Thursday, December 19, 2013

Yesterday's Worlds #4: Bloodrayne, Breath of Fire:DQ, and Bully

BloodRayne 1 & 2 (Terminal Reality/Majesco/2002 and 2004) - Played some of 1 and a little of 2 before.

For me, Rayne has always been one of the sexiest characters in video games. Unfortunately, that sex appeal is probably the reason she never was able to make the jump to a newer generation console (I don't count the 2-D side-scroller game since it's very different from these two). Game companies these days seem to want "young girl" games (The Walking Dead, Beyond: Two Souls, new Tomb Raider, The Last of Us). I guess to some degree, she is as much of a cultural dinosaur as Duke Nukem...but I still love her!

I skipped replaying BloodRayne 1 this time around because, to be honest, I couldn't stand the thought of taking on that tedious swamp level at the beginning again. By the time you finally get through it and start killing Nazi's, it's hard to want to keep playing. It should have had a much shorter introduction and then moved to the WWII location. It didn't help that I played it originally on the Gamecube - the shoulder buttons on the controller for that system were very clunky making it even more of a chore to play. (Of course, this didn't stop me from buying BloodRayne on PS2, Xbox, and PC as well. Love is blind!)

However, I had never played much of the second one, so that was what I decided to concentrate on. They made Rayne even sexier in the sequel, but I have to admit that the gameplay is missing something. The game starts with Rayne searching a vampire-run mansion and, like that Louisiana swamp, it just seems to go on forever. The enemies that attack you only have 2 or 3 varieties and Rayne's best attack is to suck their blood for health and do a finishing move on them. You can string together moves to make fancy combos, but it gets old too quickly.

Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter (Capcom/Capcom/2003) - New.

I never got into the Breath of Fire games on the Gameboy Advance, but I guess I picked this one up on a cheap Gamestop deal. On the surface, it looks like a solid RPG from a well known studio. But once you start playing it, you have to wonder what the designers were thinking.

The story starts out with you living in an underground city and having a capability rating (like a fractional ratio) that is supposed to measure your potential (the theme of the story being that you will be challenging the status quo and proving that people cannot be so arbitrarily judged - or something like that). Character interactions are pretty standard for a RPG and before long, you are on your first mission against "sewer rats" (not rats in this case, but a typical first encounter creature you expect in games like this). And that's where they lost me. The battle system in this game is the most cumbersome I've ever seen. Just to do a simple fight with one first level monster took a couple of minutes! There was the initial contact, a transition to a turn-based battle display, executing multiple attacks to kill the creature, then a victory screen with experience totals before transitioning back. I don't want to even think how long the later battles would take. My interest in playing anymore of this game dropped to about 1/1000000000.

Bully (Rockstar Vancouver/Rockstar Games/2006) - New.

Rockstar raised a lot of eyebrows when they announced this game. Everyone expected, because of the violent nature of their GTA games,  that you would be a bully in this game, taking advantage of weaker characters, glorifying the villain in a real life social problem, and teaching children very bad habits. However, that wasn't the case here. You actually end up playing a fairly average school kid at a very abnormal school - Bullworth Academy (from which you get "Bully"). While you can pick on "weaker sheep", it doesn't gain you anything or advance the story. Usually, you're more likely to be running from bullies in this game.

I was actually looking forward to digging into Bully pretty deeply, but this game suffers from several problems for me. It has the same "no mid-mission checkpoint" problem that all pre-GTA V games suffer from. If I fail a mission, I don't want to have to go all the way back to getting the mission. It sucks all the fun out of a game if you just have to do the same thing over and over because you made a little mistake. I also could not get out of my head that the character you play looks just too much like Wayne Rooney of Manchester United - someone I intensely dislike!

The controls seemed fairly sluggish and you spend more time looking at loading screens than seem reasonable. I actually decided to try the PC version of Bully as I have it on Steam. and found it to be much faster, a little more responsive, and with a serious graphical upgrade...but there was still the problem of failing missions and having to go all the way back to the beginning. In addition, I found some new problems. Some of the mini-games were very hard to play on the PC version (especially the Chemistry one) and the game didn't seem to have a way of switching back to using a controller after I set it to use the keyboard and mouse control scheme.

In the end, Bully was one school of play that I just had to drop out of.

Footnote: This game was the first one I've played here that gave me an opportunity to compare versions across platforms where there was a significant improvement of design. (BloodRayne is pretty much the same over PS2, Xbox, and Gamecube.) I'll have some interesting choices ahead as I get to games that have HD remakes - do I keep to the original version of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, or play the PS3 upgraded remakes?

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Yesterday's Worlds #3: BEA, Black, and Blade

Battle Engine Aquila (Lost Toys/Atari/2003) - New.

You really can learn things from video games. Case in point: Before writing this blog post, I thought Aquila was a made up word. Imagine my surprise when the spell checker didn't flag it as misspelled! A quick Wikipedia check told me it is the Ancient Roman term for "eagle" and it was also what they called their sacred standards (which looked like eagles) carried by each legion. This is a fascinating fact...which has nothing to do with the game.

You pilot a ship (from first person perspective) that can fly or walk on the ground while fighting numerous enemy ships and tanks. You've been chosen for this duty because of your prowess at speedy "forklift" racing - which is odd considering the Battle Engine isn't very fast and you weren't shooting anything while racing. Equally unexplained is why the faction you are fighting for would design a ship incapable of touching water (where it explodes!) in a world where sea levels have risen to a point where land is scarce. I guess the "it should float on the water" engineer was killed by the enemy before production of the Battle Engine. If so, it was an excellent tactical move on their part!

The gameplay reminds me of the old N64 game "Star Wars: Rogue Squadron" - mostly because of the continuous berating of commanders barking orders and the pleas for help from the ships I'm supposed to protect. You know, I play games to relax and have fun. If I enjoyed this kind of abuse, I'd go work at Gamestop.

