Monday, May 31, 2010

My apologies for the lack of updates lately

There are games that could be talked about this very moment but I'm just not in the condition for it. Seems I've gotten into a major disagreement with something I ate and well the results haven't been pleasant. In any case I hope to be back up to speed in a couple days...just in time to go back to work. Oh well...

Bought some new games though I have little idea as to why.

Drakengard - Even knowing everything that is going to happen I'm still drawn to this one. Yeah I have issues.

Super Mario Sunshine - Can you believe that I've never played this game before? Should be interesting I think.

Contra: Shattered Soldier - So I figured...why not?

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Vehicle sections...what's the point?

Lately I've been racking my brain trying to come up with reasons as to why the videogame industry is in the state its in. You've heard it all before haven't you? Casuals are killing gaming, gamers are killing gaming, Activision, Ubisoft, EA, motion-controls, so on and so forth and blah blah bleh. I can tell you one thing that isn't killing gaming and it's the vehicle-sections. Yeah that's great and all but if they're not killing game just what are they there for? They certainly aren't making games better. I'm starting to believe that the reason vehicle-sections exist is because it allows game reviewers an easy out. Rather than having reviewers force themselves to become more critical so that they come to expect more from the games they talk about, they can stumble over a vehicle-section and say: "Wow this game could have been a bonafide classic, but they made me drive a tank through an explosive poisonous swamp, so it gets a 9.5 out of 10." It's certainly convenient, but in the long-run it's doing a disservice to both reviewers and gamers.

To start off we must determine what a vehicle-section actually is. Let's say you're Corporal Jordan Prince and you're running around shooting terrorist nazi aliens. Everything is all fine and dandy until suddenly Captain Ahab gets shot out of a jeep and you have to take over. This drive might take an hour or even less than five minutes but it is guaranteed that the game has suddenly become not as good as it was before as well as after the time spent in this vehicle. A vehicle can be anything that doesn't require the player's feet to touch the ground and the section comes from the fact that these parts take up a minimal percentage of the actual game. So again the question must be asked...why are they there?

To further clarify what isn't a vehicle-section let's go over a few things. Racing games are obviously exempt unless of course there's a racing game where the player is forced out of the vehicle to do push-ups or chat up the ladies. Grand Theft Whatever-styled games don't count either since most of the time you're going to need a vehicle anyways. A handful of games tend to use vehicles in most of their scenarios. The most classic example that comes to my mind at the moment is Halo. That's the type of game where vehicles are good, because they are usable in both the campaign and multiplayer, and they're pretty seamless in how they're handled. Granted there are a few instances where vehicles are needed but by that time the player has grasped how to use them properly. However, there are other genres like puzzle games, RPGs, and they definitely shouldn't have vehicle sections, but some "clever" guy will manage to shove one in there somehow or another.

At one time or another, vehicle-sections actually sounded like a great idea. When we think of action movies what's one aspect of them we typically enjoy? The car chases. There could be guns shooting, explosions, cars flying off the road and doing wild stunts. For that matter, who doesn't love it when the good guy grabs an Apache or something and goes nuts on the bad guy's hideout while they send in F-15s or whatever to take him down? It all sounds like great material to put into a game and yet all too often the implementation is off. Sure they can throw gamers a bone in the form of a basic tutorial, and ease them into this section any way they can, but at the end of the day gamers usually have nothing but bad things to say about them. Like many other things in movies that games try to emulate, it all ends in failure.

The common answer seems to be that it's for the sake of variety. I'm not one to talk because I think variety is a bit of a dirty word. In fact I think of it as an excuse a developer uses because they aren't confident about the quality of their game. They're worried that gamers will tire of shooting or stabbing for so many hours and maybe they want to do some driving or flying for a little while. It's nonsensical most of the time, because so many of these games feature multiplayer where surprisingly enough, there are no vehicles to use. Maybe the developers are fine with this because nobody plays the campaign anyway so why even bother?

The biggest problem with the vehicle section is that it imposes limits. You're a Guerilla Commando stalking the forest and taking out enemy implacements through clever traps and/or just blowing them the hell up. Next thing you know you get shoved into a boat to deliver medical supplies to orphans. Can you even shoot a gun while driving the boat? Most likely that's not happening. You will do this for a short amount of time, yet more often than not you will have died more times in this section than in the entire rest of the game. Even if the numbers are reversed the ratios don't add up. Let's say you die 3 times in a 5 minute vehicle section and 10 times in the rest of the ten-hour campaign. This is not good game-design. Rarely do these sections turn out to be remotely in the realm of good, and if for whatever reason they turn out to be better than the rest of the game... Well, hopefully those developers aren't working anymore.

As much as it pains me to say it, this design-philosophy isn't something that can be blamed on this current generation of games. Take the Genesis classic Shinobi 3 for example. Sure enough there are two stages of the game that take place on vehicles. They are there because Sega felt that gamers would get tired of being a Ninja for less than an hour and maybe they'd be interested in being a Surfing and Horse-riding Ninja. Again it isn't surprising that these two sections are the worst parts of the game. Shinobi 3 is still a great game, but one can only imagine how much better it could actually be, if those two sections of the game were replaced with stages that suited the rest of the game. Shinobi for the PS2 didn't have any vehicle-sections and it turned out great, so it's even more of a shame Nightshade (its sequel) had to include a few.

Granted our friend Hibana doesn't hop on a ninja-skateboard at any moment in Nightshade, but she does hop on the backs of moving vehicles. This can be considered a vehicle-section since again limits are imposed in terms of real-estate and potential for gimmick-hazards. These are a bit trickier to point out because we see them fairly often. I'm reminded of the Taito arcade game Crime City which had a mind-blowing (at the time) stage where the player progressed by jumping from car to car. It's important to keep in mind that aside from the visual difference the mechanics and stage layout were quite the same. Nightshade offers no less than three vehicle-sections and while one serves as a fairly standard tutorial the other two involve lots of jumping between vehicles in order to survive. They're also the worst parts of the game, something I find to be hardly a coincidence.

Another great example is Gears of War. What do people usually consider the worst part of the campaign? Ah yes, the vehicle-section... What a shock. Nothing says gutsy team-based up-close-and-personal shooting like frying crows with a giant spotlight. Obviously the best approach for the sequel was to have more vehicle sections. Now we get such genius sections as the "drive a tank over thin ice" or "sit in a raft and try not get swallowed up by a giant...thing" and everyone's favorite "cut through the insides of a giant worm". Yes if you want to get technical that isn't a vehicle section but hey if it managed to transport Marcus and company a few dozen feet it may as well be a vehicle. The less said about the finale the better. Really I can not understand the thought-process here. Most people agree on the worst aspect of the first game yet rather than dumping it entirely for the sequel it is instead built upon. A five minute vehicle section has ballooned into possibly two hours of vehicle sections. It's a painful sight as far as I'm concerned.

At this point I'm starting to wonder which developers are actually immune to this filth. Earlier this year Bayonetta was marred with them. I guess they're there to appeal to the .01% of Sega fans that actually cared for that sort of thing but they're horribly implemented at best and do little more than bring down a great game. Mario Galaxy 2 has pretty much the same deal going on. Granted at the moment they only represent a tiny fraction of the game but that's not a good excuse to have blemishes (the Fluzzard or whatever it's called really had to go).

