Friday, April 06, 2007

 

WII Virtual console roundup part 1 - NES & TG16

Not as much a review as a series of assessments of the virtual console games i've purchased, this feels like an odd article to write, mostly because to me the VC is a museum of gaming relics, the playing of which akin to catching a glimpse of the mona lisa over the tourist crowds in the louvre; it's more about adoration for the art than entertainment.

As such, the virtual console becomes a window back in time. Some of it is astonishing stuff, and a whole heap of it was better left to your adoring nostalgia. I regret none of my purchases on the VC, and i think buying a virtual console game is like paying your respects to the artists of old. It's like stopping by an old friend to say thanks for the good times. That said, to most others, you'd actually want to PLAY these games, so here's some pointers on what holds up and what doesn't. Keep in mind these aren't the full list of VC games by any standard, but merely the titles i've picked up out of curiosity and personal interest. I mean come on, double dungeons? Excite bike? I'm not going to pick up stuff that was mediocre to poor when it was first released, come on!

- NES -
Castlevania, 1988
Summary:
The original Amankujo Dracula is one of my favorite childhood gaming memories. Far from the metroidesque RPG contrivances of the recent titles, it's a straight up platformer of the bloody hard variety, throwing in every horror clichè and then some. Konami's love letter to early horror cinema (complete with film strip lines on the title screen) is not only one of the most astonishingly solid early NES titles in terms of graphics and sound, but the gameplay actually holds up rather well to this day. This game introduced (to me) a number of elements i have completely loved ever since; a map describing your overall progress, and the fact that the protagonist is simply out for blood. There is no saving of the daughter or wife or horse or anything; Simon Belmont simply wants to beat the crap out of Dracula! Good man

Worth getting? Absolutely. The game plays great, sounds great, and is hard enough to give you solid value for your miniscule expenses. Two thumbs up

Super Mario Bros, 1987
Summary:
Does this really need any kind of description? It's the great grandfather of all self respecting platformers, it has ridiculously solid game mechanics (as simple as they are), and the music still rocks. If you're one of the few that hasn't already played this game, you should get it simply to be able to talk about it with any kind of confidence. If any game represents gaming, this is it.

Worth getting? It's pretty much mandatory. For one, it's crazy watching your tv adjust to the super low NES resolution and give you a pixel perfect SMB. It's like stepping into a time warp. Second, it's just a lot of fun to break out now and then. It's the platformer's platformer, no thought necessary.

Kirby's adventure, 1993
Summary:
The original gameboy Kirby was a landmark title. It was technically proficient on an unbelievable level, looking far better than it's NES contemporaries. It was also so simple and short you could finish it in less than 20 minutes no lives lost. That's what you get for giving players the ability to simply fly over every stage i suppose. This title, the NES "update" to the Kirby formula (y'know, eating dudes, stealing their powers, flying across stages you don't like) was highly anticipated, mostly because the first one was great fun to play, but also because people naturally assumed the NES to be able to churn out a better game than the gameboy.
Problem is, that just isn't true. As technically solid the game is, it has none of the showcase potential of its older brother due to arriving quite late in the NES lifespan, and it's prone to some pretty dramatic slowdown, killing the otherwise frantic pace.

Worth getting? Hard to say. It is an accomplished platformer with some nifty mechanics, and definitely worth playing if you haven't played a Kirby title before. If you played the Gameboy adventure though, this title will feel half baked, and might actually sully your good memories.

Ice hockey, 1988
Summary:
Pretty mindblowing that this game was released the same year as Castlevania. This is an oldschool NES title of the truly oldschool variety, and part of a string of, frankly, complete crap sports games developed by Nintendo at the time. You know, the kind of early title that hasn't completely sussed out what a title screen is supposed to do, or what exactly the select button does. Ice hockey stands out from its brethren by actually being good fun however, albeit exclusively in its 2player mode (or as the title screen proclaims; 2 player game). The game lets you set up a team from 3 "classes" of player, fat, skinny or normal, each having varying statistics on the ice. Gameplay is fast, innocent and instantly enjoyable in good company.

Worth getting? If you have 2 remotes, a good friend around and some booze; Big fat yes. If you don't? Not really. It's not a particularly interesting game technically or otherwise.

-TURBOGRAFX16/PC-ENGINE-
R-Type, 1989
Summary:
The seminal horizontal shmup. I've played this on more systems than i can count on two hands, and it's always a blast just doing a score attack on the first stage to see how perfect you can pull it off. Of all the versions i've played (sans arcade), this is the best one i've come across. It's bleeding hard, looks and sounds fantastic, and stands as a testament to the creativity that used to go into these games.
Worth getting? If you like shmups, ohhh god yes. If you don't, or fear the kind of game that will effectively crush you like a bug, stay well away.

