Thursday, July 26, 2007

Xbox 360 - Wing Commander: Arena - A Half Hour Played

As a space fighter sim fan, I've followed the Wing Commander series over the years. I own in some form every game in the WC franchise except Privateer 2: The Darkening and Armada.

So when I saw that a new Wing Commander game - Wing Commander: Arena - was available on Xbox Live Arcade, I immediately ponied up 800 Live points and downloaded it.


This isn't a space fighter sim. It's a multiplayer 2D shootemup. It looks 3D at first and that's how it's advertised, but I soon realized the ships all move in a common plane, and there's no first-person view. There is a single-player mode, but even that lacks the mission structure of other Wing Commander games; it's just practice for the multiplayer action, against AI opponents.

Lip service is given to the WC universe in the form of a one-paragraph backstory and ship designs that look like ones from ConFed and the Kilrathi. It's a multiplayer arcade game (complete with powerups) in Wing Commander clothing. Some people may find that kind of game fun, but I'm afraid it's not my cup of tea. Now I'll have to go back and play Wing Commander: Prophecy to satiate my renewed WC jones.

Curse you, EA!

Recommended? For arcade multiplayer fans, maybe. I wouldn't really know. For Wing Commander fans? No.

Grade: D

PlayStation (PS1/PSX) - Oddworld: Abe's Exoddus - A Half Hour In

Review: With the arrival of Oddworld: Abe's Exoddus for the original PlayStation, my collection is complete. It is not all the Oddness my heart could desire, but it's all I'm likely to get for the forseeable future.

I'm not going to say much about this game, except that it's more of the same - the same as Abe's Oddysee. Read my review of that game for why this one is good. Sure, there's a new plot and there are additional controllable characters and new things to say via GameSpeak, and enough content to fill two disks instead of one, but at its core the gameplay and humor are unchanged.


Grade: A

Xbox - Star Wars: Starfighter: Special Edition - One Hour In

Review: I never liked the Star Wars prequel trilogy much. But I do like space fighter games. So deciding whether to buy Star Wars: Starfighter: Special Edition was tough. In the end my taste for space fighter sims outweighed my distaste for what George Lucas had done to his own brainchild. Besides, Lucas doesn't have a direct hand in the novels, games, and other "Expanded Universe" materials. So there was a chance of goodness.

I'm glad I did buy it, for this game is fun. It's one of those rare gems I can't put down. I start the game intending to just do one mission, and an hours later I'm still saying to myself, "Just one more..." Any game that engaging goes on my "must play" list.

The plot is a side-story that takes place in the same time frame as the first prequel movie, but only occasionally intersects with its events (for instance, assisting the Queen's starship in its escape from Naboo). It ends up working rather well, and tells a more interesting tale (for me) than the movie's.

The presentation is extremely slick and well-produced. Everything looks and sounds like it should, vibration is well-integrated, and the voice work is outstanding.

Gameplay is equally solid. Wingmen are pretty stupid and get in the line of fire from time to time, but that's so common in space shooters it's virtually a tradition now. Everything else works smoothly. Controls are well-laid-out and responsive

Star Wars: Starfighter: Special Edition is recommended. It's not for the hardcore sim fan, but everyone else should enjoy it. Even if you're not a fan of space fighter games, give it a rental. I don't think you'll be disappointed.

Xbox 360 Owners: You're out of luck. As of this writing it's not on the compatibility list.

PlayStation 2 Owners: This game was released first for the PS2 (minus the "Special Edition" in the titile), and I owned it. As best I can remember, everything I said above about the Xbox version applies equally to the PS2 version.

Grade: A-

PlayStation Portable (PSP) - Valkyrie Profile: Lenneth - Several Hours In

Review: I came late to role-playing games. Had a bad experience in the late 80's that put me off the genre until 2005. Now I eat 'em up, especially Japanese RPGs. Valkyrie Profile was a PlayStation JRPG I sought for my library. The cheapest it could be had - used - was $80 USD. That's a collector's price, and I'm a player not a collector.

Then Square-Enix released Valkyrie Profile: Lenneth for the PlayStation Portable and Valkyrie Profile: Silmeria for the PlayStation 2. I thought they were both sequels to Valkyrie Profile, and Silmeria is. But Lenneth, to my surprise and delight, turned out to be a direct port of the original.

The story is pretty good; it's actually a set of smaller stories united by a very recognizable version of Norse mythology. Ragnarok, the final battle between the Norse gods and the Giants is nearly at hand. A valkyrie named Lenneth is sent to Earth to gather the souls of fallen human warriors, prepare them for battle, and send them to heaven to be part of the army of the gods. There are, as in any RPG, liberties taken with the backstory and characters to make the game work, but in this case less than I would have thought.

Graphics and sound are pretty good - for a game created for the original PlayStation. Most games made for the PSP are closer to the presentation quality of the PS2, but this is a straight PS1 port. Voice work is adequate, though at times a bit overwrought.

What sets this game apart from other JRPGs is its gameplay. Some of the differences are good, and others are mistakes. I'll start with the mistakes.

The single biggest mistake in the game is its doomsday clock. There are a finite number of "periods" before Ragnarok, the war that ends the world and the game. Every entry into a town or dungeon consumes one or more of these periods. This increases the player's sense of urgency, but at the cost of other problems. The first of these is inherent in any game with a time-limit: painting yourself into a corner. It's not hard to mess up badly at the beginning of the game and then run out of time before completing all the necessary missions. There's no way out of such a situation except to start over. Not fun.

