Monday, December 31, 2012

New Reviews: Epic Mickey Power of Illusion (3DS)

A few years back there was a good bit of excitement over Disney's decision to revive Mickey Mouse's video game persona, this time in the form of an epic adventure headed up by industry vet Warren Spector. Epic Mickey was the end result, a game that I found to be such a disappointment that it really damaged my hopes for Mickey Mouse's video game future.

Epic Mickey 2 was released this year across all platforms, and though I have yet to play it, the game looked to me to contain all the same flaws that made the first one such a chore to play, so I haven't yet gone out and bought it. The one bright spot, however, was the 3DS version; Epic Mickey: Power of Illusion went a different direction entirely, taking the form of a 2D sidescroller meant as the spiritual successor to the Sega Genesis classic, Castle of Illusion. It was this version that I looked forward to, and without hesitation I picked it up and immediately dove in.

And the verdict? Well, "okay" is at least better than bad, right?

Let me start from the beginning, though. Power of Illusion is a far more straightforward game than its console brothers. You move Mickey from left to right across some gorgeously rendered Disney worlds as he takes out enemies by ground-pounding on their heads, the goal being to free Minnie Mouse and other Disney characters from the mysterious castle they've been imprisoned in. There's no "good/evil" mechanic, there are no in-game fetch quests, and there's no co-op play.

And, at first, it's decent enough. The sound effects and art style had an immediate "Genesis" vibe for me, with the 3D effect adding real depth to the backgrounds and creating environments well worth venturing through. The music is far better than what I can remember from the Wii's Epic Mickey game, featuring suitably epic tracks but fitting the environments far better. And there's something undeniably fun about spotting various Disney characters hidden throughout the levels and rescuing them. Doing so creates a room for them in the Castle, a static map you can explore between levels. In this network of rooms, you can take on missions from the newly-rescued characters, missions which always seem to involve visiting another character, highlighted on the map with an exclamation point, and talking to them. It's simple and not particularly challenging, but compared to the endless series of item hunts and fetch quests required of you in the console Epic Mickey games, it's unobtrusive and addictive.

To a degree the side missions are required, as they help net you the points necessarily to unlock new areas of the castle, but you can also spend points to "upgrade" the characters' rooms; adding more personality to each with every upgrade, something which winds up being a fun little distraction. It's the little things that you'll find yourself thankful for, because like with Epic Mickey, it's the core gameplay mechanics that drag the whole thing down.

As you progress through the levels you'll see no shortage of enemies to take out, but the ground pound, which requires you not only to jump but to hold the A-button midair, can wind up messing things up for you, especially if it bounces you too high off the defeated enemy and into a hazard above. To compensate, developer DreamRift has given you the "Epic Mickey" Paint and Thinner moves, though here it doesn't seem to matter much which one you fire at the enemy. Your amount of paint and thinner is limited, however, and doesn't fire particularly fast, making it ineffective when surrounded, something that becomes all too common and a source of much frustration in the game's later stages.

Another feature has you using the touchscreen to trace the outlines of various objects to bring them to life, all while rating you on your accuracy. It's a cool idea in theory, but in practice it's beyond clunky; bringing up the "draw" screen not only freezes the action and interrupts the pace, but you're then forced to sit through the unskippable animation of Mickey actually using the paint. With boss fights that demand you bring this screen up constantly, it doesn't take long at all for this to come across as tedious.

The power ups you can gain access to don't provide much help, though there are several to be unlocked, if you so choose.


Verdict: All in all, Epic Mickey: Power of Illusion is a game that, like with the rest of the Epic Mickey franchise, was developed with great intentions. Here we see an attempt to create a sequel to the iconic Castle of Illusion and World of Illusion games which played such a large role in my Sega Genesis gaming growing up. It's been a very long time since I've played those games so it's tough for me to remember why they worked and why Power of Illusion doesn't. But though the platforming feels uninspired almost from the start, the graphics, music, and atmosphere kept me going full speed, well, until the frustrating trial-and-error gameplay that defines the final levels shows up. Meanwhile the attempts to merge this with the world (and flawed gameplay concepts) of the Epic Mickey series feel tacked on and wind up being a bit of a pain.

If you want to play a Mickey Mouse sidescroller again, Power of Illusion fits the bill in the sense that we've been waiting a long time for it, and believe it or not I spent over 8 hours playing it. It's just too bad that flawed gameplay concepts and frustrating final levels show up to ruin the nostalgic fun.

Presentation: All-text story sequences continue to feel like a step back, and though the characters have their charms, their dialogue feels bland. A hub world Castle (of sorts) provides some fun character interaction between the levels.

Graphics: The game definitely looks the part, with colorful and very detailed foregrounds as the 3D adds depth to the back. (New Super Mario Bros 2, take notes.) Some framerate drops later on.

Gameplay: Your average 2D platformer at heart, with some last minute frustrations and under-developed ideas leaving a mark.

Sound: Music is epic. Effects are great.

Replay Value: There are plenty of additional powers to unlock should you want them, and upgrading your teammates' rooms is a fun bonus. Game took me a little over 8 hours according to my 3DS Activity Log; not bad for a game that many deemed to be "too short."

Overall: 6.5/10

(Note; my reviews go on a .5 scale.)  

Friday, December 21, 2012

Blog Post; When box art becomes a big deal

I had this post in mind about a week ago, with lots to say and a clear direction planned for this topic, but then the tragedy struck in Connecticut and I lost my enthusiasm for it. Not that I should have; the two are definitely not related, (despite the media's ever-present attempts to link video games and shootings) but I just couldn't justify, on a personal level, making a post on something as "created" as video game bo xart in the wake of such real pain. My heart goes out to all who were affected.

But now it's been a week, and now I feel I can go back to doing..well, this. So let's get to it.

It may have been a long time coming, but after lighting up the gaming press for what has been years at this point, the 3rd installment in the Bioshock series (and the 2nd one with series creator Ken Levine again back at the helm) is almost here. With that comes the marketing, which of course will attempt to sell the title to as many people as possible, and with that comes, yes, the box art. And Bioshock: Infinite's boxart was hit with immediate scrutiny among the series' passionate fanbase.

*The Issue*
I don't think there's much doubt that Levine saw it coming. Though the box art itself definitely isn't badly-done, the image conveyed is one at odds with the very artistic way the series has presented itself previously. Bioshock is a series set in an incredibly cool setting with a great sense of place, and this has always been conveyed in the game's marketing. Infinite's boxart, instead, simply features the main character, gun clearly visible, looking off to the side as if willing himself to appear as badass as possible for the camera. Not much else is there to convey Infinite's new setting, its retro theme, its other characters, or even a level of mystery; there's the main character, there's the gun over his shoulder, and there's the fire behind him.

The reason I think this has struck such a nerve is because this past console generation we've seen the price of game development rise with the more advanced hardware, and as a result, larger audiences became a requirement for games to become profitable. In some cases this only applies to the marketing, in others, like the disaster that was Resident Evil 6, it seeps into the gameplay as well; the idea that a game needs to look and play like a Hollywood action movie for it to interest the masses. Bioshock is not that game, but it has box art that seems designed to be interpreted that way. With Bioshock always wearing its "individuality" on its sleeve in the face of the industry's increasingly mainstream methods of promotion, it's easy to see why its fans would feel betrayed by such a Hollywood-looking cover.

*A Good Response*
And it shouldn't be a surprise that shortly after the pic of the box art hit the 'net, Ken Levine was ready with an explanation and the solution of an alternate cover.
"We went and did a tour… around to a bunch of, like, frathouses and places like that. People who were gamers. Not people who read IGN. And [we] said, 'So, have you guys heard of BioShock?' Not a single one of them had heard of it. Our gaming world, we sometimes forget, is so important to us, but… there are plenty of products that I buy that I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about. My salad dressing. If there’s a new salad dressing coming out, I would have no idea. I use salad dressing; I don’t read Salad Dressing Weekly," Levine explained. "I don’t care who makes it, I don’t know any of the personalities in the salad dressing business. For some people, [games are] like salad dressing. Or movies, or TV shows. It was definitely a reality check for us."
"I wanted the uninformed, the person who doesn't read IGN… to pick up the box and say, okay, this looks kind of cool, let me turn it over. Oh, a flying city. Look at this girl, Elizabeth on the back. Look at that creature. And start to read about it, start to think about it. [But] We had to make that tradeoff in terms of where we were spending our marketing dollars. By the time you get to the store, or see an ad, the BioShock fan knows about the game. The money we’re spending on PR, the conversations with games journalists--that's for the fans," he said. "For the people who aren’t informed, that’s who the box art is for."
Before I get into my own opinion on this, I have to give credit to how Levine and 2k Games are handling this issue; a reverse (fan-chosen) cover will be provided, while others will be available soon to be printed out, and by addressing the controversy, he put at least my mind at ease regarding the game itself. I think it's always nice when developers engage with the fan community and show that fan input matters to them, and I definitely believe he's sincere in this gesture.
*But the wrong decision*

That said, I still think 2k games and Take-Two Interactive made the wrong decision in going with this cover, even with the fan service they've offered since. I'm not sure which frathouses they got into to ask about the Bioshock series, (a concept that seems a bit strange to me, to be honest) but I've had college friends who were by no means video game enthusiasts who heard of, and played, Bioshock. I'm not saying that the series is Call of Duty-huge, of course, but it's definitely a well-known and respected property, and I don't think you have to pander so hard like this to a demographic who likely would give the game a shot anyway, as long as the other marketing (such as TV commercials, etc.) was effective in making the game look like the event that it is. In a sense I agree that marketing to the mainstream should be a priority, as this game looks excellent and an excellent game can certainly reach a wide variety of people if they give it the chance.
But Bioshock is simply not Call of Duty, regardless of the box art they choose. It's far too artsy of a series to ever score Halo or Call of Duty numbers, and I don't think an "uninformed" audience will be swayed to learn more about the game by this box art, which makes it stand out far less on a shelf than it deserves to. And frankly, the big difference between video games and salad dressing is that salad dressing doesn't often cost $60 a bottle; I think most people already know what game they're getting before they even get to the store. And I don't feel that those who would be pulled into a game they haven't heard of by its box art exist in a significant enough number to warrant sacrificing the game's originality (in its marketing) to appeal to. To me it even comes off as a missed opportunity to make a statement to the industry that an artsy game can sell well without having to pander so obviously to the mainstream.
*And that's that*
But that's it; in the grand scheme of things, it's not a big deal. The cover will be reversible, and even better, it's going to be this gem that we can swap the official cover out for;

So all's well, though it does make for good discussion. I think I'll end this semi long-winded blog post by saying that it's my hope that next gen, we'll see far less of this going on. The industry's in a transition period, for sure, and the future's uncertain. But there has to be a way to grow the gaming userbase without the industry Hollywood-izing itself. I truly hope we find some sort of balance soon that makes everyone happy.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Spike TV 2012 VGAs....

