Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Review: It's hard not to feel that this game could have been so much more, but for what it is, Sonic Generations is a fun, well-made tribute to the blue blur.

There's nothing like watching the character from your first video game turning 20 to remind you of how old you are. Well, that and knowing that 11-12 year olds these days missed the 90s altogether....damn. But yes, 2011 marks Sonic's 20th birthday, and Sega has chosen to celebrate it by releasing Sonic Generations, a game which pays tribute to Sonic's many adventures over the past two decades. With gameplay evenly split between Sonic's current self and his Sega Genesis self, with some of the series' best level design, and with lots of replay value and bonus missions to complete, there's no doubt that Sonic Generations is a quality title and a definite pick-up for anyone who has ever called themselves a Sonic fan.

The game begins -where else- at Sonic's birthday party. Many of the series' characters are there, congratulating Sonic on growing a year older. Their celebrations are cut short, however, by a mysterious and villainous force, which pulls them all into a new world drained of color. Sonic wakes up to find his friends frozen, and he sets out to unfreeze them and bring color back to this world, which consists of a collection of his memories. Soon he meets his Classic self, a design based on Sonic's Sega Genesis character model, and the plot occasionally, but not nearly often enough, features a fun dynamic between the two as they work together to stop the entity responsible for their troubles.

The important thing about the two Sonics turns out not to be their role in the storyline but rather how they influence the gameplay. Each of the game's zones features two acts; one in which you play as Classic Sonic, with his Genesis gameplay intact, and one in which you play as Modern Sonic, which is a far better-controlling take on Sonic's gameplay from his last 360/PS3 adventure, Sonic Unleashed. I was definitely concerned initially, especially after the mess that was the first episode of Sonic the Hedgehog 4, about how Classic Sonic would control and play, but my fears were put to rest almost immediately. Though there are some slight differences, and he moves noticeably faster when spin dashing, Classic Sonic controls very much in the spirit of how he did in the Genesis games, with physics to match, and I found myself instantly at home while playing as him. This section of gameplay takes place of course pretty much entirely in 2D, and offers some of the longest Classic Sonic levels in the series' history. It's hard not to be impressed by the many paths always available throughout each act. The fact that I knew, from my familiarity with the Genesis games, that "okay, I can jump on that guy, and he'll give me enough height to reach that ledge!" and the fact that SonicTeam really still has a knack for inventive 2D platforming, makes for some truly fun levels here. So much so in fact that I found myself shaking my head and asking myself many times why they decided to outsource Sonic the Hedgehog 4 to DIMPS when SonicTeam clearly knows 2D platforming so well.

The good news is that Modern Sonic also plays remarkably well. There are far fewer bottomless pits than there were in Unleashed and Sonic Colors, his Drifting mechanics, which felt nearly useless in the past, have been improved significantly, many paths have been added, the QTE trick system is gone, and all in all, his controls feel much tighter. The amount of paths through these levels is nothing short of stunning. Many times I found myself falling down a pit, totally ready to lose a life, but to my surprise, I'd end up still alive, but on a different path, and that's the way Sonic should be. The trial-and-error level design mechanics which put a dent in my enjoyment of last year's Sonic Colors are gone here. Bottomless pits are marked, there are lots of opportunities for 3D platforming (playing as Modern Sonic is not simply a boost-fest) and the speed at which Sonic tears through these levels is at times nothing short of jaw-dropping.

Sonic Generations is also loaded with fan service. The many Sonic tunes that can be found and unlocked, their new remixes, all the unlockable concept art, the fact that each stage is a re-imagination of a past Sonic stage, and of course, the return of Classic Sonic's gameplay, will ensure that long-time fans of the series will have plenty to be excited about as they play through Sonic Generations.

In its central gameplay, this game definitely delivers. I have almost no complaints about how both Classic and Modern Sonic play, and this is a huge landmark for the series. Here there are no gimmicky powers (with the exception of the Planet Wisp stage) there are no Werehogs, and there are no other playable characters; it's simply Sonic as he is now and Sonic as he was then, and I couldn't be happier with how both of them play.

That's not to say that Sonic Generations is perfect, though I really wish I could say that it was. Despite the rock solid gameplay, I can't help but feel disappointed in the game that's wrapped around it. For all the commotion about Sonic's 20th birthday and the epic game this promised to be, Sonic Generations feels small to me, almost more like a taste of Sonic's past than a full-fledged tribute, and while I know that some fans will be completely happy with this, for me it all feels a little half-assed.

First thing's first; The Hedgehog Engine which powered Sonic Unleashed returns here, and along with it, the bright visuals and incredible draw distance. Everything has the same warm glow that Unleashed did, and it creates some beautiful-looking areas. Also returning however is the unstable framerate. While nothing in Sonic Generations feels quite as choppy as the framerate in Unleashed levels like Adabat or Eggmanland, Generations never reaches its silky smooth heights either, falling somewhere in the middle. In almost any given level you'll run into some choppiness, and though it's not game-ruining by any stretch, it is a bit of a bummer, especially with Sonic's emphasis on speed, to see him hitting so many framerate rough patches. It's also unfortunate that SonicTeam, maybe in an attempt to help the framerate or hide Sonic Generations' sometimes embarrassingly bad texturework, went overboard with the motion blur. Every time Sonic speeds up, especially Classic Sonic, his surroundings and the background images become so blurry that I at one point questioned whether there was something wrong with my eyes. Go back and boot up Sonic Unleashed and you'll find a much sharper picture, and why this was done, I have no idea, but it makes it difficult to appreciate the colorful graphics when they frequently dissolve into a background blur. There's even several instances of pop-up, which I don't remember ever happening in Unleashed. It might be that Sonic Generations received a budget cut, or that less care went into its visuals with Hedgehog Engine creator and Unleashed director Yoshihisa Hashimoto no longer with SonicTeam, but either way, it's sad that the visuals aren't all that they could have been.

It's also amazing to me that SonicTeam didn't feel compelled to include more levels than they have. Here we have a game that's supposed to cover and celebrate Sonic's history, and it does, to an extent, but with only 9 zones, it feels more a checklist of each game than a full-on celebration of them. Some games, like Sonic 3, aren't represented at all, which is weird, since the game's producer, Takashi Iizuka, started his work on the series with Sonic 3. Don't get me wrong, it's amazing to get to blast through Chemical Plant as Modern Sonic, actually, it's a series highlight. But....really; there wasn't more from the incredible Sonic the Hedgehog 2 that they wanted to include? It's in this way that Sonic Generations feels more like a sampling from each game than a full-on embrace of them. Every Sonic game here is represented by only 1 stage, and while saying that they didn't always pick the best stage is of course a matter of opinion, it's a thought that I feel many will have. The few levels included when there were so many amazing ones to pick from is all the more surprising when the game ends as quickly as it does. Another 3 levels even would have been ideal, but like Sonic Colors, I felt that Generations ends just a little too soon.

The fact that these levels are all re-imaginings of older levels, along with the fact that the game puts them in order, gives Sonic Generations the unintended consequence of feeling predictable. Though I made it a point to avoid knowing all the levels that were to be included beforehand, it turned out to be unavoidable for me and probably for most people playing as well. So when you know what all the included levels are going to look like, and you know what order they'll appear in, and with both Classic and Modern Sonic being refinements of past gameplay styles rather than new experiences, you pretty much know from the start what Sonic Generations has to offer, and the game has almost no surprises up its sleeve. There are some cool rival battles and a fun boss fight or two, but even in this category it feels like there should have been far more. What's offered is great, but why are there so few of them? And why is the final boss so awful?

The story also leaves much to be desired. The world, which consists of a white path and a bunch of old levels littering it, is the blandest ever to be featured in a Sonic game, and the mini-cutscenes that take place when Sonic frees his friends are incredibly awkward. Again, there was so much to pull from, including the potentially awesome dynamic of Classic and Modern Sonic working together, but even with the great new voice actors returning from Colors, Sonic Generations feels like fan fiction that was thrown together in about 45 minutes. How can you make a Sonic game where Dr. Eggman feels like a cameo appearance?

To the game's credit, though, while it does end quickly, the replay value's pretty good. Each zone has a series of missions to undertake, both as Classic and Modern Sonic. Completing only one mission per zone is required to progress through the game, but doing others helps net you tons of unlockable music and concept art, and there are also powerups you can buy for the Sonics, or to unlock by collecting the Red Rings throughout the stages. People wanting to explore all of these possibilities can pump untold amounts of hours into the game, though unlocking music and concept art, while cool, ultimately didn't prove to be enough of an incentive for me to continue playing the game much beyond its conclusion; maybe before the age of Youtube it would have been, but you can hear all the music there and you can only view so much concept art before that loses its appeal too.


Verdict: All of these flaws serve not to ruin the game, they just prevent Sonic Generations from being the ultimate tribute that I think it wants to be. The number of levels included barely scratches the surface of Sonic's stay in gaming, the story's a big missed opportunity, the game offers little in the way of surprises, and the added missions, while cool, still don't feel like enough. Why not bring back some of Sonic's great mini-games like Chao raising, the multiplayer battle features, the Twinkle Park racing, Colors' co-op play.....something? Sonic Generations feels like a selection of great Sonic levels, and they truly are great, in a game that feels like it was hastily thrown together around them. For many fans, this will be completely fine and a more than fitting tribute. For others, like myself, Sonic Generations feels a little bit empty. Still, what can't be denied is that level design-wise, this game's incredible, and there's no shortage of fun to be had here. I recommend Sonic Generations to all fans of Sonic; it's a tribute that, while, in my opinion, is incomplete, is still very much worth experiencing.