Bomberman'93, 1992
Summary:
I'm sure people were thoroughly confused to see a game suffixed '93 released in '92. I'll bet there were babies crying. Bomberman'93 is the first game i picked up for the VC, and it's one of the best yet. It simply plays great, a timeless classic (particularly in multiplayer mode. 5 players!!!), and it has some of the wickedest chip music you can get on the VC right now. Also, it means you get a BOMBERMAN CHANNEL! Do you understand the IMPLICATIONS?!!
Worth getting? Total yes

Bonk's adventure, 1990
Summary:
A curiosity this. I simply had to know what the hell the Bonk games were about. Hudson's (and by extension TG16's) mascot, this big headed caveman, starred in a bunch of games in the 90s that i never got to play, so i figured it was worth checking out. Shame then, that i was wrong. This is a simple, SIMPLE platformer, feeling like equal parts adventure island and super mario bros. It doesn't do anything bad, but it does nothing particularly well, and the level design is uniform and dull.
Worth getting? If you harbor some kind of curiosity for the franchise only

Alien crush, 1989
Summary:
I don't like pinball. This is a pinball game with one table only. I picked it up only because Gamespot said it has a decent soundtrack, and that has become the one reason i keep it around. It's the kind of game i'll boot up, start, and just leave running to keep the music going. It's a decent game, but you'll be done with it in half an hour. The HR Giger inspired artwork is worth a gander, and the music is inspiring if anything. As a game though, it fails.
Worth getting? If you're a pinball FANATIC maybe? Also if you like the sound of well made TG16 music.

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Monday, April 02, 2007

 

Wii - SSX Blur

I have to admit i am getting to be more than a little impressed with EA's Wii offerings. They are the only third party developer with actual product out for the thing that don't utterly simplify gameplay or boil it down to a set of minigames. In addition, their implementation of motion controls in their inevitable ports (most recently The Godfather) have actually been, surprisingly, rather good.

The Wii is, as we know, currently experiencing something of a draught. The weekly trickle of VC games don't do enough to alleviate the fact that the console lacks meaty single player or multiplayer experiences to distinguish it from the competition. Once i finished Twilight Princess, i've been almost desperately looking for more single player experiences for the machine. I'd walk by the Wii shelves at stores and the same launch titles never seemed to budge. It reached the point where i was inches away from buying Red Steel or Excite truck, games i have played in the past and really haven't had an incredible urge to play again. Running into SSX Blur, EA's first Wii exclusive, came as an unbelievable relief.

SSX, a series of snowboarding games that care not for realism but care much for explosions, neon colors and techno music, never really appealed to me before. First and foremost, i totally don't dig sports games by default. Second, i don't dig racing games unless they are supremely jolly or supremely technical (Mario Kart and PGR, respectively, are good examples). I know SSX, in particular SSX3 and SSX Tricky, have a completely ridiculous following, so my guess has been there's some awesome element to them i simply haven't caught on to. In addition, SSX has traditionally been associated with the PlayStation brand, and i didn't get a PS2 until quite late. As such, i come to Blur with basically no prior knowledge of how the series has played.

SSX Blur attempts to change the franchise, which has apparently been a casual, button mashey kind of happy-fun-time series of games, into a more elaborate, skill based affair, with mixed results. It comes wrapped in stylized, cartoony visuals perfectly suited to the Wii hardware, packs one of the most unbearable soundtracks in EA history, and one of the most convoluted but somehow also rewarding trick control systems ever seen. How i feel about it is a difficult question to answer in short, so let's do it in an overly long and elaborate way, potentially filled with long words.

At its core
Blur is a game about riding snowboards or skis down large snow-covered rocks/mountains, usually at completely ludicrous speeds. The game world is one enormous mountain partitioned into 3 "peaks", each containing multiple paths containing multiple events to compete in. Most paths in the game have dozens of shortcuts and otherwise convoluted paths, lending a sense of exploration and chaos to the faster races, where ending up exactly where you intended becomes somewhat of a gamble. The first peak is quite benign, but as you progress through the game, peaks 2 and 3 are unlocked, convoluted and hellish respectively.

The game world is intricately designed, letting you ride freely from the top of peak 3 to the bottom of peak 1 in one long free ride, almost always spotting some new path or new shortcut, and basically always making you fly through the air, at which point it is your solemn duty to perform ridiculous tricks. Landing these tricks boost your "groove meter", opening more complicated tricks and increasing your maximum speed, making near constant trickery a requirement for progression.

At the outset you have several cartoony characters to ride as, unlocking more as you progress. Every character starts out with a set of skill points in turning, max speed, trickery and boosting, the latter of which dictating the speed bonus gained from using your groove-draining boost ability. During the course of the game, you'll earn bonuses and upgrades to these points, lending a sense of character development to the game. Ultimately though, what character you choose to play as has less impact on the gameplay than it perhaps should, but also letting you pick and choose from the bunch with no fear of winding up less awesome with your favorite than with that big hairy ape man.

Single player
Blur has 3 single player modes: The career mode, being the meat of the game. A quickplay mode for just loading up a course and getting on with it, and an unbelievably annoying tutorial mode, which teaches little if anything and seems hellbent on causing hatred.

