Game Review: Sniper Elite V2 Demo

Because I am a very strange man, I enjoy prowling YouTube for footage of computer simulations. And by strange, I mean stupid. The other day, though, I took a break from the usual neutron stars and such and decided to look into ballistics simulations. Did I mention that I was strange? Well, that led me to investigate Sniper Elite V2.

It so happens that I quite enjoy sniping in shooters, which is an excellent way to get accused of camping once every three seconds. If any military was ever dumb enough to accept my silly ass, I think sniper would be just about the only position I’d be qualified for (you know, apart from living target practice). Not a lot of running around (because, in spite of a gym membership, I still have the running stamina of the corpse of a ninety-year-old anemic grandmother) or depth perception required (which is nice, because, as I’ve complained before, I don’t have any depth perception).

I watched part of a video on YouTube, and thought SEV2 (which acronym looks like something from a horrible vanity plate) looked like fun. And as it so happens, the demo was on Steam, so I downloaded it. So began the awesomeness.

You play as an extremely generic action-hero type with a sniper rifle and an infinite supply of pebbles. You start out in a bombed-out German town during World War II, on the trail of a V2 rocket engineer (which explained the game’s bizarre title; I thought it was Version 2 of something at first). Your goal is to find him and kill him, but there are German soldiers prowling the streets. You can take them on with your trusty Thompson gun (insert Warren Zevon joke here), but you only have about twelve bullets for it, so you’d better do what it says on the tin and snipe the bastards.

I must say, the sniping in the game is absolutely excellent. Unless you play on the girly-man difficulty (and really, then, why bother?), you have to account for bullet-drop caused by gravity. On the hardest setting, you also have to account for wind. Your accuracy is affected by whether you’ve just been running, whether you’re being shot in the face (always affects my accuracy, let me tell you; after all, there can be only one Simo Hyähä), and, impressively, whether or not you’re holding your breath. Holding your breath sends you into bullet-time, which is a tired combat mechanic, but it really does work here.

Then comes the best part. If you’re a good enough shot, you’ll usually be treated to a fantastic little animation of your bullet whizzing out of your barrel (and I can’t tell you how pleased I am that they got the bullet’s shockwave more or less right, instead of just going for the Matrix BS of just having random ripples behind it; I am a nerd) and flying at your enemy. Then, when it hits them, oftentimes you get a cool little X-ray or anatomy-class-skeleton view of what your terrifying projectile is doing to their innards. I thought I was the king of everything when I managed to pop both of a baddie’s eyeballs with one bullet; then my friend came over and played it and managed to obliterate one’s scrotum and make me simultaneously cringe and feel inadequate. It reminds me of that Mortal Kombat game that came out a few years ago, where you got a very gratuitous X-ray of the bones you were breaking, except here, it makes more sense and is a lot more effective. If you’re lucky (blind luck every time, in my case), you can even nail the grenades on the enemies’ belts and make them blow the hell up. It’s pretty glorious.

There’s a decent amount of strategy to the game, too. Oftentimes, the enemy soldiers will be patrolling in large groups, and if you shoot and miss or even stand up from cover for too long, you’re liable to get turned into Leberkäse in a hurry. This is where the infinite supply of pebbles (sometimes) comes in handy: you can toss one to get the enemies’ attention and mislead them. At least I think you can. After a while, it started to seem like the only way to distract the German soldiers was to ping them right in the eye. You can take quite a few hits, even on the hardest difficulty, but the game definitely rewards slow, sneaky, snipery tactics, which is good in a game with “sniper” in the title.

Another thing I thoroughly enjoyed were the enemy snipers. They’re hard to spot and even harder to shoot, but if you’re paying attention, you can usually catch the glint of sunlight off the lens of their scope. Then, you have to pop up, take careful aim quickly, adjusting for gravity and wind, and pop off a shot before the sniper can shoot you. It’s a lot like that amazing sniper duel in Saving Private Ryan, doubly so when I managed to bullseye the bastard right in the eyesocket.

All that said, though, I don’t think I’ll be buying the full version, at least not in the near future. The first reason is that, for some insane reason, the full version currently costs US$50 on Steam. That problem is compounded by another one: the demo’s too damn short. You only get to play one very short mission in the demo, and that mission contains maybe fifteen enemies total. And the problems just keep piling up: rather than letting you cleverly snipe everybody, once you’ve fired your first shot, the enemies will realistically start running around, looking for cover and searching for you. I applaud that level of realism, but that really makes the sniping part finnicky and annoying, since you spend so much time waiting for the baddies to settle down. I guess I shouldn’t really call that a problem so much as an annoyance, since it’s how a sniper would actually behave, but when I just want to pick the game up and pop a couple of Nazis in the brain, it really dampens the fun.