I've gotta say............they were pretty good. 0.o

Friday, October 19, 2012

Review: Resident Evil 6 is so content to be so mediocre.

I’m convinced that video games are an art form. There are some developers out there, many, I’m sure, who love what they do, who take pride in their work, and who try their best to deliver an artistic vision to the screen. I get that it isn’t always easy, especially in an age of rising development costs and increased pressure to deliver that “blockbuster game of epic proportions,” but I have to believe that it still can be done.

Resident Evil 4 came along a few years back and truly revolutionized both the survival horror and action genres, creating a compelling and brand new experience that, yes, was more accessible to a larger demographic, but one that still retained much of what made the series what it was and brought it into the modern era. With the departure of series creator Shinji Mikami, the Resident Evil series has since switched gears in a major way, sacrificing almost all of its horror and exploration elements in favor of what I can only call straightforward action.

Resident Evil 5, though I wasn’t happy with the direction it had taken, was still built with the strong gameplay foundation introduced in its predecessor, managing to stand out from other action games as a suspenseful, not to mention well-made, installment that brought the long-running story arc started with the first game to an epic close. But this is where my support ends, because while Resident Evil 5 won me over despite my misgivings, Resident Evil 6 starts out as a trainwreck and gets only marginally better. It’s a game that was clearly developed with the goal of selling as many copies as humanly possible, one that borrows so much from the Call of Duty template but does it all so poorly that the result’s rarely more than a chore to play.

In Resident Evil 6 you pick from three separate campaigns (a fourth is unlocked upon completion of the three) all featuring different styles of gameplay. There’s Leon Kennedy, whose campaign is theoretically the most reminiscent of the series’ survival horror past. Chris Redfield returns to shoot one enemy after another while fighting the worst cover system known to man, and newcomer Jake Muller has some stealth segments and a couple of action scenes so jaw-dropping in their stupidity that even the biggest Michael Bay fans will be left shaking their heads. I won’t spoil who the fourth playable character is since the game keeps it a secret, though most fans will probably assume it from the start.

Capcom’s approach seems to have been to please everybody by featuring four different styles of “Resident Evil” gameplay and cramming it all into one, but none of it feels even vaguely reminiscent of the series’ past. Leon’s adventure may see the return of zombies and dark environments but like with all the campaigns in Resident Evil 6, a waypoint is always on screen to let you know where to go and how far you have to go to get there. The game is so scripted that at times it even dictates whether you can use the “run” button or not. Exploration is virtually non-existent, with no chance to venture further than 3 feet off the designated path before hitting a dead end, and backtracking is in all cases impossible. If this isn’t enough guidance for you, a mission objective constantly appears to let you know what you need to do, and by holding the left bumper your character will physically turn and face the appropriate direction as an arrow appears on screen to tell you exactly where to walk. It’s a game that’s afraid to even for a second let its gameplay prevent you from continuing your journey to the next waypoint, where even more mind-numbing action scenes and endless QTEs await.

It goes without saying that a game so obsessed with playing itself for you wouldn’t be too well thought out, and Resident Evil 6 can’t even be enjoyed as a guilty pleasure because of its frustrating mechanics in all campaigns. Leon’s actually happens to be the worst, with environments so dark and dreary-looking (thanks to an ineffective brightness adjust menu) that it’s hard to see much at all, let alone a train barreling towards you in a subway tunnel as you rack up what feels like your hundredth sudden death due to poor lighting and an even worse camera.

The other characters fare better but not by much, presenting a handful of fun moments to experience but still handicapped by the core mechanics. The stop-and-shoot aiming system from the previous two games is now gone, replaced by a run-and-gun style that would work far better if aiming wasn’t so difficult and ammo wasn’t such an issue. The reticule jumps around, the laser targeting system is not easy to see, and far too often clip upon clip of ammo flies right past your targets. And though it feels like you collect plenty of ammunition as you venture through each stage, hardly a minute goes by without enemies ganging up on you, and you’ll hear the “click” of an empty gun at the worst possible times.

As if to make up for this, Capcom has placed a heavy emphasis on melee attacking; though it gets the job done, it’s far from a fluid combat system, and I felt pangs of frustration every time an enemy grabbed hold of me, forcing to mash buttons in a QTE to shake him loose. Resident Evil 6 also gives you the ability to cover, though it’s essentially unusable. You can take cover behind “select objects” but the game doesn’t seem to want to let you actually shoot from this cover, making me wonder, more than once, why they even bothered with it. This is especially annoying when zombies with guns….sorry, when the J’avo, begin firing at you the second you step into a room, giving you no choice but to run around chaotically as you attempt to punch and kick them into oblivion while digging into your collection of green herbs.

The inventory system, which you access in real time (ooh, scary) is too small for a game that places so much focus on shooting; you can’t have it both ways, Capcom. In a survival horror game your limited inventory’s a challenge that has to be overcome. In an action game it’s a frustration and little else, and that’s where Resident Evil 6 stands. The developers pummel us with action as if afraid our attention spans can’t handle even a second of downtime, but then they don’t give us the ammunition in great enough amounts to make gunning down the zombies enjoyable. Enemies don’t react satisfyingly to your damage and bosses have no HP meters, so it can be tough to know whether your bullets are hitting your foes at all, let alone damaging them.

There isn’t even a sense of skill advancement to keep things interesting. Resident Evils 4 and 5 both featured a leveling up system that gave you the chance for character growth. Resident Evil 6 features one as well, as barrel after barrel that you break open and enemy after enemy that you take out all drop Skill Points (instead of ammo) that you can use to level your character up. Problem is, the cost to upgrade your stats is so steep that it almost never happens; I leveled up no more than five times across all four campaigns, and actually, I think that’s a generous estimate.

But it’s all in the service of the story, I suppose, as a cutscene happens nearly every two minutes. The story has ambition and the way the four campaigns intersect can be cool. But the characters are so overpowered that they feel like superheroes, and that they’re facing down an entity known as the C-virus and a villain named “Simmons” with completely straight faces makes it difficult to take any of it even remotely seriously. In Resident Evil 5 I remember being impressed by the quality of the cutscenes but here they’re simply a blur of kinetic action. Surrounded as they are by the exhausting nature of Resident Evil 6’s gameplay, I became numb to it all incredibly quickly. We’re also in very familiar territory at this point. Resident Evil 5 wrapped things up so nicely, but here everyone’s back to repeat themselves yet again, with another virus outbreak and the once-mysterious Ada Wong coming to the rescue so often that it actually becomes annoying.

The four character structure also means that you have to watch the same cutscenes and even fight the same bosses more than once, sometimes in the same exact ways that you fought them previously. Even the game’s final boss is nothing more than the same boss you fought as another character hours ago, and it wasn’t a fight that I was particularly eager to re-live, either.

Is it any surprise that Resident Evil 6 is devoid of scares? Any attempts made to establish atmosphere are crushed by an overbearing musical score that even from the start menu feels like “too much”. This is the least scary and least suspenseful numbered Resident Evil we’ve seen yet, and again, this would be disappointing but not a game-breaker had the central gameplay been any good, but sadly, nothing Resident Evil 6 attempts to do it does well. The QTEs aren’t fun, the shooting isn’t fun, the combat’s clunky, the cover system’s garbage, the storyline’s been done better, the leveling up’s been done better, the inventory’s been done better, the interface has been done better…it’s all been done better, not only by the same series, but by almost any action game that you can pick up off the shelf.

Verdict: Clocking in at 25 hours, Resident Evil 6 really might be the biggest Resident Evil to date, but it’s also the dumbest and most mind-numbing. A mildly interesting (at best) storyline is placed front and center amidst weak gameplay and action that kicks off from minute one and doesn’t let go. What Capcom doesn’t seem to understand is that there’s a point when endless action stops being exciting and instead becomes a drag, and that point was reached for me far before I finished my first campaign. And then I had 3 to go. Resident Evil 6 just isn’t much fun to play; indeed it’s a game so eager to play itself for you that you’re barely in control at all. Instead you’re left to do little but tag along for the ride, allowing yourself to be hit over the head by action scenes so dumb and senseless that they have no basis in any sort of reality, not even in Resident Evil’s reality. In trying their best to make a Resident Evil game for the masses, Capcom has instead created a Resident Evil game for nobody. It does nothing to set itself apart, making no attempt to forge its own way or do anything original with its formula. It’s eager to imitate Call of Duty, to grab your attention and to sell copies, but it does nothing to deserve the big sales it will likely receive.

Presentation: A story that can be interesting one moment and stupid the next, with a plot twist that should be outlawed at this point and with action that never ends. Minimal HUD appears to be an attempt to immerse you further in the game, but then the waypoint that’s on screen for 100% of your playtime kind of defeats this purpose. Some glitches.

Graphics: A few gorgeous areas along with some ugly ones and NPC characters who look like leftovers from House of the Dead: Overkill. A mixed bag that doesn’t feel nearly as impressive as Resident Evil 5 felt a few years ago.

Gameplay: Tries to do so many things but fails to do any of them well. Game’s little more than an exercise in following the arrow while taking out endless swarms of enemies with mediocre mechanics as QTEs constantly crash the party. Vehicular scenes are sloppy, the few puzzles included are lazy and feel out of place. No exploration at all, and little opportunity to have a say in anything happening around your character. Game insults your intelligence at every turn; at one point a mission objective appears at the top of the screen to tell you to (in these exact words) “figure out the puzzle”…just in case you were confused about what you’re supposed to do when you reach a puzzle in a video game.