I think from now on if these developers want to save any face maybe they could pull a stunt like the guy who directed No More Heroes and say something to the effect of "We put bad vehicle-sections in this game purely as a joke." I see no reason to take them as anything otherwise and from now I'll be more than glad to point out every game I review that has a vehicle-section and as a bonus I'll even be a little extra critical 'cause hey... Why not? I'm sick of this nonsense and I really don't care what anyone else thinks. The way I see it there has never been a good vehicle-section and the best they could ever hope to be is superfluous as well as an excuse for a reviewer to not give the next big thing a ten out of ten(then again that part isn't guaranteed either). If nothing else the next time you're making a game and you have the choice between a better conclusion, a couple extra months of testing, or a vehicle-section I hope that you make the right choice.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

X360 Look - Nier

Over the years I’ve gained an appreciation of sorts for the work of Cavia. They have proved themselves to be anything but the common game developer. While they tend to work with popular genres like shooters or action-adventure they purposely seek out storylines and design-decisions to put off all but the most hardened (or masochistic) gamers. Drakengard is the perfect example as it weaves a tale of cynicism and hopelessness and expects the player to perform endless absurdist tasks in order to attain the “best” ending. To people who got this far it all seemed like a bad joke, just Cavia getting a good laugh out of those silly completionists who aren’t satisfied until they’ve collected everything. Beatdown: Fists of Vengeance was similar in this regard. If you managed to accomplish every task you were rewarded with bikinis you could dress your main characters in. It’s not exactly a great fit for a game that prides itself on brutal beatings and people getting their skulls crushed. Eventually gamers as a whole came to accept this and eventually Cavia would become ignored, their entirely mediocre Bullet-Witch didn’t help matters any.

At some time or another Cavia developed a sense of humility and decided to focus their energies on creating a great game. To me it’s strange that they took this long as they have the talent and the freedom to do anything and yet for the most part they choose to subside on standard fare that could have been handed off to any C-tier dev. I guess this could all be filed under “paying your dues” so now in Nier we have one of the most unique and wonderful action-RPGs to date. If your soul is still functional and you’re still capable of feeling emotion this game just might prove itself to be a moving experience.

The basic storyline is about a father’s love for his daughter. Unfortunately in the world they live he must be away constantly in order to make money to provide food and medicine for her. This leads to a bit of a conundrum since while the father must be away so that the daughter can survive, the daughter is happiest when he is home. Throughout the early parts of this game the message is driven home through various letters that tell of all of the birthdays that the two of them never spent together. It’s a tale many can relate to even though they usually don’t go off to fight monsters.

Death is not something we look forward to. For some it’s out of fear but for others, at least in this game, it’s because they feel they haven’t accomplished all that they have needed to do. There are many side-quests in this game that unfortunately lead to the demise of somebody. Strangely the best course of action is to actually perform these tasks. It is not as if the player kills any of these people but through the attacks of monsters, illness, or simply old age they pass on, usually content. It’s not exactly a satisfactory response for all parties (though the player pockets a bit of gold for their trouble) but death is as much a part of life as anything else so all that can be done is to make the best of it. Despite all this there is still a feeling of hope, something not seen in the original Drakengard.

The comparisons to Drakengard remain pretty apt though. Their relationship is best described as being yin and yang to each other. Everything from the story to the music exemplifies this and it creates a sort of a harmonic balance that completes them. This is not to say I recommend playing through Drakengard before, after, or during this game because it certainly isn’t for everyone. Still this philosophy is prevalent throughout both games and it’s a very nice touch.

The father in this game is a pretty rough-looking man whose better days have passed him by. Still he’s more than capable of the jumps and double-jumps that platforms tend to require and he can swing swords or spears with little effort. Before long he is joined by a magical book known as Grimoire Weiss. This chap is a fan of proper English so it’s paramount that his foil be a foul-mouthed hussy by the name of Kaine. She’s a fan of cussing and killing with an outfit that is…well unfortunately it’s par for the course as far as female action-game characters are concerned. Rounding out this motley crew is a young boy by the name of Emil. He’s a powerful magic-user and has a really creepy smile. While the party follows the father around and assists him in battle the only ally he directly controls his Weiss.

Weiss is the basis for the magic system in Nier. MP constantly recharges so there’s little reason not to take advantage of Weiss’s ability to summon giant fists, claws, lances, and an endless stream of projectiles. Personally I favor the fists as there are few things more satisfying than pounding the opposition into dust. Up to two spells can be equipped at a time though one of them is most likely to be a constant throughout the game. This particular spell offers three types of attacks. Holding down the button offers a constant rate of fire, releasing after a couple seconds causes a deluge of homing shots, and simply tapping the button leads to more powerful bullets. This spell works in practically any situation and it’s the first one the player acquires so there’s little reason to ignore it.

The monsters of this game are actually called Shades. They are certainly unique creatures in that they are bits and pieces of what was once whole. Most resemble humans in basic structure though they are prone to wearing armor and using magic as well. The bosses tend to resemble animals only giant in size and grotesque on many levels. Combat is exceptionally easy and checkpoints are frequent so it’s rare that the player would get themselves into a situation that they can’t win. Those seeking a challenge may want to switch to the Hard difficulty and abstain from upgrading weapons too much though. Fans of stylish combos won’t find much to like here but as concerns myself I enjoy the punch that each blow carries and killing multiple enemies in one swing is very satisfying.

The world of Nier is actually rather small which is fitting for the genre. There are several dungeons to explore and all of them offer unique twists. For one this game is a constant fan of perspective. The storyline is one such example and during the game the view will shift from a traditional 3D affair to overhead or even side-scrolling areas. In fact one dungeon takes on an isometric view and suddenly Nier feels like it could have turned into a perfectly serviceable Diablo clone. The genre of this game can shift along with the perspective to create a 2D shooter, something akin to Geometry Wars, or even a text adventure. First-time play-throughs are likely going to last between fifteen and twenty hours.

To make up for this short length the game offers up quite a bit of side-content. There are thirty weapons that can be attained and all of them use materials for upgrades. These materials can be harvested or collected off of the corpses of shades as well as animals. That other type of farming is accounted for as well since the player can plant seeds and raise their own little garden. Fishing is also available and it really isn’t that difficult though it can be frustrating and time-consuming.

Make no mistake though the most likely reason a gamer is going to want to play through this game again is to see the additional endings. Thankfully this doesn’t mean playing through the entire game. On future play-throughs the player is dropped off at a particular point just a couple hours away from the end and there are additional cutscenes that add a little extra perspective. I actually prefer how this is handled because if all of this was done on the initial play-through it’d be too much to handle and would just become annoying. This game understands the importance of giving the player just enough to keep them interested.

One of the great aspects of Nier is its approach to story-telling. I’m not particularly fond of game stories and when I talk about them it’s usually something to the effect of “dude’s parents got killed so he has to kill to get revenge and whatever” but with Nier I find it best not to talk about the story at all. What makes this work is that Nier takes advantage of dead air, or the time between people talking. All too often it feels like people in videogames will not shut up about everything and they won’t stop until their life-story speech is over. This game tells the player the basics and allows them the opportunity to think about it during their next side-quest. One of the main reasons I even do the side-quests is because they offer a lot of insight into how the main characters think. Their banter is so much more engaging than forced monologues and paragraph after paragraph of speech. There are those times when nobody is talking that the player is forced to consider what’s going on and where they go from there. There are a handful of decisions to make in the game and since the reward is usually meaningless it is best for the player to choose the option that fits what they think.

The game itself is ultimately limited by its efforts to create an experience. There’s not enough side-content tied to fighting like maybe a boss-rush mode or some kind of survival-based dungeon. The DLC that was recently released is alright but it still isn’t enough to give gamers a reason to attempt to get the most out of fighting well. While the game does a fine job of offering new encounters and battles there’s still quite a bit of revisiting that goes on and some new areas would have done wonders to fix this. While collecting everything isn’t nearly as bad as some of Cavia’s earlier affairs one may have to consider a guide in order to find a number of the materials. Still that’s more along the lines of nitpicking since it’s really only there for completionists.

Still as far as the experience is concerned in my eyes Nier is without peer. It’s a celebration of both life and death that and its astounding usage of words has managed to convey emotions I thought I’d never feel in regards to a videogame. Even the most mundane of side-quest characters prove themselves to be memorable thanks to the impressive writing and the main characters are excellent in terms of development. This is all without even considering the fact that I still have three more endings to pursue.

Game Rating - 4 out of 5 stars

While the game is perfectly competent in all aspects it does suffer a bit from the “jack of all trades” effect. It does quite a bit of everything and yet at times where it could matter most it just doesn’t follow through. Still there isn’t anything truly bad about how the game is designed and it doesn’t offer any design decisions that I disagree with. How the game handles perspective is absolutely genius though, kind of makes me believe Cavia could successfully pull off a development team that does nothing but conventional mainstream titles….not that I’d ever want to see anything like that.

