Saturday, October 4, 2008

First impressions: Mega Man 9

Why does Capcom hate me so? All I've ever done is try to like their games, and yet they keep fundamentally missing the point: fun games are fun, difficult games are not.

Whether you're a stalwart Capcom fan-boy or just a casual gamer who has purchased a Capcom title after being told, "you have to try this, it's awesome!" you know exactly what I'm talking about, whether it be the cheap and unblockable boss attacks in Street Fighter 2 or the completely unmanageable camera in Devil May Cry. In the old NES days I used to tell myself that it was a limitation of the hardware not living up to the designers' vision, but Mega Man 9 makes me question that even more.

HISTORY: If you're reading this review, then you probably have at the very least a passing interest in the Mega Man series of games, at least enough to know that the series is more than twenty years old now. Mega Man 2 is considered by many to be the best in the series, because it was the first Mega Man (and probably the first game in general) where you could choose any of eight different stages (Mega Man only had six stages before the last one), and upon defeating the boss of each gained a power that would help you defeat another one more easily. When my friend Chris rented it one Friday night back in 1988 we had no idea that you could do this. Unfortunately we had started the game on one boss, Quick Man. If one is familiar with Mega Man 2, then one also knows that they should never attempt Quick Man's level on the first go without taking on Flash Man first. With enough practice we beat it, only to find out that we could have chosen any of the other bosses at any time. With Quick Man under our belt, the other bosses weren't much of a problem. After we learned what the game was about, it quickly became one of our favorites.

Mega Man 3 was the next game in the series, and Capcom ramped up the difficulty so high that Quick Man's stages didn't seem like such a challenge anymore. This was the last game in the original series that I bought for the NES, as much of the fun was gone by this point. It took strategy guides, the Nintendo hot line, and word of mouth to figure out which weapons were effective against which bosses - and they still didn't have one or two hit kills for any of them like the previous game! The rewards for figuring any of this out was low indeed! Still, Mega Man 3 was longer than the previous game, and in those days bigger evidently meant better - some people to this day consider MM3 the superior.

I could never get by the difficulty of Mega Man X, and by Mega Man 8 on the Playstation console almost all of what had made Mega Man 2 so fun was gone from the series. It was my sincere hope that Mega Man 9 would change that, as it was actually developed by former Mega Man Capcom employees. I was out of points, so I decided to download the trial as soon as it was available. Here is what I found...

GRAPHICS: I have maintained for years that if you took an old video game and just re-made it for a new system that could handle everything you want to do with it, that it would look and play much better than the envelope-pushing garbage we are faced with as gamers every day. I'm proud to say that in that respect Mega Man 9 proves me right. This is an unabashedly eight-bit game, and it looks beautiful, with none of the slowdown and sprite loading errors that plagued these games on the earlier systems. You can select whether to turn the sprite flickering on and off, if you want to make it feel slightly more old-school, but it still runs smoother than any NES Mega Man title.

SOUND: The hard techno eight-bit music of the series makes a resurgence, and with the familiar boss theme to boot! I can already tell that the tunes will be mostly forgettable, which is unfortunate for reasons of the soundtrack artist, but still keeps up with the overall aesthetic of the game.

CONTROL: While Mega Man 9 looks and sounds like these old NES games it isn't so much a throwback to them, as that series worked to give the "Blue Bomber" more abilities and equipment as time went on. The developers obviously felt that Mega Man 2 was the last balanced game in the series, as from Mega Man 3 on he could slide and from MM4 on he could charge up the Mega-Buster weapon and blast enemies with it more effectively than before, making all of the other weapons he collects along the way irrelevant; Mega Man 9 in contrast keeps Mega Man's abilities to the bare minimum: running, jumping, and shooting the underpowered Mega-Buster. This is a very welcome subtraction from the previous games, and it just muddled something that used to be completely straightforward.

GAMEPLAY: The enemies in this game seem to keep some sense of elemental weakness - with names like Concrete Man, Splash Woman, Magma Man, and Tornado Man you at least know that you are dealing with earth, water, fire and wind, as opposed to Mega Man 3's completely nonsensical Gemini Man, Snake Man, Top Man, Shadow Man, etc. Thus it seems as if the design team finally figured out that it's better for the gamers to be able to figure out the weaknesses in their own right, like Mega Man 2 did. In the demo, you only get to go up against Concrete Man. If this stage is any indication, I will skip the rest of the game.

You see, what the developers seem to fail to understand is that Mega Man 2 has difficulty settings. There is a "normal" difficulty, and a "difficult" difficulty. From MM3 on the "normal' difficulty level has been absent, and Mega Man 9 is no exception.

I'll admit it - I can't get through the demo. It is not fun to play. Any sense of nostalgia that I feel is wiped away mere seconds later when I'm faced with three consecutively harder versions of the same robot. I'm all for a challenge, mind you, I'm just getting tired of the word challenge meaning that no matter what I do a robot elephant is going to suck me off... a platform, that is. I could probably get through it too, if one of the stupid robots would just drop a large "life energy" once in a while instead of useless power-ups I don't need, or if the game didn't send me back to the beginning of the level every stinking time. I know that MM2 does the same thing, but at least MM2's stages were shorter and therefore not as much of a setback!

What it amounts to is that the developers kept all of the difficulty of the later Mega Man games and then crippled the main character so that the stages are even more needlessly difficult.

AN ASIDE: I've been noticing this in a lot of games recently, where the gameplay time is "padded out" just to add artificial "value." Some examples are the puzzling Braid (I liked your game and paid the $15 for it, so why is it that some puzzles require a tremendously stupid leap of logic to figure out? It's so incredibly padded that once one figures out the puzzles they can get through the game in less than an hour every time!), the acrobatic physics-driven N+ (every fifth stage requires about 1,000 attempts before I can get through it - no, I'm not exaggerating, I got an Xbox achievement for it. The other stages are challenging, but these stages are nearly impossible!), and Capcom's own Bionic Commando: Rearmed (did that last stage really need to be so hard? I mean, the NES version was hard, but Rearmed takes that word to a whole new meaning with those stupid collapsing platforms!).

Let's look at a fun, but still almost universally loved game, Super Mario Bros. 3 on the NES. It plays fast, the player has at most two hit points, and there are stages that are filled with enemies, but even when the player dies they almost never feel like the game has cheated them. I was even able to beat it on one "life" on several occasions. Now lets compare and contrast that to a game like Capcom's Super Ghouls & Ghosts on the SNES. The player similarly has two hit points and the stages are relatively barren of enemies in the early stages. So why is it that even on the lowest difficulty setting, and the maximum number of lives and continues (a total of twenty-seven tries) I cant get past stage 2? Is it because enemies just appear at odd spots on the screen with no way to avoid them, or is it because the stage will actually kill you without warning or any way of knowing where to stand when it tries? One constantly dies in this game without knowing how or why it happened, and trying to navigate the stage differently a second time doesn't mean that the previous obstacles will be avoided. Worth it? Most definitely not!

