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

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Blog Post; My frustrations with the Wii U and its bleak future ahead


Without a doubt, Nintendo's first HD home console has had a rough time of it these past few months.

There was some excitement around the industry for the Wii U before its November launch; as the first next gen video game console since 2006, there was interest building among the gaming community for the chance to experience Nintendo's vision of the future of gaming. The system has a sleek look, with a high tech controller featuring all sorts of crazy gadgets. It had a launch lineup made up of many of the year's best-reviewed games, including Assassin's Creed III, Call of Duty Black Ops II, and Mass Effect III. It even had, for the first time since the N64, a Mario game available at launch, though it was of the 2D variety.

The anticipation for a next gen video game system, coupled with Nintendo's built in fanbase rushing out to nab one, resulted in a great launch; not one on par with some of the more ridiculous expectations and certainly not one that reached the heights of the Wii. But a great launch.

And then, well...what followed can only be described as a disaster. Wii U sales didn't just decrease, but took a figurative nosedive off a cliff into nothingness. The game drought which we were promised again and again wouldn't happen took place, and with no games and seemingly no effort on Nintendo's part to market their console beyond its launch window, any momentum the Wii U may have had evaporated almost instantly. When the PS4 and Xbox One were then revealed (as they were widely expected to be) last Spring/Summer, it all but sealed the deal.

It's frustrating to me, not only because I've paid $350 (plus tax) for a system that at this point seems to be dead in the water, but because it's a system that I genuinely like. While it's likely not ever going to become a game-changer, I do think that it has a great controller, and I have a lot of fun using it. I think Miiverse has an appealingly quirky Japanese sensibility about it and I enjoy messing around on it. Removing friend codes from the online equation was a much needed and much appreciated step into the 21st century, and of course it's awesome to finally get to see Nintendo's excellent artwork displayed in HD.

And what I find even more frustrating is that many of Nintendo's mistakes are nothing but repeats of mistakes they've made in the past. The Wii was widely criticized for its lack of graphical ability and as a result it missed out on many of last generation's biggest games. The Wii U, as we've seen from the reveals of the PS4 and the Xbox One, will be in exactly the same boat. The system may very well be slightly more powerful than the PS3 and Xbox 360, but with the far more powerful PS4 and Xbox One so close to launch, the difference that it will make in the long term is reduced to almost nothing.

Already, and keep in mind that the system hasn't even been out for a year yet, we're seeing games shipping on the Wii U with missing features, or games which are cancelled entirely. Already we're seeing third party developers and publishers complaining about low game sales and pulling their support. And already Nintendo's had to cut the price, though the difference that a small $50 price cut will make remains to be seen; the system's been available for $300 since launch, and remains $300 today.

Where Nintendo's missed the boat entirely, and where they've committed their biggest mistake with the Wii U, is that they've once again targeted the wrong audience. Declining Wii sales over the past couple of years should have been as big an indicator as any to Nintendo that their new casual gaming audience wasn't sticking around, but with the Wii U they seem to have been expected to come roaring back. And for what, yet another Mario game?

The system touts its new HD resolution, but actual gamers have been gaming in HD since 2006, and even many casual gamers have since been enjoying High Definition Kinect games on their Xbox 360s. On the other side of the coin, Nintendo seemed to hope that having ports of popular HD games like Call of Duty and Assassin's Creed available would entice the hardcore gamers, but the hardcore gamers continued to play those games on their 360s and PS3s; that's where their Achievements/Trophies (features conspicuously absent from the Wii U) are stored, and that's where all their friends are gaming online.

The Wii U needed exclusives targeting the hardcore gamer, and not just the same Nintendo fans who have been buying their systems for decades. Nintendo needs to expand their audience, and to their credit they realize that. The problem is, Nintendo with the Wii U was attempting to expand it the wrong way. 3rd party developers were eager for next gen hardware; they didn't want to keep making games on a slightly enhanced Xbox 360. Gamers were eager for a system that brought with it more next gen opportunities than simply playing current gen games with a controller display. And the casual audiences who made games like Just Dance and Wii Fit such a hit on the Wii have moved elsewhere.

