In the summer of 2003, gamers bore witness to a spectacular step backwards for the mainstream acceptance of video games. The one-two punch of the unfinished videogame Tomb Raider: Angel Of Darkness and the unwatchable movie Lara Croft: Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life. The awful Angel Of Darkness is a perfect example of a game rushed to release. After three years without a new title, the most visible franchise in gaming was in danger of being forgotten. Promises of an entirely new gameplay model that would revolutionize third-person gaming were stating to sound a little ridiculous. Most importantly, there was another movie coming out in just a few months, and no new game on the shelves would seriously put a crimp in any cross-marketing plans. As a result, a game that wasn't even close to being in a releasable state was put onto store shelves.
So why bring up Tomb Raider this up when talking about a new Buffy the Vampire Slayer game? Well, it's best to look back to the old saying—"Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice…"
Buffy The Vampire Slayer: Chaos Bleeds is a rushed game. While there are many reasons that a game can be put on sale before it's actually done, the most likely scenario goes a little something like this:
After three years and a platform change, the Buffy game finally came out for the Xbox. It was a minor hit, and possibly the beginning of a robust franchise. A second game is put into the works. The developers of the first (fairly great) game are busy with other projects, but that shouldn't be a problem, as there's plenty of time to get another developer on it.
Then Buffy ended its seven-year run.
This poses a problem—who knows if anyone's even going to remember Buffy The Vampire Slayer in two years? A new game is needed, and fast. A new developer, one known primarily for quickly building games based on licensed properties, is hired. The developer, Eurocom, had their work cut out for them this time, though—not only did they have to put out a game in a hurry, they had to make up for complaints that the first game hadn't really captured the essence of the Buffy television show.
Eurocom succeeded, in their way. They created a very good Buffy experience. The problem, though, is that apart from its slavish adherence to Buffy continuity and characterization, it's a mediocre game at best. As a result, the game will be of interest primarily to Buffy fans. It features most of the show's cast, a plot that ties in nicely with the show's final story arc, and special features that rival the actual Buffy DVDs for completeness. Beyond this, the struggle to get the game out on time clearly took its toll on the title. It's not that there's anything clearly missing, or many catastrophic bugs, (the official forums are packed with references to saving errors that I haven't experienced—my only bug story involves mid-level freeze after ten straight hours of playing) the whole game has an unpolished, untested feel to it, which is the best indicator of a rushed release.
It's impossible to play the game for more than a few minutes without noticing something that just feelsoff. While the graphics and animation are more actually quite good for a multiplatform release, the gameplay is just average. While it's a little fun to control Buffy and company as they viciously beat creatures of the night, the physics are so floaty that it never really feels like Buffy is earning the massive amounts of damage she's doing. Enemies go flying with the slightest tap, and it never takes more than three or four blows to finish off opponents. There's almost no controller vibration at all—where a well-placed shake or rattle would have given the occasional blow a real weight and impact, there is no interaction at all.
The game is also loaded with small errors and play issues that testing should have picked up. One of the game's unique features is that characters don't die when they run out of health, they just become susceptible to "killing blows." There's only one "killing blow" per character though, which means that characters that really shouldn't be killed by having their blood drained, such as the vampire Spike, can be.
Flawed and half-implemented features are strewn throughout the game. The complete lack of falling damage seems like an especially grievous oversight to anyone who's ever played a semi-realistic 3D person adventure game. The biggest problem is, ironically, the game's most touted feature—the multiple playable characters. Other than featuring different voice clips and character skins, all of the characters play pretty much alike. Buffy and Faith are identical, while Spike and Xander seem like underpowered versions of the Slayers with much more limited move sets. Worse yet, the gameplay is so unbalanced that the two unique characters, Willow and Sid the ventriloquist's dummy, are both so massively overpowered compared to the other characters that they actually become boring rather quickly.
Buffy The Vampire Slayer: Chaos Bleeds is a textbook example of a game that wasn't ready to be pushed out of the nest. What could have been an exceptional game flounders in mediocrity because of an artificial timeline. This kind of rushed game is all too common these days, and they won't stop appearing on the market until people stop buying them. So how can consumers defend themselves? My suggestion is that they start thinking about exactly who it is that's making their games. Much as someone might follow a writer they liked from novel to novel, or a director they liked from film to film, it's up to game consumers to look past the publisher's name on a box and ask who actually developed the game. For example, people who loved the first Buffy game would probably be more interested in Indiana Jones and the Emperor's Tomb than they would in this. It's possible that if people gave development houses a little more attention and a lot more credit, we'd start to see an overall shift in the quality of games being released.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the Xbox version of the game.