Outland Review

June 19, 2011 by  
Filed under Playstation 3, PSN Arcade, Reviews

Platforming is not what it used to be. Then again neither is gaming nor, in fact, are gamers. Things have changed, gaming has developed and classic platforming is nostalgic but passé. Be that as it may, I am one of many gamers with a soft spot for some good old-fashioned 2D platforming, especially since I often find 3D platforming to be frustrating and uninspired. During the last couple of years, numerous side-scrollers were released via digital download and some were quite good. Most, however, just flattered to deceive.

…And then there is Outland.

Outland is a 2D plaformer with a polarity twist. The system may not be new but adds depth to the game’s otherwise rather simple mechanics. If you are familiar with Ikaruga’s polarity system then Outland won’t seem too different. You play has a nameless, faceless hero that can alternate between dark and light power. The power of ‘Evil’ is red and ‘Good’ is appropriately blue. This is not part of some morality system á la Infamous, in fact the only significance is that there are two colors – red and blue. You can only kill enemies of the opposite color and shield against beams or projectiles of the same color. Hence the point of the game is platforming with strategic and timed switching of colors.

This may sound overly simple but the end result is quite good. The game is appropriately paced and gets more and more challenging as you progress without ever feeling cheap or tedious. In every level, you’ll acquire new powers or skills that can either prove useful in combat or necessary for progression. Outland has a semi-open world system that let’s you backtrack in levels or revisit other levels via a teleport system. Completists will feel compelled to revisit earlier sections that required certain abilities not yet acquired, however   revisiting levels is completely optional.

In addition to the single player campaign, there is arcade mode which involves timed playthroughs of the levels as well as co-op mode that lets you play alongside a friend, as long as your friend is not literally beside you because Outland’s co-op mode is online only. It is a shame, but most of the co-op specific challenges are wicked.

The game’s primary strength is its core devotion to platforming. There is combat, there are upgrades but everything serves the platforming. The level designs are balanced, never too hard but consistently challenging, especially near the end. Outland also has fantastic boss battles. Most are big and require superhuman patience and planning. In fact, the entire game requires a patient approach. There may appear to be beams and enemies all over the screen but if you look around properly, you’ll find the gaps you need to aim for and then you can traverse perilous sections comfortably.

Outland is visually slick. It’s not extravagant but has a visual language that complements its color-coded gameplay. There are no real cutscenes to speak of barring a few storyline sequences that are merely narrated and, undoubtedly, the weakest part of the game. Outland is the type of game that is hard not to admire. It does alot with a little and it looks and sounds great but is never overly self-indulgent.

It is hard not to like Outland unless you really dislike the genre. The very nature of side-scroller platforming garners some frustration which is not everyone’s chocolate sundae, but if you’ve ever lamented the stale state of today’s 2D platformers, Outland is for you.

L.A. Noire Review

May 29, 2011 by  
Filed under Playstation 3, Reviews, Spotlight, Xbox 360

Since it was announced some years ago, L.A. Noire seemed a very intriguing concept. Solving crimes against a 1940s Los Angeles backdrop – Grand Theft Auto meets L.A. Confidential with an investigatory game mechanic to ensure the setting is more than just a thematic ‘skin’ to a Rockstar open-world convention. It’s been a long time coming but it’s finally here, having braved its way through the perils of development and past the watchful eye of the local media council. So is L.A. Noire the real deal or just repackaged novelty?

L.A.Noire lets you rise through the law enforcement ranks as Cole Phelps, a war-hero with a past looking to make a name for himself as a detective. The game starts you off as a street cop though, after a few cases, you’ll find yourself promoted to detective as you make your way through the precinct divisions. What starts off as a series of isolated cases becomes part of a greater mystery as Phelps and his various partners continue to clean the notoriously dangerous streets of the City of Angels.

What really differentiates Team Bondi’s thriller from the other rides in the Rockstar theme park is the investigation mechanic. As Phelps you’ll need to probe various crimes scenes and locations, searching for clues that may be relevant to building a case or finding significant leads. It is due to these segments of the game that L.A. Noire often gets likened to Heavy Rain but in reality the two games differ greatly. While the latter relies solely on QTEs (quick time events) and features dramatic plot branching, L.A. Noire employes a more conventional open world set-up, much like the ones we’ve gotten accustomed to with past Rockstar titles. The manner in which cases are solved can vary from player to player but not drastically so as the possibilities available are limited.