Next, there's levelling. Those of us unfamiliar with the nuances of combat, equipment, party balance and so on are denied the opportunity to make up for it by grinding. The doomsday clock means that grinding costs precious time before Ragnarok comes. Not that I like grinding; quite the opposite. But I like studying the arcane details of overly-complicated battle, inventory and crafting systems even less. It's supposed to be a game, not a course in advanced mathematics.

Enjoyment of the story also suffers. Visiting a town before and after it plays a part in the plot affords the opportunity to talk with the townsfolk and get some background. Again comes the clock to put a wet blanket on. Extra visits? More periods consumed.

And finally the doomsday clock damages one of the more innovative game features: an open world. It is in theory possible to visit the various towns and dungeons in any order you like, but the time limit encourages the player to visit them in the order suggested by Lenneth's visions.

Besides the doomsday clock, another game design mistake is dumping explanation of the finer points of the various game systems (combat, equipment, party makeup, etc) into text files whose translation from Japanese is mediocre. And there's little or no explanation of the crafting system. All of this would have been far better explained either in the tutorial portion of the game, or in small increments through the game as they become necessary.

The last mistake I'll describe here is treasure. All of the phattest loot must be offered up to the god Odin or one's evaluation will drop - which makes winning the final battle less likely. One of the things that keeps people playing these games is the prospect of finding new and powerful items that one can use to smack down ever more dangerous enemies. Not here.

On the plus side, many aspects of Lenneth's gameplay truly are innovative. The battle system is turn-based, but also relies on timing to deliver combo attacks (fortunately, timing isn't that critical there). The crafting system lets you create items out of thin air and magic, and conversely turn items into magic power.

One innovation that gives the series its name is that non-combat gameplay more closely resembles a platformer than the usual 2D or 2.5D adventure game. The Valkyrie is typically seen in profile from left or right, hence the game name.

Enemy encounters are not random; one can see the opposing party before choosing whether to fight it, and can gain initiative in the battle by choosing the fight rather than letting the monster attack. Many of these encounters are unavoidable. You have to do them anyway in order to reach parts of the dungeon and in order to to level your party. But it's nice to have at least the illusion of choice.

The game world is open from the start, as far as I can tell. The player can visit any of the towns or dungeons at any time. However, the game's time limit discourages it and visiting a town out of order means nothing plot-advancing can be done there.

All in all, Valkyrie Profile: Lenneth is an enjoyable JRPG with a good story, reasonable presentation, and generally good gameplay with some flaws. It will appeal more to fans of the genre willing to overlook its shortcomings than it will to more mainstream gamers.

Grade: B-

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Oddly Wrathful Part 2

Review update: Another evening of hunting bounties as The Stranger in Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath has poured a layer of quickset over my already hardening opinion: it's a good game but not Odd enough.

A bit more of the plot has been revealed, concerning the motivation for Stranger's current occupation of bounty hunting, but nothing really shocking. Certainly there's nothing approaching the magnitude of what Abe discovered in the first Oddworld game.

I've taken it out of my playlist as the Oddworld games are parts of a single story and I haven't even completed the first one yet. So this is the last I'll be writing about it for quite a while.

Grade: B

Friday, July 20, 2007

Xbox - Oddworld: Munch's Oddysee - Two Hours In

When Oddworld: Munch's Oddysee was released as a launch title for the Xbox in 2001, I didn't pay much attention. At the local CompUSA I saw demos for it and for Halo, and dismissed both out-of-hand. I thought that a thumbstick was a terrible way to try to aim a gun, and that third-person perspective in a game would ruin immersion. Only a first-person view would do.

Now, with the benefit of nearly six years of experience, hindsight, and surgery to remove the stick from up my butt, I see things a little differently. Halo is one of my favorite game series, and Oddworld has just become one of my favorite playgrounds. It's not about immersion, it's not about anal-retentive aiming accuracy, it's about entertainment. And Munch's Oddysee does not fail in that regard.

As I've mentioned in my previous reviews for Abe's Oddysee and Stranger's Wrath, I'm a fancier of the strange, the bizarre, the off. Stranger's Wrath disappointed in that department, for my impression of it was not one of weird creatures from another world, but of cartoon animals from this one. Munch's Oddysee, on the other hand, is as wonderfully weird as Abe's Oddysee.

I almost didn't buy it this time, because of that demo experience years ago. What I remembered of it wasn't that strange. The portion in the demo was not so weird and was very like other platformers. Perhaps Microsoft thought the Oddness of the rest of the game would frighten off potential customers, when actually it's the series' defining characteristic.

But I'm happy I did buy it, because this game is good.

It's everything that Abe's Oddysee was, in a 3D world. All the moves and actions seem natural in 3D, never like a poor translation. The design of the characters and environments is identical to the 2D games, and no little bit of the Oddness is lost in the transition. Nowhere is this more evident than in the design of Munch, a frog-eyed big-headed pot-bellied single-flippered amphibian who is quite speedy in the water but who hops awkwardly on land.

And it's just as much fun if not more. Read my earlier review of Abe's Oddysee to find out why it's fun, and imagine it in 3D to find out why it's more. I recommend a purchase from your local bargain bin or Internet store.

Xbox 360 Users: At the time of this writing, Munch's Oddysee is on the compatibility list, but I experienced jerky cutscene playback. Those who always skip cutscenes probably won't care, but I found the issue annoying enough that I played on an original Xbox instead.

