Sunday, December 15, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It's too bad, because had the whole game played like its first half, I'm convinced that not only would Wind Waker be the best in the series, but it would be one of the best games of all time. The core gameplay is improved by the Gamepad, which provides you with uninterrupted access to your maps and inventory, and of course its updated visuals, which add a whole new layer of lighting effects and HD shine to an already very pretty game. But it contains a second half that mostly feels like filler, and though Wind Waker HD makes this far less time-consuming than it was, it still goes on for too long and turns the final portion of the game into a very lonely sailing adventure.

Verdict: But Wind Waker is still worth experiencing. It may not be all that it could have been, but to this day it stands as one of the bold entries in this series, and one that I still recommend to those looking for a good old Zelda adventure . It's a game with heart and with great gameplay to match it. The pacing of the second half, while improved over its Gamecube original, proves to be what holds it back from greatness. I wish this remake had done more to make the whole game as excellent as its first half; to address its issues head on rather than simply making them less time-consuming. Wind Waker HD seems to realize the flaws of the original, but while taking steps to streamline them, the underlying weaknesses still remain. It's a game I recommend, but one that I feel holds itself back, just slightly, from greatness.

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

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

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

Sound; Awesome soundtrack, atmospheric effects.

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

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

Monday, November 18, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overall: 6.0/10

Thursday, October 10, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 8, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overall: 6/10

Sunday, April 14, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overall: 8.0/10

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Review: Kid Icarus: Uprising demonstrates well the strengths and weaknesses of the 3DS handheld. Fun game though for sure.

Many had forgotten all about Pit and his Kid Icarus franchise; it's rare for a Nintendo character to go so long without getting a new game, but Pit had been lying dormant since 1992. That changed with his role as a playable character in Super Smash Bros Brawl, something that undoubtedly spawned new interest in seeing the return of the Kid Icarus franchise.

It would make sense then that the Smash Bros series director, Masahiro Sakurai, was to spearhead the rebirth of the Kid Icarus series, and he's created a very hectic game. I don't mean that necessarily as an insult but people should know what they're getting into when picking this one up. The action is non-stop, as it jets from the starting line like a kid on a sugar rush and never lets up across its sometimes exhausting 13 hour campaign. Part rail shooter and part ground-based hack and slash...with shooting, Kid Icarus: Uprising is definitely something different, and though it's not without its flaws, it's still a 3DS game worth playing.

With a convoluted storyline involving gods and goddesses, humanity at stake and an underworld army, (and that hardly covers it) it can be a bit much to take in at times. Thankfully Nintendo did well with the script and voice acting, delivering a story that not only takes place while you play, but also within fully produced in-game cutscenes. The dialogue seems to be doing its best to capture the fun and goofy humor of a Saturday Morning cartoon, and some annoying jokes aside, it really works; this game can be laugh out loud funny, especially when it references itself (and other Nintendo franchises) in some pretty fun ways. The voice actors all seem to be having a blast bringing their characters to life, which is a good thing, because the character interaction almost never stops, even while playing.

Kid Icarus: Uprising has a lot going on. Between Pit and his friends and villains constantly chatting with each other and the barrage of enemies always right in your face, to a full blown orchestral soundtrack from Motoi Sakuraba (Star Ocean, Tales, Dark Souls) the kinetic energy here can be overwhelming at times, though thankfully the levels are kept short enough that you never have to play for too long at a time before the game saves your progress. Almost every level is divided up into two segments; a shorter on-rails flying section followed by a usually longer battle on the ground, often culminating in a boss battle. Rather than going with a difficulty setting, you pick your difficulty at the start of every level, betting more "Hearts" the higher you raise the challenge. Dying during the level then costs you hearts, and the difficulty reduces itself as punishment. Benefits to playing at a higher difficulty level include better treasures dropped from enemies, and of course the personal satisfaction of overcoming a tough challenge.

I'm a bit mixed on the way Kid Icarus: Uprising handles this. It's an inventive system and it can be fun to risk hearts to crank the difficulty up. On the other hand, dying does drop the difficulty back down, and you can't avoid this. So instead of getting to retry a particularly difficult part at, say, the 5.0 difficulty, you're re-trying it at more along the lines of a 3.2 unless you opt to start the whole level over again.

