Monday, 26 January 2015

Contact

At some point in the past I bemoaned that only playing good games made it difficult to write interesting reviews. The average Eye Moustaches review boils down to "dear Sporadic Reader, you may have heard it said that this game is very good. Well I'm here to tell you that those rumours are in fact completely true, and so reading this review hasn't told you anything professionals haven't already told you". Well having played Contact, I can tell you that I never want to play a bad game again, screw the review quality.
I had a number of ideas of how to approach this review. One was to punctuate every sentence with a different swear words, but the Irish over-reliance on the big F meant I ran out pretty quick. Another was just to upload a copy of the notes I made as I played it, a Gonzo approach that would have let the reader pick through the shattered remains of my psyche. I considered just typing "It's the the combat, stupid" and leaving it at that. One idea that I was particular fond of was to present the review as a network diagram, to illustrate my main point, that Contact's main problem is that none of its admittedly interesting ideas seem to have been considered in terms of they would fit in with the game's other mechanics.
You've probably heard of Contact because of the story. The idea is that you play as you, a person holding a DS who makes "contact" with the Professor, a balding space faring guy in a lab coat. Shortly after this, the Professor is shot down and one of his power cells land nears a child called Terry. The Professor retrieves the cell and instructs Terry to get in the ship, which he does, stranger danger not being a thing in this world. Perhaps not surprisingly, the ship is shot down and then again unsurprisingly, disguises itself as a pirate ship. Terry must retrieve the ship's cells so that he and the Professor can get home. The idea is that you control Terry, whilst communicating with the Professor without Terry's knowledge, while the Professor communicates with Terry over a radio. That's the initial premise, what follows is a confusing story full of vague world building and out of focus overarching plotlines.
The game clearly thinks it is quite clever. According to the website "it's not all high concept artsy stuff" You're right, it's barely even a little high concept. We're told that we play as ourselves, and that we control Terry. But Terry is so bland that that in effect we just control him. He doesn't have any personality or memories prior to his meeting the professor, he knows exactly as much about the situation as we do. The Professor sometimes addresses you personally, but only to comment on the fact that he's addressing you personally. Crucially, when we discover randomn documents that contain info about the Professor or the games antagonists, the CosmoNOTS, there's no indication if Terry already knows this. Other sections of the site seem to think that the idea of player surrogate is incredibly novel. The Professor's character is inconsistent varying from selfish sometimes to showing concern for Terry and compassion for the CosmoNOTS. The antagonists are in a band for some reason and want the crystals again for some reason. Terry kills (or at very least maims) people with weapons like knives, swords and a toy hammer and no-one seems to think this strange or gruesome. In fact, at one point after dispatching a troop of soldiers, there superiors response is to simply say "I'll be filling a report". Other bizzare moments include a CosmoNOT uttering the line "I'm not sure how we're going to stop you" to a small child. I only learned from the website that the second time the ship crashed it was on an unknown planet. There are other problems with the plot, including a number of plot threads that seemed to be left hanging. There's something about clones? A conspiracy on Aegis?
It's possible that these threads were resolved in side quests, I only learned after completing it that there's a number of romance side quests that I was completely unaware of. I'll get back to my problems with the side quests that I was aware of later on, but the most pressing one is that the game's design specifically the combat system, makes it a world that you don't want to explore.
When you make contact with an enemy, if you choose to fight them, you press B and Terry gets into his action stance. He starts to move (even) slower and when the mood strikes him flails at the enemy, or possibly the air. There's no real player control in this system, in theory there's some element of skill to dodging attacks while keeping close to hitting them but in practice a great many of the attacks are homing attacks that can't be dodged so staying away from enemies is ineffective. Combat therefore boils down to standing in front of the enemy while Terry slowly whittles away their health. That is, unless the enemies attack speed causes Terry to flinch constantly or those times where he doesn't seem to attack at all. The website describes menu based systems as tedious and calls its combat system speedy. It's most definitely not speedy, nor is watching Terry slowly knock blocks off an enemy's health bar with no way to affect the outcome in any way satisfying. Confusingly, the game does have menu based combat, special attacks which require xp to use, which happen as soon as you select a target and an attack (except for those times when the game laughs at your foolish notion of the player being in control of a game and cancels the attack somehow) and the use of these attacks to make an effective hit is the closest Contact's combat comes to being fun. What's most perplexing about Contact is that the war of attrition that is its combat system doesn't seem to have been designed with the game in mind, a clear example of this is the food system.
Terry can purchase food in shops and collect it from the remains of dead enemies which can either be eaten there and then or cooked up by Terry (but only when he's wearing his chef's outfit, because why should you enjoy a game right?). These cooking sections are fantastic example of the tedious menus decried by the games own website. What Terry can and cannot cook seems to depend on his cooking stats as well as what recipes he holds and figuring this out involves combining foods to see what you can combine at that particular time. As an extra bit of spit in the soup, cooking will often fail through no fault of yours, wasting your ingredients. Different foods restore health and provide different stat boosts. There's an interesting mechanic whereby Terry can only eat so much before he gets full, but with the massive loss of health necessitated by the combat system this means that the only viable option is to stock up on the dull-but-effective-without-being-filling-potions. In my experience, Terry fills up after two or three of the interesting dishes and death quickly follows.
Cooking is one of the skills Terry can use, but only when he's dressed appropriately. the only place he can change clothes is in the ship, which means that when you disembark you need to be wearing the correct one for anything you might encounter. A definite low point in a section on Aegis is a room with tiles which correspond to game stats. Only if you're high enough in the relevant stats can you activate the tiles and unlock the doors. This requires multiple trips back and forth from the ship to the room so that you can have the right costume on. Even the indispensable GameFAQs walkthrough which appears to have been written by someone with Stockholm syndromes describes this section sarcastically.
Another skill is the shadow thief costume which allows you to pick locks. Throughout the game you encounter locked chests and doors and about midway through it becomes possible to acquire the means to pick (more on that later) locks. Like the combat and the cooking, lock picking is not an interactive experience. You approach the chest or door, hold A and a meter appears on screen and starts to fill up. Sometimes Terry fails and must start again, sometimes he does not. The more locks he picks the more locks he can pick. At no point do you have control over this procedure. This is a recurring problem with Contact, you improve your skills throughout the game, but these improvements are always a case of Terry getting better at something, rather than you the player improving or becoming more experienced at playing the game.
The map to the island containing the thief's costume is hidden in a secret room, specifically, one of those rooms which can only be accessed by pressing up against the walls and hoping for a doorway concealed by the games camera. These kind of hidden rooms are acceptable for hidden secrets, but are a core part of how the levels are designed in this game.
Finding the thief's costume is an optional side quest and as I understand it, the game has a number of them. I say this because while I've nothing against side quests (even that side quest that used to beat me up as a kid and call me "Gay moustaches") the world of Contact is such a chore to navigate that doing anything other than the main quests would be too much of an ordeal. A combination of so many factors, such as Terry's arthritic walking speed, repetitive environments and the possibility that you might need to warp back to the ship to change costumes rob you of any desire to explore. In addition, many of the quests seem vague or involve buying certain (almost unanimously expensive) objects often from one particular store. Fun times for sure.

I'll finish with a point that I saw recently on the game's metacritic page, which I thought too good not to include: An RPG that dares to be different, plot-wise, but still starts you off fighting worms and skellingtons in cobwebby old dungeons ~ NGamer. Contact is far too smug, too sure of itself, so caught up in the cleverness of its not tremendously well thought out ideas for its own good.

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