Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Something New, Something Old, Something Free

I haven't posted in awhile, so I thought I'd jump in and speak my mind on some of the excellent game experiences I've been enjoying. And without further ado...

Well worth the wait.
Kid Icarus: Uprising. This here, in my humble opinion, is the best game out for the 3DS, even in the face of gems such as Super Mario 3D Land and Ocarina of Time. Much has been made of the control issues, but know this: if you can get past that hurdle, you are in for a ridiculously deep and imaginative portable experience.

Personally, I'm tired of hearing about the problematic controls. While they are significant enough to note in a review, it has become blown out of proportion, much like the fishing mini-game in Nier (another excellent game). The controls won't give you carpal tunnel, and you WILL grow accustomed to them, to the point that you won't give it a second thought. Since when do we, as gamers, allow a flaw, even a glaring one, prevent us from enjoying a great game experience? Not me, anyway.

Kid Icarus: Uprising is a great game experience, with a memorable soundtrack, top shelf dialogue and voice acting, and enough content to easily play this game over 100 hours. This is the Peace Walker equivalent, in terms of substance. Give it a shot, plastic stand be damned.

In other news, I finally picked up Saints Row: The Third, and having just finished it, wow, what a fun game. This is not the sort of game that will blow you away, but if you love open worlds, and having fun, this game ranks as one of the best, alongside Just Cause 2. Just be prepared for a filthy experience in regards to subject matter, as it has no shame and it's plain obnoxious. Personally, I love it; it's the realization of how the media portrayed Grand Theft Auto. Ask, and ye shall receive.

Next, my girlfriend picked me up Final Fantasy XIII-2, and even 4 hours in I'm loving it. I have heard this game's story is a mess, and the last game wasn't exactly Shakespeare either, but I'm playing it primarily for the battle system. The battle system in FF XIII was arguably the best the series has ever seen, and it's already evident they've improved on it in this sequel. The only fault of the battle system in the last game was that it took forever to take off the training wheels, a problem hopefully avoided this time around. I can't wait to fire up the 360 tonight and dig in deeper. Also, no one does graphics like Square Enix - the character models, much like the last game, look gorgeous.

Pixel Kratos is a cuter Kratos. But he still wants to murder pixel Zeus.
 Finally, a special shout out to Holmade Games' creation, "Bit of War". They have taken God of War, and dialed it back to the 8-bit era. The more impressive feat here is how much it looks, sounds and feels like an old school game; they nailed it, and you really don't need to be invested in God of War to enjoy this game. But if you ARE a fan of God of War, you are in for a very special treat: these guys must listen to David Jaffe. Check out their awesome work here. Best of all, it's free.

That's all the gaming news for now!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

My Brain Is Rather Excited Tonight

...and that's because I just grabbed a lovely copy of this from my local Gamestop:

Admittedly, I have never been a PC gamer and I missed the original Deus Ex back in 2000, but that has never stopped me from before, and it won't stop me now. After reading about what the original was and what this new game apparently is, I'm more excited than I've been most of this year, to play a new game.

I'm really into unscripted, organic gaming experiences. Don't get me wrong; I love me some Uncharted any day of the week, but the unpredictable mayhem of games like Grand Theft Auto, Just Cause 2, or Metal Gear Solid just blows my mind. If this game is everything reviewers are claiming it is (and they LOVE it), I'm certainly in for one of the defining moments of my gaming year.

In other news, I finished Infamous 2 recently, and although I haven't written up a review yet, you can expect some love coming from me. Or perhaps a better word would be "like". Maybe really like. In all honesty, Infamous 2 is not a game changer, but neither was the first one. I think about the best honor I can bestow upon the first Infamous was that it was the rare game to do super heroes and villains well. Really well, even. Infamous 2 is more of that, polished up but less new. What we are left with is not highly memorable, but a helluva lot of fun while it lasts. But more on that later.

Anyway, time to break out a beer and try out Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Happy gaming!

Review! Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood

When in Rome...take it over.

I'm not a fan of the annual installment. Even if we are under the assumption that super large development teams don't dilute the final product, I still think annual installments of a franchise are too frequent for most gamers, and therefore lead to burnout. Most people have lots of games to play through, and unlike films, video games often take anywhere from 6-60 hours to grind through. I also don't believe as many good ideas are likely to develop and allow the product to be innovative, when given such a strict deadline. Overall, I think a franchise should take at least two years per installment, and games should always be delayed to make them play better.

So imagine my disappointment, when I heard not only was Assassin's Creed going to have another sequel one year after the release of Assassin's Creed 2, but it was going to once again take place during the lifetime of Ezio Auditore, and it was going to have multiplayer! But thankfully, sometimes I am so terribly wrong. Because although Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood is more of the same and not as mind blowing as AC 2 was, it's a much improved sequel, mainly regarding it's gameplay systems and general design.

Let's get some of the bad out of the way first, so you can approach this with your expectations in check: Rome's level design feels extremely similar to the last installment, the narrative is weaker and harder to care about, and overall this feels like AC 2.5, and quite honestly, it's entirely fair to label it as such...except that narrative. It's far weaker; in fact, the best story driven moments come from when Ezio flashes back to the previous game's timeline. And the Desmond segments. But Ezio's fight against his current enemy, Cesare Borgia and la famiglia, just isn't all that compelling.

But the setting, while extremely familiar, is better: Rome is one consistent area with zero load times as you move about, and it's far bigger than any single city in AC 2. Also, landmarks like the Colosseum do impress.

