Month: March 2011

Swarm (PS3) Review 1

Swarm (PS3) Review

Hothead Games spent most of 2010 bringing us multiple versions of DeathSpank, but that particular development chapter is closed and Swarm, the studio’s latest project, yields far more disappointing results. Swarm simply lacks focus, so while there are plenty of interesting ideas it never amounts to anything coherent.

The basic premise behind Swarm is simple. You control the swarm, an amorphous blue mass composed of fifty independent swarmites, and your goal is to platform your way to the end of each stage while racking up as many points as possible. Points come in the form of collectible pink molecules, and you can build up a multiplier if you grab a lot of molecules or kill a lot of swarmites in succession.

While you’re able to tell the swarm where to go, each member is a discreet entity and they’ll interpret your commands as nothing more than vague suggestions. Swarmites will get stuck behind walls and will occasionally wander off in no particular direction, so it actually feels like you’re controlling a horde comprised of fifty individuals instead of a single blob that’s been animated fifty times.

It’s an impressive AI accomplishment, and it’s also a surprisingly entertaining gameplay mechanic that lends itself to a number of intriguing possibilities. For instance, you can tell the swarm to spread out or form a cluster, build a swarmite tower, use the swarm as a battering ram, and even split the swarm into two groups so that one can take the high road while the other takes the low.

The swarmites have the survival instincts of so many blue lemmings – they’ll die if they touch anything – but the developers have taken that into account and it’s easy to appreciate the potential for the concept. You can press forward as long as one swarmite remains, which means that the swarm is at once your health bar and an expendable resource and some obstacles can only be cleared if you’re willing to make a sacrifice.

The problem – and it’s a serious problem – is that Swarm lacks the deft touch needed to bring all of its contradictory design elements together. It’s the sort of game that forces you to slow down in order to speed up, and the counterintuitive give and take permeates every aspect of the design. You’ll earn medals for finding spectacular ways to die, but that’s also a good way to guarantee that you won’t complete your objectives.

It’s frustrating, because it feels like Hothead has built a game that’s at odds with its own AI. Even though Swarm only cares about points, the mechanics are well suited for a standard move-right-to-win platformer and there are a couple solid boss fights and numerous segments that require some serious skill. Making it to the end of a stage will often feel like an accomplishment.

Unfortunately, the game won’t necessarily agree. The points threshold needed to advance to the next level is often set so unreasonably high that it becomes a way to arbitrarily withhold content until you’ve replayed each level half a dozen times. As you’d expect, that makes for a rather tedious experience. Most people will get discouraged at Stage 3, and there’s no reason to keep playing unless you’re obsessed with leader boards.

There’s also no story, so those entry barriers disrupt the usual work-and-reward payoff that defines most games. You need extreme multiplier boosts in order generate the necessary points, but once an item is gone, it’s gone forever, so there’s no way to recover a multiplier once it’s worn off. Passing through one of the many mid-level checkpoints is ironically one of the fastest ways to lose a million points if you can’t stay alive until the next one and it can lead to a bizarre gameplay limbo in which it’s impossible to unlock the next level.

Games with no win condition obviously aren’t much fun, and Swarm exacerbates the issue with some severe technical deficiencies. The jump mechanic doesn’t work – the same button combination will often lead to two completely different outcomes – and the controls aren’t tight enough to allow you to do anything with any reliability. The level design mocks the very notion of depth perception, and the landscape seems to change as frequently as the whims of the swarmites.

Swarm is also an excessively busy game, and the clutter makes it even tougher to figure out what’s going on. Some of the later levels will send you through gauntlets lined with explosives and traps, and once the first bomb goes off there’s no way to distinguish the living swarmites from the blue paint stains and miscellaneous debris. You’ll try to move forward only to discover that every single swarmite is dead and you honestly won’t know how it happened.

Swarm is ultimately too difficult for the casual player and too random for the hardcore fan, and skill will only take you as far as the end credits. If you’re planning to assault the leader boards – and Swarm is all about the leader boards – you’re going to need a lot of luck. All of the collectibles will have to bounce a certain way and you’ll have to avoid all of the out-of-nowhere instant deaths that render fifty lives irrelevant.

Despite the flaws, however, Swarm is at least consistently funny. The cartoonish gallows humor begins on the title screen when the capitalized DO NOT PRESS warning leads to predictably comical results, and there’s no denying that the swarmites are delightfully squishy. There are plenty of amusing ways to turn them into discarded jelly donuts.