Capcom as a developer has been doing this for years - if they'd just put half as much effort into making the game mechanics work smoothly than trying to put as many cheap enemies as possible into Super Ghouls & Ghosts, it probably wouldn't have been the only game I ever took a masonry hammer to. I'm willing to bet not many people were able to get through the original Strider on the Genesis either. Did those few stubborn people who wasted twenty-three hours a day get a pot of gold at the end of the pain rainbow? No! While the rest of us were out working, romancing women, or moving on to games that were actually fun they got hundreds of hours of frustrating controls, cheap bosses, and "gamer's thumb." If you actually played through the game I salute you, jackass! Capcom did me one further with Maximo: Ghosts to Glory on the PS2. I was apprehensive, but my manager lent it to me, and I liked it! Except that when I bought it with the intention of finishing the game the dick game designers decided to punish me - when one continues so many times in the game, the game starts requiring more coins to continue, and as the game progresses they get extremely rare. Fun? No! Frustrating? Yes!

OVERALL: My beef with this game is my beef with Capcom, is my beef with all game designers: if you're going to make a game specifically for the hardcore market, perhaps you should start labelling all of your games "WARNING: HARD CORE DIFFICULTY" in big red letters on the front. This way, people with little skill or no patience (like me) won't waste our time or money on something that gives no enjoyment, and very little content, only "challenge."

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Castle Crashed

My friend Seth and I were playing Castle Crashers online last night and had it give out on us multiple times, so the rumors are true. Even the best games have their flaws, I guess.

Still, it's a dynamite local game that should be enjoyed with friends.

The game that ended it all: Zelda: The Ocarina of Time

Every Nintendo fan has his or her favorite Zelda game. My personal favorite is The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past on the SNES, with a close runner-up being Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, so that shows you how out of touch I am Nintendo fans. Link to the Past had everything that made the original Zelda so great and kicked it up a notch - not a mere sequel to the original game, but a re-envisioning of it: fixing old game-play elements, tidying up less-developed areas, and all the while including the player in a unique narrative that spanned the gamut of heroes and legends.

Players took the role of Link, a pointy-eared but otherwise ordinary boy living with his uncle. One dark and stormy night, Link dreams of a princess named Zelda calling for help. He awakens to find his uncle wielding the family sword and shield, shaken and preparing for a late night rescue. Despite his uncle's command to stay put, Link follows him to the castle of Hyrule, where there is clearly something evil at work. Link sneaks inside only to find his mortally wounded uncle, who passes him the sword, and tells him to rescue Zelda. It's a classic opening to a story worthy of an epic game, and lacks in the pretentiousness so many game stories are obsessed with nowadays. The rest of the game follows suit, and although challenging, it engages the player in a way that few games at the time could. This is what made it my all-time favorite Super Nintendo game.

How much difference a generation makes, eh?

I'll save a full gripe of the N64 for later, suffice it to say that it had already ruined my other favorite Nintendo franchise (Super Mario Brothers) with a collect-a-thon of poorly controlling but nonetheless pretty 3D garbage. What's more, most other N64 offerings were ugly, blocky, polygonal low-res textured messes with choppy frame-rates to match. Still, when I heard that Zelda was coming out for the N64, I was excited: I loved the four Nintendo-produced Zelda games out at that time, and the last two (Link to the Past and Link's Awakening) had streamlined the franchise into something water-tight and exciting. I paid the $49.99 for the game well in advance of its release date, which I then began to see getting pushed back before my eyes. When it finally did come out, the price had gone up twenty dollars, but I got a free hat with it (whoop-de-doo). It now stands with Mass Effect as the two most expensive games I have ever purchased, and I have never finished either of them. That's right, I never beat Zelda:TOOT, and I never will.

Here's why:

GRAPHICS: No real complaints here. Though everything does look low-poly, low-texture, and washed out in a cruel and pathetic attempt at realism, that's pretty much par for the course since developers back then decided to make everything 3D on woefully under-powered equipment.

SOUND: Terrible. There are only a few voices in the game, all of them are repeated endlessly, and most are just those annoying "girly giggles" that ten-year-old Japanese school girls make and that all Japanese men seem to find disturbingly alluring. They do a good job on ambiance for the most part, and overall the sound effects are good, but the Legend of Zelda theme is nowhere to be found in this game. AT ALL. I'm sorry, but I'm not tired of it yet, and it's exclusion makes the game seem less epic and more malaise. I remember when Link pulled the Master Sword(tm) from the stone in A Link to the Past, and when the Zelda theme started afterwards I felt charged and ready. Almost all of the music in this game is stolen from A Link to the Past, but they didn't include the most important song, and I can't forgive it for that.

STORY: Remember when I was discussing A Link to the Past's story earlier? Most non-orphan people can relate to losing a loved one or a father figure. Young Link being left alone in a world that is out to destroy him is a powerful statement.

Now, contrast that to Zelda: The Ocarina of Time where you are avenging a tree. Let me state that for you again, just in case you think that was a typo: Link is avenging a talking tree when he sets out on his quest. There's nothing even remotely analogous to this in real life. I've had plants that have died, sure, but I've never cried out on the dark precipice to the night and said "by the power of Thor(tm), I will avenge you my hibiscus!" Not once. The game tries to make up for this by having Link live with a bunch of "lost boys" type elves, who are all pretty annoying to begin with, like self-sufficient first-graders. The tree is supposed to be the wise father figure, but it's a tree and can't move, so one has to wonder how good its parenting skills actually are.

In his journey to stop the "evil man" that is causing all the trouble in Hyrule, Link meets a plethora of friendly characters that basically amount to the enemy races in the previous games. Rather than fight them directly, now they just give Link pointless and irritating quests to waste his time. Personally I liked the earlier versions.

I struggled to keep my interest up until Link got the Master Sword(tm), the pulling out of which sends Link forward in time and ages him into an N*Sync-style douche bag complete with fingerless elbow-length gloves and an earring. This is where the game lost me because far be it for me to question the sword making him go forward in time, am I to understand that "young adult" Link has the diminutive mind of an eight-year-old? Or, if he's spent the last ten years in limbo training to become a master fighter, then why doesn't he know how to do anything significantly different than accessorize his wardrobe?

I still struggled on hoping that there would be some payoff to the whole thing, but by the time the fairy had told me to listen for the 79,898, 636,873rd time I just stop caring.

Ah yes, let's get to that:

FAIRY: Navi is to the player as Kryptonite is to Superman and good taste is to 50 Cent - they all want it to go away, but as soon as they come into contact it can be lethal to them. I would like to know what wonderful drugs the design "teem" (not to be confused with "team," as in people working together would eventually figure out that this was a bad idea) were sniffing when they decided to put a little voice in the game that pops in every other minute to let the player know that they're supposed to be going to the castle to see the princess. The problem is, it takes about five minutes to reach the castle which means that in an even number of minutes you'll hear it twice, and at the odd worst, three before you reach the castle gate. Once you have reached the castle and are attempting to navigate the streets to find the princess, the fairy then proceeds to tell you to find the princess. There isn't even an option to turn it off! I'm sure when gamers (note: not Nintendo fan boys) began to complain about this Shigeru Miyamoto just packed his ears with some $1000 bills that were conveniently lying around.

GAMEPLAY: Some would argue that TOOT's control scheme is revolutionary, I argue that it is convoluted. It's obvious that they were trying to do too much with what control they had, so they decided to take a share of it away from the player. Typically, there is one button that takes multiple actions whenever Link is in a certain position. While this does make the game easier to play on some level, it often devolves into trying to position Link so that he can access the one spot where the button changes actions.