Grade: A+

PlayStation (PS1/PSX) - Fear Effect - Just Started

My first experience with a Fear Effect title was actually Fear Effect 2: Retro Helix, which I finished some years ago. That turned out well since the second game is a prequel for the first. Its last scene is only hours before the first scene in Fear Effect. Since I've just started the game, mostly I'll be talking about the second one and how it relates to what I've seen of the first.

Both are adventure games with a bit of action thrown in, in the mold of Beneath a Steel Sky, the first two Dino Crisis games, or the first three Resident Evil games. Like those games, play consists of moving the player's avatar against a pre-rendered background and performing various actions, mostly some form of key-hunting or puzzle-solving.

FE2 starts out as a story about near-future mercenaries hired to pull off a heist, but evolves into a tale involving deities from Chinese mythology. FE is starting in a similar fashion, and I expect that some supernatural elements will find their way in before it's over. This time the mercenaries are after a runaway Triad boss's daughter in order to collect the bounty for her safe return.

On the down side, unlike FE2, control is limited to character-relative movement. The player can turn it and move it back or forward, like driving a radio-controlled car. The second game provided a scheme for movement relative to the camera, which is far more natural and much missed here.

On the up side, every aspect of the presentation is top-drawer, just like the other game. The backgrounds aren't just pre-rendered as in Resident Evil or Dino Crisis, they're also animated, bringing the environment to life with a distinct Blade Runner vibe. The voice work I've heard so far has been uniformly excellent, as have been the sounds and character animations.

Here's a tip for those who go out and pick up this game: you don't have to play it like Metal Gear Solid or Splinter Cell. You start the game holding your gun rather than your knife, and there's good reason for that. Sure you can pull off stealth kills, but the fixed camera makes it quite difficult and it's usually unnecessary. Pistol ammo is plentiful, killing enemies will boost your fear meter back into the green, and aiming is pretty much automatic. Shooting will usually not bring all the guards running, only the closest. So save stealth for those situations where the game makes it plain you need it.

Fear Effect is a well-produced and directed dystopian near-future sci-fi and fantasy adventure game with some action thrown into the mix. If that sort of thing appeals to you, and you're willing to overlook the presentation limitations of PS1 games, then this is a good game to pick up. I for one am looking forward to spending some more time with it.

Grade: B+

Xbox 360 - Ace Combat 6 Demo

I'm a big fan of combat flight simulator games, whether aero or astro. And I've always thought that the Ace Combat series strikes the perfect balance between realism and the arcade. Too much realism ard you've got Microsoft Combat Flight Simulator or IL-2 5turmovik where so much effort goes into managing and navigating the aircraft that play becomes work. That's for the hardcore simulator jockeys. Too little and you've got Afterburner, where the "aircraft" moves in ways not remotely resembling flight.

The Ace Combat games combine aircraft that look authentic and fly in a somewhat realistic manner with photorealistic terrain and just enough arcadey concessions to playability (ridiculous amounts of ludicrously accurate missiles, for instance) to make the experience a fun one. I've enjoyed them so much I own all except Ace Combat GBA, which is not a flight sim but an arcade shoot-em-up.

Ace Combat 6: Fires of Liberation? Sold! It went on my must-buy list as soon as I found out it was in development. I only downloaded and played the demo to answer the question: "Does the ol' girl look better with the new coat of pretty they slapped on her?"

She does.

I can see a myriad of details that weren't visible in the PS2 games, plus extra little effects (like the individually moving nozzle flaps on the F-16's engine), plus more highly detailed terrain and buildings, plus, plus, plus. Explosions and falling aircraft look more spectacular, and even the vapor trails coming off the wings look more realistic. It is as much an improvement over the PS2 games as they were over the PS1 titles.

The core gameplay is the same as it's been in every game in the series since Ace Combat 2, and that's a good thing. I won't go into details for fear of spoiling it, but based on the demo series veterans can expect to encounter many of the elements that are a staple of the franchise.

Even if I hadn't been a fan before, the demo would have sold me on this game; several times during the demo's single mission I uttered the coveted "sweet!" and at one point the elusive "holy crap!"

I recommend trying the demo for Ace Combat 6: Fires of Liberation. Even if combat flight sims are not your cup of tea, you may well find yourself a convert.

Grade: A+

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Xbox - Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath - One Hour In

Having tried and enjoyed Oddworld: Abe's Oddysee, I've decided to go ahead and acquire the other titles in the series. The first one I've been able to get my hands on is the Xbox game Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath.

The first two Oddworld games were 2D platformers for the original PlayStation. The last two were 3D Xbox platformers. Stranger's Wrath is the second of the Xbox titles and is not a pure 3D platformer; instead it's a hybrid of 3D platformer and first-person shooter.

This one is not part of the "quintology" story arc started in Abe's Oddysee and continued in Munch's Oddysee. It is instead a side story like Abe's Exoddus, set in the same world as the others. This story has a kind of Western theme, with an Odd spin to it. Birdoids are townsfolk, slugoids are the outlaws, a catoid (who runs on all fours when he really gets moving) is the titular Stranger, and ammunition for the Stranger's gun is made of small animals and large bugs (hence "live" ammo). The Stranger is a bounty hunter, a kind of Oddworld equivalent to Sergio Leone's Man With No Name.

