Sunday, February 28, 2010

Plans for March

Turns out tomorrow Megaman 10 is hitting Wiiware. While I'd love to pick it up then it's looking more likely that I'll grab the XBLA version that hits at the very end of the month(jeeze Microsoft great job working that out).

With Megaman 10 hitting at the beginning, middle, and end of this month on all three consoles what else can be said aside from March is Megaman Month? To celebrate MMM I will be playing through all ten games and giving my thoughts on them. I also have Network Transmission to talk about. I'd also like to discuss the Megaman X series as well as the Zero series and maybe even ZX but I'll save all that for another time. I should also be finishing Deadly Premonition soon so look forward to reading more about that if you haven't picked the game up already. There'll be looks at other games as well, mostly Virtual Console stuff.

Don't forget April is Arcade Appreciation month season 2 which means tons more of those wacky arcade games we know and love. Hopefully Microsoft Game Room has some stuff worth talking about by then cause at the moment the only game on the service I'm currently interested in is Asteroids Deluxe. Then again depending on any number of factors I might snag a couple other titles as well like Centipede and Millipede.

Deadly Premonition - This game is amazing

I know this isn't the blog for it cause I'm supposed to be focused on game design and all that but wow I'm in love with Deadly Premonition. Just thought I'd mention that here so nobody is shocked when I get around to beating the game and putting together my thoughts on it.

Monday, February 22, 2010

X360 look - Ninja Gaiden 2

There are plenty of instances where I don't give games the time they deserve. This is mostly due to me attempting to keep up the appearance of having a life. In some cases however I just get sick of playing a game and have to shelve it. So here I am hoping against hope that I'll never have a reason to play Ninja Gaiden 2 again. It's one thing to disagree with how a game is designed but in this case I absolutely hate so much of what this game does.

The story is Ryu Hayabusa blah blah revenge murmur murmur demons etc etc fiends yak yak Rasputin-looking dude and whatever it's time to kill everything. If you've played the prequels or any other action game you know there are stages filled with enemies and a boss or two to face-off. Along the way Ryu can access a shop to restock his supplies or strengthen his weapons. The bulk of this game will be spent killing and dying until an end is eventually reached. Somewhat related to the dying part is all of the time spent on load-times between time of death and respawn.

Ryu has all of the tools necessary to spill blood. He's loaded to bear with a number of weapons that are covered in sharp edges, somehow manage to catch on fire, and just might explode on impact to boot. The name of the game is lopping off the limbs of his foes and then obliterating them before they can become a real threat. When not doing this Ryu will be performing Ultimate techniques which use essence to charge up an attack that can quickly wipe out most foes. If that option isn't available then it's a matter of finding the safest move available and spamming that until the other two options become available.

For a game that finds joy in painting everything in blood and giving Ryu thousands of soon-to-be corpses it turns out that the best offense is apparently nothing but defense. To start with grab a piece of tape and tape that block button down. There is never to be a moment where that block button is to go un-held. While blocking isn't effective against throws and grabs it will render Ryu immune to many attacks and minimize damage from attacks he can't block. Step two is in copious usage of the dodge. This is done by holding the block button and then moving. Since the tape is taking care of that block situation it's easy to focus on the dodge. This move is important because it's a "get out of damage free" card as long as you're not dodging into danger. The final step is invincible moves. There are a handful of moves that Ryu can perform that make him impervious to damage. This is at the most a second or two but this is the kind of game that can end in a second or two. Keep all of this in mind and you'll die less.

Defense is so essential because there is not a moment where the player isn't being attacked by something. Oh sure Ryu can wander around, swing on some poles, maybe climb a few ladders but just as soon as an enemy comes on screen he's going to be overwhelmed. It's not enough that 4+ enemies hound Ryu at a time but the ones that aren't actively trying to slice him up are going to be pelting him with projectiles. The projectiles in this game are infinite and awful. They come from every possible direction and move so quickly that dodging them is out of the question most of the time. Blocking helps although before long exploding shuriken are thrown into the mix. These frequently break blocks and three or four manage to be sticking in Ryu all the time. The only thing Ryu can do just short of investing in some repellent is doing those invincible moves to shake them off. I dare say that this game would be entirely different if projectiles were in any way limited.

This game also has a lot of water. Water has its uses in bathing, drinking, and other uses but as far as I'm concerned it does not belong in action games. Furthermore it doesn't belong in action games where you're a Ninja. Remember disarming the underwater bombs in the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game? Nobody ever got the idea that Ninjas in water is a game design disaster. That's why whenever Shinobi falls in water he dies. Ryu wishes he could die when he makes contact with water in this game. Swimming is clunky at best and wholly ineffective when foes start running across the water to attack him. Ryu can run on water as well but fighting while doing so is a futile effort. Around this time our hero acquires a harpoon gatling gun but this weapon was designed for one purpose and that's killing seemingly-infinitely-spawning-exploding-jellyfish. I bolded this because I know it will be on my epitaph.

Speaking of death I'd say I spent a good majority of the boss-fights staring at a game over screen. The regular fights are enough of a hassle but these bosses are designed simply to end in either 3 seconds or 30 seconds. While the boss can kill Ryu in probably two or three good hits Ryu can also kill the boss very quickly. Sure not 3 seconds quickly but less than a minute is nothing to sneeze at. Problem is when either party can be killed quickly that just cheapens the appeal of having a boss in the first place. More time is spent building up to these encounters through cutscenes than on the fights themselves. It certainly doesn't help that many of these bosses are among the worst in terms of design. There's not one but two fights with giant worms, a fight with a giant water-dragon, a battle involving two flying beasts, and multiple face-offs with one of Ryu's many bitter rivals and/or greater fiends. None of them are good really but some at least try to emphasize some back & forth action that relies on reflexes and skill to get through. Some like the water dragon are just plain dumb and rely more on patience and understanding ridiculous usage of mechanics to get through.

The bow & arrow is something that this game would also be better off without. Actually I can imagine it having good uses but for this game all it means is a lot of situations where Ryu can't simply gut his foes with his sword and must plink away at them like he's in a shooting gallery. A couple of the boss battles center entirely around this weapon and it's really quite terrible. Another grating aspect is that since arrows are limited Ryu has to find corpses with unlimited arrows stuck to them. I heard the Sigma version of this game simply gives Ryu unlimited arrows. Why did the developers encourage the use of this weapon over taking it out or re-working to entirely? Beats me.

I'm not sure what the developers were thinking when they thought up the ranking system but I can't imagine they were thinking very hard. The most apparent flaw is that even though I can die dozens of times in a stage I can still attain a Master Ninja ranking. Shouldn't there be some sort of real penalty involved? Maybe I wasn't paying attention and I lost a few points here or there but what kind of Master Ninja dies all the time? In fact there's even an achievement for dying enough times. I guess patience is a virtue or something.

Speaking of that there's a Test of Valor in most of the stages. Unlike the boss fights that can end in 3 or 30 seconds these Tests can end in 3 seconds or 10+ minutes. These Tests consist of the player facing off against 100+ enemies. The reward tends to be an item that goes unused but more importantly they are done for achievements and getting more points so one player can be more of a Master Ninja than other. That means 100+ enemies with their 1,000,000,000+ projectiles and as a final kick in the ninpo orbs most of the reward chests will contain ghost-fish(yep the same bastards from the last Ninja Gaiden). Granted this entire game is a Test of Patience so I'm thankful that these are entirely optional.