The career mode is a slow and steady unlock-a-thon, tasking you with building a chosen character's statistics, winning tournaments and events, and endlessly "free-riding" around the peaks looking for floating challenge icons (effectively missions for special unlockables) or trick markers, the accumulation of which are required for unlocking special tricks that are nigh on required for crazy point scoring later on in the game. Straight up; scavenger hunts aren't fun. Considering how enormous Blur's tracks are, finding every trick marker becomes an absolute chore, doubly so since they're only available in free ride mode. Leaving the trick markers available for collection during events would not have hurt the game at all.

Progress is its own reward in Blur. After unlocking the 2 peaks, the game takes on an almost sandbox-like feel, letting you ride freely around the courses, exploring, finding better paths, or in general just enjoying the ride. It's a good thing then that riding is as much fun as it is.

The track designs tread the line between completely ridiculous and pseudorealistic, and for the most part they're all enjoyable. The race events are tough and demand that you know the tracks well for ultimate success. The much hated slalom events demand that you know every step of the way down the hill and know when to perform sharp hard turns, feeling almost like puzzles at times. Like much of the game, they're unpleasant, but feel good once mastered.

Controls
Blur has taken a lot of flak in the media for complicated controls and frustrating gameplay, most notably a complete slaughter of a review by 1up, but common criticisms are against the gesture-based ubertrick system and the slalom events. Eurogamer describes the controls as perfection on the left hand, a confusing mess on the right hand. The bad news are, at first, these criticisms are entirely valid. The good news are, given a little time, they become a lot less so.

Blur, in short, comes with a learning curve. On the ground, the nunchuck takes charge, and it's pretty straightforward. Nunchuck tilt left and right handles 75% of your steering, with the analog stick responsible for the last 25%, letting you theoretically make small adjustments with it. This ratio can be adjusted in the options should you want to completely omit the nunchuck tilt. Jumps are executed by jerking the nunchuck upwards, braking by tilting it up and towards you. Acceleration is handled by pushing the analog stick forwards. The Z button triggers your boost ability, pushing you forward at the cost of groove. The C button+nunchuck tilt forward or back triggers a manual that can be tweaked by further tilting of the nunchuck (which feels rather good).

As soon as you leave the ground though, the controls take a sharp turn for the worse. Remote swings trigger midair spins and flips stopped with the A button, Z button on the nunchuck + tilts becomes grab tricks, analog stick becomes midair position tweaking, and as soon as your groove meter reaches a certain level, the dreaded ubertricks become relevant.
These are triggered by holding the Abutton, calmly and accurately tracing out patterns in the air with either the remote or both the nunchuck and remote at the same time, releasing the button once the pattern is complete. Some of the patterns are simple to execute, others are incredibly tough to get right. Some of them are similar to the point where the game will often confuse them for others. The game gives you a menu screen specifically for practising these moves, which is a good hint that the developers knew how hard they are to pull off.

Other inaccuracies annoy further, such as the boost button becoming a grab button as soon as you leave the ground, often inadvertently putting you into a grab before you land, resulting in a bail. After a bail, shaking the remote and nunchuck around result in a faster recovery, but after the recovery shaking the remote and nunchuck results in a flip or spin, resulting in another bail as you hit the ground.

In the end though, having poured a good bit of time into the game, i have to say the end result can only be described as "satisfying". The difficulty of the ubertricks can be mitigated by playing by the game's rules rather than try and enforce your own. I can execute most tricks 100% of the time, with the remainder difficult but attainable. The important thing is, mastering this system feels good. Tracing out a complicated pattern under stress, not to mention several complicated patterns, sending your score miles high, is a supremely satisfying thing. Coupled with the tight ground controls, the game puts a zen-like sense of calm concentration on you, where you feel in physical control.

Sound
Special mention needs to be given the game's shockingly lacklustre audio component. The game has no licensed music, but an exclusively composed dynamic soundtrack by Junkie XL that veers between completely terrible and sort of compelling electronica. Characters have no voiceovers to speak of, lending them little personality. An enthusiastic MC announces every track, which gets old very quickly. Thank god you can turn him off altogether.

Summary
One of the best exclusives on the Wii, EA has taken a simple premise and made it interesting with a truly all out attempt at leveraging the motion controls for all they're worth. It's a risky venture that has polarized opinions. Some say it's evidence of the flailing inaccuracy of the Wii remote. Others say it's evidence of the flailing inaccuracy of human beings.

The end result is a game that's hardly the pick up and play experience the Wii is supposedly there to give us, but a tough physical challenge to be beaten, like any good hardcore action game. It's hard, fast and satisfying, and in my eyes a perfect fit for the console. Here's hoping for a more fullended sequel.

Rating

Pros:
Cons:

SSX Blur for the Wii gets
7 / 10 remote flailings resulting in the wrong kind of trick

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Saturday, November 25, 2006

 

Xbox360 Live Arcade - Small Arms

I've been excited about this one for a while. I'm a huge fan of Super Smash Bros. on the Gamecube, and i'm a huge fan of Soldat. An amalgam of the two, on paper, sounds great, until you give it more thought. Soldat, the ranged combat oriented one, is played on relatively large maps with regard to character size. SSB, the close combat game, is played on small, tight arenas.
See a pattern yet?