But that's really my only issue with the difficulty system; giving you such a wide array of challenge levels to choose from means that Kid Icarus: Uprising offers an experience that can be both relaxingly easy and insanely tough, and the ability to switch between these before each level is a pretty cool thing.

The levels themselves are all gorgeous, doing a great job at demonstrating the 3DS' visual capabilities and how much the 3D can enhance these varied environments and character models. I didn't notice much in the way of framerate issues despite the craziness constantly taking place on both screens, and load times are kept to a minimum. Each place you visit has a different look to it, and when you're talking about a Campaign with as many levels as this one has, it's definitely something Kid Icarus: Uprising's artists should be proud of.

In fact, there's a level of complexity here in all categories that you just don't see in many other games of this type. The amount of weapon customization is staggering, and there's no shortage of "achievements" to attain, weapons to collect, prizes to be given, and powers to equip. The game controls just like a dual-analog game without the 2nd analog stick, and while definitely not perfect, I have to give major credit to Sakurai and his team for creating a solution that works as well as it does here; essentially, the touch screen and stylus act as a 2nd analog stick, and as crazy as it sounds, in practice it works better than it has any right to.

Not that it's perfect. My hands often felt tired after only one or two levels of play, so this is a game I recommend playing in quick bursts rather than for extended play sessions. The issue isn't present as much during the aerial parts of the levels, which are on rails, as it is when on the ground, when melee attacking, dashing, shooting, vehicles, and camera control all come into play. It's during these parts where I felt the most exhausted, and I found myself wishing more than once that the game's ratio was more in favor of the air battles than the land adventures. Don't get me wrong, the land segments can be a lot of fun too, and though they're awfully tiring, there's nothing that I can find *wrong* with the controls during these parts, well, except the Dashing, which was just a bad idea that should have just not been bothered with.

All in all Kid Icarus: Uprising is a game that revels in its action; it aims to thrill and entertain you at every given opportunity, and like a Smash Bros game, completionists will find endless amounts of content here to explore and unlock. There's even an online multiplayer mode, and the action actually holds up pretty well, though long wait times for a match, including one instance of waiting nearly three minutes and then getting Error Coded out, took away much of my enthusiasm for exploring it more thoroughly.

It's rare that I say this, but (aside from the tiring controls) the only other major issue I have with Kid Icarus: Uprising is that it's actually a bit too long. It makes the mistake of fooling you with a fake out ending (even going as far as beginning the End Credits roll) and then pulling back the curtain and having the campaign continue...for another 6 hours. Though I'm sure it seemed like a funny idea when the writers came up with it, for me it ended up actually negatively impacting the game; you think the it's over, but then it's not, but then each level you get to now feels like the last one, and it's not, and each boss feels like it should be the final one, but it's not, etc. etc. etc. The constant thought of "is it over yet...?" that kept creeping into my head after the credits fake out made the second half of the story less enjoyable for me in a way that's tough to explain. I can't fault the game much for being too long, but I guess the complaint I'm looking for is that if a game really is going to be so long, its developers need to have enough fresh ideas to keep it from feeling repetitive. Uprising sticks pretty rigidly to its formula throughout, and as a result, the game, especially the ground missions, loses a lot of its freshness and instead begins to feel almost like a chore.


Verdict: And that's too bad, because for the most part Kid Icarus: Uprising is not a chore to play. Sakurai has created a fun and frantic action game/rail shooter that demonstrates both the 3DS' strengths (awesome 3D graphics, more voice acting than I ever thought could fit on a cartridge, the handheld's 2 screens and analog thumb pad) as well as its major weakness (no 2nd analog stick). It's a game that's as exciting to experience as it is exhausting to play, but fans of action games who own a 3DS shouldn't miss out on one of the system's most exciting, content-filled, and funny adventures.
Presentation: Overblown story with no shortage of humor, drama, and entertaining voice acting. Manus are easy to navigate, short load times.

Graphics: Game looks great, especially in 3D, and the framerate rarely suffers.