To date I've only played through this game on the easiest setting. Feel free to think whatever you like about me but I simply don't have the inclination to put up with another playthrough of this game. The combat itself can be fun at times but it's buried under so many aspects of game design that I don't agree with that the game as a whole ultimately becomes a constant source of annoyance. Quite frankly I'd be perfectly content if I never played this game again.

PS2 look - Rygar

I may as well say it. I'm starting to hate modern action games. I'm not sure where to pinpoint it exactly but I guess when I look back at Bayonetta and realize all of the things that are wrong with it I start to wonder why I bother at all. I'm actually not a fan of combos and level design consisting of nothing but rooms full of enemies has never sat well with me. Regardless I may as well suck it up because for the most part it seems like these kinds of action games are the only ones being made.

Rygar is one such game. While it is an update to a classic NES & arcade game everything from its structure to art-direction is quite different. In fact it's pretty easy to say this game is either a Devil May Cry clone or a precursor to God Of War. There are some minor adventure elements like finding new powers used solely for exploration but most of the game is going to be spent smashing worms, smashing scenery, and smashing bosses.

The original NES game was an interesting take on the action-adventure genre. At its basics one could argue it's a Metroid clone but the level design and unique method of handling concepts like power-ups & enemies led to something quite different. As a Devil May Cry clone, Rygar PS2 doesn't do enough to stand out. For one exploration has been scaled back pretty heavily for an almost completely linear game. There's a bit of back-tracking involved but it feels rather arbitrary.

Anyway I'm getting a bit ahead of myself here. Let's talk about Rygar himself or rather his diskarmor. No offense to the man but in terms of personality it'll take more than hilarious overacting to make him endearing. The diskarmor however is a very neat tool as it functioning as a weapon, a shield, and a means of crossing chasms. The combat aspects are self explanatory as the diskarmor can be thrown out like a whip, swung like a mace, or even have the quickness of a dagger. This makes the combat rather interesting in that the position of enemies should always be accounted for and using the right diskarmor to match works out quite nicely.

Problem is the enemy variety is terrible. I mentioned smashing worms earlier and that is in fact what a solid portion of the first stage is going to be spent doing. There are multiple flavors of worms if that accounts for anything. There are also phantoms that slide their claws across the ground in order to give Rygar a good swiping, some mini-humanoid things(for lack of a better word) that spit stuff, and exploding spiders or something. Throw in the occasional Cyclops and that's the entirety of the regular enemy variety. It probably wouldn't be so bad if there was some creativity to how the different enemies handled but instead they serve mostly as combo-fodder.

When Rygar isn't destroying the baddies he's destroying everything around him. The early parts of the game are rife with decayed ruins, crumbling rocks, and well just about anything that looks like it has a crack or two. This is in a way necessary because all manner of power-ups can be found in whatever bit of rock Rygar manages to smash. This is also effective at killing the pacing and triggering that OCD a lot of gamers suffer from where everything must be destroyed before the game can continue(even though this is almost entirely optional). It's neat in the first playthrough but quickly wears thin after that.

All of the challenge in this game is in the boss-fights. Unfortunately one of the reasons they're so challenging is that the game does a poor job of testing the player's ability through encounters with regular foes, which just makes for an uneven game design. At any rate the bosses are still tough in that they help to showcase that Rygar isn't exactly the greatest at getting around. He's got the running and jumping part down but he's not quite the adept at evasion. While he can block it's the attacks he can't block that are the problem. The man is slow and though he has options for getting around quickly like a slide they aren't much use in the boss-fights.

Power-ups in this game are handled rather oddly. After a certain part of the game Rygar gains the ability to socket jewels into his diskarmor to give him new powers and/or strengthen his stats. Better stats is self-explanatory but the new powers kind of rub me the wrong way. It would have been better to just give them to Rygar regardless of jewels so that they would find more use and probably be more effective. Instead these are found in random bits of scenery and usually so late in the game that they aren't worth bothering with. At least all of the jewels are carried over in future playthroughs so they can go unused in those as well. One nice touch is that this game has been effectively designed for those wishing for an experience not tied down by power-ups. This score-attack mode breaks the game up into levels and judges how well the player does in getting through them.

At times I have to admit that there are games that just aren't designed for me in mind. The biggest offense to me is the dearth of real exploration. Aside from an endurance battle towards the very end there's hardly anything that deviates from the path set by the game nor is there a reason to. Instead of providing a comfortable balance between platforming and fighting a lot of areas tend to focus on one aspect or the other(one of the areas near the end is entirely platforming). Still I think it works well given what the developers were going for and while not my kind of thing it's worthy of merit.

Possibly the best thing I can say about this game is that it's short. In ten hours I could play through this game three times. If nothing else this game is set at the perfect length and manages to weave an altogether solid experience. It's also bolstered by an enchanting soundtrack and just about the best/worst voice-acting in the medium. Despite my issues with the game it doesn't drag things out or really manage to become truly repetitive despite the lacking enemy variety. In fact no part of the game ever really becomes repetitive because the level designers knew when to quit and move on to the next section of the game. Sick of crossing platforms? Well here's some enemies. Sick of enemies? Have some traps. Had enough traps? Time for a boss. This game transitions everything properly and doesn't allow itself to become stale.

Overall this game ain't bad for $3.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

X360 Look - Magna Carta 2

In a world where the men look like girls and the women look like WOMEN it's up someone to do something that just might save the day. I am of course talking about Magna Carta 2. Sure some people might claim that I could be talking about any other JRPG but well..I don't know sometimes it feels that way when I play this game. There's a certain appeal to it in its simplicity though aside from that it's just another excuse to throw away another forty or so hours of one's life.

Juto was living a peaceful and carefree life on some island with his mentor. Though he regards her as a sister I wonder what he really thinks when he looks at her in her very unfortunate outfit(she's dressed like a stripper, heels and all). At any rate things go downhill quickly when a beautiful princess arrives to solve some mysteries. This leads to conflict between the North & South and before anyone knows it Juto has joined the war effort for matters of revenge and such. The only difference between this tale and 90% of other RPG efforts is that Juto is an unlikeable stubborn jerk who mopes about everything and has forced inner monologues that get under my skin in the worst possible way.

Unlike the storyline the battle system is actually rather unique. At first glance it comes off similar to Final Fantasy XII as the three party members can jump in and out of battle at any moment. However moving the player-character around can actually have some effect on the battle. For example one could back away so that most enemy attacks will miss entirely. Granted this doesn't account for projectiles or special attacks but it is kind of nice. In fact the player can effectively lead enemies around while the other two party members slap them silly.

The biggest difference however is in the stamina gauge. There's no real turn system in place for this game so the player is free to attack the enemy as much as they are able. Performing moves costs stamina however and though attacks gain in strength as more stamina is used eventually the player will tire out. At this point they're helpless and must sit still to recover stamina. There is a way around this and it forms the basis for the battle system. A chain is when the player uses up the stamina of one party member with a special attack and then switches to another party member to do the same. This breaks the chain and both participating party members regain all of their stamina. The usefulness of this feature is obvious as two attackers can focus on pummeling an enemy while a healer can stay back and provide support. Some players might opt to have all three attacking at once and well that's about the extent of the depth to that system.