Presentation: Convenient but rather bland hub world, basic and thrown together storyline. But lots to complete if you want to, and there's no shortage of fan service to be had.

Graphics: Colorful but blurry and with poor textures and a sometimes rocky framerate. Not an awful-looking game but far from being great, and this is coming from someone who still finds Sonic Unleashed to be the best-looking platformer this generation.

Gameplay: Fast action, great platforming, tons of multiple paths, no other characters or fluff to slow things down. This is Sonic done right. Optional bonus missions are hit and miss and the game's over too quickly. Needs more bosses and levels!

Sound: Some of the remixes are pretty awful but many of the originals are here. The classic Sonic sounds are of course intact. Very nostalgic audio experience. Voice acting, especially for Modern Sonic, is pretty good.

Replay Value: Lots of bonus missions to do, not a whole lot of compelling content to unlock. Still, completionists will be kept busy for a long time.

Overall: 8/10

(My reviews go on a .5 scale. This review was for the Xbox 360 version.)

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Review: Star Fox 64 3D is a lot of fun, but not for $40.

I have to say, playing Star Fox 64 3D gave me one of the biggest moments of complete shock that I've experienced in a video game in a long time. But before I get into that, some background; this was my first time ever playing Star Fox 64, and after Ocarina of Time was brought over to the 3DS very successfully, it seemed that there was no better time to give this classic N64 title a shot as well. Sure enough, Star Fox 64 has been brought over to the 3DS with flying colors. The game makes great use of the 3D effect, the graphics have been given a major revamp, the action's fun, and the (traditional) controls work very well. All the markings of a great game, but then, after literally 1 hour and 57 minutes of playtime, I got the end credits; now, that bummed me out.

It's an interesting point of discussion; this is of course a remake of an older title, and an older title which was very well-received. With the graphical updates, the 3D, the new gyro controls (though do yourself a favor and switch these off) and a lack of a true Star Fox game since Namco dropped the ball with Star Fox Assault back on the Gamecube, Nintendo probably felt little reason to add more to this remake, but the question is, should they have? I have to say that despite how much I enjoyed the game, hitting the end credits so quickly put a big dent in my overall experience, and I just can't get past that. I'm definitely falling on the "game's not worth a buy at a full price" side of the fence here.

Now, to be fair, there's more to do after you watch the ending, as Star Fox 64 is a very score-driven game and there are multiple paths and other levels to access, but still, you're looking at under 5 hours of playtime here and I just can't justify that for a $40 price point in this day and age.

That said, there are some things I definitely have to commend here that might add some value to this purchase. As a showcase for the 3DS' 3D capabilities, Star Fox 64 is pretty fantastic. With enemy aircraft flying the skies, with all the bullets constantly soaring by the screen, with the game's fast speeds and hectic action, this feels like it was born to to play in 3D and it does this very well. You can opt to use the system's tilt controls for steering but I can't for the life of me figure out why anyone would use this option, as this removes your eyes from the screen and messes with the 3D effect, and given how great this game's 3D presentation is, I'd stick with that over the gyro controls, but you have a choice, which is nice. The standard controls work well and the game runs pretty fluidly for the most part, with the exception of some framerate drops here and there, and the voice acting's still awful, which I guess gives the game a little bit of extra charm. If you've never played Star Fox 64 before then this is a great way to get to experience it...

...but why didn't they add more to this? If they knew they were going to remake a very short game, why not add new levels, why not add online to the multiplayer, why not fix the pop-up, why not do *something* to justify this game's $40 price point?

Verdict: This really should have been an entirely new Star Fox game, which would have been a real treat. Still, for those of us who haven't played the original, this is great fun and a fine showcase for the 3DS, well, while it lasts. It's a short game, one that I just can't say is worth the money. If you don't mind a game that's this short, feel free to change my score to an 8/10, because what's here is great, there's just not enough of it. At least, for my tastes.


Presentation: The classically bad voice actors and lip sync have been left in place, for better or worse. Menus are slick and the story gets you from one level to the next. Makes great use of the 3D.

Graphics: Maybe not the best-looking 3DS game and some pop-up definitely shows, but there are some beautiful moments and overall this is a great update visually over the N64 game.

Gameplay: A lot of fun, great controls, intense action, great old school gameplay re-packaged for a modern audience.

Sound: Nintendo fans will have no trouble recognizing these tunes.

Value: Under 2 hours to reach the end credits, 5 hours of gameplay here at most if you want to reach additional levels via branching paths and harder difficulty settings. But still, short, and lack of online's incredibly weak.

Overall: 6.5/10, though 8/10 if you can nab it for under $20.

Note: My reviews go on a .5 scale.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Blog Post: Have to say, Activision deserves some credit for Skylanders.

Anyone remember Spyro the Dragon back on the Playstation? A counterpart to the linear and straightforward Crash Bandicoot, Spyro leaned more heavily on the exploration and collection elements that Nintendo 64 platformers specialized in. Though I have to say that I never got into Spyro personally, I many of my friends loved the games and they were all well-regarded in the critical community.

After the third title in the series, Spyro: Year of the Dragon, series developer Insomniac went on ultimately to create Ratchet and Clank, and, eventually, the Resistance series, while Spyro was left in the hands of a variety of different studios. All of whom, it's widely agreed upon, failed to re-capture the quality and the magic of Insomniac's Spyro titles.

Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure is notable in that it's not even trying to appeal to old Spyro fans; instead, it's focusing almost entirely on little kids of the Bakugan and Beyblade generation. These kids (and their parents) are used to "collecting stuff," just as my generation loved collecting our Pokemon cards, and Skylanders is likely to make Activision boatloads of money. Simply put, to unlock new playable characters in the game, you actually have to go out and buy their toys, (30 in all) place them on the Portal of Power, and watch the game bring them to life. The game itself plays it safe, with simple combat mechanics and un-adventurous game design. The point of Skylanders is to jump into battle with your new action figures (and with your friends) and the game looks to deliver on that front.

In a mark of complete genius, it doesn't even matter which system you're playing on. All of your character's progress, stat boosts, power-ups, experiences, etc. are saved to each toy, which can then be taken to any Portal of Power, even if it's on a different system, be loaded into it, and boom, you're enjoying co-op with your friend. It's platform-agnostic multiplayer play and actually a pretty great idea.

In an unusual move, Skylanders was developed with the Wii as its primary console, (at one point it was planned to be a Wii exclusive, likely before Activision saw the $$$ potential) with the ports to other systems being handled by different studios. The graphics look great for a Wii game, film composer Hans Zimmer is doing the music, the story was written by two of the Toy Story scribes, and the characters and their toys are of course cool-looking enough that kids will love them and will definitely want to buy as many as possible. Will it matter to them that developer, Toys for Bob's previous releases include "blah" games like as Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam, Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, and 102 Dalmations: Puppies to the Rescue?

In a sense, with the near death of 3D platforming, it's pretty depressing to see such a beloved genre come to this. Skylanders is a calculated release, to be sure; a product of pure market research and a grab for the cash from a young, lucrative demographic. Looking around at the industry press and seeing and the reactions from long-time gamers, it's impossible to deny the complete and total indifference among them for Skylanders. I have to say, though, that little kids are going to love this game; I would have, if I were a little kid, and apparently Activision's spending tons of money to get its appeal out there to them.

I guess if there's any hope for this, it's that these kids will grow up to demand more (and better) 3D platformers, but that's probably just wishful thinking on my part. Either way, I have to say, in an age when beloved (non-Nintendo) gaming franchises are failing to find an audience in today's market, Activision deserves props for getting kids who weren't even alive when this franchise was in its heyday to once again care about it. Even if their interest has nothing whatsoever to do with Spyro himself.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Review: Ocarina of Time 3DS proves to be a fun game for a first-timer like myself.

Back in the late 90s, the video game industry reached a major paradigm shift; we saw the evolution from 2D to 3D, and developers at Nintendo, Sega, as well as countless others were faced with the unenviable task of bringing their beloved classic franchises into the 3D gaming landscape. There were success stories and failures from these undertakings, but one series whose 3D rebirth was seen as a resounding success was the Legend of Zelda. Ocarina of Time received rave reviews and countless perfect scores upon its release on the N64, and the game has been heralded ever since as a classic.

I had missed out on most of this, having owned an N64 but using it mainly for multiplayer purposes, most of my single player gaming at the time taking place on the Dreamcast. Ocarina had spent a small amount of time in my N64 system but it wasn't a game I had ever managed to get far in. Years later I checked out the Gamecube Zelda game, Wind Waker, which I loved. Twilight Princess, its followup, not so much. Playing Ocarina of Time though was something I had been wanting to do for quite a while, and after giving it a shot on the Wii's Virtual Console and hating the experience (the controls, whose buttons obviously didn't match the N64 buttons the game was telling me to use, were difficult to get the hang of, the menu system felt clunky and totally unintuitive, the graphics, while impressive for their time, felt muddy, etc) I decided that, with the 3DS getting its price drop, there was no better time to check the game out.

Now that you know my history with the Zelda series, I'll jump right in with my review of Ocarina of Time 3D, a game that's not simply a port of the N64 original but a remake with a complete visual overhaul, a far-improved interface with an easier-to-use menu system, better controls, and of course, the 3D capabilities offered by the handheld. Though Ocarina of Time has aged in ways that this remake doesn't do a whole lot to address, it's an enjoyable game and one I'm glad I finally got to experience.

