Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Assassin's Creed Late Review (PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360)

What if historians could use our DNA to uncover the secrets of the past? Well that’s the premise of one of 2007’s most talked about games, Assassin’s Creed. While the game was released a while ago, I only recently managed to play the game and wanted to experience what the hype was all about.

Technically you are Desmond Mason, a bartender who is apparently the descendant of a famous Assassin, Altair. it seems that, the events carried out by our ancestors are embedded in our DNA and are passed from generation to generation. An interesting concept, but definitely restrictive, since the moment of conception, that data is stuck, so anything they do afterwards cannot be transferred. Since Altair is essentially a relative of Desmond, he carries some vital information that certain people need. Desmond is ‘kidnapped’ and agrees to let a doctor (Dr. Vidic) and his assistant (Lucy) to take a ‘look’ at this information to try to uncover some secrets from the past.

While you are Desmond, you become Altair when you take control of him during these memory blocks. Your goal as Altair, is to complete tasks given to your by your Assassin’s Guild. You begin your memories with an unsuccessful mission where you are punished and you must regain your skills. You proceed to take-out important figures and solve the mystery of your environments. As you complete these Assassinations, you regain your skills (similar to every Metroid game).

The game takes place during the Crusades and all the missions begin with you traveling to one of three Middle Eastern City: Acre, Damascus or Jerusalem. Upon arrival in the city, you must travel to your Assassin Bureau to get your assignment. Once that is given, you’ll need to find certain people through the city to get more information. In some cases, you might need to pick-pocket a person. In others, you will need to over-hear a conversation. Once you have enough information, you return to the Bureau, are given permission to take out your target and you execute your man. It is an interesting method, but pretty mundane and you’re essentially doing the same routine over and over again. Of the various investigations you need to do, the easiest ones (Pick-Pocketing and Eavesdropping) are the ones you’ll do first and since you only need to do three to have permission to assassinate your target, it can make things a bit easy.

While the game ‘can’ be easy, it’s actually quite not, thanks in part to the horrible controls and auto targeting that hamper a large chunk of the game. If you encounter a problem in the game, it will be because of the extremely sensitive controls. Since you need to do a lot of climbing and jumping, the touchy controls can cause you to miss an easy jump, jump to the wrong ledge or have a problem trying to grab a ledge. The controls also pose a problem when attacking, in particular when you have a lot of characters on the screen. You will often encounter groups of 3, 5 or even more guards and it can be problematic trying to target them thanks to the far from perfect auto targeting. If and when you do ‘die’ (you technically do not die, but you need to restart the memory: it’s the past, so the events have already occurred) it will be because of the controls.

The controls do make the game a pain, but thankfully the game looks great in terms of the environments. All the cities look stunning and sometimes you might just want to admire the architecture. The character graphics are good, but at times seem extremely stiff, especially with Lucy and Dr. Vidic. The cut-scenes are done well and look good, but it’s a bit of a disappointment that the movements of NPCs are not fluid and realistic.

The sound department is nice and fits the time-frame of the game. While the voice-acting is not bad, it’s not that good either. You’ll get annoyed after hearing the beggar-woman or the random character repeat the same thing over and over again.

This is a Good game, but because of those pesky controls, be prepared for some challenges along the way, and may turn off most from this title. The premise of the story original and the sandbox options (climbing ledges to synchronize, saving pedestrians, etc…) does give the game a lot of longevity. It will take you a good 15-20 hours to complete the game and if you’re playing on the 360, you’ll want to spend the time to find the flags and completing all the tasks to unlock the achievements. I would also recommend playing this game on the 360 over the PS3 for that reason alone. It looks good on both platforms but the collecting and extra tasks are better suited for those looking to improve their GamerScore on the 360.

It’s almost a certainty that there will be a sequel some-time down the road, and if they can fix the extremely sensitive controls and stiff character animations, the series will be absolutely incredible. Until then, try this one out, have some fun, but keep your voice when you want Altair to climb a wall instead of using it to jump off it.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Grand Theft Auto IV Review (PS3 and Xbox 360 Review)

Videogames are the new form of story-telling. When done correctly, they can engage the viewer into a world that is usually better than their own. Even with all the controversy surrounding the series, Grand Theft Auto has always done a great job in connecting the player with the characters, storylines and environments. The open play gives players essentially the controls to do things at their own pace. Yes, you will have to do some mandatory tasks to open up the entire ‘world’. Once you’ve done that, nothing holds you back from non-stop enjoyment.

Grand Theft Auto IV doesn’t build on the III canon and offer the gamer an entire country to play with, but rather takes us back to the city that started all the hype: Liberty City. The people behind the game decided to give us a city with so much to offer and so much detail that you will forget about the fact that San Andreas gave us an entire state to play with. The Burroughs that makes up Liberty City are all extremely well developed with plenty of places to see and things to do. Feel like getting something to eat, you’re not too far from a variety of eateries including hot dog vendors at various street corners. Want to play pool, darts or even bowling? You’ve got options. Heck, just want to sit back, relax and have a laugh, drop by the comedy club where Katt Williams is performing live. You might not be able to buy property, but you have so many other things at your disposal make up for that.