The enemy AI is dull at best. They’ll occasionally take cover cleverly or manage to sneak past you into the building you’re hiding in, at which point you’d best shoot them with your silenced pistol or your twelve-bullet Tommy gun, but for the most part, they’re just goofy. I took out one enemy while he was stuck running in place behind a lamppost. And on top of that, I got a bonus for hitting a moving target. Who wasn’t, you know, moving. Also, since I speak a little German, hearing the AI talk to each other was like playing the otherwise-excellent Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth, where the enemies’ entire vocabulary seemed to consist of “Search the area!” and “Spread out!” In the case of Sniper Elite, the AI constantly holler “Man down!” and “Find him!” They also fluctuate between extremely perceptive and wildly inattentive. In one section, you have to kill a soldier who’s standing in a window you need to snipe from. I shot him in the collarbone with my slow-reloading silenced pistol. I missed with my next shot while he spun around confused, looking like he suspected that the wallpaper had done it. He was just noticing me squatting un-subtly in the doorway when I shot him in his face.

I also get the impression that the sniping mechanic is all the game designers really cared about. The plot (or the tiny particle of it that you see in the demo) is simplistic and the writing is weak. In the first mission, you’re tasked with killing a V2 rocket engineer who’s carrying a not-quite-microfilm McGuffin thing which you must retrieve to find his evil scientist buddies.

And in spite of everything I said above about how fun the combat is, parts of it are piss-poor. Whenever you’re not sniping, you go into a third-person perspective, and I hate almost all third-person shooters. If you get pinned down and need to, for instance, mow down the approaching enemies with your Thompson, aiming is pretty much impossible unless you go into ironsight mode, which makes you walk like you’re stuck in molasses. And as far as the sniper sections are concerned, they’re very formulaic and uninteresting. The enemies spawn in the same places every time and their reactions are predictable. And, even though it’s awfully fun to watch your spinning bullet punch through an enemy’s skull and ricochet off the inside of his helmet and come tumbling out his neck, after a while, the constant switch to the cinematic kill-cam just starts to get dull. And even though you can shoot out a baddy’s eyeballs, pop both his testicles, shatter his ribcage, pierce his heart, lacerate his kidneys, and perform very approximate brain surgery on him, it doesn’t really have much of an effect apart from the score you get for the shot, which doesn’t seem to affect anything, at least in the demo. For the most part (and I must say, I applaud this nod to realism), a hit in the gut will stop an enemy just about as fast as a hit in the chest, and as long as you manage to nail the thick fleshy bit in the middle, the foolish human isn’t going to be sprouting any more foolish humans, or whatever it is humans do.

So would I recommend that you buy this game? Well, no. Download the demo. It’s free. It’s easy. Play it for a few days and see if you enjoy the combat. Do like me and wait to see if the price ever comes down. Of course, like I complained earlier, the demo really doesn’t give you much of a taste of what the whole game will be like, but it’s a starting point at least. All in all, I’d say that Sniper Elite V2 is consigned to the purgatory known only as Well It Was a Cool Concept. I can see it being a lot more fun as a sort of target-shooting type game, a fast-paced heavy-replay-value simulator like the amusing Stair Dismount and Truck Dismount, if you’re enough of a geek to have played those. It would be fun if it was just you in one building sniping one street full of soldiers and one building full of snipers. Then you could properly revel in the glory of giving your foes hot ballistic vasectomies. I’d say toss out all the fiddling around with planting bombs and throwing stones and killing evil mad scientists and just let me shoot Nazis and watch their ventricles go pop.

Game Review: “Burnout: Paradise”

As I mentioned in my most recent Weekly Update, I finally broke down and bought an Xbox 360. Since the games and the console were both ridiculously expensive, I was only able to buy two games. One of them was Burnout: Paradise.

The game is visually stunning. Compared to some of my previous racing game experiences, playing Burnout is like having undiagnosed myopia for ten years and then suddenly getting glasses. Everything is pretty and bright and shiny. But that’s not the reason I bought Burnout. I am and have always been a fanatic for racing games with an awesome damage model, and in that regard, Burnout is the game I’ve been looking for since I first played Rush on the Nintendo 64 back in the late ’90s. If you run into an obstacle with sufficient force, the game cuts to slow-motion and places the cameral optimally while you watch your car crumple and twist (dynamically! That’s right, the impact determines the damage, and no impact is the same as any other. Like I said, I’ve been waiting for this for a long time) and eventually crunch to a halt in a shower of wheels and metal fragments. And since every street is lined with pylons and buildings and populated by slow-driving idiots, you’ll experience a lot of these beautiful, cinematic crashes. At times, it does wear a little thin, but that doesn’t happen as often as you might think.