Visuals: Surrounded by a roster of mostly underwhelming titles, Ocarina of Time 3D is a game that truly demonstrates the capabilities of Nintendo's new handheld. The world's vibrant and colorful, the characters of Link and Zelda look, in my opinion, the best they've ever looked, (yes, including Twilight Princess) the bosses especially look awesome, the non-player characters have entertaining appearances...and overall, it's hard not to be impressed by just how great this looks. It's hard to tell that it originated from the Nintendo 64, with that system's often-muddy textures replaced by visuals that can best be described as "sharp." The wide variety of locales to explore all carry with them a unique look and the 3D adds a great amount of depth to the visuals that make things really pop. Cutscenes, especially with the 3D on, look excellent; always impressively cinematic for N64 cutscenes, this remake allows them to really shine. There's some slowdown during a couple of the more hectic boss fights and a few traces of enemies or objects popping in, but aside from that, I have no complaints about Ocarina of Time 3D's visual presentation.

Gameplay: After your "wake up in the village" tutorial that has since become standard in the Zelda series, you're free to explore a map that feels, well, almost tiny today, but back on the N64 I can imagine gamers' jaws dropping at the sight of it. This is a game that encourages exploration at every turn. When you're in Castle Town you can enter shops to play mini-games, you can complete sidequests to collect heart pieces and more powerful weapons, you can increase the amount of money you carry, and all sorts of stuff. Following the main quest takes you through a couple of towns and a series of dungeons as you work to thwart the evil Gannondorf. The dungeons can present a challenge but they're rarely too tedious due to their often incredibly well-thought out design. They're created around a central room, so dying during a dungeon or having to save your progress and quit (both of which keep your progress but start you at the entrance) isn't nearly as big a pain as it became in future Zelda games, especially Twilight Princess and its maze-like dungeons, where wandering back to where you left off was an ordeal. The 3DS version also has another advantage; you can simply close your system to put it in sleep mode, and can continue the game from exactly that point next time you open it up, which, as you can imagine, comes in handy. The bosses are generally fun, with no two feeling exactly alike, though you won't find them to be as impressive as in the more modern Zelda games.

Ocarina of Time has a cool time travel aspect that plays a large role in both the game's story and in its gameplay. At a certain point during this adventure, Link becomes an adult, and Adult Link uses different weapons than Childhood Link, and his world has some key differences from the one he left behind. The game also makes great use of the ocarina in its title, and it proves to be one of the cooler Zelda game "devices" that you get to use. The world you get to explore is charming, with a couple of surprisingly busy towns (surprising due to this being an N64 game, not exactly surprising by today's standards) and some locations, like Zora's Domain, that prove to be incredibly memorable. During the 31 hours it took me to complete this game's main quest (with a small amount of sidequesting) I really felt like I had seen and experienced so much, which is the markings of an epic adventure.

My issues with this game are shared, to an extent, with the issues I had with Twilight Princess, mainly, its emphasis on dungeons. Ocarina of Time is a dungeon-heavy experience, with you going essentially from one dungeon to another. Though you do have an endless opportunity to explore the game's world, the vast majority of your main quest is spent in dungeons. The story itself, which can be both charming and interesting at times, begins to feel like little more than a checklist to get you from one dungeon to another as the game goes on. This is the opposite of a Zelda game like Wind Waker, whose out-of-dungeon world was its main attraction and received the most play time. OOT resembles Twilight Princess in the sense that the dungeons are what you'll spend most of your time doing. The key difference between the two games is that Ocarina of Time's dungeons are actually pretty fun for the most part, (well, maybe not Jabu-Jabu's belly) whereas Twilight Princess' made me want to pull my hair out. Still, I can't help but find myself wishing in games like this that the world outside played just as big a role as the inside of the dungeons. There's certainly lots to do in Ocarina of Time, but as far as the main story goes, it's a dungeon crawl.

Another issue I have with Ocarina of Time is its sometimes lack of explanation for what it wants you to do. Games today often avoid this, letting you know at least a general idea of where you're next supposed to go. Ocarina of Time does this to a certain extent, but in other instances, it's guilty of expecting you to figure out what to do on your own, which isn't easy when there's so many optional tasks to undertake at any given moment, making it hard to tell the difference between the two. When I first began playing I found myself wandering aimlessly through a maze in the game's opening village, believing that this was where I was supposed to go. In reality, that was for much later in the game. At another point, you're supposed to get inside the belly of a giant creature with no explanation whatsoever on how to do this; you have to go back to collect a certain object and bring it back to him, but good luck finding that one out without checking a walkthrough. Acquiring required items like the fire arrows and the lens of truth similarly involves backtracking to areas you've been already but with no guidance from the game as to what these areas are or even that you need these items, until you find yourself partway through a dungeon and realize that you can't progress without them. And don't even get me started on the sleeping guy and the chicken egg.

The game's map attempts to guide you in the right direction by highlighting certain areas but doesn't always do such a great job of it, and Navi, the helper you're given, has no personality and offers such useless advice that it's at times unintentionally hilarious. Exclusive to the 3DS version, Navi now tells you after a certain amount of time that she's tired and that you "should maybe consider taking a break," which comes across as unnecessary. Does Nintendo really think that we can't tell when we're tired? The 3DS version also offers you hint videos for bosses if it sees you dying, or also in select areas of the game, you can view video hints of how to solve certain puzzles. These additions I imagine can be helpful for casual gamers or those new to this type of game, but OOT 3D does such a poor job of letting you know about them that I wouldn't be surprised if most people miss these features entirely.

These flaws aside, though, Ocarina of Time's a fun game, one that I almost always found myself eager to turn on. I wish it wasn't as dungeon-heavy as it is, and I wish some effort was made to make it a bit more helpful in case you got stuck, but all in all, it's easy to see why this captivated so many people back on the N64. The dungeon progression's like clockwork, and even today there's some shockingly clever game design to be experienced in them.

Sound: Some repeating tracks aside, Ocarina of Time sports a great soundtrack that never fails to set the mood. Zora's Domain has a relaxing song that perfectly captures its mood, the world map theme's appropriately epic, the towns have music that fit their atmosphere, and the dungeons feature foreboding and dark tunes without going overboard with them. Cutscene music's also good, particularly during the game's ending, and the sound effects are as great as they always are in Zelda, especially at night.


Verdict: Ocarina of Time's a game that has held up pretty well despite its age. Its aspects that may have made it difficult for new gamers to jump in before (dated graphics and menus, N64 controls) are fixed in this version, making Ocarina of Time 3D the definitive version of the title for those who haven't yet experienced it. Some aspects show their age, most notably in the way it tells you what to do, and its dungeon-heavy nature isn't my favorite, but all in all, this is a true epic and an important game in the industry's history. If you're entirely new to the Zelda series I'd still recommend checking out Wind Waker first (my personal favorite so far) but for Zelda fans who have yet to experience this adventure, the time has never been better.

Presentation: Story gets the job done without doing a whole lot more. This is certainly not the strongest Zelda game story-wise, though certain moments, especially the game's ending, have the capability to tug at the heartstrings. Cutscenes look great, especially in 3D. Menu interface is vastly improved and makes all the difference. Game makes great use of the touch screen.

Graphics: Beautiful game that sheds its N64 roots almost entirely. A true showcase of the 3DS' capabilities and a sign that 3D can be used for more than just a gimmick. Some slowdown.

Gameplay: This is the game that all future Zelda games would be based on, and it was absolutely revolutionary for its time. Today, it shows its age in some areas and features a little too big a focus on dungeons for my liking. Still, the world's got plenty to offer and the dungeons are often fun and showcase some very smart design. Fun game.

Audio: Great soundtrack despite the short length of many of its songs. Nice use of sound effects.

Replay Value: You unlock the Master Quest when you beat it (though it should have been available from the start for the many who have already played OOT in one form or another) and the game itself has the potential to take you tons of time if you try to do everything.

Overall: 7.5/10(Final thought: I liked it much better than Twilight Princess, but nowhere near as much as Wind Waker. Have never played Majora's Mask.) (Note: My reviews go on a .5 scale.)

Monday, September 12, 2011

Hey all, I'm coming back

How's it been going, blog readers? It has actually been a long time since I've blogged at the same level that I used to; in short, I've had a pretty incredible summer, one which I hope has been a source of great emotional (and professional) growth for me. That said, not only is the summer a traditionally slow time for the gaming industry, with many of its heaviest hitters sitting on the bench until the holiday season, but this year I've been too busy with life's callings to devote much time to the games which *did* release.

I'm working to return gaming and writing about gaming to its place in my life; an industry in which I aspire to get into and a hobby that has always been my passion. I've recently picked up a Nintendo 3DS and despite my sketicism, I couldn't be happier with the handheld so far. On the console front, I'm catching up on some old games I've missed, such as Super Paper Mario, but I also hope to get into the likes of Deus Ex: Human Revolution. On the 3DS, I'm working to finish (for the first time) Ocarina of Time, as well as Rayman 2 and Star Fox 64. I'll have impressions and, eventually, reviews up for all of these games, and I'll be continuing to supply a steady stream of news, editorials, podcast appearances, and even reviews to

So, if you like what I write, keep an eye out. I'll be trying to update this blog more frequently in the months going forward, and remember, you can follow me on Twitter for not only notifications on blog updates but also for any other random crap that I happen to want to share with the world. Last year was absolutely jam-packed with gaming; this year has so far been much more subdued as far as big releases go, but it's still only September. We'll see how the next 3 months look!


Monday, August 1, 2011

3DS price drop: How Nintendo messed up, and can they fix the damage?

