Wednesday, January 13, 2016

New Review: Though badly in need of an overhaul, Yakuza 5 again delivers the fun in the series' largest installment to date




In spite of it all, time really does fly.

It was a strange moment when, partway through Yakuza 5, I just so happened to look back and find myself hit with the realization that it had been almost five years since I’d played and reviewed Yakuza 4. In some ways it hardly feels like it; Yakuza 5 is immediately quite familiar, and easing myself back into this world didn’t prove to be too challenging.

In other ways, the degree to which life inevitably changes as it moves along with the flow of time somewhat blew my mind as I played through Yakuza 5. In fact this bit of soul-searching may have proven to be one of the more impactful facets of playing the game, and one very much unintended by the company that released it: a company which provides Japan with a new Yakuza installment every year.

But I digress. It has been three years (!) since Yakuza 5 made its Japanese debut, while a full five years (!!) have passed since its predecessor landed on Western shores. In that span of time we’ve seen many changes in the gaming industry, both in the games themselves and out, but Yakuza 5 is, simply put, Yakuza 5. It refines the formula introduced in its predecessor, with the adventure being broken into chapters each devoted to a different playable character with their own storyline. Where Yakuza 5 differs the most from Yakuza 4 is that it adds new cities into the mix, with the adventure spanning 5 characters in 5 different cities, easily making this the biggest Yakuza to date.

For those unfamiliar with this franchise, the Yakuza games take the form of story-driven beat-em-ups with a heavy “open world” aspect. A GTA-style radar exists in the bottom-left corner, indicating your destination along with the many sidequests available to you over the course of your adventure. The series takes its storylines incredibly seriously, with very well-produced cutscenes, some spanning close to thirty minutes, occurring throughout.

The gameplay in between grants you the ability to explore these richly atmospheric cities, where you can buy food and items from shops, visit and run Hostess Clubs, enjoy the use of batting cages, arcades, and other such mini-games, sing karaoke, drive a taxi, find items, and much, much more.

As you venture through the cities you’ll frequently be challenged by thugs to street fights, which give you the opportunity to beat the crap out of countless people, netting you money and Experience Points to level up your characters. It’s a concept that at first seems incredibly bizarre, something that these games are certainly aware of and treat with a definite sense of humor. Amazingly, at this point in the series’ existence it doesn’t even occur to me to question the system, or to wonder why the police never seem to show up despite the fact that a person was just physically beaten with a motorcycle (yes a motorcycle) in the middle of the street in broad daylight with a crowd of onlookers cheering their approval.

The combat system, while in as much need of an overhaul as the rest of this game, is as fun as it sounds, and that’s saying a lot given how much time you’ll spend with it in Yakuza 5, and how much time we’ve spent with it in the many games prior. Though each character has their variations in combat style along with their strengths and weaknesses, battles usually feature little beyond mashing some combination of the Square and Triangle buttons, with the occasional throw move or weapon thrown in for good measure. It feels dated and not nearly as fluid as it could be, especially when compared to more modern combat-driven games like Bayonetta; Yakuza made its debut in 2005 and the combat system has changed little since, something becoming more evident with every new entry.

I can’t deny though the fun that playing Yakuza 5 brings, something I’ve probably pointed out in each of my previous reviews for these games. The combat system offers moments of jaw-dropping and hilariously over the top brutality, and despite its dated feel it still manages to be addictively fun to fight thugs and expand your character’s stats and abilities. The pattern of wandering through cities that feel almost real, partaking in entertaining sidequests and beating up countless enemies along the way, while the story and its incredibly likable characters brings you to the edge of your seat, is what really keeps me coming back for more, and it’s an area where Yakuza 5 again delivers. It delivers in such a major way that, as with each Yakuza game before it, some of the series’ larger flaws are, if not necessarily forgiven, at least able to be partially swept under the rug. Partially.

As fun and involving as each game can be, my issue with the Yakuza series continues to be that, while it tries, it still doesn’t even know how to come close to matching the truly immersive feel offered by games like GTA or (especially) the Shenmue series. The world’s certainly atmospheric, but the amount of restrictions placed on almost all exploration, including driving cars, riding bikes, entering shops, and even taking certain roads, constantly forms a barrier between the true immersion that I know the series is attempting to deliver. As lifelike as these cities feel and as cool as it is to wander through them, the limits the game imposes on your exploration breaks me out of it at every turn. Many of the inviting buildings you pass by remain completely off limits to you, the game allowing you to enter very few of the locations you see. Force fields exist to prevent you from accessing various roads, and even dictate where you’re allowed to cross the street in certain cities. This is something more evident in Yakuza 5’s new cities, which don’t offer even a fraction of the explorable area or interactivity as the two returning cities (Tokyo and Osaka, known here as Kamurocho and Sotenbori, respectively) from Yakuza’s 1 and 2. Even in those, however, it’s the general rule that a major portion of the areas you see in the Yakuza series remain un-explorable, and it’s a fact that continues to form a barrier between the player and the games' world.

The basic and limiting inventory system, making use of a small grid for item storage and forcing you to send the rest to item boxes, also remains stubbornly stuck in the past, as does the need to pause the game to scroll through the main menu to access recovery items, even in the midst of combat. Yakuza 5 continues to require you to access save points to save your progress, something which isn’t a big issue for the most part, though make sure to set aside plenty of time for the final battles, as you’ll at that point be forced to go for hours without the opportunity to save.

It’s strange that none of these design choices actually manage to make the game more challenging. Whether it’s because I’ve mastered the formula or whether it’s because the game’s too easy is difficult to say, but Yakuza 5 for me was by far the easiest installment I’ve played. Few of the enemies you face until the game’s final chapter put up much of a fight, and with money and HP recovery items proving ridiculously easy to come by, there rarely seems to be much of a reason to lose a battle.