An integral part of investigations is the interrogation of witnesses and suspects. These people of interest will be asked various questions and you’ll have to decide if they are being truthful or not. When accusing a suspect of lying, you’ll have to provide evidence from the list of clues you’ve obtained, so naturally the better investigation work you’ve done, the more prepared you’ll be for questioning. Failing to provide the adequate evidence will see your suspect or witness get hostile and less cooperative. If you know the person is hiding something but you don’t have evidence to back an accusation, you can opt for the doubt option which will see Phelps re-question a suspect’s response without flat out accusing them. So the key to good detective is work is uncovering all the clues and faring well in the interrogation room but that may prove more arduous than it seems. Obtaining clues is made easy because it is not up to you to decide which clues are relevant to the case and which are not…that distinction is made automatically by the game. In the interrogation room however, things get fuzzy. While there appears to be a clear cut method of distinguishing an honest statement from a deceiving one, its never quite so easy…and thankfully so. However interrogation dialogue often strays off the line of questioning which makes it hard to determine what Phelps is trying to get at. While someone may be telling the truth, Phelps will doubt them no matter what you select and so the whole interrogation takes a turn to the absurd and it becomes clear how little control you have over proceedings. The mechanic doesn’t outright fail but experiencing these little jarring moments stirs up the feeling that the game is not quite there yet.

As mentioned, L.A. Noire is an open-world game, so you can take a break from detective work to drive around and see the sights. Team Bondi has done a great job in re-creating 1940s Los Angeles and, if you are familiar with the city, you’re bound to recognize some sites and landmarks. The scale of the city is quite remarkable, but most of it is very look-but-don’t-touch. With the exception of random street crime side missions, L.A. Noire doesn’t have the plethora of mini-games and side quests usually associated with Rockstar games like GTA and Red Dead Redemption. In fact, if you just proceed from case to case, letting your partner drive you to locations, you can be forgiven for not realizing L.A. Noire is ‘open world’ at all. This may come as a disappointment to sandbox fans but I must admit that it does help pacing the cases. It would seem odd to stop for a game of darts while on the way to the coroners office so it was likely a conscious decision to keep gamers focused on solving cases rather than enjoying a night on the town.

There is no doubt that L.A. Noire is a good looking game all around but it is the emphasis on facial animations that is particularly stunning. Seeing as reading facial cues is integral to determining wether a suspect is lying or not, this aspect of the game was clearly worked on immensely…and it shows. This, complemented by terrific voice acting, makes for stand-out character performances…a feat not easily achieved. The city looks great and there is even an option to play the game in black and white…to make that film noir feel all the more apparent. The game’s musical soundtrack consists of much jazz and various tunes of the time to help keep the mood authentically 40s and relevant to the overall theme.

L.A. Noire has all the elements of game destined for mass popularity. It has a compelling theme, an original approach, fantastic visuals and a heavily financed marketing push. And while the game has a lot going for it, the thrill is not quite there. There is effort but too many discordant moments leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. L.A. Noire is a very good game but, ultimately, not quite the game it wants to be.

Superbrothers Sword & Sworcery EP Review

May 3, 2011 by  
Filed under iPhone, Mobile, Reviews, Spotlight

Though I’ve been a fervent Apple user and supporter for a good part of my life, I have never been a stern advocate of the iPad. I don’t doubt that it’s cool, I just think its price heavily outweighs its use. Let’s face it, there is hardly anything I can do on the iPad that I cannot manage with more efficiency on my laptop or iPhone…that is until Superbrothers. At the time of writing this review, Superbrothers Swords and Sorcery EP has become available for the all other iOS devices however it is a game best experienced on the iPad. Fortunately for me, I find myself in temporary possession of an iPad 2 and nothing on it or about it has impressed me quite like Superbrothers S&S EP.

Superbrothers is by no means your conventional iOS game, in fact it is unlikely to resemble anything you’ve played before. If you can imagine thatgamecompany (developers of flOw and flower) making a King’s Quest-style point and click it may end up looking something like this. It is enough of a game to be considered one but odd enough to pose the question in the first place. I often prefer to refrain from using the term interactive art as i feel its a throughly problematic classification, but I cannot think of a better way to describe Superbrothers than as a work of art, an interactive work of art.  The game only really employs two interaction mechanics: touch either where you want the character to go or what you want him to interact with and turn the iPad (or other iOS device) to the portrait (vertical) orientation to enter battle mode. Battles are few and only really require aptly timed taps to strike or evade, still in the context of the game, the system works

The key to enjoying Superbrothers is to allow yourself to get sucked in. This is where I feel the large screen of the iPad coupled with a pair of noise canceling headphones can really make the difference. While the gameplay is so basic, it borders on the archaic, Superbrothers has a potent mood and a mesmerizing soundtrack that really packages the experience in a unique and enticing way. From its pixel-art visuals to its sublime text-based storytelling the game comes off as an intelligent and sophisticated experiment. It’s not quite a full-length game but I do suspect, had it gone on for much longer, it risks diluting its intriguing formula for interaction.

To claim that the soundtrack is phenomenal would be a massive understatement. In my humble opinion, it may be one of the best original video game soundtracks ever. It’s rich, atmospheric and is guaranteed to give you goosebumps. It not only works brilliantly with the game’s mood and visual approach but is a tantalizing listen in its own right as well. In fact, given the many references likening the game to a musical record, it is quite easy to believe the whole game was built around the music. The music and the wonderfully executed sound design really elevate the experience to something quite special.