Gameplay: Nearly perfect on rails segments mesh well with solid-but-not-as-good ground parts. Definitely a lot to see and do, though a little of it at a time goes a long way.

Sound: An epic musical score and quality voice acting; not much else I would want here.

Replay Value: Tons to unlock, as well as online multiplayer; this in addition to a 13-hour Campaign that actually may be two or three levels too long...

Overall: 7.5/10

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

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

New Reviews: New Super Mario Bros U shows its age but manages to be fun all the same

It seems that ever since 2D Mario was given its rebirth with New Super Mario Bros on the DS, people haven't been able to get enough of the ol' plumber. With the more linear approach of 2D gaming influencing even Mario's latest 3D outings, not to mention the immensely popular New Super Mario Bros Wii, Nintendo is well aware that they've struck gold and have enjoyed milking it for all it's been worth.

With the recent New Super Mario Bros 2 on the 3DS, however, (a game coming out less than a year after *another* Mario platformer, Super Mario 3D Land) which was greeted with solid sales numbers but not a ton of enthusiasm, it began to look like the creative well for Mario adventures was running dry. New Super Mario Bros U, following the numbered installment by just 3 months, only seems partially aware of this. Even while still playing it frustratingly safe in a number of areas, however, Mario's first HD adventure manages to be his best since Galaxy 2, and by far the most fun in the "New Super Mario Bros" series to date.

The storyline here once again involves Peach being in a state of peril; though this time, in a bit of a "twist," she isn't kidnapped; rather, Bowser has surrounded her castle, imprisoning her inside while throwing Mario and Luigi across Mushroom Kingdom, forcing them to make their way back.
No, none of this pushes the Mario storytelling envelope in the slightest, but Bowser's humorously designed minions, who you come across in the form of boss battles throughout each world, make for fun villains and all fight differently from one another. The minimal story present here is cute in the usual "Mario" way, while the world you explore is colorful and at times quite vibrant.

The gameplay is the same as sidescrolling Mario has ever been, with you running from left to right, jumping on the heads of enemies, picking up powers and 1up mushrooms, and looking for optional star coins to collect. It's still no Rayman Origins, but the levels are designed well enough, and there are moments throughout, certainly more than there were in New Super Mario Bros 2 or Super Mario 3D Land, of truly ingenious platforming.

Oddly enough, where New Super Mario Bros U sees its biggest improvement over other Mario games as of late is in its worldmap, which actually harkens back to the Super NES days. No longer do you simply move across a straight line in between levels, but now the world actually feels far more alive, brimming as it is with multiple paths, a vast scope, roaming enemies, and a real sense of place. When you descend from the Frosted Glacier into the Soda Jungle it really feels like it, and the seamless world does loads to add to the feeling of adventure that I've always found to be so lacking in the 2D Mario series. That you can sometimes choose which level to tackle, and with some levels containing hidden passages, it's totally possible to end up at the Rock Candy Mines before the Soda Jungle instead of after it, and it's things like this that open the game up and make the experience far more rewarding.

Throughout each world you'll come across Toad Houses, which allow you the opportunity to win items or 1up Mushrooms (these disappear once completed but reappear if your lives run out and you use a Continue) in simple mini-games that are easy to grasp but can be tough to master; no matter how many times you've done them, there's no guarantee that you'll win anything when you venture back to try them again.

New Super Mario Bros U, especially in its 2nd half, can present a good challenge. Even ignoring the Star Coins entirely (which can unlock additional levels upon the game's completion) you'll face some tough areas, something very refreshing to see after the almost insultingly easy Super Mario 3D Land.
That said, the challenge almost seems to come more from the game's punishment system than it does from particularly skillful level design. The way this game works, as with past games in this series, is that you only have the opportunity to save your progress after defeating a boss. You can Quick Save if you need to shut the game off, though when you load the file back up your Quick Save will vanish. Getting a Game Over sets you back to your last save point, and levels completed beyond that will have to be beaten again. The levels, too, only have one checkpoint each, so even simply dying can set you back a good distance depending on the length (and difficulty) of the level.