As with Abe's Oddysee gameplay is well-designed and executed, though a little less puzzle-oriented and with a greater focus on combat and shooting. It's pretty easy to get killed, but there's also a pretty short stretch between checkpoints. One aspect that's better than the first game is that one can save at any time. Another difference is that this game includes a life-meter, which the player can replenish by having Stranger beat his chest. There's no hunting for health-packs as there is in many games, and the HUD only appears when it's needed.

One of the more interesting aspects of the game is that it's partly played as a third-person platformer, and partly as a first-person shooter. You can't shoot when in third-person mode, and you can't perform platforming moves in first-person mode. You've got to use both to get through, so neither mode feels tacked-on or unnecesary. The transition between modes is handled extremely well; unlike many platformers which will move the camera angle to the character's view when switching to first-person mode, this one turns the Stranger to match the camera. Similarly, when switching back to third person the player's view angle doesn't change. This may seem like a small thing, but it makes a big difference during gameplay. Not having to rotate the view to aim at the enemy when switching between first and third person makes it worlds easier to handle a fight.

As for the story, I haven't gotten very far into it and haven't seen much. I suspect there are many twists to come as the Stranger moves down the road. But I just don't know yet, so I can't comment on that.

While the presentation is well-produced, there's a certain something that's lacking from it. Namely, the Oddness. The character designs, sounds, and environments in the first game just oozed weirdness from every pixel and both speakers. The Mudokons, Sligs, Scrabs, and other characters seemed misshappen and moved in a bizarre fashion. They spoke in weird voices with inappropriate affect. There's a whole lot less of this ooze in Stranger's Wrath. The voices sound like stereotypical Western characters (which admittedly seems a little weird given the context), and all the characters, including the live ammo, seem like funny talking animals from cartoons. It's far more goofy than Odd, something I wouldn't find out of place in other cartoon-oriented platformers. But it's not what I expect or want from Oddworld.

The humor also falls a bit flat in comparison to Abe's Oddysee. Perhaps we're meant to find the situation of cartoon talking animals filling Western roles and speaking with Western accents funny, but I just didn't. I smiled a bit at some of the jokes, but didn't laugh nearly as often or as loud as I did playing the first game.

Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath is not as entertaining as the first game in the series, but is still a good platformer and FPS. The gameplay is about as good though different in focus. The real problem is that the game's vibe wasn't Odd enough to please me. I wouldn't pay full price for it, but since it's been out for a while you won't have to.

Grade: B

PlayStation (PS1/PSX) - Oddworld: Abe's Oddysee - One Hour In

Oddworld: Abe's Oddysee is a 2D platformer I recently picked up for the PlayStation (original, not PS2 or PS3). I had seen a rating of 91% on for Oddworld: Abe's Exoddus, spied the first one in a used bookstore and picked it up, thinking it was the second. But that's okay, because Abe's Oddysee had gotten a score of 89%, and while it is below my cutoff for considering a game purchase, I like stuff that's weird and different, and it cost under $5.00 USD. That's less than a rental on a new game. Sold!

I'm glad I bought it, because I've found in the hour I've played it that it's weird and fun and a shining example (mostly) of good game design.

It's about a Mudokon slave named Abe who works in a meat factory and one day discovers its dark secret. He must now escape and lead his fellow Mudokons to freedom.

It's a pretty standard 2D platformer, with a few tweaks. In addition to the usual climbing and jumping and operating machinery, there's a Lemmings-like aspect to it where Abe must rescue his fellow slaves by talking to them and leading them out of the meat factory.

The gameplay design is innovative and well-thought-out. All the holdovers from quarter-eating arcade games are gone - there's no score, no count of lives, no life meter, in fact no status display at all. An attack either kills Abe or it doesn't. Abe has infinite lives, and dying merely results in his resurrection at the last checkpoint. The distance between checkpoints (so far) has seemed nicely short, so that I haven't had to repeat so much when killed. While these features have become common in games in recent years, in 1997 they were pretty new.

The only potential snake in this grass is what I've read about later stages in the game; apparently there have been complaints that death often occurs irritatingly far from the last checkpoint. I can see where this would be a problem, but I simply haven't encountered it yet.

What makes this game even more special is the story, presentation, and humor. I won't speak of the story for fear of spoiling it for potential players, but I can talk about the other aspects.

The presentation is terrific, especially for a PlayStation game. The action may be 2D, but everything, from the characters to the platforms and backgrounds, has a 3D look to it. The animations are fluid and 3D in appearance. The art design is consistent throughout and succeeds brilliantly in conveying the weirdness of this very Odd world.

The sound is outstanding, especially the voice work - the nasal Mudokons, the gravelly Glukkons, and so on. All the other sounds are appropriate and clear. The music is also well-integrated into the action and enhances the entire Odd experience.

The humor is also a notable element of the game, especially the pronouncements from the Glukkon overlords on the factory tickers. "Work hard, die young, win valuable prizes," and "Only 1,236 work related accidents this month. Keep up the good work!" are just a couple of the messages I saw. There is more, woven into the cutscenes, dialogues between characters, and in the very animations (I burst out laughing the first time I saw Abe sneak across a platform). And most of it succeeds.

In short, Oddworld: Abe's Oddysee is a fun, excellently produced and directed 2D platformer that will provide hours of fun, well worth picking up used in a game shop's bargain bin, or on Amazon or eBay.

Grade: A

Xbox 360 - The Darkness - Two Hours In

The Darkness, an Xbox 360 game I picked up recently, is a first-person shooter with a horror twist. The player steps into the shoes of Jackie Estacado, a mob enforcer who's in trouble with his boss Uncle Paulie over a botched collection job. But Jackie has been possessed by The Darkness, a spirit creature that gives him the power to destroy his enemies with a variety of demonic abilities.

