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Gaming Review

'Flashback' review (Xbox Live): A memory best forgotten

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Released on Tuesday, Aug 20 2013

'Flashback HD' screenshot

© Ubisoft

In the future robots wear trenchcoats


Release Date: August 21 (Xbox 360), later on PC and PSN
Platforms available on: Xbox 360, PS3, PC
Developer: VectorCell
Publisher: Ubisoft
Genre: Action

It seems every publisher is trying to cash in on classic game nostalgia these days, with the latest example being Flashback from Ubisoft and developer VectorCell.

The important part of that equation is VectorCell, a studio led by director and designer of the original Flashback: The Quest for Identity, Paul Cuisset.

Despite VectorCell's rough start with the poorly received horror game Amy, Cuisset's involvement with Flashback reassured fans that the remake was in good hands.

In terms of its story Flashback is a fairly straight retelling of the classic game, with embellishments and added dialogue to help flesh out the limited space for text afforded to the original.

'Flashback HD' screenshot

© Ubisoft

Redesigned levels have some familiar sights



Players step into the shoes of Conrad B. Hart, a man on the run with no memory as to why. Led by a hologram message from his past self, Conrad follows a breadcrumb trail of clues that help piece together his identity and uncover an alien invasion plot in the process.

The original game was a 2D platformer akin to Prince of Persia, with smooth rotoscope character animations but also marred by clunky controls.

The Flashback remake sets out to modernise all of that, with rotoscoping replaced by 3D characters and awkward controls ironed out for a smoother play experience. You still have to press up to jump straight up and climb ledges, but there are now dedicated buttons for jumping and performing a roll on the ground.

The levels have also been completely restructured to accommodate a more acrobatic protagonist which, coupled with the new mini-map, make it much easier to traverse levels quickly and accurately.
    Flashback in its reborn form is an action game through and through, with any resemblance to the thoughtfully paced original seemingly a coincidence.
But the biggest change comes from the combat though, which uses the right stick to aim in every direction. Pressing in any direction is much more immediate and accessible than the original's draw and holster mechanic, and with easier aiming comes a greater focus on combat.

That isn't to say that there wasn't combat in the original Flashback, but each encounter was setup like a puzzle. You had to scrutinise every movement and roll if you wanted to survive.

The immediacy of the remake's aiming allows Flashback to throw caution to the wind, with frequent recharge stations for health and grenades, and enemies dropping health pickups to keep you going when a recharge station isn't nearby.

Flashback in its reborn form is an action game through and through, with any resemblance to the thoughtfully paced original seemingly a coincidence. While that news will upset classic game fans, it isn't necessarily a bad thing if the action is done well.

'Flashback HD' screenshot

© Ubisoft

Hanging from ledges is still essential



On that note there is some more bad news, because the action in Flashback isn't done particularly well. With the renewed focus on action, levels are now heavily populated with gun-toting mutants and flying attack drones.

These enemies can take quite the beating too, absorbing a ridiculous number of bullets in order to give some sense of purpose to the tacked-on character progression.

Yes, there is a leveling system that lets you upgrade Conrad's health, recharge times and pistol effectiveness. A single playthrough will only upgrade each ability to around a third of its potential though, and even then the changes in Conrad's combat prowess are barely noticeable at best.

Conrad also comes equipped with a pair of goggles that act like a detective mode, temporarily highlighting enemies and obstacles when worn. When using the goggles you can pan the camera using the right stick, and pan the camera so far that Conrad is barely still visible on screen.

Most of the time if you fall off a cliff or mistakenly bump into an enemy you'll find that the goggles and their inability to keep Conrad on the screen are to blame.

'Flashback HD' screenshot

© Ubisoft

A new air bike race



Stealth mechanics are also in place, but are so poorly handled they might as well not be. An assassination button prompt appears if you sneak up behind an enemy, but more than half the time Conrad will instead swing a wild punch that misses the enemy while alerting all other nearby enemies to your presence.

A tactic of hanging from a ledge and pulling enemies over the side works a little better, but there is always a chance that the enemies will ignore their scripted stealth response and just open fire on you.

Puzzles have been stripped down and stripped away, which in the case of irritating key cards being removed is actually a welcomed change. What puzzles remain are predominantly combat-based, like aiming a grenade through a vent or shooting a destructible barrier.

A teleporter that arrives later in the game hints at the thoughtful movement of the original, but in practice it is mostly relegated to safely falling down long chasms.

Perhaps Flashback's most egregious sin though comes from Conrad himself. The voice acting is pretty bad, shouting out odd one-liners like "ready to party" at every opportunity or saying "awesome-sauce" with an awkward pause that makes it sound like he thinks it is an actual type of sauce.

Fans probably remember Conrad B. Hart as being more of the cool secret agent type, and the transformation into a bumbling, squeaky frat boy isn't a smooth one.



It doesn't help that Flashback is riddled with bugs and glitches, which appear to be more prevalent the further you progress in the game. The most common occurs as an enemy knocks Conrad down, and when he gets up again he is unable to move or shoot.

Conrad also enjoys getting stuck on level geometry, several times managing to get trapped inside a platform with his head popping out the top and feet dangling underneath.

It was at least still possible to aim and shoot during that glitch, but not with the teleporter, so there was little else to do but wait to die or quit and reload at the last checkpoint.

A patch was supposed to arrive before the game's launch with undisclosed bug fixes, but if the patch did arrive then the game certainly still has a long way to go.
    Flashback the remake attempts to fix the original's control issues but introduces new problems in the process, while bad voice acting massacres the story presentation that was so revered to begin with.
Flashback does one exceptional thing that too many remakes of classic games ignore: it includes an emulation of the original game. Flashback: 1993 Edition is unlocked on the main menu from the very start.

Unfortunately, it isn't a particularly good emulation of the classic game, with the most notable issue being the complete lack of sound during cutscenes.

There is also the fact that the original is being presented as playing off of an arcade cabinet in the remake's world. The cabinet itself and background scenery inexplicably take up the majority of screen space so that you are only actually playing the original Flashback in a small window.

It doesn't help that your small viewing space comes complete with artificial screen glare on the fake cabinet's display.

It is important for remakes to include their original versions, and it should be standard practice for any publisher that dips into its back catalogue of games. It both honours long-time fans and gives new players a source of context to see why the game was originally revered and what changes have been made.

'Flashback HD' screenshot

© Ubisoft

This is one of the more complex puzzles



However, offering a sub-standard port where it is unnecessarily difficult to see the game accomplishes neither of those goals.

Perhaps there are legal reasons why the music is missing and the game has to be shown at a certain small resolution, but for fans it does a poor job of representing the classic game.

The original Flashback: Quest for Identity had cumbersome controls, but earned its classic status due to the meticulously paced world and use of cutscenes that was innovative for its time.

Flashback the remake attempts to fix the original's control issues but introduces new problems in the process, while bad voice acting massacres the story presentation that was so revered to begin with.

Stripped of its namesake, Flashback is a middling action game rife with bugs and small annoyances that add up to an experience that is perhaps best wiped from any player's memory.

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