Another unique quality of this game is how "MP" is handled. Instead of having a standard pool of magic to draw from each character uses Kan. This stuff is built up by attacking enemies and can then be used to perform special attacks. While two of the characters can store Kan for indefinite periods of time the other four party members must draw Kan from the surrounding air. This particular Kan is divided into four different elements and depending on the area or what attacks the enemy uses more of a particular Kan element can be found. Properly handling this system is important because spellcasters aren't much good if not enough Kan is being produced.

Each of the six party members are very useful when applied properly as they also have access to special abilities like the ability to break armor as well as create shields to deflect attacks. To further round out the diversity each party member is capable of wielding one of two different weapons. These weapons are tied to particular skill-sets so the player can focus on one or the other or abuse skill-up equipment in order to mastery both weapon sets. Unfortunately this can lead to quite a bit of grinding which is a bit of a shame because the experience system is actually handled quite well in that as the story progresses enemy experience levels raise so that gaining levels is a very painless affair.

Really though I can't say that this game is worth bothering with. It's effective at what it does certainly but hour #25 isn't much different from hour #5. Sure this game is of reasonable length but all the same time there's a lot of repetitive content and traversing of the same areas over and over again. I'm also aware of the people who actually play RPGs for the story. They would do well to steer very clear of this one because it's just bad. Aside from covering all of the usual tropes the story has some kind of Freudian aspect to it that I just can't grasp and there's little to no redeeming qualities for any of the characters. I know I shouldn't bother with the story myself but hey I've gotta justify the time I've burned on this game somehow.

Exploration or the general lack of is easily the weakest part of this game. There's an impressive number of quests to take on but a good majority of them can be completed in the same area they are accepted in. These quests are typically of the MMO variety as well. So you'll get a few of "kill XX monsters" or "kill X monster until it drops Y item" and a lot of others that amount simply to "Go here". There's a constant feeling of accomplishment in completing these quests and the rewards are always nice. The biggest problem is though is that the world of Magna Carta 2 is a tiny one and every area is already conveniently mapped with the destinations and dead-ends clearly marked. This basically leads to just moving towards the glowing arrows until the story progresses while making sure to check the dead-ends for quests/treasure. There's little sense of mystery or wonderment and all of the lore is explained through seemingly endless chatter between party members. For those RPG fans who always think it should be about the journey there's really none to be had here.

To steal a quote from another nerd I've noticed something that just screams "What were they thinking?" This has to do with the DLC available for the game. It adds a few scenes that are solely for comedic effect(oh and some easy achievements) but the real star of the extras are the bonus weapons. These weapons look like jokes but I got them at about hour #20 and they were probably around 3 or 4 times stronger than my current weapons. Imagine equipping these at the very beginning of the game. Couldn't they have stuck these things in the final dungeon or something? For $5 you have the freedom to break the game and practically ignore chain-breaking, kan-managing, and whatever else for probably 30 or so hours. These weapons are also highly-customizable so one can load them up with all kinds of useful augments to become further overpowered. At the moment I'm walking up to enemy parties and drowning them in hot meteor death while they can't so much as scratch me. Oh sure nuking monsters may never get old no matter how often I do it but I can't help knowing that I cheated to get there.

Magna Carta 2 really isn't a bad game. Like a number of other games the core aspects are fairly well-tuned but again it's not enough to sustain the average length an RPG comes to. I will say however that there's a lot to appreciate in how gaining levels is handled and the character variety. It's nothing spectacular but it could have been quite a bit worse, making for an absolutely dreadful experience. Still I can't recommend a game simply because it does things correctly. That should be expected out of any game.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Yay Hurray spent more mon...ay?

In a shocking twist I did some shopping and picked up a bunch of games.

Baldur's Gate 1 & 2 - Classic cRPGs certainly and yet despite all the time I've spent with either of them I've never finished a playthrough. Maybe one day I can make things right.

Data East Arcade Classics - Well you all knew I would buy this anyway cause of the word "Arcade" and all. Still it looks like a good if kinda skimpy compilation.

Deadly Premonition - Here's an odd one. I'm not even sure if this game will be released anytime ever let alone anytime in February. Still it looks like a low-budget Japanese take on the David Lynch series Twin Peaks. Worth the $20 for that alone I think.

Dragon Quest V - I played through DQ4 last year and enjoyed it quite a bit. I probably could have picked this up sooner but oh well. Weird that I managed to buy three games that start with "D" in such a short time.

ESP Galuda 2 - Apparently this game has been confirmed to be region-free so needless to say I had to have it. I loved the original game so getting the sequel was the obvious course of action.

Monday, February 15, 2010

PC Look - Might & Magic 6: The Mandate of Heaven

It took long enough but now with this new PC I can go back to all of those classic cRPGs I missed out on. For those who don't memorize obscure acronyms the "c" in cRPG simply stands for computer. Nowadays we've grown to accept the term wRPG or "Western"(as opposed to the JRPG) but enough about all that nonsense. Might & Magic 6 is a 3D-cRPG which I haven't come close to finishing but with over 40 hours worth of experience I think I'm allowed to say something about it.

I've dabbled a bit in the prior games and all of them seem to revolve around the same basic attributes. A party of adventures representing a variety of classes is put together and must explore many towns, fields, and dungeons to solve quests and make things right. Might & Magic 6 carries on this basic tradition but adds in a few twists of its own. This game uses a combination of real-time and turn-based combat and offers full freedom of movement instead of moving from square to square.

Deciding the class of your four party members is the hardest part of character creation. Newcomers will most likely start with the default class of Paladin, Archer, Cleric, and Sorcerer. There are also Knights and Druids to account for and returning players might want more than one Sorcerer or even zero Melee-based classes. This part of the game is the most important because classes that might be viable early on will eventually grow to become less useful. When this becomes apparent could take several hours and there are few things worse than having to restart an RPG that takes potentially over a hundred hours to complete.

Next we have the skills. Each party member is capable of learning a multitude of skills and these must be learned and upgraded through the use of teachers and the hoarding of skill-points. While the skills can account for things like disarming traps or discovering secret areas almost all of them are required to do even the most basic thing like swing a sword or wear armor. Attributes are also handy to as they govern the effectiveness of everything the player does but it takes a ton of points to have any sort of effect. Thankfully it's very easy to gain attribute points so the player can focus on managing their skills.

The world of M&M6 is pretty massive. There are 15 areas to explore and each of them can contain multiple towns and dungeons. The game is also quite non-linear though don't be surprised if you wander too far and get butchered by a Minotaur King or something. The world is also governed by time and at night most stores are closed and visibility is heavily reduced. Days, weeks, and even years can pass as well and since in this game at least parties have to eat and they also have to be well-rested. The system isn't any trouble at all as food is cheap and it's never too hard to find a safe place to rest.

Like any other RPG expect to run into the forces of evil very often. I consider myself fairly well-versed in the genre and even I was shocked at the number of enemies that get thrown at the player. Even in the starting area expect to run into groups of over a dozen monsters. While the number of foes are scaled well to their strength they can still overwhelm players who are just starting out. Taking them out is as simple as clicking on them and letting the dice rolls do the rest.