Sound: The voice acting’s pretty good despite some bad dialogue. Music, though, is so loud and over the top that even the game’s rare attempts to establish genuine atmosphere are crushed by an orchestra on steroids. Occasionally a familiar Resident Evil sound effect will make an appearance, though that feels almost like salt in the wound at this point.

Replay Value: Co-op play, Mercenaries mode, multiple difficulties on multiple characters to play through, emblems to find, skills to unlock…lots to do, though after the final credits ended I had no desire to do any of it.

Overall: 5.0/10

Play Resident Evil: Revelations instead.

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

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Review: Though I'm glad I was given the chance to play it, my final verdict on the Last Story is far from a recommendation.

It was, in many ways, a momentous occasion. With the years of speculation, hope, and then ultimately disappointment, Nintendo of America’s handling of The Last Story has been nothing short of tragic. Courtesy of Xseed Games, however, the latest RPG from Final Fantasy creator (and arguably the father of the modern Japanese RPG) Hironobu Sakaguchi was finally allowed to reach North American shores, serving as a symbolic farewell to the Wii system. Xseed, well aware of the built up demand for this title, packaged it with more care and in a more elaborate casing than I’ve ever seen, and as I took the game from its seal, I felt like I was holding something truly special.

And then I played it.

Well, okay, to be fair, The Last Story does begin with promise, though unfortunately that promise is never realized. This is a tedious and unadventurous journey to nowhere: an adventure so forgettable that I could feel it fading from memory even as I was playing it. I’m glad that I was given the opportunity to try The Last Story for myself, but my verdict is far from a recommendation.

One thing immediately clear to me was that this is not a game meant to be played on an HDTV. Though the Wii’s unquestionably not a system designed with HD gaming in mind, many of its games look nice in 480p, including Xenoblade, the other JRPG we had to fight to receive. The Last Story’s visuals, on the other hand, don’t survive the jump. Even with Component cables the presentation’s muddy, the colors washed out, and the jaggies seem to be everywhere. By no means am I picky about graphics, but The Last Story simply looks ugly, at least, on an HDTV. I can’t speak for how it looks in Standard Def, but I definitely recommend playing it that way if you have the choice, though unfortunately the frequent load times and heavy slowdown won’t be fixed.

Distracting visuals aside, I was initially prepared to enjoy this game. It begins the way many great JRPGs do by throwing you into the heat of battle, giving you a taste of what appears to be a fun combat system. Shortly after this opening mission you find yourself in a packed tavern in the middle of Lazulis City, a bustling and atmospheric town that feels like it’s just waiting to be explored. The scenes that follow, including your introduction to the rest of the cast and the chasing down of Calista, a character who initially bears more than a passing resemblance to Dagger from Final Fantasy 9, have a great sense of humor and demonstrate Nintendo of Europe’s superb localization effort. Things seem to be great as you prepare to set off on your adventure, and my hopes were incredibly high. But then, well…

Let’s step back a bit though and I’ll explain how The Last Story works. The gameplay’s divided into two categories; town and combat. Lazulis City is where the game’s exploration elements are most prominent, as you can wander around, chat with locals, buy and upgrade equipment, do battle in the Coliseum, and take on sidequests. The city’s got atmosphere to spare, with its narrow winding roads and many different neighborhoods, and it would make a great town in any RPG world, but in The Last Story, it *is* the world. Outside the town you’re almost always battling through linear levels in areas that are somewhat varied but feature little in the way of personality; it’s like Final Fantasy XIII, except without the beautiful graphics and the strong combat system. But I’ll get to Last Story’s combat a little later. The big issue I have with this game is that neither the town gameplay nor the action gameplay is satisfying, either on their own or together. Lazulis City’s got plenty to do but little incentive to do it. With no Quest menu to give you easy access to the sidequests you choose to take on and with a map that’s not the most helpful thing in the world, there’s just not much fun to be had here. When Xenoblade offered you sidequests it did so in a way that wove them seamlessly into the rest of the game, and you couldn’t walk through town without opportunities for side missions presenting themselves at every given opportunity. The Last Story instead requires you to seek out the sidequests, and given how bland most of them are, it doesn’t seem to be worth the effort. As far as story-related content in the city is concerned, it’s very little in number; story-wise, you have precious few adventures in the city streets, and though you can choose to warp back to town at many points throughout the game, the rest of the cast basically just sits in the tavern and does little else. The final few hours of the game give you no ability to return to town, further cementing The Last Story’s place as more of an action-driven dungeon crawl than anything else.

Outside the city, combat’s the main focus, and it’s another aspect of The Last Story that shows initial promise but falls victim to poor execution. In some ways it’s similar to the MMO combat system seen in games like Xenoblade but with more of a focus on individual battles. You and your teammates all have a certain amount of Lives, and when a person’s lives run out they can no longer be revived. Though you control only Zael, the main character, you can dictate certain commands to your allies, such as telling them to use a certain magical skill, and commanding them decreases the charge up time they’d spend to use the spell otherwise. There’s a cover system in place, and you’re given some cool moves, like the ability to dive from behind cover and fly right at the enemy, the ability to block and even counter-attack. Items that you find in chests throughout the environment or bought in stores can be used to upgrade your weapons, either in town or from one of the salespeople you’ll encounter elsewhere.

When fighting against basic enemies the combat system works and proves to be a good bit of fun. When more skill is required of you, though, is when things get ugly. First and foremost, far too many moves are mapped to the A-button, so the button that allows you to dive away from en enemy’s move can also cause you to stick to the wall in a cover position. Whoops. (And that’s just one example.) Adding to your frustrations, your AI allies have so little intelligence that they need to be revived constantly, and the more advanced combat tactics such as “diffusing” magic circles and commanding your squad mates are very poorly explained to you in various video tutorials and never come off as intuitive or natural. It’s a combat system that tries to do far too many things and would have been so much better if it focused on less. Boss fights are often repetitive and can drag on forever; an initially clever chase through a mansion loses its fun after about the 12th time you’re forced to run back to the living room to grab more special arrows to fire at the boss. No “retry” option is offered for if the fight isn’t going in your favor; instead, you can load up the most recent (and pointless) “Checkpoint Save” which often sets you back at least one load screen and a cutscene, which you can fast forward through, but not outright skip. Collision detection needs a lot of work, as your (or the enemy’s) weapons never seem to have problems hitting their target through the solid walls which are *supposed* to be providing you cover. It becomes a complete chore to play.

Though there’s no shortage of cutscenes, the story told is as uninteresting as the world it inhabits, and though the characters all make a great first impression, the game gives them nothing to do and they fade into the background very quickly. The plot involves an ascent to knighthood, an invading enemy force called the Gurak, a bland love interest, a powerful object, and lots of battle scenes that aren’t nearly as epic as they think they are. The cutscenes are okay, demonstrating some good character animation but not much cinematic flair. The well-written and acted dialogue is frequently undercut by a pointless narrator who has such a love for stating the obvious that it becomes laughable. Things get a bit more interesting towards the end but by that point the game’s jumped the shark to such an extent that it doesn’t redeem much at all. For the most part you’re watching characters you don’t care about trying to protect a world you barely get to know in scenes that have been done better in countless RPGs.

Verdict: When The Last Story was in development, Hironobu Sakaguchi was quoted as saying that this would be his final game. Though this was later revealed to be a mistranslation, I can’t help but think how awful it would be if the guy who created some of the most memorable experiences in gaming ended up going out on this note. This is an RPG with no sense of adventure, with little new to offer story-wise, with a flawed and frustrating combat system, and with visuals that just don’t look good on an HDTV (even for a Wii game). It all starts with such promise, but in the end The Last Story comes off as a failed attempt to re-invent a genre that I wish people would stop trying so hard to re-invent.

Presentation: A forgettable storyline that goes through the motions like they’re being read off a checklist. It’s amazing that a game this short has as much filler as this one does. Load times aren't too long but they show up at the worst places. Menus fairly clunky, bad tutorials. City is bustling, areas outside it have little to offer.

Graphics: Play this one in Standard Def if you can, as the decent art direction and great character design is otherwise ruined by the game’s awful look on an HDTV; even the CG cutscenes only manage to look “okay,” which has to be something of an achievement. Lazulis City looks good, that’s about it. Some slowdown during the busy battles can be distracting.

Gameplay: Lazulis City is awesome but not all that compelling to venture through. Combat starts off nicely but tries to do too many things and gets frustrating fast. Weapon upgrading is shallow, more advanced battle tactics feel unrefined. Bad collision detection, repetitive dungeons and boss fights.

Sound: Incredible voice acting that’s some of the best in a Japanese game this generation and great sound effects. The music, though, is among the blandest I’ve ever heard from Nobuo Uematsu. Aside from the relaxing music of Lazulis City, hardly a single other song stood out to me.

Replay Value: 18-24 hours is what the main quest takes, though I wanted it to end about halfway through that. You can theoretically spend more time doing sidequests and other things.

Overall: 5.0/10

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Review: Sleeping Dogs brings the crazy back to the open world genre

When True Crime: Hong Kong was first revealed at the 2009 Spike TV VGAs (one of the few highlights of a painful awards show) I was completely excited for it. Though I had a decent amount of fun with the first True Crime game, what got me so pumped for this new one was the Hong Kong setting, as a move to the Far East was something I had always wanted Rockstar to undertake with their iconic GTA series.

Turns out I was one of the few. True Crime: Hong Kong was met with a collective "meh" among the gaming community, and Activision took notice, officially cancelling the game a little over a year later and leaving its future in doubt. Long story short, Square-Enix stepped in, and the result is Sleeping Dogs: a fun and compelling take on the open world genre, one which may not reinvent the wheel, but one that pulls off everything it attempts to do with both style and energy.

You are Wei Shen, an undercover cop who has a personal motive for dealing with the Triads, and fully enters into that world by getting directly involved in a vicious war between the various gangs. What makes the storyline so compelling is the risk that Wei has taken on, and his constant fear of being discovered, either by his friends or his enemies, keeps you on your toes. Wei's a likable enough guy, and it becomes easy to root for him, though the supporting cast is far less interesting. Between missions you have the ability to wander through a gorgeous version of Hong Kong, engaging in dating sim mini-games, doing favors for people who know of you, looking for shrines that will increase your HP the more you find (think Zelda) and taking on drug busts. What's so impressive about Sleeping Dogs is how fun this world is just to walk through; in GTA I always find myself eager to return to my car, but here the outdoor markets, the bustling sidewalks, and all the nooks and crannies to discover make walking around a treat.

