Review by Tom Clark
"Can Lara Croft drink blood? No! So... so... so there!"
People like vampires. It's true, they do. Understandable, really - they have really dapper capes, cool superhuman abilities, and, well, if it wasn't for vampires the world would never have been introduced to Buffy. So , yessir, people like vampires. Those nice folks at Eidos and Crystal Dynamics obviously realise just how much fun vampires are, as they've chosen to bring you the latest instalment of the best-selling Legacy Of Kain series. Which is good of them.
Blood Omen 2 is set between Blood Omen (well duh!) and Soul Reaver, and again casts you as rather mean vampire Kain, as he attempts to rule the land of Nosgoth once more. Since we last met Kain he and his unholy army have been soundly defeated by the equally mean Sarafan Lord. It's fair to say that Kain feels pretty gutted about this, and as such he takes time out and has a two-century sleep. He awakens from his battle-induced dormancy to find Nosgoth awash with The Sarafan Lord's minions, who are intent on ridding the land of the Vampire forces. Not only that, but many of Kain's former vampiric allies have joined with the Sarafan Lord in his quest, and are now baying for Kain's blood. Help is at hand, however, in the form of a resistance cell consisting mainly of vampires, who are out to reclaim the night. Still weakened from his hibernation, Kain decides that, for now at least, the best tactic in his attempt to reclaim Nosgoth would be to ally himself with the resistance. And that's where we join the action.
When you start up Blood Omen 2 for the first time, the first thing to strike you will be how pretty the cutscene that establishes this plot looks. The second thing will most likely be that the rest of the game isn't quite as eye-massaging. See folks, what we have here is another example of what has become a common affliction of the XBox in it's infancy - the PS2 port. In the first year or so of the dark green machine's existence, it's only natural that developers are still finding their feet and learning what they can make the XBox do. As such, in an effort to make sure that there were actually games on the market, developers simply stuck their games from other systems onto a shiny XBox disc, usually with only minor graphical improvements. So yes, that's got that unpleasantness out of the way - as pretty much everyone is clamouring to let you know - this is a port of a PS2 (and now Gamecube) title, it doesn't use the 'Box to it's potential, etc., etc...... But still, just because the game started out somewhere else, doesn't make it wrong.
Blood Omen 2 is a third person adventure game, very much in the vein (no pun intended) of Tomb Raider and it's ilk. You start off your career as a vampire bad-ass with a pretty routine training stage. It is here that you learn the standard fare - how to jump, glide down silently, turn yourself into mist to pass through fog undetected (one of the most novel and enjoyable parts of the game), and how to kill. There are plenty of weapons to be found scattered around Nosgoth, many with there own special moves attached, but the basic principles remain the same. You can beat / stab / slash at enemies and humble locals alike, pick them up, throw them, or hold them by the neck while you issue pain on them, draining their lifeless corpse of blood when you're done. Make no mistake, this is violent game, and it does go too far sometimes. Now I'm no prude (I love a good videogame massacre as much as the next guy), but it is clear that a game that sees you pick up a women by the throat, before repeatedly hammering her between the legs with a mace, is trying to get itself a bit of a reputation rather than trying to use violence to enhance the gameplay. Shock value sells, and, well, I wouldn't be surprised if Eidos were disappointed to see the '15' certificate on this game not because it cut off all those younger than that age, but because it wasn't the holy grail '18' certificate that guarantees notoriety. Still, Kain's killing is on the whole still great fun (there is a classic moment where you can disguise yourself in mist and approach an arguing couple. The poor chap is getting an earful from his missus, and as Kain you can stealthily approach, come up behind him and push his heart through his chest, dropping it at her feet. You can then laugh as her anger turns into shrieks of terror. That'll learn her). Yep, Blood Omen 2 is a violent game, and it does occasionally go too far, leaving a bad taste in the mouth, but on the whole, the killing and blood-spilling is handled in a way that is tongue in cheek enough as to remain as amusing as it is appalling. What's more, you are encouraged to kill as many people as you can, and sucking your victims' blood replenishes your health, as well as increasing the maximum health Kain can have.
But it's not all bloodshed and mayhem in this game. In true Lara Croft style, the levels are dotted with puzzles that must be solved in order to progress. It almost goes without saying that, in order to solve the various conundrums presented to you, you must move crates about the place and flip switches. Still, that doesn't mean it's all easy. There are still plenty of occasions where you'll be forced to pause a moment and ponder how in the name of Dracula's Dentures you're supposed to reach the other side of a particular wall. It's never taxing enough to warrant more than a few moment's consideration, but there is still a degree of lateral thinking required to progress in the game, and the difficulty for most puzzles is pitched just the right side of the difficulty gradient.
The absolute highlight as far as the gameplay goes, though, is without a doubt the stunning boss encounters. While not all the fights are exactly difficult (there is one which, in a bizarre way that I assume to be accidental, is best won by not pressing a single button and simply allowing the boss to kill himself...) each requires some careful thought and planning. The boss characters all tend to have one special ability that Kain does not, and you'll need to figure out how to use the environment and your existing skills (known as Dark Gifts) against this new talent. And, as a reward for your hard work, when the boss is slain, you inherit this ability yourself. The abilities range from more frenzied attacks and better jumping skills, to the superb charm ability, which allows you to posses humble villagers and get them to do your bidding (usually this will involve flipping switches that you yourself cannot reach). This is a great feature, and it's top fun just possessing people and running around the stage in their body. It's little touches like this that demonstrate that a lot of care has gone in to making it really feel as if the character that you are controlling is more than your average gaming hero (or anti-hero).
Undoubtedly, the most impressive aspect of the presentation is the voice work, which is coupled by an impressive script (there's no Resident Evil style linguistic oddities on display in this game). Although at first Kain's voice may seem inappropriate - being quite light and foppish, the quintessential English Gentleman, you soon notice a real sense of darkness in the voice that is portrayed so subtly that it at first goes unnoticed. But when Kain replies, in response to a guard that tells him that only night shift workers may pass: 'I am the Night Shift', it is undeniable that Kain's voice sounds absolutely perfect for the part. It is rare to see quite this much care go into the scripting and vocals of a third-person action/adventure title, but it makes for very pleasant gaming. Unfortunately this is not reflected in the rest of the presentation - all the other aural treats the game has in store, both in terms of tunes and effects, are far from memorable, and the graphics, while crisp and colourful, break up on occasion, and are rife with angular scenery and jagged edges that really should have been ironed out given the increased power of Microsoft's machine.
At the end of the day, Blood Omen 2 is a lazy PS2 port - there is almost nothing to differentiate this version of the title with it's Sony brother. What little extras do exist are just downright odd - coming in the form of trailers for the game (sounds good, but frankly completely obsolete considering you're playing the game already, therefore you've already either rented or bought the game...). But still, even though it's a lazy port, it's a lazy port of a good game. The levels are adequately designed, albeit lacking in moments of pure inspiration at times, the game gets pleasantly difficult towards the end, the special vampire skills are fun and diverse, and while the violence occasionally goes too far, on the whole it manages to remain an amusing and above-average adventure. While Blood Omen 2 may not last more than a week or so, meaning purchase is at your own discretion, it's certainly good enough to be a must-rent title. Just don't expect it to be a game that really shows off what your XBox can do.
Reviewer's Rating: 3.5 - Good
Originally Posted: 12/24/02, Updated 12/24/02
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