As alluded to previously, Yakuza 5 continues to make use of part 4’s multi-character format. It sees some improvements, partially due to the overarching story being much stronger, and as a result it doesn’t feel as much like “starting over” when you jump to a new character as it did previously. Even with a stronger central plot, however, it falls victim in the same way the other PS3 iterations have of getting in its own way with filler content. This includes an entirely pointless mountain segment where you’re required to spend a good deal of time learning how to hunt, even though the game never once requires you to know this skill after learning it.  Playable character Haruka’s gameplay, which centers on a bland “rhythm game” format, is so dull that I once actually fell asleep while playing it. Yakuza 5 also re-uses, almost beat for beat, the “prison break” sequence of events from the 4th installment, and it’s no less annoying this time around. This series has always featured a degree of filler content, but with the PS3 games it has become almost dangerously in love with its gimmicks, and the sense of urgency present in the first two Yakuza titles is similarly only available in bits and pieces in part 5, as it was in parts 3 and 4.

Still, a stronger and more focused narrative keeps Yakuza 5 on track, despite falling victim to some pretty major clich├ęs. The sniper from the building across the street always manages to shoot his victim at the exact point before he’s about to reveal key information, as if the shooter were able to hear the conversation. Masks are used a bit too frequently as plot devices, and each time the game betrays its secret almost immediately before its reveal with a poorly-chosen camera angle. Still, these nitpicks aside, the Yakuza series knows how to hook you into a plot and how to keep you guessing, and Yakuza 5 is certainly no exception.

Visually this is a tough one to judge, as it’s a three year old game and this series was never exactly known for pushing its hardware. Comparing it to parts 3 and 4 does show some subtle but noticeable graphical improvements, and the fact that almost all main events are now voice acted is a huge step in the right direction for these games. On the other side of the coin, Yakuza 5 has one of the series’ weaker soundtracks; what’s there is great, but songs repeat incredibly frequently, and the game lacks the standout tracks that made Yakuza 4 such a memorable audible experience.
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Verdict: Yakuza 5 may have taken far too long to get here, but I’m very glad that it did. Though it doesn’t do too much to deviate from the established formula, an improved central storyline from the previous two entries and new locations to explore help to shake things up. That main events are almost all presented with (finally) full voice acting also helps Yakuza 5 stand above its PS3 brothers, even if it still no longer allows itself to carry the same urgency of parts 1 and 2 on the PS2. Though I keep waiting for the series to evolve, especially with regard to letting you fully explore its open world and to bring its combat system up to date, and though I wish it would leave behind some of the gimmicky filler, it’s impossible to deny that what’s here continues to be a blast to play. Those new to the series might have a hard time jumping in at this point, but fans will most definitely be stoked by what’s offered here.

Presentation: By far the biggest improvement is that nearly all the main storyline cutscenes are voiced, making a huge difference. The plot and pacing still doesn’t compare to those in the first two Yakuza titles, and features some true corniness, but stands above those in its PS3 counterparts. Cutscenes look amazing, load times are further shortened. One glaring type-o during the game’s ending is really the only mark on an otherwise superb translation.

Graphics: Art direction and use of color are excellent. As a three year old game Yakuza 5 shows its age, though it features subtle graphical improvements over parts 3 and 4.

Gameplay: This is Yakuza through and through. Core experience feels dated and in major need of an overhaul, but remains enjoyable to play. Addition of new cities is nice, even with it being clear that not as much work went into them as compared to the returning cities of Kamurocho and Sotenbori. Cut down on the filler and give us more to explore and we might one day have greatness.

Audio: One of the series’ weaker soundtracks, but the Japanese voice acting remains top notch. Great ambient environmental sound design.

Replay Value:
Probably the longest Yakuza game to date, plenty of post-game content as well. This one will keep you busy for a while.

Overall: 7.5/10

(Yakuza 5 is available as a digital download on PSN.)

(My reviews operate on a .5 scale.)

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Preview: Fatal: Frame Maiden of Black Water


 (Long time, no see, everyone.)

Let me begin these impressions with two disclaimers; one is that I'm completely new to the Fatal Frame series. The other is that these impressions are not based on the full game, but rather based on the Prologue and the first two chapters, as these are what Nintendo released for free on the eShop.

Like many, I was frustrated with Nintendo's decision not to release Grasshopper Manufacture's Fatal Frame IV on the Wii in Western territories, and only slightly less frustrated with their decision to release now the 5th Fatal Frame game in North America in a digital-only format despite being on a console with next to no internal storage.

Many people share this frustration, as the game's Miiverse page is mostly filled with people discussing their inability to play the game. It's unfortunate because not only are games like this one badly-needed on Nintendo systems (and frankly, any system) but based on my time with Black Water's early couple hours, it seems as if it's something that some will enjoy, even if my own thoughts on it are fairly mixed.

For those who don't know, Fatal Frame is a long-running Japanese Survival Horror series where the game's spirits are fought with a camera instead of a gun. Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water is structured into chapters featuring different characters, with the action taking place mostly on a mountain and in a shop. It borrows elements from both the old school and the new (for better or for worse) as far as Survival Horror goes; controls are suitable, though probably clunkier than gamers today are used to. The environments are quiet and creepy, with heavy atmospherics, drawers to open, and notes to read. As with most modern survival horror, it's broken up into chapters, with a chance to see your stats and purchase items in between, and though one of the environments in this "demo" is quite expansive, you still seem to explore in a mainly linear fashion, with the game providing you abundant clues about where to go next and auto-saving your progress along the way. Taking the time to explore rarely seems to yield more than the occasional item on the ground or an enemy ambush, but maybe this changes as you get further into the game.