My rating – 5 out of 5 stars

As much as I’ve gushed about this game you really expected me to give it anything less? I may be going completely overboard here but this game just might be one of the best experiences I’ve had since Planescape: Torment. The game itself is as solid as anything I could ever want but its approach to story-telling is just fantastic and really takes Nier to another level. This is definitely looking to be up there among the likes of Deadly Premonition, Protect Me Knight, and Super Mario Galaxy 2 as my favorite games of the year.

Wii Look - Super Mario Galaxy 2 part 1

The key word that describes Nintendo's latest is "refinement". Super Mario Galaxy 1 is a phenomenal game and yet there were a few flaws to it. Oddly enough to me at least these flaws didn't become noticeable until I got into the sequel. There are quite a few changes of both the major and minor variety that make this game feel like more than just "The Lost Levels" version of Super Mario Galaxy.

The storyline is pretty much an exact clone of most Mario games. Princess Peach invites Mario over for cake and as we all know that's an invitation to disaster as sure enough Bowser shows up with the powers of the stars and he's wrecking shop and making off with the Princess. The original Super Mario Galaxy had pretty much the same story but at least there was that whole deal with Rosalina. It's probably for the best though as she was a bit of a distraction.

The game structure is pretty much the same as the other 3D titles. Mario needs stars to reach Bowser. These stars are rewarded by completing tasks in each galaxy. There are about six galaxies per world and I'm assuming eight worlds. First off I really like that there are less stars per galaxy and more galaxies overall. This offers more variety in the level design and I can always come back to polish off one or two stars if I'm not particularly fond of certain stages.

Mario controls just the same as in Galaxy 1 which is great as I was able to smoothly transition to this game even though I hadn't played the first one in over a year. The new power-ups are a bit of a mixed bag. I don't particularly care for rock Mario as it can be pretty clumsy though admittedly the boss-fight its used on is pretty good. Cloud Mario on the other hand is really neat as it allows for a bit of freedom for traversing large gaps.

Yoshi is the major addition to Mario's arsenal and he's a bit tricky to get used to. He controls somewhere between Super Mario World and Yoshi's Island. He can do the floaty double jump from Island and Mario can jump off him at any time for that extra boost. The tongue is also used by pointing the remote at the screen, which can be tricky for me since my hands shake during tense moments. As in other games Yoshi can eat certain kinds of fruit for additional powers like super-speed and the ability to float into the air like a blimp.

Like the first game there are a few instances throughout the game that rely on different control schemes. There is the rolling ball portions that require the remote to be held up-right and a gliding bird that is controlled by holding the remote straight ahead. I'll go ahead and say that I hate the bird stages. They're entirely too limited and I get the feeling that later stages involving it will just be frustrating due to the layout of the stage. The 2D stages suffer in a similar way due to their layout and for me at least they tend to run a bit too long. Maybe I just haven't ran into a truly challenging one just yet.

With that as the exception so far the level design in this game has been excellent. It's hard for me to pick out highlights because everything has been absolute quality. It does get kind of redundant repeating certain stages for prankster comet stars but the strong level design more than makes up for it so it gives good reason for me to beat a stage under a certain time or grab all of the purple coins. It's definitely a harder game as the only really tough parts for me in the last game were a couple of the purple coin and daredevil challenges. The SMG2 levels offer just a bit more intensity and even if I'm not dying I feel like I'm working harder and playing better to get where I need to be.

Luigi is back and even playable on certain stages. This opens up an interesting system since beating a stage with Luigi apparently creates a ghost. I guess by racing this ghost the player can improve their times for the stage. This is one thing I've noticed about the game is that there seems to be a better focus for players attempting mastery of the game. All stages list completion times so there's good reason to perfect those long-jumps as well as any other ability that'll save a few seconds.

At the this point I'm maybe one-third of the way through the game. Next week I'll post another update and hopefully put together some more in-depth impressions. I may have to bite the bullet and hook my Wii up to the tiny TV in my bedroom in order to better articulate what's great about this game. It's really a fantastic game but there's so much more I could be saying about it if I wasn't trying to work through memory.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Playing Nier - This game is amazing.

Not much else I can say beyond that. I still have quite a ways to go so don't expect a review anytime soon. I'm taking my time with this one and soaking it all in cause to me at least it's looking to be a very special game.

While Mario Galaxy 2 is out now I'm doing something a bit different. Since there's no way I'll be able to properly make time for this game I've decided to pace myself and just play for a little while each week. Consider this a sort of weekly discussion where I talk about areas I've just been to and what I've thought of them.

Cause at the moment my backlog is just crazy and I have way too many games that require quite a bit of time and dedication in order to complete. Still I'm sure I'll have something reviewed before too long.

I guess I could always write some features or something. There are a number of things on my mind I'd like to discuss though time spent on that could also be spent on playing games. Hmm well whatevs guess all I can do is run with it and see where it goes.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

More additions to the library

Tekken 6 - I figure this will make a good supplemental game to mess around with while I work on something else. If I can hop on here, play for a little while, do some combos, unlock some new clothes to play dress-up with, and maybe play a sub-par beatemup well that's fine by me. If nothing else this'll help me kill time until I can work up the nerve to purchase Style Savvy for the DS.

Nier - From everything I've read and heard about this game it sounds like potential GOTY material for me. Yeah yeah I know there's quite a few people that'll say otherwise but hey whatever.

Super Mario Galaxy 2 - Okay I haven't bought this game yet but that's because it's not out yet. It is preordered though and the only part I'm not looking forward to is having to play the game on an 18" TV.

Monday, May 17, 2010

PS3 Look - Ridge Racer 7

Earlier today I pulled this game off the shelf, played it for five minutes, and decided that I've had enough of it. I think that more than anything sums up how I feel about the game. Ridge Racer 7 is for the moment the latest in Namco's sole arcade racer franchise and while its presentation is solid and it offers up a decent amount of content the actual racing and track design need an overhaul desperately.

The entire point of the singleplayer mode is to unlock cars and prepare the gamer for multiplayer. To start off the player takes on a manufacturer's race where they can earn cars that suit their style of play. Afterwards they move on to a series of Grand Prix races that amount to little more than an over-long tutorial. What this tutorial does is it gives the player practice with all four of the car classes and test runs on all of the tracks. Interspersed throughout the campaign are single-race events that can done for extra money. Upon completion of every Grand Prix the extreme battles open up and those provide a challenge closer to what is to expected online. It's here also that all of the specialty cars can be unlocked.

The entire point of the single-player mode is to help the player establish their identity by building up their own personal car through a variety of parts and paint-jobs. This also extends to driving style as well as certain special functions the player might favor. Some of these are only unlocked through doing a large number of racers while sponsoring certain manufacturers. Even for those who never go online this mode alone will take quite a long time and is a good value considering the price of the game.

The actual races are very simplistic. The goal is to get to first place and then win, nothing else matters and how you get there is determined by a handful of objectives. The quick-start is a subtle but important beginning to each race. Revving the car up to just below the red-line and then punching it when the race begins is a good way to get some extra boost. Knowing how to turn is essential and like other arcade racers RR7 uses the drift mechanic. Drifting in this game is as simple as letting go of the gas and then turning. This aspect of the game is almost too simple in fact and almost makes me feel like Namco should just drop the steering and give a couple of buttons I can press for when I want to "drift left" or "drift right". Slip-streaming is also an important tool as it takes advantage of an opponent's wind resistance to give the player a slightly higher top-speed. It might not be much but it's still faster than the opponent so before long they can be over-taken. This is a system that anyone can grasp by the first race and while later car classes add higher speeds there still doesn't leave much depth for the game.