An interestingly implemented feature of the game is the Twitter integration option. The type of integration is standard enough – at certain moments in the game you are prompted to tweet textual passages you’ve unlocked by other obtaining a certain item or completing a certain mission. Naturally tweeting is optional but the texts are often absurdly humorous that anyone would be forgiven for genuinely wanting to share, though the game itself instructs you to use this feature “with moderation” as if to say: use sparingly to not de-value.

If the intention of this game, or better yet this EP, is to test the waters then I truly hope many get on board and buy it. At 5$, it is well worth the investment. It may not keep you occupied long but at times it is a real treat to behold and a unique audio/visual experience. If anyone out there is looking for an example to strengthen the case of videogame as art, this game is for you.

Wacky Nintendo

March 30, 2011 by  
Filed under Features, Spotlight

In the interest of being topical, I would like to take the much fancied Nintendo 3DS launch as an opportunity to look back at some of Nintendo’s wackiest hardware ideas. Some scored big wins for the Japanese gaming giants, while others dealt hefty damage to Nintendo’s reputation. Ultimately, the company that virtually single-handedly resurrected the industry from its demise in the mid 80s, should be commended for always thinking out of the box.

Without further ado, in chronological order, here is the list:

R.O.B. (Robotic Operating Buddy):

Released with the earliest versions of the NES was R.O.B., a gaming peripheral / controller which was meant to demonstrate that Nintendo was about innovation and that the future of gaming had arrived. R.O.B. was a robot buddy that was meant to play games with you. Of course this was restricted to a couple of titles (literally), as playing with R.O.B. wasn’t really feasible, only 2 games were ever shipped. It’s worth going on YouTube and watching R.O.B. in action. I found it ridiculously hilarious and awe-inspiring all at once. While the peripheral didn’t actually function as intended (or more accurately, as advertised), it did serve its purpose remarkably well. The NES went on to surpass all expectations and its success arguably made today’s generation of gaming consoles possible.

Verdict: Neutral. Questionable hardware, genius marketing.

Super Scope

Having enjoyed Duck Hunt on my NES, I was looking forward the next generation SNES light gun. Needless to say, I didn’t see the Super Scope coming. Nintendo found it ‘appropriate’ to release a light gun in the form of a bazooka. I’ll admit, upon release, I was dying to get one but, in retrospect, I can understand my mother’s hesitation at buying me a gun the size of a small bicycle. The thing was massive and that didn’t bode too well for Nintendo. Sales were pretty abysmal and frequent complaints regarding strained shoulders and neck pain after moderate use led to Nintendo’s quick decision to can the accessory.

Verdict: Fail. Which is kinda sad considering today’s plastic guitars, drums, golf sticks, fishing reels…you’d think there would be a market for a plastic bazooka.

Killzone 3 Review

March 30, 2011 by  
Filed under Playstation 3, Reviews, Spotlight

Some two years ago, Sony released the Guerilla Games FPS, Killzone 2 and while there was a fair share of first-person shooters on the PS3 already, few could match Killzone’s astounding visuals and intense combat. Fast forward two years and the FPS landscape on Sony’s system has developed quite a bit. More and more shooters are getting the formula right and many are doing it in style. The fear was that the Killzone franchise may have lost its edge. In my humble opinion, that fear is not far from the truth. Killzone 3 is by no means as formidable as the second was and may not be a realistic candidate for game of the year, but its still a hell of a ride and an experience no fan should miss.

Gamers reprise the role of Sevchenko. With Visari dead, the Helghast are hell-bent on revenge and plan to hunt down his killers, extinguish the ISA threat and, in turn, restore glory to Helghan. For Sevchenko, Rico, Narville and the rest of the ISA troops, what starts as an escape mission becomes a mission to save Earth from a new weapon being developed secretly by the Helghan Arms division.

Killzone 3’s single player campaign has all the elements that have now become standard for a successful shooter. Action packed set-pieces that break the monotonous routine of just running and gunning? Check. Killzone employs quite a bit of them. Examples involve EXO and vehicle control, some fixed-gunning scenarios and, my personal favorite, jetpack-powered escapades. In addition to the inclusion of these scenarios, Guerilla has clearly placed more effort on making the campaign more story-driven. However, while by no means awful, the story fails to really trigger any emotional reaction to the events transpiring or any real attachment to the characters involved (a flaw that I believe hampers not only this game but many of the shooters available today – but that’s another subject entirely).  While Sev and Rico are arguably more likable then they were in the first game, they remain completely one-dimensional and are unlikely to make anyone’s list of favorite videogame characters. This may not deter most gamers, nevertheless it is unfortunate to see a cast of characters with so much visual detail and so little personality.

