Thursday, February 14, 2013

Game Review: Afterfall Insanity Extended Edition By Matthew W-A

Afterfall Insanity first got my attention when it worked it's way onto Steam via Greenlight. I was instantly intrigued by the description as it billed itself as a post-apocalyptic horror game made by an independent Polish studio. Many of my favorite books and games have come out of eastern Europe in recent years (Metro 2033 and The Witcher), and in general games from that part of the world tend to have fantastically bleak atmosphere...

The game starts off with an interesting base for it's alternate history (what would the world be like if Germany developed nuclear weapons before America in WWII, and the Cold War started twenty years early) and builds a believable and unique post-apocalyptic world from there. The story follows a psychiatrist in what is basically one of the vaults from Fallout with a “futuristic” rather then 50's design  who is sent to investigate an outbreak of extreme violence and aggression among the residents of the second sub-level. The story is well written and offered up a lot of surprises through the use of some fairly original ideas combined with the liberal application and subversion of standard horror tropes. I saw a few of the plot twists coming from a mile away, but for the most part, my general mental state was something along the lines of “What the hell is going on here?”

Much like the story, the visual design also does a great job of building a creepy oppressive atmosphere. The environments are universally excellent and the character design is generally pretty good as well, baring a few strange looking people. That strong visual design is aided by some fantastic audio design that adds a lot to augment the creepy, oppressive atmosphere. The music hits the right levels of creepy and frantic at the appropriate times, and the ambient noises played hell with my nerves. I wandered the blood-streaked corridors of the post-apocalyptic bunker ready to jump at the slightest provocation.

Unfortunately, those scares never came. That atmosphere and story almost perfectly set up the player to be scared shitless (and I was quaking in my metaphorical boots before the actual enemies showed up in force) but I get the impression that the developers simply did not understand how a proper jump scare works. The first time you meet mutated enemies (everyone up until that point has been a crazed human) you are in a poorly lit room with blood covered walls and creepy music, ready to freak out at the drop of a penny. Then you meet the scary new enemy via a twenty second cutscene that sucks all the tension out of the moment. The new mutant enemies have a genuinely scary and unique design. If the devs had just skipped the cutscene and had three of them mob me without warning. That would probably have gotten an involuntary bowel movement out of me, but no, such things were not to be. There were a few legitimately scary moments. Once when crawling through an air duct I saw a body appear to be dragged around a corner, although I couldn't see what was dragging it. When I popped out of the air duct, there was nothing but blood smeared on the walls and floor. Moments like that were the exception rather than the rule though, and I kept finding moments when I was thinking “wow that would be a great place to really scare someone.”

“If the game doesn't deliver on scares, how is the combat?” you might ask. The answer unfortunately is “lackluster at best.” Most of the combat is done with melee weapons as ammo for guns is scarce as the survival horror tradition dictates. Melee combat feels stiff and unresponsive, with blocking not doing much to stop damage, and kicking being basically worthless and only happening about a third of the time you press the kick button. Combat basically devolves into a mindless clickfest where you flail at enemies until your stamina runs out then try to avoid getting hit for the two seconds it takes it to recharge. You have a dodge roll, but it's only really useful during the two boss fights that happen during the last third of the game. The game does actually have a pretty good variety of melee weapons, with the design of said melee weapons changing depending on location, and generally feeling appropriate for the situation.  The game does not give you any metric for determining which weapons are better than others, and since weapons don't degrade there is no incentive to pick up new weapons if you have one you like. Most weapons feel pretty much the same, with swing speed being the only thing that sets them apart. The massive two-handed hammer is the most egregious example: it should feel meaty and powerful to swing around, but instead it feels slow and doesn't seem to him much harder then a pipe. The ax does feel pretty good and has the nice effect of occasionally decapitating enemies, but you get it within ten minutes of the real action starting and you don't find another melee weapon that is more fun to use until the last third of the game. Ranged combat fared a bit better. Weapon variety it fairly limited, but what is there looks interesting and feels fairly functional. The highlight of show was a revolver that had this uncanny tendency to explode enemy heads like overripe melons, but unfortunately had ammo rarer then sane sub-basements.