This brings us to the interesting combat system in place. During exploration the player will always be in real-time mode so enemies will freely attack when they notice the player. The player can respond in kind or they can hit the enter key to enter turn-based mode. Here it's essentially the same except enemies have to wait their turn before attacking again and the player has all the time they need to decide on what moves to make. Early on however the player won't have the strength to take on much so it's best to equip everyone with bows and plink away at enemies from afar. This resembles an FPS of sorts though circle-strafing is out of the question(you can strafe but it's so slow you can't dodge anything).

Due to the non-linearity of the game it's very likely the player will find themselves in areas they're just not strong enough to complete. Naturally one could leave and come back later. There is however a way around this. Enemies that deal entirely in projectiles can be manipulated so that their attacks hit the corners of walls while the player attacks freely. See it doesn't matter if there's anything in the way if the player attacks an enemy(and vice-versa in terms of melee). Thus if even so much as a toe-nail is visible the player can click it to damage the enemy.

Some might not have the patience for this sort of thing but there's one other factor to consider. M&M6 supports the ability to save anywhere and more importantly anytime. Saving in town is a certainty, saving in a dungeon is perfectly fine, and saving during a battle is possible as well. For nearly every situation that comes up the player can save/reload as many times as they like to achieve their desired result. It's cheating sure but it can save a few headaches as well. I have no shame in admitting that I abuse the heck out of it even on minor things like getting the best possible result from collecting the loot off an enemy corpse. The player can choose to ignore it entirely and in fact even forgo saving unless they're quitting. Even if the party gets wiped out they are restored in town(minus all of the gold they're holding) and outside of dungeons dead enemies won't respawn for 6 months to a couple years(in in-game time). Furthermore while the enemies respawn all of the treasure and related goodies will respawn as well, giving the player incentive to clean up again. I think there's a time limit of sorts applied to each party member's age though. Party members can age over time and I assume they'll die of old age eventually. In the 40 hours I've played I think my party has aged maybe a year and a half so yeah not much to worry about.

Some gamers use the term "carrot-on-a-stick" to describe what makes games like these work. The carrot in this game can be any number of things. Maybe there's a particular skill the player is trying to master. Well to master this skill they're going to need experience which can be gotten from quests. These quests are usually completed through exploring dungeons. Once this skill is mastered that means the player can move on to wherever it is they were having trouble with without said mastered skill. I see nothing wrong with this approach as the strength of this game is actually in the journey and not the destination. All the quest rewards do is better prepare the player for the next area and most of the real fun comes from wasting the evil forces barring the path to the next treasure chest or important artifact. The rewards are an excuse to go into a dungeon and mess things up.

It also helps that the difference between low and high-level characters is pretty staggering. In the beginning the party won't be doing much of anything aside from picking on Goblins. As the game progresses however they'll be able to fly, summon meteors to rain down on waves of the nastiest beasts, and nuke the heck out of Liches, Beholders, and even those dreaded Minotaur Kings and Dragons. Not enough RPGs c, w, or j capture this properly and it's the most important part of character-building. How would you feel if early on you fought nothing but slimes and crabs then towards the end you were facing slimes of the Apocalypse and Ultimate Darknaught crabs? Couple that annoyance with the same weapons, spells, or tactics and it feels like you spent so many hours just to do absolutely nothing.

On the downside finding people of importance can be a hassle. I'm not asking for an Oblivion-esque big red arrow to point out every quest to me but when the towns can have 30 or so buildings it'd be nice to at least have the one that has a quest to turn in be clearly marked. What's more annoying is the tendency for monsters to cause status effects or possibly insta-death status. There is a simple way around this as it revolves around the most useful spell in the game and using it can send the player to a temple of restoration and then right back to the dungeon they were at but imagine having to do that every single time a serious status effect hit would drive somebody to some point of insanity. This is especially grating when dealing with Beholders as that's pretty much all of their attacks. Still though it can be minor or major depending on how the player wants to deal with it so all told it's probably just nitpicking.

I figure I'll need another 50 or so hours before I can come close to finishing this monster of an RPG but there's no doubt that so far I've enjoyed every second of it. There are some bugs that render a handful of spells useless and the art-style combines the cheesiest enemy designs with what looks to be a Renaissance Fair-bonanza takes some getting used to but otherwise this game is superb. Course watch this game fall apart on the 110th hour and I feel like regretting every nice thing I've said about it.

X360 Look - Viking: Battle For Asgard

No I'm not sure what prompted me to pick up this game. In fact ninety percent of the time I don't have a good reason for buying any game. I guess it's just my nature to play any and everything that looks even remotely interesting. Of course now the question is: What's interesting about this game? Well it's apparently about Vikings. Vikings I think are interesting enough cause they always seem to have long beards and those horned helmets. Also they worshiped Gods that apparently cared more for fighting in wars until the end of time.

The star of this particular Viking saga has neither a helmet nor a beard. This design decision was probably put in place to be more palatable to the average consumer but I absolutely hate it. His name is Skarin and he's a stubborn kid who is prone to seizures. He tries hard but is ultimately shunned by his fellow warriors which is probably due to his lack of beard and helmet. In his efforts to appease somebody Skarin goes off and gets himself mortally wounded. Thankfully a psychopath by the name of Freya(who just happens to be a Goddess) decides to make him neigh-immortal. Though he can still die like anyone else he is conveniently restored at the nearest checkpoint, making him on par with Marcus Fenix or the average World War 2 soldier.

Sometimes I wonder if the fights between the Gods are this shades of grey sort of thing where nobody is really in the right. This game sort of plays on that aspect a bit. Hel(yes that's her name) was kicked out of Asgard for looking too much like Angelina Jolie(yes I already forgot the real reason) and she also happens to hate Freya which is understandable because she's a melodramatic train-wreck and probably dooms mankind to starvation every time she has a bad hair day. In response Freya sends Skarin to kill her and her entire legion of really ugly guys that are quite obviously evil. I'd like to think this was for a high-minded noble goal like saving the people but really it all boils down to stabbing bad-guys and rescuing soldiers in distress.

This is an open-world style game and the hero is free to explore the land as he sees fit. Each area is filled with enemy camps, caves holding magical artifacts, and enemy fortifications. That's about the extent of the variety to this game. Essentially you'll be doing these same missions for about 20 to 30 hours. Every now and again the player will lead an army to invade strongholds but this leads to another bit of repetition I'll get into later.

Skarin controls well enough. He lacks the finesse and style of most action-game hero contemporaries but he makes up for it in brute force. His sole weapons are his trusty axe and sword and they will quickly ruin any legion soldier that gets in his way. One thing to watch out for however is that this guy is pretty single-minded and has no concept of crowd-control. Thus when faced with a massive army it's best to cut and run as Skarin can't handle more than 3-6 guys at a time. Over time he gains the use of a handful of special attacks that specialize in speed or power. Speed is handy for faster enemies as well as hitting multiple enemies at once while power is necessary for bigger guys and breaking shields. Further rounding our beard-less friend out are elementally-charged weapons. This gimmick is starting to over-stay its welcome as I've already covered two other games that have it but here it has its uses. Actually strike that the only element worth bothering with is Ice. Ice is insanely overpowered in this game since all the player has to do is hit an enemy once to freeze them and a second time to kill them. Bigger guys don't die in two hits but they are slowed down incredibly so the player is free to beat them up without fear of repercussion.