It's tough to say, looking at the Wii U's future, whether there's any hope of recovery. Things may get better with the releases of big Nintendo IP like Zelda and Super Smash Bros. And I'm sure that down the road they'll give the system a proper price cut. But I have to say, and I hate to say it, I don't see the Wii U as ever becoming a serious competitor. The Wii was a huge success for Nintendo despite its technical issues because it offered a new way to play that felt revolutionary and truly caught on.

But the problem with relying on a gimmick (and I don't mean to use that term in a negative way) to sell your hardware is that sometimes gimmicks don't catch on. And in the case of the Wii U, that's exactly what happened. The system's dated visuals and lack of features such as USB 3.0 jacks, its sub-par storage space, the omission of cross-game voice chat, along with its small amount of RAM, will seem even more limited when compared to the PS4 and Xbox One than it already does now.

And it's too bad, because I like the Wii U. I like its interface, I like its Miiverse features, I like the Dashboard, and I like the controller. But I don't think there's any hope for it to find a big audience outside the die-hard Nintendo community, and much of that has possibly even been burnt off by the game droughts of the Wii's last few years. And while discontinuing a home console is essentially marketing suicide, how's this thing going to compete for 10 years against the Xbox One and PS4 when it can't compete now?

Nintendo's best bet is to drop the price and sell the Wii U as a budget HD Nintendo Gaming machine. Give it a great 1st party lineup, and try to be the "2nd console that people want to own." That much is at least possible. But for their next system, if Nintendo ever wants to do this right again, they need to take a good hard look at the gaming landscape, and they need to develop a console that fits in with it, not one that's 10 years behind. Do that, and get hardcore gamers to jump onboard, and they may have something.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Review: Resident Evil: Revelations loses much of its luster in the move to HD (Wii U review)



In the wake of several ill-conceived spinoffs and a 5th installment that strayed far from the series' survival horror roots, Resident Evil: Revelations on the 3DS seemed almost like an apology to long-time series fans; a group who may have felt more than a little betrayed by Capcom's forced attempts to turn Resident Evil into a major action franchise. This game was a throwback of sorts, returning zombies to the series and moving the action to the dark corridors of the Queen Zenobia cruise ship. And though it made many concessions to appease modern day gamers, it felt, at the time, that the series was back on the right track, and that Capcom was finally getting the sense that Michael Bay-style action was not what anyone was looking for when picking up a Resident Evil game.

Then Resident Evil 6 happened, and it became abundantly clear that Revelations was more of a fluke than an indicator that Resident Evil was becoming Resident Evil again.

Following that game's nearly universal negative response, Capcom has unsurprisingly returned to this well, bringing their only warmly-received Resident Evil game in years onto home consoles with an HD makeover. The end result is simply okay; in the wake of Resident Evil 6, the flaws of Revelations stuck out far more to me as I returned to the Queen Zenobia for a second time, and though Revelations HD is definitely a decent Resident Evil game, it's not one that I find myself recommending to series' fans as eagerly as I did back on the 3DS.

What was so striking about the original release was how gorgeous it looked for a handheld title. And on consoles, some of that atmosphere still exists. That said, the visuals, while serviceable, feature the same "plastic" look that many Standard Definition games seem to gain when converted to HD, and while the framerate's a bit better (albeit still not perfect) the load times are incredibly long for what are such small areas, something even more puzzling given how much better the hardware is.

Resident Evil: Revelations is at its best as you control Jill Valentine aboard the cruise ship. The setting offers many creepy moments and a good sense of dread, you're allowed to backtrack and explore much of the ship at your leisure, and the gameplay aspect of gaining access to keys and symbols which allow you to progress further into the depths of the ship is great in a retro Resident Evil way. As with almost all modern games to feature guns, there's plenty of shooting to be done in Resident Evil: Revelations, though the enemy encounters and boss fights on the cruise ship, at least, favor some restraint; fire blindly and relentlessly at a boss and you'll likely run out of ammo mid-way through the fight. The weapons can be upgraded from parts found throughout the environments, which isn't the deepest system but it does allow for a feeling of advancement in a game where you're fighting much of the same enemies again and again.

What's also cool is the ability to scan various objects and enemies, Metroid Prime style, and though this only serves as a means to get health items, it does provide you with the incentive to take closer looks around the environments that you find yourself in.