What may excite the fans however is that the array of guns by far outperforms the cast of characters. Many of the guns of Killzone 2 are back and improved. While the sidearms are generally underdeveloped, the rifles and heavys are quite satisfying. You can now also unmount fixed mini-guns and wreck havoc on the go. Characters can now also perform brutal melee actions, in other words popping in Helghast eyes, Kratos style!  If you own a Move controller, Killzone 3 is Move compatible and, having myself played through the game utilizing the motion controller, I must say it provides quite an engaging addition. Admittedly it does require some getting used to in the beginning since adjusting the balance between moving the cross-hair and moving the camera can be disorienting at first. Luckily the game comes with various tweakable options that allow you to tailor the Move experience to your liking. If you own a 3D TV let me first say, lucky lucky you! Envy aside however, Killzone 3 is also 3D compatible and while I have not tested it myself, I can’t imagine it being anything but spectacular (this coming from a guy who gave up on 3D halfway through Avatar and watched the remainder of the film in the bright yet blindingly blurry 2D image).

Killzone 3 is a gorgeous game, no doubts there. However, it is worth noting that while the visuals have improved noticeably since Killzone 2, the gap between it and its direct competition has diminished. All this really means is that, while Killzone 2 was miles ahead of its competition visually, Killzone 3 does not give off that visually superior vibe, not due to any deficiencies on its part, but to the visual proficiency of other games, now a good 5 years into this generation’s lifetime. Make no mistake however, Killzone 3 is an aesthetic treat from start to finish and perhaps one of the best looking PS3 games since Uncharted 2. In addition, the game’s musical score is fittingly epic and adds great intensity to the combat. With regards to voice acting,The Helghan cast is fantastic. In fact, even the ISA heroes are well voiced but bad dialogue really taints the experience in that respect. It can be summarized as half-a-dozen hours of mission nonsense, profanities and pulling rank.

As is the case with most first person shooters, the single player campaign is often merely the tip of the iceberg. That said however, it is the multiplayer facet of Killzone 3 that is most susceptible to criticism. The competitive multiplayer is engrossing as ever and will likely consume much of your time with the game. The big concern for fans will be the lack of an online cooperative campaign. This is disappointing because, for most gamers, split-screen is not something to really get excited about and so the existing offline cooperative mode will hardly muster much enthusiasm and deservedly so. The campaign stutters and makes a a gorgeous game look somewhat clumsy. Still, the option is there for those interested in it. Guerilla provided yet more offline love with the inclusion of Botzone. Botzone is essentially offline skirmishes with, you guessed it, bots instead of players. This is great for gamers that aren’t connected and would like a taste of free-for-all fun.

All-in-all Sony poster-child shooter does well in its second outing on the PS3 system and while its not without its flaws, it is yet another graphical masterpiece from the Dutch developers. Its cliffhanger ending suggests we perhaps haven’t heard the last of the Helghast and while that may spell trouble for the future of all of humanity…bring it on.

Bionic Commando Rearmed 2 Review

March 16, 2011 by  
Filed under News, Reviews, XBLA, Xbox 360

Anyway you spin it, Bionic Commando Rearmed 2 was likely to disappoint. When you consider the first game’s critical and commercial success, this comment may seem somewhat absurd but, least we forget, the first game was a remake of an NES classic which gives it significantly more edge, especially in the eyes of seasoned gamers. Rearmed 2 is not a remake but a sequel to a remake and so, naturally, all bets are off. In addition, with Grin having disbanded, the new development team had it all to do and with expectations high and the chances of BCR 2 breaking new grounds low, its fate seemed sealed. And surely enough, if you’re already aware of Rearmed 2’s critical reception so far, you’ll know that this has been the case. However, for all the disappointed fans that were hoping to buy the sequel, read on…because while the game   may not set the new side-scrolling standard, it is actually a pretty solid game in its own right.

Nathan Spencer is back for the sequel, this time sporting a mustache to visually indicate that he is indeed a seasoned veteran and not some pansy rookie, unlike some members of his new team.  BCR 2’s story revolves on Nathan Spencer and his team of bionics looking to stop the Castro-esque General Sabio from launching his WMDs. Bionic Commando’s tongue-in-cheek humor remains a component of the story, though it is significantly duller this time around. While I sometimes found myself laughing out loud during the first game, a timid smile is all I could muster this time around. Then again I didn’t purchase the game expecting Ricky Gervais material so, as they say, no harm, no foul.

If you’ve played the first game, the first change you’ll notice is the inclusion of a ‘jump’ button. For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, Bionic Commando Rearmed did not feature a jump, hence all platforming required you to master the bionic arm grapple and swing. This challenging requirement gave Bionic Commando notoriety and, in a sense, became the game’s selling point. Hence adding the ability to jump, while obviously intended to make the game more accessible, more than ticked-of off the fans and understandably so. The whole game can be played without jumping and there is even an unlockable trophy/achievement that rewards such behavior, but for better or worse, the Rearmed series has complied with platforming conventions and can no longer be branded a rebel. Once you get past that (or if you get past that), BCR2 is quite an enjoyable side-scrolling shooter. Aside from the inclusion of a jump, little has changed in the game’s presentation and core gameplay.