The "creepy" factor is definitely ever-present, including one or two disturbing scenes right at the end, but for the most part I didn't find myself particularly scared or immersed despite the game's efforts. Enemies aren't frightening in the slightest, and you're hardly provided with a decent look at them. Assuming there isn't more variety down the road, I can see the encounters getting redundant fairly quickly in the full game. 

The combat demonstrates both the best and worst aspects of the Wii U Gamepad. Lifting the controller up and looking through it as a camera is fun and works well. I just wish that, over 3 years into the Wii U's life, I didn't continue to feel distracted by having to tear my eyes from the TV to look down at a Standard Def screen. Aiming with the camera can thankfully be done with the Right Analog stick if one doesn't like moving the controller, which was one of the better decisions the developer's made, though turning the camera vertically seems to require you to tilt the Gamepad, something which in this demo always threw me off. I still think it has potential, with a variety of different lenses and techniques in place that could theoretically prevent things from growing too stale.

The presentation's on the uneven side, with fully voice acted and produced cutscenes sharing exposition with PS1-era paragraphs of text which explain, with zero pizzaz, the game's happenings to you. The art direction's gorgeous, with the environments looking incredibly pretty, though from a technical aspect not exactly cutting edge. I didn't mind the English voice acting, though a Japanese track is also available for those who want to enjoy the game in its native language.

So it was with mixed feelings that I reached the end of this trial, with a screen prompting me to pay $50 for the full title (my progress would carry over) and the news that the full download would almost literally wipe out my Wii U's remaining space. Had Nintendo priced the download at $30, which seems fair based on what I've played and which frankly would have made it more palatable for Nintendo fans to pony up for an external hard drive, it might have been a Day 1 purchase for me.

It's unfortunate that many will not be able to play the game. It's a game that I might still end up purchasing in the future. I can see its flaws, but I can also see myself having a good bit of fun with it. Survival horror fans who own a Wii U should consider giving the Free Trial a try.

Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water is out now, exclusive to the Wii U and (in North America only) the Nintendo eShop.


Sunday, May 11, 2014

New Review: It's difficult not to feel a little underwhelmed, especially when compared to its predecessor, but Rayman Legends remains a fun and pretty platformer



Like many others, I was blown away by how awesome Rayman Origins was.

In an age of such cynicism, where games either feel the need to play it safe or to present themselves as edgy and "cool", Rayman's first adventure in years was so undeniably wacky and whimsical, not to mention fun to play, that it caught me completely by surprise. It was good news when the game, initially seen as a financial disappointment, proved profitable enough for a follow-up, and after a controversial delay and multiplatform release, Rayman Legends has arrived.

And the game, frankly, doesn't live up to the hype. I don't want to give off the impression that it isn't fun to play, and that it doesn't feature its share of excellent platforming, gorgeous visuals, and charming atmosphere. But feeling at times like a Rayman Origins 1.5 and at times like a little less, Rayman Legends falls victim to some new gimmicks that don't quite pan out, and with a reduced "crazy" factor and less in the way of difficulty and gameplay variety, it never hits the heights of its predecessor.

Like with Origins, the game begins with a hand drawn cinematic setting up a loose scenario, before you're immediately set free to rescue the Teensies in several colorful worlds. Legends follows a slightly less linear structure than its predecessor, and though that game too frequently had you bouncing back and forth between worlds as new levels were unlocked, Legends does this much more frequently. The world map consists of a series of different rooms and paintings and, with the help of the screen on the Game Pad, it's always easy to know when something new is unlocked for you to get the chance to explore or check out.

Progression has been streamlined, with the focus being on collecting Teensies throughout the levels to unlock pretty much everything, versus the previous game's approach of combining this with freeing Electoons. It's essentially the same thing, so it's not a change that hurts the game, though the loss of the Electoons does remove a little personality from the proceedings. More of an issue is the lack of new powerups. Though Rayman was never exactly Mario, Origins did evolve as you played, with your characters learning new gameplay techniques or moves as you progressed from world to world. Legends doesn't have this, and as a result it lacks the feeling of character progression that other platformers of its type benefit from.

Also missing is much of the craziness. Rayman Legends features several levels from Origins, which are unlocked through lottery cards you get as rewards for scoring well, and as I played them I couldn't help but feel that they had something that Legends' don't. The graphics style is much more vibrant and colorful, the enemy designs more creative, and the platforming more inventive. Legends still looks beautiful and features a ramped up lighting engine, but the art style and level variety is much less distinct this time around. The difficulty has also seen a huge drop off, especially in the stages where you have to keep up with the moving scenery: these may have been too frustrating at times in Origins, but here many of them are easy to the point where it almost defeats the purpose, and that's too bad because Legends seems to feature far more of them.

Bu the biggest tragedy of all is that legends contains less of that fantastic Rayman platforming. Instead, multiple levels are taken up not just by these fast Invasion levels, but by Murfy, with the game switching to an AI-controlled character who you guide through the environments with the Gamepad's touch screen. It's not that these sections are terrible; in fact, some can be pretty satisfying in their own right. But inevitably, it's just not as fun to surrender the control of your character over to the computer, and I found myself disappointed each time a Murfy level reared its head. They were levels designed undoubtedly with co-op play in mind, but with this series' continuing lack of online multiplayer (though Legends does feature an online challenge mode) it's a game that many will likely be experiencing solo.

Rayman Legends though isn't without its charms. There's tons of additional content to explore even after you complete the main game, including adding playable characters and creatures to your collection, many levels to unlock, the Challenge Mode, which updates weekly, and of course more Teensies to collect. And there are several moments of pure platforming excellence here, some of my favorites being the few set to rock soundtracks where the levels actually move with the music. The music, speaking of which, is an improvement on Origins' sometimes admittedly irritating audio, and there are a few (if not enough) epic boss fights.