The game's flow also seems less open than in the older games. The original Legend of Zelda and Zelda II were all about exploration. Zelda: A Link to the Past continued that tradition to an extent, allowing players to move around the environments at their leisure to look for items that might help them navigate to more complicated dungeons. This Zelda is strictly by-the-book: An item that you find in a dungeon will HAVE to be used to get to the boss, and will HAVE to be used to make the boss vulnerable so that you can hurt it. As before, you need to collect three things to get the Master Sword(tm), and there are three different temples that you must enter to find them. You can't move on to the next dungeon until you've completed the one that you're on. The roads to get to these dungeons are just that: roads. You can't deviate too much from the prescribed course, and even if there is more virtual landscape than in previous Zelda games it seems constrained. I mean, why even put the Hookshot(tm) in the game if the stupid thing can only attach to a few sparse surfaces throughout the map? It sometimes makes going forward difficult becuase the player has been trained not to rely on it because of its almost utter uselessness - they only use it as a last resort!

Finding heart containers has become more of a chore than a feeling of discovery, involving the ironically time-consuming task of travelling in time, and having the right item at just the right time, and just pads out what is essentially a really short game.

Battles are many, but significant battles are few, predictable, and not very interesting. Bosses are cheap, moving out of camera range and striking distance just to frustrate the player, who has to wait for "just the right moment" to strike, every time, because they have no inherently vulnerable spots. I remember in the Link to the Past, finding just the right weapon to tackle a difficult boss was fun, because bosses could be hurt by multiple weapons. With the advent of the 3D Zelda games, this seems to be a thing of the past.

OVERALL: I think that the worst thing about this game is that so many people like it better than the superior old ones, and that the 3D downgrade to the graphics was so immediately popular. So well was this game received that recent releases of 3D Zelda games all follow the same framework, with almost no originality other than art style or what gimmick Link uses to solve puzzles and navigate the world. Zelda: TOOT made me far more excited about Wind Waker, but after becoming similarly disappointed by it all I can say is this: if I want to experience the feelings of awe and exploration that I got from the original games, I now play Bethesda's Elder Scrolls series. It might lack some of Zelda's polish, but it's a helluva lot more fun to play.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

It Came From the Bargain Bin: Jurassic Park (SNES)

Boy, this takes me back.

When Jurassic Park came out in theaters back in 1993, moviegoers were exposed to the most astounding digital effects ever seen up until that point. Dinosaurs never looked so real (well, except for maybe when they were real... unless you're a member of the extreme religious right... in which case the debate between hundred-ton monsters who died out for no perceivable reason leaving behind giant stone bones and a supreme being that looks like an old man sitting on a cloud surrounded by light and naked winged babies urging the republican party to outlaw gay marriage is ongoing)! Even though the movie was for the most part mediocre, it was directed by Stephen Spielberg, back when that actually meant something other than, "Sigh. Are we going to see yet another bad, mediocre, or overly schmaltzy Stephen Spielberg movie?"

In the marketing blitz that followed, Jurassic Park became a hot property with a line of action figures (courtesy of Kenner, the Star Wars toys people), children's clothing lines, and unique video games for every system out at that time - no two were alike! This is part in the individual licenses going to different developers, but it also seemed like they were drawing on the unique aspects of the various systems; the Sega Genesis had a side-scrolling action game, the Sega CD had a Myst-like point-and-click adventure, the 3DO got a series of pointless "multimedia" games, the NES got a two-player exploratory shooter, the PC got a buggy 2D/3D shooter, and the Super Nintendo got an action adventure experience.

The SNES game was developed by Ocean Software and it was an impressive package back in its day, with a large Legend of Zelda-like overworld, 3D interior environments, Dolby Surround Sound, a colorful color palette, multiple weapons with limited ammunition (akin to the survival horror genre), huge sprites, digitized sound, a great soundtrack, mouse support - the list just goes on and on!

So why is it here, on the list of games that I hate? Because for all of its exciting innovation, it has several flaws that could have (and should have) been dealt with before its release, and they just ruined the game completely. As such, I'm going to forgo the usual review structure and concentrate on what's wrong.


1.) THE TEXT POP-UPS DO NOT PAUSE THE ACTION. There's nothing more irritating than walking into an open field in the game, only to have that annoying little twerp, Tim Murphy pop in and tell me not to shoot the Gallimimus, because they could stampede, right before the aforementioned dinosaurs trample me to death because Tim's shit-eating grin is preventing me from seeing them. Better still is when I was collecting eggs from the raptor nests and Ian Malcolm pops up to tell me how many eggs I have left, basically blinding me in a dark room with giant disemboweling dinosaurs. They could have put this message at the bottom of the screen, or at the top, or made it transparent, or paused the game while it was on the screen, or NOT HAD THE FREAKIN' USELESS INFORMATION THERE TO BEGIN WITH. It seems obvious to me that Ocean looked at all of the design options and decided to go with the worst one.

2.) THE BUTTONS ARE MAPPED BADLY. The control actually isn't all that bad, even giving me the carte blanche to manually pick up weapons, deciding what I want to take with me... in the overworld. When I was in the inside stages the character automatically picked up weapons and health, which required me to backtrack every time I accidentally walked over a less-effective weapon. When I was on the overworld, I noticed that the button on the right of my controller (the "A" button) controls the weapon that is on the left of the display while the button on the left (the "X" button) controls the weapon displayed on the right, making the simplest and most often used command in the game something that hurts my brain. As with most games of this era, there is no way to change it in the options.

3.) I CAN'T STRAFE IN THE 3D ROOMS. There is no excuse for this one, as the game came out well after Wolfenstien 3D on the PC, and strafing by then was a standard, not an option. It's not like they ran out of button space: as established earlier, the "pick up" button from the overworld is not used in addition to the "jump button." The "L" and "R" buttons on the top of the controller are used to turn the player slower than with the D-pad, for precision aiming, but there is little reason that they couldn't have skipped that feature and just let the player strafe left and right with them. The mouse is used entirely by itself inside: pushing forward makes Alan Grant walk forward, pulling is backwards, left and right turn, button one is one weapon and button two is the other, so no strafing option there either. This makes the game much, much harder than it has to be.

4.) THERE IS NO AUTOMAP. If any game needs a map, it's this one. Some environments tend to look the same, and the island is actually much bigger than one would expect for an SNES game. Granted, auto-mapping wasn't really widely used when this game was made, but if Zelda: Link to the Past can have a map that shows the general area of goals then there's no reason that this couldn't have one either, as it came out much later than Link to the Past.

5.) As I have mentioned before, this game is quite large, and to collect all of the dinosaur eggs, key cards, and various other items one has to spend a considerable time backtracking or remembering where they've been. I have a friend who took notes as he played and managed to get through the game in about ten hours using his notes from start to finish (I have heard of "speed gamers" beating the game in an hour, but I can't imagine anyone playing it enough to do that). He left it on overnight so that he could continue the next day, but if the power had gone out he would have lost everything and had to start over, because THERE IS NO WAY TO SAVE THE GAME, AND NO PASSWORD TO CONTINUE. Imagine playing The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. Now imagine playing the game, but never getting any more heart containers than the three that you start out with, out of the potential twenty that you could normally end the game with. Now imagine that the battery backup on your cartridge has died, and that in order to see the end you have to play through all three palaces of Hyrule and all seven of the Dark Palaces in one sitting. Now Imagine that when you used up all of your fairies that the game was over, and you had to start from the beginning. That's hardcore gaming right there! Jurassic Park even goes one step further by giving an inhumanely cruel "Congratulations! You escaped Jurassic Park!" text on black screen ending, giving no payoff to hours of torture! This is basically the developer saying that they hate me, this despite the fact that I bought their crappy movie tie-in game.