For those of you unfamiliar with the original, let me quickly summarize the game. Bionic Commado Rearmed 2 is a 2D (or 2.5D) action-packed side-scroller. The game requires a balance of strategic shooting and platforming. You’ll acquire new weapons as you progress through the game but the star of the show, hands down, is the bionic arm. With your bionic arm, you can grapple and swing from platform to platform, you can also block incoming fire, lift and throw barrels and well as activate switches. More can be done with the bionic arm this time around such as the uppercut move. Mastering the bionic arm is still as difficult as ever but this time you don’t need the shotgun to get your character swinging from a stationary grapple hang. You can now trigger a swing simply by moving the analog stick to the right or left. So, as you can probably tell, the changes seem directed towards making the game less demanding and perhaps more accessible to the casual gaming market. If any of you have played the NES classic you’ll realize just how out of character these concessions are but as my friend Bob Dylan would say, the times they are a changin’.

The game still looks pretty damn good though. The graphics have been slightly updated and while they perhaps look the same as they did 3 years ago at first glance, there is notably more detail in both the character and the environments. While the first game also had a fantastic soundtrack, BCR2 provides more of the same, but much like the entire package itself, it stops short of really impressing.

While I can handle the game’s various flaws and can overlook the removal of the top-down enemy map encounters (something I enjoyed in the first game), I cannot fathom the decision to implement an appalling DRM restriction on the PS3 version of the game (the version I played and the version this review is based on). You cannot launch the game while offline. That would be understandable for games such as Warhawk, that are multiplayer only but its simply absurd for games without an online component to really speak of. While my connection was down for a few hours this weekend, I was not permitted to launch the game which, in my opinion, is just inexcusable.

All in all, BCR2 seems content on riding the wave of the first game without paying much tribute to what made the first Rearmed so great. Still, if you are just looking for a good old-fashioned side-scroller that you can play alone or with a friend (locally), Rearmed 2 can heed the call, just don’t expect to be wowed.

Majin and the Forsaken Kingdom Review

February 23, 2011 by  
Filed under Playstation 3, Reviews, Xbox 360

While it may sound overly cynical, Majin and the Forsaken Kingdom seemed destined to    exist in anonymity from the get go. Being too similar in essence to the highly anticipated The Last Guardian, Namco Bandai’s game needed to really strut its stuff in an extravagant way if it was to capture the attention of flustered holiday season gamers. Despite being directed by Yoshiki Okamoto and released on both Sony and Microsoft’s consoles, Majin was not accompanied by much of a marketing push and never really blossomed into the sleeper hit it could have been.

The story takes place in a kingdom that has been plagued by darkness and left to wither away. With the king and his generals possessed by the powers of the darkness, the kingdom is beyond hope, that is until a desperate thief finds and frees a magical beast, known as “the guardian”, from the cage that has imprisoned him for many many years. The thief and the guardian develop a friendship that motivates them to work side by side in order to free the kingdom from the ubiquitous darkness.

While the premise is not new and the plot remains under-developed all throughout, the relationship between the two protagonists is heart-filled and provides for an interesting cooperative gameplay mechanic. The thief, Tepeu, and the Majin must use their complimentary skill-sets to overcome environmental obstacles as well as soldiers of the darkness. While the player controlled Tepeu is swift, agile and subtle, he has no powers to speak of beyond wielding a magical weapon bound to the Majin’s powers and is naturally susceptible to the overwhelming power of darkness. The Majin, on the other hand, is physically powerful, capable of casting various magical powers (once acquired) and can heal Tepeu when he is overcome by darkness. The down side is that the Majin is big, slow and cannot get past certain environmental obstacles. While you can never play as the Majin, you are required send him orders such as Follow, Wait, Attack etc. and have him do tasks you are incapable of doing. The same applies to combat, but that is where the gameplay takes a real nose dive. While most soldiers of darkness are not invulnerable to Tepeu’s attacks, his general ineffectiveness means going solo is never a good idea. The Majin is powerful but is hopelessly pea-brained when AI controlled. That would be okay is he was responsive to commands, but his capacity to be distracted from performing simple actions can make even simple battles very frustrating. For example, when groups of enemies are accompanied by a necromancer capable of summoning enemies infinitely, he must be eliminated first but getting the Majin to focus his attacks is like teaching a dog kanji, only perhaps a little more frustrating. In fact, be prepared to babysit him throughout the campaign, knocking enemies off his back, waiting for him to follow you down a path (only to watch him trip on his own feet), feeding him fruit when he foolishly takes on too many enemies at once and needs healing… in fact, the majority of the puzzles are figuring out how to get the Majin across obstacles because God forbid he attempts to squeeze through an opening in a wall (that could otherwise fit a bus!).

