Wednesday, November 12, 2008

God of War: Chains of Olympus (PSP)

[2008; Ready at Dawn]


All one could hope for is a faithful God of War-lite out of Chains of Olympus, which it fully delivers on. So much so that the only true surprise of the game is that it's one of the select few to accomplish such a seemingly capable feat (from the eyes of a consumer). In the vein of Metroid series, the GTA series, and the Castlevania series, Chains of Olympus is a near excellent addition to the series that could hold up as a triple AAA release on the past generation's consoles, as well as a generation later on a handheld.

Ready at Dawn, developers of this side-story in the GoW cannon, have once again, as they did on Daxter, brought a PS2 mainstay onto the PSP with surprisingly little missing. The graphics look near PS2 quality, the production lives up to the series, and the fighting is just as addictive as ever. The game truly is GoW-lite, taking the best of both series and making a much more tame pace and plot built around the always compelling gameplay of the series. The game is worth playing, if you found yourself going through either of the God of War games a 2nd time or have a desire to fill in whatever backstory that is offered. I can't fault Ready at Dawn for not making a game as rich or exciting as the previous games, but there is a bigger problem that takes away from the experience.

The controls are horrid in this game and it's entirely the PSP's fault. I've always defended the system for having better graphics and being a better multimedia hub than the DS, but Chains of Olympus is "exhibit A" on the detractor's side. It's tragic that Ready at Dawn created a faithful portable adaptation that I want to immerse myself in, but couldn't for more than an hour because how bad my fingers would hurt. To the game's credit, I fought against the pain, most of the time, because how addictive it is but found the problem to take much fun away overall. This largely has to do with the weight of the system and how hard it is to hold on to the triggers for hours. I own the original PSP model and I know the newer models are lighter, so perhaps that addresses this issue. Either way, I'm going on my experience on my legit PSP system--a completely valid point that many who play the game will share.

Despite not being as original as the previous games and having bad controls (not completely accurate--read above), Ready at Dawn is one of the best handheld experiences I've had in some time. If the game were on PS2 I would bump it up half a star, but, for better or worse, this is the handheld, high production action/adventure we've always wanted. I couldn't ask for much more without sounding unreasonable (to Ready at Dawn--not Sony who screwed up on the PSP), so I accept the game for what it is. It certainly doesn't have equal ground as it's predecessors, but considering where it's coming from and who it's coming from--in a way it does.

Friday, October 31, 2008

World of Goo (PC)

[2008; 2D Boy]


Indie games, a growing trend in the 00s, has always seemed like less than mainstream games and looked to have no hope of ever achieving the welcome alternative that indie films and indie music offer. Most indie games have found their audiences in cheap gamers and those who don't have the time to dedicate themselves to a Half-Life or Mass Effect. Not until the cellphone game industry came about has indie games become financially viable, but the hardcore still remain unmoved. This is slowly becoming less and less true in the past year. Braid has offered an original experience with masterful presentation, Geometry Wars 2 offered a versatility more robust than most big budget titles, and now World of Goo offers a unique take on the puzzle genre that makes it one of the best titles of the year. Indie or otherwise.

As many experienced with Braid and Portal, there is something exciting about being stuck in a puzzle without all the cliches of the genre. There are no falling blocks, kitschy music, or plotless gameplay here. World of Goo clearly envies the simplicity of these recent puzzle titles and aims to stand among them, which it does. The game is basically a physics puzzle where you are building bridges with the aim to get to a pipe at the end of the level. You will come across various forms of goo that have different effects, some act as a balloon, some blow up, and others help in more specific situations. The game is very easy to understand and biggest difficulty you will be facing are your demons from 5th period Physics class.

World of Goo has some of the best physics ever seen in a game. Where Half-Life and Portal teased us with half-assed physics puzzles, Goo demands you to learn what works and what will not work. The last portion of the game is a true trial of how well you understand the game mechanics, and there isn't a FAQ that will hold your hand through some of the tough calls you'll have to make. Like all puzzle titles, the game offers such a satisfying release when you finish a level. To add to this satisfaction is excellent presentation that offers a very relaxing PC game amidst the noise of Gears of War 2 and Fallout 3. The game tries to tell a story somewhere between Portal and Katamari Damacy, filling the world with signs that read just like a quote from The King of All Cosmos. Unfortunately, this humor comes across as a bit trying and more in tune with some troll's humor from a IGN message board then the clever lines you heard in those other titles.

