless), but manageable, and shooting down helicopters with a chain gun is quite satisfying.

Visually, Driver: Parallel Lines looks unimpressive for a 2007 game on the PC. I had to keep reminding myself for the first few hours that this was a PS2 game at heart (and I got used to it later), but it’s still pretty amazing that this came out on the same platform in the same year as Crysis. Textures look OK, but people and environments are lacking in the polygon department, and pop-in is all too common. Apart from bloom-heavy sunsets and the tints that differentiate each era, the lighting looks rather flat and explosions are weak. Still, the cars themselves look pretty nice, ripping apart with a good amount of detail, and some of the junk that lined the back alleys broke up effectively.

Driver: Parallel Lines is a solid, if unspectacular, continuation of the Driver lineage. The game is far from flawless (and it’s certainly no GTA-killer), but it at least indicates that Reflections Interactive (now Ubisoft Reflections) can put out a competent Driver game outside of the fifth console generation. Hopefully, Ubisoft’s upcoming Driver: San Francisco will be able to get the series back up to the near-classic heights it once attained.

+ Despite all the GTA influence, this still plays like classic Driver
+ Great atmosphere and music in 1978
+ Multiple heat bars for vehicles and occupants
+ Better than DRIV3R
- On-foot control is iffy
- No Film Director mode
- Protagonist can be annoying early on
- Modern-era music is of mixed quality
- Graphics are badly dated for a 2007 title


Driver Series Ranking:
1.) Driver: You Are the Wheelman (1999)
2.) Driver: Parallel Lines (2006)
3.) Driver 2: The Wheelman is Back (2000)
----------------------------------------> Unimaginably huge gap
4.) DRIV3R (2004)

Wheelman (2009)

I consider myself to be a fairly picky gamer. I generally don’t buy games without doing a good deal of research on them first, and I never walk into a store without knowing exactly what I intend to purchase. Once in a blue moon, though, I break down and commit the gravest of shopping sins: an impulse purchase. Sometimes a slick piece of packaging overpowers my better judgment, or the game is from a solid developer I’m familiar with. In the case of Wheelman (or, as the cover reads, VIN DIESEL WHEELMAN) , my only excuse is that the brand new sealed PC copy sitting in front of me was two dollars. Two dollars! Even as a man who has no love for Vin Diesel and thinks the Fast and Furious films are some of the worst things to happen to humanity, the offer of a full game for less than a gallon of fuel was impossible for me to refuse.

And you know what? For two dollars, I more than got my money’s worth. Wheelman is flawed as hell, but as dumb no-holds-barred explosion-fest, it can be deliriously entertaining. Just because something’s trash doesn’t mean it can’t be fun.

As it turns out, Wheelman was one of the last games to be developed by Midway before they went belly-up in 2010. By the time the game was released in 2009 (after multiple delays and a troubled development cycle that began in 2006), Midway had already filed for bankruptcy, and the publishing rights were snapped up by Ubisoft. In the best and worst ways, Wheelman feels very much like a Midway product, from the arcade sensibilities to the Spy Hunter and Mortal Kombat references to the noticeable lack of polish.

Wheelman’s plot achieves the remarkable feat of being both utterly confusing and completely predictable at the same time. Vin Diesel stars as Milo Burik, an American agent going undercover as a wheelman in Barcelona. Tasked with recovering a mysterious package, Milo sets out to infiltrate the city’s three major gangs and play them against each other. The gangs are made up of armies of stereotypical thugs, and you’ll practically need to make a flow chart to keep track of the ever-changing allegiances of the slimy henchmen. Plot holes and ridiculous leaps of logic abound to the point that I have to wonder if half the game’s script was left on the cutting room floor — if Midway was out emulate those moments when you tune into the middle of something on cable television and are trying to figure out what’s going on, then they wholly succeeded.