Hel's legions don't have much going for them aside from numerical superiority and the tendency to get stabbed in the back. Thus it's also important to employ the usage of stealth. Surprisingly this game manages to handle stealth rather well despite the fact that Skarin apparently carries a nightlight with him wherever he goes. Early on he acquires a move for instantly killing the unaware. It's important to learn stealth as a number of areas have to be infiltrated to find some powerful item necessary to move the plot along.

When it comes to the actual combat the focus is on playing defensively and drawing enemies out. The lack of crowd-control means the player must single out enemies whose defenses are open. This means a lot of blocking and shoving until the player can get his sword and/or axe home. Getting surrounded is not a good idea in the slightest as Skarin can get overwhelmed rather quickly and killed. While the legion is many in number they lack variety and the player will find themselves fighting a lot of the same thing over and over again. There are some tougher enemies like Captains, Shamans, and Giants but before long it becomes very boring. There are a couple of real boss-fights in this game. Sadly they reek of laziness as they are merely Captains, Shamans, and Giants with a few extra moves.

The stronghold battles seem promising at first since they're the result of all of the missions Skarin has taken on beforehand. There are siege weapons, dragons to summon, and hundreds if not thousands of soldiers hacking away at each other until Ragnarok comes around again. Problem is your mission is simply to kill x number of Shamans or Giants. There's a mercifully short escort mission to cap a couple of them off but really its just a disappointment. You can fight along with your fellow men but really this just becomes more of a nuisance since enemies constantly respawn and since everyone has a habit of looking the same in the chaos of battle it just leads to taking damage from guys you thought were on your side. So it's best to just run around all that and take out those pesky shamans whose sole purpose in battle is to summon and infinite number of soldiers. The game quite clearly shows everything it has to offer before the player leaves the first island(there are three total) but the game doesn't end for another 15 or even 20 hours.

The core aspects of the game are there but the lack of variety is what kills it. There's nothing in the way of new weapons, enemies, or powers that could make each incident fresh and exciting. Maybe throw in some battles on horseback, give Skarin a spear, possibly a mace, hel a laser cannon for all I care. At the very least come up with some more interesting scenarios that don't boil down to rescue this or kill that.

All told I guess it really doesn't matter cause I just played through this game in its entirety. Okay yeah I didn't beat it on the Hard setting but that's still a significant amount of time for a game that has already shown me everything in just a few hours. Believe me I wish I could come up with a proper explanation as to why I completed this game. Okay maybe I did it hoping to see Freya get hers. Thankfully I didn't bother with getting all of the useless collectibles at least. That's about the only face I can save on this one. So yeah feel free to bring this up the next time I don't bother with finishing your favorite game or better yet I didn't finish it and I said it wasn't any good. Viking: Battle For Asgard isn't terrible by any means but it really is just a waste of time and serves as a bitter reminder that sometimes I just shouldn't play a game.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

X360 look - Tales of Vesperia

When I think of action-RPGs I usually think of titles like Diablo, Phantasy Star Online, and so on and so forth. I'm not sure what to call games like the Star Ocean series and this game. An RPG with action-game elements? An action-game with RPG elements? Okay screw it I'm just going to call this game an action-RPG as well. Tales of Vesperia is yet another entry into Namco-Bandai's Tales series and combines everything we love and loathe about Japanese RPGs...I mean action-RPGs.

What I always found fascinating about this series is that to date it's starting to rival Wizardry in terms of number of sequels/spin-offs. I could have sworn this franchise only started back in the Super Famicom days with Tales of Phantasia. I also think it's notable that Phantasia is probably the only great thing a developer from Wolf Team has ever accomplished. The battle-system alone makes up the identity of this game and is very cool as well. Battles typically take place on a 2D plane(though this entry and a handful of others allow for free-roaming) and the player takes control of one member of the party and wipes out the enemy through battles that resemble fighting games. There's combos, special moves(commonly referred to as "artes"), super moves, and a lot of the terminology we usually associate with fighters like chip damage, dizzies, and hit-stun.

The other commonality between all of the Tales games is the focus on the characters. Over the course of each game the people that join your party will develop and grow in ways that can't be explained with a number. Instead these characters are given titles. Some start off as a "lonely orphan" or "spoiled princess" but over time they become a "master swordsman", "vigilante", "determined leader", "hopeless romantic" and so on and so forth. It's a veritable gauntlet of anime cliches but for the most part the character development is handled well and at times they might even grow on you.

So essentially you have combat, characters, and cooking. Oh yes I forgot there's also dozens of secret recipes to find in each game. These are nice as food can add temporary stat buffs or another method of healing after battle but it's ultimately not required. Regardless this feature has its fans and the Tales series does enjoy catering to them.

The rest of the game is similar to any number of other RPGs. Progression is tied to a town -> dungeon -> town affair, there's a world map, and encounters are of the "run into creatures on the map to initiate battle" style. Some games in the series handle this differently though as Phantasia for example is completely based around random encounters. There's also whiny townspeople, tons of secrets, and possibly some hidden goodies like new outfits and a sauna scene(don't expect much though as the goodies tend to be hidden).

As I mentioned before Tales of is all about the combat and Vesperia certainly excels at that. While there aren't that many playable characters they have a very large variety of moves/spells and one can find themselves favoring just one of them for several hours learning all of their nuances and intricacies. New moves are constantly doled out whether via level or repeated use of earlier moves, there are even a handful of special attacks learned from certain skills. The skill system is also great as while there's standard stuff like "more HP" and "higher attack power" there are also skills that can customize how each character plays.

At first I found the actual fighting in this game to be rather dull. This is mostly due to the lack of impact that attacks tend to have and it's especially annoying when the enemy doesn't even flinch. However as the game progresses new abilities are picked up and the fatal strike system comes into play. I'm particularly fond of this move as it's easy to trigger and it's very satisfying to perform on bosses. It also helps that after every battle the player is ranked by a ton of conditions which creates an incentive to do better even if it's on the lowliest of combo fodder.

Where the combat falters somewhat is in regular enemy variety. I must not have been paying attention or something cause suddenly it feels like every RPG enemy is one of ten different types. It's kind of like how in early RPGs players would run into the same enemy only a different color with higher stats. These days the different colors are replaced by different skins or maybe some extra horns or a second tail. The problem with a low enemy variety is that a lot of the attacks are the same so certain strategies are repeated throughout the game. At least the player will be using different moves and/or a different character in hour #30 as opposed to hour #1 so it's not too much of the same. At least all of the bosses are unique though on the normal setting they're not much of a challenge.

Replay value is a huge part of Vesperia(or any Tales game for that matter). The biggest example of this is after the game is completed. Every point gathered from fighting battles can be used to buy special features for the next playthrough. This can include things like having all skills/artes available at the start, double the experience, and so on and so forth. There are also harder difficulty settings and in a rare and very intelligent move the difficulty can be selected at any time. Why this isn't standard in every RPG is beyond me. In any case there's enough here to last for hundreds of hours. While I have no interest in playing through this game again any time soon I figure I can shelve it for awhile and come back to a fresh and slightly different experience, and customizing the next playthrough the trim away the fat somewhat by having less grinding or doubling rare drop-rate.