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All in all, it's with mixed emotions that I look back at Rayman's latest adventure. Certainly this is a good game, and without a doubt one of the year's best 2D platformers. Had it not followed Origins it may have scored half a point higher, but it had major shoes to fill and sadly, to me it didn't prove up to the task. While Rayman Origins was a game I couldn't stop playing and couldn't wait to get back to, Legends' frequent use of Murfy stages and Invasion levels leaves less room for the incredibly inventive and fluid platforming that its predecessor did so well.

Not a bad game by any stretch, in fact it's actually quite a good one. It's just not one that manages to live up to its pedigree.

Presentation; Simple storyline, plenty to unlock, and a good interface. Game runs without any slowdown at all and in full HD.

Graphics; A medieval theme replaces Origins' "anything goes" approach, and while it makes for a less distinctive-looking game, there's no doubt that Legends looks gorgeous.

Gameplay; Incredibly fun Rayman platforming is marred a bit by frequent Murfy stages and too many Invasion levels. Definitely not up to Origins' standards, but a fun game nonetheless.

Sound; quality effects, and more subdued and less irritating music than its predecessor.

Replay Value; the noticeably easier difficulty makes Legends an undeniably shorter experience than Origins was, though with more levels in total and plenty to unlock afterwards, I don't think people will feel that they didn't get their money's worth.

Overall; 7.5/10

(Note; my reviews go on a .5 scale) (This review was based off the Wii U version.)

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

New Review: GTA5 fails to take the series anywhere exciting, while featuring possibly its worst story and least likable cast of characters



If you were to look at my review history, it more or less would go without saying that I’m a huge fan of Rockstar Games. From the moment I played GTA: Vice City back in the day, I had a respect for the studio that has lasted all throughout these years and into the present day. Better than anyone, Rockstar knows how to meld compelling storytelling so seamlessly with open world gaming, and their games, for all their violence and controversy, manage to stand out as high quality products and true works of art.

It’s with a heavy heart then that I report that I didn’t enjoy Grand Theft Auto V, the latest installment in their iconic series, and the first from them since Manhunt 2 that I simply didn’t get into. I seem to be one of the few, and it always surprises and confuses me when my opinion stands in such a stark contrast from that of the rest of a fanbase, especially a fanbase that I identify myself with. But by game’s end, not only did Grand Theft Auto V (hereon known as GTA5) thoroughly succeed in making me dislike every one of its characters, but it committed, as far as I’m concerned, the ultimate crime in gaming; it was forgettable.

What I will give Rockstar credit for is something that they’ve almost always managed to do well; the game has an incredible sense of place. LA has been faithfully recreated here with a world that captures its essence so well; the visuals always look amazing, from the downtown skyline and mountains that can always be seen off in the distance, to the network of freeways that alternatively make so much and yet so little sense, this game has an incredible sense of place. It’s hard not to admire the work the developer has done in squeezing seemingly every last little bit of horsepower out of the Xbox 360 and PS3 to deliver such a pretty game. There are certainly some lengthy load times, some facial expressions are less convincing than others, and there’s more pop up than I remember there being in GTA4, but there’s no disputing the fact that this game looks nearly perfect.

I just wish it all had a bit more personality. LA in real life is a very cool city once you get to know it, but it’s a strange choice for the setting to an open world game. The sprawling series of small “cities” linked by networks of freeways that make up Los Angeles is certainly a “love it or hate it” thing in reality, and Los Santos is tough to really get to know. The city itself consists of mostly small and unimpressive buildings, lacking the grandiose feel of Liberty City or the bright lights and party vibe of Vice City. Very little of GTA5 really takes advantage of its urban surroundings, with a surprising amount of the game sending you away from the city and into the deserts, skies, freeways, and forests surrounding it. It’s simply not a very interesting setting, and for all the great visuals and the epic Southern California vibe, Los Santos just feels a bit lifeless.

Similarly, the storyline in GTA5 never quite manages to get off the ground. Starring three of the series’ least likable characters, and without as much a plot as a series of heists loosely connected by some cringe-worthy cutscenes, the game never fully recovers from what turns out to be an incredibly slow start. It does get a little better, and there are moments of interest and excitement, but the decision to fragment the narrative by alternating between three different playable characters proves to be a big mistake; not just because of what it does to the pacing, but because of the characters themselves. GTA5 is one of the very few titles from Rockstar where I’d go as far as to criticize the writing for being bad, but that’s the only way I can think of to describe it. Franklin’s dialogue’s just repetitive and awful, and the game never manages to give him anything resembling a personality. Trevor meanwhile screams every single one of his lines, as if the writers were under the impression that even the weakest of jokes can be automatically made funny if they’re shouted at us through the mouth of a deranged lunatic. Michael has some funny scenes with his irritating family, but he too proves to be a one joke character whose antics are run into the ground long before the game reaches its conclusion.

GTA5 doesn’t feature much else in the way of a supporting cast: Lester, who helps the characters in setting up all of their heists, feels like the “annoying first character you’d do missions for” in every other GTA game, but who in this one sticks around for the entire time. He has his moments, but the memorable supporting characters (and main characters) that this series has often been known for are simply nowhere to be found this time around. At one point Franklin has to make a major decision, and never in my gaming history has a decision of such incredible magnitude meant so little to me.

As far as the gameplay’s concerned, GTA5’s three-character system shakes things up but never really manages to re-invent the wheel. For much of the game, you’re able to switch between any of the three main characters, each with their own sidequests and even main missions to take on. GTA5’s at its best when it uses this character switching dynamic in the missions themselves, creating some fun and intense heists that stand as some of the series’ best. Even though you’re often told when to switch to other characters, it widens the scope of the missions dramatically, and allows for some awe-inspiring moments.