Where the humor fails, the game's world is utterly spectacular. The game carries a strange Tim Burton in Candyland feel that is charming and haunted, once again recalling Braid. Without ruining anything, the 3rd gameworld completely changes the gameplay and setting. The game suddenly explores new avenues and themes to great success, offering the sort inventiveness that most big franchises hold on to for a sequel. World of Goo might not impress your friends as much as Fallout 3, but I wouldn't doubt that it will pull you in as much or more than the bigger titles of Fall 08'. Its a game that will find you empathizing with indie games for once, rather then questioning the desperation in their existence. This isn't a cheap flash zombie shooter, but a game that no bigger developer has even hinted at. They'll probably regret it too, if they ever get pulled into the hopelessly addictive World of Goo.

Dead Space (Xbox 360)

[2008; EA Redwood Shores]


There is a difference between a game being impossible (Ninja Gaiden) and a game feeling like it is impossible. There is one genre that expanded the later--I'm not talking about the adventure genre for you, the puzzle-challenged. I'm speaking of the survival horror genre that was popularized by Resident Evil, Silent Hill, and Clock Tower. Dead Space is the first new franchise in this genre for some time and among the best. It offers the biggest scares of the genre, and, more importantly, offers a consistently fun and compelling game underneath it all. It's the ideal of the genre: a game that you don't want to put down because its fun but also because you want the horror to end before it gives you nightmares for another night.

Dead Space isn't merely a sci-fi/horror story but one that pays tribute to all those that came before it. There are obvious nods to Event Horizon, Alien, and The Thing, not to mention that the game takes many main story elements from these along with recent cinematic games such as Bioshock and Half-Life. Some have said this takes away from the game's integrity, but all of these elements are crafted as lovingly as the originators have. In short, the story never impresses but it never fails as it is upheld by classic stories. Either way, we haven't seen an environment like this in a game before (Dino Crisis 3 looks on angrily), or a game as dedicated to telling a story in recent months.

Nearly every element of the gameplay and world can be linked to a game that came from the last 10 years: Half-Life script events, Bioshock upgrading, Resident Evil 4's action and camera, and System Shock 2's brooding, hopeless world. Dead Space doesn't refine any of these games as much as it mixes and matches with great success, adding one or two elements of its own. The first of which are the zero gravity segments that will make Mario Galaxy look like child's play (durr). Then there is the shooting which is always a challenge to hit an enemy's weak point, rather then aiming at their head which will only make them grow stronger. You'll be damned for your penchant toward Call of Duty headshots. All these elements make up fun gameplay that is easily forgotten, for better or worse, as you marvel at the level design and surrender yourself to the mystery that lays on board the Ishimura.

RE4 is a superior game to Dead Space and not just because it was the first to bring so many new game mechanics to life (almost all of which Dead Space utilizes). It must be said though that Dead Space is the first game to truly bring RE4's template back to its series' original "survival-horror" context, and in the most unexpected of all places: space. Checking your inventory after every fight and going down a dark corridor brings back a certain vulnerability that RE4 traded for more visceral thrills. Dead Space is as masochistic as horror titles get, so it's fortunate it has enough item hording, upgrading, and compelling action to make the emotional trauma almost seem worthwhile.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (Xbox360 - XBLA)

1997; Konami

"Metroidvania" might be the first faux-genre for videogames to receive. Music has plenty of obscure, nonsense genres (like "neofolk") and film has a numerous amount ("new wave"). Its really a nuisance but its a nuisance that portrays a vein attempt to pigeonhole originality--originality being a prerequisite. There is certainly no prerequisite for Super Metroid or Symphony of the Night. Many games have borrowed elements from Super Metroid, but Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is the only game to act as a true spiritual successor (until the many handheld Castlevania sequels of the 00s). Even Metroid Fusion, the most literal sequel that Super Metroid ever got, pales in comparison. SotN was always destined to appeal to the niche crowd that hungered for more of that archaic 2D game design. Conversely, if you put it in most people's hands it suddenly becomes a game that anyone can become hopelessly addicted to.
SotN is a classic case of the stellar sequel that no one thought they wanted. Despite massive critical acclaim, I was one of the many PSX owners that overlooked the game due to its graphics and attachment to the Castlevania series. Like many, I was spoiled by Final Fantasy VII and Metal Gear Solid and was too stubborn to go back to 2D platforming. I was completely right--SotN is a subpar PSX game when you hold it to the standards of the system: cinematic presentation, impressive 3D graphics, and progressive storytelling in video games. Instead, SotN is a near flawless SNES game that came a generation late but had all the time to correct its mistakes because of it. Rather than being stuck with dated, ugly textures and a low polygon count, we have a great looking 2D game that recalls the previous generation's best.