OVERALL: This is the classic example of how something could have been phenomenal was destroyed simply by lack of common sense. The game's art direction and scope really is impressive for the day it was made. As it stands now, it is merely a long-forgotten footnote in an otherwise impressive SNES library.

It's still better than the last two Jurassic Park movie sequels, though.

Monday, September 8, 2008

First impressions: Castle Crashers

I know that I've been neglecting my blogs lately. It's mostly due to my continuing search for employment, but it's partly due to my new-found calling in life. That calling is Castle Crashers for the Xbox 360 Live Arcade.

Castle Crashers is a four-player simultaneous side-scrolling beat-'em-up in the tradition of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (the arcade game) brought to us by the gods at Behemoth, who also gave us the fantastic (yet too difficult) Alien Hominid some years ago.

History time:

Little Mikey got his first glimpse of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles arcade game at the Warren Mall's arcade, Aladdin's Castle, waaaay back in 1989, we he and his friend Kelly would frequent it on those winter Friday nights after school. With the addition of two other people, we were able to play through an adventure of epic proportions. The action was frantic, the enemies were many, and the sights and sounds were spectacular for that time. It was more than that to me, though - something about being able to play a game with the help of three of my best friends just clicked, and this game had none of the frustrating backtracking of Gauntlet, Midway's pioneering and flawed aging arcade sword fest. I was ecstatic when I found out Nintendo was releasing a four player adapter (the NES Satellite) soon afterwards - could it be that I could take this experience home with me?

Alas, the answer was a resounding Episode 3-style NOOOOOOOO!

Because this wouldn't be my blog if I actually praised something, and because I have nothing bad (at all) to say about Castle Crashers, I'm going to take you on a look at the many disappointments I've had with the beat-'em-up genre on home systems throughout the years, so that maybe when I show you how deceitful and poorly executed some of this stuff is, my new favorite game will seem better by comparison (everything they get right, it gets right, everything they get wrong, it gets right). I'm only listing games that I've played, so if there is one out there that meets my high standards, let me know.

(An aside: I'm only putting Gauntlet Legends on the list because it lacks the depth of a conventional dungeon crawler, making it closer to a beat-'em-up than an action RPG, though it is not as good as any other example of either)

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2: The Arcade Game (NES): I know that the NES was an aging machine even back when I first got one in 1988. I know that it was foolish of me to expect an arcade-exact translation of anything on that system. When Ultra Games released this port of my favorite arcade game I was skeptical. It looked about average for an NES game, but that doesn't mean that it looked any good at all. They really pushed the hardware to get the size of characters out of it that they did, but that means very little when you've cut two players out of the equation and had to take most of the enemies out just to fit it on a tiny NES cart. Even more annoying is that they only gave the player limited continues, making the game much harder than it had to be. At least it came with a coupon for a Pizza Hut pizza; that's something, I guess.

Battletoads (NES): This is by and large one of the most blatant TMNT ripoffs you'll ever see. The graphics are quite good in an 8-bit way, so what makes it worse is that having two players makes the game more difficult; not from the perspective that there are more enemies, but because every gameplay mechanic one could think of that makes multi-player co-op not fun is here: Two players instead of four, attacks hurt each other, when one person dies both have to restart a level, there are a limited number of continues, falling off of a cliff results in insta-death etc.

Final Fight (SNES): This game was released just after the SNES came out, and suffered the same problem all of the early SNES Capcom games did: the two-player arcade games were truncated to a single player (Magic Sword, U.N. Squadron, etc.). This version cut out one of the three selectable characters (Guy), replaced the women with androgynous men, and was essentially a major disappointment all around.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IV: Turtles in Time
(SNES): When the Super Nintendo was released, it only had two controller ports and it took a third party company to make a four-player adapter for the unit. That game was (you guessed it!) Super Bomberman. TMNT4 was released well before this, and couldn't take advantage of it. This one is noteworthy because it is actually better than the arcade game - maybe it doesn't look as nice, but there are enough extras that it doesn't need to. The two-player mode is nearly perfect, with just the right level of difficulty so that eventually the player and a friend can get through it on hard mode and feel like they accomplished something. It still needs four players though.

Streets of Rage, Streets of Rage 2, Streets of Rage 3 (Sega Genesis): These are all A+ Final Fight knockoffs, and nothing more. Given the Genesis' purported "Blast Processing" I fail to see why they couldn't have included a four-player mode, other than the fact that "Blast Processing" is a total crock.

Final Fight CD (Sega CD): By and large the best version of Final Fight I have ever played, even better than the arcade version; it's the music... I still wish that they could have re-mixed it for more players, though.

The Peace Keepers (SNES): Here's where the real bullshit starts. The back of the box clearly states four players with the SNES Multitap, and there are four players - in Arena mode, four players can fight each other. This pisses me off because it doesn't indicate that in any way shape or form that it is just the Arena mode - I was finally hoping for a true four-player beat-'em- up at home, and instead I get a mediocre two-player one. They knew that's what I wanted, and they just spat in my face. Otherwise it's a pretty standard game with a few innovations, like multiple pathways through the game, unlockable characters that you can change the color palette of, and more references to Arnold Schwartezneggar movies than should be allowed. Aside from two missing players, bland artwork, repetitive enemies, and limited continues keep this from being a memorable experience.

Captain America and The Avengers (SNES): This is a port of one of the most hilarious badly translated arcade games to date. Too limited continues, two players, too bad.

Captain Commando (SNES): The arcade game had some originality to it: giant robots that you could ride, enemies that you could slice in half. Yeah. The censored SNES version takes all of that out, then takes away two of the four players... again.

Batman Returns (SNES): Proof that even the best production values can't make up for the fact that it's a one-player game.

Batman Forever (SNES): Proof positive that Acclaim has something terribly wrong with them.

Three Dirty Dwarves (Saturn): Wow! Segasoft actually got something right! This game has three characters, and three players can play! There is an annoying "one hit and you're down" rule, but the players are only defeated if all three dwarves go down at the same time, which isn't often if they play cooperatively. Not quite perfect, but still very good.

Guardian Heroes (Saturn): I am among the proud few gamers that own a Sega Saturn and this game. To experience the pinnacle of two-player co-op beat-'em-ups, this is the game that must be played. It has multiple paths, changeable stats, dozens of special attacks per character, scaling (depending on how far apart players are from each other), a huge variety of enemies (and once they've been beaten the players can play as them in the arena mode), a story where the players save a kingdom and go on to beat up heaven and hell, everything! Everything that is, EXCEPT FOUR PLAYERS. The back of the box (again) claims up to six can play, but this is only in its Arena mode, which is fun for awhile, but having just two other players to kick the crap out of the computer would have been more fun. Why do they have to torture me with these bullshit arena modes? WHY?!!

Gauntlet Legends (Dreamcast): All right, four players! Too bad the gameplay is about as deep as an inverted milk saucer. The game can be played with one hand. Yep, every character will attack enemies just by running into them. Prepare to spend countless hours running around empty levels trying to find that one missed switch so that the exit can be found. Sometimes, my friends and I have contests to see who can stay awake the longest while playing this game.

