Review by Nightfall

"Nowhere near as good as the original, but worth a shot"

Blood Omen 2 for the Xbox is one of those games that some will love, and some will hate. There are a lot of reasons to love this game, and I will concede that there are some reasons to dislike it too. Before I delve into the reasons for both, I will give you my gut impression of the game, my basic slant that leans me toward or against it. My gut impression is that this game is a winner, a winner on several fronts; I wouldn't have stuck with it so long if I didn't have this opinion. Right away I was struck by the high production values and attention to detail that went into the game. I didn't expect anything less from Crystal Dynamics. Despite the criticisms that some may have, this a very well constructed game with gorgeous graphics, awesome boss battles, and a clever, if somewhat rigid and limiting, combat system. But you must love third-person action/adventure titles to enjoy this game. If you are sort of on the fence about third person action/adventure and require that type of game to be totally kick-arse to get into it, you may want to pass. Although I consider it to be a great game of that genre, many may find it too repetitive and too ''on rails'' for their enjoyment.

In the 200 years between Kain's defeat at the hands of the Sarafan Lord and his reawakening, something has happened to Nosgoth, or at least a large part of it. It has become industrialized. Machines of various types and sizes litter the land, many of them broken down or nonfunctional. Nosgoth has changed from a land of lush green forests and ancient edifices guarding magical secrets to a dark urban cityscape where machines belch forth their foul products and the Sarafan rule with an iron fist. Something is amiss, and Kain, now newly aroused, is setting forth to make it right. Much of the game's theme is about technology and how Kain sets about to throw his monkey wrench into the gears and reclaim his place as ruler of Nosgoth.

Although there is plenty of combat, the meat and potatoes of the game is in the puzzle solving, and this almost always involves figuring out a way to get from point A to point B. Thank goodness for that wonderful invention, the switch! Get ready to flip a lot of them folks. After Soul Reaver came out, people complained about all the block puzzles. So I guess Crystal Dynamics thought, ''let's replace the block puzzles with switch puzzles!'' Clever. Even Lara Croft hasn't pulled as many switches as Kain does in this game. By a certain point in the game, every puzzle you come across is composed of the same elements: hitting switches, turning wheels, charming humans to pull switches for you, jumping to other platforms, moving blocks, and triggering Glyph seals. Every puzzle is just a rearrangement of these actions, and I have to admit that after a while I got really tired of it. I mean, the story of Kain and Nosgoth is a fascinating one, and it is somewhat silly to see one of Nosgoth's most renowned and feared characters, himself responsible for much of Nosgoth's fate, reduced to a switch flipper. At one point in the game, Kain remarks to Umah, his friend and trainer, ''What do you take me for, an errand boy?'' in defiant pride and anger. Yet this is what the game turns him into, an errand boy, flipping this switch, turning that wheel, pushing this block. A game's got to have puzzles, but once you've flipped your hundredth switch and turned your fiftieth wheel, it's hard to feel like the great Lord of Nosgoth that you are. You feel more like one of his menial servants trapped in a Tomb Raider game. Gamers have made it very clear that they don't want to flip switches any more. I personally don't mind a certain quantity of switch puzzles, but it seems like that's all you do in this game.

You don't really even have to figure the puzzles out to solve them. Most of them are pretty simple, and anything in the environment that you need to manipulate to solve the puzzle--crates, switches, wheels-- is blatantly highlighted with a shiny twinkle. If you're wondering if you can move a box, just stand next to it. It will tell you with an incandescent glow. I can see a game giving the player small hints about a puzzle, like something being a slightly different color, but this game almost tells you exactly what you need to do. The result of this is that puzzle solving is often a matter of just going through the motions. All you do is look for the next switch to pull, wheel to turn, or seal to open, and see what happens next. After doing this for several hours, it just becomes mind-numbing. Anyone who has played a Tomb Raider game will find no challenge here.

