Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Bionic Commando Rearmed Review (PSN and XBLA)

There comes a time when you really need to think about the game you're playing; you invest your time and money reading, watching then eventually playing a game. Sometimes you luck out and your decision was the right one, other times you're not so lucky and feel that you could have used that time more effectively elsewhere.

One fundamental aspect about downloadable games that while great for the money cautious person still poses a problem: the true try before you buy option. Demos only give you a small flavour, but sometimes you need to play more than just a modified portion of the game. Demos are never 'true' to form and in order to get the proper experience you need to play the game for a good amount of time before you can say to your self 'I like' or 'I don't like' a certain game.

This is where I begin with Bionic Commando Rearmed, the 'new' game from Capcom developed by Grin Studios. Bionic Commando Rearmed is the remake of the original NES game from the 80s. With Bionic Commando having an upcoming 3D-HD version just around the corner, what better way to help market that game then by releasing the original to the millions of gamers who did not have the chance to experience the game then.

I had never played a Bionic Commando game, be it the Nintendo, Arcade or even the Game Boy versions. I was not a fan of the series and knew very little about it. That quickly changed once I read about the remake and I was smitten with the games cool graphics, sound and campy but fun storyline. Now after playing it, I still believe that the game is incredibly cool to look at and with a solid soundtrack, but the games controls are so difficult to use that it turns the game into a disappointment of sorts.

The story behind Bionic Commando is simple. You play a Commando Solider sent to rescue a fellow solider and take down the opposing army, it's your typical 80s Cold-War movie. You have to take out the enemy and fight bosses in your search for your friend and the evil General leading the opposition.

Unlike other platform games of the past, rather than using the jump mechanic to get from point A to point B, Bionic Commando has your character, Nathan 'Rad' Spencer, use his Bionic Arm's grapple to swing from ledges. While the mechanic and the method is fantastic, the game's controls are so inconsistent that often you will get frustrated at the game for that reason alone. Most of the game requires you to swing from ledges and move around the stages with your grapple, but if you don't time your swings properly and fail to point your character's arm in the right angle; you'll miss your next section. This can sometimes be a minor set-back depending on where you are, but in other cases it will result in death.

The original game from what I've read was incredibly difficult and that doesn't change here. I am not sure if the difficult stemmed from the game's original controls but that is the case here. You can get pretty far in the game on shear luck. The boss battles at the end of each stage can be really easy if you move fast and determine their weak-spot. What I found difficult was actually getting to the bosses, thanks to the twitchy controls.
The missions of the game are based on a map with each level given a number. You have your enemy levels and your ally levels. In your ally levels, this is where you get extra material necessary to further yourself in the game and to unlock extras. When on the map screen, if you encounter an enemy convoy, you will play a Top-down level where you need to lead Spencer to the end to take out the main convoy to proceed. These are nice distractions, but sometimes when you're trying to just get to the next level may anger you. They are easy enough that you should only take a few minutes to complete.

The game also includes a series of Challenge Rooms with high-scores being uploaded to the Bionic Commando web-site. While great, these challenges are incredibly difficult and you will get frustrated even more so at the game. It might not be such a bad idea to play the challenge rooms to get better at the game, but be prepared to scream and yell at your screen when your 'AI' dies/fails.

Bionic Commando Rearmed is a great looking game. For a downloadable title, it is a really nice site to look at. While it's 2D, the characters all have 3D sprites and the environments also look stunning. This game makes you wish/hope that more classic 2D games from back in the day get re-made to look this good. The sound is also really enjoyable with a stunning electronic based soundtrack. The music is remixed from the original and really cool. If you enjoy the soundtrack, you can purchase the album off of iTunes.

My recommendation of this game is based entirely on your preference of the genre. If you enjoy the classics or were a fan of the original game, then you'll no doubt enjoy this game. But if you have never played this game before I must suggest you not only play the demo but try to find a friend who has it and play the game in more depth. You can't judge this game fairly before spending enough time with it. If you can get past the twitchy controls, then you will have a great time with it, but if you can't then this game is not for you.