The challenge, therefore, can actually be more about returning to the part where you died to try it again, something which increases the tension but can also be a source of frustration. I find myself preferring the method used in Rayman Origins, which does away with Game Overs entirely and is incredibly liberal with its checkpoints, while at the same time isn't afraid to hammer you over the head with skillfully designed, *difficult* platforming. I guess my complaint is that NSMB: U's platforming itself isn't, for the most part, incredibly tricky, with the difficulty mainly coming from the punishment for messing up, not the platforming itself. (Though this does change towards the end.)
Frustrations with the save point system aside, my biggest problems with the otherwise fun New Super Mario Bros U are more in what it doesn't do than what it does.

It doesn't have online play; 5 player co-op is nice but when my friends and I get together to play video games it's usually for faster-paced experiences like Smash Bros or Mario Kart. So with its inexplicable lack of an online mode, New Super Mario Bros U's multiplayer mode is entirely lost on me.

The game limits the Nintendo Network features to the Miiverse system, with the game essentially begging you to comment on levels that it sees you dying on frequently, comments which are then displayed to others who reach the same point and find themselves struggling as well. It' interesting idea in theory, though what it basically amounts to is seeing a bunch of demented-looking Mii faces with text bubbles popping up on your screen every time you die. This is something that can be turned off, though for what it's worth, the feature can at least be unintentionally hilarious; I routinely cracked up as I imagined the Miiverse moderators having to spend their days reading through these incredibly shallow comments, while at the same time wondering why the minds at Nintendo thought it would be a great idea to proudly showcase to you the quotes of people complaining about their game. Needless to say, online play would have been a far better use of their system's features, especially for a game that places so much emphasis on its multiplayer.

It doesn't innovate; even the biggest milestone for the NSMB series to date (the expanded worldmap) is just a feature brought back from before 2D Mario was so simplified for the masses. The platforming is Mario through and through, and with games like Kirby's Epic Yarn and Rayman Origins reminding us what awesome things can be done with 2D platforming, it's disappointing to see the game design play it so safe.

It doesn't change the music; the soundtrack here sounds like it was composed for a DS cartridge, a decision made even more baffling by the orchestrated soundtracks of the Mario Galaxy series. The tunes here aren't awful, but they feel so bouncy and interchangeable that many fail to stand out. This was most noticeable to me when I reached the Sky levels, whose deep backgrounds and epic scope were just begging for something so much more than "doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo, Bah Bah!"

It doesn't provide a fresh world; Mushroom Kingdom is now in HD, but surprisingly little has changed. The backgrounds look great and have a real sense of depth, but with very few exceptions do we get visuals that feel truly new. Trine 2 and the upcoming Rayman Legends simply demolish every single aspect of New Super Mario Bros U's visual presentation.

Verdict: New Super Mario Bros U is the same 2D Mario that you've come to expect, though with some fun twists. Solid level design, colorful HD visuals, a far more explorable world map, and a good bit of challenge help to ensure a fun Mario Bros game, one that definitely feels like what the New Super Mario Bros series should have been to start with. Where it disappoints is where it fails to innovate, and where it fails to advance what's very quickly becoming a stagnant series. Still, it's impossible to deny the fun I had while playing this, and while it doesn't do much of anything to take advantage of the system it's on (with the Game Pad features mainly restricted to offline multiplayer play) it's a good title to pick up with your new Wii U.

Presentation: A great world map that's a step up, minimal but effective (for what it is) storyline, no load times, and the usual Mario flavor.

Graphics: Colorful visuals and some great art direction limited by a native 720p resolution (why, when Rayman Legends runs in 1080p and looks loads better?) and a lack of inspiration. How about we leave Mushroom Kingdom entirely for the next 2D Mario game, Nintendo, and really go on an adventure?

Gameplay: This is a Mario game. One that has a healthy dose of challenge and fun and varied boss encounters. Not much that's new, but a lot that's fun.

Sound: Effects haven't changed. Music sounded dated in 2006.

Replay Value: Believe it or not, getting to the end took me around 16 hours, which is pretty great for a 2D title. Collecting star coins (3 per level) unlocks additional levels, plus there's the whole Challenge Mode to enjoy as well.

Overall: 7.5/10

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