There are other things that GTA5 does right; it finally introduces checkpoints into this series, so missions are allowed to run longer without the fear of dying and having to start them over again. Many of the character customization options and leveling up that were removed from GTA4 have made a return here, albeit in a much simpler form. And though almost all of the missions still devolve into cover shooting, there’s a variety here that just wasn’t present in the previous installment, and this one also thankfully knows not to overstay its welcome.

What bums me out so much about GTA5’s gameplay though is what hasn’t changed. The “realistic” driving controls from GTA4 make a return, and driving becomes so unpredictable that it drains much of the fun out of a game whose main appeal should be its driving. It’s almost impossible to know how your car will react to the environment; sometimes hitting an object does nothing, other times it causes your vehicle to spin out like you wouldn’t believe. You can run down streetlamps (for the most part) and pedestrians without missing a beat, but then be stopped dead in your tracks by a volleyball net: I wish I was making this up. In a game where engaging in high speed police chases through the city of Los Santos should be its defining feature, it’s instead a drag whenever you have to drive anywhere.

The one change they did make was to turn the act of escaping police pursuit into a frustrating exercise of keeping your eyes firmly on the radar (and off the game itself), which isn’t much fun either, and the new hand to hand combat system’s even worse than the last game; something I didn’t think was possible. Flying an airplane’s an amazing experience visually, but then Rockstar completely underestimates how challenging it is to actually land the thing, forcing you to do long stretches of flying missions over and over again until you get it right.

Some of these problems would have been more forgivable if Sleeping Dogs hadn’t come along a couple years back and shown us how to do open world games so well. Granted, it wasn’t perfect, but its rich combat system, along with the excellent driving controls and its city brimming with personality, set a bar for the genre that this game just fails to meet. For all its technical wizardry, GTA5 is, for the most part, just not that much fun to play.

Even the sidequests prove to be uninvolving; the optional missions that crop up as you drive through the city rarely reach beyond bringing someone from Point A to Point B, while the sidequests range from cool assassinations to ones as lame as those where you tow cars. Yeah, really. The cell phone which is supposed to serve as your gateway into this world is squeezed into the bottom corner of the screen, and even on my HDTV I had to nearly squint to read the text and emails that my characters were sent.

The soundtrack’s serviceable, with some cool tracks featuring Kendrick Lamar and other fun and atmospheric tunes, but like much of the rest of the game I forgot a lot of it the moment it ended. The voice actors do what they can with their cartoonish characters, but they fail to really elevate the proceedings.
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Verdict: GTA5 represents a rare stumble from the usually reliable Rockstar Games. I’m a big fan of their work, and I couldn’t have been more excited to jump into their latest epic open world adventure. GTA5, unfortunately, fails to do anything meaningful to shake up the formula. The three character gimmick only serves to divide the narrative, while not doing much to advance the gameplay. The characters meanwhile are all so one-note, over the top, and unlikable that it’s impossible to care about any of them. Weak driving controls continue to hold this game back in what should be a key category, and Los Santos proves to be this series’ least interesting world to explore since, well…since the world featured in GTA: San Andreas.

GTA5 isn’t totally without its fun, and some of its missions, not to mention the incredible graphics and its sense of place, help keep the game from being a total bust. But they don’t keep it from being one of the biggest disappointments of the year.

Presentation: Some long load times, weird saving glitches, and ridiculously small font leave a mark, but not enough to hide what’s an incredibly well-made game, as always from Rockstar. Shame about the bad plot and unlikable characters.

Graphics: Gorgeous is the word here. An insane bit of attention to detail coupled with amazing draw distance and a great sense of place push the current gen to its limits.

Gameplay: Essentially more of the same from the last installment, but with character switching and some very cool heists mixed in. Aside from some weak driving controls and hand to hand combat, there’s nothing too wrong here, but the gameplay fails to elevate GTA5 above its surrounding mediocrity.

Sound: A cool but forgettable soundtrack mixed with some solid voice actors. Sound effects are your typical Grand Theft Auto fare.

Replay Value: Not as long of a game as GTA4, thankfully, but still one that will keep you busy for quite some time. Multiple endings to see (none of them great) plus a whole city’s worth of sidequests and content to explore, if that’s your thing. Multiplayer too, though admittedly I haven’t done anything with it.

Overall: 6.5/10

Note; this is a review of the Xbox 360 version. My reviews go on a .5 scale. 

Monday, February 10, 2014

New Review: Mario 3D World demonstrates a major leap over 3D Land and proves to be a lot of fun



A few years back, Mario Galaxy came along and single-handedly reinvigorated the 3D Mario formula. Nintendo's Tokyo studio not only developed a gorgeous world bursting with imagination, but they streamlined Mario's 3D gameplay for a modern audience while still retaining that same sense of adventure.

And over the years, this streamlining has continued. Mario Galaxy 2 did away almost entirely with the explorable hub world, while Super Mario 3D Land essentially reduced 3D Mario to a linear sidescroller with 3D control.

It was with 3D Land that I found myself becoming increasingly disappointed in the direction Mario was taking. The sweeping, vibrant environments of Super Mario 64 and Galaxy were replaced instead by tiny and linear levels with secrets "hidden" in plain sight, and with what I found to be no sense of imagination in either the level designs, the boss battles, or the graphics.

So it was with incredible disappointment that I learned that Nintendo's first HD Mario title in 3D would be a successor to 3D Land rather than a game that delivered a full-scale, 3D Mario adventure worthy of being on a home console. The good news is that regardless of my worries and doubts, Super Mario 3D World delivers. In what's easily the best Mario game since Galaxy 2, Nintendo's Tokyo studio has recaptured much of the magic that was missing from 3D Land, and though it's still held back by its limited scope, it's a game I'm glad I gave a chance.