This isn't a particularly pretty game (it's got that PS1 developer's first PS2 game look to it), but it did have one interesting moment. During an opening battle against flying enemy battleships, I was able to land on the wing of one of the slow moving ones and fire point blank at it until it started to explode and crash. I can't think of any other combat game that would have let me touch, let alone land, on an enemy craft - usually you just die instantly. But this wasn't enough to keep my interest, so I locked, loaded, and moved on to...

Black (Criterion Games/EA Games/2006) - Played before.

I wanted another shot at playing Gun-Porn Black. When it was released, OPM rhetorically asked if it was the last great game of the PS2 (which it turned out it wasn't, but the reviewer was so impressed he gave the game a 10/10). The game got considerable press coverage because Criterion was at that point only known for making kick-ass racing games (ie, the Burnout series). Plus it looked amazing for the hardware it ran on (PS2 and Xbox) and this in a time before Call of Duty had settled into dominance on the console scene. Had things worked out differently, the game coming out today (11/5/13) might have been called "Black: Ghosts".

The first level of the game was brilliant - a fairly easy battle on war torn city streets ending with you making an RPG shot at a sniper in a bell tower and watching it crumble to the ground. It takes about 10-15 minutes to get through. Then, something happened. The next level is more of a stealth mission, making you creep through a forest setting around armed guards to reach a border checkpoint that you have to fight your way through. There are few health packs to find (no auto-regenerating health here), all enemy soldiers seem to be immune from anything but headshots, and the level goes on forever - according to the FAQ I read it can take about an hour and a half to complete! And all of this without any checkpoints to go back to or even a map to follow! I can only suspect that the designers were too used to racing games and didn't know the kinds of things that FPS games need to be playable. From a technical aspect, they hit the mark, but the fun part of the game hits the brakes too early and winds up in the ditch. So, I left the burning wreck and went for a day walk to...

Blade II (Mucky Foot Productions/Activision/2002) - New.

Oh dear, another flag bearer to carry on the stereotype of bad movie tie-in games. This one showed no shame in its intention, running an ad for the movie's release on DVD before the game even started! All the usual suspects are here - the story has nothing to do with the movie (it's actually set after the events in the movie according to the manual's intro), no voice acting from the original cast, and cheap production values (the game starts in a multi-level parking garage where, big surprise, every level looks like every other level). It's only because I'm a big fan of the movie (the best of the three) that I even gave this an hour before I shut it off.

Monday, November 04, 2013

Yesterday's Worlds #2: Batman Begins....And Finishes!

Batman Begins (Eurocom Entertainment Software/EA Games/2005) - New.

Games that are born for the purpose of cashing in on a movie's release are, for the most part, some of the worst ever made - AEon Flux, previously mentioned here, being a perfect example. But, every once in awhile, the stars align themselves just right (or more accurately, a studio gets enough time, money, talent, support, and wise management) to produce a good movie tie-in game. That magical configuration happened for "Batman Begins".

OK, let me start by saying that this is NOT a "great" game. It's no Ico, God of War, Final Fantasy, or GTA. However, it's a good solid game that does something more license bearing titles should aspire to - it makes you feel like you are playing the movie it's based on. Eurocom was given the support of Warner Brothers to create a game that follows (mostly) the story of Batman Begins (a bit unfortunate as it wasn't the best Batman movie). They were able to get the original actors to do voice overs and to use their likenesses in the game. And the developers were talented enough to make the character models look like the actors!

The gameplay has been called "Splinter Cell for kids" because it's a fairly stripped down stealth game with some brawling (and some Burnout style racing with the Batmobile!). But I see it as just boiling down a stealth game to it's basic, enjoyable parts. Weapon types in the game are kept to a minimum as are special moves and stealth techniques. Objectives such as grapple points or doors are highlighted, but it's up to the player to figure out how to reach them. This usually comes down to finding a ladder, pipe, box, air shaft, or hanging chain to use. None of these are highlighted, so it becomes a matter of really looking at your environment to find them. They are never hard to find, but blend in just well enough that it makes it satisfying when you do. It's a great way to give the player direction without putting a big arrow over his head.

A unique system is used when fighting. Enemies are either armed or not armed. Batman, being a regular Joe, albeit with lots of gadgets and ninja moves, can't survive a fight against thugs with guns. (When dying in a hail of bullets, Batman sort of slumps down on his knees and falls over. It's a bit comical really, as if he's saying to himself, "Whelp, that didn't work!" since he knows he's about to get a cartoon style resurrection.) Instead, Batman needs to do something in the environment that scares the bad guys into dropping their guns. One scene has him using a computer system to eject bodies from a morgue storage unit, but usually it involves breaking support beams or cables making something fall close by them. This is the "fear" element in the game. Once the criminals are scared and disarmed, Batman can swoop down and bust some heads. I can't say I ever really got the hang of the brawling. Most of the time I was just mashing the square button and waiting for a prompt to hit the circle button for a special move, but it was still fun to take on 3 or more dudes and come out with only a couple of dings.

At several points, I was very impressed with the scale of locations in the game. Large outdoor environments and cavernous underground chambers, nothing that would cause any current gen console any problems, but were serious challenges for PS2 developers. The graphics may look basic by today's standards, but they prove that quality design is more important than eye candy.

Part way through something occurred to me as to why I was enjoying "Batman Begins" so much. It wasn't just the stealth mechanic (which usually just frustrates me), or that I was making steady progress each time I booted it up (due to a very intelligent checkpoint system), or even that it was a Batman game (before The Dark Knight I wasn't much of a Batfan). No, I realized the reason was, I wasn't killing anyone. I found this oddly refreshing. So many games now (like the recent Tomb Raider reboot) put you in the position of murdering dozens of opponents (admittedly in self-defense) leaving you with a stain on your virtual conscience of having taken many lives.

