Month: April 2012

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CGPodcast April 27 2012

It is the week of April 27, 2012 and that means another episode of the C&G Magazine Podcast. This week Tim is away relaxing so Wayne, Brendan and Melanie are joined by Scott Dixon. Wayne covers the news, including Nintendo in the red, Playstation All-Stars, Microsoft’s patent trouble, plus much more news tangents. Scott and Melanie speak about playing through the first chapter of The Walking Dead game, the boys discuss Diablo III, Wayne tells us about the Asura’s Wrath DLC and Brendan rants about the awesome weirdness of FEZ.

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A Novel Idea

It’s pretty tough to try to think up too many videogames successfully adapted from books. Despite the thousands and thousands of fantastic novels, short stories and classic poems, the best that players have been able to expect so far are titles that miss the point of their source material completely (like Dante’s Inferno) or great, but obscure adaptations like The Witcher series (outside of Eastern Europe, not many of us probably knew that the games were based on books at all).

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Devil May Cry: HD Collection (PS3) Review 1

Devil May Cry: HD Collection (PS3) Review

The Sword. The Guns. The Trench Coat.

There was time when the name Dante was neither confused with a badly executed game based on classic literature, nor was it referred to with a fearful shudder of apprehension because of a possible, badly misdirected reboot. There was a time when you mentioned the name Dante to gamers, and they immediately thought of a cocky, white haired, gun shootin’, sword swingin’ devil killer that cracked wise and broke out into ridiculous, glorious bouts of frenzied, brutal action. This HD pack from Capcom brings us back to those days, and it’s definitely one of the better collections out there.

A Rampage Of Red & Semi-Auto Bullets

Devil May Cry is, of course, one of the more notable turn of the century franchises, ushering in 2001 with the first, sterling example of how to do fast paced, 3D combat that equalled the old 2D beat em’ ups for speed and depth. It set the standard that other 3D hack n’ slash games have been following for the last 10 years. As with many other classics of the previous generation, Capcom have seen fit to put the original last gen trilogy on one disc and slap a new coat of Shiny HD Paint™ on ‘em to see if a market reared on modern, military FPS games can still embrace them.

Of course, fans of the series already know what they’re getting into with the games themselves, so then the obvious question becomes, “Is this worth my $40?” The answer?  Yeah, pretty much. As with other HD collections, the bumped up resolution on the graphics and the adjusted aspect ratio to fit 16:9 widescreens has given the games a decent visual boost. And like other HD collections, this had made any full motion video blurry and noticeably inferior to actual in-game graphics. Unlike the recent Silent Hill collection, there don’t seem to be any gaffes in audio synchronization, at least, not any that are new. The frame rate is also stable, with none of the hitches that Silent Hill experienced when streaming new areas so the performance of the games in this collection is about on par with what we saw in other collections like Prince of Persia and Tomb Raider. Unlike Tomb Raider, however, the Devil May Cry collection lacks that minor convenience of being able to quit out from the current game to the main selection screen to choose another title. So if you’re playing the original DMC and want to jump to DMC 3, you’ll have to just go back to the dashboard of your respective console and reload the disc entirely. On the other hand, unlike the Silent Hill collection, Pipeworks at least took the time to add in a few extras in the form of artwork, a soundtrack player, and even some new “fan art” provided by some notable artists. That’s an appreciated little bit of “going the extra mile” that most of the HD compilations have thus far been too lazy—or rushed—to add in for the long-time fans.

As for the games themselves… well, they are what they are. They still largely hold up in terms of playability, though the years—particularly for DMC 2—have not been kind in the area of awkward, fixed camera placement. Younger players may be in for a mild shock at the noticeably—but not drastically—steeper difficulty curve these games have compared to contemporary action titles, but these games are of an age when the audience was primarily hardcore, and skill levels were more demanding. All in all, for fans of the series, and for those who are curious, this is a pretty safe buy.

Tales of Grace f (PS3) Review 1

Tales of Grace f (PS3) Review

A Story Of Tradition

There aren’t that many “good old JRPGs” out there anymore, but the Tales series from Namco’s Tales Studio—now defunct and absorbed into Namco proper, by the way—has always clung stubbornly to the idea that their formula was cut from a cookie that the audience would be happy to eat up again and again. In light of Square-Enix’s innovations in gameplay at the cost of a compelling story, they might actually be right. Tales of Graces f isn’t going to win any awards as a work of technical genius, but as a cliché ridden yarn that you can’t help but feel guilty for enjoying, it’s a resounding success.