Man, sometimes it feels like Nintendo's existing on an entirely different planet from the rest of us. I haven't seen the industry's #1 company making so many bad decisions since, well, Sony with their $600 PS3. What amazes me though is that even with there being so much talk and speculation about smartphones and their impact on the handheld market, even with the "DS" systems mainly appealing to families and kids, and even with Nintendo constantly stressing affordability, they were still willing to take the wind right out from the sails of their impressive 3DS reveal by later announcing a launch price of $249.99....for a handheld system. A handheld system in the DS family, which saw not 1, but 3 new "improved" versions of itself (DS Lite, DSi, DSi XL) in an extremely short period of time; how did Nintendo think parents would react to having to purchase yet anther DS, one for the ridiculous price of $250?

But let's step back for a second. When the Nintendo 3DS was first fully revealed at E3 2010, Nintendo blew everyone away. They showed off an impressive roster of 1st and 3rd party titles (many in name only) that looked to be catering to the hardcore gamer, rather than the families and kids who now make up much of the DS userbase. In fact, Iwata has recently blamed the 3DS' poor performance on the fact that the system has been catering to the hardcore gamer more than the casual, a statement that's almost laughable when one looks at the 3DS' software lineup. Sure, the high price point seems to be targeting the hardcore gamer, but what games on this thing are hardcore gamers supposed to be interested in? Nintendo delivered for launch a shallow Pilotwings spinoff game, a (pointless) Nintendogs sequel that nobody asked for, and Steel Diver, a game universally criticized for being, well, boring. How is this appealing to the hardcore market, exactly? What games on the 3DS to date would inspire non-Nintendo fanboys to rush out and buy a handheld system for $250? Street Fighter IV was a great title and portable experience but then again, it was a port...and looking back at that E3 reveal, the vast majority of those big-name games have no release date. $250? Are you kidding, Nintendo? Who did they expect to buy this thing?

The timing of this sudden $80 price drop looks to me like Nintendo was waiting on Ocarina of Time (another port) to save their system, yet another decision that doesn't take into account the fact that most people have played this often-ported (and rom'd) game to death by now. To those who haven't, well, it's an old game. My first Zelda was Wind Waker, and from there I played Twilight Princess. Ocarina of Time is a game that many people have recommended to me countless times, and after finally buying it on the Virtual Console recently, I'm discovering that while I can appreciate how impressive it was for its time and while I can marvel at what it did for the industry, it's hard to get past the fact that this is simply an old game, there's no way around it. Even with the 3DS version's improvements, I don't think it will win many new fans.

So essentially, Nintendo's stuck with a handheld that was intended to target older gamers, yet, like with the Wii, Nintendo seems totally out of touch with how to appeal to these older games from a software perspective. It takes more than retro franchises and nostalgia to win this group over, something Nintendo never seems to learn. And from the looks of things, they're already giving up. E3 2011 saw a different face to the 3DS, one bringing out (yet again) more Mario titles like Mario Kart and Luigi's Mansion 2, another sequel that I don't think anybody was clamoring for. Nintendo will now try to win over the same casual audiences who made the DS such a smash hit; the same casual audiences who abandoned the Wii once the Kinect hit shelves, and the same casual audience who will abandon the 3DS once they buy their first smartphones. This is the audience who will be worried about their kids exposing their eyes to the 3D images of the system thanks to the warnings that Nintendo continually advertises. Iwata says he will step up the promotion of the feature that allows you to adjust the 3D viewing, which means that basically, Nintendo will be telling people "well, you can turn the 3D off," which seems like yet another mixed message to send. Isn't the 3D the 3DS' main feature? Why would people want to turn it off unless it sucks?

Not a great message to put out there.

As far as the hardcore gamer, Nintendo's E3 lineup has shown that they won't be doing anything they haven't done before; the 3DS is a more powerful DS, end of story. Hardcore gamers will buy the Playstation Vita (well, maybe,) and Nintendo will once again be relying on casual audiences for their success rather than the loyal fans necessary to build up a fanbase. How Nintendo sees this as a good strategy is beyond me.

I really don't see much of a hope of this getting fixed, I hate to say it. Nintendo's price drop will definitely spur 3DS sales in a big way, as it's the price the system should have been to start with. But as far as a long-term strategy, I don't think this handheld has what it takes to keep the casuals away from smartphones or the hardcore away from the Playstation Vita, which sports far better graphics and more features. The best way going forward for Nintendo to fix this mess is to aggressively promote 3rd party titles such as Metal Gear Solid 3 and Resident Evil Revelations, games that have a shot at appealing to the core gamer. They need to make games like these themselves in addition to stuff like Nintendogs and Mario. And they need to make up their minds on whether they want to sell the 3DS as a system for 3D gaming or as a system where 3D gaming "can be turned off."

It's sad because I want handhelds to succeed; I much prefer playing complex and deeper games on a handheld than the often simplistic crap we get on smartphones (sorry Angry Birds fans). Nintendo though doesn't seem to have any idea what they're doing. I haven't even addressed the 3DS' notoriously short battery life, online features that didn't even make launch, the fact that the 3DS released when the much cheaper DS was still the world's #1 selling system, the games being priced at least $10 too expensively, the world's rapidly dwindling interest in has really been one mistake after another for them. This price cut will help; I might even buy one. But I just don't see how Nintendo can effectively take this system to the heights of the DS in a rapidly changing marketplace and with such a boring list of 1st party titles on the horizon.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Review: Shadows of the Damned has potential but disappoints

I had been looking forward to Shadows of the Damned from the moment it was announced. A game developed by Suda 51, the writer/director behind No More Heroes, which was one of my favorite games this console gen, and executive produced by Resident Evil creator Shinji Mikami (just having come off from developing his own great game, Vanquish) I thought this had potential. Several times throughout the experience, this potential makes itself visible; at others, the game feels tedious, repetitive, and restrictively linear. Shadows of the Damned has its moments, there’s no denying that, but just like with Suda 51/Grasshopper Manufacture’s last game, No More Heroes 2, I find myself stopping short of awarding it a recommendation. (And I honestly have no idea what role Mikami had in this thing, since it never once feels like one of his games. Strange.)

Visuals: Graphically, Shadows of the Damned is very nice. Running on the Unreal Engine, which does great work with lighting effects, areas of this game look very pretty. The art direction’s inspired, the characters are cool-looking, some of the enemies are downright bizarre, and overall, Hell has never looked better. This is actually, come to think of it, Grasshopper Manufacture’s first game on HD platforms, and even without that considered it looks very nice. Certainly not the best-looking game on the systems, (and long load times and some *serious* linearity are a price to pay) but it looks good and the stylish art direction and varied environments keep things fresh.

Storyline: Undoubtedly the best part of Shadows of the Damned is its incredible dialogue and voice acting. The laugh out loud moments are not only quite frequent, but the game’s self-awareness and perfect voice acting really helps keep Shadows of the Damned’s humor varied and unpredictable. Garcia Hotspur (a Suda 51 name if ever there was one) proves to be a likeable main character, but the real star here is his talking gun, Johnson. His existence not only serves to provide the game with a long-running **** joke, but he actually winds up stealing every scene he’s in with his hilarious commentary and excellent vocal delivery. He and Garcia’s banter wind up being the star of the show, and thankfully cutscenes are frequent but short enough so as not to feel like an interruption from the action.

The storyline itself is pretty simple; Paula, Garcia’s girlfriend, is dragged into Hell by demons and it’s up to him to save her. The plot's not terrible; it’s serviceable in that it gets you from one level to the other, but it’s unfortunate that more effort wasn’t put into this part of the game. With such great voice actors and writing, not to mention the fact that Suda 51 and Shinji Mikami’s last collaboration was Killer 7, a game with a truly thought-provoking, groundbreaking, twisted, and memorably horrifying storyline, this just feels like a missed opportunity. I also have to stress that this game never tries to be scary, which is again too bad, because a true horror game from these two would be absolutely terrifying. Even going as far as calling Shadows of the Damned “action horror” would be too much of an over-statement, as this game presents itself almost as a full-on comedy. There’s just no effort to be scary here, and though the story has its moments and more than its fair share of wonderfully weird characters, it just never feels like it’s on the level of Suda 51’s past games.

With such great dialogue, though, you’ll love the cutscenes. The game may not be about a whole lot, but the way it says what it wants to say is pretty near perfect. The story keeps Shadows of the Damned afloat, while the gameplay tries its hardest to capsize it, resulting in an uneven experience that I loved one moment and hated the next.

Gameplay: Shadows of the Damned features an aiming style similar to that of Resident Evil 4 and 5, in which the camera sits behind the character and goes to an over-the-shoulder view when aiming. The difference is that this game, unlike those, not only allows you to move while aiming, but also gives you a dodge button that has Garcia roll out of the way. Dodging makes him momentarily invincible, so it’s a move you’ll find yourself using constantly, especially when enemies begin using otherwise unavoidable moves against you.

At its core, Shadows of the Damned provides a fun gameplay experience. The demons you face off against respond well to being shot in specific places, there’s plenty of enemy variety, and the environments are very cool-looking. Checkpoints are often frequent enough (I’m not going to spoil what those look like) and you have a good deal of customization over your character and his 3 weapons (shotgun, machine gun, and pistol). This stuff’s all solid. The problem is that Shadows of the Damned has some huge flaws that can rear their ugly heads at any time to make what should be a fun experience frustrating.