Gameplay-wise, this is Mario, no question about it. The core style of play hasn't changed much in all these years, so I won't spend too much time describing it. You and up to three players follow the path to the flagpole at the end of each stage, bopping enemies on their heads, collecting 1ups and powerups, and searching for star pieces. The collectables and pieces of star are hidden well enough, despite the linearity of each stage, to give off at least a small feeling of exploration, and collecting them proves essential to continuing your progress to later stages. The boss battles, thankfully, have been completely rethought from those featured in 3D Land, containing enough variety to keep you surprised while still careful not to become something too outside the realm of what Mario fans will expect.

3D World benefits majorly from a change in setting. Peach does not get kidnapped this time around, instead serving as a playable character. The events of this game are refreshingly not set in Mushroom Kingdom, allowing the team to create a series of (mostly) new levels and level types that keep things fresh. Unlike Mario's previous Wii U adventure, the visuals here actually do look like they were built for this hardware rather than coming across as a Wii game upscaled to HD, and the result is a very pretty game. The fairy tale-like level of whimsy present in the Galaxy series also makes a return, as does a great soundtrack that really sets the mood and pulls you into the world. The hub between worlds doesn't entirely make the jump back into 3D, but it's a very "3D" take on the 2D hubs seen in Mario's most recent titles, managing to feel very "alive" and hopefully an indicator that the bland "left-to-right" hub worlds have finally become a thing of the past for this series.

The level designs continue in the (mostly side-scrolling) tradition of 3D Land, though they feel much more explorable and overall more thoughtfully designed. There's some great use made of the 3D, most notably in the Toad stages, that reminded me of why I miss 3D platformers so much. The collectables ensure that levels are very replayable, and a bonus world with many new, challenging levels is unlocked upon the game's completion. All in all, Mario 3D World's level of content is a definite accomplishment given the limited nature of its core game design, and without a doubt it's a game that earns its $60 price tag.

In fact it's such a fun world to explore that I wished I could more fully explore it. As much fun as I was having, and as much as I was enjoying the brisk pace offered by these well-designed levels, I couldn't help but wish that I could really sink my teeth into them. Past 3D Mario games threw you into huge, Zelda-sized worlds, giving you the opportunity to explore them and complete them at your own pace. As with 3D Land, 3D World has far more in common with the 2D-style Mario games than the open world 3D ones, and I couldn't help but wish for a 3D Mario game on the Wii U that really took advantage of the system's large disc space to deliver another epic scale adventure. Unfortunately, that style of Mario game no longer seems to be one that Nintendo's interested in pursuing, but at the very least I wish more aspects of it were included here. It doesn't make sense to me, on a system capable of so much more and in a series that has in the past delivered so much more, that we're confined to short, linear levels and a "2D-meets-3D" style hub world.

The only other thing to slightly bum me out is that 3D World's level themes and platforming set pieces, and even the music, begin to repeat themselves multiple times as you reach the game's final levels. It almost feels like the studio ran out of time and had to simply begin re-using assets in order to finish the game for the holiday season, which is unfortunate. Lack of online play is also a missed opportunity, though 3D World at least makes better use of Miiverse than its forced and awkward implementation in New Super Mario Bros U. Lack of real camera control in certain areas is a bit of a pain as well, though thankfully for the most part the camera works well for what you need it to do.

Verdict:

Those flaws aside, what we have here is a great Mario adventure, one that manages to make the best of its limited "3D Land" style of gameplay to deliver a game loaded with whimsy, personality, a fresh feel, and some great 3D platforming. The time limits and short levels make true exploration difficult, and a big part of me yearned for another Super Mario 64-type of adventure. Some late game repetition and a bland 1st world dampen the fun a little as well. But in spite of this, Nintendo here has delivered something that's at times truly magical, and something that should be a definite pick up for Wii U owners.

Presentation: A new "story" that finally allows Peach to be playable is a much-needed step in the right direction for this series, as is a move away from mushroom kingdom. Clean presentation, alive world map.

Graphics: Looks gorgeous and inventive in HD. Very little to complain about.

Gameplay: It's linear, but there's enough in the way of things to find and hidden nooks and crannies to search out that help make up for it. Powerups, both new and old, are fun to use. Boss battles are exciting, and some great use is made of the 3D gameplay.

Audio: Great soundtrack, the usual voices and effects.

Replay Value: Plenty to do, both during the game and post-game.

Overall: 8.5/10

Sunday, December 15, 2013

New Review: Wind Waker HD; It's good fun to revisit an epic, if flawed, adventure.

I'll admit, I was a total Zelda noob when I first played Wind Waker.

Having never dug into a Zelda game before, the experience of playing Link's first cel shaded adventure back on the Gamecube was an entirely new one to me. It was one that got me into the Zelda series, which I remain a fan of to this day, and it was one that for years I've referred to as my favorite Zelda game. In other words, it's a game that I have fond memories of, and though I've re-played small bits and pieces of it over the years, this HD version marks the first time I've gone back to experience Wind Waker in full.

And as I write this review, I have surprisingly mixed thoughts. The game's as charming as I remember it being, taking place in a gorgeous world brimming with personality. The combat system remains one of the best in the series thanks to certain well-executed mechanics, and of course it's hard to deny the nostalgia of getting to replay my entry into the world of Zelda, and with graphics updated to High Definition and small gameplay enhancements that improve the flow of the game, to boot.