Unlike most of the games I play, both in this playthrough and in general, I finished "Batman Begins". The game kept drawing me back without ever throwing up some sort of frustrating road block to discourage me. I think it was a very underrated game for it's time, falling under the specter of typical movie tie-in schlock. It's games like this one, lost gems of the PS2 era, that I had hoped to discover. Certainly in this case, it's mission accomplished.

Footnote: With this game being designed to match the movie's story and the quality of the production (both from good development and studio support), I couldn't help but wonder where the game was for the sequel, The Dark Knight. A little digging led me to the find that there was a game planned, but it was not to be made by Eurocom. In early 2007, EA had picked Pandemic Australia to make a Batman game for the PS3 and Xbox 360. Then, with only months before The Dark Knight was to be released (in July 2008),  EA told Pandemic AU that the game needed to be a movie tie-in title and that it had to be "open world". Pandemic wasn't able to get their engine from "The Saboteur" to handle the in-game environments and, with their Batman license expiring at the end of 2008, EA canceled the game, and shortly thereafter, the studio. One can also imagine that Heath Ledger's death in January 2008 would have complicated any efforts to make a game true to the movie. After this disaster, the next Batman game, Arkham Asylum (2009) redirected the franchise toward the comic books and animated series. The success of it and the subsequent game, Arkham City, probably made the creation of a Dark Knight Rising game unnecessary.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Yesterday's Worlds #1 : Gauls, Gates, and Bards

Welcome to the latest installment in my recently renamed game collection playthrough, Yesterday's Worlds.

Over the years I've collected a lot of games, and I've always had a particularly soft spot for the 6th generation titles - those from the PS2, Xbox, and Gamecube systems. I can't help but look back at this time as a Golden Age of gaming - systems powerful enough to create detailed, immersive experiences, within an industry full of developers and publishers still willing to take risks on new gaming concepts and having the financial means to produce them on a major scale. History proved that, financially, this was not a viable market model, one that became even riskier as more advanced consoles required even larger investments for development.

So, as the 8th generation dawns, I will chronicle some of these fading treasures...along with some that should probably have been rightfully forgotten!

(A note: Previous entries in this series were titled "Back to the Past". The information in the parenthesis are Developer/Publisher/Year of Release.)

Asterix & Obelix Kick Buttix - (Etranges Libellules/Atari/2004) Not played before, buy demoed.

The fact that this game was ever released in the US still amazes me. (As an interesting side note, the full title doesn't appear in the game, just "Asterix & Obelix".) The Asterix comics are a big deal in France (where they've made movies from them as well), but they were never anything that caught on here. The only reason I know of Asterix is my mom was a big fan of them in the 70's and I read the comic books as a child (and by "books", I mean things that would be called graphic novels today). She was no doubt attracted to the historical humor in them and I found them fun to read too. But whatever charm the comics had, this game does not. It's basically a standard 3-D platformer, like a Spyro game, with characters from the books. Granted, they did an excellent job of animating the comics, but it doesn't mean the game is fun to play. You spend all your time beating up Roman soldiers and collecting their helmets. It got old real quick.

Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance - (Snowblind Studios/Vivendi Universal/2001) Already played and finished!

When magazines make lists of the best co-op games of all-time, this one always makes the cut. I played through it with my brother and it was a truly glorious experience. It's a great D&D RPG game that's perfectly balanced and never gets repetitive. I'd play this game again in a heartbeat! It's a shame that the sequel wasn't as good.

The Bard's Tale - (InXile Entertainment/InXile Entertainment/2005) Not played before.

It's ironic to have this game immediately follow Dark Alliance, because everything it was, The Bard's Tale isn't. Yes, it's funny, when its AI creatures aren't beating the crap out of you. Yes, it's got good music (Tommy Tallarico, the man who is now behind the Videogame Live concerts worked on it), but the camera angle is terrible - nearly directly overhead. Yes, it has some serious voice talent from Cary Elwes and Tony Jay, but for a game that was 5 years into the PS2's life cycle, it looks like ass! With my umpteenth death, and the Narrator saying "Thus endth the Bard's Tale", it did.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Rethinking and Renaming

The process for coming up with names for things fall into two categories - either the idea just falls out of your head without any effort, or your brain cells form a committee and debate until the pigs come home (they stay out much later than cows). Currently, I'm watching to catch sight of the first little piggy foot coming down the lane while the sky lightens in the east over the sleeping cows.

Because I can't think of what I want to rename this project of mine.

"Back to the Past" seemed good at first, but it doesn't really work. I suppose I took the idea from the old "Back to the Future" movie title, but it worked because of the nonsensical juxtaposition of the words "Back" and "Future". "Back" and "Past" go together just fine. So, I'm going to try "brain jamming" here and see what else I can come up with.

"Retro Gaming Rampage" - This one is a take-off on "Retro City Rampage", a game I keep seeing mentioned on websites lately. I haven't played it yet, so I don't feel any real affinity for the title. It just sounds sort of cool, but the speed I'm playing games at can't be called a "rampage". Plus, my gaming isn't truly "retro". I think I'd need to be in SNES or NES days for that.

"The Wowbagger Project" - I've talked about this name before, taking a reference from one of my favorite authors, Douglas Adams. Wowbagger was the alien that had dedicated his immortal existence to insulting every creature in the universe - in alphabetical order. Since I'm planning on playing every game in my collection in that sequence, it has some merit.

"The PS2 Atoz Project" - I rather like this one. In one of my unfinished blogs, I talked about an old Star Trek Original series episode where Kirk, Spock and McCoy beam down to a doomed planet and find that all the citizens have fled (ie, teleported) into the numerous worlds kept cataloged by the master "librarian", Mr. Atoz. This was probably an analogy to people getting "lost in books" and the "importance of libraries" (or my interpretation anyway), and the librarian's name was just "A" to "Z" made into a name, but it came back to me in this day and age for a different reason. The books/worlds in the show were shiny metal discs, very similar in look to our present day CD's and DVD's. But mostly it was this feeling of being able to enter another world just by loading up one these discs. In many ways that's what I think of when I boot up a game - that I'm stepping into a different reality, bounded in ours within the thinness of a DVD.