The game’s first problem is its darkness mechanic. Often in Shadows of the Damned, the demons will trigger darkness upon the world, which immediately begins draining your health. When Garcia gets trapped in darkness, he must either escape it as soon as possible, or, if the game doesn’t give you that option, shooting your light beam at a goat head (yup) on the wall will turn it light again. Any enemies that were in the darkness with you now must also be fired at with the light beam before you can continue to effectively damage them. Shadows of the Damned does not feature regenerating health, instead, Garcia gets his HP back by drinking alcohol, either purchased in vending machines or found throughout the environments. Going into the darkness is often required in order to progress through the game, and you are not given your health back after these segments. So essentially, through no fault of your own, you’ll have to tear through your alcohol surplus at a nearly constant rate just because the game decided “okay, you’re going to lose health here” and threw a darkness segment at you. The dark sections look cool visually but don’t add anything fun to the experience and are certainly not worth all the health you’ll lose when you’re forced to venture through them.

Another problem is that the game features some of the more tedious boss battles I’ve experienced in a long time. Back when Resident Evil 5 came out, I defended its decision to prevent you from aiming and moving at the same time. Many people disagreed with that, but I just don’t think that this type of aiming is well-suited to a run-and-gun action title and Shadows of the Damned validates that point for me. Aiming can be difficult, and more times than I liked, I found myself missing enemies entirely, even when using something like a machine gun. Boss battles, unfortunately, are all about shooting tiny red areas on the boss’s surface, which becomes a nightmare later in the game as bosses start using projectiles a lot more. These guys move fast, and getting Garcia to a place where he can aim at one of these red spots isn’t easy when you have to constantly dodge out of the way to avoid projectiles or other moves by the boss that cover a ridiculously large radius. While I admire the developers’ decision to force you to use all of your weapons on some bosses, the game’s just not long enough to level them all up to a satisfactory level; you really have to focus on one or two of them, unless you happen to be great at finding the hidden gems scattered throughout the levels that level you up. So bringing out my shotgun for the final boss when I was required to was irritating, because it was much weaker than my pistol and machine gun. Once the game gave me the option to upgrade my HP, I stopped bothering with my weapons entirely, and after losing patience from dying so much due to the many Darkness sections, (and suffering through long load times while you’re taken back to the level) I think most of you guys will do the same thing and opt to simply upgrade your health instead of your firepower. Not to mention the game’s complete lack of an ability to let you skip the cutscenes, even after having seen them. Not any fun.

Then there’s the linearity… yeah I know, more whining about linearity, but I have to make a special case for Shadows of the Damned, which is about as linear as games get. There’s only one path through each level, with small branches along the way leading to gems, ammo, or stuff like that. Let’s say though that you see a fork in the road and take a path, walk a few yards down it, and realize that this is where you go to progress the story. You’re out of luck if you want to go back those few yards to see what’s down the other path, as the game will throw a force field in the way preventing you from backtracking. Yeah, really.

Don’t get me wrong, linearity’s not typically a big problem for me, especially in an action game, but Shadows of the Damned just feels so shallow, and exploration would really have helped add…something to it. In the first couple chapters I was loving the atmosphere, the dialogue, the gameplay, and the art direction. But once it became clear that the game had little else to offer, I found myself dreading playing it. Grasshopper did add some variety to certain levels, including a couple sidescroller segments and a pretty awesome game of Pachinko, but generally their attempts to shake things up result in levels more frustrating than the rest.

Audio: What is absolutely top-notch though is the game’s soundtrack, which was done by Silent Hill's Akira Yamaoka, who outdoes himself. Just like with Alan Wake, which also had a stellar soundtrack, I found myself wishing here that they had just created an actual *horror* game instead of an action game, because this soundtrack would have been perfect for one. As I mentioned earlier, the voice acting’s excellent, as it often is for Suda 51 games. Overall, the audio experience here is pretty much perfect: one area where this game really shines.

Verdict: Shadows of the Damned was a game that had me hooked at the very first moment….until around Chapter 2. At its start, I thought I was about to play another Suda 51 classic. Even though I don’t recommend this game at full price, I’d go as far as to say to pick it up once it gets to the bargain bin just to hear its hilarious dialogue and great voice acting, not to mention that awe-inspiring soundtrack. As the game went on, though, I found myself growing more and more tired of it. A misguided and poorly-implemented dark/light mechanic adds far more frustration than fun, aiming’s slow and difficult, bosses last too long and are rarely ever any fun, ammo ranges from being seemingly infinite to unbelievably scarce, and the main story lacks the depth I expected from a Suda 51 game. Shadows of the Damned isn't horrible and there’s plenty of redeeming factors to it, but just like with No More Heroes 2, I find myself wishing somebody inside Grasshopper Manufacture would have tried playing the game and realized “hey, this is actually kind of annoying.” I think Suda 51 needs to return to directing his projects himself instead of just overseeing and having other directors take a crack at them.
Presentation: An interesting storybook motif and kind of a cool level-to-level load screen. Story though is not one of Suda 51’s best and the ending *really* goes to painful lengths to set itself up for a sequel. Load times are bad.

Graphics: Pretty visuals make great use of the Unreal Engine. Characters have that usual Grasshopper Manufacture feel.

Gameplay: There’s fun to be had, but it’s stopped in its tracks by frustrating gameplay mechanics that constantly show up to ruin the good time.

Audio: The soundtrack’s amazingly good, voice acting’s top notch, and the sound effects work well. Game’s very atmospheric.

Replay Value: Ehhhhhhh. 8+hours isn't bad at all for an action game but replay value's minimal.

Overall: 6/10

(Note: This review is for the Xbox 360 version. My reviews go on a .5 scale)

Friday, July 8, 2011

Blog Post: My Letter to Nintendo

(I thought I'd post the letter I've written to Nintendo regarding their refusal to localize Xenoblade. This will be mailed into them, and I encourage all of you who want this game localized to write letters as well and send them in. Check out for more info.)


To Nintendo of America and whomever it may concern:

I am writing to you today to address your rather troubling decision to refuse the release of Tetsuya Takahashi’s Xenoblade in North America. It’s a decision which I feel shows little respect to your fanbase, a group of people who have braved a console with frequent game droughts, severely lacking graphical prowess, and underwhelming 1st party content such as Animal Crossing City Folk, Fling Smash, Wii Play, Wii Music, and countless others.

Xenoblade, as well as the other two games currently in question, are titles that Wii owners, frankly, deserve to have. There’s absolutely no excuse, as far as I’m concerned, for the inconsiderate treatment of the core gaming fanbase at the hands of Nintendo this console generation, and this decision is just one of several that illustrate this point.

With all of this said, it’s important to note that I have enjoyed the Wii, at times labeling it as my favorite console of the Big 3 currently in competition. I purchased the system at launch, and it’s a console that I have always been willing to defend. When my Wii’s disc drive broke this year, I cared enough about the system to send it in to you guys for repair and paid over $70 for the service. My friends and I have devoted countless hours to playing the likes of Smash Bros Brawl, (over 500) and plenty of time with Mario Kart Wii as well. These are fun games, and I have definitely appreciated all the great times they brought to us. Nintendo has always excelled at creating memorable multiplayer experiences and the Wii, with the exception of its terrible online setup, has been no exception.

That said, these are not the ideal gaming experiences for me, as incredible as they can be. My favorite memories as a gamer have always involved games that delivered rich single player experiences; games like No More Heroes, Muramasa, Red Steel 2, Metroid Prime, and many others. These have existed on the Wii, but few have been promoted enough to be discovered by a large number of people, and few have come from Nintendo. It’s a shame that more effort on Nintendo’s part wasn’t put into developing rich, single-player experiences on the Wii system, with the exception of course of dated and aging IP such as Zelda. It’s also unfortunate that you at Nintendo of America seem to think that ancient franchises alone are enough to win all but the most die-hard Nintendo fanboys over: they’re not.

What truly saddens me is that Nintendo of Japan has, in recent years, put effort into addressing this problem, not only delivering to their customers fantastic-looking RPG titles like Xenoblade, The Last Story, and Pandora’s Tower, but even M-rated products like Fatal Frame. It sucks, frankly, that Nintendo of America is so quick to deny North America, the industry’s biggest market, of these titles, and it’s insulting to Tetsuya Takahashi and Hironobu Sakaguchi, the two legends who developed Xenoblade and The Last Story, respectively, to see their products not considered “good enough” for release here, while garbage like Wii Play is instead deemed acceptable.

Simply put, I’m tired of this. I have made the decision not to purchase the 3DS, as I’m sick of being force-fed Mario year after year and be expected to be okay with it. For the ridiculous price of $250, it’s clear from the 3DS’ lagging sales that others agree with me. I am also rapidly losing my resolve to purchase a Wii U, a system that I thought a few months ago would bring Nintendo back to its former glory. Nintendo can be keen on providing new IP, but you at Nintendo of America have consistently refused to deliver them to your gamers. Mario and Zelda are not all that it takes to win us over.

It’s with this letter that I beg and insist that you at Nintendo of America make the right decision. Localize Xenoblade, The Last Story, and Pandora’s Tower, games that your fanbase not only craves, but deserves. Simply put, it’s the least you can do.

Yours truly,

-A frustrated fan quickly losing respect and interest in Nintendo thanks to decisions like these.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Blog Post: And the fans are shot down.

Not much else to say here but to express my complete disappointment with Nintendo's decision not to localize Xenoblade, The Last Story, and Pandora's Tower for North America. I purchased a Wii at launch as I did with the Gamecube. By choosing not to localize some great hardcore games that their system desperately needs, Nintendo's spitting in the face of what might be one of the biggest movements behind a Japanese title in quite a long time. It's an insult to their fanbase, a show of where their non-casual fans stand to them, and a decision that proves that Nintendo's quite cold-hearted. They thank us for being "incredible fans," but I don't feel like much of a fan right now.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Blog Post: An amazing thing to see (Xenoblade/Last Story/Pandora's Tower)

Well, look at that, people do want these games! Years ago, Nintendo acquired Monolith Soft from Namco. They were the studio responsible for the Xenosaga series of video games, and under Nintendo, they released Disaster: Day of Crisis and, more importantly, Xenoblade, regarded by both Japanese gamers and importers as one of the best Japanese RPGs developed this gen. Xenoblade was released in Japan....last June, and has (finally) been announced for Europe for release. Nintendo of America has remained silent.