Small Arms, however, the 4-player ranged combat platform game with simple close combat mechanics, is played on small tight maps, most of which have bottomless pits that kill you outright. Unlike SSB, the point of the game isn't to throw people into these pits or otherwise off stage; it is to shoot them until their health points are gone. Now here's a shocker; This is not a particularly difficult thing to do, for better or worse.

I'll be frank with you. This game was a pretty major disappointment to me. From the top:

Controls
Small Arms is played somewhat like a combined Smash Bros and Geometry Wars. Your left stick controls your character, your right stick controls your 360 degree aim. Left and right triggers are primary and secondary fire for your current weapon, Left and right buttons are jumping, X and B are melee attacks, Y is your mid-air boost (usually used for a triple jump; jump, double jump, boost). The shooting mechanics are fine. The problems arrive fast and early however with simply moving your little animal/knight/ninja/robot around the levels. Simply put, these are seriously floaty controls. Your guy moves fairly fast, and does not turn on a dime, nor does he/she/it stop on one. You could argue this problem is mendable by practise, but for a game like this, basic moving around is not something you want to think about. Practise should be about tactics and taking down the other guy, not stopping yourself from sliding off a platform and into your grave. This problem is compounded by level design that frequently puts you behind walls (why?), and throws around bottomless pits like it's a total party kind of thing to do so. Also, the game camera, zooming in and out as contestants close in or spread out, frequently zooms too slowly, putting your dude far off camera. All these things combine to a lot of falling off ledges, randomly moving around invisibly, and falling to your doom. Not once during my many matches have i felt like a victory or loss was skill related; a quick peek at the game statistics show a huge discrepancy between kills and mere deaths. There simply isn't much room for satisfaction when your opponent is caught off camera and falls off the stage.

Single player
...Isn't worthwhile at all. In a smash brothers game, if you're going dangerously low on the SSB equivalent to health, you use your mobility to get away from your opponent, trying to keep the fight on your own terms. In Small Arms, chances are, at any given moment, one or two opponents are constantly pecking away on your health. Why? Because it's really, really easy to hit someone. Almost every weapon available has a rapid fire primary attack, meaning it's easy and fast to find a good attack vector and just keep maintaining it. There is only one weapon that takes practise to hit with, the sniper rifle, but its damage output is so low it's almost meaningless to even bother with it. There's no noticable fire rate to damage ratio at play, meaning players who stick with rapid fire or damage over time weapons like the flame thrower or minigun frequently take control of a battle. As a game of ranged combat, Small Arms is seriously flawed.
In addition, figure in AI that aim precisely every single time, and you've got yourself a real buzzkill. The game is easily the best looking title on Live Arcade at the moment, and sounds and looks great, but even this takes its toll on the gameplay, as framerates drop noticably during 4-player matches. This is absolutely unforgivable for a game of its sort.

There is little incentive to play through the single player game unless you're strongly masochistic; Death comes fast and often, and for little good reason, and the cheap AI makes it even worse. There are 4 unlockable characters, but since every character plays roughly the same in spite of different starting armament, this does little for the game's long term appeal.

Multiplayer
...fares a lot better. Mostly because everyone's struggling with the same bullshit, but also because the gameplay's inherent unfairness invites players to fuck around a lot more than they normally would. Falling off the stage is prevalent, and no score is given for causing it, meaning winning the game is mostly random. It's fast and easy to set up a game, voice chat works great, and we noticed little to no lag whatsoever. This is no Soldat however. Soldat is a game that rewards precision, timing and maneuvering. Small Arms is a game that rewards knowing where the health pickups are so you can keep yourself alive in the constant hailstorm. Good thing those pickups respawn almost instantly, so you can stay in the same spot getting constant health.

Overall
I feel like somewhat of an asshole giving this game a bad review, because Gastronaut studios are obviously an extremely talented bunch. At 800 points, it's not an expensive game by any standard, and makes it very hard to completely disregard. The game is nonetheless deeply flawed, and is likely to disappoint those of you hoping for a Smash Bros type experience, or anything remotely like Soldat. I found the gameplay to be alarmingly random and at times unpleasant, especially due to floaty controls and bottomless pits. As was often said during my online matches, "i wish this game didn't let you fall off the stage". It's sad how a level design contrivance can be the major detractor to a game experience.

Rating

Pros:
Cons:
Small Arms gets
5 / 10 yakuza pigs with sniper rifles falling into holes

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Saturday, November 18, 2006

 

Xbox360 - Gears of War

This is a tough one to start off. I have been intensely jaded about this game since i first heard about it for a number of reasons.
  1. The macho imagery and tone isn't refreshing, in your face, cool, neat, anything. It's a bunch of fat dysfunctional men talking like inebriated wrestlers.
  2. The hype for this game has been almost exclusively about technology. I loathe the idea that technology will drive games sales. It's against the natural order.
I was almost certain i would wait until it wound up on the pre-played shelf at EB. I was almost sure it was going to be the next Halo 2 in that regard. (You find more pre-played Halo 2's out there than any other AAA games) . However my buddy FuX would have none of that, getting me a copy on launch day. For which i eventually paid a budget price for. Christ almighty.