The title of that episode was "All Our Yesterdays", and it seems appropriate that I rechristen this blog series as "Yesterday's Worlds".

Oh look, here come the little swine now.

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Back to the Past #3 - Area 51 and Armored Core 2

Area-51 (Midway Austin/Midway/2005) - Played before, but decided to give it another try.

I remember when this game was released. Who could miss it? Midway spared little expense in plastering ads in magazines and setting up looping video clips in Gamestop. According to my blog, I first played it about 5 years ago and wasn't overly impressed. Part of that was probably due to the poor setup I had for playing PS2 games then, but I suspect it also had something to do with my general dislike for playing FPS games with a controller. With the exception of Halo, I don't think I've ever played an FPS that wouldn't have been better with a mouse and keyboard. But when the only way to play a game is on console, you just have to bite the (haha) bullet and pick up a gamepad. As it turned out, I rather liked the control scheme on the PS2 controller and had little trouble scoring kills without spraying ammo around like a killer lawn sprinkler.

On replaying Area-51, I found it to be surprisingly fun...for awhile at least. It's a very competent shooter where the guns are fun to shoot, bad guys fall down or explode on cue, and the environments are varied enough that you don't feel like you're always running down the same corridor. There's even a couple of hovering UFO's, things you'd expect to find in Area-51.

I'll admit that I have no idea what the story is supposed to be about. Something about me being part of a "Hazmat" Delta team (which means we have guns instead of mops) responding to an incident at Area-51 which caused the first responders to mutate into creatures (who still know how to carry and fire guns, by the way), and finding some Illuminati commandos trying to take over the place to use the alien technology for their own nefarious purposes, and a crazy scientist that's trying to find a link between humans and aliens, and is using my character to study the effects of this alien virus, and...well, you get the idea. Basically it boils down to the usual - shoot everything that moves because it will kill you if you don't.

There were times I felt I was just playing an upgraded version of Doom - find the door, find the key for the door, go back to the door, open the door, hit a switch - but the action was broken up into small chunks with cutscenes which kept it from getting too repetitive, oddly enough. The other thing that made it somewhat unique is that after you get infected by the alien virus you can turn into a mutant yourself, which basically allows you to go into a rampage mode. In this mode you can take out enemies with a single swipe of your claw instead of using a bunch of bullets. There was one room where I realized that this was the only way to clear out the place, having died multiple times using just firearms and grenades.

You do have to wonder about the wisdom of them picking David Duchovny to do the main character voice acting. Yeah, on the one hand it adds all sorts of geek points because he was Fox Mulder on the X-Files and this is a game about aliens. But on the other, somewhat heavier hand, you're playing as a special ops soldier, a one-man killing machine of mutants and ET's alike. If I were casting a movie, Mr. Duchovny would not be on my interview list. He has a soft spoken, almost melancholy voice that most reviewers seemed to just write off as his being uninterested in the part, when in reality he just wasn't the right voice for the job. They would have done much better getting Michael Biehn (Hicks from Aliens). He can at least sound like a soldier.

I actually thought I'd finish Area-51, but I didn't count on the difficulty increasing so quickly! When I reached a room where I kept dying over and over again, I thought I might be near the end. However, after checking Gamefaqs, I found I was only slightly over half way through and it would only get worse from there. Truly a shame since this is a fun game up until it gets so frustrating.

I know publishers don't care about how much a gamer sees of a game - they already have your money from the initial purchase and don't get any more whether or not you finish it. But I do feel for the designers of the later levels. So much of their work will go unseen by gamers because they (like me) were unable to make it that far. It's times like this that more games should have an invincible God Mode just so the whole game can be experienced. (I used a mode like this for an old PS1 game, Fear Effect, and it was the only way I would have made it to the ending.) At this point, I feel like I've got only half a game, the other half being kept behind a wall I cannot climb, a wall to just beat my head against until I get a headache and move on.

Armored Core 2 (From Software/Agetec Inc./2000) - New.

Some of the games in my collection were purchased with little or no real understanding of the franchise from which they came or the circumstances surrounding their release. Armored Core 2 is a perfect example.

Had I known this was a PS2 launch title, I would have checked it out during my 7 day Gamestop trial period and promptly returned it. The developer, From Software, was apparently resistant to even the most basic improvements in controller interfaces and as a result I'd hazard to guess this may be the only PS2 title that exclusively uses the directional buttons for movement. I can understand that layout for a PS1 title as the thumbsticks on the DualShock were not part of the original controller design, but the PS2 shipped with the DualShock 2!

Beyond the primitive control scheme, this is a series aimed at only the serious Otaku-types. The level of customization is mind numbing! This game is a casual game experience in the same way brain surgery is a minor medical procedure. Needless to say, this one went back into the case and onto the shelf again.

Other things: As I progress through my collection of 6th generation gems, I've decided to go a bit more retro and start using a real DualShock 2 controller. Yep, wires and all. While Logitech made a very fine wireless controller, the thumbsticks on it are not the same size and height as the Sony unit. This gives a slightly looser feel to movement and the R3/L3 buttons react differently, as well. And there is the issue of rumble. On wireless controllers, you often want to turn it off as it uses up the batteries faster and it's easy to accidentally deactivate it as the toggle button for it is just north of the Select button. However, rumble can be very important to some games - something like Rez makes it an integral part of the gameplay.