Since the combat grows dull very early on, its up to the exploration aspect of the game to keep gamers engaged throughout the campaign but somehow manages to make a meal of that as well. While much of the puzzles are fairly interesting they can prove quite lacking in variety. In addition, the game will require quite bit of backtracking, visiting areas you couldn’t access before due the Majin not having the required power at that time. This is only really frustrating because your pace is, of course, dictated by the Majin and having to fight enemies that have respawned is never something you want to do if the fight was a burden to begin with. What the game does pretty well however is boss battles. Each boss will test a newly acquired power and forces gamers to think before running up to the boss and mashing the attack button.

While the musical score is truly fantastic and arguable the very best aspect of the game, the same cannot be said about the voice acting. This has got to be one of the most inappropriate voice casts in a while. The Majin which is supposed to sound simple yet sincere comes off as mentally handicapped. Even Tepeu himself seems miscast which is unfortunate. As for the visuals, it appears as the common case of interesting design but mediocre implementation. While the colors are vibrant, much of the textures and model work is sub-par. Also a pity since the game is really meant to immerse the gamer in a magical world. That said, Majin and the Forsaken Kingdom sports a lovely art style for back story cutscenes, its a shame that the art style was not somehow implemented, albeit in a more practical manner.

While the game undoubtedly has heart, it lacks bite. All its interesting ideas are underplayed leaving the whole experience somewhat forgettable. Still, if anyone is interested in taking a simple adventure into a magical world in need a savior, I can think a fair amount of titles that may be better, but Majin and the Forsaken Kingdom cannot be completely disregarded as a candidate.

Splatterhouse Review

February 16, 2011 by  
Filed under PC, Playstation 3, Reviews, Xbox 360

While I can’t claim to look back fondly on the original Splatterhouse, when it made its mark on the NES over 20 years ago, it was definitely a memorable game. Memorable because it was one of the earliest games I played that really glorified unnecessary violence. Plus smacking enemies against walls (in a faux 3D space) and watching blood splatter all over the background walls was…well let’s just say not a commonplace sight in the games of that time. Of course this no longer applies, as gratuitous blood and gore has seeped its way in to the canons of action game visuals. So while the gamers of yesteryear may have gotten over jolting at the sight of blood, one would assume this era’s Splatterhouse would come with a few more tricks up its sleeve. If you’ve already played the game then you would know that that’s hardly the case.

The story revolves around Rick Taylor, a college student who’s girlfriend is captured by a deranged professor named Dr. West. As she gets abducted, Rick is mortally wounded by a demonic beast and as he lay there in a pool of his own blood, a voice tells him to don the Terror mask to gain the power necessary to save his girlfriend. Naturally he complies (who wouldn’t?) and is then infused with the mysterious power of the mask and gets all buffed up (Incredible Hulk style). The mask’s main request? Bucket loads of blood.

The story is apparently written by comic-writer Gordon Rennie and is actually semi-decent, considering the sad state of video game stories these days. Splatterhouse’s graphics also seem to be comic book inspired, sporting a simple cell-shaded effect that may have appeared more interesting had it been implemented properly. Unfortunately the visuals are really shoddy, despite some interesting design choices.

Playing as Rick involves a lot of running around and bashing up hordes of enemy ‘corrupted’ which are essentially weird looking demons. In addition to performing combos you’ll also be able to pick up weapons such as lead-pipes, wooden planks and chain-saws, conveniently left around. Chopped up enemy body parts such as severed heads and limbs are also at your disposal which brings an organic variety to your arsenal. You can even use you’re own arms as weapons should they be chopped off in battle. Of course you’ll regenerate a limb within moments but that does give you a good indication about the type of game Namco Bandai were going for. Gratuitous violence run amuck. And if you had any doubts that excessive use of carnage is Spatterhouse’s order of the day, they are likely to wane after performing your first “splatter kill”. A QTE-based finishing move reminiscent of God of War.

Needless to say, a flurry of red pixels gushing across the screen cannot carry a game alone. We’ve all played enough hack’ n’ slashers to differentiate a robust gameplay system from a flimsy one. This is where Spaltterhouse falls flat. Combat is tedious, the controls clunky and the camera a mess. Despite the inclusion of unlockable moves, purchase-able by trading in blood (a ludicrous currency, albeit appropriate), performing the combos is a drag and won’t always come to your aid when the going gets tough. The game sets you up for a plethora of cheap deaths and, to add insult to injury, you’ll need to hold out for around 40secs as you wait for the game to load, making each death all the more frustrating. Even Splatterhouse’s more inspired ideas stumble due to bad implementation. A prime example would be the sparse side-scrolling sequences. In an obvious attempt to source for its own history, Splatterhouse has various side-scrolling sequences which rely on platforming more than combat. While the idea is interesting, the execution is not. Unresponsive controls mean you’re likely miss time jumps and plummet to your death way more often than you should. The best part of these sequences however is that you won’t need to worry about or deal with the wayward camera or the atrocious frame-rate both of which are generally culprits throughout the entire game.