Wii Are Moving To Another Console

Tales of Graces f is actually a port of the original Tales of Graces that debuted on the Wii in Japan back in 2009. It eventually got a PS3 port a year later and that Japanese port has now been localized for Western consumption. It’s a puzzle why Western Wii owners are getting snubbed on the original Wii version, but then they get Xenoblade, so I suppose it all balances out karma-wise. This localized version also includes a number of extras from the PS3 port, including the extra “mini-JRPG” epilogue called Lineage & Legacies, which adds another 10+ hours to the experience.

The story for ToGf is about as generic as it gets. Asbel Lahnt, the plucky young hero, is full of confidence at the start of the game but gradually undergoes the necessary process of needing to be stronger in order to protect the ones he cares about. There’s also an amnesiac orphan with a special destiny, and of course, one can’t have a JRPG without the required cheese that is known as The Power Of Friendship™. It’s all here, relentlessly checking one box after another on a typical, cliché plot, but it’s executed with so much heart and sappiness that it ultimately manages to succeed despite itself. The characters may not be original, but as the hours pass, they will become damn likable; even Asbel’s staggering naivete will become less offensive in time.

Getting into the technical specifics, it should come as a surprise to no one that a Wii port—even an HD one—is not going to compare favorably to the PS3’s benchmark titles for graphics. The anime aesthetic is a somewhat simpler one to begin with, and the Tales Studio decided to go with a softer, almost pastel look inspired, apparently, by water color paintings. Valkyria Chronicles is a much more successful example of this, but you can still see a more painterly, illustrated influence in the art direction of ToGf. One happy bonus of this game not exactly taxing the PS3 is that the performance is very, very stable. Combat—which is real time, not turn-based—uses a lot of flashy effects for the special/magic/”Cryas” attacks and the light show can get pretty ridiculous. The engine never falters, regardless of how hectic combat is. The fixed nature of the camera (yes, this are really old school JRPG conventions we’ve got going here) also keep players from experiencing draw-in and pop up most of the time, something that not even the sequel, the only-currently-available-in-Japan Tales of Xillia cannot claim. The audio side of things is about what seasoned JRPG veterans would expect at this point. Once again, Western gamers are cruelly denied the ability to switch over to the original Japanese voice acting if they so choose, but the cast of dubbers for this localized version, consisting of old anime mainstays like David Vincent and Laura Bailey—who, by the way, played Serah Farron in Final Fantasy XIII-2—do a good job of bringing emotive performances to what amount to stock characters with some occasionally generic dialogue. Musically, Motoi Sakuraba continues his streak as the mainstay composer for the series, and while his compositions continue to not offend, they also fail to attain the memorability of Nobuo Uematsu at his height. To be fair, even Uematsu doesn’t do this these days. The audio effects themselves are functional, though lack the richness and “oomph” of other titles. Part of this is the fixed camera aspect of the game not really lending itself well to surround sound. That doesn’t really explain why the bass is more restrained, as there are plenty of magic spells to go around that could really make use of booming thunder and explosions, but don’t. Curiously, the audio feels more robust when the theme song is playing during the opening intro before the title screen, but in-game, it lacks this same presence.

Tales of Cliches

The Tales series, has, by now, established itself as a sort of Dynasty Warriors for JRPG enthusiasts, not really varying dramatically in mechanical terms, but providing a safe, familiar experience by doing so. And in an age where the traditional JRPG is in short supply, this is actually a great boon to the fans. Make no mistake, in many mechanical aspects, Final Fantasy XIII-2 did some interesting things, bringing back more open dungeons, tweaking the leaner, meaner ATB system, and introducing the Pokemon-like aspect of capturing monsters and using them as a 3rd

party member. But it all came crashing down because the mechanics didn’t support characters, or a story, worth caring about, and made the dangerous choice of ending on a cliff-hanger that undid everything accomplished up to that point.

Tales of Graces f is the complete opposite. Mechanically, this is similar to the tales games played previously. The “LiMBS” system, a real-time combat system that locks players to one target and allows the companion NPCs to act independently, has received the expected tweaks. It’s not as dramatic as the move from the Gambits system of FFXII to the ATB system of FFXIII, but it adds two different combat styles—in the form “A Artes” and “B Artes” –that players can switch between at will, even stringing combos together by mixing the two. However, it’s still essentially the Linear Motion Battle System players know, and it doesn’t take long to get familiar with it and start testing its nuances. The other mechanics are pure traditional, from the towns with NPCs, side-quests, and inns for resting to the air ship that allows travel all over the world as the game nears its end. And of course, there are the optional bosses that require a fair amount of grinding and skill. In many ways, this is a classic JRPG that resolutely refuses to march into the 21

st

century and embrace Quick Time Events, western singing celebrities, or even pre-rendered CG cut scenes.