In a way, I wish I still had my old 27" Sony tube TV to play on (it was so cutting edge for it's day!), but I'll admit that there is a line I'm not willing to cross. The output of the PS2, even with component cables, may not be perfect on an LCD TV, but those old TV's were literal monsters; the one I had weighed nearly 100 pounds! For the most part, the PS2 graphics hold up well on 1080p screens with an occasional interlace issue cropping up. And I can't deny that playing on something that's nearly an equivalent of a 32" standard size TV screen is nothing short of glorious!

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Back to the Past #2 - Arc the Lad

Arc the Lad: Twilight of the Spirits (Cattle Call/Sony/2003) - New.

This is one of those games that I would never had started playing if I wasn't going through my collection alphabetically. What kind of name is "Arc" for an RPG character? And could there be a more archaic term than "Lad"? Honestly, I don't know what even possessed me to buy this game in the first place. It must have been during one of my Gamestop sweeps, probably during a B2G1F sale as a filler. I know I never specifically looked for this one.

But I should have.While not a classic, this one surprised me in a number of ways.

You alternately play as one of two sons (neither of which are named "Arc" or are called "Lad", so I still have no idea how the title works into the game) who were the product of a union between a human female and a male creature from a race called the Deimos. The "normal" son, Khrag, is determined to protect the humans from the Deimos monsters. The other son, Darc, didn't turn out entirely Deimos-like and is having a very tough time being accepted by anybody in the Deimos community. Of course, neither knows about the other. You can just see the brother-vs-brother battle brewing here!

On the good side, this game is building a very interesting story with characters you can care about in two entirely different environments. Battles in the game (it's a turn-based strategy design) use a unique system of zones of movement without grids, so you feel like you can move anywhere on the battlefield within your movement allowance. The fights I've had in the first two chapters have been challenging, but not punishing - something I appreciate, especially since there's no difficulty setting. And the "wandering" monsters have had some really wacky designs - gelatinous blobs with a single eyeball, eerie looking gnome/dwarf creatures, walking mushrooms with jack-o-lantern mouths, and very nimble rat/kangaroos. The monster designers were much more creative than the character designers - most of the two-legged models move very stiffly.

However, you can also see where this game suffered from Japanese-to-English localization. Some of the character names don't seem to fit - the leader of the local garrison is Lloyd, the guy in charge of the mining operation is Banjo - a bit out of place with other characters who have "exotic" names like Zev and Nafia. The voice acting isn't too bad overall, but there are a couple of characters I could gladly throttle. The worst part is during the battles. When your character or one of your teammates attacks (or defends) he/she says something that the programmers probably thought was clever. Being constantly repeated just makes it annoying. When they cast magic (the only way to do serious damage), there's a whole extra animation it goes through that gets old too with it's own grating sound bite. And why does Darc sound like Clint Eastwood with a sore throat?!

Overall, this Arc the Lad (there were two others for the PS1 and another for the PS2) was an enjoyable experience, but I'm afraid that I just can't handle the voice acting...or that irritating jungle kid. Time to move on.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Back to the Past #1 - A PS2 Retro Gaming Kickoff

The other night I found myself without a PC to game on, my current system being down for cleaning. This got me to thinking about all the Xbox, PS2 and Gamecube games I have next to my computer desk, all  neatly shelved and alphabetically sorted. I began to think that if I'm such a proponent of the "good ol' days" of gaming, I should be willing to go back and actually play these old titles - many of which I HAVE NEVER PLAYED!

So, why not go back and at least try some of the hundreds of games I have and see how they've held up over the years? If not, what's the purpose to keep them all around?

That's how this "Back to the Past" series started.

I decided to start with the Xbox games first, but it was not to be and it highlighted one of the problems inherent to retro gaming. On trying to power on my Xbox console, I found that the power adapter (an upgraded model with a built-in breaker) was now faulty and would not work.

I've always been concerned about what it takes to keep a retro game "alive". It's not just having the disk; you need a working console, cables (and component cables if you want the picture to look half way decent), and controllers. You may also need memory cards and power supplies that are equally hard to obtain anymore. Then there are the upgrades for that generation of consoles - namely wireless controllers as opposed to the standard wired ones. None of these can be taken for granted because no one is making them anymore.

With Xbox not an option for now, I skipped ahead to my PS2 collection. I'm planning on doing this on a straight alphabetical order, taking the good with the bad. However, I won't be playing every game during this play through. I actually have played some of my old games, and when I come across those, I'll give my impressions of what they were like. If I really don't remember the game (or if I just want to try it again), I'll pop it into the console.

Note: The items in parenthesis after the title are Developer/Publisher/Year of Release.

.hack 1-4 (CyberConnect2/Bandai/2003, 2003, 2003, 2004) : Played #1, Infection, before.

An interesting series of JRPG's where you are actually playing a game within a game. You play a character who is playing a game himself, a sort of MMO. Events in that online game begin affect your friends in the "outer" game world. Yeah, sort of confusing to explain - it reminds me of the movie "Inception"! I never got too involved in it, but someday I'd like to watch the anime DVD's that came with each one - a unique pack-in for a game.

007 Nightfire (Eurocom Entertainment Software/EA/2002) : Played before.

As about as generic a shooter as you could make out of the James Bond license. There are lots of better FPS games out there to play.

007 Everything or Nothing (EA Redwood Shores/EA/2004) : Played before.

I've actually played a fair amount of this one and really enjoyed it. The designers came at it like the game was a new James Bond movie on its own. They got voices and likenesses of Pierce Brosnan, Judi Dench, and Willem Dafoe, and even wrote a James Bond movie style opening song - pretty classy for the times. This is one game I might go back and really try to complete someday.

Ace Combat 4 and Ace Combat 5 (Namco/Namco/2001 and 2004) : Played both before.

The game(s) break down into two sections - aerial combat missions that are more arcade action than simulation, and anime style cut scenes about the fictitious war the game is set in along with a lot of "war is bad"/"flying white doves" bits. I could probably play more of both of these, but I haven't, as the saying goes, just "gotten into them" yet.

Activision Anthology (Contraband Entertainment/Activision/2002) : Played before.