I still have every intention on continue playing this game. It's not unplayable and while the controls are bad in my opinion, it is not to the point where you would say the game is unplayable. As long as you keep practicing and realize the game is intentionally difficult, you should feel good about yourself once you finally manage to complete it. If you can't take the stress, then I strongly suggest you play something else.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Uncharted: Drake's Fortune (Late) Review (PS3)

When Uncharted: Drake's Fortune was first revealed, I did not care too much for it. It looked like a male led 'Tomb Raider' type game. It didn't help that the first trailer that I saw made the game look some-what cheesy. With that, I had no intention on playing the game until I started to see and hear more of it. I tried the demo, liked what I saw and I decided to pick it up. Nathan Drake's adventure might a short one, but it was certainly a thrill ride from start to finish.

In Uncharted, you play as Nathan Drake, a treasure hunter of sorts who is hired by Elena Fisher to help her film a television documentary on Sir Francis Drake's tomb, which was rumoured to be somewhere in the waters. Upon finding the tomb, which Nathan already believed, discovers clues to the whereabouts of El Dorado, the fabled City of Gold and the true location of Sir Francis Drake's body. They along with Nate's friend Sullivan set off to find this and along the way many different things happen to them.

Uncharted plays a lot like both Prince of Persia and Tomb Raider. It is similar to Prince of Persia thanks to the large amounts of climbing and jumping you will have to do throughout the game; while the action and adventure is similar to that of Tomb Raider and even Gears of War. When you're not climbing walls, trees or buildings you will be solving puzzles and shoot wave upon wave of bad guys. The pacing is done right, but throughout the game you might be surprised at how difficult it is for you to get to a certain location, only to find that the enemy is already there waiting for you. It might seem weird, but taking its cue from Hollywood Movies, you just go with the flow.

The game is extremely cinematic. You'll encounter many cut-scenes throughout the game which help lead the story on. For the most part, while this is strictly fiction, there are only a few points late in the game that the realistic nature of the game loses its credibility. Again, this is trying to be an Indiana Jones type game (as were the Tomb Raider games), so the discovery late the game was expected.

The graphics in this game are absolutely incredible. Considering this game came out in late 2007, Naughty Dog Studios has made what I would say is still one of the best looking games to date. Metal Gear Solid might want to fight for that title, but the games graphics, water, character models and every possible environment both outdoor and indoor are extremely detailed and a sight to see. You will often just want to peer around with L2 just to look at and absorb the scenery.

The sound is also well done. All the voice actors work well and I didn't have a problem with any of them, including the stereotypical British Villain. It's sometimes often that a game that looks great will suffer from characters that sound like they don't belong, but that is not the case here. The outdoor environments sound great. Considering you are in the jungle, the sound of birds, animals and the rustling of trees and leaves help set the environment. The in-game music is also another positive aspect helping to add tension to hectic battles and incredible discoveries.

There is very little that hurts Uncharted. Outside of the length of the game, which should only take you about 8-12 hours to complete, there isn't much to complain about the game. Yes, there are some frustrating moments here and there, but that is expected with this type of game. You will encounter some points where Nathan fails to make an easy jump, either by under-jumping or going over; you will die from head-shots, but thankfully there are plenty of check-points that your frustration will only occur at a few key points. The last battle is a bit difficult but well done and the ending of the game is satisfying.

Thankfully, with the recent inclusion of trophies and unlockables already included in the game, there is some incentive to play through the game on multiple occasions. The bonus content is your standard fare of character art and in-game additions, so you may want to play the game a second or third time just for that content.