That charm just isn’t enough to carry an entire game. The various elements don’t hold together, so Swarm adds up to less than the sum of its parts and the resulting mess isn’t much fun to play. It might appeal to people who like speed runs of Battletoads, but that’s a fairly limited audience and I can’t recommend it even for $15.


Source Code (2011) Review

With the stink of the god awful Battle: Los Angeles still lingering in theaters, it’s such a relief to know that science fiction can be done right in the form of Duncan Jones’ Source Code. The film represents what the genre should be, not simply an excuse for large-scale ray gun battles (even though those can be pretty fun), but an opportunity to explore complex thought experiments.

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Crysis 2 (PS3) Review 1

Crysis 2 (PS3) Review

A few months back a friend of mine went on a date.

“How’d it go?”

She described a perfectly pleasant date. They went to a nice resturant, the atmosphere was alright, and there were no embarrassing gaffes on either side. But the real problem soon came out. He was described as “very pretty” but little else. It wasn’t that he was stupid, either. He just had nothing interesting to say. But boy could she just look at him all day.

Ladies and gentleman, Crysis 2.

And it is pretty. Terribly pretty. Let’s get this out of the way: This is a pretty game. Nobody can dispute how well rendered its destruction is. The game takes place in modern day New York, and walking around in the sunlight, there’s a beauty to everything. Watch as the wind whips up some newspapers and throws them around. Observe the way the tree’s limbs gently sway in the wind. Alas, soon you’ll have to start shooting people in the face.

You have to shoot people in the face because you’re a hardened marine sent to New York City to help evacuation efforts after an alien disease/invasion  has made the Big Apple into a war zone. (Though it’s still probably better than it was in the 70s). Soon after a botched beach insertion , you’re given a suit of super armour  and tasked with stopping the invasion , while contending with mercs who are also out to stop you .

The nanosuit super armour conceit gives the game flexibility. The suit allows for superhuman feats of strength and speed, but all these abilities drain its limited battery. Standing still or being otherwise unremarkable recharges the suit. The suit’s primary uses are stealth and armour mode. Stealth mode’s merits are obvious but shouldn’t be undervalued. With the simple press of a trigger, you become invisible to the world, until the battery runs out or you decide to open fire. The game’s AI attacks and swarms your last known location preventing slow drawn out battles. The draining battery enforces a swift, methodical style which fits perfectly with the open stages.

If you’re looking for something a bit more blunt and brutal, there’s armour mode. Play as a tank and brute force your way through the game. Bullets drain the battery instead of health. Health is also recharged by the suit. As long as you’re not getting shot, you’ll heal up.

Both modes are equally enjoyable. The maps are large enough to allow both styles of play, and usually within the same space. Cars and barricades litter the landscape, along with plenty of nooks and cranny. The game allows for cover-based gameplay, but it’s much more engaging to turn the landscape against the enemy, and making the most of your nanosuit. Likewise, the different enemies, both alien and human, can be approached head on or stealthy, and also attack different, encouraging even more variations in play style.

Some small tactical decisions are left up to you, but, for the most part, the game is terribly linear and rigid. Every step of the way, you’re told what to do, even when some of the set pieces demand to be explored. The game’s tactical assessment mode, accessed with the simple press of a button, makes things even clearer, highlighting places of interest. Oh, I can snipe from that window three floors up, eh? Thanks for the tip. If something interesting is happening the game asks you to tap triangle and watch, instead of letting you decide what you should be looking at.

The multiplayer, too, is derivative, stealing the best pages of the Call of Duty playbook. Play a few rounds, get experience, level up, get new abilities. The only new wrinkle is that the suit upgrades as well based on how often its used. The standard deathmatch, capture the flag, domination are here, but on this well trodden ground, the game’s possibilities really come out here. The ebb and flow of the game relies on how well you can balance your suit’s power, and how well you know the spaces. Likewise, jumping high and running fast drain juice. The stealth mode eliminates most of the rewards of camping, and risks turning you into a sitting duck. The game is fast and active. There’s a lot of satisfaction running full speed, sliding under a tractor trailer, jumping over it, and popping off a headshot. It’s not as tightly structured as the rest of the game. By allowing its wide open arenas to be just that, instead of set pieces that usher you from one bland plot point to another, a bit of fun enters into things. We are no longer bound by what the developer wants; we can play.