As a result of not taking all those chances, what players are left with is a tasty—though perhaps not particularly nutritious—serving of pizza or potato chips. This is comfort food, complete with some of the irritating backtracking that the genre is known for, but when you haven’t had that experience for a while, it can still be a welcome addition. Also making a return is that staple of the Tales series, the lo-fi, minimal budget “skits” that can pop up at any time, cutting to some illustrations of the various characters as they interact with each other over everything from the seriousness of their next objective to the naivete of their fearless leader. Despite the fact that all we’re looking at are some drawings with some voiceover work to accompany them, the frequency—and regular hilarity—of these skits does something that the current FF games do not; they give enough breathing room to develop the characters. Rather than shoring up character defining moments for high production cut scenes, ToGf intersperses these character moments at frequent, unpredictable intervals. The result is a less compressed narrative experience, similar to a novel, that lets players bond with the characters over time, rather than the more cinematic presentation of modern RPGs that normally doles out character moments at rarer intervals.

The other aspects of Tales of Graces f are the things we’ve seen before. The items and item menu are standard fare, the crafting system is large and elaborate, and its “dualizing” system will keep players occupied for quite some time. There’s also the addition of the “Eleth Mixer” which gives players a certain percentage chance to spontaneously generate items at the cost of “eleth.” The more valuable the item desired—such as potions that permanently increase skill points—the lower the odds of item creation. The Eleth Mixer can also be used to cook certain helpful food items when specified conditions are met in battle. Nothing here is radical and new, but it all adds to a typically large, comprehensive JRPG experience that is less common these days.

And finally, there’s that extra content. Despite the fact that Tales of Graces f is already a sizable game and ends on a fairly satisfactory note—giving more closure than even Mass Effect 3—the Lineage & Legacies additional content is a playable epilogue that can last an additional 10-15 hours of play. It takes place six months after the events of the original game, and provides even more story, character development and tougher challenges than the base game. There’s also a “trials” challenge for people looking to fight even tougher monsters and get better loot, and on top of all this, a New Game+ mode that opens up a few additional pieces of higher level content.

The bottom line is, for starved fans of big, traditional JRPGs that have that earnestness and intimidating size that is unique to the Japanese, Tales of Graces f is a must buy. It’s not as innovative as Xenoblade, but what it lacks in its evolution of the genre, it makes up for by representing the old tropes extremely well.

Ridge Racer Unbounded (XBOX 360) Review 1

Ridge Racer Unbounded (XBOX 360) Review

Whither Goest Thou, Reiko?

Once again, there is racing going on, though with a noticeable lack of ridges (at least in the beginning) and the conspicuous absence of everyone’s favorite vacuous yet pretty girl-mascot, Reiko Nagase. Still, Namco is calling this a Ridge Racer game, despite the fact that it’s not even developed in-house anymore, but instead created by the Finnish studio, Bugbear Entertainment. What do you get when you take an established racing IP known for its unrealistic drifting and give it to Finnish people who are best known for their penchant to create races where stuff gets wrecked? You get an interesting new game that probably deserves to have its own IP.

The Ridges Got Tagged

This is not the Ridge Racer you remember. Nothing about this is a sequel in the traditional sense. When Namco handed the reins of the franchise over to Bugbear, those crazy Fins looked at everything the series represented and kicked in the nitro before sending it colliding through a wall at 160 KPH. This is not about optimistic, friendly faced corporations engaging in a bit of spirited competition with slick cars. Now, “The Unbounded” are making their stand against The Generic Man, by showing their displeasure through racing. Which also means knocking things—and each other—to pieces.

This newer, angrier, “Apple doesn’t have an iPad in my color and therefore the entire world must burn” sense of consumer rebellion also comes with a new chassis for the look and sound of the game. Past iterations of the RR franchise have always been slick, clean, and carried the vibe that you were probably going be to slinging back martinis in a hip club after the race was over. This has been replaced with a more down, dirty, gritty aesthetic. The game opens in a badly deteriorated downtown core with a much greater emphasis on urban decay than the series has ever seen. This look is complemented by more of the “environment as HUD” concept that was pioneered by recent games like Splinter Cell: Conviction. The frame rate is generally stable, though not rising up into the 50-60 fps range of titles like Wipeout HD, but considering the amount of environmental destruction occurring on screen, that’s probably too much to ask. The music has also changed directions somewhat, going less for the suave, acid jazz feel of past games for something more aggressive. Dubstep once again rears its head with Skrillex contributing a track, and acts like Crystal Method and Noisia also make appearances. This is also, for the first time in the series history, a game that makes use of the sub-woofer for explosions, as environmental destruction and collision warfare are part of the Road Rage tactics. In many ways, the audio is the biggest departure from the more urbane sophistication of past titles to something raw and combative.

