Saturday, August 1, 2009

NecroVisioN Reviews

This fast-paced, incoherent shooter asks, 'Is too much really enough?'

One of the most attractive aspects of the game industry is that it caters to so many different tastes, even within the narrow definitions of a single genre. For every Lord of the Rings Online, there's a Yohoho! Puzzle Pirates; for every Civilization IV, there's a DEFCON; for every SWAT 4, there's a Serious Sam. Farm 51's NecroVisioN is one of those shooters that focus more on instant action and relentless intensity, relying on sheer quantity of enemies and features to attract and engage gamers. Some gamers are bound to relish in the kitchen sink approach to game design, but for others, enough is enough already.

The story is a pastiche of cliches with no real attempt to build consistency or embrace originality. You play an American enlisted in the British army during the First World War, which might be interesting if the setting didn't feel so generic and wasn't abandoned within the first few minutes of the game. Soon enough, you're venturing through hell on the trail of a mad scientist and fighting wave after wave of German soldiers, zombies, dragons, giant robots, and, yes, even wizards. If the story didn't insist on taking itself so seriously, having all these bizarre elements in the same cauldron might actually work, but as it is, the chaotic nature of it is just overwhelming.

The tone of the game is similarly confused. Much of the marketing material announces the Lovecraft influences in NecroVisioN, but that may just be based on the fact that the game is set in the 1910s and mixes the supernatural with the perversions of science. The bloody chaos that makes up most of NecroVisioN is worlds away from the looming dread and deliberate pacing that most people associate with H. P. Lovecraft. There's the added disconnect of having a hero who swings his way through dozens of zombie enemies, lopping off their heads with a shovel while shouting, "Suck it!" and the overwrought pathos found in the letters scattered throughout the level.

When you finally reach the point where someone exclaims "My god! They were experimenting on...people!" it's like, who even cares anymore? Am I supposed to feel sorry for these people or am I supposed to stab them in the face and then set them on fire? It's something that games like BioShock or the recent Cryostasis were able to do so much better by focusing more on the quality of the battles rather than the quantity.

Now, with that said, I fully expect that there are tons of potential fans for this game that won't care that the story is weak. For them, it's enough to know that there's a necromancer and that the Germans are to blame. My only answer to that is that the developers of NecroVisioN seem to want the story to matter but haven't made it coherent enough to keep it interesting.

If you can get past the story, the combat is genuinely entertaining with enough bloody dismemberments and explosions to fill an entire Sam Peckinpah marathon. The range of weapons is incredibly vast, almost too vast. At the beginning it can be a struggle to keep track of the melee attacks, underpowered WWI era firearms, thrown weapons and combat combos, but once you master the Shadowhand glove's combination of melee and magic powers in the underworld and pair it with a vampire flamethrower (yes, really), things tend to get a bit more manageable. Even with those items, you can still find yourself getting stuck in a lengthy combo. This is only a problem when you're facing lots of enemies at once, but that happens so often in NecroVisioN that your more powerful attacks can leave you vulnerable to mobs of enemies.

Fortunately, the game compensates for it's unusually high difficulty by slowing down time when you're near death, giving you one last chance to pull of whatever spectacular move is required to get you out of a tight spot. The game also allows you to slowly recover health during the rare lulls in the action, so you won't be scouring the level looking for health after every combat.

Still when you add in the slow motion moves, the combos, the wide range of melee attacks, and ranged weapons, (not to mention the rage meter and the ridiculous blurry vision that comes from scoring certain successful attacks), sometimes it's almost as if there's too much going on in the game. You can simplify, of course, by just focusing on the features and weapons that you like, but it seems as if the developers might have streamlined things a bit. The adrenaline system isn't nearly as important in the first half of the game, for instance, and once you get the vampire weapons, there's not much call for the trench guns or rifles.

The enemies are drawn across a wide range of types, from rank and file German solders to fiery flying mantas to hulking mechanical men. Toss in a few ogres, a couple of tanks, and some ghostly apparitions and you've got all the bases covered. The enemies here are tough and come at you in large numbers, and even the medium difficultly level is going to challenge most players. That's good because the artificial intelligence leaves them helpless to do anything other than to run straight at you, occasionally resulting in fights where you literally have a dozen enemies all right in your face. There's no shortage of targets in this environment but their repetitive attacks can get a bit tiresome. Even so, there are always a few laughs to be found in watching them bump up against the levels' invisible walls and get stuck in objects in the environment.

To be fair, it's not all about combat. There are a few straightforward puzzles here, mostly involving bypassing whatever barrier is blocking your forward progress. Sometimes this means blowing up a generator or finding a lever or grabbing a key, but the Medal of Honor-style compass at the top of the screen usually points you in the right direction, so you'll never have to think too hard about what to do next. There's still plenty of opportunity for exploration though, with tons of secret areas containing items to increase your power in combat. You can even unlock challenge levels that can be completed to gain access to permanent additions to your arsenal.

NecroVisioN's graphics are generally quite dark, both in terms of lighting and overall content. The enemies are fairly predictable but they fit the tone of the game very nicely. Yes, the zombies get a little tiresome and their polygon count leaves a bit to be desired, but their animation and overall appearance are unsettling enough that you don't need much encouragement to kill them. The big bosses are even more threatening. Your first confrontation with Dr. Zimmerman doesn't quite live up to the massive scale of the original Painkiller, but it's still a monster of an encounter. The lighting and many of the effects are very good overall, but the textures seem a bit muddy in places. We've seen a few people have problems with the overall performance, but we've been able to enjoy the game with a nice balance between the visuals and the framerate.

Sound is another matter altogether. While the weapon sounds and some of the ambient noises are okay, the voice acting is just terrible. The main character literally sounds like two different actors voiced him. In one sequence, he's a gruff Bruce Campbell type and in the very next scene he sounds like George W. Bush. The music is the predictable heavy rock soundtrack, which is at odds with the gravitas that some of the other elements in the game require.

Closing Comments
If the story had been a lot more coherent and decided whether it wanted to be tongue-in-cheek or tragic, then it would be a bit easier for me to get on board and enjoy the ride. Even so, having made the commitment to play through the game, I found myself appreciating the abundance (sometimes overabundance) of combat features and the hundreds of enemies waiting around each corner. The challenge is finding a set of combat options that work for you and not getting weary of the repetitive onslaught of enemies. If you're willing not to think too much about what's going on, it can be enjoyable but once you start paying attention to it all, the rougher spots in the design start to show.

©2009-05-20, IGN Entertainment, Inc. All Rights Reserved
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