There’s nothing new here, but you will enjoy the time you put in. The story is what it is. It gets you from point A to point B and emotionally flat lines. I’m hard pressed to care about the events as they happened and even in retrospect, the entire game seems like a seven hour shaggy dog story. The game admits this itself. During cutscenes an intrusive prompt asks you to press X to get back into the game. Cut the filler. Who needs it? Stuff happens, then more stuff happens, the end.

It all stems from the larger issue of the game’s blandness. It takes all these parts from other games and blends them into a fine gruel. The game takes place in New York City, one of the most vibrant and distinct cities in the world and manages to make it a series of torn up roads, bland high rises, and military blockades. It pillages the multiplayer from Call of Duty. Even the score is by Hans Zimmer, the king of generic Big Heroic Music (who also helped score Modern Warfare 2). In theory, this should make it the best game ever, but instead strips the game of any risk, any personality. It just exists.

And what of my friend? A few more dates, but nothing panned out. She had seen everything there was to see.

Pokémon: Black and White (DS) Review 1

Pokémon: Black and White (DS) Review

When the first images of Pokémon: Black and White appeared and Zoroark, a dark, fox-like Pokémon was revealed an unbridled giddiness ran through my core. A new game with over 150 more Pokémon to collect! The prospect was so enticing that I could hardly wait for the game to arrive. One year and 20 hours of game time later, my giddiness is more deflated than a sleepy Drifloon. For about a year, I anticipated the game’s release hinging on every new reveal and article out of Japan. There is more to do in this game than in any of the previous games. There are more features, drastic changes and Pokémon, yet the experience somehow feels lacking. After 15 years, could the series finally be reaching its limit? My trek through the Unova region began very simply. It began like any other Pokémon game.

As in every other game in the series you – a young trainer – are summoned to adventure through the world of Pokémon. The game introduces you to Cheren and Bianca, two of your childhood friends who play integral roles in the game’s plot. Professor Juniper has tasked you three with completing a Pokédex, an encyclopaedia of Pokémon. To do this, she has given you a choice of three starter Pokémon one of who will act as your companion. There’s the fiery Tepig, a small pig-like creature. The grass-snake Snivvy, who looks slightly smug. And the slightly teddy-bear like sea otter Oshawott. You pick one of the three, give your new friend a nickname and together begin your adventure in the new region of Unova, fighting trainers and Gym Leaders all along the way. It’s the same Pokémon. It is as it has always been. Don’t fix what ain’t broke, at least that’s how some gamers feel.

There’s an opinion that Pokémon: Black and White is pretty much the same game as every other in the series. It’s partially true. Slight changes in the formulaic, dynamic battle themes and a number of battle types keep things fresh, but overall little has changed. Some additions like the C-Gear, which allow players to use Wi-Fi functionalities any time at the cost of battery life, add a new online aspect to the game. Other additions like rotation and three-on-three battles change things up, but feel slightly gimmicky in comparison to the two-on-two battles introduced in Pokémon: Ruby and Sapphire. While the game provides a variety of battle types, it is pretty much the same song and dance. A trainer meets your eye, a battle ensues and then it’s a game of wit, strategy and timing. Enough has been done to keep the game fresh for veterans of the series, and for newcomers it’s a world unlike any other to explore.

Unova is expansive. Mega-cities, small towns and caves dot the map given to you by Professor Juniper. As I wrote above, there’s more to do in Unova than in any other region. There are more NPCs to speak to, mini-quests to complete and areas to explore, but of these I completed only a fraction of them. There’s a lot to explore, but on the whole I found myself using repels to get through caves, groaning when I had to fight trainers and feeling a sense of depressed catharsis when I beat Gym Leaders.  Eventually I found myself travelling on x-route, to fight x-Gym Leader in x-town, so I could get to the Elite Four and beat the game. Pokémon: Black and White began trudging on like a Snorlax. It doesn’t help that the game’s story is insubstantial. Team Plasma is attempting to free the world’s Pokémon. However, their bid for Pokémon emancipation comes at a quite hypocritical fault: they use Pokémon to battle you. The prophecy doesn’t come true, Team Plasma is a two-faced organization, N – the enigmatic leader of Team Plasma – disappears with either Zekrom or Reshiram, depending on your version, and the world is saved. It’s insubstantial and the story elements like the mini-quests failed to catch my attention.