The game tries to continue the Castlevania story by paying tribute to its mythos and building future nonsense, but the only good that comes from it are unintentional laughs. At least, the dialogue is brief and laughable instead of just plain boring. Despite a beyond bad story, SotN is a very strong game aesthetically. Yamane's score is one of the best of its time, filled with cryptic baroque, acid jazz, and some imaginative takes on old themes. The soundtrack combined with the each area of the castle's design, helps add variety and personality to the game world. The gameplay will suck you in, so it's all the better that you have great audio and visual candy to feast on for the next 8 hours.
While I hinted at SotN upstaging Super Metroid, its really in the details rather than in grand strokes. Like in Metroid, you are waiting for that next power-up but you also have all sorts of things to get excited over on the way to that. Leveling up, finding new familiars (little demons that help you fight), and buying new spells/weapons helps flesh out the moments that lay before your next destination. Even though SotN fixes some of Super Metroid's areas of fault, the game sadly lays victim to many of the same problems (that only the Metroid Prime series would fix, ironically). After the first third of the game, you have explored the better part of the castle and are left to guess where to go next. You'll recall a hole in the ceiling you can now double jump up to but find it only leads to some sort of bonus (oh great, sushi!) You'll often find yourself lost and frustrated, with no sort of hint system or logic leading you to the next location. Even with a FAQ, the game is confusing and misleading. It's enough to make me give up on the game, the first time through in 2006. Despite SotN falling victim to some bad design, minor issues that make major problems, the core game is near flawless and ageless in its fun factor. Even with its issues, there is no game like SotN. You have to congratulate Konami for making a game that had everything against it, in 1997, and have it hold up so well more than a decade later.

Terranigma (SNES)

1995; Quintet Co., Ltd.

Quintet's efforts have always been overlooked, but never because their quality was lacking. Okay, maybe Robotrek wasn't so great and Actraiser 2 was a disappointment, but every other game this company put out in the 16-bit age was a masterpiece. There was Actraiser, the first great non-Nintendo developed title for the SNES, but the company's Soul Blazer trilogy was their true masterpiece (and the only other games they made for the system). None of the three games were tied beyond obscure connections, themes, and presentation--with Illusion of Gaia and Terranigma often being called "spiritual" sequels to Soul Blazer. The most important thing these games had in common, however, was quality and innovation. After 2 of the best games of their respective generation, Quintet put out the perfect swansong of the SNES and the classic RPG-Adventure genre.

Where Final Fantasy VI pushed the SNES hardware to its max potential and felt perfect on the platform, Terranigma aims for the same ambitions but fails to deliver on its promise due to the limits of it's generation. This is not a complaint of the game, as much as it is a testament to it's massive scale and aspirations. The game begins as an underwhelming take on Soul Blazer, as you essentially revive a dead world by battling your way through 5 unimaginative dungeons. After the first act of four, the game becomes the true successor to Illusion of Gaia as you travel a world filled with color and variety. By the third act, Terranigma truly becomes a adventure beyond compare. The blessing and curse of the game is that it perfects many elements of Quintets previous games, but ultimately fails to mold them into a cohesive whole like it's predecessors.
Terranigma is unique in many ways but what truly stands out is the game's overarching world which is, literally, our own. Once you break free of the underworld within the game's opening hours, you find yourself on a dead Earth. The planet we know and love except with all its life sucked out. Without giving away too much, you find yourself on a journey through Earth's history as you travel from ancient tribes to a future vision of Tokyo. The game has a subtle layer of education, as you familiarize yourself with the map of our planet and travel through our history. Its a shame then that the game suffers from lackluster localization and losses some of its realism as it ventures into a purely fictional future (Columbus is alive till the end of the world--I mean, really, guys?) Just as interesting is Quintet's signature themes of duality, man's plight against himself, and the presence or non-presence of a God. They are themes that, while not dealt with as delicately as a great novel, we hardly ever see in videogames and are used to much effect in this imaginative adventure.