I think every retro gamer has a limit on how far they are willing to turn back the technology clock. For me, it's before you get to the NES and Atari 2600 days. Games from those days, especially the Atari 2600, feel like web browser Flash games now. I do feel that collections like this are very important for the preservation of gaming history and the extras they include are often quite interesting, but please don't make me play any more River Raid. Ever!

AEon Flux (Terminal Reality/Majesco Games/2005) : Played before.

Like the vast majority of movie tie-in games, this one is just plain bad. While they went through the trouble to get the likeness and voice of the movie's star, Charlize Theron, they put the game in a ridiculous setting that bears no resemblance to the movie - an underground city with robots and guards during some sort of crazy fashion show! Such a shame. The movie was pretty good and if they had been really daring, they could have tried a game based on the animated series. It would have raised a lot of eye brows and probably sold well just based on how the cartoon character is dressed.

Amplitude (Harmonix Music Systems/Sony/2003) : New.

This was Harmonix's second attempt at a music rhythm game, and it's amazing how little things have changed over the years. Basically, this is almost identical to the portable versions of Rock Band and the recent Rock Band Blitz release - same switching tracks and hitting note discs. Not very interesting by today after years of Guitar Hero and Rock Band.

Ape Escape 2 and 3 (Sony Japan/Ubisoft/2003 and 2006) : Both new.

Very similar game design between them (you play as a kid who has to catch monkeys that are being controlled through special hats by an evil "smarter" monkey), but AE3 has a story that pokes fun at movies, so I've been playing more of it. Part of the joy of this "back to the past" exploration is finding games like this (from Ubisoft, by the way and more about that in a sec) that were made before controller layouts became so standardized. In this game, you select items to use on the monkeys with the face buttons, then swing/activate them with the right thumbstick. You jump with the R1 OR R2 button, and do a change to an upgraded character by pressing both R1 and R2. And this is all just in the first hour or so of play! As for the Ubisoft note, I can't help but think this would be an interesting way for the Rabbid's franchise to go.

Console in the Wild Entries:

CITW #2 - Costco again. Kid playing on a blue 3DS XL. Too bad I didn't have mine for a StreetPass.
CITW #3 - Passed a guy outside of a Starbucks with a white 3DS (XL, I think). He was, however, actually playing/using a smart phone, so not sure if this really counts. I do wish I had asked him where he got the all while model though.

Monday, September 09, 2013

Borderlands - The Next Hour (or so) and first CITW

I went back into Borderlands the other night and started up a Hunter and a Siren (Lilith). As I suspected, there isn't much difference between the classes at the beginning - everyone starts out with a gun of some sort. Once you level up, you can start picking abilities to attack or defend with. I think I'm going to stick with Lilith, if for no other reason than I like to hear her little quips during battles.

My favorite weapon so far is a pistol with a 4X scope on it. It lets me get "up close and personal" with my targets. And there a lot of them! I'm not really used to a game where gun-toting raiders are considered wandering monsters! I'm trying to do a little shopping at the grenade vending machine, and bandits come into town and start a gunfight. No manners whatsoever! There also seem to be these mutant "skags" everywhere so just going across the street to complete a little quest burns up a clip or two of SMG ammo.

But, I'd say I'm enjoying it so I'll stick with it for awhile and see what happens.

Oh, and I fixed the screen tearing issue with a change to one of the games INI files and sped up the framerate by dropping the game down into DX9 compatibility mode.

CITW #1 - which stands for Console In The Wild. With the shift from handheld consoles like Gameboys, DS's and PSP's to iPhones, iPads, and Androids, I'm starting to take note any time I see a kid (or adult, for that matter) using a good ol' fashioned game system. In case you hadn't noticed, it's getting to be a rare occurrence! My first sighting for this (and it's been awhile already) was over the weekend at a Costco - a boy playing a silver Gameboy Advance SP. Keep the faith, kid!

Friday, September 06, 2013

Borderlands - First Impressions

I got a chance to play a little Borderlands last night (about an hour's worth) and since I basically came at this one with very little background on it, I thought I'd put down a few notes.

In no particular order, here is what I think so far:

  • I love that the Cage the Elephant song, "Ain't No Rest for the Wicked", is actually in the game! So often the publisher just uses a catchy song for the trailers, but you never hear it after that. Kudos!
  • Could Gearbox have made the video tuning any more confusing? It is sorely missing a "Suggested Settings" button. I'm no novice at games, but I don't know what practically any of the video options really do and, more importantly, which ones will tax my video and CPU setup. The default startup is no help, configuring the game to 640x480 and turning off everything else. And the one thing I could really use, and it doesn't have, is a V-sync toggle! I'm seeing some annoying screen tearing.
  • I like the cell-shaded art design (ie, comic-book look), but maybe that's because I've been playing a lot of The Walking Dead recently and have just gotten used to it. If it looked more "real", you'd think you were playing Rage.
  • Biggest disappointment so far has to be that while the trailers gave you the impression you were going to be fighting with a group of 4 characters, you have to pick one at the beginning and, I'm guessing, stick with him/her for the duration of the game. I chose the Soldier since he seemed the basic CoD type, but I have to wonder how the Hunter and Tank(?) would be different. More hand-to-hand with the Hunter, but how do you get close enough without being shot too much? I guess the Tank can use heavier weapons? Obviously, the chick can use some sorts of magic. I'll have to try the other classes and see the differences. The Soldier might be too ordinary to play the whole game with.
  • They don't waste any time getting you into the action. I was shooting wasteland raiders almost as soon as I got off the bus. Can't complain about lengthy opening cut scenes.
  • Not sure about the shooting mechanics yet. Yeah, I know, I'm in the early part of the game and I do know you get upgraded weapons as you progress, but I'd like to see a bit more reaction from my targets when I three-shot burst them with my assault rifle. Seems like it takes a few too many bullets to put them down. At least ammo isn't an issue as there is lots of it around. Even in toilets!
  • Why is "aiming" with the pistol practically useless? It looks like the targeting reticle disappears when you try it.
  • Even at this early stage, some of the game feels clunky. I've had characters try to talk to me while mission overviews and completion notices pop-up over them that are accompanied by sound effects.
  • At least so far, I'm finding Claptrap very funny!
So, that's all for now. Stay tuned for more!

