Welcome to the nineteenth installment of a semi-regular feature here at GameCritics.com—the Bargain Basement.
It’s as sure as death or taxes that anyone who takes up videogaming will find themselves rooting through a bargain bin or scouring pre-owned shelves sooner or later. For those that do, few things feel as satisfying as saving hard-earned cash and getting a gem of a game at the same time. The titles covered below can usually be found online or in any brick-and-mortar shop, often for $20.00 or less. Keep in mind that the selections in this feature may be older and not on the latest hardware, so it’s assumed that the technology isn’t bleeding-edge. The final scores for each title are based on a modified scale taking this into account, and doesn’t compare them to today’s visual standards—gameplay is what we’re talking about here. Happy hunting!
Being scared and shooting things are all well and good, but sometimes what's needed is something lighter; something pure and efficient without any designs of being more than it is. Ending the Basement this month is The Adventures of Darwin—a colorful, uncluttered title with the power to cleanse this jaded critic's palate and remind him that sometimes a game is just a game, and that's OK.
The disc starts as a furry monkey dreams of impending asteroid-induced cataclysm. Sharing his premonition with the tribe, he's elected leader and goes on a mission to do whatever he can to help his species avoid extinction. As the title suggests, evolution is one of the game's main concepts. Although there's nothing biologically accurate about the way it's presented through the gameplay, it's all in good fun.
For the old-schoolers out there reading this, The Adventures of Darwin is best described as a mix of the SNES cult classic E.V.O. and the PlayStation's Tail of the Sun, with some Pikmin thrown in for a group mechanic. Starting off with the player-controlled leader monkey and five followers, most of the action involves venturing into one of five separate areas to forage for food and materials used to improve monkey village.
By bringing back iron and wood, clever primates in the huts back home soon come up with axes and spears. Bringing back meat and fruits increases the population, and random things like strangely-colored grasses or variegated mushrooms will lead to discoveries like potions that cure paralysis, or traps that can be used on some of the large creatures in the field. As the game progresses, more followers are added to the away team, and these hairy fellows become a force to be reckoned with when traveling in greater numbers.
During investigations, it's revealed that each stage houses at least one important discovery that will bump the monkeys up a notch on the evolutionary ladder. For example, the first stone axe causes the characters to lose their prehensile tails and stand a little straighter, while the final discovery of fire will lift Cro-Magnon characters into fully-developed Homo Sapiens. It's not birds on the Galapagos islands, but then again, the game never attempts to be very deep or serious in any respect—and I mean that in the best possible sense.
There's not much more to the game beyond what I've already described, but that's one of its charms. After sitting through radically complex fare and being overwhelmed with the latest bells and whistles, it was completely refreshing to sit down with something that puts all of its cards on the table from the get-go, sports stripped-down yet appealing visuals, and invites you in with something as elegantly straightforward as hunting and gathering.
Although The Adventures of Darwin can most likely be completed and put away in a day by a steadfast player, the beauty of the game isn't that it offers endless hours of replay, downloadable user-created content or seamless online deathmatching (because it has none of these things) but that its vision, production, and identity are all perfectly in tune with a core concept that's not afraid to explore the idea that complex is not necessarily better than simple.
Date released: June 2007
When I go through a pile of used games, I usually have a pretty good idea of what I'm looking for. I keep tabs on titles that look like solid "maybes"—games that may have a few good points, but are sketchy enough to discourage me from risking $50 buying them new. It's pretty rare that I'll end up bringing something home that I hadn't already targeted as such, but Surreal Software's The Suffering was exactly one such game.
My first encounter with The Suffering was at E3 before its release. The publisher had hired a tall, toolish look-a-like of the game's star, Torque, to hang around a kiosk and tell people what kind of weapons he used while posing for pictures. Checking out what the PR had to say about the product, the only high points seemed to be that the main character could be covered from head to toe in blood, and that he had a variety of guns. Needless to say, I was not impressed, and combined with the rough-looking build on display, I had crossed it off my investigation queue then and there.
It's unfortunate that I was so turned off by its poor showing. If the marketers had played to its strengths, it might not have taken me four years and a beat-up $4 dollar copy to try out this interesting, bold entry into the horror genre.