What makes Tales of Vesperia worthwhile is a bit hard for me to explain. I mean personally I think it's great, probably the best in the series. On the other hand despite all of games in the franchise that have been released I think I can count the number that actually hit the US on two hands. Furthermore at least two different teams handle the development of all these games so if you liked Symphonia and Abyss without a doubt you should pick this one up as well. Some prefer the more challenging games from the team behind Tales of Destiny, Eternia, and other related titles. So in the end it's the best out of the games I've played, which is Phantasia, Eternia, Symphonia, and Abyss. This isn't accounting for Tales of Destiny 1 or 2, the new one Tales of Graces, or any of the others.

The most frustrating aspect of the Tales franchise is that so few of the games actually reach our shores. At the rate Namco-Bandai publishes these titles one could expect to have a new game waiting for them just when they've gotten bored of the last entry. For fans this is great as there's always a new game to look forward to. Over here we're lucky to get the occasional bone thrown our way. Still if nothing else I don't see anything wrong with giving this title a go.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

PS2 look - Crimson Sea 2

While I've grown to expect a 1,001 editions of Dynasty Warriors out of Koei they are more than capable of the rare surprise or two. Here we have one of them in Crimson Sea 2, a futuristic action/shooter with the usual combination of aliens, brooding, heroines in skimpy outfits, and RPG characteristics.

This game is a direct sequel to the first Crimson Sea. Since that game was an Xbox-exclusive the developers were kind enough to toss in a number of cutscenes that explained that game's storyline in its entirety. All told I can't remember the story to either game but does that really matter? The goal is simple. Accept missions, kill everything, collect the reward, upgrade equipment as needed, repeat until the game ends or boredom sets in.

What helps to set this game apart from most other action titles is its emphasis on both melee and ranged combat. Ammo is infinite though prone to reloading/overheating and the weapons are limited in their reach and range. Using both of these effectively is the way to go to complete this game. Getting around is simple enough though it can be a bit stiff as both characters are more adept at killing than evasion. Thankfully there's more than enough to go around as enemies frequently attack in groups or even swarms. There are a handful of weapons to choose from and upgrade and clearing out a room filled with foes is simple enough.

In what has become a trite aspect of action games when the player performs exceptionally well or triggers a special ability everything will slow down. This is an important tool to use as it allows the player to keep up the offensive while having a better chance at avoiding the relentless enemy attacks. Furthermore this can also lead to incredibly powerful critical attacks which will make short work of anything.

Since enemies can be more vulnerable to either guns or swords it's also important to use both effectively. This is the basis for a very neat system that allows the player to perform certain special attacks when transitioning from shooting to swinging. Aside from doing good damage these attacks can also have special properties and generally they make the combat far more interesting than just one method of attack. Besides when you're dressed like a rockstar and have the hair to match you want to do things that look stylish and cool.

The mission variety in this game is certainly interesting. While there are a set number of locales each of the missions can take place in different parts of them as well as include a different array of foes to contend with or objectives to accomplish. Problem is quite a few of these missions can be really bad. When I say really bad I'm talking about the kinds of missions we tend to dread. There are stealth missions, escort missions, missions that take place in the dark, and so on. These are generally just un-fun missions that try to get by on the variety they bring to the table but ultimately the player only does them because they have to. Thankfully with over 60 missions a few of them are optional. Problem is the optional ones can also have good rewards for completing them with an S rank.

Yep there is yet again a ranking system in place. All of the usual suspects are accounted for like combos, damage, and number of enemies destroyed. These can also include particular objectives like how much damage the escort took and so on. On the bright side there are a number of ways to strengthen both characters through items and experience levels so coming back later and giving the mission another go is always possible.

Even with the special attacks and different weapons this game is ultimately limited in that aspect. The bosses are pretty decent as well but once the player finds particular combinations or attacks they like they'll find that they're effective for pretty much the entire game. Since the combat doesn't have the variety it needs to stay fresh for a single playthrough this is why we have the mission variety and all its stealthy escorting fun. I'd much rather have better combat.

Still though this might be worth a look as it doesn't really fail at any one aspect. It doesn't do anything exceptionally well for me to recommend it over some other un-named game but if you're anything like me you'll end up playing it anyway. As I've said before if you're the kind of person that plays anything they can get their hands on you'll end up with this game eventually. It's not bad at least though unless it gets under your skin you either won't finish it or shelve it after a playthrough of just the story missions..

X360 look - Bayonetta

Admittedly I'm a bit disappointed in this game. Rather than save this sort of thing for the last paragraph I may as well put it out there right now. It's a great game and yet it has many glaring faults that keep it away from classic status. On the other hand it's still my current pick for the best 3D action game of this generation.

For those who prefer to live under a rock this game was directed by Hideki Kamiya aka the father of the 3D Action game. The genre essentially began with Devil May Cry and has spawned countless clones(remember that Van Helsing game? Blech), sequels(DMC3 & DMC4), and other titles that lifted many elements(Rygar PS2, Ninja Gaiden Xbox, God of War, etc). The games that came before Devil May Cry are best left not talked about as these days they're basically unplayable. In any case after doing games like PN 03, Viewtiful Joe, and Okami Hideki has come back to the genre that made him a name.

Bayonetta herself is a bit of an odd bird. She's the last of the witches though instead of a broomstick and a pointy hat she favors guns and an outfit made from her own hair. Like so many other videogame characters she has lost her memory and it's going to take a mysterious woman and thousands of dead angels to help jog it along. The game is broken up into 18ish stages that vary wildly in structure and design. Most are pretty basic as they involve exploring an environment and getting locked in rooms to fight the bad guys. There are also quite a handful that diverge wildly whether it's riding a motorcycle or a missile or just riding on top of something very large that needs to be killed. There's certainly a bit of variety to go around in Bayonetta's world.

The first highlight of this game is how Bayonetta controls. The running and jumping stuff is solid but where she really shines is in her dodging. With a simple tap of the button she can dodge almost anything whether she's standing or in mid-air. This lends her a wealth of freedom that she'll need to take full advantage of as attacks come quickly and from every direction. Over time she'll gain the abilities to turn into a panther to get around quickly and a crow to fly. Further rounding her out is a taunt that can be used to enrage her foes. Enraged foes hit harder and faster but they also give more magic and more points.

The weapon system is the next highlight. Bayonetta can equip weapons on both her hands and feet and there is an attack button for each. There are several weapons to choose from and while some show similarities in that she uses a lot of the same attack strings there are special attacks that can be triggered by holding down the attack button at a particular moment. Again there is a lot of freedom in what weapons to use as all of them can be combined in interesting ways which helps to keep the combat fresh.

The weapons are only a part of how our heroine deals with angels though. The hair isn't just for show since at the end of combinations a hair weave attack can trigger which will really clear out foes. There is also a magic gauge that can be used in a variety of ways. There are torture attacks which essentially work as finishing moves for weaker enemies or major damage on tougher foes. There are also a handful of magic attacks that offer a number of uses. The challenge with magic though is that while hitting foes can fill the meter getting hit can cause the meter to drain.