Thus Namco has adopted an x-factor. This variable is what makes or breaks the races in RR7 and I'm of course talking about the nitrous. This addition is actually relatively new to the series as it only just came about in the first PSP iteration. By drifting the player charges up to three stocks of nitrous that they can then use to get a dramatic boost in speed. There are different kinds of nitrous systems but the effect is largely the same. Also by drifting just after a nitrous boost as ended the player gets a substantial increase in the amount of nitrous they gain. By knowing the layout of the track and when to boost the player can essentially chain boosts for the entirety of the track, leaving others who haven't quite grasped the system to choke on the fumes. What it comes down to is that learning how to use and gain nitrous is essential to winning races.

If this isn't the sort of thing that interests you then you may as well not bother reading the rest of this write-up. Take nitrous out of RR7's system and you're left with a shallow racer that without its graphics wouldn't look out of place next to something like Pole Position. There are a few races in the game that don't use nitrous and you might even run into a few people online who won't race with it but it's still a minority representation.

To keep this system in check Namco has forced a number of aspects on this game to account for ease of enjoyment. While crashes happen they aren't the kind that cause the player to flip out, explode, or do anything that might cause the car to stop. Rubbing a wall so that it costs a handful of MPH is enough to cost a race anyway so I guess bogging everything down with cars flying everywhere is pointless. This game also goes further to employ some system that keeps cars on the right track. Granted it's very hard to go off the track as there's walls everywhere but this track is of the invisible variety. This manages to lock the player in the right direction no matter what kinds of ridiculous turns they manage to pull off. It's both a blessing and a curse since it tends to dumb down the races (thus necessitating the need for nitrous). On certain tracks in certain turns however this system can throw the player off and cause them to spin out when going for a very simple turn. Eventually the player learns to adjust to these particular turns but it's a backwards system that doesn't show any semblance of good racing game design. It's especially annoying because these same turns existed in the prequel Ridge Racer 6.

Between the automatic nature of the races and near-complete focus on a system I can't get into I eventually got tired of playing this game. The only thing that kept me going for the most part was the "progress" I was making from winning races and unlocking stuff. After a certain point I start hitting races that I can't win without more practice and the game just falls apart.

Some of the track designs in this game are absolutely terrible. For whatever reason Namco is fond of having a lot of jumps and all they're good for is killing the pacing as the player can do absolutely nothing while in mid-air. This is especially aggravating when some jumps if taken improperly can leave the player crashing into an invisible wall(to keep them from flying off the track of course). When they're not terrible they can also be boring. Since turning/drifting isn't difficult in the slightest there should at least be some very creative and challenging turns to make. Unfortunately aside from maybe one or two tracks this simply isn't the case.

At this point I highly doubt Namco will do anything in terms of making changes to a potential Ridge Racer 8. Nitrous and online-play are tied with one another and the fan-base would cry foul if a new system was to be adopted. While I can appreciate everything that this game does I really have no interest in ever playing it again.

Game Rating - 2 out of 5

Aside from some glitches everything seems to be in order and as mentioned before the game has good value. Honestly I haven't the faintest idea how this game plays online as I'm assuming it's just like Ridge Racer 6 only with customization and a few extra tracks. If the idea of nitrous isn't appealing to you then stay far away from this game. Otherwise I'm not sure what else to say aside from the game having an appeal that is pretty niche since gamers can't expect to have any sort of positive impact in online racing without getting through an overly-lengthy tutorial just to learn the ropes.

My Rating - 1 out of 5

Earlier today I tried to pick this game up again and just like that whatever magic it had was gone. Games are something that should be enjoyed and when a game I'm playing starts to feel like work -- especially considering this work doesn't pay anything -- then I have no reason to continue. It has all the markings of what could be a classic arcade racer but the nitrous system and the one-dimensional handling and track designs make for style of racing that I can't appreciate at all. I've always been a big fan of Ridge Racer's soundtrack and presentation as well but this game can't even get those parts right. The music is terribly mundane and the presentation feels soul-less and artificial, a far cry from something like Ridge Racer Type 4.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

XboxLive Indie Game Look - Mamotte (Protect Me) Knight!

Let's go ahead and get this out of the way. At its core Mamotte Knight is a Tower Defense game. Yeah I heard the collective sighs of everyone on earth but hear me out. This game is totally worth your time. It's a unique take on the genre that combines chaotic action with just the right amount of strategy for some of the most fun I've gotten out of the XBL Indie Service.

Ancient isn't exactly a well-known developer. Their most famous work is the Beyond Oasis and Legend of Oasis games (on the Sega Genesis and Saturn respectively) and the only other title I know of by them is the incredibly obscure Valtva(Import Saturn only). While this game takes the retro approach with its NES-style graphics and sound it by no means limits itself to being just another nostalgic wankfest. Yeah yeah it's got the cartridge-blowing and everyone speaks engrish but otherwise it's very nonsensical and to me that's very important.

The goal is simple really. The princess is in dire trouble cause every Goblin, zombie, dragon, lizard-man, daemon, and probably some other stuff is out to beat the snot out of her. She's the helpless type but she's backed up by up to four big strong heroes all with unique abilities. It's up to the player to protect the princess, attain love-points, clobber foes endlessly, and maybe build a wall or two to manage things somewhat. If all else fails the player can even push the princess out of the way of danger, or push her into a pit of lava cause she is a bit of a prat. Regardless of your feelings for her you need her love to become stronger and she needs to survive or else the game is over.

Cause if there's one thing Goblins love to punch almost as much as princesses is walls. They're easily distracted by those wacky contraptions of stone and wood and will not stop until they're reduced to rubble. It's kind of odd how this works out cause these guys will even destroy walls that are nowhere near the princess. It's alright though cause smart AI isn't required in this game. You can repair these walls by smacking them with your weapon or you can take that same weapon to the enemy and that's where the real fun is had.

Each of the ten stages offers up anywhere from 20 to hundreds of easily dispatched foes. Taking somebody out causes them to fly through the air, making them easy targets for the player's repeated assault or even the occasional attack from their ally. While these guys can only be juggled a few times before they fall off the screen by using the player's "killer attack" special moves like flying axes, fireballs, and explosions can continually juggle enemies which leads to big combos. Big combos means lots of love from the pretty princess and that can be invested into more walls or more importantly upgrades for any of the heroes.

The enemy will fight back and that's something to look out for. If the hero takes too much damage they're down for a few seconds and precious love-points disappear. This is a factor to be wary of for the aggressive types unless of course you're the beefier warrior as opposed to the wimpy mage. Each character does a fine job of catering to the play-style of the gamer.

In-between each stage the characters can decide what skills they want to upgrade. More HP is always handy but since monsters are usually focused on pounding royalty it's probably better to increase strength and killer attack ability. I highly recommend bringing up those killer attacks because watching the screen cascade with goblin corpses and 100+ combos never gets old.

Each of the ten stages ends with a boss encounter. Some of them are pretty mundane like a slightly stronger enemy but most of the time expect to see something different like a giant sword-wielding lizardman, a dragon that stomps through walls like bread-crumbs, and a giant centipede cause hey...why not? Each of the stages also has some new trick to look out for like a different type of enemy, new traps to slow the player down, or maybe just a bunch of those dreadful reapers who love to pelt things from a distance.

Still no matter the odds the game ends just as quickly as it begins but there's no reason to fear the short time it takes to beat this game. There are four difficulty settings to challenge and a scoring system that rewards the player weird rankings like "Over Protect Me Knight +1". It's more than enough value for the price and none of that will even matter when you're chucking tomahawks and seeing them make short work of goblin armies like a ping-pong ball from hell.

There's just one thing keeping Mamotte Knight from reaching stratospheric levels of fun. There's no online-play. Oh sure the game is more than enough fun by yourself but if you're like me and all your friends would rather play World of Warcraft or Call of Duty well that's just too bad. I shouldn't really fault Ancient on this one considering just how great this game is but realistically I gotta say it cause my friends suck. Instead I'm just going to have to imagine the fun that three other people can bring into this game. Heck maybe we could even organize strategies to ensure the princess's safety while maximizing our love-potential but alas only in my dreams.