Dynamite Cop (Dreamcast): This game runs at sixty frames-per-second, there are four controller ports, and three characters to choose from, so why is it that this is only a two-player game? And why is it over so quickly?

Zombie Revenge (Dreamcast): Everything I hate about Dynamite Cop revisited, plus the hilariously broken and stupid script from House of the Dead with appropriately cheesy voice acting.

Jedi Power Battles (Dreamcast): As much as I can't stand the prequel episodes of Star Wars, this would be a contender for my favorite beat-'em-up of all time, but for a few fatal flaws: Bottomless pits kill instead of just taking a little health (and there are far too damn many of them), not enough continues, two players share continues, some of the environments have hidden holes that will kill the player if they're off-screen for too long. Otherwise my usual four-player complaint remains.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The New Animated Series (Xbox): The first one (again) only supports two players for no perceivable reason other then this was released on the PS2, and we couldn't make a decent product and scale it back for the PS2, no! We have to make a shitty product that will run on the PS2 and make all of those who have superior hardware suffer. The sequel fixed this problem, but I'm having trouble finding people interested enough to play it.

(Nintendo 64): What? There isn't even one beat-'em-up for this system? What the hell?

(Gamecube): Does Viewtiful Joe count? It's pretty close... but it's only one player, and only ever has been one player, so I feel that qualifies it as a platformer. So the Gamecube doesn't have any beat-'em-ups either. Stupid Nintendo! (Okay, so Zelda Four Swords should count, but I don't have four Game Boy Advances or friends willing to play it). (Note to fan boys: Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles is drawn out, boring, and no one should have to play it - just like all of Square's games.)

That's my list. I've waited nearly twenty of your Earth-years to play a four-player co-op beat-'em-up game with character development and multiple paths from the comfort of my living room. It's not just that Castle Crashers is an affordable, funny, game that has far exceeded my expectations, but also because all of these other games have made me that much hungrier for the experience.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Retrospective: Mass Effect

Hang on, this is a long one:

Anyone who knows me knows that I have a particular contempt for the game Mass Effect for the Xbox 360. I don't think that I have the space or the time here to get into all of my reasons for disliking this game as much as I do, suffice to say that it is not as a whole a necessarily bad game, it just isn't everything BioWare and Microsoft said it would be.

Another history lesson for those not in the know: BioWare was originally a medical software company started more than a decade ago in Canada. Not satisfied with what they were doing, they changed gears and began manufacturing video games, and it turns out that they were actually good at it. Some of their past lauded works include MDK2, Baulder's Gate for the PC, Neverwinter Nights for the PC, and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic for the PC and Xbox. I should point out at this point that I have played and like all of these games, but SW:KOTOR is the most important one for this discussion.

KOTOR came out back when I was working at GameStop, then called Electronics Boutique. I didn't have the opportunity to play it back then as it was delayed endlessly, and the video demo that my company sent to us wasn't very reassuring; looking back now I believe that it was early development footage, even before they had finalized the textures or added enemies. When I finally did start playing it years later in college, it took me awhile to get into it. I had been playing Bethesda's Morrowind for quite some time at that time, and even today I feel that Morrowind is the mold in which I like my single-player RPGs, with lots of exploration, NPCs to talk to, and customizable weapons and armor. I have no gripes with Morrowind, so don't expect to see it here any time soon.

Back to KOTOR: Although different from Bethesda's opus it was still a solid single-player RPG. It had great graphics, solid gameplay, character customization, a great story, familiar character archetypes, lots of secrets, and OBSCENELY TERRIBLE LOADING TIMES. Even for a first generation Xbox game, the loading times were about the worst I had (or have) ever seen on a console, making the game that much less fun to play, but not so much that it was unplayable or not fun; KOTOR was a really polished diamond with some disappointingly rough edges.

(I'll cover Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II in a later column - there's just too much to hate about that game, and it wasn't even developed by BioWare so complaining about it now is a moot point.)

What does all of this have to do with Mass Effect, one might ask? Mass Effect is in many ways a direct sequel to KOTOR. It has the same character archetypes, the same weapons and armor customization, and a very similar setting. Some characters even have force powers that are almost exactly like the force powers in KOTOR, but with the distinction here that they're called "Biotics." You and your crew fly around the galaxy in a large ship, and you can find and add more members to your crew. BioWare has effectively "borrowed" every single aspect of this game from KOTOR save for the license. As a matter of fact, they seem to have left some things out...

... like quality control.

Every single one of Mass Effect's over-hyped selling points are also what make the game seem less like fun and more like a chore due to glitches, bugs, and design choices that range from poor to just plain lazy. Don't bother looking for any of these online - BioWare's marketing team has made it a point to show you only the more developed areas of the game, though they will make it seem like they have just gone to some random location.

Well, let's get to it:

GRAPHICS: Go online anywhere and take a look at the still images. Don't they look pretty? There's a reason, and that reason is because they are static. I can't speak for the PC version of the game, but the Xbox 360 version is one of the worst-looking games I have ever played, for a number of reasons.

Foremost in my opinion is the way that textures "pop" into the environments as they load. This happens in many other games, but usually when the initial load is done you don't see it again. In Mass Effect, this happens all of the time in the more detailed environments - and when I say all of the time I mean every time your character changes his or her view. This also contributes to the frame-rate being one of the worst that I've ever seen on the 360, and the environments aren't even that big or detailed. One would think that this defect would be to cut down on loading times - but no! This game's loading times are almost as bad as the last-generation KOTOR's... and there are more loading areas!

The facial animation is pretty good, though there are only a few races (4) that actually give any expression. Speaking of races, almost every race has only one character model that is changed for different characters by adjusting height, color, etc. Here they are:

Asari (female)
Human (male)
Human (female)
Krogan (male)
Salarian (male)
Turian (male)

Sharing the same character model (all characters look exactly the same) and no facial animations are the following:
Elcor (male)
Geth (androgynous enemies)
Hanar (unisex)
Keepers (unisex)
Quarian (female, only one seen)
Volus (male)

(NOTE: I left out the Batarians because they are an expansion race and I'm never buying the expansion for this piece of crap game)

As far as the movement animations go, all of the characters look like they have steel rods shoved up their space-butts so far that it should be sticking out of the tops of their heads. The run (or rather "jog") cycle is hilarious - it's almost like watching a speed-walker in action. The Quarian female looks as though she's supposed to walk digitigrade (on her toe-tips), but she is animated walking plantigrade like all of the other humanoids, so her race is so advanced that they can ignore biology and physics.

Oh well, at least the facial animations are good, if not understated...

STORY: Humans are expanding their presence in the galaxy, and the first human operative of an elite galactic agency has just been named: You. The player takes the role of Shepard, a war hero/survivor of a galactic attack/S.O.B. who is the first of the "Spectres," a brotherhood of lawmen who are above it and only answer to the galaxy's highest leaders. On his first mission Shepard is betrayed by another Spectre, and from that point on the words, "Don't worry, we'll get Saren - no matter what!" will be uttered throughout the galaxy as the dialog tends to get recycled throughout the game.

Complicating matters, Saren has allied himself with bio-mechanical beings who are trying to resurrect an ancient race of robots who will wipe out all sentient life in the galaxy, but twenty hours into the game this wasn't explored sufficiently enough for me to care.

I didn't play the game all the way through, so I can't really comment on any twists in the story. If you like television shows like CSI and Law and Order you will probably find the storyline intriguing. If you don't you will be as bored as I was.