While the main gameplay is solid and often can be a lot of fun, the biggest problems faced in Revelations stem from Capcom's insistence on making the game as fast-paced as possible. Even during the scariest moments, the characters communicate with each other so frequently that all sense of isolation is completely lost. This can take place over the radio, and does, for a good portion of the game. At other times Capcom has gone as far as to saddle you with AI-controlled partner characters; characters who provide almost no help in combat and who serve to only further decrease the tension. It becomes unintentionally hilarious to hear your team participating in the most bland of dialogue exchanges, the tones of their voices not even as much as altering slightly as a zombie assault commences all around them. The auto-save feature meanwhile continues to prove a terrible fit for the genre as it gives away all the scares in advance, and the Queen Zenobia felt like a much larger environment on the 3DS than it does on a home console.

Resident Evil: Revelations struggles from its desire to have it both ways. The cruise ship segments provide some scary fun, but then intercut through these are action sequences taking place elsewhere, with the game granting you control of Chris Redfield and others as they engage in shootouts through linear environments. These parts contain many of the same flaws present in Resident Evil 6: the aiming feels incredibly loose, the enemies, for whatever reason, aren't fun to shoot and don't react satisfyingly to your shots, and the action isn't even particularly exciting. These parts add nothing to the game except for some truly lame comic relief, and instead they actually detract greatly from it. While these shooting sections are often mercifully short, soon the action ramps up on the cruise ship as well, and Revelations becomes exactly what it was supposed to have been created to avoid.

The storyline is the same over the top tale of conspiracy and massive urban viral chaos that has been gripping this series for too long. On the 3DS I was able to cut them some slack due to the impressive nature of the CG cutscenes on the handheld (in 3D, no less) but here it begins to feel like far too much. Resident Evil was never about great dialogue or an action-packed story; the narrative in the old games was sparse but effective. And by putting the weak and heavy-handed storyline front and center, the developers make the whole game feel cheesy when it should be scary.

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Verdict: Resident Evil: Revelations is a game stuck somewhere awkwardly between where Resident Evil is and where it should be. It makes some genuine attempts to revisit the same type of horror gameplay and setting that fans have been missing so much, but at the same time, it can't seem to resist adding in everything else. It's possible that since playing Resident Evil 6 my patience for this sort of thing has just about run out, but while I found these flaws tolerable in the 3DS version, which I recommended at the time, for whatever reason this HD port didn't get that same reaction from me. If you've never played Resident Evil: Revelations before, you could maybe consider adding a point to my score, as the first time through I did thoroughly enjoy it. This second time through, however, it's clear to me that the game simply doesn't hold up.

On the Wii U you have the option to play on the GamePad, which is a great addition, and the visuals feel much more at home on the smaller screen. Though it doesn't make up for Revelations' shortcomings, it adds a definite edge to the Nintendo version of this HD port.

Presentation: The "TV series" style presentation feels pretty ridiculous and adds to the cheesiness that Resident Evil should be avoiding. Long load times, some nice-looking but fairly shallow CG cutscenes, and far too much storyline for what should be a more isolated experience. Plot twists are handled with all the finesse of those in a Scooby Doo episode.

Graphics: Though Revelations looked incredible on the 3DS, the upscaled graphics don't quite cut it on a TV screen. Game certainly doesn't look terrible, but it loses much of its flair. Load times should have been corrected.

Gameplay: Much of the gameplay aboard the cruise ship is solid and a lot of fun. It's when the action takes over (and it does, far too early) that Revelations begins to feel more like an exercise in overkill than a fun horror title. Resident Evil has featured action in the past, but it used to be reserved for the final act of the game. In Revelations, it's about half.

Sound: Supposedly the sound effects were improved from the handheld version, though I can't say I could tell a difference. The music's hit or miss, while voice acting remains fairly weak.

Replay Value: The multiplayer can be addictive, shooter-driven as it is. Single player game's not a bad length either.

Overall: 6/10

Sunday, April 14, 2013

New Review; Bioshock: Infinite's a great and thought-provoking FPS, though ultimately falling victim (a little bit) to its mainstream aspirations

Bioshock was an FPS game for the art house crowd, with its Ayn Rand-inspired underwater city of Rapture holding no shortage of dark secrets, quiet corridors, and containing within its walls a subtle but gripping narrative. What made the game so great for me was that it took the usual FPS gameplay and turned it on its head; it wasn't simply about going from room to room and killing off random NPC characters, but it was an eerie title that wasn't afraid to slow down. To get under your skin; to make you think.