The presentation is even pretty amusing. I usually don't go for this retro stuff cause most of the time it's repeating the same popular engrish quotes like "A winner is you!" and "Put fish in you mouth." forever and ever. Mamotte Knight just turns the dial until it pops off and creates one of the more charming "translations" I've ever read. It makes sense when you read it but it's like whoever was responsible just made up sentences by picking random english words out of a hat. It's probably not the best idea for the tutorial but who cares? You'll pick up on how this game works in a couple minutes.

In the end it might still be tower defense but your energies will be focused on clobbering foes by the dozens and not watching over some walls and guns plink away at zombies or whatever the crap towers need defending from. It's the right combination of depth and chaotic action that makes for a superb purchase and will spend more than enough time in your active videogame rotation.

Oh yeah check out Beyond Oasis too cause that's one of the best games ever made.

Game Rating - 4 out of 5

This hurts me more than anything cause really the lack of online-play sucks a goblin's club. I should be motivated by this to seek out local gamers and spread the word about this brilliant little game but I don't know, I'm so used to whining about everything it's become rather comfortable. Otherwise I can't think of much of anything that the game does wrong. Some kind of endless mode with non-stop enemies would have been pretty neat I guess but oh wait how much did I pay for this game? $3. Okay maybe I'll just shut up now.

My Rating - 5 out of 5

No doubt about it I love this game. Everything about Mamotte Knight is just pure class and its rare that I can sit down with something that's so naturally entertaining. Usually there are those games where I have to play for quite awhile until I hit that moment of pure bliss but with this game it's a few seconds after I hit the start button. I totally must reiterate that I do love this game, so much.

Friday, May 14, 2010

PS3 Look - 3D Dot Game Heroes

Nostalgia is just one of those words that disgusts me. I can understand why it exists but all too often it's a crutch, an excuse, a reason for people to think negative thoughts about a game or in 3D Dot Game Heroes' case, game design that is held back. From the outset it's assured what players are going to get when they pick this game up. The most obvious comparison is the original Legend of Zelda, a top-down adventure that gives players an overworld to explore and a number of dungeons to complete. Along the way they discover weapons and tools that assist their progress and there are numerous puzzles to solve and secrets to find as well. The 3D in Dot Heroes is essentially a gimmick. While it lends it a bit of identity in terms of graphics and art direction the 3D has no bearing on the actual game and doesn't effect anything in terms of its design. Still it has its charm and gamers who have an appreciation for titles like Dragon Quest, the early Final Fantasy games, Zelda, and so on will find the references amusing.

The story is about as bland and predictable as the genre can get. A hero who is a descendant of a great hero must find six orbs that can be used to destroy the great evil. The game is broken up into multiple lands that carry similar themes to the dungeons they house. The player will traverse a volcano to reach the fire temple, cross bridges over lakes and rivers to enter the water temple, and so on. It's all pretty basic stuff so the player can focus on exploring.

Many of the secrets in this game are locked behind both keys and "keys". While keys are self-explanatory the "keys" are a different matter. The "keys" are the tools the hero finds in their adventure. The fire wand can burn down dead trees to access new areas, the hookshot can be used to travel over crevices via nearby posts, and so on. These items are keys because their usefulness is limited to a single task. The fire wand can't be used to burn away foes, the bow & arrow will hardly see any use beyond hitting targets that unlock secrets, and most of the spells are used for just a handful of tasks.

The sword is more often than not the player's sole necessity. By maintaining full health and investing in upgrades this sword can become quite the symbol of over-compensation. In fact after awhile the player's sword can clear out entire rooms of enemies with a single swing, making even the most complicated of enemy setups feel like a minor nuisance. Unfortunately this makes for a terribly unbalanced weapon. While a sword at full-health is absurdly powerful a sword at anything less leaves the player crippled. A weakened sword suffers a noticeable drop in length and girth which is fine but the lack of piercing really hurts it. What this means is that whenever the player hits a tree, a wall, or anything else their sword is cut short, making narrow combat areas an absolute chore.

The enemy designs are also lacking in creativity. These creatures wander around mindlessly until the player gets close and that's when they charge. Some might throw a projectile but otherwise it's all pretty one-dimensional. There are some foes that require a "key" like the wizards who can only be killed by reflecting their own magic or the knights as their shields are no match for bombs. Otherwise as long as the player's health is topped off the number of enemies is irrelevant as they will meet their end quickly and only the rare Blue Dragon offers up a fight. This is all with the consideration that the player has full health. At less than full health the battles don't become challenging they just become annoying, or worse they become frustrating. Essentially the combat in this game is summed up with pick your poison. One can either hold onto full health to breeze through fights as boredom sets in or they can allow half a heart or so and get frustrated when so much of the environment prevents the player from fighting effectively. Things would be much different if the controls and mechanics were a bit tighter but gamers used to running circles around enemies like the original Zelda will find that Dot Heroes just doesn't compare.

The dungeons start off decently enough. They're all broken up into room-by-room affairs like the original Zelda and there are keys of both varieties to find before reaching the end-boss. They're linear to a fault and the only side-paths usually lead to more keys or perhaps a reward like heart pieces or magic potions. It would have been several times more interesting if the dungeons had offered different paths to reach the end. Still for the most part they're alright and while the gimmicks they offer are trite(like blocks to push and switches to press) they're at least pleasant. Where this falls apart however is in the repetitiveness. These dungeons suffer quite a bit from the "copy-paste" school of design. Developers fearful that their game might be too short will take existing areas, change one or two things, and in effect create artificial length. By the time the player reaches the final dungeon they will have seen everything that aspect of the game has to offer, then over the course of the final dungeon they will see everything again. Some kind of inspiration would have done wonders here but for gamers that have played similar games this is all just going to be redundant and dull.

The bosses are more difficult than the regular foes at least, though again that difficulty is more geared towards annoyance and frustration than challenge. For example there is a Stone Golem who attacks with lasers. These lasers are telegraphed somewhat by the Golem's head turning but upon firing their effect is instant. The player can end up taking damage from this even as they are trying to maneuver around the boss. There's a dragon that's constantly spewing waves of fireballs and it takes a ridiculous number of hits before it finally dies. Even the most predictable of encounters take forever and there's just no reason for it. There are trophies rewarded for beating bosses without getting hit but this isn't rewarded for skill, it's rewarded for taking a more powerful sword to the boss and killing it in just a few hits.

The worst aspect of this game is that it takes all of the bosses, all of the bland dungeon designs, and wraps it up into the last couple hours of the game. There are at least a couple final battles to look forward to but by the time the player gets there they will be so sick of everything that they'll just want to get it all over with. Frustration and annoyance is a constant when it comes to the dungeons and combat but without those there's only boredom.

There are a number of mini-games that involve a variation of Breakout, using the dash ability to race around a track, and engaging in a tower defense game. Non-fans of Tower Defense need not apply but I found myself enjoying this particular mini-game. I wish I could say the same about the other two as they're just not any fun. Completionists are going to be in for a world of hurt if they pick this game up. In order to get all of the trophies these particular gamers must find everything and beat the game on a difficulty setting where one hit is instant death. Since the game seems so fond of frustration and annoyance over challenge it would take some impressive levels of patience for gamers to pull through this mode.

In the end it's not even a worthwhile adventure. Dot Heroes forgot a number of things that made the first Zelda a classic and one of the most important was its sense of discovery. There are no mysteries in Dot Heroes as there's always a clear indicator of what the player should do next. There are hints pointing out places that the player should go to via "locks" placed throughout the overworld. If the player sees a wooden post somewhere or a rock that can be blown up it's basically a signpost saying "Go here you'll find something!" and sure enough there's a heart piece, a weapon, or a dungeon to progress the game. All of the discoveries that the game doesn't give away are events and sequences that the player can easily miss as they involve mundane things like sleeping at the inn or talking to people at certain points. Since the alternative is boring as it would require talking to everyone after every dungeon completion that leaves reading through a guide, which will give away the locations of everything else in the game anyway.

