Resistance: Burning Skies Review

Before Sony introduced the PS Vita, the implementation of controls in FPS titles on the original Playstation Portable (PSP) was a practice in creative button mapping, resulting in a variety of results.  EA Canada’s Medal of Honor: Heroes is a great example of a successful implementation; Konami’s Coded Arms represents a poor implementation.

With the arrival of the PS Vita and it’s a much needed, highly coveted second analog stick, developers no longer need to figure out a way to juggle body movement and head movement in FPS titles.  Nihilistic’s Resistance: Burning Skies is the first FPS title on the PS Vita and exploits the handheld’s second analog to some degree of success; however, presentation problems, a weak story, and lackluster action prevent this from being an absolute must-have title for FPS fans.

Never Give Up, Never Give In

Set between Resistance: Fall of Man and Resistance 2, Resistance: Burning Skies follows the exploits of a brand new protagonist, Tom Riley.  He’s a Staten Island firefighter sent in with his crew to deal with a nearby fire.  The fire, unfortunately, turns out to be the Chimeran invasion of New York.  Suddenly, Tom Riley is unwittingly thrust into battle against the Chimera.  Armed with his trusty axe and an innate ability to immediately understand and operate all manners of weaponry, he meets a group called the Minutemen, a militia made up of men and women who have been preparing for the invasion. Thus begins his quest to save his family and his city — little did Tom know the importance his actions would carry for the human cause.

Nihilistic software does a fairly decent job of capturing the weaponry and some of the flavor you’d expect from a Resistance game. The weapon wheel from Resistance 3 is here along with similar weapons, including the Bullseye and the Auger, all having their tactical place within your arsenal.  Each gun has a different feel and effectiveness throughout the campaign; you are always suitably equipped to handle any situation, with each weapon having its advantage in certain contexts. Unfortunately, the Chimera’s AI is primitive, and offers little challenge unless delivered in overwhelming numbers. They shoot indiscriminately (sometimes too accurately), predictably popping in-and-out of cover every few moments.  Luckily, you’re usually facing a variety of Chimera — Grunts, Leapers, Steelheads and others making their return — each requiring a slightly different tactical approach, keeping the gameplay somewhat fresh.

Adapting to the PS Vita

As expected, the game feels comfortable and moves smooth with the help of the PS Vita’s second analog stick. But despite the second thumbstick, the PS Vita still lacks the additional buttons found on the PS3 and Xbox 360 controllers, requiring the game to use the Vita’s unique inputs.  Some of the controls you’d normally find assigned to other buttons on console FPSs have been assigned a spot on the touch screen to the far right to compensate for the Vita’s lack of secondary triggers and depressible thumb sticks.  It’s similar to the way Uncharted handled some of their controls, and it works here, mostly.

There have been a few occasions where I’ve inadvertently activated my weapon’s secondary fire or randomly swung my axe in the midst of battle.  Since the right thumbstick is pretty close to the far right of the screen, banking it hard to the left can cause accidental touches depending on how your thumb typically rests on it during play.  It’s hardly a huge detraction from the game, but it can get annoying especially when the accident causes involuntary suicide or causes you to use your last sentry.  Generally, the touchscreen controls work with mixed results: throwing grenades by dragging the grenade icon to the appropriate place on screen became natural and easy to do; however sprinting by double-tapping the rear backscreen never felt comfortable and was too inconsistent to rely on during combat.

Combat Effectiveness

Overall, the combat in Resistance is solid but unexceptional and would be better served if the campaign had varying gameplay moments that actually work well.  Unfortunately, the pacing became too predictable, the battles underwhelming, lacking the variety and texture in gameplay that made other Resistance titles such fantastic experiences.  While the mini boss encounters against executioners and impalers attempt to liven things up, these encounters are brief, easy and provide little tactical challenge.

The parts where the game succeeds occur within the larger environments against a variety of enemies, allowing freedom to improvise and providing a more dynamic encounter overall.  You’ll sometimes be joined by AI teammates that help out, albeit to a small degree; while they inflict minimal damage, their presence does, at the very least, help to distract and disrupt the Chimera.  Also, much like it felt to have fellow UNSC forces fighting alongside you in Halo, or having Alyx Vance helping you find your way of you in Half-Life 2, having a an active supporting cast helps to add a bit more gravity the overall experience.  These were the times when it’d begin to feel like a Resistance title.