Sleeping Dogs is dripping with atmosphere; a smaller city than you find in many current open world games means far more attention to detail, and Hong Kong looks great and feels truly alive. Much credit goes to the sound effects, which do a great job of complementing the visuals and drawing you into the world. Some pop up does occur when driving at particularly fast speeds, and facial expressions during the game's cutscenes aren't always the most convincing, but aside from these nitpicks, this is a great game visually and definitely feels like much effort was spent creating its lifelike world.

The missions themselves aren't afraid to focus on fun and go over the top, a refreshing change after the more grounded open world adventures Rockstar's been delivering this generation. This is the type of game where you leap from your car and onto the back of another one before sliding into its window and taking it over, and where you evade police pursuit by ramming their cars literally off the road. It's a game where you go from singing karaoke in a bar to smashing some thug's head into a full-wall fish tank. It's not a game afraid to push the boundaries of believability and go over the top and I think it's all the better for it.

A big focus in Sleeping Dogs was its combat system, and this becomes evident very quickly. Relying on a mixture of weapons, environmental kills, an expanding arsenal of moves and heavy counter-attacking, combat's one of the most exciting features this game has to offer, and it's a major factor that helps it stand out from the pack. Finding hidden statues throughout the city and returning them to a certain gym will get you new moves, while you learn other techniques with points acquired at the ends of missions. How many of these new moves you'll wind up making use of is another question, but the feeling of progression and character development kept me interested anyway.

When you do wind up making use of firearms, the game features a cover system similar to what you find in many action games these days, but with a cool bullet time mode that you enter into if you hop over cover. The shooting, like most everything else here, is quite satisfying, and the game's decision not to over-rely on guns means that these shooting sections don't get stale.

Every so often a mission will require you to make use of a police tool, like planting a wiretap, tracing a call, picking locks, or hacking a system. Though some of these would have benefitted from a bit more explanation, they further add variety to the gameplay and keep things fresh.

How do the cars control? For the most part incredibly well. This is the only open world game in recent memory where I'd do street races for fun, the cars really control *that* well and can reach very high speeds. Hong Kong's painless to navigate by car, with an easy-to-use freeway system linking its various districts together, and the streets feel just populated enough that you have to drive with skill, but not so much that you're crashing constantly.

Thanks mostly to main character Wei, the story proves to be just as compelling as the gameplay that propels it, and though in the end I wished the fairly straightforward plot had offered up a couple more tricks than it does, the main character's dilemma and his personal struggles and doubts throughout keep things interesting. Voice acting's good all around, the occasionally awkward line readings aside, and the licensed music, while definitely not up to par with Rockstar's offerings, gets the job done and features a good mix of both Western and Eastern tunes.

A couple things in the end stop Sleeping Dogs from standing with the best of its genre. Clocking in at around 14 hours for me (with some sidequesting undertaken) the campaign's definitely at the short end for this type of game, beating out even LA Noire for that crown. There's plenty to do outside the main story, of course, and you can continue doing these after the game's done, which is nice. But with most of these consisting of driving strangers around or looking for objects in the environments, it's not exactly the definition of compelling content. I also feel that the game holds your hand a little too much at times. Sleeping Dogs isn't a cakewalk, especially in the hand to hand combat area, but also feels like it's afraid to challenge you too much. Evading cops is a snap, and the optional drug busts, missions where you survey dealers with hacked cameras and try to identify the suppliers, are made far less interesting than they could have been because the game basically tells you who the supplier is. Also, as I alluded to before, the storyline isn't all that it could have been either, lacking the twists and turns that you'd usually expect in crime fiction.

Verdict: Some flaws aside, however, Sleeping Dogs is the perfect example of a good time. Though it definitely follows the template established by Rockstar Games, it has enough cool features, including a surprisingly strong combat system, to set it apart from other games in the genre. With a likeable main character, an incredible setting, plenty to do, and solid gameplay all around, Sleeping Dogs is a title I'd unquestionably recommend to fans of action games, especially to people who crave a little of the insanity done so well in games like GTA:Vice City back in the day. Definitely a nice surprise.

Presentation: Some standard load times, occasional glitches. A well-presented story whose main character goes a long way in bringing you along for the ride. Easy to use maps and menus, occasionally confusing explanations for things like call tracing.

Graphics: A smaller city means higher detailing, and Sleeping Dogs' Hong Kong is my favorite open world setting in a long time. Definitely a great-looking location and one you can zip through if you happen to be driving a fast car. Some screen tearing and pop-up makes appearances from time to time.

Gameplay: Everything that Sleeping Dogs attempts it pulls off well. May not totally change the face of open world gaming but it does a hell of a job at delivering a fun experience. Cars control incredibly well, combat never gets old, and the shooting works well too.

Sound: Good voice acting, good soundtrack of both licensed and composed music, and strong sound effects.

Replay Value: 14 hours is pretty short for the storyline in an open world game, a fact that's pretty much unavoidable. Still, Sleeping Dogs is great while it lasts and offers more beyond the main plot to keep you playing.

Overall: 8.5/10

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

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Review: Some filler aside, Rhythm Thief and the Emperor's Treasure (the latest from the creator of Samba De Amigo) does not disappoint

In the age of M-rated shooters and large-scale open world games, the "quirky rhythm game" seems to be a bit of a lost art. With the coming-and-going of the Guitar Hero franchise and an increasing shift of small-budget games to digital download services, it seems like a strange time to release Rhythm Thief and the Emperor's treasure, a game so openly quirky and unyieldingly pleasant that you can sense while playing it the difficulty that it'll have finding an audience in today's cynical times.

In many ways it's too bad, because what we have here is a charming title; a game so eager to win you over that, if you're open to it, it quickly will. The characters are likable, the anime-styled city of Paris is lovingly rendered, the rhythm games are fun, the music's jazzy, and the graphics are colorful. What's not to like? Rhythm Thief places a heavier emphasis on its story than any other game I've encountered in the genre. You play as Raphael, a polite fellow who shares an apartment in Paris with his dog, Fondue. Raphael lives a double life as Phantom R, a rogue who breaks into museums to hunt down artifacts that may serve as keys in solving the mystery of his missing father. Along the way he meets up with a girl, Marie, whose mysterious violin may hold the answers he seeks.

Key events in this story are presented in gorgeous 3D anime cutscenes, and they do a great job of drawing you in. The script's solid, while the voice actors complement their characters well, even if the acting itself isn't always fantastic. It would have been nice to have seen a bit more of it, especially given the amount of time you'll spend reading text boxes as you progress through Paris looking for clues. Yes, Rhythm Thief fancies itself as a bit of an adventure, and between the rhythm games you'll spend time going from one location to another to talk with people, record sounds, solve the occasional puzzle, and search for hidden notes.

This aspect of the game takes place against static backgrounds; you tap the touch screen with the stylus to search the environments for clues or to talk to NPCs. The top screen serves as a 3D map, with your destination always clearly marked. Admittedly this is where Rhythm Thief could have used some more thought. As you can probably imagine, tapping the screen isn't nearly as immersive as it would have been to get to explore these environments personally. That's not to say that these parts of the game aren't fun; with the colorful backdrops, the many people to interact with, and great incentives to find the objects hidden in each location, I didn't find myself too frustrated with this somewhat low-budget approach to exploration.

Most likely designed with kids in mind, the sound-based puzzles that you'll come across aren't going to challenge too many people, with the game going out of its way to help you through them. Gamers hoping for a more fleshed out puzzle experience may be disappointed that Rhythm Thief didn't try harder in this regard, but I personally didn't mind. The real reason to play this is for the story and rhythm mini-games, and these aspects do not disappoint.

Even with all the other stuff going on, they've managed to cram 50 mini-games in here, many of which you'll encounter over the course of the story, some you can purchase in the shop, others you can unlock in the post-game. These are where Rhythm Thief really impresses. The various games make use of nearly every control aspect of the 3DS, from the touch screen to the face and L/R buttons, to even the d-pad and gyroscope. Only the latter fails to work well, with motion controls never being a good fit for a game that demands and scores you based on timing and precision. Thankfully, few mini-games use this, with the majority focusing on controls that rarely fail to perform the way you want them to. Your score meter doubles as a HP bar, with it decreasing every time you miss a cue and with it increasing when you're successful, even more if you do so with perfect timing. The more filled the HP bar is at the end of a mini-game, the higher your score and grade.

These games are funny. Not only do they look great visually, but the sight of enemy after enemy approaching your character (in rhythm with the music) only to have your character fight them off, again, in a rhythm, never ceases to entertain. Others, such as games where Raphael must dodge guards in a museum by hiding behind posing statues or when Marie gets to use her violin, prove to be equally fun, and with the exception of a couple repeats, there's no shortage of variety from one game to the next.

These are where Rhythm Thief shines, and without a doubt they steal the show.


Verdict: As I made sure to point out, Rhythm Thief and the Emperor's Treasure is not a perfect experience; the ability to wander through Paris, while fun, is also woefully simplistic from a gameplay perspective. I'm glad it's there, as these parts add to the richness of the experience, though the game could have used quite a bit less of it and more of the rhythm mini-games, which is really why we're all here. The gyroscopic controls, though rarely used, don't work nearly as well as they should, and some of the music comes across as a little forgettable. Still, this is the type of quirky Japanese rhythm game that I wish we saw more of. With a gorgeously presented story, a memorable cast of characters, a setting clearly designed with care, and no shortage of fun rhythm games, this is an enjoyable title from start to finish, one that gamers with an open mind should give a try. The ending even hints at a sequel, something that I feel may be a bit unlikely, but also something that I'd pick up in a heartbeat were it to ever see release.

Presentation: Lots of text boxes begging for more voice acting, especially since the actors are so likable. Anime cutscenes are great, especially in 3D. The story really tries and delivers a rich backdrop to the game. Paris feels truly alive.

Graphics: Though a lot of Rhythm Thief is static environments that are visually appealing but don't push the system, the rhythm games look great, as do the anime cutscenes.