When a game is overwhelmed by nostalgia it can only hope to be as good as the game it worships. Dot Heroes is enamored by all things Zelda and yet it just can't match it in quality. To me that's just embarrassing because The Legend of Zelda is over twenty years old. Dot Heroes is a serviceable game and it can be fun but it isn't even as good as the game it emulates. In fact I would go as far to say that even if the developers behind this game decided against making a Zelda-clone I'm doubtful that it would turn out any better. From the dungeons and game design balance alone it's clear that they still have a ways to go in crafting a solid game, let alone a good one. Sure there are plenty of amusing references that'll fly right over the heads of younger gamers and a rather distinct art-style but to me it's just a waste of money when I can get a better game out of a title I've played since I was a child.

Admittedly comparing this game to The Legend of Zelda is unfair in a way. I have to take into consideration that some might find Dot Heroes more appealing as unlike Zelda all of its secrets are pretty obvious and don't require the player to set fire to dozens of like-colored bushes to find a heart piece or bomb hundreds of similar rock walls to find a dungeon entrance. Times were a bit different then and I guess in some ways Dot Heroes and Zelda aren't compatible. Still all things considered there are ways in which Dot Heroes could have been a better game even under the shadow of its predecessor.

Game Rating - 2 out of 5

The dungeons are easily the weakest part of this game. There are a few original ideas in all of them but by the end they will be overused and lose all entertainment value. The framerate also tends to take a severe hit depending on the dungeon as well as any traps in the room and this sort of thing is simply intolerable. The unbalanced weapons could have been worked out by making the tools more useful as well as making the sword more viable even when the player isn't at full health. Exploration is nice and the world isn't huge to the point of every destination being miles apart from each other. In fact the overworld is the best designed part of this game.

My rating - 2 out of 5

Despite its faults I got a bit of enjoyment out of the game. The soundtrack is really good and while I can't say I'll spend any time with the character-creation it is a nice bonus. A dungeon-builder would have been far more interesting but apparently it didn't make the cut. I really doubt I'll ever play through this game again as my options at this point involve thumbing through a guide on my next play-through so I don't miss anything or moving on to the harder difficulty where everything does substantially more damage and there are more enemies in the dungeons. To me that doesn't sound like any fun since for one if I wanted a game where every little thing can kill me in one hit I can play a 2D shooter and for two this is not the kind of game that's designed well enough that people should be trying to play through it without getting hit. As far as I'm concerned I'm done with this game.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Pictures of Japanese Arcades

Dcharlie from the Neogaf forum uploaded several pictures he's taken in various arcades around Japan. I can't say that I'll be going to Japan any time ever so in a way it's kind of a depressing sight. Probably for the best though as I'd just waste all of my money in arcades.

That's all well and good but where's the real update? Well I've been a bit sidetracked with all these games coming out. I think I'm most of the way through 3D Dot Heroes so expect a look on that one in the near future. Afterwards I'll get back to some other stuff and hopefully clear some space by the time Mario Galaxy 2 little over a week. After Galaxy I think there's a lull until Deathsmiles but yeesh there's just too many games coming out.

Course even with all that I can't get Demon's Souls out of my head. This game is excellent but I have to put it off for the time being. Even now when I load up my browser to make these half-assed updates there are half a dozen Demon's Souls-related web-pages staring me in the face.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

I'm totally cutting back on the game purchases...really!

You know what this means folks. I just bought another batch of games to support my insatiable appetite. For whatever reason this update is PS3-themed.

God of War 1 & 2 Collection - Considering I reviewed a substandard clone by the name of Ninja Blade I figured I should give the real deal(s) another look. I played through both games back when they first came out and enjoyed them quite a bit. It was a simpler time back then though.

Demon's Souls - I heard this game sucks up all free time and that's good because I apparently don't have enough games that do that already. Still I'm going to put this one off until along with Valkyria Chronicles it'll be the only PS3 games I have left to look at for the moment.

3D Dot Heroes - Want something new? Well how about something old? Frankly I can't believe it either. A clone of the original Zelda game? Wow there hasn't been one of those since Neutopia 2? Okay maybe there was something later on and we can't forget all of the doujin/fan-made games that I can never remember the names of. Apparently this game is a big deal cause even the local Gamestop rep asked me about it. Last time that happened it was in regards to Deathsmiles and that was only because Aksys put together a special edition box so big there's no way you'd be able to lug it out of the store without dying of embarrassment.

I've also been debating on whether or not I should start attaching a score to all of my reviews. On one hand numerical scores make me want to throw up but on the other hand it seems like the only time people give a crap about reviews is when there's a random number at the end of them. With an attitude like this it seems like scores are doomed to failure as far as this site is concerned. Still I think I can make it work somehow if I put my own little spin on the system. If I do decide to try scores expect it to start at the beta stage as I won't try it with games I've already looked at.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

XBLA Look - Zeno Clash: Ultimate Edition

The biggest problem with videogames is that there are just too many of them. It's impossible to play all of the ones you're interested in unless you have extremely niche tastes. On top of that there's always the possibility that games that were never on your radar will eventually interest you. Zeno Clash is that kind of game for me. I wasn't around when it hit the PC which is partly due to the fact that my computer can't run much of anything. In fact at the time I purchased the game on XBLA I thought all it had going for it was an amazing art-style. Thankfully I'm wrong and now I'm left hoping that more people give this underrated brawler a go.

Yep that's right I said brawler. In fact Zeno Clash is a first-person-brawler with shooter elements. This puts it an extremely niche sub-genre next to the likes of Breakdown and the Condemned series. So there you go if you're the kind of person that only likes those three games you may as well pick this up. Otherwise let's move on to the story.

Actually that's not a good idea because there's not much of an explanation I can give to the story. A young man is on the run after killing Father-Mother. Since this isn't an RPG this guy didn't kill his parents. He actually killed Father-Mother, a disturbing creature that stands about 15 feet tall, has the legs of an ostrich, the feet of a Velociraptor, and a distinctly long nose. Apparently this thing is both the Mother and Father of quite a large number of people, and they're all after you.

Joining you in this bizarre adventure is Daedra. She's supposed to be the "straight woman" in this story which essentially means she's the one left scratching her head while all of the other characters explain what's going on. She's alright though as she can be a helpful ally and for the most part she's the only person you can rely on.

The game is broken up into several chapters with each chapter having one or two stages. These stages are very straightforward as they mainly consist of the player having to beat up a handful of enemies before they're allowed to move on. There are a handful of unique scenarios like riding on a boat or the requisite boss-fights but considering the length of the game don't expect all that much. I'd say four hours is the bare minimum required to get through the campaign.

The Hero(?) is quite the scrapper as he has access to a light and a strong melee attack. The differences are obvious and the player must use these as the situation requires. That's not all though as he can also block, dodge to perform counters, kick enemies on the ground, and perform critical attacks when enemies are stunned. There are also weapons available which can be handy as they can be used infinitely though guns require almost constant reloading.

From the very beginning however the options available to the player are pretty limited in combat. This is due to the fact that he's almost always outnumbered. In a constant that hearkens back to the earliest beatemup the player will go to beat up one enemy and they'll find themselves surrounded and their attacks getting constantly interrupted. The only way to get around this is learn to how to maneuver which herd enemies into places where they aren't quite as dangerous. Enemies moving as a group can be dangerous but if the player were to lead one away from the pack they can slowly but surely wittle down the strength of the enemy.

Crowd-control is more than just trying to single foes out. The player can also grab stunned enemies and toss them around or throw a well-placed grenade to clear the area. There are also some very cool tricks available thanks to the way the system is designed. When an enemy is stunned the player can perform critical attacks on nearby enemies. This is a great way to disperse thugs as it'll free up some much needed space and do some great damage.

While the campaign is certainly a sight it's still quite short even by downloadable game standards. Thus the developer saw fit to include additional modes. There are five tower stages and three pit stages to play through. The towers are multiple floors of various enemy combinations. The goal is to beat everyone up and move on to the next stage as fast as possible. The pit is similar except it consists of various platforms that lead downward. These can be tricky since fall damage is a grave concern and the hero can only survive a one-floor drop. Both modes are certainly worth checking out and will add quite a bit of life to the game as the player works towards getting the best times. Online coop is also available here though it's best when two people have good connections. The netcode is solid but expect some delayed and potentially serious input lag if your connection isn't up to it.