On the other hand, what's also become clear to me when replaying it is that Wind Waker is a game very much defined by its first half; I have to say, I was surprised by how empty its second half feels in comparison. So much so that my thoughts walking away from Wind Waker HD are that it really feels like half of a great game, and half....well, filler. And though Wind Waker will always have a place in my heart, I'm not sure that I can continue to call it my favorite Zelda game.

But that's always the risk you run when you put out a re-release. Wind Waker's still incredibly fun and one of the more unique Zelda installments; with its creative visuals, a likable cast of characters, and some truly great dungeons, it's a game that I definitely recommend to those who haven't experienced it yet. It's sort of too bad that Nintendo didn't do more to improve its slow second half, but revisiting this world has proven to be a treat all the same.

What's most instantly noticeable about Wind Waker is, and always was, its cel shaded appearance. At the time it was a move that generated much controversy among the fanbase, but now I can't imagine that a game taking place through the eyes of a child would look any differently. Link here is only a kid, one forced to leave his grandma in their small home on the quiet Outset Island to venture out into the world when his sister is kidnapped, and it falls upon him to rescue her. He hitches a ride with some pirates and sets out on the open seas, the waters of which prove to be a defining aspect of this experience.

Rather than taking place on a giant land mass, Wind Waker's world instead consists of a vast ocean, with tiny islands dotting each quadrant. And while those like Outset, along with the charming town of Windfall Island and the cool post office colony on Dragon Roost feature civilization, much of the rest of this world seems totally uninhabited, with the small islands giving off a very lonely vibe.

It's what makes Wind Waker both unique among Zelda installments while also presenting it with one of its biggest flaws. For the first half of the game, things move along so quickly and smoothly that I was reminded of why I found it to be so compelling back in the day. The world's quite atmospheric; the lapping of the waves against the islands, the audible sea breeze as the music cuts off, the sense of adventure you get when you first sail out onto Wind Waker's massive ocean, all carry into a plot and a cast of characters that prove to be incredibly endearing.

But then, about half way through, the plot shifts. An identity is revealed, a villain is uncovered, and the rest of the game then becomes more or less a lonely affair, with much of the gameplay revolving around sailing the open seas, gathering treasures, getting into dungeons, and eventually reaching the final boss. It's not that the second half is completely without fun; the dungeons throughout Wind Waker are enjoyable, and this keeps things compelling even in the fetch quest-heavy second half. Nintendo has made changes to the Triforce hunt, one of the most criticized aspects of the original game, by cutting it down by a decent amount. It helps, but there's just no getting around the fact that despite an epic final boss and the incredible atmosphere that Wind Waker maintains, its best moments, by far, are all found in its first half.

The second half, in comparison, feels empty. Sailing back and forth to small, barren islands to pull treasure from the bottom of the sea comes across as busywork and, from a design perspective, even a little lazy. The plot all but stops dead in its tracks. Zelda, who proves to be one of the most interesting Zelda characters in the series, spends this part of the game locked in a basement, something which seems like such a wasted opportunity given the fact that the two dungeons that follow both involve a partner character, each of whom are unceremoniously then jettisoned from the proceedings immediately afterwards. Even the final dungeon just comes across as "meh," with very little skill or any sort of level design involved save for some identical rooms and trial-and-error gameplay. And I hope you like the bosses, because you have to fight several of them twice.

It's too bad, because had the whole game played like its first half, I'm convinced that not only would Wind Waker be the best in the series, but it would be one of the best games of all time. The core gameplay is improved by the Gamepad, which provides you with uninterrupted access to your maps and inventory, and of course its updated visuals, which add a whole new layer of lighting effects and HD shine to an already very pretty game. But it contains a second half that mostly feels like filler, and though Wind Waker HD makes this far less time-consuming than it was, it still goes on for too long and turns the final portion of the game into a very lonely sailing adventure.
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Verdict: But Wind Waker is still worth experiencing. It may not be all that it could have been, but to this day it stands as one of the bold entries in this series, and one that I still recommend to those looking for a good old Zelda adventure . It's a game with heart and with great gameplay to match it. The pacing of the second half, while improved over its Gamecube original, proves to be what holds it back from greatness. I wish this remake had done more to make the whole game as excellent as its first half; to address its issues head on rather than simply making them less time-consuming. Wind Waker HD seems to realize the flaws of the original, but while taking steps to streamline them, the underlying weaknesses still remain. It's a game I recommend, but one that I feel holds itself back, just slightly, from greatness.

Presentation; Brimming with charm and personality. Characters you instantly like, an interface which makes great use of the Wii U Gamepad. Miiverse functionality comes across as somewhat pointless. Eventful storyline for the first half, less so for the second.

Graphics; Awesome cel shaded visuals are improved by the jump to HD. Almost no load times to speak of, though the framerate drops, while rare, are jarring when they do crop up.

Gameplay; Great combat system, fun dungeons, and a world that you can really sink your teeth into. There's an ill-advised stealth mission in there, and finding out what to do next proves to be annoyingly vague once you hit the second half. Boss battles rarely put up too much of a fight, though great powerups keep dungeons fun.

Sound; Awesome soundtrack, atmospheric effects.

Replay Value; Hero Mode is available, which is good for people who want a true challenge.

Overall; 7.5/10
(Note; my reviews go by a .5 scale.)

Monday, November 18, 2013

Review: While not a total bust, Sonic: Lost World returns to many of the series' bad habits while its new ideas fall mostly by the wayside



Sonic: Lost World is a game that doesn't feel entirely sure of what it wants to be. On one hand it seems eager to bring Sonic into new territory, but only tepidly embraces its new ideas. On the other, it borrows noticeably from the recent string of Mario titles but doesn't go as far as to borrow the best of what those games have to offer, which includes a fluid control scheme and inventive platforming.