First things first
I should probably mention the quirks of my setup, as it's hardly ideal according to the 360 gospel. My 360 is hooked up to a 19" LCD monitor by the official VGA cable, with the sound going through a pair of cheap-o creative speakers. From what i've seen other dudes reviewing this game playing on, i'm about as far from ideal as it gets. Keep this in mind as i comment visuals, and i've missed out completely on any surround sound goodness.

The story
Gears of war plonks you right into it with little exposition. You are Marcus Fenix, you're in prison, tharr be monsters, and your buddy Dom from the marines (or COGs) shows up to bail you out, because apparently things have gone so bad everyone's getting a pardon, even traitors.
From here on, you and your other absurdly proportioned motormouth comrades will run from point A to point B, murdering things along the way, to get at a missing squad and some magical device they carry that will turn the tide. This is all the exposition you get, and for the first time in a long time, i'll freely admit to losing touch with what i was doing and why i was doing it around halfway through. It just didn't matter all that much. Suffice to say, this is not a game about story. This didn't lessen my interest in playing at all, but i have to admit it'd help to feel some kind of emotional drive other than wanting to see the next insanely beautiful area.

Whatever anyone tells you; No, there is no deep story to Gears of war whatsoever. Actually, try to pay attention to it, and you might find yourself insulted. There are words in here that "sound cool" but have no real place within any context, and there are ideas that sound neat on paper but don't pan out, and wind up being kind of dull. Most of everything that's actually noteworthy has been shamelessly stolen. You have been warned; leave your braincells be. This is Blade 2 quality.

Controls
Oh my god this is so close to utmost perfection. The first thing to hit you with Gears' is how incredibly seamless the expecience can be for you as a player. I come to Gears' straight from Tony Hawk's Project 8, and that game, making use of the same number of buttons, feels like building a turing machine compared to this. The slick consise nature of Gears' default setup is likely to be stolen from liberally much like Halo's dual stick+triggers scheme became the standard. For the most part of the game, all you have to worry about is that one button handles all tactical movement, one trigger shoots, the other zooms in for aiming, one button reloads and you can hit things with another. The RANGE over which these simple controls extend is unbelievable; You have not moved through a battlefield like this in any game to date. The closest comparison is GRAW, but GRAW was never this fluid.

The A button lets you run, roll, snap to cover, move to another cover position, and move out of cover. There are parts of this game when you almost randomly pull of sequences of moves and gunfire that will put you in awe of your own perceived ability; you feel GOOD about yourself. Alas, this one-button setup is the source of the game's single control issue, easily overcome through practise; how depressingly easy it can be to do the wrong action in a stressed situation; for instance rolling out of cover rather than moving to another cover position. An alternative scheme putting the exit cover function on, say, clicking the left thumbstick, would have been beautiful.

As it is, Gears of war has what i can only describe as the ideal controls for a game of its kind. I am in awe of its majesty.

Single player
I have to admit, i haven't played a far stretch of this game alone. The game comes with 3 difficulties, labelled Casual, Hardcore and Insane, the latter of which must be unlocked by completing the game on Hardcore. I'd heard the game was way too easy on Casual, and as such started out on hardcore; bad idea. I suspect this has much more to do with my lacking skills than anything else, but i found the game frustrating almost to a point of controller-flinging after only a short while.

There's a good deal of reason for this, most of it my fault. Gears of war is a "stop and pop" shooter, with moving from cover to cover an essential element of survival. This is a game that rewards patience, fast thinking and a sound concept of battlefield tactics. Anyone playing tournament paintball will recognise this kind of gameplay, and it can be immensely satisfying.. With other people. Alone, failings on the part of your AI comrades (who for the most part hold up admirably mind you) will usually put you single handedly in charge of solving the world's problems, and that is clearly not the point of this game, which is about squad tactics. Enemy soldiers take vile, vile amounts of punishment before going down, and their AI is flawlessly agressive, truly putting you through hell.

At this point i was starting to feel underwhelmed by the game's weapons, that scream bloody murder and cause great gouts of ketchup to fly everywhere on impact, yet appear to have so little real effect on their victims. In addition, coming from a gaming school that teaches me that if an enemy is RIGHT ON FUCKING TOP OF YOU, PRESS MELEE, Gears' rather complicated relationship to melee attacks became a real problem for me. Gears' has two kinds of melee attack; one is an immensely satsfying chainsaw attack activated by first holding the melee attack button to revv up the saw, and then moving forwards to collide with your victim (in a stroke of genius, as your right thumb moves to hold the melee button, your left stick suddenly controls both your turning and forwards locomotion; bravo!). The second attack is your standard stock bash / pistol whip. The key here is, neither of these will EVER cancel a reload. If you're stuck reloading, and an enemy charges you, you are well and truly up shit creek. There's little you can do but backpedal, and trust me, backpedalling won't stop a damn thing. Of course there's a gameplay contrivance to counter this somewhat, but i was way too eager to be a badass and way too used to how things have always been to ever think outside of the box.