The Zeno Rush mode is similar in that it takes various areas from the campaign and the player again must shoot for the best time. The variable here is the hammer they're given. This rather odd weapon has an hourglass wedged inside and hitting bad guys with it will reward the player with time taken off the clock. We're only talking a couple seconds here but you can be sure that every one of them counts. To keep players from abusing this weapon it like any other weapon in the game is rather unwieldy and will get knocked out of the player's hand if they're attacked while holding it. These modes are best taken on if you have friends that have also purchased the game so you can compare scores.

I'm not even sure if this sort of thing deserves mention but after completing the campaign a handful of cheats are unlocked. They provide a good incentive for replaying the campaign as some of them are pretty fun(like a cheat that causes enemies to attack each other). Better to have than have not I guess.

The biggest problem I have with this game is in the mechanics. I can understand somewhat as mechanics are very difficult for first-person brawlers. All the same however it's annoying having to perform blocks or dodges even when the enemy looks too far away for their attacks to connect. Granted this extra bit of reach extends to the player as well so at least it's not unbalanced. Still this can be especially annoying when dodging charging attacks or explosives since the damaging range is just a bit larger than expected. In the long run it becomes mere nitpicking but all the same it's worth mentioning.

Another nitpick is in how throwing is handled. It's great when it works but as with all things havok it tends to lose its effect when the enemy feels more like they're being discarded than being thrown. Some suplexes or other kinds of body-slams would have been amazing in this game and I assume the developers attempted it but couldn't quite get it to work.

Then there is the price. 1200 points is a tough sell for any XBLA game and the demo just doesn't give enough for the player to make a proper decision. For some the campaign is enough but for those that can't get into the fighting system don't expect the story to make up for it. It's a bit of a shame really because Zeno Clash could also stand to benefit from some exploration. It really wouldn't have to be anything to the point where it would take focus away from the game itself. It's such an imaginative and wondrous world that I'd love to just wander around, interact with the people beyond elbow smashes and head-butts, and really just see what there is to see. There's precious few moments in the game for that sort of thing and I'm left wanting more.

This is still a fully-featured game and despite the creativity that went into designing this world all of it is still secondary to the actual game which is quite good if you can get into it. There are some annoyances but ultimately they're pretty minor but if it turns you off for whatever reason whether it's the nature of the game, the price, or how the combat system works you may as well pass on this one. While there's hardly anything out there quite like this game in the end it's competing for your time and money with hundreds of thousands of other games. It's your call but as far as I'm concerned you could do a lot worse.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

PS3 Look - Killzone 2

As much as I'd like to pretend otherwise I have a certain fondness for mainstream games. If there's one quality they all share it's consistency. Elements that seem out of place are rare and overall the experience is solid though more often than not mediocre. In the end these games are predictable but they serve a purpose and are usually set at a difficulty that anyone can complete.

For all its hype Killzone 2 comes off as just another first-person shooter. It knows its inspirations and emulates them well through a competent single-player campaign and a multiplayer mode that unfortunately I won't be able to talk about because my internet connection is bunk. Regardless it covers all of the good and bad elements we expect from modern shooters.

First off is the storyline and the bland characters involved. It's war out there and the ISA is about to take the fight to the Helghast in a destructive finale. You the player take the role of Sergeant Sev. He seems like a decent enough guy except for that unfortunate haircut and is probably a foot or two shorter than everyone else he runs into. Along for the ride is his bestest buddy Garza, the obligatory guy who talks about everyone else's momma, and loose-trigger Rico. I guess you're supposed to develop some sort of connection to these guys but even Gears of War produced a more memorable cast and at worst they still managed to deliver memorable lines that weren't buried in expletives. Under their cool armor and glowing red eyes the Helghast army doesn't have much in the way of dimension. That is their goals are limited to killing and getting killed. I imagine this fight is over some particular ore that can make powerful weapons which again seems like a pretty shallow reason to go to war but I guess it's realistic. There's also a token female character on the side of the good guys, shame there isn't one on the bad guys' side as well.

The campaign is pretty standard stuff as far as the genre goes. Expect to move from set-piece to set-piece as your allies give out status updates about events that never really concern you. At each set-piece you will face off with a certain number of enemies all wielding various weapons in a variety of level designs. Upon killing all of the bad guys your ally will point out where to go next and you'll continue. There are token vehicle sections as well as moments that require the usage of the Dualshock's six-axis controls(like turning a valve or setting a mine). There are also a few bosses for y'know...variety. Oh and before I forget there are some objects you can pick up or shoot that'll unlock some trophies if you're into that sort of thing.

In keeping with tradition our hero carries both a main-weapon and a sub-weapon. The main-weapon can be anything from an assault rifle to an experimental lightning-gun while the sub-weapon is almost always a magnum or pistol(though don't expect to see much of the latter since only bad guys carry it). There are many places to switch weapons depending on conditions of the set-piece and/or player preference and offensive capabilities are bolstered by old-standbys like two types of grenades, a knife, and easily accessible melee attacks.

Where Killzone 2 shows some semblance of uniqueness is in the controls. They take some effort to get used to and if you're used to something like Call of Duty expect to have a bit of trouble adjusting to this game's setup. I don't usually play games in this genre and even then it was a bit more trouble to get into aiming and even late in the campaign I was still over-shooting targets if my sensitivity was turned up and not even getting close if my sensitivity is down. More than one person has been turned off by the controls in this game I'm well aware.

The biggest problem during combat isn't the controls so much as the lack of visuals. For a game that prides itself on being a visual showcase it takes far too much opportunity in obscuring the player's vision. Blurring is a constant when turning to face enemies and it seems there's a constant level of dust, smoke, or other factors designed to obscure the vision of the player. Whether this is intentional or not is irrelevant since it has no effect on the enemy. Things are made even worse after the player takes a certain amount of damage. As per the genre when the player is near-death they're practically blind and must get away to recover. This is a critical problem because it's easy to entirely lose track of ones bearings and end up rushing right into the enemy. On easy or normal this is less of a factor do to lessened damage but I can't imagine attempting some sections on the Elite setting.

Thankfully your allies tend to be somewhat decent eyes when yours aren't up to the task. They'll point out particulars like incoming RPGs or grenades and every now and then they just might save your life by gunning down whoever is shooting at you. Showing any level of competency is asking a bit much from your AI partners though as they will freely decide to take cover in tactically inefficient places and take potshots at walls or floors instead of the Helghast. There's this one guy by the name of Natko who uses a shotgun. A shotgun isn't much good from far away yet more often than not Natko will be within sniping distance of an enemy but not much closer while he fires away. Being able to give some rudimentary commands like "go here" or "cover my back" would have done wonders here since for a good 90% of the game there's somebody with you. At best these guys will follow you around and serve as bullet-sponges. They can also take multiple RPG shots in the face and still live, a luxury the player can't get even on normal.

The campaign itself has its ups and downs as some of the set-pieces can be really good like the areas towards the end or they can just be rage-inducing like the terribly done ATAC fight on the roof-top. If you've played some of these modern shooters before you'll recognize battles where you have to use the environment to your advantage which means shooting certain objects to stun the enemy. Again they serve their purpose but they don't reach anywhere beyond mediocrity.

One of the few things that actually sets this game apart from the mountains of similar titles is that it's actually quite satisfying to gun down foes. Many of the death animations are scripted but to me that's a vast improvement over people fumbling around like puppets on strings that got knocked over by strong winds. The huge splurts of blood that appear when people get shot is laughable at times since this extends to your allies and even to when you shoot at them by "accident". Killing via melee is a bit clunky though as there are times when you'll lunge in and manage to miss your foe entirely. It's not that they dodged the attack or anything it's more that the attack just didn't quite register. Then again I guess that's just more of a reason to stick with the knife when going for a close-combat kill and save the other melee attack for when you're caught reloading.