I beat my version of Pokémon Black with one-single-Pokémon: my starter Tepig. His name is Horace and he’s now at level 90. I could give you a rundown of his stats, but all you really need to know is that the Gym Leaders, the Elite Four and Cynthia were defeated by him with the help of a few team mates and a lot of items. There was no grinding involved in his upbringing and only a few stat boosting items – mostly pp ups – were used on him. You could boil this seemingly game-breaking issue down to play style, pacing or simply my impatience, but in a game that offers you a choice of over 150 creatures to collect and feeling no urge to do so, one has to examine why. There are two major issues: gameplay and aesthetics.

After I beat the third Gym Leader, Burgh, I was already at Level 30 with Horace. Burgh, like so many other Gym Leaders, has a team that is susceptible to fire-type Pokemon. The Leader before him, Narcene, had an all normal-type team against my fire-fighting Pignite, Tepig’s evolved form. Even the Leaders, who had teams designed to be super-effective against Horace, fell when I applied a new TM or used a variety of items to keep my Pokémon going. When you can beat the entire game with one Pokemon there’s an issue, among many others, that needs to be dealt with.

There’s a game I’d like to play with you. Say: Bulbasaur, Charmander and Squirtle. Each of these names is catchy and descriptive. Each name gives the player a short, but sweet rundown of the Pokémon and what it looks like. When you say Charmander you can see how the parts of his name are integrated into his design. He’s a fiery salamander, plain and simple. Now say: Alomomola, Darmanitan and Pawniard. What kind of description can you discern from these names? Like the names, Unova’s Pokémon suffer from a bit of design fatigue.

Great design usually entails a kind of simplicity. Vanillite – an ice cream cone Pokémon – defied what I had known about Pokémon design. I reasoned with myself that Unova, a largely commercialized region, similar to the United States, would have similarly industrialized Pokémon. It made sense, but then Pokémon after Pokémon suffered from this same colourful, curvy, complexity. The simplicity that is a Diglett will always trump the complicated form of a Drilbur.

I’ve been a fan of the series all of my life. When the first game was released in 1998, Pokémon: Red and Blue changed how I viewed portable role-playing games. Pokemon: Black and White retains the elements that made the series great, but more and more the idea of “don’t fix what ain’t broken” is creating more cracks in an already broken Shellder. Ok, enough with the puns. The bottom line is this: Pokemon: Black and White is a good game. It’s new, colourful, dynamic and a great addition to the series, but if you’re a fan looking for something out of the norm, look elsewhere. It is derivative, but that’s Pokémon. That unbridled giddiness lies dormant deep down in the core of my person. I know that when the next iteration of the series arrives, I will be just as excited as I was for Pokémon: Black and White.


Playing With Portals: An Interview With Valve’s Doug Lombardi

When I first experienced the student project Narbacular Drop, little did I know its revolutionary mechanic would go on to make such waved in the gaming industry. In its prototype form the original Portal featured bizarre demon doors, a princess protagonist, and several turtle-riding sequences. Little did I know that these were the humble beginnings to one of gaming’s greatest rags-to-riches stories.

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Sucker Punch (2011) Review

There are moments in Zack Snyder’s latest multimillion dollar pulp epic Sucker Punch that combine so many guilty pleasure elements simultaneously that it’s impossible not to at least smile. Scenes with scantily clad sexpots with stripper names fighting zombie Nazis with samurai swords and handguns certainly hold some appeal.

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Yakuza 4 (PS3) Review 1

Yakuza 4 (PS3) Review

Bad Ass X 4

There’s something very strange about the Yakuza series. If ever there was a game that perfectly portrayed the vast difference in gaming cultures across oceans, this game is it. On the far side of the Pacific, it’s a massive, pop culture phenomenon that is the Japanese equivalent of Halo or Call of Duty, with four games in the main series, a massive fan base, merchandise up the wazoo, and even famous models and porn stars vying to compete to appear as hostesses in each new iteration of the game. Here in the West, it’s that Crazy Japanese Game that barely anyone knows about. And now the fourth release of the series is finally here, and unfortunately, once again, it’s unlikely that many will realize how good it is.

Kiryu Is Back With Friends

In this fourth outing of the game, and its second on the PS3—not counting 17th century Kenzan spin off—Sega takes a slightly different approach to the story. Where past games had heroic Ex-Yakuza member Kiryu Kazuma going solo, he now shares the story with three other main characters; Akiyama, an idiosyncratic money lender who puts potential clients through life-altering tests, Saejima, an escapee from death row out to find out the truth before the police catch up with him, and Tanimura, a shady cop who’s underworld dealings are actually quasi-legal charity work for abused foreign workers in Japan. The plot is focused on a Yakuza conspiracy that dates back to 1985, and becomes more complex and labyrinthine from there.