In other related news, Hironobu Sakaguchi (Final Fantasy) and his studio, Mistwalker, partnered with Nintendo to release The Last Story, another strong-looking RPG title that seems to have been developed with worldwide appeal in mind. Released in Japan at the start of this year. Sakaguchi recently let slip that there are plans to release it in Europe. Once again, Nintendo of America didn't say a word. Both games were absent from E3, as was any mention of Pandora's Tower, another Japanese game being published by Nintendo.

I've been complaining for years about these games being total no-shows, both on Nintendo of America's release calendars as well as in any of their press events. Each and every E3 when these games were ignored, (well, Xenoblade was technically announced at E3 as Monado: Beginning of the World, but since then has never been mentioned again by Nintendo of America) I would complain and beg others to do the same, but all too often, it felt like I was one of just a few. Others would tell me that Nintendo was taking their time to announce the games like they always do, and that it wouldn't be worth it to get upset about it.

Well, something happened: A Nintendo of Europe representative recently let it slip that Nintendo of America is not planning on releasing any of these games in North America. Whoops. It sure took a while, but it looks like finally, the gears have been set in motion.

Operation Rainfall was formed, a group dedicated to bringing attention to this issue and demanding North American releases for these games. Immediately a campaign was put under way. People are being asked to pre-order Xenoblade from (Where it's listed under its original title, Monado: Beginning of the World) and amazingly, it has become the #1 selling video game on the site. When was the last time a Japanese RPG has been the #1 selling video game on When was the last time a game with no planned release date has EVER been #1 at any retailer?

Needless to say, this turned some heads. Prople from both Monolith Soft and Mistwalker have tweeted their happiness at this campaign, as well as the spamming of Nintendo's Facebook page,  which has also taken place.  Operation Rainfall's encouraging fans to plan to send letters in to Nintendo of America via snail mail. This is all very exciting and pretty newsworthy, as it has gotten attention both in the gaming media as well as with gamres in general; Xenoblade's message board is more active than it has ever been, for example.

As a fan of Japanese games, I'm thrilled to see so much support being thrown behind these titles, especially considering the fact that the Wii is, for all intents and purposes, dead, mostly thanks to decisions like these. Nintendo of America comes across as both clueless and uncaring due to their handling of these RPGs from two of Japan's most acclaimed video game developers, and this perception of them can only be a good thing. In a gaming landscape dominated by casual games, first person shooters, and licensed garbage, it's more important now than ever to let companies like Nintendo of America know that there's still a market for quality Japanese-developed games. It's a hint that other publishers should take and certainly, Nintendo should learn from.

I encourage everybody who has an interest in buying Xenoblade to go ahead and preorder the game. If you live in Europe, especially, you should do this at your local shops or wherever you buy your games from. You're being given a great opportunity here and it's now, more than ever, important that we send the message across that there is a market for these types of games in the West. That way, we won't have to wait years to play Tales of Graces, we won't have to miss out on games like Valkyria Chronicles 3, and of course, we won't have to beg to play the latest games from the creators of Final Fantasy and Xenosaga.  Head on over to Operation Rainfall's Twitter page (or their Blogspot) and see how you can help. Now may be our last chance to get these games over to North American shores. Nintendo is apparently aware of this movement, and let's bug them till they announce frigging release dates already. It's been long enough, right? Let's do this.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Blog Post: Backlash against Duke Nukem Forever

Wow, I can't remember the last time I've felt so sorry for a game developer. 3D Realms had spent something like 14 years developing this game, and throughout that time it has been cancelled multiple times. The latest cancellation felt like the final nail in the coffin, but lo' and behold, Gearbox stepped in to finish the game. The long-awaited day was finally here, and wow....reception has so far not been friendly.

I have to say, I sort of saw this coming, but even I didn't predict a 49 Metacritic score, an even lower user-rated Metacritic score (4.2) and an Customer rating average of 3/5 stars. People do not seem to be digging the game, and I can only wonder how its developers feel, having devoted over a decade of their lives into something that's now getting trashed by gamers and critics alike.

The question which of course begs to be asked is how much of this is due to the game's infamously long development time, which may have vastly increased expectations and skepticism among the gaming and critical community, and how much of it is truly based on the game's own merits, or I guess lack of them? It's something that I don't think I'll personally ever know, since I've never really even liked Duke Nukem and certainly never planned on buying this game. Still, its release marks the closing of a pretty bizarre chapter in the gaming landscape, and the product not delivering, especially after such a long period of development, makes the situation even weirder.

Only time will tell if this is truly the end of Duke Nukem or if other installments are planned, but that'll depend on sales figures, I assume, and with such bad word of mouth, I have to wonder how good those will even be, even with all the apparent anticipation that surrounded the title's release.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

My thoughts on Nintendo's E3 2011 Press Conference

The last of the Big 3 to deliver their press conference was Nintendo, and they were in the position to completely dominate this year. As the only one to be releasing a new home console anytime soon (2012) and with their recently-launched 3DS handheld, they definitely had the most potential to impress. Unfortunately, I have to say, this ended up being a pretty forgettable conference overall, with Nintendo putting all of their eggs into the Project Cafe basked (now officially known as the Wii U) without having anything truly compelling to show for it.

Things started out on a fan-related note with a full orchestra playing Zelda music, some of it off the upcoming Wii Zelda game, Skyward Sword, which was otherwise completely absent from the conference. Nintendo made some exciting announcements for Zelda fans and the series' 25th anniversary, including free downloadable goodies and upcoming soundtracks CDs and nationwide performances. Okay, good stuff, but where's the trailer for the new Zelda game, Nintendo? The one that's coming out this year for your Wii system? There was a noticeable lack of the Wii at this press conference, with expected titles like the new Kirby game, and the long-awaited Xenoblade and Last Story announcements, totally absent. Instead, Nintendo jumped right into the 3DS, with a truly mixed bag of a showing. Mario Kart has some cool new track features but otherwise is looking like the same old Mario Kart.

The upcoming 3DS Mario game looks like it'll contain some more of the amazing platforming we saw in the Mario Galaxy series, though the art direction, to me, doesn't look quite as nice. Star Fox 64 we didn't get to see much of, but I'll assume it's Star Fox 64 with a new paintjob and 3D visuals.

They also surprise-announced a followup to Luigi's Mansion, a pretty cool idea that can be fun in 3D. Interestingly, they also mentioned that there would be multiple mansions to explore, which I think suggests a bit more of a linear, level-to-level structure than the exploration-heavy first game in the series. I guess we'll have to wait and see how this one plays out

The game that actually looked truly awesome and definitely caught my attention was Kid Icarus: Uprising, a title that looks like such a fun and epic adventure that, if the 3DS had more games like it, I might be more compelled to throw down the $250 for it. Voice acted, cool visuals, likable-looking characters, and fun flying action, it's looking like a must-have title that hopefully demonstrates the types of games Nintendo will bring to the system in the future. Granted, I like Mario as much as the next guy, but I'm getting to a point where I want to experience something new. And driving a go-kart underwater isn't really cutting it.

Anyway, moving to the heavy-hitter of the show, the Wii U, as it's now called, and it got its big reveal this morning. We only got to see the controller itself, not the system, but even the controller looks like a lot to take in. It's a device loaded with potential and clearly something that can push console gaming forward; there's nothing else like it. Some things definitely bothered me, including its use of analog sliders instead of analog sticks, which seems like a big step down, but at least there's 2 of 'em. There's a lot of potential for the touch screen, and the way it communicates with the TV is cool to say the least. Definitely not a VMU clone.

I guess what bummed me out a bit was that the games shown for it were underwhelming. We got a tease for an HD Zelda (another Zelda game already...) which looks really cool, and the announcement of an upcoming Smash Bros game, which will undoubtedly be amazing. But then, all Nintendo had to show were Mario-related (sigh) tech demoes. One of which demonstrated the power of the system, and it looked really great. The others were pretty gimmicky. I guess I was just hoping for something a little more concrete, though the system is still a year away, I suppose. What nearly saved the conference for me was a montage of upcoming Wii U titles, proof that, at the very least, the system will be getting some 3rd party multiplats, a huge improvement over the Wii. The focus on hardcore games shown from 3rd party developers was refreshing, and I can't wait to see what Ken Levine and his team at Irrational have planned for the system.

But then....the conference ended. Nothing really new for the 3DS except a Luigi game, really no announcements from Nintendo on a price for the Wii U or their software, nothing at all about the Wii itself, and at the end of the day, I have to say, Nintendo had the potential to blow everyone out of the water at E3 and instead they merely put on a show that just felt With the Wii U not arriving until 2012, it would have been nice for Nintendo to show us what we'll be playing on our Wiis until then, and no luck. And the 3DS, which looks like it'll be making Nintendo fanboys happy with more franchise titles, isn't offering much else for people who want something new.