The GTA III canon of games all had great and engaging storylines. You had your basic story, based on getting back at those who ‘screwed’ you over and along the way, you meet up with people who you at first trusted but later had to ‘take care of’ later on, or those who you thought were ‘slime balls’ but were there when you needed them the most. GTA IV is no different. This time, instead of playing as an American, we get the opportunity to play as immigrant Niko Bellic, a former soldier who fought during the Bosnian Civil War during the mid-90s. Niko has had some problems back home in the Balkans and made the decision to come to America after reading the great stories he heard from his cousin, Roman. While we’re led to believe that his reasons to come to America were to ‘Live the American Dream’ we slowly realize that Niko is there for revenge.

Not wanting to go into too much detail, during Niko’s service in Bosnia, something went wrong and people he cared for died. He feels that the person who back-stabbed his unit is hiding in Liberty City and he wants to find them. The goal in the game is to find this person, but it won’t be easy for an Illegal immigrant with no money and a cousin who told grand stories of success, but actually owes more than he has. This is why Niko needs to be-friend various people and essentially become a goon-for-hire in order to get those with power to help him find the person he is looking for.

Niko is not your stereotypical main character. He’s not American and doesn’t connect to the average American. You need to understand the fact that he is different to understand his actions. If you accept him as a foreigner and his manners, or the fact that he tends to be very accepting of people, you will turn to love him for what he is. There are some great moments where we see just how difficult it can be for someone who doesn’t speak American English to understand the slang of the area.

While all the characters you interact with in the game are all extremely unique and well-done, the storyline does tend to drag on a bit. This may understandable since anyone would have to do a lot of hard work to get to that ultimate goal. The ‘main’ objective for Niko slowly becomes the sub-plot and his ultimate finale deals with an entirely different issue and character. This is common with the GTA III canon, but this could have been a great opportunity for RockStar to do things a bit differently and surprise us. While the levels are great, there are some that just don’t make sense as to why Niko would agree to do them. One particular mission, which is also probably the best mission ever made (an homage to the film Heat), really wasn’t necessary for Niko to take part of but was an pleasure to play. The game also puts us into situations where decisions must be made and those choices will affect the game later down the road. These are nice because it forces the gamer to make a tough decision. What is impressive is that other characters react differently depending on the choices you make.

With GTA IV entering the HD era, the graphics and sound in the game are absolutely incredible. Everything from the cars, buildings and people are all extremely well detailed. The pedestrians might not look super crisp, they still look good enough that you may at times just want to stand at a busy corner and admire the scenery. The graphics are great, but it’s the dynamic lighting that most people will talk about. The natural lighting changes as time goes by. Play at noon in game, and it’s extremely bright; play at 2 am, and it will be awfully difficult to do anything in any dark environments. This can be frustrating at times, especially with some levels where you need to see where you’re going, but it is extremely realistic. It actually ended up hurting my enjoyment of the finale as I finished it late in the evening (in game time).

The sound is also really good. While being of Serbian Decent and fluent in the language, I was disappointed with the accents of the actors who spoke in Serbo-Croatian, both their Slavic speeches and even the attempt at the English accents of a foreigner. It wasn’t bad enough that it dampened the story but sometimes I wish foreign actors were used instead of American based ones. Other than that, the characters deliver their lines well and you really feel like you’re watching a Gangster Movie. The sounds of the cars, the street noise and everything else that adds to the ambiance of the game are extremely top-notch and make all the environments extremely believable. The music in the game continues the great tradition of the previous series with dozens of great tunes and something for everyone; Jazz, Russian, Rock, Hip-Hop and Reggae just to mention a few. Also, the great talk-radio stations are there as well.

GTA IV is absolutely Stunning and I loved it. Yes, it is frustrating at times, but games are supposed to be challenging, it is why we play them. The main storyline should take the average gamer 30-40 hours to complete, but the amount of extra content available at your finger tips doubles the playtime. Because of what the game has to offer, no one can fault you at wanting to take some time away from the story to watch some TV (in game), clean up the streets (helping the police to rid the city of its other criminals), dating a potential future wife (or ex-wife) or playing the absolutely enjoyable multiplayer mode, there is something for everyone.

We might not have gotten double the size of San Andreas, but we did get a Grand Theft Auto game that does satisfy the fan of the series. There are problems in the lighting and some glitches will appear here and there, but it is never to the point that you give up. If you’re not a fan of the series, I really feel that this could change that since Niko and the supporting staff is really well-done with not a bad or out of place character in the bunch. The game does take some time before you hit the really juicy parts, but once you start to have fun, you won’t want to stop. Like GTA III before it, this will force other game companies to copy its success and will change the face of gaming in the future.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Super Smash Brothers Brawl Review (Wii)

Has there ever been something that you wanted to like, but the more time you invested in it, the more you realized that you just did not enjoy it? Be it a book, a movie or even a person, chances are we’ve all had this occur to us. In terms of gaming, the first game I invested so much time into a flawed product was Sony’s The Getaway. On paper, the previews gave this game a lot of promise, but once I finally started playing it, I just could not enjoy it the way I was hoping to. I completed the game and invested the hours necessary to see it through, but it was a very difficult process with many frustrating moments.

