Showing posts with label PS3. Show all posts
Showing posts with label PS3. Show all posts

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow Review

Hours of Patrick Stewart. This is the first thing players should know about Castlevania: Lords of Shadow. There is so much Patrick Stewart here it may give even the hardiest Next Generation fans pause. Patrick Stewart not only narrates the entire experience, but he is a major character in Lords of Shadow as well.

The game throws players into the action quickly as Gabriel Belmont. You are initially tasked with protecting a small village from a band of attacking werewolves. A tutorial encompassing basic combos, dodging, ranged attacks, and quick time events is included here. Combat is fairly simplistic, and even with most of the moves unlocked by the end of the game, players should not feel overwhelmed. Gabriel's weapon of choice is the Combat Cross, a metal cross with a retractable chain whip. The whip is used as both a melee weapon and a Bionic Commando style grappling hook. It can be used to grab enemies at range, or to swing Gabriel to otherwise unreachable areas, but sadly the grappling aspect is contextual.

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is by no means an open world game. Players may feel as if they are on rails at times, and some levels feel absolutely claustrophobic. Each level has multiple branching paths, and once a path is chosen, most will not allow players to backtrack and explore the alternate fork. To me this feels like artificial replay value, forcing me to replay the level simply to find out what I potentially missed. After each level is completed, the game provides a summary page detailing what items were available in the level and what the player has missed, serving to tease completionists into another round.

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow periodically provides upgrades to both the Combat Cross, and Gabriel's combat abilities. Things such as light and dark magic, double jump, sprint, and hand to hand combat are distributed after downing the games various bosses. This serves to encourage exploration of previously completed levels using newly acquired abilities. Players earn currency by defeating enemies, which can then be used to purchase additional combos or special magical moves from the game's menu at any time.

While I've heard talk of Castlevania: Lords of Shadow taking 20-25 hours for many to complete, I ran through the game in about 15 or so. The game has four modes of difficulty, but certain mechanics keep the game from being overly challenging. Human sized enemies can be grabbed at range and instantly killed via a single button quick time mechanic. This, combined with the fact that Gabriel is invulnerable during the grab animation, make dispatching large groups of enemies a breeze. This tactic feels so cheap at times I felt ashamed to use it, prefering instead to chalk it up as a design flaw and use Gabriel's normal fighting mechanics in all but the most dire of circumstances.

Enemies and character's are interesting, and level locations are varied and detailed, ranging from swamps to gothic cathedrals. Bosses are generally epic, however they seem to get easier as the game goes along. The first Dark Lord is quite a challenge, but the game never seems to hit this high note a second time. While it's possible the initial boss forced me to get better at the game's combat systems, the challenge was not proportionally increased throughout the remainder of the game.

Patrick Stewart pushes the narrative along between levels, explaining Gabriel's emotional struggles and introducing the newest locale. However the game never takes the time to emotionally develop Gabriel through it's various cutscenes. The story itself has several twists and turns, but the ending is cryptic and forgettable, leaving plenty of room for DLC or sequels to expound upon. Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is fun, especially for fans of the action genre, but a shallow narrative, lack of genuine replayability, and a combat system that feels gimmicky at times serve to keep Castlevania: Lords of Shadow from being a must have title this season.

Monday, April 25, 2011

5 reasons to hate Metal Gear Solid

1. Fantastically long-winded cutscenes
This is an admittedly easy target, but it’s still one of the most valid – and most-repeated – complaints that can be leveled against Metal Gear as a franchise. A poster child for the idea that Japanese developers are more interested in making movies than games, Metal Gear is notorious for making players spend as much time sitting through long, exposition-heavy cutscenes and codec conversations as they do actually playing the game. Those cutscenes don’t always have much to do with the plot, either, frequently digressing into historical background or musings on the military-industrial complex.
This approach reached a fever pitch in Metal Gear Solid 4, which tried to make up for its lengthier, more dialogue-heavy cutscenes by actually letting you drive the little Metal Gear Mk. II robot around inside of them, hunting for items (and being totally unable to affect the cutscene in any real way). More recently, the series appears to have finally gotten its shit together, as the cutscenes in Portable Ops and Peace Walker never felt overly long – but let’s wait and see what happens when the series returns to a non-handheld platform before we declare this one fixed.