As I said, the first part of the game feels a aesthetically dull when compared to the rest of the game or previous Quintet games. There are two things that redeem it and make the rest of the game an enjoyable experience: the gameplay and the music. Where I thought Illusions of Gaia was on an equal level of Zelda's fighting, Terrangima completely surpasses both. The game has, easily, the most fluid and fun fighting of any RPG-adventure. The controls are pitch perfect and the game rewards you for your progression. In many ways, I feel Terrangima is to A Link to the Past as Castlevania: Symphony of the Night was to Super Metroid: it's a game that loses some of Nintendo's level design charm, but perfects everything else wrong with it. Where Zelda gives you no incentive to fight or search for secrets, Quintet observed this problem and implemented a very satisfying experience system so you can level up. Furthermore, the game offers you stores where you can buy items that actually matter. Even better is the game's social economy, which, while primitive, lets you interact and effect the game world in a way that was way ahead of its time.
The game's soundtrack is the perfect metaphor for the overall game, when I think about it. It contains some of the most haunting and beautiful themes to ever grace an SNES title, but it often implements them poorly--replaying the same dungeon theme over and over, rather than making a new one. Its not that the game is ever bad, but it just doesn't know how to make the adventure as fluid as its gameplay. The Diablo meets Secret of Mana dungeon crawling is amazing, the themes of the game are amazing, the world is amazing, and the inventiveness is amazing. The game simply fails to make all these things matter and work to their full potential. Once again, I fault the system more than the developer as they chose to make a game far too big for its respective hardware. Where Quintet's previous titles feel sealed to their system and year, Terrangima begs for Quintet to come out of their near decade silence and re-imagine this grandiose adventure in the way that they originally thought they could. The game ends with a credits sequence that pulls the heart strings, except they were never attached properly. You might cry at the end sequence, not because of how well it ends the game but because just how damn amazing Quintet are at this exact moment.

Friday, October 10, 2008

The Brothers in Arms series (PC)

2005/2005/2008; Gearbox Softwar LLC
Road to Hill 30 ★★★
Earned in Blood ★★1/2
Hell's Highway ★★★1/2

The Brothers in Arms series has always aimed to be Band of Brothers to Call of Duty's (or Medal of Honor's) Saving Private Ryan. The series offers a more fleshed-out, intelligent experience where most WWII shooters go for a more visceral, arcade-centered one. Working on a less-robust engine with a smaller crew (Gearbox has always put out these games), Brothers in Arms was always destined to be overlooked amongst the more visually stellar games with familiar appeal. While Call of Duty overtook the Medal of Honor series in every respect, Brothers in Arms is a series that can live happily side-by-side everyone's favorite shooter series. This is due to it offering an entirely different brand of gameplay and storytelling that makes this all too familiar war routes seem renewed.

Instead of running and gunning from A to B, Brothers in Arms relies much more on strategy. We aren't just talking duck and cover strategy, but the ability to manage two squads (or, sometimes, 3 in Hell's Highway) that work under you and follow your orders. The game isn't exactly a FPS/RTS hybrid but if there was ever a game to drive a fan of one genre into the other it's this one. How the system works is that you, playing as Corporal Matt Baker (or "Red", in Earned in Blood), have an assault squad and a flanking squad. You position your flanking squad to provide covering fire, while you take your assault squad in for the kill. It can often be difficult to set up your troops, but like in real life you can't really tell your troops to go to places you can't see; the game does offer a "situational view" that gives you a layout of the battlefield. However, you can't give orders from the view, so its mainly there to plan ahead than to act within.

Upon release in Spring 2005, Road to Hill 30 only found a niche audience due to the over-saturation of WWII FPS's up till that point. The game follows Cpl Matt Baker and his battalion of the 101st Airborne (based on factual events), during the initial week of America's invasion of Normandy. The game offers an excellent pace, giving you a little more freedom and firepower with every new level--essentially, going from a private with a pistol to a corporal with a tank. The game has many great moments, but it feels very limited by the Unreal Engine from 98' (now a decade old!) It looks alright but the maps never feel as scoped out and intense as they could have. If you look at the details, it can completely take you out of the experience and make the game feel like a glorified Unreal Tournament mod. Despite its repetitive gameplay and lacking story, Road to Hill 30 was an excellent first entry and a overlooked shooter from 2005.

Like many, I was late to the BiA hype and decided to pick up the almost-immediate sequel, Earned in Blood, over the 5 months younger RtH30. Earned in Blood is by no means unplayable, but it very much takes the credit away from the original. Earned in Blood has the same gameplay and character of RtH30, but without the same quality pacing, technical polish, or writing. RtH30 had problems but your squad's pathfinding in EiB make the game, at times, broken. Your squad would run in front of cover instead of hiding behind it, which goes against how you are supposed to play the game. EiB retains enough of the fun of the first game and fleshes out Red's story (who you play as), but it adds very little while taking a lot away.