Since then, I’ve been extremely cautious when investing my time and money on a specific title. Thanks to our freedom of choice, if there was anything I was hesitant about, I made sure to get enough information before I made my choice. Now in 2008, I have encountered the next game that I thought I would enjoy, but after spending a solid amount of time with, I realized that it’s just not for me.

As a Wii Owner, the selection of great, high-class titles is few and far between. In fact, it’s actually the lesser known titles that have ended up being the true gems to the system (at least in my opinion). Before Super Smash Brothers Brawl was released, I had never played a game in the series. I never owned a Nintendo64 and I didn’t bother to buy Melee when I twice owned a GameCube. With Brawl being my first experience, I thought that this would be a fresh change of pace since this is clearly labelled as a fighter unlike anything else.

Super Smash Brothers is fairly simplistic. Unlike regular fighting games, where your objective is to deplete your opponent’s health to zero, here you actually want to hit your opponent enough times so that they are thrown off screen and cannot return to the stage. It’s nice that you can take 200% or more damage and still be in a fight, but it isn’t a system without its flaws. Kicking your opponent off the screen is nothing new as Soul Calibur and the Virtua Fighter series both have that goal, but here, that is the only way to win.

The controls in the game, while easy to learn are not always responsive. To jump you have two options, either press up on the control pad (simple enough) or press ‘c’ on the nunchuk. While that sounds simple, it’s not always responsive. There were many times in the game where my character on relatively low hit percentage (less than 75%) would end up dying because I could not jump to reach the ledge. This wouldn’t be a problem, except for the facts that it happened often and the computer’s character, which had a higher hit percentage, would still be able to recover and keep on fighting. To be fair, it does vary from character to character, but the system doesn’t work right.

The controls in the game are as stated before, fairly simple and thankfully there are many options. You can play it with only the Wii Remote, the Wii Remote with the nunchuk, the classic controller, or if you have a GameCube controller, you can use that. It’s nice to have options, but I really from my experience, the best controller option is the GameCube. It’s really disappointing that in order to enjoy a Wii game, you need to use the controller of the last generation. If you don’t have access to that controller, then playing this game will not be that fun.

The game itself only essentially uses two buttons. Looking at the Wiimote and nunchuck control scheme, your ‘A’ Button is your primary attack while the ‘B’ button is for your secondary or special attack. Depending on the way you press those buttons and in which direction, your attacks will vary. For example, press ‘B’ and down with Samus and she will drop a bomb; press ‘B’ and up and she will do a lightening summersault (I believe that is what it’s called). It doesn’t take long to learn your character’s moves set, so the learning curve is next to none.

There are good things about the game. There are a lot of characters to choose from, once you’ve unlocked them all. If you’re a Nintendo fan of any stature, you will enjoy the selection and the possibilities of being able to duke it out with Samus, Link, Mario, Captain Falcon, or my new favourite Pitt (from Kid Icarus, a game I really do hope is announced at E3 2008). While there are a lot of characters, most of them, including Solid Snake and Sonic the Hedgehog, are locked and must be unlocked by playing the game over an extended period of time. This is expected and a common thing for most fighting games, so there is no complaint there, except that for both Snake and Sonic, being locked is the same if Soul Calibur IV decides to lock Darth Vader. If you’re new to this game or have friends over and they want to play with Snake, unless you’ve unlocked him, you’ll have to play for a while to get him as a character.

The graphics and sounds are top-notch and I cannot hate on them. The character models and the environments look great and the sound, for a game that has no voice-work, is also up there. If this was in High Definition, it would make any person salivate, but even in SD, this looks really nice.

Brawl does offer a lot in terms of unlockables and gameplay modes. You have your regular arcade mode, events, training but the meat of the game is The Subspace Emissary. It’s an interesting way to give you a single-player adventure in a fighting game, but it might not appeal to those who just want to fight. Also, in order to unlock characters in the game, you really do need to play this mode, so if you are not enjoying it, getting all the characters will be an extremely longer process.

Even with all that is good with the game (graphics and options), I just could not enjoy this game enough to recommend it. In my honest opinion, I think this a disappointing game unless you’ve played previous games in the past, own multiple game-cube controllers or have enough friends willing to help you unlock the characters. This is strictly a fan-service type of game that is catered to the teenagers who played the original back in 1999 or enjoy playing something extremely simple. I gave this game an honest chance, spending plenty of time with all its options and I just continued to get frustrated with not knowing what I was doing right or wrong and still ending up the same way: dying a few times before beating a Hand and seeing a small CG clip of the character I used.

If you’re a fan of the series, you’ll pick this up, enjoy it and continue with your normal life. If you’re new to it, like I was, your best bet is to first rent this and see if you’re willing to invest your time and energy, then go out and spend the 40-50 dollars on it.

I really wanted to like this game but sometimes it’s better to be honest with yourself rather than pretending you’re having a good time.