Oh no. At this point i was becoming bored. Bored bored bored.

Of course, i did the only natural thing; get on MSN and complain about something i really hadn't truly played. I whined like the little bitch i am about the inability to cancel reloads with melee attacks, the ineptitude of AI partners, the perceived inability of gunfire to actually harm evildoers, and the A-button's knack of never freaking releasing me from cover when i really needed to get the hell outta there. I was met with cool observations; Yes the reloads will gimp you, but have you mastered the active reload yet? Active what? Talk to me again when you've fought the first boss.

I'll admit to feeling real shame when i continued my game on Casual. And lo and behold; Gears of war begins to wow me. Weapons suddenly start to feel powerful. Enemies don't massacre my squad at any given moment, so i'm not forced to babysit them. I don't die every four freaking minutes. I played through 2 acts of the game in this way, and i probably would have completed it blissfully unaware.

Unaware of what?

The mindblowing, silk lined golden purity of the Gears of war online co-op experience of course.

Cooperative play
I am told Microsoft are very serious about making co-op a big deal of the Live experience, and so far it looks like they're making good of their promise. Most major league 360 titles support some form of co-op these days, with my personal favorite Rainbow Six Vegas taking complete command with it's 4-player co-op, and GRAW's strangely disconnected co-op campaign
a close second.

Gears of war though, seems designed for it from the ground up, starting with the choice to include a second "buddy" character to the protagonist throughout the entire game, following through with the ability to join/leave a co-op game in progress at any time, and wrapping up with gaming moments forcing players to split up, offering distant fire support, pushing cars to create cover, all within a package of gameplay entirely based around the idea of flanking and pinning - The essence of cooperative tactics.

Me and my cog partner for the night set up a game on Live just to "check it out". We wound up playing through 4 acts together on the Hardcore difficulty, hunting for cog tags (the game's bizarre little pickup that makes no real sense, triggers an Absynth preset synth stab when you pick it up, and goes toward a few of the game's achievements), talking boss strategies, and in general having a seriously, seriously great time. I can honestly say i haven't had this kind of co-op fun since i finished System Shock 2 in one sitting, lugging my computer to my friend's house, sitting up until the early hours.

At no point throughout the game did we ever notice a stutter, lag, anything of the sort. Nothing to distract us from the constant act of solving each combat situation, laughing at the macho ridiculousness of it all, fawning on the graphics, or cursing the odd firefight we consistently got viciously murdered in. I can think of no higher praise for a game than that it makes the idea of going to the bathroom absolutely prepostorous. My bladder wants to burn this game alive.

Granted, any positive co-op experience garners this sort of response. Doom co-op on Live can be almost as fun, although the comparison feels somewhat absurd; There is no rush to save your buddy's very life in Doom, nor is there the ability to push the car he's using for cover towards the enemy stronghold, keeping him safe from that heavy machine gun fire as he's trying to clear your path with his final grenade and the last bullets in his pistol clip. Gears of war simply facilitates real cooperation between two complex entities in a way i haven't seen on Live to date. If anything can be held against it, i wish there would be 4-player co-op. Most of the game has 4 characters actively fighting on your side after all. Perhaps for the sequel? The pleasures would be spectacular.

The campaign has been described as short. I can only say yes, it is relatively short, but for an action game of this intensity, it is more than acceptable. It is not Max Payne 2 short. You COULD finish it in one sitting, but chances are you'll eventually need to take a break, and that break might extend for a bit, unless this brand of tactical shooting shit REALLY tickles your fancy. For the most part, the campaign is solid work; Epic have done their research. It steals liberally, but from good sources, including one obvious homage to the underrated sci-fi horror flick Pitch black, complete with the comment "It's all Pitch Black in here". The boss fights are occational but frantic, with the first boss fight an absolute highlight. Played on co-op, this encounter can be some of the most fun you'll have this year. On the flipside, one of the latter boss fights is not only underwhelming considering its buildup, but so easy it becomes a case of a sharp laugh and a "what, that's it?". Great boss encounters is not Epic's fortè, but the frantic and constant encounters with the game's many other antagonists more than make up for it.

The best comparison i can make is Monolith's absolute monster of a shooter, FEAR, played on Extreme difficulty, on a PC that can take the punishment. Gears of war's AI comes tantalisingly close to FEAR's unfathomable excellence, and does so with more than twice the number of active AIs. There are times when Gear's AIs will dumbly stand around as you drill them to bits, or get locked into bouts of jumping back and forth over obstacles, but these moments are rare, and chances are you'll be too busy hiding from things to even notice them.

All in all, fantastic stuff. Gears is a game that deserves to be played with good company on a high difficulty. Compared to this, the single player experience doesn't only pale; It withers, crumples like a dead leaf and is blown into the distance, never to be recalled, along with every other single player experience of its calibre. And Gears of war has fifteen times the single player experience GRAW, Quake 4, Prey or Perfect Dark Zero had. Ye have been warned.