Thursday, September 05, 2013

Dead Duke Rage Space Limbo

Does the title of this post make sense? Well, to me it sort of does.

I think of it as a new beginning.

Last night, I cleaned off a few games from my PC that I've either completed (Dead Space and Limbo) or should really move on from (Duke Nukem Forever and Rage). The latter ones were holding me back, especially Rage that I had bought new DLC for. While I enjoyed Rage, there are other games out there I would like to play, and trying to get a fairly "meh" add-on working just wasn't a good use of game-time. The game would either lose audio or start and stop randomly. Glad that didn't happen when I was playing it through.

Currently I'm thinking about diving into Borderlands, but XCom is also a serious contender. My collection of Steam games is over 500 now, so I think I can find something to play! I played some of the Bit.Trip games after my "purge" and I have to ask, "Why are they so fricking hard?!" They are probably good for reaction training, given that my reactions have slowed down considerably over the years, but would checkpoints really have spoiled things that much? Sheesh!

Lots of talk about the upcoming console releases. Both the PS4 and Xbox One are releasing in November, and the Wii U is heading into it's second holiday season. With the mountains of games I still have to play, I don't see getting any of them for a long time, but I know I'm not the target audience, so no big surprise. I think there will be a new PC in 2014, however, as my dual core CPU is starting to seem underpowered.

It's interesting now that games are either low-spec-requirement indies, or super-high-end AAA franchise offerings from 2 or 3 main publishers. The whole middle range of games has pretty much vanished. And the #1 game people are playing online isn't WoW, it's LoL, and everyone is designing MOBA's because of it.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Next Generation

With the recent reveal of the new Xbox, we are now firmly on our way to "the next generation" of video game consoles. Over the years I've done this blog, I've commented on new systems and made predictions about their futures (most of which were massively short-sighted and wrong). So, why miss an opportunity to do it again?

Because I don't really know what I'm talking about! I'm not a market analyst or a game journalist. I'm lucky if I can put a sentence together that doesn't sound like gibberish most of the time. And, I'm not even in the demographic that these companies are looking at - that 20-30 year old male with disposable income who watches sports and plays Call of Duty multiplayer for hours. Instead, I'm going to look at my concerns for my gaming future and how it may change.

Mostly, I don't want what I have to change. Microsoft and Sony are looking to obsolete pretty much everything we've enjoyed over the last 6-7 years so they can sell it to us all over again. At least when we made the PS2 to PS3 and Xbox to Xbox 360 jump, there was a good reason - wide-screen HD gaming. These new consoles only have more graphics power, which is nice, but do we really need it?

What's going to happen to the current Xbox Live and PSN? Not that I play on them, but I do depend on them for game updates. How long will those companies keep the servers running? Legally they can turn them off whenever they want to. And the longer they support the old systems, the less incentive there is for people to buy the new consoles and games. What if I have to replace a console and have to get a patch for a game again? The worst thing I think I've heard is that downloadable content won't transfer to the new systems. At least that's one thing that Nintendo worked out.

Overall, my take on the new consoles boils down to a new appreciation for 3DS and PC gaming via Steam, and the likely purchase of a Wii U in the near future (once they announce a new Mario Kart with a track editor and race options).

Friday, April 05, 2013

Finishing up in 2012

(I never got around to finishing this...which I guess is highly poetic. Finally, here it is.)

Well, here we are in 2013. Time, I think, to look back on 2012, but not, as in previous years, to just games I've played. This year my post will be about games I've actually finished!

Oddly enough, the tail end of 2012 found me at the end of more games than I can remember being at in any previous year. I am famous for buying games (usually in large and unreasonable quantities), and I do actually play some games, but I've had problems over the years "going all the way" in nearly everyone I've started.

The reasons vary for why I stop playing a game. Most of the time it's boredom. A lot of games just reuse the same mechanic over and over again to the point that I just don't want to keep playing it. Some games get ridiculously difficult toward the end and unless I turn on God Mode (which I've done before *cough* Fear Effect *cough*) there's no way I have enough time to work through it. Also in the past, I haven't had as good a setup for my gaming as I do now, and Steam has helped considerably since I now no longer have to keep finding the boot up disc for the game before I can play it.

But, before I get further afield of where I was going, here are the Games I Finished in 2012:

 Rage - Time to complete: ~26 hours. This was the first game in a long time that I really decided to get serious about finishing. While not a critical success with anyone (a trend I seem to follow for games I end up playing), I found it rewarding and fun to play. Guns went boom, targets (ie, mutants) went splat, and the environments were entertainingly post-apocalyptic with remarkable rendering. I never felt like I was on an interminable level or mission, and when I got time to play, I was able to finish a section, save and feel like I had accomplished something.
Favorite Thing: Shooting an armored guard in the foot, with the dynamite-loaded crossbow under his riot shield, having him jump around in panic, then blowing up behind his shield and taking out two other guards behind him. That and the opening cinematic.
Worst Thing: Finding the dune buggy, jumping into it, backing up, turning around, driving to the enemy barricade, and finding out that I could have walked there quicker - and without getting blown up by a rocket!