Few And Far Between

However, despite a sufficient “everyman’s-quest-to-save-family-and-world” story premise somewhat similar to Resistance 3, the experiences from the game that comprise it do too little to really involve you in the world.  Granted, there are rare moments where the game would almost have the tiniest hint of Half-Life 2, but most of the story is bland, the pacing rushed, and it provides little character development. Tom Riley is a flat lead, your typical good guy doing his best to save family.  He meets, Ellie, your typical good girl, doing her best to save the world.  They have their moments, but neither character is really explored.  In addition, there are too few occasions that provide that sense of place, giving some of the encounters and environments an arbitrary feel. I’d sometimes forget that I was fighting in New York.  Overall, the story is uninspiring, lacking depth and creativity; its delivery lacking a good balance between moments of gunplay and moments of exposition.

Although its lacks the quality of its predecessors, the graphics aren’t bad on the Vita. You’ll see some decent explosions, some pretty environments, and some decent character animations. However, some presentation issues mar what could have been a cleaner Resistance experience.  While there was definitely some intention to create a blockbuster experience, some of the technical shortfalls and design choices really detract from the production as a whole.  Numerous on-screen characters and explosions can cause some noticeable slowdown. I also experienced a few glitches in the game, some more serious than others.  One particular glitch turned an ally invisible, with only his floating gun and disembodied voice to guide my way. Even a restart at a previous checkpoint failed to resolve the issue.  Another glitch forced me to restart the game because the entrance to the next area failed to open.  While the majority of the glitches didn’t really affect the gameplay, they were nonetheless distracting.

One particular design choice stood out as most peculiar and incredibly annoying: having to wait through the beginning cutscene of the level every time you continue the single-player campaign, regardless of whether you’ve hit a checkpoint.  I was becoming a miser with my PS Vita, crafting specious excuses as to why my girlfriend couldn’t play Plants vs. Zombies just so I wouldn’t have to quit out of the campaign.  For a portable game, waiting a couple of minutes for the campaign cutscene to load just to squeeze out a few minutes of gameplay during some downtime is frustrating.  I’m sure the level intro cutscene serves, partly, as subterfuge to mask some of the loading time, but its repetition grates and I’d almost prefer a loading bar with a cute slideshow related to the Chimera-Human conflict.

Lack of Ambition

However, the game is really not all that bad.  Some of the environments and set pieces in the campaign were impressive.  Some of the bigger boss battles are fun, although conventional, and feel marginally epic on the PS Vita.  The game controls fairly well (despite the Vita’s analog input limitations) and mirrors its console brethren in many ways. It was nice to see civilians in the streets, witness Chimeran and Human forces fighting in the background, and watch a fiery city skyline from a distance.  These moments help give the story and situation more gravitas.  Unfortunately, it’s these moments that augment the disappointment of what the game could have been if it had tried just a little harder. It’s great to finally play a portable FPS with two thumbsticks, but the novelty wears and the reality of the game’s mediocrity becomes obvious.

Nihilistic was able to include a multiplayer component that supports up to 8 players but, much like the campaign’s story, this too lacks depth.  Players can customize up to three different weapon loadouts for use during multiplayer matches. Completing multiplayer matches nets you experience points you can use to unlock increasingly powerful weapons and weapon upgrades as you level up.  Although it has it’s moments of fun, it’s bare bones and could use a few more modes and unlockables.  Rotating through Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch and Survival will provide some initial entertainment but eventually get old.  In addition, while the points, leveling, and upgrade system work great in theory, the selection of unique gameplay customizations are too few to make it worthwhile long term.

Black Sheep

My relationship with Insomniac’s Resistance series hasn’t been entirely consistent: Resistance Fall of Man, while good in most respects, eventually bored me closer to its conclusion; conversely, Resistance 3 was simply fantastic (Thank you, Insomniac) and it stands among the elite of FPS single-player experiences;  Resistance 2 falls somewhere in between the two.  Overall, I have been very pleased with Insomniac’s FPS endeavor with the Resistance series.  Unfortunately, Nihilistic’s attempt with the license falls to the bottom the list, failing to capture the quality we’ve come to expect from Insomniac and the Resistance series. While the game does a decent job of mirroring the weaponry and controls of its console kin, the mediocre story and writing, uninspiring level design and combat, and presentation issues spoil what could have been a better start to a new generation on handheld FPSs.

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