Bioshock Infinite is from the start an entirely different beast. It still has the artsy flair of the original, still has its incredible art direction, its creepy voxophone recordings, cool Plasmid powerups, and strong shooting mechanics. However, it does this in a form much more along the lines of a standard FPS game, and it's hard not to feel that a lot of the depth and subtlety of the original has been lost.

But enough about that. Bioshock: Infinite is a great FPS. The floating city of Columbia proves to be an incredible place to explore, one maybe not quite as memorable as Rapture but one still brimming with variety and imagination. It's a world that so willingly fled from the rest of humanity, a world that floats above the "sinful" planet below; a seemingly beautiful paradise with dark traces of xenophobia and racism lurking beneath the surface.

You play as Booker DeWitt, a protagonist who, unlike those of past Bioshock games, has a voice and speaks, playing a major role in the game's storyline and storytelling. He's tasked with entering Columbia to free Elizabeth, a strong character locked away in a tower, imprisoned by a man named Zachary Comstock, the religious fanatic who runs this floating society and who's worshipped by Columbia's people like a god. Booker and Elizabeth form a strong bond, with their well-developed partnership doing its best to anchor all the shooting (and there's a lot of it) in human emotion and motivation.

Your first half hour or so in Columbia is incredibly memorable; as the outsider, the intruder, you slip in amongst the people, trying to hide your identity as you wander through the city streets. It's a gorgeous day, and the people of Columbia are all out celebrating. You hear bits of dialogue as you wander through the crowds, ("did that waiter's accent sound a little...funny to you?") that gives off a slightly unsettling vibe, jarring amidst the colorful setting and the happiness of the people. You receive a telegram warning you that, for your own good, you should not betray your identity. Eventually you wind up in front of a stage and a cheering crowd, the curtain pulling back to reveal an interracial couple, tied up, with the crowd ready and eager to begin throwing rocks at them as they beg for help. A baseball is placed in your hand, with the game telling you to make the choice of throwing it at them or the announcer.

It's at this point that Bioshock: Infinite is genuinely scary, feeling more like a horror game than anything else. I'd have loved for it to have continued like this for its entirety, but, suffice it to say, your identity is revealed shortly thereafter, and you spend much of the rest of the game running from and shooting down Columbia's citizens as they try their best to take you out, believing you to be the fabled False Shepherd who has arrived to destroy their society.

And it's at this point that Bioshock: Infinite becomes a shooter, and though it's one of the best shooters I've ever played, a good deal of intrigue and tension is lost as the game goes on, and clearing out wave upon wave of enemies becomes routine. It's never without its fun, however, as there's some fantastic combat mechanics in place to keep things interesting. As in past Bioshock games, you fight enemies with a mix of Plasmids (powers that you acquire over the course of the game) and traditional firearms, and switching between Plasmids can be done on the fly, which is nice. You can carry two guns at a time, and plenty of ammunition as well, though not so much that you can waste it by carelessly shooting. Your shield regenerates, though your HP meter does not, so any damage taken while your shield is depleted does not come back until you pick up health packs or food items.

There is thankfully no limit to the amount of items you can carry, (if there is I haven't reached it) so you can explore the environments and pick up items without worrying about managing an inventory, which remains one of my favorite aspects of this series. As you explore you can pick up Voxophones, which are small recording devices that play you bits of dialogue, giving you insight into the world, its people, and their society. As is Bioshock tradition, these recordings are incredible and really serve to immerse you in this unique world and its twisted characters. Infinite struggles at times with the integration of these, as the frequent dialogue between Booker and Elizabeth can interrupt the recordings midway through. It's something that can be a little annoying, though the game gives you the opportunity to listen to them again or read their transcripts in the menu at any time, which is helpful.

Bioshock: Infinite adds the character of Elizabeth into the proceedings, and she proves to be a great addition. She stays out of the way during combat, searching the battlefield for items for you, including ammunition, HP recovery items, money, and Salts to recharge your Plasmids. If you're low on one of these and she finds one, she'll offer to toss it to you in the heat of battle without missing a beat, which works incredibly well. Later on, her own unique powers are revealed to you, and she can summon objects for you to take cover behind, or even automated weaponry to help you take out enemies. It's a very cool and well thought out addition to the gunplay.