Duke Nukem Forever - Time to complete: ~20 hours. I'll admit, I drank the Kool-Aide on this one when it came out and dropped full price for the "Balls of Steel" edition. I've mentioned before on this blog that I was a big fan of the original Duke 3D game since it was the first shooter I played where I was walking around something that looked like a city. I waited and waited and laughed at the unbelievable timeline this game took to market, but in the end, I think they made a pretty good game. It's completely un-PC, but that's the point - if it weren't, it wouldn't be Duke Nukem! I played part of this when I got it in 2011, but got stuck in the alien ship and stopped. After finishing Rage, I thought I'd give it a try again and was able to break through and get all the way to the end without hitting too many problem areas. Mind you, I did turn on the option that allows you to hold 4 weapons instead of just 2. That tip was one of the most useful things the loading screens ever told me. And I'll say to anyone who thinks this game is dumb, ugly, or stupid, just look at the art work and demo reels for the version of the game they were working on while it was still at 3D Realms. We should be very happy that isn't the version that got released!
Favorite Thing: I'm not proud - I'll say the "lap dance" Duke sees when he's recovering from his injuries. I admire a game that says "Nudity" on the box and delivers!
Worst Thing: Being inside the alien ship and not being able to figure out where the F**K I had to go!

Limbo - Time to complete: ~7 hours. I got into Limbo primarily because it was one of a handful of games that had become a "must play" title for anyone who was serious about video games. The art style is bleak, done entirely with black and shades of grey. It consists of a little boy's journey to find his sister, or so I've been told. There's nothing in the game that tells you this, or anything about where you are, but it would seem, at least from the title, that you are in a place between life and death - Limbo. Environments range from calm lakes and grassy hillsides to industrial nightmares and giant cogwheels. There are no clearly defined stages, no "World 3-1" signs, but you know when you are done in an area. Each section presents you with a puzzle to solve with a very limited number of variables. I always felt like I had done something special each time I put it together (I only had to look up an FAQ once) and made it across to the next one. I died a lot, and each death had a singularly visceral feel to it. They were brutal deaths, made even more so by the fact the victim (me) was a small boy. I only played this game at night, with the lights off and headphones on. I felt sometimes like I was controlling myself in a nightmare, and even now, months after finishing it, I still get a profound feeling of dread and gloom when I think about the world I traveled in. (The spider-leg creatures will probably give me nightmares for the rest of my life!)
Favorite Thing: Seeing my character's "sister" for the first time. I felt like all I was going through was going to be worth the struggle.
Worst Thing: For all that I (the virtual "I") had gone through, the ending was painfully short.

The Walking Dead - Time to complete: ~16 hours. It's no secret that I love almost anything related to zombies. When I first heard of this game, I was immediately interested because I was already a fan of the comic and TV show. It also helped that the game was being sold in $5 episodes, so I knew I had a good chance of finishing the whole group. I also felt a certain community push to keep up with the story, like not getting too far behind a popular TV show. It's a fantastic experience, but I don't know if I'd call it a game. More than any video game I've played, this felt like I was controlling a character in an animated TV show. When you get to the end you realize how tightly controlled your actions have been the whole time. The "game" allows you to make different choices at certain points, but you basically just take a slightly different route to the same destination. But those little differences (who you save or don't save, things you choose to do or not do), shape the story for the player. This isn't a game of points, or leveling up, or weapon hoarding, or blasting walking corpses. The action elements are very simple and are there to give more interactivity to the experience, but they are purposefully designed (at least, I think they were) to be easy enough to breeze through and not derail the underlying story you are dealing with. If you miss something like hitting a zombie, you die and have to start over from a checkpoint. That happened to me a few times, but it didn't happen so often that it kept me from concentrating on the story.
Favorite Thing: Being Clementine's protector and replacement "dad". 
Worst Thing: That stupid pillow in the motel parking lot! The only time I had to look up an FAQ because I didn't see it on my dimly lit TV display (I finished the game on the PC).

Journey - Time to complete: ~3 hours. Journey was another of the games to come out in 2012 that fell into the "must play to stay current with video games" category. Everything I heard about it said it was an amazing, if short, experience not to be missed. At its core, Journey is a very simple, 3rd person perspective platformer. There are a couple of very simple instructions given at the beginning as to the controls. You have no "hearts" or "lives". You can't die and at the start you know where you are supposed to go - just keep heading for that big beacon on the mountain in the distance. The "game" is your "journey" there and what you find on the way. And what you find is nothing short of magical! If Limbo was my nightmares, than Journey was my dreams. Pillars supporting huge bridges, towers of lights, oceans of gleaming sands, a mysterious series of tapestries, and always there is the mountain to climb. What the game lacked in mechanics, it more than made up for in the experience of getting to my ultimate goal.
Favorite Thing: Occasionally, I would see another caped avatar like myself, traveling to the mountain as well, and he (it?) would even try to help me. What I didn't know at the time I played it was that it was actually someone else playing the game at the same time as me, merging into my (assumed) single player instance. When I found that out later, it kind of blew my mind!
Worst Thing: That I haven't had a chance to go back and replay it and look for another traveler!

Dead Space - Time to complete: 15/22 hours (first time is what the save file listed, second is how long Steam said I played it). Looking back on this one, I truly wonder what kept me going to get through it. As video game stories go, it was fairly lame. You play as a mute (figuratively, not literally) crew member of a stranded party on a ship filled with monsters that make the ones in The Thing look like cuddly kittens. When the game starts you get separated almost immediately and spend the rest of the game talking to 3 or 4 of the other crew members as they tell you what "must be done right away" in order to get something else to work if they are ever going to have a chance of getting off the derelict space ship, the Ishimura. After awhile you just want to shout, "Do it yourself, if it's so important to you!" I know it necessary to make objectives in a game, but it would have been nice if I could have just explored the ship more and not had to always just run around and do someone else's tasks.
Favorite Thing: Seeing the Marker for the first time was pretty cool. I also like the way Issac struts out of the booth after his suit gets upgrades and then admires his new outfit. You have to look good when mutants want to eat your organs.
Worst Thing: Hearing "Thanks, Issac. It's working fine now....Damn! Issac, you need to..." all the time!