The game intersperses the monotonous episodes of puzzle solving with combat. You will be going up against thieves, thugs, the Sarafan, giant bugs, and ghostly specters. The combat system is highly structured, with strict movement, attack, dodge, and block parameters. I like this, because it gives the player a framework to work within. Some may prefer a more freestyle melee like Devil May Cry, but I like a game to give me boundaries. It helps me define what I can and can't do, and takes some of the mystery out of fighting. However, one could make the argument that the combat system in this game is TOO rigid and limiting. You have to fight in a certain way or you're just going to die a lot (I think they call that a canned combat system).

What can make the combat frustrating is the guesswork involved (did I say this system took the mystery out of fighting?). Every enemy has a certain repertoire of attacks. Most of them have normal attacks that can be blocked, and special attacks that cannot be blocked. The trick is in guessing what the enemy is going to do. The game forces you to learn every enemy's attack pattern before you can effectively fight them. Are they going to do a special strike, or a normal one? If a normal one, how many moves in the combo? Are they going to follow up their normal attacks with a special attack? If you're wrong in your guess, you're going to take a beating. I'm not sure if this is great game design, or just trial and error combat. Once Kain is committed to either attacking, dodging, or blocking, it takes a while for him to execute a different action. Say you execute your three strike combo because you assume your enemy is posing for the moment, but then you see they are powering up for an unblockable attack, so you quickly try to dodge. No doing, mister, because Kain won't do a thing until he comes out of his three strike combo animation. And by that time, the enemy's attack has already knocked you to the ground. Or likewise, if you dodge assuming the enemy is about to do an unblockable attack, and it turns out to be a blockable attack, the first couple of strikes will nail you good, because blockable attacks cannot be dodged. Memorizing the enemy's attack patterns only works to an extent, because they sometimes mix them up, and unleash a special attack when you least expect it. The result of this is that combat is very much a guessing game, with a good deal of luck involved. You may do extremely well against one foe, only to die at the hands of his buddy twenty feet down the road. This very fact was extremely frustrating to me. In a way, it adds some drama to the game, because any enemy you come across could potentially be the end of you. All this would be null and void if it was possible to interrupt Kain's current action in combat with a new one. Instead of Kain going through his whole three attack combo when you see that the enemy has dodged or is powering up, why can't we cancel the action in mid-execution with a dodge? I think it would have made combat much more fun and exciting. I guess it's a matter of what you decide to commit Kain to. Because of the fact that he cannot change tactics on the fly, you need to be pretty certain what action he should take. And therein lies the rub. What I found myself doing is holding back and letting the enemy make all the first moves, so I could be sure what I should do. Certainly, someone as proud, ambitious, and arrogant as Kain would not approve of such a method.

I admit, the previous paragraph could be just the ramblings of someone who isn't very good at fighting, so don't let it sway you too much against the game. I found that even with the toughest enemies, two or three tries ( I mean, after dying each time) usually got the job done. And don't forget, Kain has also got his Jump Attack, Stealth Attack, and later on in the game, his Telekinesis Attack, and those do help you out quite a bit, if you know how to use them well.

Where I received my best moments of delight in combat was in the boss battles. They are very well designed, each with multiple stages. They make use of the three-strikes-and-you're-out method, which I think is a great idea in boss battles. In other words, you deliver three of a certain kind of attack on an enemy, and the battle moves to the next phase or arena. They are designed in such a way that you can't just charge at the boss and hope to beat him to death. There is a structure to the fight, and you have to figure out what that is, and what Kain needs to do.

The graphics in Blood Omen 2 are absolutely gorgeous. This is one of the prettiest games I have ever seen, with plenty of detail and a very solid, smooth frame rate. The only times the framerate stutters a bit is when the game is loading a new area, and it's only for a couple seconds. I'd rather have that little stutter when entering a new area than sit through a loading screen. This means the gameplay experience is seamless, save for the cut scenes, which most of the time are integrated perfectly with the gameplay. The environments in the first half of the game just look amazing, with plenty of little touches like burning fires and torches, fireflys, birds, cats and rats. The full moon looks amazing over things like churches and graveyards and really adds to the atmosphere of the game. Although water doesn't look as good as it should in this age of perfect video game water, fire looks incredible. I actually wondered how the graphics could look so good and maintain such a steady frame rate. Kudos to the development team on that. Enemies are nicely detailed, and the blood splatter effects both in combat and when Kain is sucking it out of their throat are very effective.