SOUND: Lots of talking. Decent voice acting, although there is so much dialog it's like the actors lost a lot of their zeal when delivering so many lines.

The music is bland, but as it's supposed to mimic the new age-like sound of early 80s sci-fi movies it is appropriate.

CONTROL: Very poorly thought out. The game is a mesh of role playing game (like Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion) and tactical third-person shooter (like Ghost Recon Advanced Warfare or Gears of War), but falls short of performing either satisfyingly.

In GRAW and GOW, there is a button that the player pushes to take cover. In Mass Effect the player's character automatically takes cover whenever close to a wall... most of the time. Not all surfaces will do this; some that should, don't, and some that shouldn't, do. Once, my Shepard died because I was low on health and had to retreat down a narrow hallway, only to have the character get stuck on a wall. When I pulled away from said wall, I would get stuck on the opposite one. This went on until my character was dead from enemy fire.

There also isn't a jump button in the game, even though the game is purportedly in actual 3D and not in "mock 3D" like KOTOR. There are times that my character got stuck between a small rock and a survey flag, the only way around which was that I had to reset the game. The "Mako" vehicle in the game can jump, which makes it frustrating that the main character can't.

These problems become hot spots of volcanic rage when one realizes that the developer mapped two buttons for drawing a weapon - one to draw it, one to put it away. THIS IS INEXCUSABLE! Why would they waste two buttons for that when there is so much else in the game that needs fixing or greater control? Other buttons aren't mapped to where you would think they would be mapped and you CAN'T CHANGE THAT, and this makes the game hard to learn. The usual argument developers make, "because we want all the controls to be the same for all players in multi player" (which by the way is complete bullshit in the day and age of custom gamer tags) is moot because it is a single player game! What else can I add? Oh yes - on the game's menus change the button configuration between pages, meaning that the button to go "back" in one page will exit the menu entirely on another, or turn a weapon into "omni-gel" before you have a chance to examine it. Man, I hate BioWare!

The A.I. help you are given is more like A.S. (Artificial Stupidity). They act like anyone would in a gunfight; they stand out in the open forcing the player to heal them, then get in the way when the player has to retreat. Supposedly they take cover when told to, but they never seem to go where I tell them to... In the early demos, the player was able to take direct control of these gimps to put them where they were supposed to go, but this was taken out quietly before the game was released.

Since we're on the subject of shitty control, let's address the "Mako," the worst vehicle ever put in a video game. Not only can you not customize or upgrade the stupid thing, its primary function - navigating the rocky surface of the ho-hum planets in the game - is hindered by the fact that it sucks at climbing hills. While it can jump, it can't jump high enough to actually get over obstacles, and using the jump jets on the side of a hill won't propel the Mako over it (like one would expect), but rather sends it off the side of the incline onto its back, damaging the thing slightly. The Mako's armor is also questionable - small arms fire will deplete the force field and armor in a matter of seconds, getting touched by a "Thresher Maw" monster will destroy it, but a half mile plunge off of a mountain with no attempt at activating the jump jets will at most slightly damage one tire. If the jets would face the rear of the vehicle where they could actually give it a boost for jumps on inclines it would make sense, but that's more sense than the developer had.

Controlling the Mako is a migraine in itself, because you will spend more than half of the time in the vehicle looking at the underside of it, thanks to remarkably bad camera control. Using the gun turret is easy on totally flat land - its too bad enemy encounters only happen in hilly areas where backing onto a slight incline will put the camera view on the tires and off of the enemies. When one finally does manipulate the camera to see the enemies, the gun will fire on the hills behind the bad guys even when the reticule is directly over top of them - its far easier to get out of the Mako and take on bad guys on foot, but don't use the Mako for cover - when it explodes after the third enemy bullet it will kill you!

GAMEPLAY: Very formulaic. From the original footage shown early on, the Mass Effect development team would have one believe that the galaxy the game takes place in is nearly limitless in size, with dozens of explorable solar systems with tens of explorable planets each. THIS IS A LIE! Let me break it down...

While there are dozens of explorable solar systems:
1.) Each solar system only has one planet that the player can visit, all other planets give a description of what one would find there and what it would look like (usually a paragraph or two that is almost always more interesting than the planets that are actually in the game).
2.) Each planet has one type of terrain (rocky) in different colors that the player can explore roughly one square mile of - if the player goes outside of that, the game is over.
3.) There is no indigenous vegetation and I only ever found one planet that had life forms on it (cow-like creatures that you couldn't interact with). Very boring to look at.
4.) Apparently, outside of the Shepard's ship there is only one other type of spaceship in the universe, and it is roughly the size of a mobile home.
5.) There are three types of structures in the entire universe: A two-story box, an underground bunker, and a cave. They always have the same layout; convenient, as you'll never get lost inside them.

So there you have it - since most planets are essentially the same collection of ores, enemies, and the Thresher Maw (a monster so diabolical that it can come back from the dead right after exploding due to lazy programming), there are about six-to-eight total locations in the game, making exploration moot.

Also, I have a hard time trying to figure out why there are stores in the game.

In a good game, the store is where the player goes to buy supplies and to upgrade armor and weapons. The prices are slightly more than what one starts out with, and they offer reduced value for old weapons, which forces the player to decide what he or she wants to upgrade and what keep.

In this (not good) game, the stores have a severe disparity of values. The player starts out with no credits, and the stores want roughly 12,000 credits for items that are slightly better than what the player has equipped. The converse is that the same store will usually only offer you about 25-100 credits for the same item. This is ridiculous. Once the player starts to survey ores and get credits built up enough to buy the items in the store, they've already found better items on the planet! Why are there even stores in the game? They're a complete waste of time!

The bulk of the game is based on talking. Not exciting, decision-making talking, but boring smalltalk- filled conversation. The game often gives the player five responses to every question, whether they need it or not. A small question very quickly balloons to a ten-minute discussion where Shepard has plenty of times to spout, "I'll get you Saren, if it's the last thing I doooooo!" or at least words to that effect. Even more annoying is the fact that boss fights are preceded by a twenty-plus minute dialog, which the player will have to repeat in the likely event that they are killed by the boss.

When Shepard is killed, the player has to sit through an annoying death sequence that takes way too long to end, then sit through the too-frequently-seen loading screen, then start the level over, unless they had the foresight to save.

OVERALL: God I hate this game! I hate the fact that they made it look so good in the previews only to dump a half-developed product on the public. I hate the fact that has all of the problems that KOTOR had five years ago and actually adds to them. I hate the fact that there are small things that they could have fixed to make it better. Most of all I hate the fact that you - yes you - the buying public has almost universally declared this to be one of the best games for the Xbox 360, giving BioWare (and other developers) the fuel to dump more quick-and-dirty games on us at full price. Stop buying this crap already!

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Retrospective: the ORIGINAL Bionic Commando

This is a review of one of the absolute worst games I have ever played, Capcom's Bionic Commando.

Not the 3rd person, action game for the next generation systems, that's not out yet (though I suspect it will end up here before too long).

No, not the recent remake of the old Nintendo Entertainment System game. Although it has some minor flaws it was an overall satisfying experience.

No, no. Not the Game Boy Color version. I dislike it, sure but even its unforgivable flaws don't make the game unplayable.

No, no, no. Not the one for the Nintendo Entertainment System - I love that game. I'm talking about the other one.