The portion I've played involves the immediate aftermath of the snafu'd collection, Uncle Paulie's attempts to kill him, his possession by The Darkness, and his flight to his girlfriend's apartment.

Gameplay is pretty standard shooter fare, plus the demonic powers that draw their strength from darkness (so shoot out the lights!). The demonic powers are pretty nifty and include the ability to summon and direct hell-spawned imps, to see in the dark, to send a demon snake to spy on enemies and kill them, and snake-headed tentacles that can dispatch enemies at close range. Life is the now-standard automatic recovery when not taking damage, so there are no health-packs to worry about. It's competently done.

The graphics are, as is now standard in a current-gen title, very pretty, with all the little details one has come to expect in today's games. Sound is exceptionally good, particularly the voicework and the distorted voice of The Darkness.

But is it scary? Not so much. Scary is being afraid that something horrible out there in the dark or fog is going to get you. Scary is having to open the door into the room with all the wet noises coming from it, knowing that you'll probably be the next wet noise if you do. Scary is feeling hot breath on the back of your neck and feeling drool drip onto your shoulders as something prepares to slurp you down whole. Scary is not being the ghostie or ghoulie or long-legged creepie that's going to get the poor human. Fun it might be, but not frightening.

So is it fun? It's okay but not great. There's a certain amount of enjoyment to be had from taking down cocky thugs with the powers of darkness, but there's a kind of grimness to it that puts a damper on. Perhaps I've been spoiled by being the Overlord in Overlord and the Alien in Aliens vs. Predator, but I found being evil in those games far more enjoyable than in this one.

What's left? The story. I found the story (two stories, actually - not really related to each other) somewhat interesting. It is at least engaging enough that I will play again, if only to see how Jackie's conflict with Uncle Paulie plays out, and to learn more about The Darkness.

The Darkness is a competently produced and directed shooter with a supernatural horror twist that is interesting to play mostly for its pair of stories. I don't know that I'd pay full price for it if I had it to do again, but it's certainly worth a rental to see if it's your cup of tea, and perhaps picking up when the price drops in a year or two.

Grade: B

Xbox 360 - Project Sylpheed - Completed First Mission

I'd heard of Silpheed before, a side-scrolling shoot-em-up in the same vein as R-Type. I downloaded the Project Sylpheed demo from Xbox Live, expecting the same sort of 2D shooter, perhaps with some enhanced graphics.

It's not.

Project Sylpheed is an Xbox 360 exclusive, a full-blown 3D space fighter game in the same vein as X-Wing, Wing Commander, Colony Wars, Battlestar Galactica, and Star Wars Starfighter. I love these kinds of games - even programmed a simple one in that genre back in 1980 - so I immediately added this title to my "must buy" list.

The game has a mission structure similar to the others I mentioned, with a branching storyline. In flight, the game plays very much like Battlestar Galactica, with various "special moves" triggered by button combos. In the menus and cutscenes the game looks and feels very much like games from the aerial fighter series Ace Combat. In fact, the music and animation seems like it was designed by the same people. The RPG-like fighter customization and upgrade system is also very reminiscent of Ace Combat, as is the mission performance grading, money earning and radio chatter.

Graphically, the game is beautiful, if a little on the busy side during large dogfights. Controls are fairly standard for this sort of game, and pretty responsive. I found the various HUD displays and different weapons fairly easy to master. Situational awareness is easier to come by in the full game than I recall from the demo; I never felt really lost or overwhelmed by the amount of information I had to manage as a pilot.

I don't have a fancy sound system. I use the stereo speakers built into my television. And I'm not really that aware of sound, so the quality has to be exceptionally good or bad for me to notice it. All I can say about the sound in this game is that I didn't notice it.

One area in which this game excels is its flight tutorial; every in-flight control and feature is demonstrated in detail. It's easily the equal of the tutorial in X-Wing, and far superior to the diagrams and text of Battlestar Galactica.

But is the game fun? Oh yes. There's little that's more fun than getting into a serious dogfight against multiple opponents, locking on, and firing your missiles, then watching as the explosions bloom around you. This game, the first of its kind for the Xbox 360 - in fact, for any console in the current generation - is a worthy addition to the collection of any space fighter fan.

Grade: A

Friday, July 13, 2007

Xbox - Mechassault - Finished Three Missions

I originally picked up this Xbox game for reasons other than playing it, but on giving it a try found it to be quite enjoyable.

What I've read about the game suggests that the bulk of its value resides in multiplayer action over Xbox Live, but never having tried it I can't say one way or the other. What I can say something about are the pros and cons of the single-player experience.

The presentation is solid, with everything looking, sounding, and shaking like it should. Even little details like the look of rain splashing off your mech are present and handled well. Controls are well-laid-out and responsive. Enemy mechs are tough and reasonably smart. They sure don't miss often. Level design is competent. Voice work is well-done. The overall experience is a fun one.

Pen-and-paper Battletech purists will probably find fault with the lack of mech customization options, but I found that the limited selection meant getting back into combat quicker. Some explanation of the finer points of mech vs. mech combat would have been welcome. The lack of checkpoints is frustrating; who wants to fight through an entire mission's worth of little guys a second time when the end-of-mission boss smacks the payer down in just a few hits?

Summary: Fun game, needs in-mission checkpoints.