Grade: C+

A bit disappointing, only because I felt like it could have been so much better. Nintendo teased a new system, which looks like it really has potential, but it would have been nice not to see the Wii forgotten. Still a decent press conference to watch and definitely better than Microsoft's. Nintendo knows casual gamers, and they also know their devoted fans, and they know how to appeal to these groups. It'd be great to see them branching out and trying to appeal to a wider audience of core gamers. The Wii U seems positioned to do that, and hopefully it's successful.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Blog Post: My thoughts on Sony's E3 2011 Press Conference

It's never the content at a Sony E3 press conference that's the issue....well, with the exception of their infamously bad PS3 reveal, of course. Sony always packs their press conferences to the brim with announcements, trailers, and plenty of montages for both its portable and home consoles. The biggest issue has always been the presentation itself, which to me feels incredibly dry and tends to run for far too long. I always find that while Sony usually has the most to announce at their conferences, they do it in the most boring way possible.

This year we saw Sony make an effort to spice up their presentation a bit. We got an (incredibly lame) pre-show, and they stuck a pretty pointless performance at the very end, but hey, gotta give them credit for trying. At the very least, this presentation, while it still felt a tad too long, was far better paced than in the past, and they really did announce and show plenty of titles for all their platforms: the PS3, the PS Move, 3D gaming, and, of course, the reveal of the new PSP, the PS Vita. Sly Cooper 4 was a pretty great announcement, as was having Ken Levine up there to tell the crowd how his studio was eventually sold on motion controls. Sony also went through great lengths, like last year, to secure exclusive content in multiplat titles, something that will definitely make PS3 fans happy.

Though they spent a little too much time on the Playstation Move (damnit Sony, watching someone play a sports game is boring) it's good to see that they, like Microsoft, won't be abandoning their Wii-competing device, even though the Wii seems to be no longer competing (more on that tomorrow). It's also great to see that, unlike Microsoft, that device hasn't become essential to playing all of Sony's new games.

Regarding the Playstation Vita, the visuals on that thing look nice. I wouldn't say they totally blow away the 3DS, but they definitely look like a step up. The system also seems to have its own features, like back touch screens, so props to Sony for not just ripping the 3DS off like they could have. The games they have coming for it also look much more impressive than most of the stuff they were putting on the PSP, making it look like Sony will really be pushing for North American success, something the PSP really never achieved. I also have to give Sony credit for competitively pricing the PS Vita.....yeah, it's sad that we're in an age when $249.99 is considered competitive pricing, but, lo' and behold, that's what Nintendo's charging and Sony's definitely met that price.

There are a couple things I would have liked to have seen, like a trailer for the upcoming Twisted Metal game and Final Fantasy 13 sequel, but hey, can't have everything, and the show ran long as it was. Sony overall put on an impressive show and though the presentation could still use some tightening up (and Sony, let us know the names of the games in your montages!) they definitely showed Microsoft, Microsoft used to do a press conference.

Rating: B

Sony's confident that the PS3 will become the hardcore gamers' system of choice, and after seeing Microsoft's conference, it's hard to argue. How Nintendo's Cafe will fit into this, well, tomorrow we'll find out.

Blog Post: My thoughts on Microsoft's E3 2011 Press Conference

It's that time of year again; E3. For video game fans, pretty much the place to be for new game announcements, surprises, and, of course, a giant celebration of the hobby that we all know and love.

You wouldn't know this from Microsoft's press conference, which was overall pretty much more of the same from last year. This time, they opened the show with Modern Warfare 3 instead of Black Ops, they showed off some 3rd party multiplatform stuff, including a demo for the new Tomb Raider (which isn't coming until Holiday 2012, which is a lonnnnng way off, MS) and the likes of Mass Effect 3 and a new Tom Clancy game, with demos both highlighting these games' new Kinect voice recognition features...not a whole lot to get excited about. Mass Effect 3 will undoubtedly be an amazing game, and is one of my most anticipated of the year, but did anybody seriously think that the Mass Effect series needed voice recognition? Did anybody think at any time while playing Mass Effect 2, "Hey, this game would be so much better if I could voice my dialogue choices instead of selecting them with an analog stick" ?

Therein lies my biggest problem with the Kinect and Microsoft's conference in general. I just don't think the Kinect is particularly necessary. We haven't yet seen a real game that's truly benefited from Kinect controls; it's all been substitutes for controller usage that add nothing to the experience except a novelty and some gimmicks. Games that really benefit from Kinect support are games that can only be played with a Kinect, and I just don't think there are a ton of *actual* games that can be played without a controller.

To give Microsoft credit, the Kinect is great for younger audiences, something they're obviously well aware of, having spent a large portion of the show demoing (though the demos were either fake or incredibly laggy, watch for a seriously delayed golf swing in Kinect Sports 2) Tim Schafer's upcoming Sesame Street game, a Disneyland Theme Park Adventure title, and some other new Kinect features involving importing and tracing objects....all cool stuff, and if I had kids, something I'd consider getting them if they were good,  $150 is still a lot of money to spend on a toy...and that doesn't include the price of the system itself.

For gamers, the Kinect again leaves us out in the cold. Is a rail shooter really the way we want to play a game like Fable? Again, I have to ask the question; did anybody ever think, while playing a Fable game, that a more immersive Fable experience would have been created if we were locked on rails? I doubt it. I also doubt that a Kinect game was what many people had in mind when Crytek's Codename: Kingdoms was revealed last year, now revealing itself to be an M-rated, melee-driven Kinect title.

For the controller, Microsoft showed off more of Gears of War 3, and for Gears of War fans, I'm sure it'll be a great piece of more-of-the-same action. I've never been a huge fan of the series, and the demo didn't do a whole lot to change my mind. The long-rumored Halo: Combat Evolved remake was also showcased, undoubtedly a quality game but a pretty big sign of the sad era we're in; when games only 10 years old are being remade just so a publisher can have a new franchise entry out every year. Halo 4 will be arriving next year, (Winter 2012) as was revealed at the end of the conference with a pretty cool trailer, making the Halo 1 remake seem even more unnecessary. Halo's a fantastic series and Halo 4 will definitely be great, but it's hard to shake off the feeling of "more of the same." Microsoft's newest, most "exciting" features are all on the Kinect. If nothing else, this press conference made clear that those looking for controller gaming on the 360 should accept the fact that we're just about done with that era. Why not buy a PS3 (or upcoming Project Cafe, which we'll see in all its glory tomorrow) to play future 3rd party multiplatform titles? What does the 360 have to offer that its rivals won't?

Outside of Kinect games, none of which (I feel) look like they'll be particularly compelling among gamers over the age of 10, and the likes of Halo, it's clear that the Xbox 360, from a 1st party perspective, is done with. It's cool to see Microsoft jumping eagerly into Kinect, their determination to avoid a SEGA CD-like fate being pretty admirable. I just wish they weren't leaving the rest of us out in the cold. I actually thought the Kinect Adventures showing last year was pretty fun, but this year, none of the Kinect reveals looked even remotely compelling to me. Kinect Sports 2 and Dance Central 2 are blatant attempts to grab another $50 from people for content that should be downloadable, the kids games are just that; kids games, with likely little to offer for anyone outside that age group, and the hardcore Kinect titles shown are more of the same rail shooter-type experiences that we've been playing for years on the Wii.

Meanwhile, for the controller, no surprises.

My rating: C-

Not a trainwreck, just not a whole lot to get excited about.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Review: Mass Effect 2. A Western RPG that I like? Must be the end of the world

To my surprise, I really enjoyed Mass Effect 2, and coming from me, a Japanese RPG fan, that’s pretty high praise. Since my first exposure to the RPG genre was with Japanese RPGs, having devoted tons and tons of hours to them during the PS2 era, Western RPGs have never felt natural to me. At the very least, it has always been a love/hate relationship. I really liked Fable and got into one of Bioware’s previous RPGs, Jade Empire, but then on the other side of the coin, I wasn’t a huge fan of Knights of the Old Republic (which I did play and beat) and open world Western RPGs annoy me so much that I got fed up and traded in Fallout 3 after only a few hours of playtime. I also couldn’t stand what I played of the original Mass Effect. Right now the industry seems very much divided over what type of RPG style should win out, with Western RPGs now taking over, both from a sales and critical perspective. Bioware, the developer of the Mass Effect series, has been quite vocal over Western RPG superiority, going as far as to say that Final Fantasy isn’t even an RPG….comments that just make me cringe.

So hopefully you can understand how hard it has been for me to root for the Western RPG subgenre. It’s a credit to how good Mass Effect 2 is that I was able to get past my preference for Japanese RPGs and enjoy what happens to be a really well put together game, both compelling in its storytelling and also solid and accessible in its gameplay. Granted, it’s not perfect, but it’s a game that I’d still definitely recommend everyone, even fans of Japanese RPGs, give a try.

Graphics and Audio: Bioware deserves credit for knocking it out of the park as far as the visuals are concerned. Mass Effect 2 not only looks better than the first game, but performance-wise, it blows it away. Mass Effect 1 ran so poorly on my 360 that it felt to me like a completely unfinished product, whereas Mass Effect 2, though it still has Bioware’s trademark long load times, runs so much better that it’s like night and day. They’ve really gotten the hang of the Unreal Engine and the game looks great, and, in some instances, even awe-inspiring. The facial expressions may not be quite on par with something like Final Fantasy XIII but they still look incredibly convincing, and you really feel like you’re having a conversation with real people while you chat with the locals and your party members. On another note, I only found myself getting stuck on the level geometry once (and for a Western RPG, that’s very good) and I was able to get out of it by mashing buttons; didn’t even have to re-load my save. Awesome.

The voice acting’s also nearly perfect, as all actors deliver their lines with complete and total conviction, despite a slightly irritating accent or two. The movie-quality soundtrack also deserves praise, and the atmosphere felt when wandering through the game’s cities is perfect, especially as you hear news of the game’s events being reported on televisions and sound systems above you, Lost Odyssey style.