Achievements
Gears of War, like all 360 titles, has an abundance of Achievements(tm) to unlock. I've never been too big on the whole gamerpoint ordeal (i find the concept of corporations organizing us into some kind of perceived gamer culture and "rewarding" us thusly absolutely atrocious), but most of what you get here can be unlocked by simply playing the game as you normally would. In that regard, it's commendable on Epic's behalf that they've tuned the Achievements to actual gameplay, rather than weird bugout crazy shit like what Dead Rising made us do. You *always* want to do perfect reloads in Gears', so getting an award for perfecting that skill doesn't just feel like a contrivance, but it feels like what achievements were supposed to be in the first place. Kudos Epic. Of course there are weird things, like the Seriously... achievement, asking you to kill 10000 people in online versus matches, but there are few enough of them that you should be getting most of your points out of it just fine by simply playing the game. And you should!

Versus
Gears of war comes with a somewhat spartan online component in terms of hands on functionality, truth be told. The basic multiplayer versus mode is a 4 on 4 round based (think Counterstrike) game of kill the other dudes first. That said, there is much, much enjoyment to be found here. I've had a tough time finding good team players. There's a nasty tendency to just run off and try to beat the odds, only to get completely destroyed by the organized opposition. If you're shy off the voice comms, this might not be all that great for you. The few times i DID hook up with a good team, there was no functionality in the game for any kind of clan/buddy list. I assume Live is supposed to handle this, but the process of adding a formal Friend(tm) is still too tedious to be done on the fly during a match, and some kind of list over whoever you'd prefer to play with and wether they're online or not and what game they're in is something i really wish was readily available.

All this aside, Gears offers a vicious game of hide and seek, with immense gun battles as commas in a narrative inevitably ending with a skull smashing boot to the head or a chainsaw down the middle. The pacing is just right, the maps are VERY well crafted, and through my many hours of playing i never felt the balance was off. Bravo!

Presentation
I loathe writing this paragraph, because you can read it in any other review out there. The game looks absolutely mindblowing in terms of technical achievement. There's shit going on here you wouldn't have DREAMED of last year. The first time you see a giant monster's death spasm tearing down a stone bridge, individual bricks flying, your jaw WILL drop, or at least expletives will fly. Since i love being a complete bitch, i will sum up my less savory opinions in bullet points.
I'm not sold on this next generation = graphics stuff, and i wish the hype would chill out a bit, because it downplays the real strengths of this game. Sure it's pretty, but that's not why it's a great game. The more we howl about it's graphics, the more we forget how much more awesome the elegant control system and flawless online co-op is, and what those elements are actually doing to bring gaming forward. Graphics just set a watermark. Watermarks are surpassed and forgotten.

Overall
I've been jaded as hell, but this is a seriously fun game to play, although my opinion is heavily tilted by my co-op experience, which again will differ with whoever you play with. I found the single player experience frustrating and unfriendly, and it didn't have any kind of pull beyond the purely visceral. I thought the dysfunctionally proportioned characters were difficult to take seriously most times, and the script has lines that are borderline offensive in their macho bullshit stupidity.

Whatever true joy i found in this game have been garnered from its incredibly streamlined yet nuanced tactical gameplay coupled with the thrill of having an actually intelligent partner against overwhelmingly agressive and organized opposition. Co-op drives this experience home like a swift boot to the groin. Flying this one solo felt dull by comparison.

But my god what a co-op experience it is. It's actually shocking.

Rating

Pros:
Cons:

Gears of War gets
8 / 10 hormonally dysfunctional men with no chance of ever going to the bathroom like a normal person.

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Saturday, September 30, 2006

 

Windows - Sin Episodes: Emergence

I'm one of those crazy people that really, really enjoyed the original Sin, in spite of its crazy bugs, terrible script and retarded characters, or perhaps because of. Sin, as with most of Ritual's games, has an air of audacity to it that i always found deeply refreshing, with its giant chested antagonists and wisecracking beefcake jerk protagonist. Even the annoying hacker kid somehow lent the experience a coherence that many "smarter" games can only dream to match.
So naturally, i've been excited out of my mind about Emergence.

What was i hoping to see?

* Hacking into people's bank accounts to steal their cash.
* Bizarre one-liners and bad jokes from mr John Blade, aka The Most Notoriously Unsympathetic Protagonist In History.
* T&A across the board.
* Some needlessly complex interaction to frustrate the hell out of me.
* Some kind of retarded mutant that makes no sense and has all kinds of muscles.

What did i get?