Gameplay: Divided into rhythm games, puzzles, and (sort of) point-and-click exploration, there's a lot here. The content outside of the rhythm games could have used more variety, but the games themselves are loaded with it, and it all adds up to a well-rounded product.

Sound: Good voice acting, upbeat music, and quality sound effects make for a pleasant audio experience. Some tunes are great, others are a little hard to remember. 

Replay Value: Game for me clocked in at around 8 hours and 20 minutes, with some time taken to work on collecting items for sidequests. Trying to collect everything will add to this and grant you a couple of short additional episodes, with a 3rd bonus episode available to the hardcore Rhythm Thief fans who manage to score all A's. I definitely wish you luck with that one.

Overall: 7.5/10 (Note: My reviews go on a .5 scale)

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Review: Despite some shockingly under-developed ideas and gameplay mechanics, Binary Domain proves to be a fun ride.

There's no doubt that within the past 10 years or so, the shooter genre (on consoles) has exploded into the mainstream. Last generation had its star in the Halo series, while this generation saw Halo take a step back (sales-wise) to Call of Duty and its yearly installments. But another thing that happened was the growth of the third person shooter, with games like Gears of War and Mass Effect also finding major success. Developing shooters however has never exactly been Japan's thing, so it's always interesting to see their take on the genre; in Binary Domain's case, the team who created the Yakuza series (not to mention Super Monkey Ball) tries their hand at a third person shooter, and while failing to stand out like the Japan-developed third person shooter Vanquish did a couple years ago, the results manage to be a lot of fun.

Binary Domain's setup's one that opens itself up to many possibilities; robots are something that we haven't seen too much of in video games lately, and Japanese manga and anime have typically done some pretty crazy stuff with the subject matter. Binary Domain though takes very safe approach, with a story that does its best to imitate that of a Hollywood action movie and not a whole lot more. Essentially, beings known as the Hollow Children (robots disguised as humans who do not know they're robots) have been uncovered in the US, with one going as far as to infiltrate the headquarters of a major robotics corporation. A "rust crew" is sent into Japan to secretly infiltrate Tokyo and the Amada Corporation, where, it's believed, the robot came from. This crew is made up of a multi-national group of characters, each one more unbelievably stereotypical than the last. Upon arrival in Japan they set off on their mission, one which takes them from the slums of the Lower City to the slick hallways of the Amada Corporation itself.

The story here is simply serviceable; cutscenes have the cinematic flair you'd expect from a Japanese game, and they'll keep you playing from one level to the next. The final act's sunk quite a bit by some cliches and a cheesy romance, and it's a shame that the story doesn't go anywhere more interesting (or delve any deeper) than it does, but it's not bad, all in all. The English voice acting and translation's pretty average; not great but a lot better than I thought it was going to be given SEGA's history of hit-or-miss dub jobs.

Binary Domain has a few different things going on as far as gameplay's concerned. At its core this is a polished third person cover shooter. You and your teammates (sometimes chosen by you) take cover and fire at approaching robots, all of whom have limbs that can be targeted and blown off. There's actually a lot of satisfaction in doing this, as robots deconstruct before your eyes in the wake of your gunfire, going out with an explosion that's more than satisfying. Same goes for a melee attack, which is more effective the heavier the weapon used and certainly better than the one featured recently in Mass Effect 3. In fact, Binary Domain's shooting as a whole I found to be more fun than that of Bioware's space epic. Your character here is much more agile (he can actually roll backwards) and this game's far fewer with the "one hit kill" enemies. I also have to give major praise to Binary Domain's use of boss battles; you'll face off against some truly fun robotic bosses here, and if there's one thing that defines a good Japanese game, it's the larger-than-life boss battles contained in it.

A heavy emphasis is placed on your team. Your health regenerates like in most modern games, however, if you lose your remaining HP before this happens, you'll find yourself on the ground, where death awaits if you fail to either inject yourself with a Health Pack or call one of your teammates over to use one of theirs. The heavy focus on team work brings to light both Binary Domain's strengths and its weaknesses, but this aspect of it proves to actually be rather cool, and it's a great balance between the two different schools of health replenishment.

Binary Domain also introduces some light RPG elements into the mix, giving you the opportunity to upgrade your characters' primary weapons. Vending machines are perfectly placed throughout the levels, and with the money collected from defeating robots along the way, you can level your guns up, purchase ammo, buy health packs, and even acquire some items that increase various stats, such as defense. Several on-rails set pieces, machines to operate, small non-combat areas to explore, and even the rare instances of interactive cutscenes do their best to shake things up and prevent the game from feeling too redundant, and for the most part it works.

Binary Domain is a fun and well-paced game, and as long as you're not expecting something truly unique, you'll have fun with its tried and true, but nevertheless very polished, shooting mechanics.

It's strange then to see this strong central gameplay surrounded by new ideas that feel so rushed and under-developed. The biggest one, and it's the one that would have made this game stand out, is the team system. Throughout missions you'll encounter dialogue segments between you and your team, where they'll ask you a question or make a statement. You're then given a selection of responses to pick from, and depending on how you answer, the character who's addressing you will either gain or lose respect for you. Teammates who respect you are far more likely to follow your orders, so it's in your best interest to react appropriately to the given situation.

The first problem with this system though is how terribly the dialogue trees function. While other games with dialogue trees, such as the Mass Effect series, feature answers unique to each situation, Binary Domain instead provides you with a generic series of choices, oftentimes with many (or all of them) laughably disconnected from the questions asked. Rather than try to explain why, I'll just let you read two of them yourself:

"_____ was the only contact we could use. So don't go blaming this on me."

Your choices for a response are:
A: "Ok."
B: "Cool."
C: "Alright."

Now...which one is the correct choice? In this scenario, you simply don't know, as they all essentially mean the same thing, yet one or two of them will drag down the character's respect for you.

Here's another one:

"Without you I could have died in this filth."
A: "Damnit!"
B: "God Damn!"
C: "No Problem."

It of course doesn't take a degree in robotics to figure out the correct answer to that one, so you likely won't lose respect points there unless you accidentally hit the wrong button, but it's still a prime example of a promising idea being implemented in such a lazy way.

More understandably, teammates will lose respect for you if you shoot them in combat, which makes sense, though this too proves to be an annoyance when they run directly into your line of fire.

The fact is, you'll have a lot more fun with Binary Domain if you forget about the team mechanics entirely. On the standard difficulty you'll almost never have to give commands to your teammates anyway, and it's a far better alternative to having to deal with broken dialogue trees and the behavior of your not-so-smart teammates.

Verdict: Binary Domain's a tough one to rate. The central gameplay mechanics, while not particularly new, are solid and manage to be a lot of fun. The leveling up system's simple and easy to use, the story has some cool moments and fun settings, and the boss battles can be pretty awesome. On the other hand, it's impossible to ignore that the team dynamics, which should have been the heart of the game, are so half-assed and basically broken. It's hard not to lose interest in the neverending series of gray corridors that make up the game's final missions, and it's hard not to wish the story went somewhere far cooler than it ultimately does.

Is Binary Domain a game worth playing? If you're looking for a fun third person shooter, I'd say it's worth a shot. Though to me this doesn't feel much like a SEGA game, SEGA fans and fans of Toshihiro Nagoshi's work will likely have a lot of fun seeing him trying out something new. It's important to set your expectations accordingly, but if you do, you should enjoy this cool little futuristic shooter.

Presentation: Not too much in the way of load times, lots of story, fun cutscenes, some very generic character designs. The emphasis on teamwork is a fun idea, though it should have been implemented better.

Graphics: At times it looks great, at others it looks like an Xbox game given the "HD remake" treatment. It runs very well, though, with no slowdown that I noticed.

Gameplay: Great shooting and comparatively agile controls make the core gameplay far more enjoyable than the clunky Mass Effect 3. Checkpoints are for the most part well-placed and the enemies are fun to take out. Great boss battles. Utterly broken dialogue tree system, the teamwork feels almost like an afterthought.

Sound: Voice acting won't win any awards but it's actually not terrible. The music, though, I found myself forgetting even as it was playing.

Replay Value: Game's around 8 hours, so the standard length for the genre. There's a multiplayer mode (online only) and the ability to replay chapters. There are also other difficulty settings and (supposedly) story changes depending on certain choices you make. Not bad, but not a ton here to keep coming back to.

Overall: 7.5/10

(Note: This review is of the Xbox 360 version. My scoring is done on a .5 scale)

Thursday, June 21, 2012

New Review: Grasshopper Manufacture’s downward trend continues with Lollipop Chainsaw. Still has its fair share of fun, just not nearly enough to recommend it.

Suda 51 is one of my favorite developers, with some incredible games under his belt. Killer 7 was a disturbing masterpiece, and I mean that in the best possible way. No More Heroes was a lot of fun and a truly unique game, and I couldn’t have been happier to learn that it did well enough to bring Suda 51 and his studio, Grasshopper Manufacture, into the public eye. It was with true excitement that I had looked forward to Grasshopper’s following games, though unfortunately, something happened after No More Heroes, and since then it hasn’t exactly been a smooth ride.

No More Heroes 2 left behind much of the original’s spirit and attitude as it attempted to appeal more to its predecessor’s critics than its fans, while Shadows of the Damned was a unique and memorable action/horror game unfortunately crippled by frustrating game design choices. Now comes their latest, a zombie-killing hack and slash that feels so lazily put together that it’s like they’ve stopped trying. The game’s not completely without merit and Suda 51’s crazy attitude is definitely on full display, but the writing and the gameplay are both so one-note and repetitive that even the developer’s most die-hard fans will be more than happy to see the end credits roll.

Things are not going well at San Romero High School. A Goth student who spent his high school years as an outcast has decided to retaliate against those who have wronged him, and sets a plan in motion to break open the gateway to Rotten World, unleashing a full-on zombie attack on the high school and, soon, the rest of the town. Cheerleader Juliet Starling and her family of zombie hunters plunge headfirst into the action; she’s armed with a chainsaw and her Sensei-trained knowledge of combat, while her family brings weapons and total insanity to the table. Oh, and Juliet also carries with her the head of her boyfriend, Nick, whom she decapitated to save from a zombie bite. He provides sarcastic commentary throughout the adventure, more or less playing the part that Johnson did in Shadows of the Damned.