One thing I hate about combinations in 3D action games is that I get all these neat combos to use but I can never finish them because the enemies are so aggressive and numerous. Bayonetta isn't tied down by this as she has access to a dodge-offset. It's a bit tricky to use at first but its usefulness quickly becomes apparent as the player can save that last most devastating hit of a combo for a particular moment and still dodge attacks. While it takes awhile to use properly its one of the more impressive features of this game.

As if all of that wasn't enough Bayonetta is also capable of triggering witch-time. By dodging an attack at the right moment or through a number of other factors everything will slow down while she speeds up. Like with similar tools in other games the usefulness of this is obvious. However it's not something to be relied on as the hardest difficulty takes it away entirely. Think of it as a sort of practice mode.

Aside from the weapons Bayonetta can also equip a number of accessories. These are not your garden-variety "+10 health" nonsense either. These items can make impressive changes in the way the game is played. My personal favorite is something called the Moon of Mahaalaka...(yeah I butchered that spelling). What this does is it allows the witch to parry. Parrying is incredibly simple and when performed at just the right moment a counter-attack can be performed for good damage, lots of witch-time, and even a health bonus. There are quite a few accessories although ones of the game-breaking variety(like one that allows the player to play one-handed) are a severe detriment to the score.

Where the game shines its brightest is in combat with regular foes. The variety in them is decent and while some may serve as combo fodder there are others that can be a bit of an ordeal to face at first. At its best this game does an incredible job of showing off Bayonetta's robust arsenal of weapons and moves as well as her excellent evasive skills. The combat is always fun and exciting and taking down a number of tough foes without a scratch is attainable on even the hardest setting and can feel quite rewarding.

The problem is though is that when Bayonetta is not fighting it's not so great. I'm not sure what prompted the design of a number of the stages in this game but their exclusion would have only improved the overall quality of the game. If you've already played through this title you know full well that I'm talking about the vehicle sections. I can't even type the words "vehicle sections" without my mouth suddenly tasting like phlegm and assorted other nasty bodily fluids. In Bayonetta we have a motorcycle section and a missile section. The problem with the motorcycle section is that it feels unpolished and slapped-together. It's like something Sega would have included in a D-grade Sonic game. It's not particularly frustrating or so horrible that it ruins the game but it has no reason to be there as it offers nothing that hasn't been bettered by arcade games from the 80s. Next we have the missile section. This is an obvious nod to Space Harrier but again nowhere near as good. As a bonus the boss fights there tend to really drag. The thing is this game has a fondness for Sega references which is fine but to develop an entire stage around an old game and to do it no justice at all just feels like amateur-hour.

Aside from the vehicle sections there are a number of other parts of the game that don't consist entirely of combat. This time I'd like to recognize our good friends QTEs and button-mashing. These put a chalky taste in my mouth which leaves me especially bitter. The QTEs are of the instant-death variety though they're exceptionally easy. See this is what I don't get. If they're so easy why put them in there at all? Button-mashing is just a nuisance most of the time as it has to be done for every torture attack, a few QTEs, and some special attacks when dealing with that mysterious woman. Button-mashing has never been fun and most of the time it doesn't even make sense in this game or it's more beneficial to avoid it entirely unless you're using some cruddy 3rd party controller with turbo buttons.

Another non-combat aspect that just doesn't work is platforming. Thankfully in mid-air Bayonetta controls several times better than the average 3D action hero but again why have the platforming at all? I'd like to think it is worthwhile if used in combat but the few encounters that actually require platforming are terrible. The biggest offender is one that deals with these three enemy ships. Now these guys have homing missiles that come in swarms, deadly lasers, and claws that hold Bayo in place. The funny thing is the most dangerous aspect of them is that they must be fought over a bottom-less pit. Damaging them is simple enough as it just requires the witch to land on top of one and wail away at their weak-point. In practice however it's so easy to miss the mark that it just leads to falling into a pit several times over. Sure it only costs life instead of a life but yeah it's just all-around bad news.

Now when I said the game shines at its brightest it was during combat with regular foes. Bosses in Bayonetta are anything but regular as they are absolutely huge suckers with multiple weak-points that must be taken down. Problem is for all their size and sense of grandeur they are weak and bloated. What most of them really boil down to is running around and slashing up all of their weak-points while dodging whatever huge attack they're likely to throw out. These are the kind of guys that should have had regular foes join them in battle. For one it would add some challenge on the harder settings and for two it would create more interesting situations over the course of the fight. The best bosses in the game all belong to that mysterious woman as she fights just like Bayonetta. It's kind of sad since so much work was put into making the big guys so impressive.

The most unfortunate aspect of Bayonetta is that the scoring system is broken. The game employs a ranking system that judges players on how fast they complete each area, for how much damage they take(obviously it's best to take none), and their score through performing combos. While the scoring system seems impressive enough with different point values attached to every little attack it is as of right now pretty much broken. A glitch involving the rocket-launcher weapon Kilgore is available and abusing it will guarantee a maxed-out score for any area of the game where it could be attainable. A big-part of the replay value in this game is in the ranking system and to have the scores(and the subsequent leaderboards they're posted on) be broken through an exploit pretty much ruins at least that aspect.

That's not to say there's not much of a reason to replay the game as it's completely worth the 50 or so hours it'll take to get everything. The Lost Chapter is an excellent additional mode as it is essentially nothing but combat with regular foes. To add to this there are a huge number of weapons to collect/use and even a couple additional playable characters. Even with the Kilgore glitch there is still a ton of depth to the combat system and coming up with interesting combos and new ways to get through each encounter can lead to even more time spent.

So while the flaws are there and very apparent Bayonetta remains absolutely brilliant. Something as simple as a sequel can fix all of these flaws easily I'm sure but I think in the future we can expect something even better that'll be heralded as the future of 3D action games. For at least this moment Bayonetta is the present of the genre and certainly worth the time.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

X360 look - 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand

One of the biggest problems with this generation is the 59.99 pricetag on most retail games. Far too many games release at this price and then everyone is surprised when the game bombs and ends up at 19.99 or less in a few months. It doesn't help matters that this game in particular couldn't hope to achieve much if any success without word of mouth. Cause I mean no disrespect to 50 Cent or anything but his last game wasn't any good. Needless to say hearing the great impressions about this game was a bit of a shock to me.

50 Cent's inclusion in this game definitely feels like a last minute add-on. Granted he and his G-Unit chums provide voice-work, the starring characters, and the soundtrack but their backstory was tacked on after the game was practically finished. In fact the devs probably had the story all written out for some guy named Maxwell Festus and his buddy Pablo Hernandez.

The story is about what you'd expect out of a videogame. 50 Cent has just finished up a concert in some presumably middle-eastern country but the promoter doesn't have the money to pay him. Instead he gives 50 cent a diamond and platinum-encrusted skull. Thankfully this crystal skull doesn't summon aliens but it still leads 50 Cent and his buds through 9 chapters of city streets, dilapidated buildings, and the obligatory vehicle sections.

