Saturday, May 25, 2013

Review: "Afterfall Insanity - Dirty Arena Edition"

The practice of cutting off a section of a game and selling it wholesale has become surprisingly common in recent years. While in some situations it results in an egregious ”paid demo” sort of deal, other times it can be rather delightful. At a discounted price, you can buy a smaller, shorter version of a title. For people gaming on a budget, this can be an extremely useful way to explore an unfamiliar game without investing too much money – or time.
Such is the case with Afterfall Insanity – Dirty Arena Edition. The “Dirty Arena” is the survival mode from the full game, Afterfall Insanity, a horror-action game landed on Steam in the first Greenlight wave. Dirty Arena Edition has two very purpose, express goals: provide a compelling, short-hand Afterfall Insanity experience, and in doing so, sell budget gamers on the full title. A bit of pressure then rides on this edition – much like a demo, if it fails to sell me on the full game, it has failed.
With that established, Afterfall Insanity – Dirty Arena Edition has failed.
I’d like to think of myself as good at games. I’m not fantastic, but I clear most everything I play at Normal or High difficulty settings and I’ve never been outright incompetent at anything, ever. I’ve been playing videogames my whole life, and I’d like to think I can reach a reasonable skill ceiling with relative ease – and if I can’t, I like to think I savour the challenge. That’s important to say that, because when I say “Afterfall Insanity has one of the most frustratingly broken difficulty curves in the entirety of videogames” some people may assume it’s because I just suck at it.
Even if that was the case, I’d like to think I’m one of those people with enough humility to admit it. And furthermore, I’d like to think any game in question would be good enough to convey that. Take Dark Souls, for example. With every death, the game gives you enough information to know how and why you died. It lets you learn from your mistakes to better yourself. It might not do so explicitly, but the information is there – the game’s mechanics are conveyed in a way that makes extrapolation of your own failures possible.
This isn’t the case in Afterfall Insanity – Dirty Arena Edition. It is tremendously difficult, but the game isn’t built in a way that mistakes can be learned from. Nine times out of ten victory is attained through utter indignation, and force – ignoring the likes of tactic, strategy, and placement, and just hammering through and wishing for the best. At the fifth death, I should know well what it is I’m doing wrong, and what I should be doing better, right? At least what I did wrong the previous four deaths? Afterfall Insanity doesn’t think so.
A lot this really does come down to the horrendously sloppy control scheme. Afterfall Insanity is a third-person action game, running in Unreal 3. It’s my belief that the full game has gunplay in it, though I can’t be arsed going to check – Dirty Arena, conversely, is melee focused, throwing your character into a gladiator-style pit to hold off against waves of drooling madmen and Eldritch abominations.
Press a button to swing your weapon. Press another to block, and one other to dodge. That seems simple enough. The delay, though, between hitting the button and doing anyaction… it’s borderline laggy. The block button doesn’t block for shit – enemies can seemingly do more damage when you’re blocking them than when not, so dodging out of the way of enemy blows is the optimal approach to avoiding taking damage. Not that it matters – just as the block button is seemingly useless, so too proves dodging – often it lands you in a position where the enemy can just take a step forward and wail on you.
And I mean WAIL on you. The standard goons in this game have a several-swing combo that, if you fail to avoid, takes a good chunk out of your non-regenerating healthbar (an advertised feature, bizarrely). It’d be easier to stomach, though, if the physics worked in a way that wasn’t so uncannily awful – when an enemy hits you, rather than being propelled away from them (perhaps falling to the ground in pain?), you are drawn towards them. This allows a mob of enemies to essentially stun-lock you out of a good portion of your health bar, until you find a window to either hit them back, or roll out of the way. And your player character goes “oww oww oww,” repeating the same sound clip over and over, every time he’s hit. Such fun!
When I hit the roll or attack button though, it takes a good second for the action to compute inside my character’s head. Which results in, well, button mashing. I want to swing at someone once, I end up pummeling my mouse button wildly with my finger. If I end up in a position where I want to roll away, then, I’ll hit the spacebar… only to find that it needs to complete the melee action first. If I hit mouse twice in a row, and then try to roll away, it will swing twice, then roll away. That’s a good few seconds of not being rolled out of the way. You would think that you’d program a game so that when I press a different button you complete the first action, and then move into the new one. Afterfall Insanity’s programmers didn’t think of that, apparently, choosing instead to create a system that leaves your character swinging through melee hits well after he’s been given the command to roll on outta there.
