Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Tale of the Tape: Battle of Forli vs. Zombie Island of Dr. Ned

Welcome to the first entry of a recurring series here on Infinite Lag, Tale of the Tape. Here I'll pit two games against each other, lay out their merits and shortcomings as I see 'em, and judge a victor - the game that better fulfills my Arbitrarily Selected Criteria for Success. To keep things relatively fair, I'll try to pick games of a similar era, genre, and/or style. Oh, and with any luck, in the process I'll work toward some larger point about the genre or era or whatever. Yeah, we'll see how that goes.

And with that rousing intro...

In our inaugural battle, we have a slight twist: although Assassin's Creed II and Borderlands are very different games, they both have multiple DLC packs, the first entries of which I've finally gotten around to playing. Since it wouldn't make much sense to make an apples-to-apples comparison here, I'm going to judge these DLC packs with a little different slant: which DLC does a better job of adding to the core game experience?

Your Arbitrarily Selected Criteria™ for this bout are:
  • Feel - how well does the DLC stay true to the spirit and universe of the core game?
  • Scope - how much new content is there to explore or acquire?
  • Value - for what it costs, how much value does this DLC add to the core game?
I'll take on the first ASC™ today, and deal with the next two in subsequent posts. And now, without further ado...

The Battle of Forli, which I snagged for a cool $4 when it released in late January but didn't play until last week, fills in one of the missing "corrupted memory" slots in Assassin's Creed II, Chapter 12. In this chapter, Ezio returns to the city of Forli and its surrounding wetlands to defend the fiery Catarina Sforza's turf from invaders and to protect a Piece of Eden. Oh, and Niccolo Machiavelli is hanging out there, too. Yeah, I don't know why either.

I waited until The Zombie Island of Dr. Ned went on sale this month to buy it for $5, at 50% off. This pack adds several new maps (the aforementioned "Zombie Island") to Pandora, sending your hero on a mission to discover the source of the zombie outbreak at this Jakobs outpost and put an end to it.

ROUND 1: Feel
The central conceit of Battle of Forli, that it's a recently-recovered "missing memory," fits perfectly within the narrative structure of Assassin's Creed II. Since we visited Forli in the core game, there's nothing new here in terms of the art style or environs, but the subplot about chasing after the stolen Piece of Eden does advance the overarching storyline toward its conclusion. No real surprises here: it's more ACII. That's not a bad thing.

The main problem with the feel of Battle of Forli is that it's far too reliant on two of the clunkier aspects of the game: combat with multiple enemies and escort missions. ACII was at its worst when the player was forced to resort to button-mashing to fend off a lot of enemies at once, and that's prominent here. Keeping AI allies alive in escort missions - the bane of many a frustrated gamer - constitutes a significant portion of Battle of Forli. Let me say here, too, that Catarina is a terrific character in the cutscenes, but man, is she generic and dumb in combat. Machiavelli too. I spent half my time in the castle defense sequence figuring out where one of them had run off to so I could make sure some guard didn't run them through. I should add that Machiavelli was a wasted character, as unlike Leonardo Da Vinci in the core game, he doesn't have a distinct personality and his interaction with Ezio doesn't illuminate or exploit what players already know about the historical figure. I would have rather spent my time in Forli chasing down assassination targets (preferably not on a timer, as Battle has you do at one point) and getting opportunities to try out a variety of my maxed-out skills in different contexts. As it was, all I had time or space to do was hack away.

I admit to a little trepidation upon first taking my level 49 Hunter to Zombie Island; I'd read middling reviews of Dr. Ned, as some players felt it went too far afield from the look and tone of Borderlands. I was pleasantly surprised, though. Anyone who's played the core game knows that story isn't exactly a strong point, but this B-movie-inspired schlockfest exudes the tongue-in-cheek goofiness the core game is known for. The public service announcements from the disembodied voice of the Jakobs PR rep and the ironically self-aware audio logs from Dr. Ned himself had me chuckling throughout. That said, the quests - particularly the "Braaaaaains!" sequence - can be tedious collect-a-thons, like in the core game. But I think because of the funky atmosphere, I didn't mind as much as I did in the core game. The whole experience feels very much like a drive-in horror movie, except in the Borderlands universe. In this sense, I think Dr. Ned actually surpasses the core game in projecting a consistent tone, even though that tone is ridiculous.

There are certainly some irregularities about Dr. Ned when compared to the core game. Yes, the color palette is quite different, trading the often bleached beige shades of the dusty hills for a sickly green tint that openly mimics the Frankenstein monster's skin. It takes some getting used to, but I thought it brought some interesting variety to the game. The enemies are repetitive, but that's no different than in the core game. You'll face two types of zombie, carrion birds, werevolves, the bizarre giant Tankensteins, and a few different bosses, including a pumpkinheaded monster. This weirdo, and the final boss, seemed like the biggest stretches in terms of the game universe, but of course Dr. Ned is all about playing up the inherent absurdity of that universe.

The thing I like about Borderlands, and Dr. Ned in particular, is that unlike many other fine game franchises - Assassin's Creed, Mass Effect, Gears of War - it doesn't even come close to taking itself seriously. It's always reminding you that it is a game, not an immersive interactive story. I think that gives Borderlands a good bit of leeway to take some hefty risks in terms of its tone, and it pays off in this DLC.

ROUND 1 WINNER: The Zombie Island of Dr. Ned

1 comment:

  1. I am really excited for Borderlands to come out with a Game of the Year edition.

    Also you forgot to mention the main reason Dr. Ned wins - achievements:)