The game has a few different kinds of event you can participate in. There’s the standard race — which (and Yahtzee, curmudgeonly bastard though he is, got it completely right in his review) is rendered almost intolerable by having to plan your own route using your minimap — and then there are other events like Marked Man (escape from the cars that are trying to kill you) and Stunt (do a bunch of random tricks to build up points), and my personal favorite, Road Rage, which demands that you do what I’m best at: make other people crash before they crash you.

All in all, Burnout is a very amusing game, and good when you just want to be viscerally entertained. However, it has problems. For one thing, although the crash physics is incredible, the actual driving physics is clunky and feels unrealistic. And speaking of crashes, you have the cinematic ones so often that your little physics-inaccurate fender-benders are yawnworthy and annoying by comparison. And, speaking of annoying (I promise I won’t stick another “and speaking of” on the end of this one), the music is largely rubbish, and there’s a yappy, snide prick of a DJ called Atomica (who you have to imagine walks around wearing a pop-collared pink polo shirt) who only occasionally says anything even mildly useful.

Aside from that, though, Burnout is fairly awesome. If you’re not a complete simulation freak (or if you’re like me, and can turn off that part of your brain when needed) and can tolerate some inaccuracy and clumsiness, it’s a fun game, and the cinematics alone might be worth it (may I be struck down if I ever say that again).

Movie Review: “The Day the Earth Stood Still”

In this age of remakes, it’s getting harder and harder for me to write reviews because, usually, I haven’t seen the movie on which the remake was based. That’s a roundabout way of saying that when I went to see The Day the Earth Stood Still this afternoon, my impressions weren’t tainted by having seen the original.

The plot is fairly predictable (doubly so since the movie is so famous): aliens come to Earth to save it from destruction by humans, and they’re perfectly willing to wipe us out in order to do it. The duty of messenger falls upon Klaatu (played by Keanu Reeves), a creature in human form with unusual powers. He has come to pass judgment on humanity, and not surprisingly, ends up in government custody, where his lousy treatment probably doesn’t do much to get us off on the right interstellar foot. Also mixed up in this are Dr. Helen Branson (played by Jennifer Connely), an astrobiologist (extra points to this movie, by the way, for actually using the term astrobiologist, although she never really does anything astrobiological) and her snotty little pain-in-the-ass stepson Jacob, who spends three quarters of the moive doing nothing but getting in the way and aggravating my homicidal tendencies. There’s some other stuff (including John Cleese in a rare but decent straight role), but I don’t want to risk spoiling anything.

From the start, I was rather impressed by The Day the Earth Stood Still. It opens with Dr. Branson lecturing her students on astrobiology, and the movie gets even more extra points by mentioning Deinococcus Radiodurans (the nasty little bacterium that likes to multiply in the radioactive wastewater from nuclear reactors) and Jupiter’s moon Callisto. There are other examples of such unusual scientific accuracy. This is not the hacked-together pseudoscience you’ll find in a movie like Resident Evil (or even Sunshine to some extent). It’s not perfect, and the scientific validity starts to degenerate towards the end, but all in all, this film’s science is more impressive than most of what you’ll find out there.

Then there’s the human side of things. The stark portrayal of the Eichmann-esque soulless bureaucrats who represent the government made my bile rise, in a good way. I’d like to think that if an alien landed in the United States, we wouldn’t treat it as government property, lock it up, and cut bits out of it, but I’m not that native. And, with the aforementioned pain-in-the-ass stepson, the film also does a good job portraying modern xenophobia, although the message is frequently brought home with sledgehammer obviousness, and is watered down by the fact that the irritating little kid gives up his irritating ways by the end of the film. In the end, the neat happy-ending quality of it kind of diminishes the main message: that humans are selfish and evil and horrible, and that if we don’t make a lot of changes very fast, we’re probably going to drive ourselves to extinction.

Warning: Possible spoilers ahead.

There are a few scenes in particular that really grab my attention, and it might be worth seeing the movie just for them. For example, when we first meet John Cleese’s character (who is given pitifully little screen time), he comes upon Klaatu, who is busily erasing and correcting his calculations on a blackboard. He stands next to Klaatu, and there’s a really great moment of silent mathematical communication, an unspoken argument followed by Dr. Barnhard’s (John Cleese’s) realization of who Klaatu is. It was artfully done and subtler than what I’m used to these days, and I loved it.