Grade: B

Thursday, July 12, 2007

PlayStation 2 (PS2) - Killer7 - Completed First Boss Fight

Killer7 is a case of function following form. Gameplay considerations take a back seat to the title's striking anime-inspired visual art style and convoluted, surreal plot. However, I found that within those stylistic constraints the gameplay worked well for me. But it's definitely not for everyone; it will appeal less to those seeking a standard JRPG or those seeking an FPS action-fest, and more to those who want something a little different, a little cerebral, a little bit adult in its themes.

If you like narratives in which the dividing line between reality and hallucination is quite deliberately blurred, or where the reader or viewer is never quite sure whether the story's events are taking place in the story's world or in the protagonist's delusions, then this one is for you. It shares themes with works such as those by Philip K. Dick (both the stories and the movies made from them - We Can Remember It for You Wholesale/Total Recall, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep/Blade Runner, A Scanner Darkly, Ubik), David Lynch (especially Twin Peaks), and Franz Kafka.

Taken at face value, Killer7 is about an assassin hired by the U.S. government to target and kill suicide bombers called "Heaven Smiles". This is no ordinary assassin; he has multiple personalities that manifest physically, changing not only behavior but also clothes, height, weight, face, hair and gender in the blink of an eye. He is haunted by apparitions, ghosts of his previous victims that offer him advice or insults. And he is the only person who can see the Heaven Smiles.

Or perhaps it's all just the paranoid schizophrenic delusions of a crippled, senile old man.

The real strengths of this game come from its story and presentation. It has a complex and interesting plot that operates on a number of levels from the psychological to the philosophical. The presentation just drips smooth criminal visual style, reminiscent in some ways of anime such as Akira. The sound and music support this, sounding similar to music from spy movies and old ganster movies. I won't give too much more of the plot away for fear of spoiling it for those players who decide to pick up this game. It's the style that keeps the player watching, and the plot that keeps the player going, that sense of, "What's going to happen next? What the hell is going on? And what does it mean?"

I believe the game got the low review scores it did because of a combination of unfamiliarity and violated expectations. On the one hand, its decidedly unique gameplay didn't fit comfortably in any familiar categories, and on the other expectations created by the pre-release hype and trailers were violated.

Movement and shooting in Killer7 is neither the freedom of a Quake, the step-to-the-next-spot choice of Myst, nor the amusement-park-ride-on-rails of House of the Dead, but rather some combination of elements from each. From a movement point of view, the game map consists of lines and intersections. At intersections the player chooses which direction to go next, and while travelling on a line between intersections the player can move forward, stop, and reverse direction at any time. Shooting can be done at any time but requires the player to stand still doing it. This combines the choice-based travel of an adventure game with the rails and shooting of a light-gun game and just a touch of the freedom of an FPS.

Based on the trailers and marketing materials, one could have come to any one of several incorrect conclusions about the nature of the game. One might have thought it was a first-person shooter with RPG elements, and while it does include shooting from a first-person perspective, and RPG-like levelling of attributes, both the restrictive movement and third-person view when not shooting violate FPS norms. Or one might have taken it for an adventure game with a shooting gallery minigame, but movement turns out to be too dynamic for that. Or it could have been a rail shooter, except that the player actually does have some control over movement.

And so some reviewers' expectations were violated, and even those without expectations found themselves in unfamiliar territory, dealing with gameplay as fractured and changeling as the narrative. As videogame reviewers are not, by and large, an intellectual lot, many found themselves unable to fully enjoy it.

I, on the other hand, only purchased the title as a symbolic protest against the anti-game activism of Jack Thompson. I'd heard that it wasn't a good game, and played it thinking that I was going to experience a cookie-cutter near-plotless FPS distinguished only by extreme amounts of violence, blood, gore, and possibly sex.

Boy was I wrong.

On a purely gameplay level Killer7 is only mediocre despite its innovative blend of styles. But taken as a total experience, it offers far more food for thought and emotion than yet another military shooter or swords-and-sorcery RPG.

There are two aspects of the game that I think could stand some improvement. The map could be more informative, and the help could be far better integrated into the gameplay.

The map is good in that it shows you where certain vital objects are, which personality you need to get past certain parts, which areas you've already visited (colored green), and which area you're in (colored yellow). But its single failing is that there's no you-are-here marker; there's no way to tell from the map where you are within an area. I got lost several times trying to figure out which intersection I was at in an area.

The in-game help is only available from Harman Smith's safe rooms (sometimes containing save points, like towns in RPGs). And the nature of the help violates what should be a primary rule of game design: show don't tell. Instead of showing the player how various features work within the game, the help has one of the ghosts telling how they work. The translations from Japanese to English of the explanations are less than stellar, and are presented at a speaking pace. They can neither be slowed nor sped. Considering how unfamiliar some of the game mechanics are, especially those concerning blood and special abilities, not integrating these features into an optional extended tutorial is a serious error.

To sum up: Killer7 is a terrific game with minor flaws that's not for everyone. But if you like complexity, mystery and especially weirdness in your entertainment, it may well be for you.

Grade: A-

PlayStation 2 (PS2) - Haunting Ground - A Couple Hours In

In a dank, earthen-floored cellar a hulking brute of a man chops raw meat with a large cleaver. A low moan escapes from the nearby cage. He gazes longingly at the figure within, an unconscious young woman covered only by a satin sheet.

The mentally defective monster kneels by the cage's padlocked door and reaches through the bars. As his thick, sausage-like fingers approach her delicate ankle, his nearly toothless mouth opens in an O of excitement. Then suddenly he thinks better of it, withdraws, and exits the cellar.