Riiiiiiiiidge Reboooooooooooooooot

Once you actually sit down and start to play this game, it becomes obvious that this is not Ridge Racer. It’s a good game actually, with a lot of substance and fun going for it, but it has about as much to do with Ridge Racer as Silent Hill 4: The Room did with its predecessors. In other words, fans who wanted more of the same should stay far, far away from this game. Anger and feelings of betrayal will be the inevitable from that particular crowd. The single biggest, most noticeable change is the addition of environmental destruction and vehicular combat. Tracks are no longer static things with guardrails that hem you in no matter how fast you hit them. Walls can be broken, cars can destroyed by high speed impact (only to respawn seconds later, having lost precious time to competitors, much like going off the tracks in Wipeout). All of this is thanks to the Nitro gauge, which still builds up as you drift, but now also charges when you crash or drift into competitors or simply break things on the track. When the gauge is filled, drivers have the option to kick it into high gear to take out or “Frag” racers ahead of them through a turbo-charged collision, or wait until special obstacles approach (a huge gas tanker truck conveniently parked at the side of the road, or an unsuspecting grocery store) when the point of interest is suddenly highlighted, and hitting the nitro causes the car to just drive right through it. In the case of environmental POIs, this creates new shortcuts in the track, but for those gas tanker trucks, it creates an explosion that automatically frags anyone too close. The game will cut to a slow motion cut scene that pulls you out of the gameplay to revel in the destruction you have just wreaked, with enemy cars getting totaled, walls being crushed and things blowing up. This is skippable, but it can still be disorienting once you snap back into the car and try to figure out exactly where you are and what the situation is now.

In this way, Bugbear has completely departed from the pure drift n’ race mechanics of the series to create something faster, more aggressive and more strategic. Considering their past work with the Flatout series, this isn’t really much of a surprise. You can still win races purely by driving a good, clean, technically accomplished lap with tight corners and intelligent maneuvering. But now you can also create shortcuts and systematically wipe out opposition to sleaze your way to victory. This new emphasis on destruction has also called for a revamp of the physics. Past RR games relied on an almost “semi-automatic” form of drifting, a ridiculously simple, yet elegant math formula that resulted in the famous unrealistic drifts the series was known for. Bugbear has thrown that out in favor of a new, heavier, more realistic driving physics system guaranteed to wreak havoc with veterans of the series. In a way, newbies stand a greater chance of initially mastering the driving mechanics of Ridge Racer Unbounded since they won’t have years of reflexes to unlearn.

The races cover multiple environments, and multiple events. Seedy ghettos eventually give way to harbor areas and finally the towering glass and steel of a downtown financial district as the Unbounded “fight for the people” by destroying their homes and small businesses, leaving them destitute and even more at the mercy of uncaring corporations. Obviously someone at the head of this group needs to apply some long term thinking to the current manifesto, but in the meantime, it means you get to wreck a LOT of public and private property while tearing around corners. The events themselves run the usual gamut of racing for pole position, time trials and drifting events. None of these things are easy cakewalks, even at the start of the game.

This is one of Unbounded’s problems. There’s an assumption on Bugbear’s part that you’ve probably played other driving games like Need for Speed or Split/Second and from the start, the tracks and opposing racers are set at a fairly respectable level of skill. It’s possible for newbies to this game to lose their first race several times. This isn’t helped by the fact that the tutorial explains little and, bafflingly, doesn’t explain the new drifting mechanic, leaving the uninitiated to muddle through a new physics system for themselves to get a feel for the nuances of it. Veterans of the recent crop of western racing games will have a small curve of adjustment to get into the groove of things. Staunch Ridge Racer only fans will be at a loss for quite a while. The overall physics are solid, if a bit temperamental, which can lend an air of unpredictability to the maneuvering during races when it comes time to go in for the hard turns. It also makes the drifting events far riskier situations than they were probably intended to be.

On the flipside, in a first for the series, Unbounded has gone kind’a, sort’a ModNation Racers and included a track construction system that allows you to create and submit your own race courses online, as well as play those created by others. One unfortunate side effect of this is it almost feels like Bugbear restricted their own developers to using these assets, so you’ll be seeing a lot of repeating landmarks within the campaign itself, as well as when you start constructing your own tracks. Like ModNation or LittleBigPlanet there’s not a whole lot of quality control going on, so expect to sift a lot through the courses to separate the poorly constructed tracks from the ones with genuinely good design. As to be expected, there’s also a learning curve attached to the track construction, but it’s not helped by a twitchy camera and some unintuitive systems.
Finally, we get to the multiplayer, which is a bit different, because it relies heavily on the track creation system. You can create your tracks, race them to prove that they can actually be won, and then put them online, automatically setting your times to be the ones to beat for people that browse the track collections. Conversely, you can do the same thing, going over other tracks and racing against others to see how you all stack up against the creator. As you’d expect from a racer oriented around destruction, once humans get into the mix, things quickly descend into sadistic chaos, which can be a good or bad thing depending on where your preferences lie.