Once you start getting into the technical side, Yakuza 4 reveals just how much of a niche title it is. The big point of contention is that it uses the exact same engine as Yakuza 3 did, made all the more obvious by the fact that it also takes place in largely the same location (as it did in Yakuza and Yakuza 2), that being the fictional district of Kamurocho, a stand in for the real world Kabukicho red light district of Shinjuku in Tokyo. The game, despite being an exclusive, is not even as technically impressive as some of the top-tier multi-platform titles like Mass Effect 2, and is still prone to some draw in within the environments, though happily, it also has an absolutely rock solid frame rate for the actual gameplay. What it lacks in polygon pushing it makes up for with an obsessive attention to detail, some moody art direction, and stunning facial capture that manages to convey the nuance of Japanese performance. Sound has always been a high point of the series and the same holds true here, with a lush, Dolby Digital audio presentation that’s not as heavy on the bass as the previous game, but adds a nice variety of jazz-inspired tunes to the hard rocking proceedings to give it more of a New York, noir feel at times. The voice acting is, of course, brilliant, since the Japanese have always taken voice acting seriously, with some incredibly earnest delivery from every character. It’s not fully voiced throughout, but when the characters do speak, they make it count.

Busting More Skulls In Kamurocho

Both the pro and con of Yakuza 4 is that it’s the same old Yakuza game you’ve been playing the last few years. It’s not just the engine that’s identical, Kamurocho is still the same, and the game feels even smaller thanks to the omission of Okinawa, an entire other urban playground that gamers could explore in Yakuza 3. There is now the addition of underground mall/sewer environments, as well as an expansion of Kamurocho itself with new roof-top environments for the occasional chase. Yakuza 4 is essentially more of the same with a few tweaks here and there to add a little bit of newness to an otherwise familiar package. This isn’t actually as bad as it sounds, since it was the same proposition with Yakuza and Yakuza 2, the only major leap coming when it moved to the PS3 with the 3rd game, and even then, the combat, Kamurocho, and basic features like the expanse of mini-games were all migrated over. In some respects, Yakuza is very much a budget title. Sega is re-using assets both art and engine-wise, and still uses the older, almost nostalgic device of text boxes for the majority of the game’s content, spiced up with voiced cut-scenes here and there.

Of course, the big thing is fans know all of this, and this is a game made clearly for fans. The typical, mainstream, Western gamer will not “get” Yakuza. It’s an unapologetically Japan-centric game, it stubbornly maintains its stellar Japanese voice acting rather than localizing it with an English dub, and it has numerous quirky—perhaps even baffling or outright offensive/sexist—elements like the hostess maker, or power spiking a ping pong ball at the breasts of a bathrobed girl to make her fall to the ground so a quick button press can engage “ogle mode,” zoomed at her cleavage. It’s not a game made for a politically correct, average Western gamer as it doesn’t make any cultural concessions at all. But for long time fans of the series, there’s plenty to love in the game despite the lack of any major innovations.

The three new characters each have distinctive combat styles that play out very differently, although Kazuma is still the most balanced—and potentially lethal—of all of them. The game has actually been made slightly easier to play with new assists such as a character at the “Shellac” bar that specifically points out the location of sub-stories for fans that hunt these elements faithfully, and chase sequences are more forgiving this time, even letting you throw objects at your target. All the mini-games are back—except for the trivia game “Answer X Answer”—including the hostess-maker and Mahjong mini-games absent from the last localized version. New mini-games include ping pong and even a fighter maker along the same lines as the hostess maker. The wealth of mini-games options does the usual job of making a stay in the small confines of Kamurocho feel much more expansive and time-consuming.

But in the end, the real reason that fans play a Yakuza  game is because of the story, and once again Sega delivers. While the four characters are a little uneven in terms of appeal (I personally found the cop Tanimura to be the “weakest” of the new characters, but even his story was engaging) the complex politics of Yakuza culture get another great turn in the game with heightened stakes, betrayals and genuinely moving drama. For typical Western gamers, Yakuza 4 still gives no reasons to jump in now, as it asks a lot of its players and demands familiarity with the story, even with massive video recaps of the last three games. But for fans for the franchise, they have every reason to go out, get this game, and enjoy its unique offerings. This is definitely a niche title, but for the niche it targets, the game is a resounding success.

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