Another awesome new feature is the addition of the Skylines, which Booker can magnetically attach himself to and zip around the battlefields on like a roller coaster. Though these are a little tough to navigate at first, once I got the hang of it I had a blast integrating them into my combat strategy whenever the opportunity presented itself.

Sadly, where Bioshock: Infinite sees a major step back is in the customization of your character. Past Bioshock games gave you such an incredible amount of customization options that you could use to grow and develop your main character, to really make him your own. To give you the choice between harvesting or rescuing Little Sisters and receiving more or less ADAM for this process. Bioshock Infinite scales this back considerably, with character advancement literally as simple as paying money to level your guns and plasmids up at vending machines and finding HP expansions in the environments. That's it. Hacking has also been entirely eliminated; an unfortunate loss, given how much fun I had with it in the original Bioshock. 

Going with its more traditional FPS design, Bioshock: Infinite does away with the Vita Chambers entirely. When you died in Bioshock, you didn't lose your progress, the game simply starting you back at a Vita Chamber with a small penalty. Infinite similarly doesn't take away your progress, though it takes some of your money and restores your enemies' HP just a little bit. But it starts you back, in most cases, right near where you died, and with much of your ammunition being somehow refilled, taking away almost all the penalties for dying.

Furthermore, there are almost no boss battles to speak of. Bosses may not have played a major role in past Bioshock games, but Infinite really hurts from its almost complete lack of any major boss encounters, with even the final boss consisting of (yawn) wave upon wave of enemies from earlier in the game assaulting you from all angles. Haven't we seen enough of this by now in modern Western game design?

Thankfully, though it's within the mold of a typical FPS, Bioshock: Infinite is anything but. The storyline may not delve as deep into religion and racism as it seemed to promise at the outset, and the ending, to me, plays a trick that feels incredibly cheap. It's also unfortunate that the citizens of Columbia didn't, in the end, serve as much more than a shooting gallery. Still, the story throughout brings you along for the ride, and the dynamic between Booker and Elizabeth is incredibly well-written and is delivered with excellent vocal performances. Troy Baker (Final Fantasy XIII, Resident Evil 6) continues in what must be his mission to appear in every single video game ever, and his voice is the perfect fit for Booker, somehow managing to bring both a toughness and a vulnerability to the character that suits him very well. Elizabeth's voice actress, similarly, does a top notch job.


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Verdict: Bioshock: Infinite sees the series make huge strides into the role of a more standard FPS, and it does a great job at maintaining much of its artistic integrity even as it dumbs itself down (a bit) presumably to reach a wider audience. Like with many video games today, I wish the resolution to everything wasn't as simple as gunning down as many baddies as possible, because Bioshock has in the past proven itself to be much more thoughtful than that.

Still, what it does, it does very well. Bioshock: Infinite is a great shooter, one that tells a compelling tale that may not delve as deep as I'd have hoped, but one that nevertheless grabs you from the start and doesn't let go. Great shooting gameplay and an amazing setting help to make almost every minute of the game a fun and unique experience, even as you engage in yet another gun battle against nameless foes. Bioshock Infinite is a little too simple to provide as rich of an experience as the original Bioshock did, but it's a journey worth taking all the same.

Presentation: Great, if a bit straightforward, storyline, decently short load times, easy to navigate menus. Incredibly well-made game with much to see and do. Vast reduction of the "Good/Evil" choices that this series has done so well is a little disappointing.

Graphics: Though no longer as impressive as Bioshock's were back in the day, Infinite sports incredible art direction and smooth technical prowess, some framerate drops aside. Columbia is a world truly brought to life by incredible artistry.

Gameplay: Pushing Bioshock more towards your average FPS than it has ever been, it nevertheless does this very well. Environments are still fairly expansive, and you have the freedom, to a degree, (though it's almost never required) to backtrack. Solid character customization options that are a little too simple by series standards.

Sound: Music that draws you in without drawing too much attention to itself. Great voice acting.

Replay Value: Game ends at just about the right time. Downloadable Content is available should you want to pay (sigh) to extend the adventure. No multiplayer this time around, but that's alright.

Overall: 8.0/10