A pretty, quiet, polished shooter that was over about as fast as i expected it to be, but contained only cruel teases as to the greatness of Sin's mindshattering retardation. I have MILES of goodwill as far as Sin and Ritual goes. I think Ritual are mad testosterone-fuelled artist geniuses that are in sore need of technology help, and are necessary in the ecosystem of the game industry much like defecation is necessary to the human digestive system. Ritual have always represented catharsis at its purest (though sometimes at it's most flawed) with their unapologetically derivative but sparklingly polished creations. I still look at their Heavy Metal FAKK game and consider it a work of art, even though it plays like a cactus in the small intestine. Sin was and still is their magnum opus, sporting impressive levels of interaction, visceral combat, levels packed with set piece battles and more idiotic action movie dialogue than both Bad Boys movies put together. Emergence brings only a morsel of this vision with it.

I might as well get down with the stuff i liked.

Emergence looks as coherent as any Ritual game before it, with one particularly impressive climb up a skyscraper as a standout. Freeport really looks like a town you want to explore or at least blow up good. In terms of creativity it's not a mind shattering experience, but it looks together, tight and makes sense, and i liked it a lot. This coherence extends to everything, colors, uniforms, weapon designs, menus, dialogue.. Freeport is as realized as any game world, and i'm looking forward to more of it.

The weapons, although there are only 3, really do their work very well. The gunplay is always visceral and fast paced, and Emergence marks the return of The Single Most Awesome Handgun In The History Of Ridiculously Huge Handguns. This thing looks *insane* and takes heads off left and right. Emergence sports a headshot effect that never ceases to amuse, and blowing off heads at a distance with the handgun always made me smile. Most enemies, although there aren't many of them, die in creative ways that are always visceral and sometimes utterly hilarious, which is 50% of what makes a shooter experience right there. The limited arsenal holds together just fine for the duration of this experience, and i didn't find myself missing any more. Having only 3 to switch between keeps the action fast and tight, and i liked it a lot.

Now for the rough edges...

Motormouth Blade keeps his mouth shut for the entire adventure (!!!!), and leaves the wisecracking to his largely uninteresting partner, Jessica. Her delivery is flat, and she keeps putting you in situations of terrible danger for the sake of her own pet peeve with the main antagonist of this episode, a drug dealer type named Radek. As a result, i kept wanting to kick her face in, or at least hoped Blade would tell her to shut her yap even ONCE. But no. Ever the silent feller. Freeman can be a silent protagonist because his character is in his ESSENCE, being intellectual rebellion. John Blade is no intellectual; he's an ass-kicker and a name-taker. His rebellion is about fist against face and spitting on corpses, a rebellion against what is socially acceptable. For episode 2, i hope Ritual let this guy speak up, because his wisecracking bs is ESSENTIAL to the Sin experience.

Worse is the detachment you feel from the storyline. Emergence is a game that demands prior knowledge of the Sin universe, and as such is really really hard to get into if you don't have it fresh in mind. The story, being the beginning episode of i don't know what, is shallow and simple, taking you through a short lived chase after this Radek guy, who i have no real reason to want dead other than Jessica's constant bantering about how big of an a-hole he is. So the real reason to fight is simply that everyone apparently wants you dead, and that's not good enough by my book. I felt detached throughout, and it became more about gameplay than experiencing a game world.

Emergence is a game that has the spirit but lacks the soul, and most importantly it lacks the insane audacity and over the top action movie feel Sin'98 had in spades. John Blade's silence is the biggest culprit here. Here's a character that's pretty damn hard to like from the beginning, and when all he ever says is "come in jessica, what's up jessica, come in JC" etc, what are we supposed to feel for him? John Blade MUST SPEAK, lest he become generic. And generic is the last thing Emergence needs.

Was it worth the 20 bucks? I think so. It's a solid shooter experience that's thoroughly enjoyable purely on the merits of its visceral shooty nature and coherent art direction. Is it worth another 20 for episode 2? I hope so, because i will be paying.

Rating

Pros:
Cons:

Sin: Episode 1 gets
7 / 10 obscure cult titles getting a remake on a relatively obscure yet innovative digital distribution system, thus making them somewhat more attractive and agreeable purchases than their storefront cousins

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First post

Thought i'd make a blog to gather my game reviews. This is the one post that isn't a review from here on.

Some words on the rating system i use. I am a supremely opinionated guy. I'll try my best to stay as neutral and objective as possible, but sometimes i will falter. As such my rating system is a bit of a joke.

It does have one redeeming quality however: I strain to leave technical merit completely out of the evaluation unless it pertains directly to gameplay or the artistic value of the thing. Artistic merit reigns supreme. It's a tough balance; for instance Wind Waker's art style (which i will forever fawn on) is directly dependant on its engine, whereas Gears of war runs on an engine powering a wide range of next generation titles. I refuse to rate a game according to how much money was spent on the engine license.

To shorten that paragraph down: I try very hard not to be wowed, and i try as hard to keep a clear focus on wether the game is actually any fun to play.

I rate on a scale of 1 through 10. I have no fear of using the full scale. A 9 will be very rare, a 10 is almost unthinkable. An 8 is a very, very good game by my standards, well worth the money you'll hopefully pay for it. Keep that in mind. In the same way, a 2 or a 1 is going to be exceedingly rare.

Finally, any and all material here can be reproduced anywhere just fine. Go ahead. But credit me for it, and make note where changes to the original material have been made.

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