Although one look at the back of the case had me thinking this was some sort of Grand Theft Auto clone whose single standout feature was its deep-voiced star, the open-world depiction of Barcelona is little more than window dressing. The game is actually a rather unique car combat title, forgoing gadgets and missile launchers in favor of insane physics and lots of ramming. Burnout Paradise plus machine guns is about the closest comparison I make, and that still doesn’t really do it justice. On command, cars can violently slide in any direction (regardless of which way they’re currently going), allowing you to smash into nearby vehicles. Enemy cars also share this physically improbable ability, turning many chases into a sort of vehicular boxing match in which you try to score hits while dodging your opponent’s attacks. Car handling is insanely arcadey, allowing for ludicrously sharp turns and easy 180° spins. Whatever vehicle Milo is driving is also completely incapable of flipping over, but damaged villains will roll over easily (an effect that is highlighted by the game’s slow-motion action camera). The crazier Milo’s driving, the more “Focus Points” he earns, eventually giving him things like a temporary speed boost and an absolutely absurd stunt called Cyclone in which Milo spins 180° in slow-motion, shoots at weak points on pursuing vehicles that will cause them to immediately explode if hit and then spins back to continue forward as his enemies erupt in balls of flame. At any time, Milo can also mark an unarmed car close to him an instantly leap over to it (a move called “Airjacking”), allowing him to keep on chugging even as armies enemy vehicles are trying to ram him. It’s tricks like these that make Wheelman’s lengthy car chases such a blast, giving them a terrific sense of momentum that kept me playing even while I had little idea what the narrative motivation was for many of the action scenes.

And it’s a good thing the driving is so flat-out entertaining, because the brief on-foot sections are awfully amateurish. The developers at Midway’s Newcastle studio had never done a third-person shooter before, and it really shows. Aiming is extremely stiff (even on the PC), the AI is dirt stupid (prepare to see lots of running into walls) and the hit detection is more than a little suspect. The game also plays a little audio cue and temporarily blurs the screen to indicate when you’ve killed an enemy, which is annoying at best and potentially deadly at worst (why reward the player by obscuring their vision for a second?). These sequences aren’t difficult (providing you crouch behind boxes to regenerate your health with some regularity) or common, so they don’t get in the way of the car chases too much, but the game would have been a much more well-rounded package if they’d been left out altogether. And since this is a T-rated game, civilians and cops are invulnerable to bullets, so don’t expect to go on a GTA-style rampage.

When feel like taking a break from tanker truck chases, tailing a suspect by airjacking new cars every few blocks and smashing up a newspaper editor’s office Blues Brothers-style, Wheelman includes a number of side-missions, all of which are accessible from your PDA’s map. These include violent street races (where weapons are not only allowed, but encouraged), escaping from waves of relentless enemies, destroying as much of the environment as you can within a time limit and taxi missions, among other things. The taxi missions were easily my favorite, as the absurd physics and tongue-in-cheek atmosphere that pervades the game make these sequences feel almost exactly like the Crazy Taxi games that inspired them (far more so than in Driver or GTA). On the negative side, most of these side-missions are quite short and there are only fifteen of each type, so it won’t be long until you’ve completed as many as you care to. Although (as the poster that comes with the game demonstrates) many of Barcelona’s landmarks are represented in great detail, the rest of the metropolis lacks the life of many other open-world games — instead of a living, breathing city, I felt like I was driving around a massive Hollywood set. Again, Wheelman is not so much a GTA clone as it is a car combat title, and the sooner you accept that, the more fun you’ll have.

As with most Midway games, Wheelman has some rough edges. Apart from the previously-mentioned on-foot sections, civilian drivers can also be seen doing some pretty illogical things, occasionally turning into the path of oncoming vehicles for no reason. Several times, I saw massive pileups occur with no input on my part whatsoever — the civilian drivers just suck that much. I also encountered a few little audio and physics glitches, and there was a particular chase (through a confined subway tunnel) where the camera just couldn’t behave itself, leading to some frustrating crashes. In short, evidence of the game’s troubled development cycle is not difficult to spot, though it rarely breaks the experience.