So. Melee combat is clunky, slow, and unsatisfying. When you have a game built around melee combat, that’s a big black mark if ever there was one. The enemies are overpowered – not by their tenacity or strength, but by their broken attack physics. Another black mark. And the controls are unresponsive to the point of lagging – that spells death for even the most competent of titles. It gets worse, though! Oh my god does it get worse. Because, despite the game having an auto-save function, it does not save between arena encounters. Hours after starting, I finally finish the first set of waves (no thanks to the game itself), and I’m thrown back to the store to prepare for the next. I buy a new weapon, am ultimately defeated in the second set of waves, and then… I’m thrown back to the very start of the game. It was that point – after more than three hours of fiddling with the fucker – that I gave up, and started to reflect a little more rationally about the presentation of this… product.
I’m led to the conclusion that the developers of this game are utterly incompetent. Or oblivious. On the Steam forums, where they are talking through these issues with the community – all of the buyers insanely dissatisfied, might I add – they are claiming things like, “the Dirty Arena is meant to be more difficult for people who thought the main game was too easy.” They offer a rather subtly insulting “Tips for the Weak” video on Youtube, explaining some of the advanced mechanics that aren’t even winked at in the game or its loading screen tips. Fair enough, you wanna balance out your in-game extras for the few who would be privy to enjoying them as extras.
The clincher is that they talk about it like this stand-alone game shouldn’t stand on its own two feet. When you’re charging a fiver for it, though, you kind of want to make sure it’s worth newcomer’s money, right? The survival mode is free with the full game, so no-one who owns that would complain – but people buying in fresh. You want to win them over as well you can. You can half-arse so many elements, but you have to at least offer them the limp handshake.
But then it all starts to unravel, and it makes sense. There’s no voice acting, and no tutorial. The saving screen hints are ripped from the full game, providing context to a story mode that doesn’t exist. Game features are never explained, the difficulty curve is non-existent …and this convenient, cheap tie-in seems to become less about winning over a fresh bunch of new customers, and more about making a quick buck off of them. This isn’t goodwill, this isn’t convenience, this isn’t advertising: it’s just an old-fashioned, plain-as-day rip-off.
…I think what I find most distasteful about this sham of a release is that it seems to not have been played by any of the developers themselves. That’s what it feels like – a game that hasn’t been playtested. It likely hasn’t – it was thrown together, I’d estimate, in a week, out of a bunch of the full game’s assets. It’s alarming, though, how good those assets can be. The sound design isn’t terrible, the enemy designs have a Silent Hill-esque horrific charm to ‘em, and the graphics are rather atmospheric. There’s no context given to the world, of course, but what one can piece together from the merest of elements is impressive, and a testament to the original game’s art team (even if it’s ruined by a hideously obnoxious set of filters applied when you take even a smidgen of damage… and you thought Call of Duty’s bloody screens were annoying!)
But alongside distaste lies, ultimately, disappointment. Done properly, this game could have sold me on Afterfall Insanity. What it has done is the exact opposite; it makes me feel like the developers and publishers don’t respect their potential customers, it makes me feel like the people making the game are incompetent and unable – or unwilling – to employ basic common sense to a difficulty curve, and it makes me feel unwanted. I’ve parted with the $3.99 they’ve asked me for, and who the fuck cares if the game I get for it is worth it, eh?
I feel ripped off, and I bought the game to review it. God knows how those poor bastards who bought the game expecting a quality taste of Afterfall Insanity felt. Tricked? Lied to? Or did they just give up entirely, never dwelling on it, and never looking back – either to this edition, or the full version they could have been swayed into buying? I was going to say rather discreetly that it would all feel much better if a discount for the full version was included with this release – similar to how Dawn of War II: Retribution discounts the full game by the price of the stand-alone survival mode for those who already own it. …but I don’t think it would. I don’t think the bitter fact that the companies involved here thought this was worth charging for in a stand-alone format can be washed away. I don’t think any goodwill can be re-earned after this – the trust, which could have so easily been formed, has been crushed by this half-hearted, broken product.
That’s the truth, and I have never been so utterly heartbroken to have to write that. This release isn’t worth your time, money, or attention – and based on what I’ve played of this, neither is the “full” Afterfall Insanity. I feel duty-bound to sincerely ask you not to give these people your business… unless they do something really, really nice. Like, uh, donate puppies to an orphanage, or somethin’. I ‘unno. Resurrect Roger Ebert? Murder Armond White? Something amazing, at any rate.