After being pushed back many times, Hell's Highway finally arrived last month. I played through the previous two BiA games last week, which wore me out rather than got me excited for this long-awaited sequel. It is speaking to the quality of the game then, when I say that it re-immersed me entirely. After playing under the limited Unreal Engine, the Unreal 3 Engine has enabled Hell's Highway to bring this series to life. The game finally has the intense, scenario-driven battlefield of Call of Duty and has a story that is by far the best of the series. The game has some of the best cutscene direction and writing you'll find in a videogame this year (MGS4 certainly surpasses it, but c'mon!) The game has streamlined many issues of the previous games while bringing it up to speed with next-gen games, including vehicle sections and a cover system. The game still feels a bit too repetitive, but it makes good on the promise the series made in 05'. Its ironic then that now that it has caught up to the speed of Call of Duty 2, it must compete with the even more intense Call of Duty 4.

Where the series shines is in offering, as goofy as it sounds, a first person puzzle shooter that doesn't get old as long as it is addictive and accessible. You overlook your battlefield and decisively position your troops in the only way that is right, while hoping to get a couple kills of your own. Hell's Highway does little to build upon this (adding a bazooka team is a lot of fun, though), but it massively improves the experience with finesse and an actually good story. BiA could still enlist the help of a couple Band of Brothers writers, but Hell's Highway tells a complex and compelling story of mystery, hopelessness, and betrayal. There are some truly memorable moments in this game, but the writers still don't know how to tie it together like a Band of Brothers episode does. The story strives to be as bold and different as the gameplay, offering some real Apocalypse Now! moments, but it is still having trouble finding its true voice. Even so, the series continues to find originality and heart in a genre that so many have declared dead and dull. Hopefully, consumers will see Gearbox is offering an entirely new experience here and one that will be referenced in future shooters; hell, maybe even Call of Duty 6.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Mega Man 9 (Xbox360 - XBLA)

2006; Inti. Creates Co., Ltd.

Mega Man 9
might make your blood boil more than any other game in 2008, but at least you know its all your fault when you keep failing. Unlike Ninja Gaiden, there are no series of button combinations spread over 6 possible inputs--its back to basics with just a jump and fire button. You won't find yourself falling into the spikes below you because of a slipshod camera, but because your timing is off. You can blame the game for being too damn difficult, but you should blame yourself for not getting better at it. This is the appeal of Mega Man 9: it takes you back to an era when impossible difficulty was something you could inch at making possible with each successive try, rather then be lost in the midst of bad camera, bad controls, and bad design.

Since the Playstation/N64 era the industry has been plagued with half-assed retro game revivals, from Frogger to Pac-Man (both transformed platformers that make a Walmart employee simulator sound more exciting). With the new era of consoles offering online arcades, where many people have bought their old 8-bit favorites, Capcom saw a golden opportunity to give the fans what they've wanted: a trip down memory lane without the damnation of modernizing it. It's hard to get excited about a new Mega Man game since 3 of them come out every year, but Mega Man 9 will not be easily confused for any of the recent Battle Network games or the ill-fated Mega Man X series (which was basically Mega Man + more shit + less fun).
Mega Man 9 is a simple game with a simple promise, to be unrecognizable is quality and style from Mega Man 2. For those that have less of a nostalgic view of the series, it's pretty easy to consider it the best Mega Man. It strips down the visuals and controls of the games that came after 2, while adding some of the better gameplay elements of the later games (a shop where you can purchase items, using power-ups to access items or pass obstacles). There is little to complain about Mega Man 9 which isn't a part of the package. You can curse at it for being so cruel or complain about its minimalism, but it would be a fraud if it weren't so masochistic and modest.

It might seem silly but Mega Man 9 is a revolution! It's not something we have never seen before, but something we never thought we would see again. Depending on how well the game sells, it seems fair to declare games have reached the age where we can appreciate video games of an era for what they were. Maybe you aren't crazy for playing 8-bit tunes on your iPod and maybe I'm not crazy for preferring Dreamcast's rendering to Xbox's. It's more than nostalgia, its an art form defined by its limitations--would artists in the 15th century have only of used Photoshop if it were available. How sad would that be? Mega Man 9 shows a brave future that even film and music haven't found yet. A future where a Mega Man fan can go to sleep one day, dream about the classic sequel that was never made in 89', and wake up the next day to find it on his Xbox360.