It’s a fun setup, and there’s no shortage of cool undead bosses to fight, but it’s far below Suda 51’s talent as a writer. This is a guy who’s written what I think is one of the most compelling, twisted, and unpredictable storylines in the history of the medium with Killer 7, and here he’s just in non-stop joke mode. Much of the humor’s centered around Juliet’s sexiness and the way people inappropriately react to it, while other jokes reference everything from Katy Perry to My Chemical Romance, and they deliver laughs just about as often as they crash and burn. Suda 51 collaborated with Hollywood writer James Gunn (the Dawn of the Dead remake, Slither) on the script, and though I laughed a bunch while playing it, I have to say, I expected more from these two than a series of pole dancing jokes and Hot Topic references.

But Lollipop Chainsaw’s not meant to be taken seriously, that much is clear from the outset. The game’s actually structured a bit like an arcade game, with emphasis on replaying levels to boost your score on the online leaderboards; it even features endangered NPCs who you can rescue (if you’re quick enough) ala House of the Dead. The problem is that the gameplay’s just not fun enough to warrant the promised replay value. It’s never a good sign in a beat-em-up when you’re sick of the combat system about 15 minutes into the experience, and while the skills and powerups you can buy from shops improve things a good deal as the game goes on, there’s no getting around the fact that combat feels clunky and repetitive almost throughout. You progress through linear levels and take out wave upon wave of zombies, while gameplay variations such as the boss battles, Grasshopper Manufacture’s typical “video game” segments, not to mention Zombie Baseball, are as hit-or-miss as everything else is.

What keeps you going through the levels is the pacing; cutscenes are frequent, (though unskippable, even if you die and are watching them again, which is unfortunate) and Juliet and Nick’s back and forth banter is the source of a lot of laughs. In the age of Youtube, though, this alone doesn’t justify a purchase. Why buy a game with average gameplay if you can watch its best moments on the internet? Story’s always played a central role in Grasshopper Manufacture’s titles, and that’s awesome, especially when it’s penned by someone like Suda 51. But in this day and age you can’t just write some funny dialogue and call it a day, you have to design a game that also plays well, and that’s simply not the case here.

With the exception of the music (including Silent Hill’s Akira Yamaoka, not to mention an incredibly entertaining collection of licensed tracks and the always awesome Tara Strong voicing the main character) and voice acting, this just doesn’t feel like a $60 game. Though it’s running on the Unreal Engine 3 like Shadows of the Damned was, Lollipop Chainsaw looks like an upscaled Wii game for the most part. You take that into account along with its short length and simple gameplay and this feels like a digital title that you should be paying $20 for, not full price. It’s built for replay value; unlockable harder levels of play, tons of items to collect and purchase, plenty of choice in the customization of Juliet, but it needed stronger central gameplay to warrant the return trips, and playing through this again without the novelty of its storyline is about as unappealing to me as anything.
Verdict: Lollipop Chainsaw may have been made by some incredibly talented people, but it’s like they were on auto-pilot here. There are a few moments of inspiration, plenty of dialogue that will have you laughing out loud, plus a great soundtrack to ensure that your playthrough of Lollipop Chainsaw isn’t a total waste of time. There’s fun to be had, without a doubt, but not enough to make up for a stiff combat system, and definitely not enough to warrant a $60 purchase.

Presentation: A fun story with some hilarious dialogue from Suda 51 and James Gunn, though this is work far below the capabilities of each, I feel. The menus feature a cool comic book motif that I wish carried over to the visuals in the game itself. Jokes hit as often as they miss.

Graphics: Grasshopper Manufacture’s sense of style is muted here by a washed out color scheme and bland-looking enemies. Frequent load times on dull load screens. Carries the look of a last generation game upscaled to HD.

Gameplay: Combat plays like an even less fluid No More Heroes 2, and considering the large role that zombie-killing plays in Lollipop Chainsaw, this is a big issue. Upgradeable powerups and some fun mini-games shake things up but can’t make up for core gameplay that’s lacking in as many ways as this one’s is.

Sound: Definitely its strongest aspect. A killer soundtrack and fun voice acting brings some much-needed life to the proceedings.

Replay Value: This game was designed around multiple playthroughs, though how many people will take advantage of this remains to be seen. Game ended for me after a little over 5 hours, and in that time I’d definitely seen enough.

Overall: 5.5/10

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

Monday, June 11, 2012

Review: Xenoblade Chronicles is an incredible adventure and a major step forward for the genre. Not a perfect game by any means, but one you definitely won't regret playing.

It’s been a long road, but after much struggle and plenty of doubt, Tetsuya Takahashi’s epic Japanese RPG, Xenoblade, has finally been localized for Western shores after a well-received release in Japan two years ago. And now that I’ve finally gotten the chance to experience it, I can see why Xenoblade is being widely regarded as one of the best Japanese RPGs to come around in years. It’s not a game without its flaws, there’s no doubt about that, but it succeeds in delivering a fun and memorable adventure in a stunning world, single-handedly bringing the Japanese RPG genre into the next generation…on the Wii, of all systems.

Graphics: Yes, this is a Wii game, and the Wii is, of course, not capable of delivering high definition games, something that you’ll just have to accept when booting up your copy of Xenoblade. However, what Monolith Soft (Xenosaga) has done here has been to squeeze what feels like every ounce of power from the aging hardware to deliver a truly gorgeous game, one that, yes, is in Standard Definition (To HDTV owners, I recommend springing for Component Cables to at least jump the visuals up to 480p) but one that nevertheless manages to amaze. Almost every environment you’ll wander through over the course of this 60 hour+ adventure is gigantic, each one looking different from the last and providing no shortage of nooks and crannies to explore. The draw distance is some of the best I’ve encountered, allowing you to see what feels like miles ahead of you. The art direction’s top notch, and the use of color and lighting effects bathe the environments in a warm glow that really pops in 480p. Cutscenes are surprisingly frequent and look great, with great character animation and well-directed action sequences the likes of which really haven’t been done on the system. There are bumps in the road: some truly awful textures rear their ugly heads from time to time, and even actions like opening up the menus cause the Wii to strain, while the framerate in battle can drop to *completely* unacceptable levels. But Xenoblade remains a gorgeous game, one that does all that can possibly be done to overcome its hardware restrictions and deliver some of the best visuals you’ll find in a Standard Definition title.

Gameplay: Tetsuya Takahashi, who created the linear and story-heavy Xenosaga series, had said during Xenoblade’s development that he considered those types of games to be “a dead end” for the genre, something that I took to be a bit of a dig at, among other things, Final Fantasy XIII, which took RPG linearity to a whole other level. Xenoblade instead takes an entirely different stance, focusing on exploration from the very start. This is a game where you can wander up to the top of a cliff and jump off into the waters below; where you can not only see for miles in every direction, but where you can explore it. Where the amounts of quests you can take on seem endless. With scope that hasn’t been present in Japanese RPGs, by and large, since the large worldmaps of the PS1 era (and even these Xenoblade puts to shame) Monolith Soft has created a world that not only looks great, but one that truly feels alive.

But for all the emphasis on exploration, Xenoblade doesn’t forget its Japanese RPG roots; a waypoint will almost always guide you to your next cutscene, though you’re encouraged to venture off the beaten path at every opportunity. The story itself progresses in a linear fashion, with you having no control over its progression or outcome, which is good; this is a Japanese RPG, after all. And don’t let Xenoblade’s emphasis on exploration and gameplay fool you; there’s a lot of story here, with, I’m sure, more voice acting than all games Nintendo has ever released…combined. It manages to find the balance between offering the gamer total freedom while at the same time telling a story, an accomplishment that should prove, beyond a doubt, that you can do both in a Japanese RPG.

The battle system plays similarly, in a sense, to that of offline MMOs like Final Fantasy XII, though it offers a far more exciting take on the combat style. Your input is constantly required, whether it be selecting moves for your main character to pull off, or even moving him around to make sure you’re in the right place for those moves to do their most effective damage. There are no items to speak of; instead, when a party member dies, you have to walk up to their fallen body and revive them with the B-button, though you can only do this if you have enough power in the gauge that dictates combat actions. The AI controls the other two characters, and you can’t switch between them during battle, unfortunately, but Monolith Soft did their best to instill in the game a sense of teamwork; you can “encourage” characters at various points in battle to grant them stat boosts, you can pull off team attacks, and the characters, for better or for worse, never seem to get tired of talking to each other as they slay enemies. It’s fast, it’s exciting, and it can be challenging at times, especially if you go after a foe far more powerful than you are.

As I said earlier, though, despite the MMO-like battle system and emphasis on exploration, Xenoblade doesn’t forget the genre it’s part of. When you get past the incredible opening cutscenes and battles, you find yourself inside Colony 9, a huge town brimming with things to do, and it’s here that I couldn’t help but smile and think to myself, “wow, the first hour of Xenoblade is the best Japanese RPG in a decade,” and in many ways, it is. Everywhere you look, there are places to explore, sidequests to take on, loot to find, gems (which provide stat boosts) to create, and equipment to buy. Day changes to night, something I always love in games like this, and the differences to the atmosphere are palpable; some areas look nothing at night like they do during the day, and the things you can do in the environments alternate as well. Between all of this and the stunning environments that you’ll always find yourself in, Xenoblade rarely ever feels boring or repetitive. In many ways, this is what I think a game like Final Fantasy XII tried so hard, but failed, to do, and Xenoblade nails it. Not only is the battle system fun, but the many things available to you outside of combat, plus the ability to warp back to any location you’ve previously visited from the menu, prevent this from feeling like a grind.

This has thusfar been an overwhelmingly positive review and I need to stress this: Xenoblade is a must-play for fans of Japanese RPGs. It’s an adventure with ambition and scope that we just haven’t seen in the sub-genre in many years and for that reason alone it’s worth experiencing. That said, there are also some major flaws, issues which prevent Xenoblade from achieving “classic” status and standing with the very best.