Graphically, Wheelman is mixed. Barcelona looks sunny and warm (all the time, as there are no day/night cycles), but there’s a fair amount of texture and shadow pop-in. The most impressive part of the environment is the tremendous amount of destructible elements — your car doesn’t take any damage from blowing through lamp posts, fruit carts, small trees and the like, so you’re encouraged to obliterate the scenery as much as possible. People look passable, although they suffer from a pretty serious case of “Unreal 3 plastic people,” with the character models being too slick and shiny for their own good. A strange detail is the way Milo holds a weapon he’s not using: guns just literally stick to his back, as if he coated his shirt with super-strength double-sided tape. Cars look quite good, although they come apart in a manner that was perhaps too modular for my tastes. The best modeled vehicles are the only two licensed cars in the game: the Opel Astra and the Pontiac G8. The latter car features quite heavily in the game’s marketing, cover art and action scenes, which is rather ironically amusing when one considers that Pontiac would cease to be in the same year that Midway died. Sound-wise, the music is actually quite good, with lots of exciting chase themes and good selection of tunes on the radio (including plenty of classical music and Spanish tracks). In fact, only one of the game’s radio channels plays rap — how cool is that? Voice acting is all over the place, with Vin Diesel delivering the exact same performance you’ve seen in almost every one of his films, while the locals vary from solid to comically bad.

I’ve been sitting here for a long while wondering what to score Wheelman. The objective critic inside me (who freaked out when a distant civilian car glitched into the sidewalk and spent all of the on-foot sections screaming in pain) says I should give it around a 6.5, and he’s probably right. However, I just had too much fun over the thirteen hours or so it took me to reach the credits to assign a score like that. Wheelman is so dumb that I could practically feel my brain cells dying while Vin Diesel spoke yet another incredibly lame one-liner, but in a strange way, the game’s stupidity is one of its greatest strengths. With intense chases and a goofy tone, Wheelman is one hell of a ride, warts and all.

And it was only two dollars.

+ Ridiculously exaggerated car chases that feel ripped from a Hollywood movie
+ Arcade-like car handling is very fun
+ So brain-dead it’s positively brilliant
+ Good music and classy radio stations
+ Destructible environments are great
+ Terrific taxi side-missions
- Abysmal on-foot gameplay
- Not enough side-quests to keep you playing for long after the story ends
- Bugs and glitches are not uncommon


The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena (2009)

Two Vin Diesel video games in a row? I must be losing my sense of taste. I picked up Dark Athena because a friend of mine just couldn’t stop telling me how the 2004 action-adventure The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay (a remastered version of which comes free with Dark Athena) was one of the best licensed video games ever made. Though I thought Pitch Black was a passible B-movie, I had little time for The Chronicles of Riddick or the deep-voiced killer himself. After a quick look at GameRankings revealed that Escape from Butcher Bay actually did garner some critical acclaim, however, I went ahead and bought a PC copy from Amazon.

Escape from Butcher Bay tells the story of Richard B. Riddick’s attempts to break out of the titular prison and how he got those shiny eyes. Again, I have little emotional investment in this universe, but Butcher Bay’s story is undeniably well-presented, albeit with a serious lack of likeable characters (which isn’t surprising, because it takes place in a maximum security prison ward, but still…). Assault on Dark Athena picks up shortly after the first game, following Riddick’s battle with a group of mercenaries who are converting the populations of rural colonies into a mechanized army. The sequel’s plot packs some more interesting characters (and voice actors), but it’s far too manipulative in its efforts to add some emotional punch and many plot threads are left hanging after the rather rushed conclusion.

The first thing one notices about Escape from Butcher Bay is what it’s not: a straightforward FPS. The game has a heavy focus on hiding in the shadows and sneaking up behind enemies, with the screen turning blue to inform you if you’re hidden while crouched. As in the earlier Splinter Cells, you can also drag bodies into the shadows to hide them from other soldiers. Unlike almost every other stealth game, though, there are no silenced weapons, so you’ll have to rely on Riddick’s fists and knives to stay stealthy.