Rampant framerate drops and general performance problems didn't make the already clunky combat anymore enjoyable. I would often see my framerate drop below 20fps whenever there was a lot happening onscreen, even with the game running at 1280x720 with most of the graphical options at minimum. Considering the fact that I was running the game on my laptop, such things would be acceptable if it had shiny futuristic graphics that my machine just couldn't handle. That is not the case. Afterfall Insanity looks dated. While the visual design is excellent, the models can look a bit rough in places, and the textures are pretty lo-res. Most of the game takes place indoors as well, and generally the scenes aren't that complex. Nothing is detailed enough to justify the performance I observed. You may of course dismiss my complaints as coming from someone who is trying to convince himself that his laptop is an acceptable gaming platform, but while my laptop is getting on in years, it's not that slow. I was able to run Crysis 2 and Metro 2033 just fine at 1280x720. Afterfall Insanity is an Unreal Engine 3 game that demands a lot more resources then it has any right to.

Speaking of visual problems, the animation quality is atrocious. It's pretty clear that the developer did not have enough money for even basic motion capture and just had one guy keyframe everything. Animations generally felt stiff and clunky, with some of the mutant animations being by far the worst. It's pretty hard to be scared by a mutant abomination that seems to be unaware of the existence of its knees. The problem gets even worse in cutscenes, where the excellent virtual camera work and occasional tasteful usage of slow motion serve only to highlight the flaws in the animation. My feelings about the animation quality are best summed up by the moments where the player character makes notes in his audio journal: he starts speaking into his PDA and slows down to a speed most commonly attributed to an anemic snail. You rotate the camera around to see him from another angle, only to notice that his lips are not moving. He is speaking, but the decided not to give him even a generic  talking animation while he does so. Yes, it is pretty jarring.

Speaking of elements hamstrung by budget and experience, let's talk about voice acting. While the audio design and soundtrack are pretty damn good, the voice acting is some of the worst that I have ever heard. It's not even bad in the Resident Evil “Jill sandwich, master of unlocking way” sense. That would probably have actually made it more enjoyable. The dialogue is actually pretty well written. The problem is the delivery. No matter how bad, disturbing, or messed up the situation gets, all of the voice acting is delivered with all the urgency of a programmer mumbling into his headset mike while sitting at his desk. Almost every single line from every single character is delivered in a dull monotone that makes the dialogue delivery in the first Expendables movie feel dynamic by comparison.

Finally, I have to mention the puzzles. Most of them involve finding a valve and closing it to proceed, but a few of them are more complicated. One puzzle involved manually fixing the coolant system in an overheating reactor, and I failed it the first five times I tried it because you have less than two minutes to do it and the game does a terrible job of explaining how that section works. I eventually resorted to looking up the solution online, and found out that I wasn't the first to have that problem. Overall the puzzles were boring and stupid at best, and pretty frustrating for no good reason at worst. On the whole, every single puzzle felt like it was there to pad out the length of the game.

Afterfall Insanity did spend some time in development hell, and it's worth noting that the game originally started out as a mod that morphed into an RPG that then was turned into a horror game fairly late in development. While the team is inexperienced, they did make a point of supporting their first effort very well after launch, with the free “Extended Edition” patch (released before the game got onto Steam) supposedly tightening up the combat and animation quality. In a lot of ways I can see how the combat mechanics and animations would be a lot more palatable in an RPG. What they did well in Afterfall Insanity actually has piqued my interest for their upcoming Afterfall: Pearl of the Wasteland episodic games which could actually be pretty enjoyable if they get some basic motion capture, pay some acting students to do the voice work and ditch the stupid puzzles.

The twenty dollar base price of Afterfall Insanity on Steam will get you about six hours of entertainment, and probably leave you feeling like you wasted your money. If you pick it up during a sale for less then ten dollars and are willing to put of with some annoyance for the time necessary to complete the game you will find a flawed but atmospheric and interesting combination of Fallout and Deadspace that you will probably burn through in an afternoon or two. Your enjoyment of Afterfall Insanity will be entirely dependent on your patience and how much you value story and atmosphere.

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