Friday, April 03, 2009

Merchants of Brooklyn Review

Merchants of Brooklyn, developed and published by Paleo Entertainment.
The Good: Using someone’s dismembered limb as a grenade sounds neat, it’s got multiplayer!
The Not So Good: Short, poor performance, randomly spawning brain-dead enemies, vague objectives, unoriginal weaponry, deathmatch-only laggy online play, rudimentary sound design, bugs
What say you? This low-priced shooter brings shame to the proud “budget” moniker: 2/8

There have been quite a variety of predictions for the future. From flying cars to hydrate level four, the outlook sure looks to be bright. However, Merchants of Brooklyn takes a more dystopian view of what’s to come, propelling you to the year 3100 (nice of them to round) and a New York City full of Neanderthals and crime. Well, I guess that’s not too much different from today, but still, you get cool weapons on your bionic arm, so it can’t be all bad. Or could it?

Merchants of Brooklyn uses CryEngine 2, and the game brings all of the poor performance associated with that engine with none of the graphical excellence. The far-future version of New York City depicted here is full of repetitive environments, very obvious linear paths, and the occasional original setting; it’s clear that some levels got more care than others. The game uses a cell-shaded technique (all the rage!) that is more readily apparent in the character models than the environments; in fact, it’s so understated elsewhere that it seems really out of place being used for your enemies. The handful of character models are very repetitive, providing an onslaught of tough-guy enemies that all look the same, bringing realism down to disappointing levels. The models are also poorly animated: while there are some humorous uses of rag-doll physics, movement and reactions are never fluid events. Some of the weapons have nice effects and good models, but it’s nothing we haven’t seen replicated in a game like Unreal Tournament. Despite what I would evaluate as disappointing graphics, Merchants of Brooklyn runs poorly compared to other first person shooters. While the game uses the engine from Crysis, the game never some close to the same level of quality, and frankly Merchants of Brooklyn should be a lot smoother for what you get. Sound design is even worse off: simple dialogue with poor voice action, repetitive weapon and environmental effects, and unoriginal music round out an undercooked package.

I heard that Merchants of Brooklyn is planned to be part of an episodic series (despite the lack of an “episode” subtitle), so I guess it shouldn’t be completely surprising that the single player campaign only lasts around three to four hours. The budget price point for this game ($20) makes the very short length of Merchants of Brooklyn a little easier to handle, but be prepared to be finished quite quickly. In fact, you can get through the game even faster: just run by everyone until you encounter the next trigger point (usually an explosion to unlock the next level). The game features no tutorial whatsoever as you are thrown right in to the game. Maybe it was in the intro movie I skipped (I don’t have time to sit and watch!), but that’s doubtful. This coupled with the lack of a manual is an inexcusable omission; first person shooters aren’t difficult to control, but nothing should go undocumented. The campaign is quite unexciting, featuring sadly linear level design that is quite obvious (seriously: ramps?). The game also is very light on objective details: important objects that must be blown up are poorly highlighted (a subtle yellow glow) and usually not verbally mentioned. It took me minutes to figure out where the generator I needed to shoot was, and how to exit the first level (throw an object at the clock window). Having this level of confusion on the first level is never, ever a good thing. There are also issues with saved games: other than not having enough checkpoints and lacking a quick-save button, loading a saved game results is some corruption. Reloading the first level resulted in spawning each enemy stuck in a circular pattern holding hands in the center of the room: that’s the strangest freakin’ thing I’ve ever seen.

Merchants of Brooklyn has multiplayer! But, it’s only deathmatch and servers are unpopulated at best and playing is quite poorly balanced. While it is fun lobbing objects-as-grenades at other players, they cause too little damage and take too much time to charge up: it’s easier just to shoot others. I also found multiplayer to be too laggy, even with a decent ping. In addition, there are bugs here, too: spawning stuck in a wall and having to exit and re-enter the game is never a good thing. There are far too many multiplayer first person shooters that are superior to the half-assed effort seen in Merchants of Brooklyn.

Weapons, despite being 1,091 years in the future (I can subtract!), are eerily (and disappointingly) similar to those we have today: shotguns, machine guns, rocket launchers, sniper rifles, and the bio-rifle from UT. Sure, they look different and they are attached to your arm, but they behave exactly the same. Melee combat consists of punches and no other sense of variety. I can’t figure out how to do kicks (if you can) or grab a guy and rip his head off like it shows in the trailer because the game won’t tell me how to do it (damn you, lack of a tutorial and manual!). The destructible environments mentioned by the developer are essentially non-existent: nothing shatters unless it’s the occasional chair or table (throwing a grenade at a slot machine leaves it disappointingly unscathed). About the only unique aspect of Merchants of Brooklyn is charging items and using them as grenades: just pick up (“E”), charge (hold right mouse button), throw (release right mouse button), and BOOM! It’s fun to use tables, chairs, and body parts as grenades, although the subsequent explosions from each of these items are exactly the same (no conservation of energy here!). Sadly, once you do it a couple of times, it’s not different than using a grenade, and actually a lot more cumbersome. You typically don’t have time to pick up, charge, and throw and item, when shooting someone is way faster and more efficient. The novelty wears off very quickly, right around the 3rd time you try it.

Rather than having health packs, your health constantly regenerates over time, so all you have to do is hide behind something for ten seconds and you are good as new. Unfortunately, doing this is a bit difficult as the AI has only one mode: move towards you. They will mass together and just run right for you, making it trivially simple to hold down “shoot” and aim straight ahead. There is absolutely no intelligence in the AI of Merchants of Brooklyn and the game only becomes difficult when the level designer throws ten enemies at you in the same room. The AI health level is also much higher than yours (despite your bionic arm advantage) and poorly balanced: the AI can survive a point-blank explosion but be killed by two shotgun blasts. Disposing of mindless AI enemies might be fun if the mechanics were unique, but Merchants of Brooklyn brings absolutely nothing innovative to the table. Epic fail.

Merchants of Brooklyn has one thing going for it (using objects as grenades), and this novelty wears thin quickly, so we are left with a thoroughly unpleasant first person shooter. There is a very high number of significant problems with Merchants of Brooklyn in every aspect of the game. The short game length stinks. Laggy and bland multiplayer stinks. The AI stinks. Level design stinks. Sound design and poor performance stinks. In fact, you can probably smell Merchants of Brooklyn from there. The seemingly unique aspects of the game aren’t so: morphing your arm into weapons that are exotic but not unique is a negligible feature. You can pick up someone’s leg, charge it up, and kill someone else with it, but this becomes woefully repetitive and devoid of enjoyment as a short trial period. It’s a less sophisticated (and less interesting) version of the gravity gun from Half-Life 2? On top of all this, bugs still creep up from time to time (spawning in multiplayer, randomly appearing enemies after loading saved games), although it’s not at the same level as the unpatched release. You’re better off saving your $20 and buying UT2004 twice. Merchants of Brooklyn features one redeeming factor that quickly grows tired and stale, so there is absolutely no reason to go back to the future.