One graphical feature I did not understand, however, is the design of many of the non-combative humans in the game. Quite frankly, they look very stupid, even freakish. Whoever designed the faces of the men needs to take a course in sketching the human face. Wait until you get your Charm Dark Gift: when you charm a human, the camera zooms in to a close up of the human's face you are charming, and believe me, that is just about the scariest thing in the game. And some of the things these guys wear...they're just the dorkiest looking people I've ever seen. Where do the design people get these ideas?

In the second half of the game, the environments take a decidedly bland turn. They just don't look interesting anymore. All the colors kind of bleed into the same, blah looking hue, and the level design becomes a sci-fi, Death Star inspired romp through metal corridors and catwalks. There is a lot of animated machinery about, which does look very cool, but the colors really need a shot in the arm. This is one of my biggest pet peeves with video game designers, and the graphical art world in general: they don't give a rat's arse about color. They don't understand how effective the use of different colors can be in creating an interesting environment. If you don't know what I'm talking about, sit down with Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine for a few minutes. Sure, it wasn't the best game, but the level design and use of color in that game was amazing. It makes a huge difference for me in how much I enjoy a game. Today the trend in games is to bleed all colors into one predominant shade, and this is just boring. Take Metal Gear Solid 2, in which everything is....GREEN. From a color perspective, that game was atrocious. I'm sure game designers have some kind of stupid a** high-minded theory that unity of color helps provide focus for the player and integrate game elements, but this is a load of crap. If you're going to have beautiful graphics in a game, make them interesting to look at--tickle my eyes with a rainbow of color! No, I don't expect it to be Barney or the Smurfs, just visually interesting!

Probably the biggest criticism that could be leveled at the game, besides the dorky combat, is the low level of interactivity with the environment. Kain is surrounded by these gorgeous, detailed environments, and yet he is limited to strictly one path through them with very little chance for exploration. I lost count of how many doors I came across that I couldn't go into, and ledges that I could easily reach but was not allowed to jump up on. The environments often have the effect of a huge, beautiful painting. Pretty much all you can do is look at most of it. The game isn't about exploration so much as it is about completing objectives. Once in a while you may find a little goodie by looking about, but most of the time, no. Just move along soldier, and do what you gotta do.

The voice acting is pretty good, except for the Sarafan warriors. Somehow, they managed to make them sound like complete idiots. No doubt CD was trying to portray them for the fanatical fundamentalists that they are, so their dialog tends to be very cliched, forced and overly dramatic. There was one part in the whole game when a Sarafan knight actually said something intelligent. A vampire working for the Sarafan tells one of the Sarafan knights that there will be a vampire coming by named Kain, and to kill him on sight. The knight says, ''well he's not going to stop and tell us his name.'' That is the most impressive line delivered by the Sarafan in the entire game. That gives you an idea of how bad the rest of it is. Another weak point in the voice acting is Rene Aberjonois, who voices a surprise character. He simply isn't a very good voice actor, but I guess CD doesn't share that opinion.

What it comes down to is that the writing in this game just isn't as good as the other Legacy of Kain titles, which had Amy Hennig at the helm. Amy is a brilliant writer who can deliver riveting dialog, but she sat this one out. A lot of the dialog is easy to ignore because it's nothing special, especially the exchanges between Kain and the Sarafan Lord. If you've listened to the conversations between Raziel and Kain in SR 2, it's hard to appreciate the dialog in this game.

Gee, it sounds like I've mostly criticized the game. But I really did enjoy it. Despite its flaws, it feeds the action/adventure hunger for those who are not too picky. It looks beautiful, the combat is challenging and the story unfolds nicely. And best of all, you play as Kain, bad-ass vampire ruler-to-be of Nosgoth. It's fairly long, so it won't work as a rental. The game's ending credits are full of awesome concept art for the game, and these can be watched anytime without having to finish the game again to see them. Buy the game and have fun!

Reviewer's Rating:   3.5 - Good

Originally Posted: 05/02/04

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