It's the version you've probably been fortunate enough to have never played. I'm talking about the ORIGINAL Bionic Commando, in the arcade.

What? You never realized that there was an arcade game, and that the NES game is loosely based on it? Then let me give you a history lesson.

In 1985, Capcom of Japan unleashed the top-down arcade game Commando upon the world. Despite being an unbelievably mediocre-to-sub-par video game, Commando is remembered by many as a great game, probably not in the least because many people confuse the game with the Arnold Schwartzenegger film, which came out the same year and has absolutely nothing to do with the Capcom property.

In the game, players take on the role of "Super Joe," an elite one-man army cutting a swath of destruction through enemy territory. Joe has his machine gun and some grenades to deal with this menace, and never gets any other power-ups throughout the entire course of the game. Odd that it is considered classic when games like Ikari Warriors do the same thing only better.

In 1987 Capcom followed this up with a side-scrolling platform game entitled Bionic Commando. Players reprise their role as Super Joe, though this time he is outfitted with a robotic grappling hook to negotiate platforms with. Unlike many similar and later games, Joe cannot jump - he is totally reliant on the grappling hook to move.

Anyone who has played any of the other Bionic Commando games will recognize this as the mission where Joe gets captured, so one could call this the first game in a trilogy, followed by the NES game (and its remakes), and the new game on the Xbox 360. You can find this game on the Capcom Classics Vol. 1 compilation disc, and MAME ROMs are fairly common too, so feel free to check it out - but don't say that I didn't warn you first.

STORY: Story? You play a nameless commando, later decided by Capcom that it would be Super Joe, the soldier from the original Commando. Joe is out to get his ass kicked and to chew bubblegum... and he's all out of gum. No, seriously - Joe is air-dropped into enemy territory under the auspices that he will stop their super weapon at all costs (which at $0.25 a game usually comes to about $10). This is as simple as a military shooter gets.

GRAPHICS: Not too bad considering when this game was made, though everything is kind of washed-out. The lack of definition sometimes makes it difficult to figure out which background elements will hurt you (there are many) and what elements you can grapple onto with Joe's hook. Longtime Bionic Commando fans will recognize some better-rendered enemies and backgrounds that turn up in the later games, giving a sense of nostalgia to otherwise unremarkable art.

SOUND: Also a treat for BC fans. The familiar theme song is here, though other sound effects are sparse.

CONTROL: Again, anyone who has played the NES sequel will know what to do. The grappling hook fires at diagonal angles and straight up. Diagonal will send you into a swing, allowing you to cover more distance (in theory; see GAMEPLAY) faster. The other button fires the gun horizontally. That's all of the control that there is.

GAMEPLAY: This is one of the ABSOLUTE WORST-playing games I have ever picked up. Your quarter will buy you three lives. You will lose all of those within the first thirty seconds of playing, because enemy troops spawn way too fast, and you have no hit points.

Once again: YOU HAVE NO HIT POINTS. One hit, you're dead. Remember in the NES game how you started with no hit points, but by vigorously collecting the little green-tipped bullets that the enemies dropped you could get more? There's nothing like that in this game. Any combination of three hits or falls off-screen result in another quarter to continue. Often times, you will find yourself in the position that there are enemy soldiers on a platform slightly above or below Joe, so that the gun will not affect them; since the bionic claw can't grip a platform that your sprite is overlapping, the end result is that you can only stand and watch as enemy troops kill Joe.

What's more, the enemy soldiers can jump from platform to platform, above or below, meaning that even the lowliest grunt in their army is more mobile than the supposed super soldier that you're playing. Adding ammunition to this theory is the fact that most enemies take more than one bullet before going down even with the upgraded weapons (which you lose when Joe dies), which effectively makes Super Joe the weakest character in the game, and EVERYTHING kills him! If you swing into an enemy soldier, Joe dies and the Soldier lives (and given that there is a constant rain of enemies coming down from the top of the screen, this happens EVERY SINGLE TIME YOU SWING). Bees come out of honeycombs and kill Joe, giant robots in the background will kill Joe just by touching him. Falling off of the bottom of the screen, even one pixel above a platform that you've just climbed up kills Joe. Enemy soldiers tap Joe on the shoulder and kill him, then walk away totally unscathed!

OVERALL: My theory was that the story originally involved Joe getting his spine blown out by enemy fire in the last game and that he was confined to a wheelchair for this one, but Capcom changed the sprite for American audiences because it was dishonorable to our veterans. I believe that the original Japanese title was Permanently Disabled Fun Super Yankee Joe Commando... I would love to see the 1986 concept art for that one...

Capcom balanced out the difficulty in the game by giving it only four stages, but you'll need deep pockets to see them all and get the "Gongratulations, you won!" screen. It is definitely not worth it, and if you're picking up the compilation collection just for this game then skip it - its not worth your frustration and doesn't add anything to the franchise.

Friday, August 22, 2008

First impressions: Star Wars: The Force Unleashed

It's difficult for me to get excited about a new Star Wars license anymore. It's not just because of the fact that George "My Ego is Fatter Than I Am" Lucas has taken something that I thoroughly enjoyed in my childhood and digitally raped the heart and soul out of it so many times that everything added to the canon now feels like bad fan fiction; It's mostly because so very few of these projects reproduce the awe and wonder I felt for the franchise in my youth. It's not really a feeling that I can articulate with base words, but I felt it in several of the stages in Knights of the Old Republic, the original Dark Forces, and both of the Battlefront games. When it does come, it is a joy that can rarely be paralleled by other properties - but when it doesn't, my interest doesn't just falter, it puts down the controller and writes an angry blog.

As you can probably tell, the Star Wars: The Force Unleashed demo has produced the latter.

STORY: You play Darth Vader's secret apprentice who has the aptly "evil-Luke" last name of Starkiller. Vader has trained this pupil in secret, and anyone familiar with Star Wars lore will know that this means that Vader is planning on usurping the Emperor at some point. There is obviously some connotation that Vader or the Emperor killed Starkiller's parents at some time in the past, giving the young man the impetus for dark force hatred. The first mission entails Starkiller infiltrating a shipyard that is under Jedi and militia control, and he is ordered by Darth Vader to kill the insurgents and all witnesses (so that the Emperor won't know about his existence).

I am so sick of this needless crap. Every Star Wars game or book feels the need to introduce "original" characters who are all just pale imitations of main-story characters (Dash Rendar == Han Solo, Kyle Katarn == Luke Skywalker, Mara Jade == pre-incest Princess Leia, etc). The "apprentice" is obviously just an Anakin Skywalker clone (not literally, but characteristically... well, maybe literally depending on how the story plays out - he does perform some very Anakin-like moves, and the name Starkiller could just be a play on Skywalker, implying a clone... so if that's how the story turns out remember - I called it first!). Regardless, its just new developers exploring the same tired old ideas yet again.

GRAPHICS: I have no gripe with the graphics - they are terrific, and the first stage consists of the inside of an Imperial shipyard, with all of the familiar Imperial bric-a-brac covering its cool color scheme walls in all of the familiar generic ways. It looks amazing and ho-hum all at once. The most cringe-worthy part of the whole game was when one of the loading screens mentioned Felucia, implying that this pastel-colored eyesore of a planet will be visited in the game.