I loved Uncharted. For me the length was great with at no point feeling like the game was leading me on. If you were on the fence in the beginning, I strongly suggest you try it out and I am certain you will enjoy yourself. I was too, but once I started playing, I couldn't stop playing and you won't realize how quickly time flies. This is definitely the beginning of a great franchise with Nathan Drake; hopefully Sony will not over-do it, but I am eager to see what is next for him.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Braid Review (XBLA)

I tried to think of various ways to begin my critique of the Xbox Live Arcade game Braid. I thought about describing how it is so rare and refreshing to have a game that feels so simple but is so very deep. I even thought about describing the nature in which the downloadable game genre has opened the door to developers to take risks and engage the gamer, but to pick one over the other was unfair.
To be honest, outside of the fact that this game got a lot of slack for being a more-expensive than most downloadable titles, very little information was known about this simple sounding game. In reality, there is so much more to Braid that actually not knowing too much about it ends up being the reason why it is such a fantastic title.

Braid is a platform game, but unlike the 2D platform games that so many of us grew up with, it takes things a little differently. You begin the game as Tim, a guy who 'made a mistake' and is now searching for a Princess. Yes, it sounds a lot like Super Mario, and it doesn't hide the homage, including ending every world with a dinosaur telling you in some form that 'the Princess is in another castle'. Unlike in Mario where your goal was to go from Point A to Point B to reach the main boss, Braid actually has you rushing through points trying to pick up pieces to a puzzle for each world that will help you solve the reason for the princess' sudden disappearance. By completing each puzzle, you unlock steps to the top of a house that opens up the final stage of the game.

Throughout each world, there are puzzle pieces lying around and you must collect them to progress to unlock the true ending of the game. Each world is different and you must use different tactics to gather these pieces. when you start the game, the puzzle pieces are easy to get to, but as you progress through Braid, the difficulty increases.
In the past, most platform games would penalize you with death if you made a mistake (fell in the pit) or touched an enemy, but in Braid, if you make a mistake, all you have to do is hit the X button and rewind the game to fix that mistake. You will use the X button a lot to complete the game. At points where you need to make use of an enemy for a jump boost, if you miss it, simply rewind and try again.

As mentioned already, the 5 main worlds in the game are all extremely different and unbelievably fun to play. In one world you will need to use your shadow to help you reach the puzzle pieces and another world plays like its own rewind feature. If you move right, all the characters and objects move one way; move left and they 'rewind' back to their original spot. This is another reason why the game is so incredible, since there is so much originality in the level designs that it doesn't feel like a silly gimmick.

The graphics use a very fair-tale color and look to it. Tim is dressed in with a tie and sports coat, and while he is not extremely detailed, he and the enemies in the game look good for this type of game. You won't show off the game's graphics, but it is won't hurt your eyes looking at it for a prolonged period of time.
This is a game that needs to be played with the sound on and should not be played at a low setting. The sound is something I really enjoyed as the score works on every level. Often you may be tempted to just let the music play for prolonged periods of times. The music also is affected when you use your rewind and it works well at all times.

You can theoretically run through Worlds 2 through 6 in less than an hour and collect some easy 50 achievement points, but you're not learning anything about Tim and the reason he's searching for this princess. In order to get the complete story and of course to see the ending you will need to collect all 60 puzzle pieces. That should take you about 3-5 hours, but be prepared for some frustrating moments that may cause you to want to pull out your hair. Understand that this is not frustration because of bad controls, as the controls are fairly tight and responsive, but because you'll be angry at yourself for not being able to figure out the simple manoeuvres to get some of the puzzle pieces. While it may seem like some are impossible, the answer is always right there and can be solved if you take your time and analyze your environments carefully.

This is an absolutely incredible game and has continued the trend of fantastic and original titles of 2008. Going into too much detail about the game's underlying plot or explaining the puzzles will give away too much. The less you know and the more you discover on your own, the better the game will feel to you.
Yes there are two 'faults' to the game but in reality only one is a true deterrent to the game. The cost of the game is a bit high, but once you've actually gone through it, you will feel that your money was well spent. At 15-17 dollars (depending on where you buy this game (I live in Canada and the cost of Live Points is still not 1:1 with the US) it is still cheaper than most portable titles, and you're getting a lot more content for the cost.
The only real problem is that once you've completed the game and have seen the game's epilogue, there is no real reason to play it a second time. The only reason would be to try to get the last achievement (where you need to collect all the puzzle pieces in less than an hour).