Sonic's latest adventure has its moments and is far from being the disaster that some of its predecessors have been, but that doesn't make it any less disappointing.

The game opens in the midst of an action scene, with Sonic and Tails engaged in a heated aerial battle with Eggman, a battle which damages Tails' plane and forces them to land on a mysterious continent called the Lost Hex. Like Sonic Generations and Sonic Colors before it, the story here is presented like that of a Saturday Morning cartoon, and proves to be incredibly hit or miss with its jokes. Though I found Sonic Colors' storyline to be goofy fun, in Lost World it comes across like the writers were trying a little too hard, and the dialogue can be pretty cringe-inducing at times as a result. Lost World also makes the ill-conceived mistake of sidelining the series' main villain in favor of a group of baddies called The Deadly Six; despite some charming character designs, they're both too dumb to be taken seriously and too villainous to be particularly funny, making it doubtful that these new characters will become anyone's favorites anytime soon.

The biggest changes made to Sonic: Lost World involve the controls. For the first time in the series, running is not Sonic's default speed; instead, holding the ZR trigger is required to bring Sonic into a run. Even at full speed however, the boost-heavy gameplay of Sonic Unleashed, Generations, and Colors has become a thing of the past, as Sonic simply doesn't move that quickly this time around. If I were to compare it to anything, his speed is much closer to how quickly he ran in the Sonic Adventure series.

It turns out to be a step in the right direction. While it was a visceral rush to get to tear through the levels in the most recent Sonic games, that style of gameplay also had its limits, and there wasn't much room for it to grow. Sonic: Lost World has the right idea in slowing the gameplay down to focus more on the platforming, but then it doesn't do much of anything with it. Even at a slower speed, Sonic's controls remain incredibly slippery, and judging the distance when trying to jump onto capsules or when double-jumping over obstacles proves to be a major challenge. There's something wrong with a game's controls when I'm standing totally still and directly in front of a capsule but still have trouble jumping onto it without overshooting it. The homing attack returns, though a host of enemies are invulnerable to it, forcing you to choose between using it and a kick move, which happens to be mapped to the same button that triggers the bounce move...mistake number 3. The double jump meanwhile returns from Sonic Colors, though it proves quite unreliable as well.

With such slippery and unpredictable controls, it may be a good thing that despite what would seem like the idea to return the series to more traditional platforming, there really isn't a ton of it here. There's nothing in the way of clever puzzles or creative bosses. Sonic: Lost World sees you mostly navigating (a ton of) bottomless pits, hitting speed boosts, and dodging enemies; even with its control frustrations the core gameplay's not terrible, though it's certainly not breaking new ground for the series, and does nothing to justify the new control scheme. Systems like the Wisp powerups and Sonic's new Parkour abilities are ways in which Lost World could have set itself apart, but they're under-utilized to the point where the developers shouldn't have even bothered.

Instead, the sense of blistering fast speeds that Sonic was capable of in his most recent adventures is replaced by semi-automated speed sections. With Sonic Unleashed, Colors, and then Generations, SonicTeam made major efforts to put you in full control of Sonic's speed. Here, we see a regression to Sonic's first 3D adventures, where the fastest and most exciting moments of each level were ripped from your control; when moving the analog stick even slightly could cost you a life as you instead take your hands off the buttons and watch as Sonic's propelled from scripted springboard to scripted springboard at top speed.

Not particularly helping Lost World's case is the fact that it borrows somewhat notably from Mario, and not even its better aspects. The cinematic bosses of the series' past are replaced here by end of level mini-bosses which, like Mario baddies, go down in only a few hits and rarely put up much of a fight. The overworld and its music would feel right at home in a Mario Party game, while the small floating spherical worlds definitely resemble those of Mario Galaxy but without the inspiration or the intuitive controls. The art direction sports some nice moments but overall feels too similar to the look of the Mario series to really feel like its own thing, and like Mario, it runs through the familiar "forest, dessert, volcano, sky" levels that we've all seen so many times before.

On another note, the decision to no longer award you additional lives from collecting rings was a huge mistake, as it provides you with very little way to recover mid-level if things aren't going your way. The emphasis on the outdated Lives system, the bottomless pits, and the trial and error gameplay is the main thing that sunk much of my enjoyment from Sonic: Lost World; especially its aggressively frustrating later levels, which I don't see myself ever wanting to revisit.
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Verdict:

Despite all these issues, Sonic: Lost World isn't a total bomb. Though frustrations abound at every turn, there's definitely more than a few moments where I was able to enjoy myself. Sonic's gameplay is inherently fun, and no matter how badly SonicTeam may have dropped the ball in some key areas (control scheme!) the thrill of blasting through Sonic levels is definitely here, even if it's somewhat muted this time out.

Sonic fans who are interested in trying it shouldn't be too afraid of giving it a shot, though they should be prepared for a game with an identity crisis, and one whose slippery controls, bland level design, and near endless pits of death do their best to take away from the fun.

Presentation: Goofy storyline that tries a little too hard. Incredibly bland worldmap with annoying music and uninspired extras. Short loading times, a few glitches.

Graphics: A simplified art style's not without its color and some beautiful moments, though it also feels very derivative. Nothing here gave me the same sense of awe as Planet Wisp or Generations' Chemical Plant did.

Gameplay: Despite a brand new control scheme, Sonic plays mostly the same, albeit with a greater focus on automated speed sections and controls which are too slippery for their own good. New features are theoretically there to shake things up but fail to leave much of a mark.

Audio: Voice acting continues to be entertaining and fits the script. Music didn't do much for me, which is unusual for a Sonic title.

Replay Value: To Lost World's credit, it's longer than Colors and Generations, and offers a few cool post-game levels to check out as well.

Overall: 6.0/10