I would never have guessed, but The Suffering has a lot more going for it than cheap gore and guns. Although the core gameplay (third-person run-and-gun) isn't anything players haven't already seen, Surreal did a bang-up job on the title's intellectual side and turned what could have been a standard action game into something that's a lot more like Silent Hill with a higher adrenaline factor.
In a nutshell, the player's character is a convict who's been sentenced to death for murdering his wife and two sons. Through choices made during gameplay such as helping people escape or choosing to murder them instead, Torque's true history can be rewritten. Although I disagreed with the choice to make Torque a silent protagonist (a trick which never works), this did-he-or-didn't-he element was fairly compelling on its own, but even more so when viewed in combination with the elements of the prison itself.
Incarcerated on an island that's best described as a magnet for evil deeds (quite similar to the town of Silent Hill mentioned above), Torque's adventure takes him from behind bars to locales where nefarious acts had been committed at different points in history. A WWII-era bunker is filled with the hopeless ghosts of suicide, a pre-Depression asylum across from the prison spawns images of horrific medical experimentation, and a wrecked slave ship from even farther back in history all help paint the entire island as a place that could very likely be the mouth of Hell itself.
I admired the various flashbacks, hallucinations and dream sequences that set the tone of madness, and the open style of interacting with the few inhabitants left behind by the creatures was surprisingly engaging. The Suffering also ends in a perfect way, with an ultimate resolution specific enough to satisfy, while retaining just the right amount of unspoken secrets to make me puzzle over what it was that just happened, and exactly who (or what) the titular "suffering" referred to...
Although there are minor rough edges like some short segments of unclear level design and a handful of places where the scripted elements didn't quite come together, The Suffering took me by surprise by being an ambitious game that succeeds where a lot of others have failed. I put it on my shelf proudly beside other classics in the horror genre, and recommend it to anyone who doesn't mind a well-justified M-rating.
Date released: March, 2004
Disclaimer: This review was based on the Microsoft Xbox version.
After playing Chili Con Carnage on the PSP and finding it to be an absurd, flawed game that managed to make me chuckle and kept me coming back for more, I decided to check out Total Overdose and see what Deadline Games had turned out the first time. It turns out that the two games are almost carbon copies of each other, one for a console and the other for a portable... not that this is necessarily a bad thing.
Although both games feature the same main character, an almost identical supporting cast, numerous similarities in level design, and a host of other things that make it pretty clear Carnage was carved from Overdose's template, there are enough differences between them to make them both worth playing for people (like me) who enjoyed time with one or the other—ust be prepared for frequent occurrences of déjà vu.
Entirely comprised of the sort of leap-in-slow-motion "bullet time" action that's been a common staple since John Woo and Max Payne made it popular, the game's hero can throw himself in any direction and perform impossible headshots in the air with ease. Most levels are straightforward shoot-outs as the story of the DEA infiltrating a drug'n'weapons cartel unfolds, but the biggest area where Overdose diverges form Carnage is that it has a wide-open GTA-style overworld to get lost in.
Players are encouraged to engage in random chaos while searching for various power-up icons, but this aspect of the game feels empty and unfulfilling—ultimately a waste of time and resources. The developers must have agreed since they axed exploration for Carnage. Thankfully, Deadline included an option that can warp players directly to their next mission and skip all of the travel time. This feature was not only a godsend, it was genius. To any developers who try to create similar types of GTA games in the future: COPY IT.
Though the frenetic death-dealing can start to feel repetitive during long play sessions, the game's over-the-top sense of humor and superb comic timing keep things moving along as bullets fly and shady henchmen fall. I'm a great fan of the hero and his supporting cast, and getting into something so completely impossible to take seriously was wholly appreciated. The writers have a two-for-two record when it comes to hitting the comedy sweet spot, and I hope they'll keep it up.
It may not bring a lot of new ideas to the table, but there's something to be said for a few hours of ridiculously outrageous action with tongue planted firmly in cheek. Run and gun, enjoy the cut-scenes, and realize that rescuing this disc from the used bin will probably result in one of the best enjoyment-to-dollar ratios out there today—as long as you use the skip feature to stay on course, that is.
Date released: September, 2005
Disclaimer: This review is based on the Microsoft Xbox version of the game.