It’s a good thing, then, that both adventures pack some of the most brutally satisfying melee combat ever found in a first-person game. Although they could hardly be called deep (using only the two mouse buttons for control), stealthy neck-snaps and all-out brawls are superbly animated and tremendously fun to play. The game further encourages you to use Riddick’s close-quarters abilities by making most of the guards’ guns DNA-locked, meaning you won’t be able to pick up fallen enemies’ firearms for a large part of the campaign.

Another great part of Butcher Bay is the inclusion of a good deal of RPG elements, including a currency system (make sure to search every locker!) and dialogue-driven side-quests. The bulk of Butcher Bay takes place in a large, interconnected mine complex which, much like in the original Metal Gear Solid, allows for a lot of back-tracking and side trips. Even if the reward for completing side-quests (concept art) was meager, the mix of talking to prisoners and miners, stealth and a few explosive action scenes felt very nicely balanced, giving the game a level of variety I really wasn’t expecting. On the other hand, it was a bit of a shame when the last section of the game resorted to more conventional gun battles, climaxing with Riddick destroying buildings with a bipedal tank. Another problem with Butcher Bay is that, while the level design is actually quite inventive one you figure things out, the game does a terrible job of telling you where to go next, leading to much aimless wandering. I spent way too much of the game glued to a walkthrough — a Metroid Prime-style hint system (or even just a map that actually makes sense) would have gone a long way here.

Dark Athena, on the other hand, is an entirely different ballgame. At first I thought this was going to be a safe, more-of-the-same sort of sequel (what with the identical controls and a similar dream sequence tutorial), but Dark Athena is far less interested in the gameplay components that made the first game different from just about any other FPS out there. Most of the stealth involves simplistically dodging searchlights, and the dialogue sequences are shorter and almost entirely confined to a single room. With new weapons (including what amounts to a grenade launcher with infinite ammo) and no DNA-encoding, most of the game is spent in linear FPS battles that draw as much from Halo and Dead Space as the original Riddick adventure. The last third of the game actually takes place in a sun-baked colony, completely nullifying the stealth aspects in favor of loads and loads of assault rifle fire. In other words, where Butcher Bay was trying to be innovative, Dark Athena settles for loud action. That said, some of the shoot-outs were quite striking (including a mech battle in space and fight near the ship’s gravity core that has everything falling sideways), and the more straightforward level design meant I didn’t need a guide to tell where to go next (unlike Butcher Bay). I would never argue that Dark Athena is a better game than Butcher Bay, but, in all honesty, I might have had a bit more fun playing it. Either way, the fact both games are included in every Dark Athena box means you’re likely to find something you like about the package.

Visually, both Riddick games look very good. Aside from some stiff character models in the remastered Butcher Bay, animation is generally excellent, and the lighting effects (especially in Dark Athena) look great. Riddick’s equivalent of night vision is also well depicted, illuminating some gritty and spectacular art design. The film grain that covers the game was occasionally a bit much, though. As for sound, voice acting is uniformly good in both games (with Lance Henricksen basically stealing the second game) and sound effects blend nicely with the gritty visuals. The music is adequate, if a bit samey, although some of the end credits themes in Dark Athena were amusing for their out-of-place nature.

Though it can be very frustrating at points, The Chronicles of Riddick: Dark Athena is easily one the better licensed games to hit the market in quite some time. Even if you don’t have any interest in the main character (and I certainly don’t), this is a solid value for stealth and shooter fans, providing two roughly eight-hour campaigns. Although my time with Dark Athena hasn’t brought me to appreciate Riddick any more than I did on the big screen, I’m getting to the stage where I can tolerate him. And if a sequel from these developers ever comes, I’d likely be willing to tolerate him some more.

+ Very satisfying first-person melee
+ Stealth and RPG components of Butcher Bay are very well integrated
+ Strong voice acting
+ Nice graphics
+ Two games in one
- Often difficult to know where to go next in Butcher Bay
- Dark Athena’s action is more generic than its predecessor’s
- Multiplayer is barely worth mentioning
- Riddick is not a terribly likable or interesting character, in my opinion


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