Since in a way this could be a sequel to Bulletproof 50 Cent and the gang are more than capable with handling the various guns that can be found or purchased. Up to four can be carried at any time and they're divided into different groups. There's the pistols which are good for most situations, shotguns & SMGs for close-range, assault rifles for mid-range, and rocket-launchers/sniper rifles for long-range and well..blowing stuff up. Throw in some grenades as well as molotov cocktails and it's a good enough arsenal for just about anything.

To help set 50 Cent apart from the average thug he and his partner have access to a special ability called "Gangsta Fire". Triggering this ability slows everything else down while leaving the good guys un-affected. The usefulness of this ability is obvious and the player can even do neat tricks like destroy missiles in mid-flight. As the player improves at the game they'll find that the gangsta fire is best used to help with scoring, which is the main focus of the game.

Further rounding out 50 Cent is a melee attack. Performing this triggers a very easy QTE that also makes him invincible. Mainly this invincibility is a safe-guard against getting shot up but still at least it provides an incentive and it can also be useful for score.

The game itself is comparable to the likes of Gears of War and the many other third-person shooter clones that have popped up this gen. If you can play those games you can certainly handle this one. The biggest addition that differentiates this game from most others is the scoring system. Since the game is only a few hours in length and offers no competitive multiplayer all of the long-term value is spent on beating highscores and getting those gold rankings. This is where the game really shines as there are a number of ways to kill an enemy to collect bonus points. Each of these bonuses are applied to every kill and using the right combination of gangsta fire and weapons can lead to better scores.

With a system like this it pays to play riskier. One thing that bugs me about a lot of third-person shooters is that they emphasize staying safe and avoiding bad situations. This game throws that out the window and offers bonus points to players who kill enemies while away from cover or better yet when they have little to no health remaining. Since it's impossible to be instantly-killed(even taking a rocket hit on the Hard setting will leave you standing) the best players will be the ones that are always near-death.

Like Gears and co. this game is also a co-op title. The drop-in/drop-out aspect is in full effect here and both players share the same score. This can be tricky to play for score since there's also a combo system so if the first player kills four enemies in a row and the second player kills the fifth well that's less points total. To balance this out somewhat there are bonuses applied for helping your partner, gunning down the same people at the same time, and there are plenty of opportunities for players to take on enemies from opposite ends. While a player can easily revive their partner if they lose all their health their partner will eventually revive automatically after about 30 seconds or so. If anything abusing this system will only hurt the score.

Another neat feature is the various missions that are doled out over the course of each stage. Every now and again the game will point out special goals that the player should accomplish for bonus points and other rewards like explosive ammo and gangsta fire. These usually involve shooting particular enemies(they have a red outline to make them easy to spot) and come up fairly often. It's a very simple addition but it works extremely well and actually makes the game more entertaining.

This game is also fantastic in the use of audio/visual indicators. 50 Cent's partner is constantly updating the situation with things that should be checked out like objects to destroy or enemies to kill. The game also points out spots that enemies are going to enter combat from which is very helpful.

One of the few annoyances I have with this game is many of the points involve finding hidden posters and targets. While these objects aren't exactly out of the way they can be easy to miss. It tends to break up the pacing when the room is clear of enemies and both players have to go exploring for these special objects. Some sort of audio indicator would be nice if the player is in a room where one of these objects is located. Then again I guess that would be giving too much information away.

Without a doubt this is one of the better games I've picked up so far this generation. It's easy to get into and is at the perfect length for those days when I just want to shoot some people for points and cash. Everything is executed solidly and even the vehicle sections are tolerable. There's also nothing in the way of stealth missions or something completely different that ruins what the game is all about. Overall this is an exceptional effort by all parties involve and I highly recommend picking it up.

Monday, February 1, 2010

X360 look - Sacred 2

As I've stated several times before I love action-rpgs. If I had any sense at all I would be focusing on important games that'll change the future but instead I spend all of my time finding loot, killing legions of foes, and properly building characters. To me this is the "comfort" genre, my security blanket in a way. In fact part of the reason I started this blog was so I'd stop playing so many action-rpgs. Yet here I am talking about Sacred 2.

I never played the original game so I couldn't tell you what it's about. In fact I can't quite remember the story to this game either. There are seven character classes to choose from and most have selectable alignments(which doesn't do much aside from changing the story and some quests). Afterwards the player is plopped into this massive world and via over 300 quests, 20 or so bosses, and an infinite number of foes, items, and possibilities something or other will get accomplished.

Customization is a big part of Sacred 2 and putting together a good build is essential to survival. Aside from being able to decide on special attacks the player can also learn quite a few skills to augment particular stats or attain unique abilities. This extends to the equipment as various weapons and armor can be affixed with runes to further strengthen them as well as change their properties. Without a guide handy the player's first build will likely be a failure as some aspects aren't quite clear the first time around. There's not really a poor or useless skill but certain combinations are bound to be a failure.

As mentioned earlier this game is massive. Unfortunately it's probably too big for its own good. There is a lot of redundant content(expect to fight a number of the same bosses only recolored and on opposite sides of the world) and the hundreds of quests are mostly only good for experience. Some sort of direction would have helped out a lot here cause despite the changes in environment the game itself doesn't change much from "use skill X on groups of enemies and skill Y on major foes".

The combat is serviceable I guess. One of the problems I have with a lot of action-RPGs is that there isn't a whole that can be done about avoiding damage. Most of the time the player can only run up to an enemy and hack away. There's little in the way of defensive or evasive maneuvers and while spell-casters, archers, and other similar characters can attack enemies from afar it becomes something more akin to Smash TV or other arena shooters. Sacred 2 runs along this same idea and while at times larger enemies will telegraph their attacks to the point where the player can run away it doesn't mean much in the end. The biggest problem with boss fights is that the boss can replenish their HP at a rapid pace. There's really not a good reason for doing this. Not only does this lead to a lack of tactics aside from "bum-rush the boss and hope for the best" it can also render weaker character builds completely useless as they can't do enough damage to mean anything.

What absolutely smacks of lazy game design is the healing potion. This is a trademark of the action-rpg as it's a quick and easy way to heal. There's usually limitations involved like inventory space or some sort of gradual recovery to prevent the player from abusing it at every encounter. Sacred 2 doesn't have either of these limits. Therefore if the player can survive at least one hit from an enemy as long as they have the potions they're practically invincible. Thus there is little reason to attempt to learn the intricacies of the battle system to minimize damage. It's easier to gain a bunch of levels, spend skill points on raising armor and HP, then just drain potions while wailing on the bosses.

After a certain point the game becomes less of an action-RPG and more along the lines of Progress Quest. The only interactivity needed is to lead the player's character towards the next enemy and then use whatever attack until everything is dead. Afterwards pick up all of the loot, do some inventory management to sort it all out, and continue for a few hundred or so hours.

In the end customization is actually everything to this game and all of the other aspects will be a bit of a blur while the player spends more time sifting through menus and repeating certain areas in the hopes of finding unique set-pieces and god-like weapons. While a number of other action-RPGs are guilty of this same aspect most of them at least have some semblance of game design that forces the player to learn the game to get the most out of it. Sacred 2 is to me one of my greatest regrets. The many hours I spent with this game could at least been spent on a good action-RPG, one that rewards skillful play at least as much as character builds and equipment.