Most likely the best reason to pick this game up will be for the multiplayer as from what I can tell it's certainly developed. It reminds me of Team Fortress in that there are a handful of classes to choose from like the medic(revives people and heals), the engineer(builds turrets and stuff), the sniper, the demolition expert, and so on. The matches are really neat in that they take place on one map but they're broken up into multiple rounds that have different objectives like capture the propaganda(flag), assault, and plain ol' deathmatch. At least for guys like me there's a skirmish mode that supports bots. It's good practice at least for those with decent online access and otherwise it's better than nothing.

I can't give a good reason why anyone should pick this title up though. It does everything we expect from a competent shooter but it never goes beyond that. Granted aside from the controls it doesn't really fall short either but if you've already found the shooter you plan to invest a good portion of your time to there's no reason to bother with this one. This is the kind of game that gets lost in the shuffle while fps gamers seek out that next Doom, Quake, Half-Life, Halo, or Modern Warfare. A game that is not a mere pretender but will be the biggest influence on the next wave of titles that proceed it. Still I've done worse, that has to account for something.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

PS3 Look - Disgaea 3

The hardest question to ask about a game for me is "Was it worth the time?". This comes up very rarely but chances are if I ask myself this question I quickly become overwhelmed with guilt. It's not like I'm in a situation where playing certain games is harmful to people besides myself and even then I do well enough to maintain a steady job as well as pay all of my bills. This question tends to pop up in regards to online videogames whether they be MMOs, competitive, or action-rpgs. More often than not this guilt is tied to the amount of time sunk into the games. It shouldn't matter though should it? If I was enjoying the game I should have no regrets. Then again if I thought like that this entire paragraph wouldn't exist would it?

More than likely however I'll say that there's never been a time where I feel like I have wasted time with a game. With good games I'm having fun and with bad games I'm...learning something. Sometimes there are true classics that I can go back to time and time again while there are others that most will think are horrid(and they'd be right) but I find some level of enjoyment from that just can't be matched. Nippon Ichi's Disgaea 3 is one of those games that I can't give a straight answer on.

I'm a bit familiar with this series as I've played through the first game and about halfway through the second. I also spent about an hour on LaPucelle Tactics which I dunno why I brought that up cause that hour didn't even get me through the tutorial. Anyway these games and many others by the same company are commonly referred to as SRPGs. I on the other hand consider them something else. While it's true that they have all of the trappings of the genre as they share the perspective of Tactics Ogre as well as many other trappings they're lacking the most important aspect and that is the strategy.

Actually I take that back a bit. There is strategy to Disgaea but it is not the kind you'll find on the battlefield through proper placement of your allies which'll lead to the destruction of your foes. The strategy of Disgaea is in maximizing gains. With RPGs we've grown to accept numbers as a constant and vital tool for measuring our progress. We have numbers that determine the strength of our party, how much damage they do, how much money they're carrying, and so on. All of these numbers rise and it is a part of what gets us through RPGs. We associate these rising numbers with progress which is natural because practically every videogame ever made does the same thing. Given enough time we can achieve anything but what if we could shorten that time so that we get what we're working for earlier? Becoming better at Disgaea is in developing a strategy that'll maximize the player's stats in as little time as possible. It's a game about efficiency, planning, and creativity that hides all of its secrets under a layer of cutesy characters and budget production values.

The story mode in Disgaea 3 is pretty standard. A demon-nerd with daddy issues decides to become a hero so that he can beat up his father for accidentally smashing his game console with over 4 million hours of save data from his favorite SRPG. From the get-go you learn the most important thing and that in the end numbers are meaningless. It is all in the journey and though the game provides a seemingly infinite number of carrots to go after that's really all it is. The storyline reflects this aspect as the journey to becoming a hero is not in the numbers but in the heart...sometimes literally. Make that of it what you will but thankfully if that story nonsense annoys you it's very easy to skip past it.

In-between these bits of story are the actual campaign levels. The goal is simple as it boils down to killing every enemy on the map. The maps are designed in a variety of ways with many hills, pillars, and all sorts of objects to navigate over and around. All told they're pretty simplistic and on their own they are little more than something to keep everyone from looking like they're fighting in a void. What makes the maps unique is their usage of geo-stones. Geo-stones are objects that can be manipulated like the monsters to work to the player's advantage. Every geo-stone has a certain ability like "ATK +50%" or "Invincibility" and if this geo-stone is resting on a colored tile than all tiles of that color will have the effect of the stone. Characters that stand on these tiles have the geo-stone effects transferred to them. Learning how to properly manipulate these stones gives the game a sort of falling block puzzler aspect as at times you can't even approach the enemy if the puzzle isn't solved. Still like any puzzle once you find the solution the battle comes down to who has the higher numbers.

It's not always that simple since as I said earlier the strategy is in maximizing gains. The most common gain from defeating foes is experience. All foes have experience levels just like the player's party which means fighting higher leveled foes leads to faster level gains. How the player wants to go about this is entirely up to them and the game offers numerous possibilities. Through the use of a Home Room rules can be debated on and then changed to fit the player. One of these rules is making monsters stronger which simply put raises their level. Players can also throw monsters into other monsters to create higher level monsters. Since almost all story levels can be played repeatedly strategies can be developed so that the player can gain the most experience in the shortest amount of time.

There are other ways such as the Item World. The Item World is a bit of an odd place because on the surface it's a series of random stages with lots of geo-stone effects and the effect of the Item World is that it levels up items. So that amazing weapon you have can become even more amazing after enough time in the item world. Course the catch is that there is seemingly always something more amazing just around the corner which for a lot of gamers doesn't leave much of an incentive to poke around the item world for too long. Still the Item World is a place of limitless possibilities and experience as all of its inhabitants gain in strength as the party progresses. There are also many secrets for the most elite of Disgaea players (or the ones who spend the most time) so there's that to consider as well. It's certainly a lot to absorb but think of it this way: as long as numbers are rising and bars are getting filled you're making progress.

Like numbers, the filling and emptying of bars is one of the things we as gamers tend to obsess over. World of Warcraft is one of the biggest games around and it's just a constant barrage of bars. Bars for crafting, bars for monsters we're trying to kill, bars for experience, almost everything we do has a bar tied to it and we will not consider quitting until some bars get filled. The bar you'll see the most of in Disgaea 3 is the one that determines the character's level. Now while ten party members can be deployed at a time in battle it's likely there's over a hundred in your roster. That's a lot of bars to look at and if one of them looks like it's almost full you're going to want to finish the job to get that level-up. Your reward for filling those bars is more often than not nothing more than higher numbers. You may need the higher numbers for a battle but usually it's all just because it's a bar and it exists to be filled.

Somewhere in all of these numbers and bars the player will lose track of time. Hours will pass and that little excursion to build a few levels will have cost a day-off or worse, created a day-off where there originally wasn't one. The thing to keep in mind here is that the battles in this game usually take about 10 minutes or less. So you can easily play this game for about an hour a day and still make some decent progress. At the very least you'll get quite a few bars filled and you could use that time not spent on the actual game developing strategies for getting the most experience out of certain battles. I guarantee that by doing this you can actually make more progress in the game.

Because I've been down the alternative path and let me tell you there is rarely a worse feeling than slumming away on the same mission for so many hours and not really seeing that much of a gain out of it. If I had taken the time to think things out and plan a better method I could accomplish things in one hour instead of ten or more. In other games playing poorly wastes your lives but in Disgaea 3 playing poorly will waste your life. Still the same could be said about any other game. The only other determination that can be made at that point is whether or not the game is fun. In that case I say yeah the game is fun but I'm not sure why that is. Maybe it's the bars, maybe it's the numbers, or maybe I just like that constant feeling of progression. It's possible all of these maybes are me just not realizing that I'm taking a videogame seriously. Your best bet is just ignore all this and give the game a shot. It's very accessible and if you reach the point where the difficulty actually picks up chances are you've already forgotten about the other games in your library and possibly what day of the week it is as well. I should also point out that I'm not done with this game. I figure not dumping this game immediately after writing about it is a pretty glowing recommendation.