My other favorite scene takes place towards the end of the movie. The humans (not surprisingly) antagonize Gort (whose name the filmmakers explain through a really shitty reverse acronym, by the way), who suddenly bursts into a swarm of microscopic metal insects who proceed to multiply and start eating everything. And I do mean everything. They swarm over the surface of the earth, eating ever human and manmade object in their path. It’s grim but oddly satisfying to watch all of our meager achievements collapse and evaporate in a swarm of nanomachines, and it’s a nice reminder that we are a temporary fleck of fungus on the surface of a grain of sand in the far corner of nowhere. These two scenes are almost strong enough to hold up the whole movie.

Spoilers end here.

I said almost strong enough. But, for all its good scenes, there are bad ones, too. A lot of the movie feels camp and uninteresting, and there are some scenes that could have been cut or shortened. And there is, of course, the aforementioned happy ending, and a long parade of rather blatant morals that culminate in said ending.

All in all, though, I liked The Day The Earth Stood Still. It managed to be fairly moving and thought-provoking without descending too far into the realm of clichés. The movie was pretty immersive on the whole, and Keanu Reeves was in great form again. It’s not quite the performance he gave in A Scanner Darkly, but it’s still pretty damn good, considering. And, as I said earlier, the movie gets a lot of extra points for actually making an effort to get the science right. There’s something slightly off about the whole film, but I’d say it’s decent enough to see on the big screen, or at least to rent when it comes out.

Final Judgment:

*     *     *     *     *     *     `     .     .     . (6.5/10 asterisks)

Movie Review: “Burn After Reading”

It’s not often that I’m drawn to a movie by big-name actors, but when I read that the Cohen Brothers’ Burn After Reading starred both Brad Pitt and George Clooney, I got interested, and when I found myself in need of something to do, I went down to the movie theater with Burn After Reading in mind.

The film opens in Langley, Virginia, at C.I.A. headquarters (is there even anything else in Langley?), where we meet analyst Ozzie Cox (played by John Malkovich), who is demoted due to a “drinking problem,” then quits and goes home to his ice-queen wife and failing marriage. This is the point where it gets very tricky to try to summarize the film, for fear of accidentally ruining the jokes or giving away the dramatic twists, which are sprinkled liberally and unexpectedly throughout the film.

Suffice to say that Chad (Brad Pitt), an employee at a gym, accidentally comes into possession of secret information, and gets everyone around him embroiled in a twisted and complex web of lies and intrigue that also manages to involve Treasury agent Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney).

I’ve complained before about overly complex plots (Syriana being the inevitable example of a plot too twisted for its own good), and Burn After Reading is proof that it’s not just the fact that I was raised on plotless action-movie drivel. You see, although the plot of Burn After Reading is very intricate, it’s also accessible and perfectly understandable. The Cohen brothers manage to flawlessly weave together the lives of at least four major, well-rounded characters more seamlessly than I’ve ever seen. The film is like a cinematic Rube Goldberg machine: clever set-ups and excellent design allow what should be an impossible plot to come together believably. Even though every single character is stupid or shallow in their own way, they’re all stupid and shallow in the same way that real people are stupid and shallow. Pitt plays a goofy, air-headed bicyclist. Malkovich is a distant and somewhat sullen dullard. Clooney brings to life a nervous, paranoid ex-U.S. Marshall. Actress Frances McDormand is the familiar sufferer of a midlife crisis, bent on renewing herself in every way but the important ones. At first, the characters were hard to empathize with, but in the end, they all have a weird likeability.

The movie is also incredibly funny, with the kind of dark, bewildered deadpan humor that hits me just right. Although the plot is potentially grim and serious, it’s impossible not to laugh. Burn After Reading reminds me in some ways of the late great Kurt Vonnegut’s dark, sadistic, cynical humor.

This is the point where I’m supposed to lay out some criticism for the sake of balance, but with this particular film, that’s pretty hard to do. It’s so incredibly well-constructed and entertaining that I can’t think of any obvious dead spots or plot holes. The worst I can do is say that the dialogue seemed slightly stilted a few times.

That’s it. That’s all the criticism I can come up with. Burn After Reading is a wonderful satire of the shallow superficiality of our lives, of the veneer of solidity and invincibility over our government (and our relationships), and it’s also hilarious in a wonderfully subtle, understated way.

Final Judgment: Excellent. You should definitely see this film.

Rating:

*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     `     (9.5/10 asterisks)