The combat system, while without a doubt fun and complex, is sadly home to many of my frustrations with the title, the first being a general lack of strategy. While there are some bosses where you’ll benefit greatly from fighting certain enemies first and that sort of thing, there’s otherwise a surprising lack of complexity here. Oftentimes when you run into a challenging boss, (and some are incredibly challenging) you have little choice but to go back and level up; there’s just no other way to defeat them. To me, this is the wrong way to go about providing difficulty in video games; games should be about figuring out a strategy, planning the strategy out, and then executing it. RPGs like Final Fantasy XIII and Lost Odyssey cap your EXP at certain levels, which stops you from leveling up entirely, and they do this because those games are about strategy, not brute force. Xenoblade unfortunately falls at the other end of the spectrum, and when I’m stuck on a boss and find myself forced to wander back and level up to stand a fighting chance, that’s when the game to me becomes a chore. And it’s something that happens here a few times too many.

Your AI companions aren’t a whole lot of help, often demonstrating a startling lack of intelligence. Since Xenoblade’s combat system doesn’t make use of items, you depend greatly on your healing character, and her AI seems to do everything just a few seconds too late. Some bosses feature environmental hazards (like deadly liquid near the fight) and the computer will mindlessly wander into it, losing health by the second and eventually dying off. Your commands over them are limited to “Come here!” “Stay there!” “Attack the same enemy I am!” … and that’s about it. It’s easy for frustration to mount, especially since keeping an eye out on your characters’ health meters, as well as their positions and which enemies they’re attacking, is made all the more difficult by a camera that can at times provide you with the worst possible view of your surroundings.

Xenoblade has a feature that’s an interesting addition on one hand and an annoyance on the other; the sword that Shulk, the main character, possesses allows him to see into the future, and this plays into battle as well. From time to time battles will briefly pause, and you’ll be shown a vision of a powerful move that the enemy’s prepared to unleash on a member of your party. You’ll then have a limited amount of time to prepare for the move before it’s pulled off. It’s a cool feature, but needless to say, the game interrupting an already frustrating boss battle to show me a clip of one of my characters getting mauled isn’t something that helped my mood, especially with some of the worst slowdown I’ve seen in ages grinding battles to a near halt anyway.

Other combat-related flaws are smaller but they add up. It’s harder than it should be to locate a fallen team mate on the battle field. You can’t revive anyone from KO unless you have at least 1/3 of your combat meter filled, and it’s very hard to build the meter up without both team mates still alive. Adding insult to injury, the game lacks a “Retry” option for just such a situation. Xenoblade also has an annoying tendency to end bosses early; sometimes you’ll win the battle after only 2/3s (or even 1/3) of the enemy’s health gauge is depleted, but you’re never exactly sure when this is or isn’t the case, which makes it tough to know whether to spend time leveling up or not. These aren’t major flaws, but they’re sources of frustration, and they do crop up often enough that it detracts from the experience.

The other big mistake Xenoblade makes is that it goes on for too long. This is a huge game that will take most people anywhere from 50-70 hours, and I have to give Monolith Soft credit; it’s exciting and compelling for the most part. It’s too bad that it features such an uninspired 3rd act in a far less interesting location than the rest, while throwing at you a near-endless amount of dungeon crawling and boss encounters. Had Xenoblade ended about 10 hours before it did, I think it would have been far stronger for it.

All in all, it’s a flawed game, to be sure, and I don’t want to downplay those flaws; Xenoblade has some substantial issues. But these issues can’t erase the sheer enjoyment and sense of fun that made up most of my experience with the game, and it’s one that I highly recommend in spite of them.

Storyline: Xenoblade’s story takes place on a world made up of two giant gods interlocked in a battle with each other. I don’t want to reveal too much of the plot, as a lot of the fun in Japanese RPGs is in getting to witness these things yourself. It’s a far simpler story than Xenogears or Xenosaga but there’s definitely a lot of it, with cutscenes, and the usual Tetsuya Takahashi flair, making frequent appearances. The characters, sadly, aren’t all that memorable or well-developed, and things get a little convoluted towards the end, but it’s an interesting scenario that’s paced very well and easily encourages you to continue playing. The script can be a bit corny and heavy-handed at times, but Nintendo of Europe did a great job with the localization, including the voice acting, which stands far above that of other voice acted Nintendo titles. (Metroid: Other M, I'm looking at you.)

Music: Handled by a team of composers, including the likes of Yoko Shimomura (Kingdom Hearts), Yasunori Mitsuda, and others, Xenoblade has a pretty awesome soundtrack loaded with variety. The sheer amount of music and the high quality of much of it makes it one of the best soundtracks this year, and definitely one of the game’s highlights.

Verdict: Xenoblade represents the triumphant return of the Japanese RPG. Featuring plenty of cutscenes and story progression and yet placing gameplay and exploration at the forefront, Xenoblade proves that Japanese RPGs can compete with the worlds and content offered by their Western counterparts, while still remaining true to their Japanese RPG roots and telling a story. The MMO-styled battle system has flaws, as these often do when featured in offline games, the characters aren’t the greatest, and the last few hours are pretty terrible compared to what came before them, but flaws aside, Xenoblade’s a must play for fans of the genre or for those who just enjoy a good adventure. If you own a Wii, there’s no reason not to pick this up now, as it’s the exact type of thing we need to see more of from the Japanese RPG going forward.

Presentation: A gigantic and fully explorable world, a well-presented plot with great pacing, and an above average translation and dubbing from Nintendo of Europe. Navigating menus can be a little tedious, but you get used to it.

Graphics: One of the best-looking Standard Definition games. Colors really pop on an HDTV if you have Component Cables and turn on 480p in the Wii System Settings. Draw distance is incredible, massive environments, great-looking cutscenes. The Wii really struggles to handle it, and slowdown during some battles is a major annoyance.

Gameplay: A truly fun and addictive combat system is let down slightly by an emphasis on level grinding over strategy and a brain-dead AI. But the world is the star here and it does not disappoint. More towns like Colony 9 would have been nice, but Bionis feels alive, and I loved visiting it and seeing what it had to offer.

Sound: A quality soundtrack with no shortage of pleasant tunes. Great voice acting in both English and Japanese. Environmental sound effects are also well done and draw you right in.

Replay Value: This game will take you a very long time to complete, but there are even extensive New Game Plus options if you want another go at it.

Overall: 8.0/10

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

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

E3 2012: My thoughts on the Big 3

It's with mixed emotions that I step back and view E3 thusfar. We've seen Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo all reveal their plans for the upcoming year and beyond, and the fact that this industry's in a transition has made itself pretty apparent. With gimmicks seeming to take prominence over big reveals in both Microsoft and Nintendo's conferences, it was a little too refreshing to see Sony's devoted almost entirely to games; which was, I thought, anyway, the biggest reason we turn these systems on to begin with.

Microsoft's conference was, to me, not too different from their last couple; a major focus on the Kinect add-on and non-gaming features being added to Xbox Live. The continued rehashing of IP such as Fable, Halo, and Gears of War. Long demoes devoted to Activision products. I have to say that it's just not my thing, and while Kinect owners should be happy that games will be coming to the device...eventually, it's just not a method of play that's ever interested me, and, as a person who has owned an Xbox 360 since 2007, I felt a little left out, which I'm sure wasn't Microsoft's intention.

Their showing was somewhat redeemed in my eyes, however, after I watched Nintendo's total mess of a conference. I may not like the direction Microsoft has chosen to take their Xbox 360, but it's one they're sticking to and one they've confidently presented. Nintendo...

I swear, watching their conference, I almost don't feel like Nintendo's living on this planet. It was a showing that they should have nailed; they're the only ones launching new hardware this year, and they went into E3 with such momentum. And yet, as their showing went on, I could almost feel the hype and energy deflating from the room. This is the year they had everything to prove, and yet they gave us almost nothing. We're supposed to be excited about a montage made up of games we can already (or soon will be able to) buy on our Xbox 360s. We're supposed to be thrilled that the Wii U has "HD visuals" as they present us with games, including games developed in-house, that look no better than current generation software. If the Wii U is truly a console capable of next generation visuals, that wasn't evident anywhere in this presentation.

I don't understand how Nintendo, a company with Retro Studios and Monolith Soft under their belt, felt the need to spend time demoing Batman: Arkham City, a game from last year whose visuals already look alarmingly dated. I was off the train even before they began trotting out Wii Fit and Just Dance 4.

The Wii U remains a mystery to me. Despite Nintendo devoting an entire press conference to it, I have no idea what type of online features it will have. I don't know if it's a next generation console or an Xbox 360. I don't know if it, like the Wii, will be a system where fans will have to literally beg Nintendo of America to bring over games with any substance, like we had to with Xenoblade and The Last Story. Is it possible that Nintendo was completely oblivious as to what was expected of them? Based on their showing, they have not created a next generation console, and amazingly enough, they don't even seem to realize that they were supposed to.

What I took from this conference is that the Wii U will be another system overloaded with Mario titles and a casual focus, with a cool-looking and gimmicky controller but last generation hardware: another Wii, in other words. In this case, a system meant to stall for time until the Xbox 720 and PS4 arrive and crush it.

I guess like last year, I have to declare Sony the winner by default; the once-king spent this entire generation in 3rd place, and the humbled company made it a point countless times to thank their devoted fanbase for their support. Despite issues with their presentation's pacing, (cut down on the long game demoes, Sony, that way you have more to show) there's little doubt that, content-wise, they were the king. And their games look great visually; hell, they look better than Nintendo's "next generation" titles, which is a pretty bizarre concept if ever there was one.

It will be interesting to see where the industry heads. Microsoft is sticking to their guns and  continuing a strategy that has obviously been successful for them. Sony seems to be doing their best to win gamers back over before trying again in the near future with the PS4. Nintendo, though, is a mess. They don't have the right idea with the Wii U: its controller won't have the same appeal among casuals as the Wii did, and, based on what we've seen, graphically it's doing nothing but playing catch up to current systems. HD capabilities and current gen ports alone may be enough to interest some of the casuals who Nintendo brought onboard with the Wii, though many have been gaming in HD on their smart phones for quite some time. And hell, I'd pay for a Zelda game with Xbox 360-quality graphics. But in the end, the Wii U does not look like an essential purchase. It looks like a system I'll be able to buy for $150 2 years down the road when the Xbox 720 and PS4 usher in the real "next generation" of gaming and it's left behind in the dust. Sad but true.