In the end, what we have with Ridge Racer Unbounded, is a game that really should have just been called Unbounded: The Racing Game. It has nothing to do with its predecessors and doesn’t even really acknowledge any sense of relation or gratitude to the Japanese designed games of the past. If you can get past that, what you have is a fast paced, destruction based racer squarely aimed at skilled, virtual drivers with a flair for creativity in track design. The physics are heavier, touchier and more realistic, and the racing is like the movies of the same name, fast and furious.  It’s fun. It’s actually a lot of fun. It’s just not Ridge Racer.

Space Pirates and Zombies (PC) Review 1

Space Pirates and Zombies (PC) Review

Addicting. That is a nice simple way to sum up this game. I sat down one morning to start playing the game so I could get a feel for it and the next thing I knew it was night. I’d lost a day to a deceptively complex yet incredibly fun little space combat game, and I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

Space Pirates and Zombies (SPAZ) is a top down RTS with exploration, research, trading missions… and zombies! It’s not what you’d call your average space shooter. It has a lot in common with many of the old classics like Star Control and Space Rangers and similar games. You explore the stars, gathering resources, working with or against the main factions and basically trying to strike it rich.
Combat is a main focus of the game and it’s wonderfully done. There are various size classes of ship and within each is a nice assortment that each has their own strengths and weaknesses. It’s up to the player to decide just what to use and how to use them. The game’s physics engine gives each ship a feeling of mass. Your tiny ships might be able to turn on a dime, but the huge cruisers will take a lot more effort. Weapons are varied and all have their place in battle, from sapping away shields to cracking a hull in two. And there is a certain evil joy to be taken in loading your crew into cannons and firing them at enemy ships.

The combat is fast paced and exciting but you’re not out there alone. You will have wingmen with you to help out and can change which ship you control on the fly. You also have a tactics screen that allows you to pause and plan your next move, giving orders to your fleet.

The game boasts an interesting research system. As you destroy enemy ships you will find blueprints . Collecting enough will allow you to reverse engineer ships and build one of your own. Exploring the various systems will allow you to purchase blueprints for various weapons and ship components as well. And of course you can always try to steal a plan or two with a little boarding action. The tech tree allows you to spend research points to improve in various fields, from weapons to engines to crew space, and unlock access to new technologies along the way.

Resource management is of course a key factor in most space games of this type. The element Rez is the focus in SPAZ, and striking it rich at the centre of the galaxy is the goal. Of course, you’ll need to gather what you can along the way. Get paid for missions, blow up enemies and take what they have or just go do some good old-fashioned asteroid mining to bring in the big bucks. Buying those ships and bribing the factions isn’t cheap. There’s plenty of ways to fill your pockets, some a little less honest than others.

The universe you explore is random for each game that allows great replay value, as each game will be a new experience. Every system has its own ratings for how well the factions like you and are self-contained, so if you make enemies in one sector you don’t have to worry about being attacked on sight in the next. The difficulty settings vary the game from a fun romp of blowing things up to a tense struggle for survival. The AI does a very good job helping you in the case of allies or being a royal pain when it’s the enemy.

As far as presentation goes, the game is stunning. The backgrounds are beautiful and the visual effects are bright and vibrant. You can even see damage being inflicted on ships with molten areas on the hull as well as debris and crew being blasted into space when the hull is hit. The music is fitting and the sound effects do a good job of bringing the action to life. There is also a lot of background radio chatter that heightens the experience.

One of the other key aspects which ranks this game so highly is that MinMax Games is a couple of guys from British Columbia who take an active part in continuing the development of the game. The official forums are constantly being read and responded to and they take suggestions and feedback to heart. That devotion to the fans is refreshing to see.

If you’ve got a chance you can check out the demo of SPAZ which is available from their website or on Steam. The game itself is only $10, which is a great deal for such an amazing game. And it just keeps growing as the devs listen to what the fans are enjoying and what they want.

Space Pirates and Zombies is a must have for those who enjoy epic space battles. It brings a lot of action and strategy into a beautiful galaxy and is something that will keep you enthralled for hours on end.



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