In addition to the story mode, Splatterhouse boasts a survival mode as well as all three classic Slatterhouse games (each unlockable by playing through the main campaign). Perhaps unsurprisingly, the survival mode is actually significantly funner than the story mode. This is primarily because you are not asked to move around and experience various painstakingly frustrating set-pieces…instead, you’ll only need to concentrate on slaughtering wave after wave of enemies. While the combat is not of particularly high standard, survival mode’s simple set-up sees the game struggle less and, hence, fares better than everything else on offer. Of course, you can load up one of the classic Splatterhouse titles but why would you? The games were lackluster then and have only gotten worse over time.

Though I incessantly question Splatterhouse’s attitude throughout this review, I am well aware that blood, gore and heavy metal do have a fanbase. Be that as it may, it remains an underwhelming experience, riddled with glitches and moments of sheer frustration. Still, if you want to control a brute that eliminates his foes by tearing their jaws and removing their rectums, then give this game a go. While it does lack tact, I can’t help thinking that Splatterhouse could have been a much better game had it built a foundation substantially thicker than blood.

Time Machine: Rogue Pilot Review

February 11, 2011 by  
Filed under PC, Reviews

At this point in our history, it’s pretty safe to assume that Bejeweled has more clones than George Lucas’ galactic empire. That’s assuming Bejeweled itself isn’t a clone of some unfortunate puzzler pushed into obscurity. While Time Machine is, strictly speaking, not a Bejeweled clone, it borrows a lot from Pop Cap games like Zuma and Bejeweled and adds its own bizarre twist on things. On a personal level, I admit to being a bit of addict when it comes to match-3 puzzlers. They are a bit of a guilty pleasure and I can get very quickly absorbed into a casual bout of swapping tiles and demolishing gems. Such games don’t even have to be particularly special to get me going which makes Rogue Pilot’s inability to hook me all the more significant.

Much like Bejeweled, the game consists of a grid of various colored gems. Matching 3 or more of the same color causes the gems to explode and, naturally, more fall in to replace them. So far it sounds the same as the Pop Cap classic, doesn’t it? The difference here is that you cannot swap gem tiles. Instead, you target a gem with a cursor and replace it was the color indicated on the gem canon located at the bottom of the screen. The canon color can be toggled among 3 available to you. Canon color availability changes depending on the color you’ve displaced on the board. Block gems can not change color, nor can colored gems that are infused with bonus stones or power-ups. The point of the game is to achieve the set target score before time runs out. If this all sounds dull, that would be because it really is. Despite a variety of different power-ups that can help rack up the multipliers, there aren’t any notable features that can can really differentiate Time Machine from the already saturated match-3 puzzle genre. Furthermore, as you progress, meeting the allocated time becomes more and more difficult as the game compels you to alter gem colors in rapid fashion. Yet this seems to be at odds with the mechanic of adjusting the canon color. Therefore, to meet the time limits, its often best to forget about changing the canon color and sticking to the one that is automatically assigned as much as possible, ultimately resulting in an overall stale and generic experience.

Upon completing a handful of levels, players will be faced with one of the most absurd bonus levels I’ve ever seen. At this point, it is worth noting that Time Machine’s inconsequential story revolves around…you guessed it, time travel. Based on this premise, the various level sets or worlds are labeled as past epochs such as the Stone age or the Bronze age etc. This doesn’t influence much beyond the puzzle’s background image, but this image does become more central in the bonus stages. These stages consist of pictures of modern day objects such as light bulbs, screwdrivers or even trains scattered around the scenic background image corresponding to the specific age. The point is to locate these out-of-place objects and shoot them with the canon cursor. If this sounds a bit odd then wait till you actually see it. Considering the game allows you to skip these levels suggests that even the game designers found it difficult to take these segments seriously. That said though, despite their truly bizarre nature, these levels are all that distinguishes Time Machine from the heaps of sub-par puzzle games on the market today…and that is quite sad, for lack of a better word.

Arguably even more bizarre than the bonus levels is that mood indicator on the bottom right of the screen. There you will see a short live-action video loop of of a person who’s general mood serves as an indication of how well or badly you are performing. For example, for the majority of my time with the game, the woman would shake here head in disdain. I once caught her smiling but that faded into a weary yawn rather quickly. How appropriate.

While Time Machine is hardly the worst puzzle game I’ve ever played, I find it difficult to recommend to anyone, especially with superior similar games available on every gaming platform being sold on the market today.