Some time later, the young woman awakens and looks around in confusion. She finds the cage door's padlock left unfastened and hanging from the latch. She fumbles the lock off the door, opens it, and crawls out as quickly as she can manage. She is free!

For now...

So begins CAPCOM's excursion into Gothic survival horror. With the sensibilities of a Bronté novel and gameplay mechanics like those in their other horror games, CAPCOM has succeeded in doing what Resident Evil was never able to - creep out the player.

When I first sampled this PS2 title in 2005, I put it aside because a particularly annoying gameplay mechanic kept getting me killed. One has few options when confronted by Debilitas, the brute from the game's opening. None of them involve killing him. The best one can do is to run away... terribly fast. And hide. Unfortunately, any given hiding spot will only fool Debilitas once. So I died often.

In my more recent gameplay sessions I used a little more intelligence and had far better results. Instead of coming out of hiding as soon as the ''Coast Clear" message popped up on the screen, I waited a few extra seconds to make sure my enemy was out of earshot as well as out of view. I also made sure I left the room in the opposite direction from the enemy. This gave me a lot more time to explore and solve the puzzles before Debilitas found me again.

Having had more time to explore the game, I must say it's pretty enjoyable. I wouldn't rate it as scary as Silent Hill, but it does surpass Resident Evil in the thrills and chills department. There are things I like about it and things I don't, and I'll discuss those next.

On the plus side, the presentation is all top-notch. Despite having 3D backgrounds, all the textures in the game appear detailed rather than blurry. There is no HUD; information about your character is communicated through full-screen contrast effects and gameplay changes, increasing immersion. The sound, music and background noises are all suitably creepy and go a long way to enhance the atmosphere. The art design is suitably Gothic in tone. Load times between rooms are virtually unnoticeable, much as in Ico. Animations are smooth enough that what jerkiness there is doesn't enter into the player's consciousness.

Also on the positive side are some of the gameplay aspects. The run-and-hide feature, as well as the canine companion, open new storytelling possibilities for the developer. Instead of having to make the protagonist some kind of heavily armed super-soldier to give her a chance of survival, he can make her an ordinary person who must repeatedly choose flight over fight in order to survive. The dog can help her solve puzzles and slow down attackers.

On the down side, these gameplay innovations are badly implemented, poorly balanced, and not well-integrated with the rest of the game. The dog's pathfinding is broken; it has trouble making its way to the player when called, sometimes even when it's in the same room. The hiding feature is poorly balanced. There aren't very many places to hide, and the inability to use the same hiding place more than once means that the player is very likely to run out of them long before he runs out of enemy encounters. It's also badly integrated. Several other methods of evading and slowing down enemies are provided, making the run-and-hide feature less vital than it could have been.

To sum up, Haunting Ground is an enjoyable but flawed Gothic horror experience, better than it might have been but not as good as it could have been.

Grade: B

Friday, July 06, 2007

Quick Impressions As Of July 5, 2007

Here are some more quick game impressions for the recently played:

  • DS: GoldenEye Rogue Agent

    Completed Fort Knox mission, about an hour in. I hope it gets better soon, because right now it's pretty dull. It's marginally better than, say, Coded Arms, but that ain't saying much. C-

  • GBA: Advance Wars

    Three or four hours in, including the tutorials. This game is way more fun than it has any right to be. It's a turn-based strategy game, and it's a hoot. Even the extensive tutorials are enjoyable. Besides the actual gameplay being good, the interface is elegant, and every aspect of the presentation displays a sense of light-hearted fun. A+

  • GBA: Final Fantasy Tactics Advance

    Three battles (about one hour) in. I originally avoided buying this because I already had Final Fantasy Tactics for the PS1 and, based on the title, believed this to be a straight port. It's not. The main action takes place in the same world as FFT, but in a different time period and framed by a Neverending Story-like plot about a magic book in the "real world." The gameplay is fundamentally similar with a few tweaks here and there. If you enjoyed Final Fantasy Tactics, you'll like this one too. I did. B+

  • PC: Tomb Raider Anniversary

    Several hours in. This game is a blast. It preserves everything that made the first Tomb Raider such fun while updating the graphics, gameplay and level design to take advantage of what the Tomb Raider Legend engine can offer. Disclaimer: I'm a Tomb Raider fan and enjoyed (and finished!) Angel of Darkness. A+

  • PS1: Air Combat

    A couple of missions in. This game is the first in the Ace Combat series, reasonably enjoyable, but all of the sequels are better. This was one of the Playstation's launch titles, and as a result has no analog control. The graphics are good for a 1995 release, but are far surpassed even by the later Playstation titles (Ace Combat 2 and Ace Combat 3: Electrosphere). The only real reason to pick this up is in order to complete your set of Ace Combat games, or to fill in that piece of the series story. C+

  • PS1: Ace Combat 2

    A few missions in. Fun game. Very good graphics for a PS1 game. It's not as pretty as its PS2 siblings, but the gameplay is fundamentally the same. Like the other titles in the series, it provides enough simulation elements to be interesting and enough arcade gameplay simplifications to make it fun. B

  • PS1: Chrono Cross

    A couple of hours in. Pretty good RPG. Interesting story involving time travel and alternate timelines. The combat system has some interesting innovations and the presentation is well done. B+