2. The Raiden bait-and-switch
It’s hard to think of a game that was as strongly anticipated pre-release, and then almost as strongly reviled post-release, as Metal Gear Solid 2. And it was all over one little flaw: it didn’t star Solid Snake. Instead, MGS2 forced us to play through its story as whiny, self-absorbed pretty-boy Raiden. Making matters worse, creator Hideo Kojima had deliberately misled fans about the switch, never indicating that there would be a new protagonist just so he could surprise players with it.
The surprise was pulled off beautifully, but it turned out that a lot of Metal Gear fans don’t like surprises – especially not when they involve a beloved main character being absent for much of the game. Eventually, people got over it, but Raiden remains the only Metal Gear hero who had to be completely redesigned as an impossibly badass cyborg ninja before anyone would even consider liking him as a character.

3. Your enemies are colossal morons
Call this one a concession to fun gameplay, but if we were guarding a top-secret facility, and we spotted some old guy who wasn’t supposed to be there, we wouldn’t give the all-clear after a sweep of the immediate area turned up nothing but a suspiciously open vent and a cardboard box that wasn’t there a minute ago.

4. The story’s more needlessly convoluted than Lost
Metal Gear’s story, rife as it is with betrayals and secret conspiracies, has never exactly been straightforward. Beginning with MGS2, however, its complexity became preposterously hard to follow, continually delving into weird aspects of the characters’ backstories and tossing up red herrings and confusing new developments. There were multiple conspiracies to keep track of (The Patriots? The Philosophers? The Sons of Liberty? La lu li le lo?), each with several hidden puppet-masters. Certain major plot points actually made less sense when they were explained. (Ocelot tricked himself into believing he was being taken over by Liquid Snake’s arm, just to mislead the Patriots? That’s… creative.)
Then there’s all the weird supernatural stuff, like the ghostly Sorrow, the surreal Psycho Mantis encounter and the bee-filled The Pain. That’s not to mention all the characters who can’t seem to stay dead no matter how many times we see them “die.” As the series continues to break its own rules, muddle its own continuity and become increasingly silly and hard to keep track of, we can’t shake the feeling that Kojima’s doing it just to mess with us.

5. Don’t like PSP? Too bad
For the past 13 years, Metal Gear Solid has become closely associated with the PlayStation brand, so it isn’t exactly surprising that there would be Metal Gear games on the PSP. What is surprising is that two of those games would be must-play, canonical chapters in the franchise, meaning that if you’re not a fan of the ever-less-appealing PSP, or of the idea of playing huge adventure games on a handheld, you’re left out in the cold.
Honestly, though, we’d probably find the idea a lot more appealing if it weren’t for the fact that Peace Walker ditched Metal Gear’s tradition of solo sneakery in exchange for a four-player approach that’s much closer to the Monster Hunter games. And, like in Monster Hunter, you’re going to have an awfully hard time bringing down Peace Walker’s huge bosses without ad-hoc help. Is it still possible to fight them on your own? Sure, but bringing friends along means a serious advantage – as well as a fundamental betrayal of everything Metal Gear has previously stood for.


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Sunday, April 24, 2011

Portal 2

The original Portal had the element of surprise. Its style of first-person physics-based puzzle gameplay was unique. GLaDOS, the murderous robotic villain, was new and vibrant and evil in the most charming way. Cake jokes and songs about surviving dismemberment were still hilarious. It was short, succinct and essential. Creating a sequel without playing all the same notes and making it feel like Portal: The Longer Version is a tough task. For Valve, it's apparently no problem.

From the first moments of waking up in the rusting Aperture Science facility to right before the credits roll, Portal 2 rarely falters. The world is bigger, the story thicker, and the character development more surprising. The mania of GLaDOS, the facility's operator, is molded into unexpected forms alongside a host of brutally funny personalities. The history of the Aperture Science facility is filled in, character origins discussed, and though its pacing suffers as it occasionally strikes a more serious tone, an abundance of cruel jokes and cheerfully sincere death threats prevent it from losing its sarcastic charm. When you're not staring at your screen with wrinkled, pained expression on your face trying to figure out a puzzle, expect to be laughing.