Narrative and Storytelling: This is the heart of Mass Effect 2 and it’s what makes the experience so unique. As is typical with Bioware games, the majority of cutscenes take place in the form of interactive conversations, with the events frequently pausing to give you the option to select the bits of dialogue you will use to respond to any given situation. At times, you’ll also have the option to perform direct actions in cutscenes, such as choosing to walk forward to comfort a crying character or, in one of the game’s cooler sequences, to punch a character through a skyscraper window. The choices you make in conversations not only give you a great deal of control over your likable main character, Commander Shepherd, (whose backstory, as well as gender and some physical traits, you choose at the start) but they also can dictate your relationships with others in your crew and the people you interact with, both friend and foe. Mass Effect 2 does a great job of giving you a wide range of selections with lots of gray area, so it never feels like you’re just going through the motions of “okay, good choice vs evil choice,” a complaint I have with a lot of Western RPGs. I also have to offer praise for the quality of the dialogue, as Mass Effect 2’s really stands as some of this generation’s best. While there’s certainly a lot more to the gameplay (the combat system takes the form of a 3rd person shooter, after all, which I’ll get to later) I found my favorite parts of Mass Effect 2 to be the ones where I got to stroll through either the Normandy (my ship) or the various cities, talking to my party members and interacting with the locals. Truly the game’s standout feature and what I feel is a personal best for Bioware doing this type of RPG.

The story itself is certainly not on the same level as its character interaction (I still feel that Japanese RPGs are by far more imaginative in this category) but the tale still has its share of compelling and intense moments. It may not offer anything we haven’t seen before in countless sci fi space operas, and it could be a bit better at reminding us of key terms from the previous Mass Effect, especially for those of us who didn’t get too far in it. Still, the story, which involves building up a top-notch crew to head on a suicide mission to save the human colonies from invasion by the evil Collectors definitely will, at the very least, hold your attention. The rivalry between characters like the Normandy’s pilot, Joker, (voiced by Seth Green) and his AI supervisor, EDI, is very entertaining, and there’s all sorts of little touches like that that add personality to the storyline and characters. Their interaction and some great action scenes help bring it all to life.

This is a story you have a sizeable amount of control over. You can choose to collect all of your party members over the course of the game, or, you can choose not to. Throughout the game, the characters you do add to your party will ask you to do them a favor by going on an optional, and personal, mission with them. Successful completion of these missions (and yeah, you can fail them, and once you do, that’s it) will make these characters more loyal to you, which gives them an increased chance of survival during the game’s final (and deadly) mission. Depending on your relationship to your characters and the choices you make, and whether you choose to do optional ship-building work, anyone (and everyone) can live or die, including Shepherd.

This has its strengths and weaknesses. Due to the nature of an RPG like this, there’s a large cast of playable characters, and though several will leave a definite impression, others inevitably get completely screwed over. Garrus has little to do beyond his introduction, Jack comes across as nothing more than a whiny and unpleasant addition to the crew, and Legion literally has no development whatsoever. As far as the character deaths are concerned, this is different from a Japanese RPG. In that type of narrative, where the story is set from the start and therefore a death can be built up to and made a very emotional occasion (Final Fantasy VII) a Western RPG like this, where anyone can die based on your choices, lacks this buildup. Because of this, when (or if) Mass Effect 2 mercilessly kills off your characters in the final mission, it feels more irritating than emotional, there’s no way around it. Western RPGs, as far as I’m concerned, have never been able to capture the emotion and power of a pre-defined story, such as that of a good Japanese RPG, and Mass Effect 2 is no exception. That’s not to say that there’s no emotion to be found in this game, there certainly is, but the fact that several of my characters being killed off didn’t affect me at all emotionally is something that rubbed me the wrong way. That’s probably the only weakness to Bioware’s style of storytelling. Otherwise, though, Mass Effect 2’s story and character interaction proves both compelling and entertaining, and that’s certainly nothing to be scoffed at.

Gameplay: Mass Effect 2 is divided into two very distinct sections. There are the RPG sections involving character interaction, then there are the combat sections, where the game essentially becomes a third person shooter. This doesn’t mean that it loses its RPG aspects entirely; you can freeze the action at any time to bring up a wheel from which you can select special attacks to use, or which weapons to change to. Your character does gain EXP and level up similarly to an RPG, and you’ll often come across a character or two who you can talk with even during the shooting segments. You can still evolve your weapons and armor, and you can hack doors and databases even when in the shooting segments. The leveling up system and much of the game’s interface has been greatly simplified from the convoluted Mass Effect 1, a change that I think is definitely for the better, though I’ve of course heard some grumbling that it’s been “dumbed down.” Bioware’s clearly learned that if you’re going to make a game a “shooter,” you have to go all out and make it a shooter. Mass Effect 2 features a true third person shooter combat system, one which feels much less clunky than the 1st game’s. And shooting only seems to take place in designated areas (you always know when you’re headed into an area where gunfire will be involved) so unlike the original Mass Effect, when you could be randomly ambushed by enemies when wandering through town, the shooting is much more divided from the RPG aspects of the experience. Gunplay’s quite easy to get the hang of, and on the standard difficulty, not too inherently challenging, save for a couple cheap sections that occasionally rear their ugly heads.

The shooting, solid is it is, actually ends up being the thing that keeps Mass Effect 2 from being quite as excellent as everyone says it is. Granted, there’s nothing wrong at all with this shooting system, which plays well and can often be a lot of fun. The problem is that it’s so ….standard. This is your very basic cover shooter despite some cool powers, multiple characters and weapons, and environmental hazards to shake things up; you still have very little choice in how you deal with your enemies. If you step out from cover in the midst of a gunfight, you’ll find yourself dead very quickly. Your health meter’s small, though it does regenerate if you avoid taking damage for a few seconds. What that means though is that you’re stuck playing Mass Effect 2 as a cover shooter; if you want to have your teammates fire from cover and you want to, say, run up to the enemies and engage them directly, chances are, you’ll die. As far as cover shooters go, this is a serviceable system, but it lacks the freshness or choices of something like Vanquish, where, hey, you could get out of cover, jump into a power slide, and go after those giant mechs up close. Mass Effect 2, besides a half-heated Adrenaline mode, doesn’t give you much freedom to do stuff like this.

It surprises me, then, that Bioware put such a generic shooting system at the forefront of almost all of the missions. When you go on any sort of mission, 9 times out of 10, it’ll have shooting at its front and center. It’s unfortunately reminiscent of a lot of RPGs nowadays, even Final Fantasy XIII, where every issue in the game seems to be resolved only by your characters taking out their weapons and killing stuff. As with Final Fantasy XIII, this works a majority of the time because the combat system (in this case, shooting system) is fun, but Mass Effect 2’s system lacks the strategy and variety present in Square-Enix’s title. The way you fight enemies at the end of the game isn’t much different from how you’ll fight them at the start, and some of these repetitive shooting sequences end up going on for just a bit too long.

It’s in this way that Mass Effect 2 ends up being an odd balancing act. Though so much of this game happens to be excellent and really stands out, Bioware weakens their product by forcing you to spend so much time with what’s, conversely, a pretty unremarkable shooting system. Again, it certainly doesn’t break the game, but it’s sort of like being at a fancy restaurant where you’re served a world class meal, only to find that the bits of chicken in it happened to come from the local 7/11. And hell, I love my 7/11 food, don’t get me wrong, but it just wouldn’t be quite on par with the rest of the world class dining experience.

As far as the game length itself, doing all the characters’ loyalty missions and the occasional sidequest, it clocked in at around 21 hours for me. It can of course be much shorter if you choose to skip out on the character missions entirely (not recommended) but it can also be much longer if you take the time to do some of the game’s many sidequests, build up your ship, and explore the expansive galaxy available to you.

Verdict: Mass Effect 2 is a game that I’m glad I played, and it’s actually the first Western RPG I’ve thoroughly enjoyed since the original Fable back on the Xbox (haven’t played Fable 2 or 3, maybe I’d like those too, who knows). Filled to the brim with incredible dialogue, lots and lots to do, fantastic interaction with your party members, an exciting (if a bit unoriginal) story, and fun (much more accessible) shooting action, Mass Effect 2’s a great experience. The visuals and audio are also some of the best this console generation, and the game performs much better than the original Mass Effect did. That said, it’s not a perfect experience, as I still find it harder to get emotionally attached to Western RPG characters, who are so defined by you that they’re hardly able to be defined by the game itself. The romance system’s implementation still feels a little sloppy to me, and the shooting, while fun, doesn’t really offer much you haven’t played before (but better) in actual shooters. These flaws aside, though, Mass Effect 2 proves to be a compelling ride that’s very much worth your time, regardless of what you thought of the first game, or Western RPGs in general.
Presentation: Long load times can get irritating, as does the occasional glitch, but Mass Effect 2 looks and runs much better than the original. Cool story with very interactive cutscenes and some tough decisions to make gives you the feeling of being in control.

Graphics: A few bland corridors aside, this is a beautiful-looking game with some amazing atmosphere.

Gameplay: This might be the best use of Bioware’s Conversation system to date, and a true step above the rest of the Western RPG subgenre. The shooting’s fun and serviceable but overall nothing too special. I wish Bioware focused a little more on the former and less on the latter.

Sound: Top-notch performances and a Hollywood-quality score, plus great atmospheric touches, give Mass Effect 2’s audio category top marks.

Value: Length of the campaign depends on how much you choose to do. Still much shorter than a Japanese RPG but not bad overall. Lots of side stuff, and you’re able to access this even after the end credits roll.

Overall: 8.0/10

(Note: My reviews go on a .5 scale)