If you can only buy one XBLA game this year, than I can easily say that Braid should be your choice right now. It is hands down one of the most original and engrossing games around, a true pleasure to play. Developers should take note of this game and realize that it is still very much possible to take a simple game in nature and create something magnificent. I cannot wait to see what the Developer of Braid does next.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

PixelJunk Monsters Review (PSN)

Both Sony and Microsoft in the attempt to attract every possible gamer have done a great job in offering plenty of niche titles that you might not normally have played. For the most part, the biggest surprises have been those that were made available either on Microsoft's Xbox Live Arcade service or Sony's PlayStation Network. Since both systems launches, we have been honoured at playing some titles such as Geometry Wars, Rez N+, Echochrome and Super Stardust HD Extreme just to name a few. In Sony's PSN, the PixelJunk series has also been one of the main players in the PSN.

PixelJunk Monsters is the second release by Q Games. The first game was PixelJunk Racers and recently, they released PixelJunk Eden. All three are very extremely different but all three are incredibly addictive with their game play and frustration. In PixelJunk Monsters, you play a 'hero' of sorts who is responsible to protect a village/home from waves upon waves of enemy monsters. The game is a strategy game, but rather than building units, your goal is to build towers of a number of different set-ups to stop the on-coming groups of monsters.

The game follows the same structure of PC based strategy games; you are placed on a map, must research and create your towers and hope for the best. At the beginning of each level, you are given a small amount of money which you can build your initial towers. From there, for every enemy you kill, you either will get money and in some situations, you will receive gems which will allow you to research better structures. Certain towers work well against specific enemies; some are strictly for air units, some for ground and then you have a couple that attack both. At the same time, while you might have a strong ground tower, it will be useless against fast moving enemies, so you really need to determine the best towers to build and where to place them on the map.

Since each level is different, it really does take strategy to figure out the best course of action. For the most part, the wave patterns are the same from level to level, but the layouts will force you to carefully place your towers and upgrade them properly. Like with other strategy games, your towers upgrade either by taking out enemies or if your character stands where the tower is and does his war-dance (the character does dance).

The level designs do get progressively more difficult as you progress through the game as do the strength of the waves of enemies. The first few waves will be easy to take care of, but once you get to the harder levels and stages, you will often end up losing because the strength in numbers of the enemies is just too great for your units to handle.

This is where the frustration sets in. Since the levels are relatively small, the path between where some enemies start to where your village is might only take a few seconds to reach. If you haven't upgraded your units or do not have a proper dispersion of towers, you will not last long. One saving grace is that once a specific enemy unit stops attacking (near the end of each stage), you can sell the units you have for them to create more powerful towers to stop the stages last wave, which is always a slow but extremely powerful monster.
Frustration will cause plenty of trail and error. Since each of the latter stages can take at least 30 minutes to complete, you will be really angry if your village dies when you've reached the last few waves.

The graphics and sound are typical PlayStation Network fare. The animation and art for the levels and characters are nice, but will not impress the average gamer. It is a unique style that works well for this type of game. The towers each are distinctively different, same with the enemies, so there won't be times when you cannot distinguish what you are looking at. As for the sound, it is the low-point of the game. It is extremely repetitive and annoying to the point that you will want to play this game either on mute, or wished there was a Custom Soundtrack option.

It is clear that PixelJunk Monsters is not for everyone but it is a game that should be at least tried. Thankfully at only 10 dollars, you are getting plenty of value in a PSN game. With 21 stages lasting anywhere from 10-40 minutes, you can accumulate a lot of playtime. There is also an expansion pack available that increases the amount of playable stages. You might be frustrated at times, but I strongly believe that you if you give it time and play it strategically, you will be satisfied with your purchase.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Soulcalibur IV Review (PS3 and Xbox360)

When it comes to fighting games, there seems to be three types of categories. The first is your over-the-top fighters like Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat which rely on special attacks with out-of-this world characters. The second category is the complete opposite with realistic actions and move-sets that use real fighting techiques, like Virtua Fighter. The third category is your fighting with weapons, and the game that best fits that group has been for many years the Soul series of games.