You still play as Chell, dragged back into Aperture after the events of the first game. You soon meet Wheatley, a spherical robot, voiced by Stephen Merchant (The Ricky Gervais Show, Extras) who helps you through the early stages. It's difficult to overstate how Merchant's obvious enthusiasm for the role benefits the game. No word Wheatley speaks is without witty inflection, and the consistently clever writing perfectly complements the onscreen action. It's easy to be be just as concerned about missing lines of dialogue as about progressing through the puzzles, especially during Wheatley and GLaDOS' verbal sparring matches.
The attention to detail throughout is nothing short of stunning. The facility is in a state of disrepair at the beginning. Once GLaDOS whirs into action, so does the facility, becoming an extension of her body and personality. When you enter a room mechanized crane arms and wall plates spin and shift with an urgency like you walked in on them with their pants down. As Portal 2 progresses, the environments expand from claustrophobic test chambers to yawning underground chasms. Metal girders and structural supports break and crash into each another, snapping apart in chaotic and natural ways, consistently serving not only to entertain the eye but to expand our understanding of the game's characters. The core appeal of something like Portal will never be the visuals, but it's still impressive how much mileage Valve is getting out of its Source technology first used for Half-Life 2 in 2004.

Though there's a much bigger emphasis on story and character development in Portal 2, you'll spend a lot of time tangling with spatial reasoning puzzles in test chambers. Valve brings back the same portal gun while greatly expanding the number of gameplay toys. The gun shoots two linked portals through which you and objects can pass and momentum is maintained. To get from one test chamber to the next and through the guts of Aperture's vastness, you'll use your portals to redirect energy beams, coat surfaces with globular gel that makes you bounce or run at high speeds, pass over gaping pits with bridges of light and manipulate cylindrical tractor beams. Arriving at a solution will require quick reactions just as often as clear thinking, as portals sometimes need to be repositioned while soaring through the air or before timers run out. This isn't a first person-shooter in the traditional sense, but at times it can feel like one as you zoom in with your portal gun to spy distant targets and frantically adjust your aim and fire with precision.

No matter how complicated the puzzles get, the solutions are always sensible. Sometimes you'll "get it" right away and adjust lasers with lens blocks to activate platforms to reach switches. Other times you'll have no idea what to do, exhausting seemingly all possible options until, eventually, a solution so plainly obvious sparks in your brain and you curse yourself for being such a dolt. Valve does an excellent job of presenting you with all the necessary clues without slapping a set of instructions onscreen to explain the way forward. Even when multiple mechanics are mixed into puzzles like jump pads, tractor beams, light bridges and gels, I never felt getting stuck was due to unreasonable or poor design, only my ability to decipher it.

As good as the single-player story is, the co-operative is the real highlight of Portal 2. The beginning of the co-op picks up right after the end of the single-player game, giving you and your partner control of two robots, and serves as a continuation of the story of Aperture Science. It features fewer characters than the single-player mode but is still filled with enough sharp writing, deadpan jokes and absurd humor to keep you entertained between puzzle sections and provide motivation toward an end goal. Better yet, instead of simply recycling puzzle designs from the single-player portion, the inclusion of another player significantly alters the way you need to think.

That's because each of the robotic co-operative characters carries a portal gun, which means two guns and four portals. Valve takes full advantage of the increased capacity for dimensional holes by raising the level of challenge and coordination required. As is obvious if you've ever played Left 4 Dead, Valve knows how a good co-operative mode requires a game design that doesn't simply encourage but requires you to work together. In Portal 2, communication is vital to success.

Getting through can be frustrating, especially if you're playing with someone you don't know, because there's no diffusion of responsibility here. You can't hide in a corner and wait for someone else to do all the work. The contributions of each person involved are plain to see, and Valve's developed numerous tools to help make communication as smooth as possible.

You can set context-sensitive markers on parts of the environment to wordlessly indicate where a portal should be placed, where a partner should move, and even trigger a countdown clock to synchronize when switches should be hit or buttons pressed. The indicators may feel superfluous at first, but once you're setting up four portal chains of light bridges to block turret fire or redirecting edgeless safety cubes as they fly through open air over bottomless pits, it's obvious how useful they can be. Barely a moment will go by in silence while playing Portal 2 with another, except when you're listening to GLaDOS belittle your intelligence with endearing sarcasm.