SOUND: The James Earl Jones sound-alike they got for Darth Vader seems pretty impressive, and all of the familiar Star Wars sounds you've heard in the other million movies and games are all included. It was cool in Dark Forces and Super Star Wars, here it just seems like they used a 99 Star Wars Sound Effects CD that they purchased in the impulse-buying rack at their local Office Depot for $5.99. Come up with something new already!

CONTROL: You've never had this much control over the force in a game. Having said that, I don't see the need for so much control over the force in a game. It's cool being able to throw people and the THOUSANDS of conveniently-placed crates at Stormtroopers, sure - but the gimmick just seems to get old really fast. I'm sure that there are many, many button combinations and tricks to doing all of this stuff more destructively, but when one crate equals the death of three or more adversaries, why do you need to do anything else? It's also really annoying that despite nearly unlimited force powers that the apprentice has so much trouble fighting an AT-ST at the shipyard. I couldn't beat the damn thing because I couldn't affect it with the force, blocking the blasters is impossible for some reason, and throwing crates at it didn't seem to do anything other than stun if for a few useless seconds. Having so much control just seems like adding a level of complexity to something that doesn't warrant it, and while it might make for innovative Star Wars gameplay it still seems like a bland imitation of the combat in God of War or Ninja Gaiden.

GAMEPLAY: As stated above, it just feels like yet another shiny-yet-bland hack-and-slash game with stupid gimmick powers added for the point of appeasing fan boys. You can level up the character, which is original for this type of game, but so did Jedi Power Battles all those years ago and I honestly think that it was more fun. The learning curve seems easy enough until you come to something that doesn't make any sense, then it becomes a matter of trial-and-error, which doesn't account for good gameplay.

OVERALL: In the case of most over-hyped major properties, this game has already secured its spot in the "top ten" lists of dozens of game reviewers everywhere, right alongside Mass Effect (my contender for #1 on the top ten list of criminally overrated games of all time), Devil May Cry 4, and the ever-uninteresting Metal Gear Solid 4.

I think I'm going to pass on this one.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

First impressions: Too Human demo


I played a lot of Diablo back in the day, so much so that my friend Kelly and I had to play it on the Nightmare difficulty level just to gain any experience points. When Phantasy Star Online came out for the Sega Dreamcast, we could see that it was a thinly-veiled Diablo clone. I managed to max out my character's levels at 100, and really couldn't bring myself to invest any more time in it. Diablo 2 came out about the same time, but despite being more technologically impressive than the first game I just couldn't get into it, and never finished it. Later still Phantasy Star Online gained an update, but the thought of playing it to level 200 actually deterred me from the game; when a game seems more like work, then it is time to move on to something better. Bauldur's Gate arrived on the PS2 still later on, and I had every intention of playing it, but somehow I just never got around to it. I tried MMORPG's like Everquest and Lineage: the Blood Pledge, but they were so difficult to start and so boring once you got into the meat of the game that I couldn't invest in either - plus the fact that nobody really role-played in these games and the annoying presence of hax0r-speak. Everquest: Champions of Norrath for the PS2, and I was pleasantly surprised by the environments, player customization, and the fact that it supported four-player Gauntlet-style gameplay without being as inane as that older game was (we won't discuss Gauntlet Legends and its derivatives here - they're just too boring to bring up, so I'll save them for later). I picked up Champions: Return to Arms when it came out, and noticed improvements to the engine and art design, while remaining true to the style of gameplay.

Why do I bring all of this up? I have played a fair share of these types of games, so you can understand my interest in Too Human, an Xbox 360 game by Blood Omen and Eternal Darkness creators Silicon Knights. I downloaded the demo and played through it a couple of times, so now I'm ready to pick it apart.

STORY: Based on Norse mythology, the Too Human's characters and writing seem to take the standpoint that the Gods of old were cybernetically enhanced humans with spaceships instead of chariots, virtual reality instead of a spirit realm, and hot chicks in cyber-angel suits instead of hot chicks riding horses to take the dead to Valhalla. It's an interesting mix, and anyone familiar with Marvel Comics' Thor will feel right at home.

GAMEPLAY: It feels very much like a Diablo 2 clone, with skill trees, armor and weapons with plug-ins, and magical abilities. It has a fair number of cut-scenes throughout the game, but unlike most recent games the player has some interaction in them. The game also borrows from Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver in the sense that there are virtual reality areas that you character can enter to affect the environment in the "real" world. The game claims that there is online cooperative multiplayer as well, but given the limited choice of basic character models I'm curious as to how many players it will accommodate. Also, it seems that there would be little problem in including a single-system multiplayer mode, but supposedly you need Xbox Live in order to use this feature - all I can say is that the levels after the demo had better make use of a single-player-per-system environment, because the demo sure doesn't.

GRAPHICS: Not bad, but not great either. At least the developers haven't been touting this as the next big thing (like recent BioWare letdown Mass Effect). The demo level is about what you'd expect, with the stony environments lacking variety for the most part. The artists did make good use of glowing surfaces, as shown on your character and the enemies, though this too can be criticized once you run into enemies that explode upon contact - they don't look significantly different than any of the other enemies, but are much more lethal. If you were sick of the ancient futuristic look of the environments in Halo, Mass Effect, or Gears of War, don't expect to be wowed.

SOUND: No real complaints here. Everything sounds like you'd expect. Voice acting is appropriately as unconvincing as a Saturday morning cartoon (back when we had those).

CONTROL: Here's where things get sticky, and make what could have been an decent game into controller-chucking madness. It reminds me quite a bit of Phantasy Star Online, actually; the left stick moves your character, and there is a button to center the camera behind his point-of-view. The other stick is used for melee attacks, which uses automatic homing to track enemies and feels extremely unsatisfying to execute. The trigger buttons activate the use of firearms, and you can aim at multiple enemies or parts of larger enemies while doing so but you have to move the melee-stick to do this, which sometimes results in you swinging the sword while trying to fire. Because both attacks auto-target enemies this gets really annoying once you get in the middle of a large swarm of them. There is a special attack that will knock all of the enemies in your vicinity backwards, but you need to build up a combo level to achieve this, so it is not automatically available when you start the game.

My biggest issue with control is that the game doesn't always pause the action when a flashback or story related cut-scene occurs. This leads to a lot of standing around waiting for the character to do something until you realize that you're in control, and alternatively leads to the camera following some object on the wall at random intervals while enemies pound you off-screen.

The menus are easy to navigate once you know how and the level of depth involved in equipping your character and assigning skills is at least as complex as that of Diablo 2, but the menus are somewhat slow to respond to button presses (like it takes the game a moment to load between frames). This is a minor gripe to a game with some deep character customization, but I feel it is a valid one as it adds another level of frustration to a game that doesn't warrant it.

OVERALL: At least Silicon Knights offered a demo of this game, and didn't hype it to the point where its goals were unattainable (once again, BioWare's Mass Effect). While it seems like it would be a solid multiplayer purchase, the controls are so unintuitive and obstinate that I wouldn't consider paying full price for the game. There are just too many minor things wrong with the game (for example, when you die you have to sit through a lengthy sequence that has the Valkyrie will come down and pick you up. It is a long sequence, tedious to a tee, and has absolutly no bearing on the gameplay other than to make you sorry that your character is dead - and believe me, it is a frustrating wait). To the game's credit though, even when your character dies you don't go as far back as you did in say, Mass Effect (yet another example of how much I hate that game). Forty bucks, maybe, but definitely not worth sixty.