Microsoft= C
Sony= B
Nintendo= D

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Surpassing all my expectations, Rockstar has delivered one hell of an action game that without a doubt lives up to the Max Payne name

At just around the time the gaming industry was ready to be flipped on its head by the release of Grand Theft Auto III, another little game was making its rounds. The original Max Payne, a title mixing some truly dark storytelling with stylish action and addictive gameplay, was getting under gamers' skins bit by bit. With strong writing, a compelling main character, its great noir setting, plus the awesome ability to control your own bullet time as you took out enemy after enemy, Max Payne seemed like it was on its way to becoming one of gaming's biggest new franchises. Take Two Interactive seemed to think so, as the publisher bought the Max Payne series from Remedy (its original developers,) though they paid Remedy to return to develop the sequel, which, despite being better than the original in every way, didn't do particularly well commercially. The result was that Max Payne has remained a dormant franchise since 2003...forgetting the awful film adaptation, of course. 

When Take Two Interactive announced their plans to develop a 3rd Max Payne, I was worried, to say the least. Remedy opted not to participate in its development, choosing only to provide advice and input while writing and development rested entirely in the hands of Rockstar Games (GTA). Images of a bald Max, a sunny setting, and initial reports that the studio was not looking to bring back actor James McCaffrey as the voice of the title character (a decision they thankfully went back on, more on that later) had me worried, but now that the game's here, my fears have been put entirely to rest. As a fan of the series I felt right at home the second I heard McCaffrey's gritty and sarcastic narration, and it became clear very quickly that not only would this game live up to its legacy, but it would surpass it in nearly every way.

Graphics: Visually Max Payne 3 is stunning. The decision to set the game in the Brazilian city of Sao Paulo has provided Rockstar with countless opportunities to dazzle us, and from the polish of its office buildings to the bustling of its nightclubs and the chaos of its slums, the setting created here is every bit as compelling as the dark and snowy New York neighborhoods from the first two games. Atmospherics are top notch, with great use of background music (especially in the slums) to make you feel like you're in the moment right along with Max. Whenever you find yourself at the top of a skyscraper and get to witness the city sprawled out below (often in the midst of a dramatic sunset) it's jaw-dropping, just as much as when you're battling for your life in the claustrophobic alleyways or dark bars of the slums. The game runs without a hitch, and the cutscenes, this time all handled in-game, transition so seamlessly into your gun battles (and back again) that it actually keeps you on your toes. With an incredible visual style, perfect lighting effects, and a consistently fluid framerate, Max Payne 3's visuals do not disappoint.

Gameplay: Developing a sequel to a franchise from the past is often a difficult task, especially if you're taking it over from another developer, but Rockstar finds the perfect balance between being both faithful to the gameplay of the originals, as well as adding new features that make sense. The basic gameplay remains the same: you control Max through linear environments, gunning down wave upon wave of enemies and witnessing story sequences and hearing Max's entertaining narration. With the click of an analog stick you trigger bullet time, which lets you dive through the air as you take out enemies in wonderous slow-mo. Health does not regenerate, but rather is replenished when you devour painkillers, which can be found throughout the environments. Weapons and ammo are collected the same way. While playing, you will encounter objects that you can investigate and television you can watch, (including the return of Captain Baseball Bat Boy) all of which immerse you further in the game's world, while at the same time giving you more opportunities to admire its incredible writing.

New to Max Payne 3 is a cover system, which allows you get behind cover with the press of a button, and despite my initial misgivings, I can't picture playing Max Payne without cover now. Utilizing cover definitely provides you with an advantage, but there are almost always different ways and strategies to dealing with the many groups of enemies you'll face, which is what I've always loved about this series. Your path through the adventure will be linear (almost all doors but the correct one are locked) but the way you deal with enemies is almost entirely up to you; the option to make use of cover just adds to this mix.

Also new to this installment is the ability to "save yourself" if you're near death. If you have at least one painkiller in your possession and an enemy fires a shot at you that would otherwise kill you, slow motion automatically triggers, allowing you a few additional seconds to "save yourself" by killing the enemy who fired at you. You have limited control in this mode; if you're out of ammo, you can't switch to another gun, and you have no ability to move your character, so if the target is blocked by something, or if you can't line your shot up and fire at him in time, you're out of luck. Like the cover system, this turns out to be another feature that I didn't realize this series even needed, but it's one that benefits the gameplay in countless ways. No longer do you have to watch your health meter obsessively to make sure you use a painkiller before dying; instead, this system allows you to be wary of your health and the amounts of painkillers you're carrying without making it a constant worry.

Playable cinematic sequences will occasionally occur to shake things up, and these slow-motion and controllable events are always a lot of fun; what would normally be a sequence that you'd view in all its glory in a cutscene is instead made playable, and there are some epic ones that I'm not going to spoil. It all feels so perfect, and for the most part, it is.

Really, the only flaw that I'd say stops it from achieving perfection is that a couple of the later levels, especially one taking place inside a police station and parts of another one in an airport baggage claim, feel uninspired, (and a little too cover-heavy) especially compared to what came before. They aren't awful, but it definitely feels like the smallest bit of filler rears its ugly head towards the end, and this filler makes the ending, when it does arrive, less climactic than I think it otherwise would have been. 

But that's really the only flaw that I can think of. With its frequent story sequences, nearly non-stop action, and Max's both incredibly funny and thought-provoking narration, the pacing here is pitch-perfect. This is a game that moves, and from start to (almost) finish, Max Payne 3 never falters.

Storyl......oh wait, I forgot. There's multiplayer, too. This isn't going to be a big part of the review; multiplayer's here if you want it, and thankfully the single-player's more than enough to be worth the $60 without it. I spent much of this past console generation away from home, far from my own Xbox 360, so for the most part I went without Xbox Live. So if multiplayer over the past several years didn't involve split screen with three buds playing along with me, I generally haven't been interested, especially considering how forgettable a lot of multiplayer modes are these days; why it's required to be shoehorned into almost every major release, I don't know. That said, I did dig up a 3 month Xbox Live subscription card I had lying around just so I could give this game's multiplayer a shot, and though it feels nothing like the single player mode and undoubtedly was developed by an entirely separate team, likely one in a different country, it', for what it is. I played it for a couple hours and have little desire to go back to it, but I can imagine gamers who are more into this sort of thing getting more involved and having fun with it. I don't know what it is, but playing multiplayer modes like these after such incredible single player experiences, to me, always feels like adding a video to the end credits of Goodfellas featuring Henry Hill and other characters from the movie running around and killing each other. I just can't help but wonder, "what the hell am I playing here, and what does it have to do with Max Payne 3?" Needless to say, Halo: Reach, this isn't.

Storyline: Though series creator Sam Lake has voiced his approval, the fact is, he had very little involvement in this story, but as much as I expected this to hurt the game, I have to hand it to Dan Houser and the others at Rockstar; I wouldn't have been able to tell. The storyline here is very well-told; Max has been given more personality (and dialogue) than he's ever had before, and the quality of the script and that of the performances has improved significantly. Though this is a new scenario taking place many years after the events of Max Payne 2, it never forgets its roots, and the playable flashbacks to New York City and its surrounding areas are some of my favorite parts of Max Payne 3. In its first hour or so the game almost seems a little *too* cutscene-heavy, but then it balances itself out very quickly; rarely have I seen a storyline in a video game woven in so well with its gameplay. Max Payne 3 doesn't feel like it's divided between gameplay and story, instead feeling like one single experience, merging the intense and powerful (if occasionally a little over-stylized) cutscenes with the gameplay, for the most part, seamlessly. If you allow yourself to be pulled in by this story and the character of Max Payne, brace yourself for one hell of a ride. The only aspect that's missing, the one and only aspect, is the overall weirdness; the disturbing dream sequences, the journeys into Max's mind, the use of Norse mythology....they're nowhere to be found here, and if there's one thing from the first two games that the storyline to part three is missing, it's this.

But that's a very minor complaint; with a story told this well, with a main character you not only care about but root for, and with such incredible writing and immersive settings, I didn't find myself missing them nearly as much as I thought I would.

Sound: The soundtrack, composed by the band Health, sets the scene perfectly, its subtle intensity mixing in well with the action while never over-powering it. The use of licensed music as background noise also works perfectly and helps to create a world that feels truly alive. Sound effects too are excellent, but this is all nothing when compared to the performance by actor James McCaffrey as Max Payne. His acting, already strong in the first two games, is even better here, and it's crucial this time around; Max has a line of dialogue almost every time he picks up a painkiller. Thankfully, McCaffrey has proven more than up to the task, giving a performance full of subtleties and always hitting the right notes. It’s work that he should definitely be proud of; with Max Payne 3, he’s truly made the character his own. I don't think anybody else should ever play this role.

Replay Value: You can play through the game's missions arcade-style, with leaderboards and a time limit. There are harder difficulties, and the aforementioned online multiplayer. Though I'm not sure exactly how many hours it took me, the main story feels longer than that of the first two games, so I'd say Max Payne 3 is a good value for your $60.

Verdict: Max Payne 3 is, as far as I'm concerned, a true benchmark for the action game genre and, even beyond that, one of the best games I've played in a long time. A compelling narrative blends with an almost perfect gameplay experience, one which improves upon the first two and modernizes them while keeping intact what made them great. But this is all about the title character, and a quality script and a near-perfect performance does not let him down. Whether you're a fan or have never played Max Payne before, if you love action games or are a sucker for a strong story, I'd unquestionably recommend Max Payne 3; for me it not only delivered, but shattered all of my expectations.

Presentation: Great story that will have you itching to see what happens next. Jaw-dropping action, minimal HUD, and, once the game boots up, no loading to speak single-player, anyway; multiplayer's a whole other story there, though thankfully you can avoid it entirely.

Graphics: Stunning art direction and use of lighting, plus a high attention to detail and varied environments grab you immediately. Occasional bland area aside, the game's a constant visual treat. No slowdown.

Gameplay: Near perfection. Max Payne has never been so fun, and its gameplay and story have never before been so seamlessly woven together.

Sound: Great music, incredible performances.

Replay Value: It's there in the form of some arcade time attack modes and leaderboards, as well as a fully developed online multiplayer mode if you're into that sort of thing. The storyline itself offered me plenty for my money, however.

Overall: 9.5/10.

Note: My reviews go by a .5 scale. This is a review of the Xbox 360 version.