  • PS2: Ace Combat 4: Shattered Skies

    Several missions in. This game is a blast. It's the first Ace Combat title for the Playstation 2, and despite its age it still looks and plays great. A

  • PS2: Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance

    Several hours in. Fun game. This is more like Diablo or Rogue than it is the earlier semi-turn-based Forgotten Realms titles such as Baldur's Gate and Icewind Dale. It does employ the same Advanced Dungeons & Dragons-based ruleset as the others. Graphics, sound, voice work, gameplay, controls, and writing are all top-notch, though the plot seems a bit pedestrian. A-

  • PS2: Gran Turismo 4

    Several hours in. A really good game. It still defines the car racing genre. The (cheaty) 1080i support is nice, sound is great, gameplay is great, driving wheel support is great, etc., etc. It's so good in so many ways that it's easier to list its few flaws. The main menu is a mess; Gran Turismo 3's was far superior. I don't like license tests; I want to race. There's no online racing. There's no damage model. There are no Ferraris or Porsches. The concept cars can't be used in races. A-

  • PS2: Ico

    Finished it twice. Like Shadow of the Colossus, it's a sublime work of art. Of course not all art is to everyone's taste; there is much that's not to mine. Go read some full length reviews, then decide for yourself. A+

  • PS2: Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy

    About an hour in, just past the tutorial. It's enjoyable, a pretty standard 3D platformer with double jumps, power-ups, collectibles, and a variety of combat moves. What sets it apart is its sense of humor. What diminishes it are the camera controls, which seem backwards to me (e.g. push stick left to look to the right) and are not customizable. B+

  • PS2: Medal of Honor: Frontline

    A couple of hours in. Fantastic game. The opening sequence alone, which has the player assaulting the Normandy beach on D-Day, makes it worth picking up. At the time of release the graphics, sound, and rumble were nothing short of jaw-dropping. They still look pretty good. A

  • PS2: Tomb Raider Anniversary

    This is identical to the PC version, save for the graphics. They're of necessity of lower quality, given the platform. Still, it looks and plays great. A+

  • PSP: Crush

    Just past the tutorial and first couple of missions. This is a fun puzzler and platformer. It's more puzzle than platform, and the 3D->2D crush gimmick adds an extra, er, dimension to the gameplay. I'm enjoying helping the insomniac Danny wander around inside his own psyche, looking for his marbles. B+

  • PSP: Daxter

    Several hours in. It's a hoot. This entry in the Jak and Daxter series focusses on the sidekick and has him battling increasingly dangerous bug infestations. It's funny and inventive, full of Daxter's wiseacre humor. Great platformer. B+

  • PSP: Tomb Raider Legend

    About halfway through. It's good. This game on PC and consoles breathes new life into the Tomb Raider series with its updated control scheme and Prince of Persia-inspired moves. This portable version is not the equal of those on other platforms, in large part because the PSP offers fewer buttons. But despite that, graphics and gameplay are fundamentally intact. I'm enjoying it. A

  • PSP: Valkyrie Profile: Lenneth

    About two hours in. Enjoyable RPG. It has an interesting storyline, an innovative combat system, fun 2D platforming play, and a good-quality presentation. It has a few minor quirks and drawbacks, but overall it's worth the time of RPG fans. B

  • Xbox: Mafia

    About an hour in. It's pretty good. Other reviews have complained about the presentation quality when compared to the PC version, but I don't find it bothersome. Gameplay is GTA-like, and the story follows a cabbie who is unwillingly drawn into a life of crime in the families. B+

  • Xbox: Manhunt

    About an hour in. I don't know if I'd call it fun, but the game does hold one's interest. The player steps into the prison shoes of James Earl Cash, just after his botched execution. Cash must escape but can only do so by satisfying a snuff film director who controls all the doors. He must kill gang members in various gruesome ways to get the Director to let him proceed. A cynical and thought-provoking look at violent media and our relationship to it as consumers. B+

  • Xbox 360: Aegis Wing

    This is a side-scrolling arcade shoot-em-up in the same vein as R-Type. It's fun, but hard. Definitely worth the money, as it's a free download on Xbox Live Arcade. B

  • Xbox 360: DiRT

    About an hour in, unlocked the second tier in career mode. This game is a blast. I don't know how realistic the physics are, but it's certainly lots of fun to play. Every aspect of the presentation, from the menus to the graphics during racing, has been polished to a high sheen. Gorgeous. Fun. A+

  • Xbox 360: Geometry Wars Retro Evolved

    This is a clone of the old arcade classic Robotron 2084. It's fun, but hard. It might be a little much for my aging reflexes. B

  • Xbox 360: The Godfather: The Game

    About a half hour in, just past the fighting tutorial. It looks pretty good. The recognizable likenesses and music from the movies are a treat, as is the recognizable New York City. Gameplay, as in Mafia, is GTA-like and pretty fun. There appear to be more nuances and complexities than in Mafia, but introduced slowly enough not to overwhelm the player. I'm looking forward to working my way up to being the Don of Dons and wiping out the other families. A-

  • Xbox 360: Overlord

    About an hour in, seen more (girlfriend playing). This game rocks. Be the evil Overlord! Summon minions from the depths! Set them on your enemies! Subjugate villagers! Slay heroes! Today the village, tomorrow the world! Buwahahahahahaha! A

  • Xbox 360: Prince of Persia Classic

    Completed the first level. Fun. This Xbox Live Arcade facelift to the 1987 classic gives it 3d graphics while preserving the 2D platforming gameplay and level design of the original. I've had a blast with it. A