Soulcalibur for years has been among the best known and probably easiest to pick up fighting games around. You have your selection of characters, each with a weapon, and you duke it out. Your basic moves are the horizontal or vertical slash, kick or grab. Unlike other fighting games where you press back to block, here you press one of the face buttons. To do grabs or other special moves, you’ll have to combine face buttons, but for the most part, it’s very easy to learn, but will take time to master.

The Soulcalibur games in the past have contained your basic arcade mode and a story based mode. Soulcalibur IV continues this, but the story mode this time around is extremely short, with only 5 stages. In previous versions you would have spent a lot of time in this mode, but this time, it takes the back seat to the other modes and can be completed in about 10 minutes. The two modes which you’ll spend the most time with are the Tower of Lost Souls and the Character Creator.

In Tower of Lost Souls, you take a number of characters (depending on the level) and travel either up or down a ‘Tower’ of enemies. The motr levels you go up, the extra in-game money you receive and bonus stuff you’ll unlock. This is a great and extremely challenging mode since as you progress further up or down (depending on the mode you select) the characters get much stronger and challenging. You will get frustrated, but it is a strong addition to the game. As you get further in the game, you will unlock points/money to use in the other solid mode, Character Creator.

Soulcalibur IV gives you the ability to essentially create a character from scratch. You’ll take a template and then you can adjust just about anything from armour, weapons and abilities which will affect your character that can be used in various modes, including online. There are already a plethora of interesting characters created by people that include famous fighters from other games and even a few super-heroes (check out YouTube for examples). At the same time, you can adjust characters already available and unlock characters that are not available from the start.

Just because there is a Character Creator option, does not mean that the selection of available characters is weak. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. All the characters, both returning and new, work really well. The only down-side to the characters is the bonus characters: Yoda, Vader and The Apprentice. Yoda just seems out of place, Vader is ok, but nothing rspecial while The Apprentice seems a bit too powerful for his own good. All three look great, but it’s better to stick to the regular cast when playing either against the computer or with your friends.

The graphics in the game are great but nothing absolutely incredible. The character models work well and so do the environments, as you would expect with a Namco title. A nice addition to the game is that character armour deteriorates as you fight. If your character attacks a certain part of the body (head, torso or legs) repeatedly, your opponent will lose that part of armour. This is a great little addition since you can essentially turn your opponent completely ‘nude’ and dish out massive damage.

The game’s sound is also great but I preferred to play the game with the Japanese voiceovers rather than the English ones. This is ok, except for the fact that if you play with either of the two bonus characters (Vader/Yoda and the Apprentice), they don’t speak in their normal language. The game’s famous Voice-over is still there and continues to narrate the game as you play. The in-game music is also still quite memorable and fits with the levels (meaning the Star Wars levels have famous Star Wars songs when playing in them).

Soulcalibur moves into the world of online fighting and thanks to the Character Creator, you can really have some interesting fights. Because of that fact, you might not actually fight against one of the main characters. The lag is hit-or-miss but for the most part, you’ll be able to play some decent matches, unless you have a ‘drop’ with the person you are playing against.

It is a bit of a disappointment that the Story mode was reduced, but thanks to the Tower of Lost Souls, Character Creator and Online play, there is enough use in this game that you will be spending a lot of time with it. You’ll want to play the other options because of what it will unlock with the Character Creators.

Thanks to the to the easy to learn controls, new players in the series will not take too long to get used to the controls and at the same time, veterans will have a lot options to master the game, giving it that great balance for all. I can easily recommend this Fantastic game and suggest if you have even the slightest interest in fighting games that you pick this up. With small selection of fighting games available right now, you will be playing this until the next Mortal Kombat or Street Fighter IV hits the streets and that won’t be for at least another few months.