Really the only place Portal 2 falters is in the second act of its single-player mode, where the pacing sags and the story becomes more concerned with the past than anything else. Even so, as compared to many other linear first-person games where the stories are little more than shrink wrap and glorify a blood-is-progress philosophy, Portal 2's mid-game doldrums are relatively far more creative and confidently original. Valve's sequel serves as the anti-Call of Duty. Portal 2 is a first-person thrill ride from beginning to end that challenges you to think without failing to entertain.

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Mortal Kombat

Without a doubt, Mortal Kombat’s heyday was the mid ‘90s, a time when it and Street Fighter ruled not just arcades, but home consoles as well. It enjoyed a brief resurgence in the mid 2000s with sequels like Deadly Alliance and Deception, but with each new game came more goofy finishing moves, uninspired character designs and a needlessly complex plot. These were followed by MK vs DC Universe, which neutered the violence and gruesome finishing moves that made the series a success in the first place.

With so many missteps since the last major hit, what could the franchise do to regain its former glory? Ignore all the mediocre stuff and take things back to the original three games that started it all.

For the most part, this new MK sticks to the characters and tone of the first few games, meaning tons of vicious, mean-spirited attacks with just a hint of humor; groin punches and hilariously excessive fatalities are in, farting attacks and tacked-on kart racer minigames are out. Even the roster preys upon the world’s fondness for MK1-3, pulling just about every single character from those early days into one game. It’s clear developer NetherRealm’s goal was to tug at our misty-eyed recollections of the past, and on that front, it totally succeeded.

Beyond the superficial pandering lies a commendably fun scrapper that mixes successful elements of the first three games. Combat falls somewhere in between MK2 and MK3, with emphasis on chaining normal moves into specials; stringing combos together is slightly more freeform than MK3’s infamous “dial a combo” system that only allowed combos with pre-set button combinations, but it’s also not as open to experimentation as say, Street Fighter IV.

Speaking of SFIV, new MK freely cribs from not just Capcom’s workhorse, but also, of all things, Rare’s Killer Instinct. Along the bottom of the screen is a meter that fills up as you deal and receive damage. When one section is full, you can execute an “enhanced” version of any special move your character has; in other words, it’s the same as SFIV’s EX moves, where Ryu’s fireball deals an extra hit or in this case, Kano throws two knives instead of one.

Two full sections give you the ability to cancel someone’s combo and break free of their attack. Both enhanced attacks and combo breakers have tactical applications that can increase damage or set up more elaborate moves, so they’re far from copycat afterthoughts. If you refrain from using those moves and fill up the meter completely, you have access to X-ray moves, which are this game’s equivalent to Street Fighter's big-damage Ultra Combos.

All these elements form a game that mostly plays like MK2, just with more juggle, combo and interrupt options. It’s great, flashy fun for button mashers yet rewards those who want to dissect each move and how it reacts with another, so in our opinion that makes this the “best” Mortal Kombat to date. That said, I noticed several instances where moves would connect when they really shouldn’t have, even cases where my fighter would be jumping over another and magically reappear back in front of the computer, somehow being thrown. Most of the time special moves behave like they should, but there were more than a few times were I legitimately could not understand why one move has priority over another, or why the hit range on one move is as wide or tall as it is.

But that’s getting into tournament-level play discussion, which is not how most of us will judge the new Mortal Kombat. And in all fairness, MK has always favored style over substance, and this time the “style” is shredded faces, broken bones and splattered blood, which all combine to create a thoroughly violent experience.

This persistent damage is purely cosmetic, but it does indeed add to the flavor. It helps convey how much these guys are pounding the hell out of each other, and when one finally stands tall as the winner, with his costume tattered and teeth showing through his jaw, it truly feels like a victory. Before, blood flew around the screen for the sake of blood flying around the screen; now, it helps sell the dark, macabre atmosphere.

Topping all this off are the aforementioned X-ray moves, which are devastating new attacks unique to this version of MK. Land one of these suckers and you can deal up to 50% damage, which, while cool for comebacks, is perhaps too much. We want to always have a chance at victory, but uh, some of these moves can turn the tide in a very un-fun way.


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