LittleBigPlanet 2 Review

February 2, 2011 by  
Filed under News, Playstation 3, Reviews, Spotlight

It’s been a little over two years since Media Molecule introduced Sackboy and the Play•create•share concept that not only defined LittleBigPlanet but several other titles since. LittleBigPlanet did not invent the online sharing of created content but surely propelled it to new heights. Amidst the rubbish, the lackluster and the incomplete stood some ingenious user-generated “community” levels that epitomized LittleBigPlanet’s robust and versatile create mode. And if the improvements done for the sequel suggest anything, it is that Media Molecule were highly impressed by what the online community was capable of and, in turn, incorporated many of their ideas. And while buffing up the create mode is sure to keep serial level creators jubilant, it is also bound to appease the  platforming enthusiast who has no interest in creating levels simply because the plethora of new gameplay tools are so brilliantly showcased in the pre-made story levels.

While most fans of the original will tell you that LittleBigPlanet is all about generating content, the story has undeniable charm and this is even more evident in the sequel. The new cast of characters are brilliantly designed and voiced and even the limited dialogue is humorously witty. The story revolves around an “alliance” of eccentric characters working together towards saving Craftworld from the Negativitron, the evil intergalatic vacuum cleaner, sucking up all the ideas and creations that make up the world. I won’t elaborate on the characters you’ll meet to spare you any spoilers because most are really quite funny. The sequel’s story mode is similar in length to the first game, in other words – it’s short. However, it has a lot more variety in terms of content. While the first stuck to basic platforming, the LBP2 builds on the statement made in the very first trailer; it’s not a platform game but a platform for games meaning that it now comes packed with tools capable of creating shooters, racers, puzzles, strategy games and many more. Needless to say, many of these tools are inventively demonstrated in the story levels, so if that is all you plan on doing in the game you’re still in for a treat despite overlooking the bulk of the game that really differentiates it from anything on the market today.

Upon completing the first chapter of the game, you’ll gain access to the much lauded create mode. If you are familiar with this mode from the first game, you’ll immediately notice some substantial additions but if this is your first experience creating, well then sit down, get comfortable and be prepared for a lengthy but albeit necessary tutorial viewing. On the bright side, the tutorial menu has been significantly improved from the first game. You can now browse a list of tutorials quickly and play them in order, or play only selected ones. There are over 50 tutorial videos and alot of them are quite information heavy but, luckily, they can be surprisingly entertaining thanks to Stephen Fry’s humorous voice-over. In general, I found that there are two state of minds you can enter the create mode with: Curiosity and intent, both can consume hours upon hours of experimentation, fiddling and tweaking but neither guarantees results. The game now presents a large variety of control tools with various tweak-able parameters. In the interest of time and space I will take one (my personal favorite) – The controlinator. An ingenious addition that lets you map out various behaviors and gadgets to the PS3 controller (including SixAxis functionality). To quote Stephen Fry’s frequently uttered hyperbole, “just imagine the possibilities!”… Just imagine indeed.

For those of you seeking more visual proof of the possibilities then go to YouTube and search for LittleBigPlanet 2 community levels. Trust me when I say you’ll be amazed at what people have been able to do. Just the other day I played a community level created by a one Bluetonberry, which was a reconstruction of the first dungeon from the original NES Legend of Zelda. To say I was stunned would be a major understatement. It truly demonstrates the vast capabilities of the game’s level creator and while the creator himself is undoubtedly worthy of praise, it counts as a double triumph for the men and women at Media Molecule.

While on the subject of community levels, it is also worth mentioning that LBP2’s restructured menu system makes browsing online levels far more accessible and intuitive. You can now also find and queue up the levels you want to play. A nifty and convenient feature for us community level samplers.

Visually the game is as stunning as ever and features more sophisticated and refined design choices than the original (which also had its fair share of eye-candy). While the first was all about charm and manufactured cuteness, LBP2 is much more stylish in its decisions and experiments with various art-style implementations. This is also evident in the soundtrack as well. The selection of music got a lot of hype last time around (not least due to THAT infamously removed African song) and while LBP2’s musical selection is perhaps less eclectic its still consistently spot on. And in addition to Fry’s fantastic contribution, all voiced story characters are also top notch. At this point, it’s also worth mentioning that LBP2’s create mode feature a music sequencer, giving players the capability of creating tracks to play in their levels. I’m yet to compose a top 10 hit myself but I plan to, pending divine assistance.

There is really so much to say about LittleBigPlanet 2 and, thankfully, so much to do with the game as well. Obviously the game isn’t for everyone, if you abhor creativity and can’t stomach charm you might find life on LittleBigPlanet to be a tad too diabolical for your taste. However, the majority of people are bound to find something to cling to and enjoy in Media Molecule’s ingeniously crafted world. Can’t be bothered to design a level? Create an object. Can’t get the hang of the tools? Make a sticker, decorate your pod or play one of the millions of community levels already available online. The possibilities are truly limitless.

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