More good news is many things are improved, which makes the final product tighter.  Rather than restricting you to rebuilt Montenegro like in AC 2, you now get to rebuilt and free Rome...and for you gamers who love to collect everything under the sun and go for that 100% completion ranking, this game will keep you busy for a long time. Like a "lite" city simulator, you pour money into Rome, rebuild shops, purchase landmarks and expand your guilds. But the way to unlock and allow for this expansion brings us to the coolest new mechanic: toppling Borgia towers.

Not Your Mama's Viewpoints

Borgia Towers are much like the viewpoints at the top of towers from AC 2, except now you are required to find and execute a ?Borgia General?, who's heavily protected by other guards and located in a high alert zone, where guards are aggressively looking for you. If you manage to defeat the ?, you climb the Borgia Tower and destroy it, which unlocks the surrounding area to be bought up and improved, like previously mentioned. The whole process means that all your actions feed into each other, and it's all pretty addictive.

What's great about the Borgia Towers is that they strongly encourage stealth. If you alarm the guard he will often run and escape, which means you have to come back another time and try once again. Honestly, although it seems obvious, I think AC games benefit greatly from using stealth as much as possible. You don't always have to, but then you'll be engaged in combat constantly, which is fun, but doesn't hold up as a game defining mechanic.

Combat is relatively the same as AC 2, but with a great new ability to string together attacks. So when you parry a guard and perform an instant kill, you can now proceed to drop every other guard within spitting distance. It may sound like cheating, but it really only makes things more efficient. Rather than having to parry or trade blows with every guard, now you can slice through them and move on. During some tense missions, this helps to keep the action moving, and the game throws a ton of guards at you to keep you busy.

Russell Crowe not included. Or tigers.
I'm sure everyone has heard through this game's marketing that "Brotherhood" implies you build a whole gang of assassins. I must admit, it's really cool to wave Ezio's hand and three assassins jump out of nowhere and disarm and destroy a group of guards; it's also very helpful. However, to build up your assassins, you engage in an "RPG-lite" system that leaves much to be desired. You send your assassins around the world on missions, described by only text, that can rarely (if ever) be failed by sending enough capable assassins to perform the job. It seems cool at first, but quickly becomes a nuisance. Also, recruiting assassins is boring, as it simply requires you to save them from guards over and over. It would have been far more interesting if each potential assassin had their own tale to tell.

Taken as a whole, AC: Brotherhood has far more diversity in it's missions, including the aforementioned "flashback" sequences, and some very inventive Leonardo missions, in which you pilot some of his machinations (although admittedly, they don't really fit in since they seem a bit technologically advanced for the time...but Leonardo Da Vinci was ahead of his time, too, so I'll give it a pass).

I am a big fan of good music in games. In fact, I feel many reviewers spend too much time talking audio in a general way, and not enough time evaluating good music and how it fits in; how it provides the "emotional punch", much in the way opera or a good film score does. The soundtrack in "Brotherhood" isn't the most amazing one I have ever heard (Nier, cough cough), but at times it hits the nail on the head and is absolutely stunning, particularly when you are just roaming around Rome (get it? I know, awful). It has a gentle beauty filled with some lovely light choir singing, while simultaneously being touched with a bit of tension.

Now, I'm not too much of a multiplayer guy, and so I didn't spend too much time with the multiplayer. However, I spent enough to declare Brotherhood's multiplayer rather refreshing, in the sea of Halo's and Call of Duty's. I won't go into much detail, except to say the multiplayer is unique and captures the spirit of the single player game well, even though I (understandably) had my doubts beforehand. That said, if you are only picking up Brotherhood for the single player component, there's plenty there to sink your teeth into.

Maybe we don't need annual installments of Assassin's Creed. Maybe we don't need to linger in Ezio's timeline for so long. And maybe Brotherhood only exists to improve upon existing gameplay systems while asking more questions than it cares to answer. But it's also a great game, and after completing it, I for one can't wait to get my hands on Revelations this November.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Review: Catherine Demo

I'm going to start out by saying that I'm quite divided in my opinion of demos. While, on one hand, I think demos are a great way to introduce your product to the public and generate excitement, I also think they can  underwhelm and be poorly representative of the finished game. The demo for the original Infamous was such a demo, making me think the full game might be kind of dull. The Mortal Kombat 9 demo, on the other hand, ensured an early purchase by me. I'm very happy to report that Catherine was that kind of experience.

Play the demo. It's pretty great.

Catherine had my attention since being announced and previewed, almost exclusively for its subject matter, which was and is ridiculously refreshing among the sea of military shooters and, well, other shooters. I also have a tremendous amount of love and respect for Atlus, the developer of this risqué puzzler. Upon completing the demo, I was not disappointed.

First off, if you don't like narrative heavy games filled with block puzzles, this one is probably not for you. That said, the brief amount of plot introduced in the demo was witty and well executed. The presentation is top notch, mixing anime, anime-inspired graphics, and anime-inspired cel-shaded gameplay graphics. It all moves and looks slick and clean. The voice acting is convincing; it won't blow you away, but three guys in a bar sound like three guys in a bar, complete with swearing and typical guy talk. The gameplay graphics are merely a cut above serviceable, that is until the one boss you face during the demo shows up for lunch (you'll see), as she looks genuinely creepy.

This is usually what my dreams look like too.

But back to the narrative! I can give no better compliment than to say that the demo made me want to buy the game...I honestly want to follow that story. I would probably lay down $20 just to watch the story play out. It seems to have been pushed as the game's strong point, and I can clearly see why; it's just really mature and different from what's out there, even at first glance.

The bit of music in the demo has me excited to hear more. While it feels very familiar of the Persona series, that's certainly not a bad thing. It fits the atmosphere well, and adds tension to the falling block gameplay.

And the gameplay is really interesting and engaging...if you like block puzzles. Personally, I love a good puzzler. Apparently so does Atlus, because these "nightmares" compose almost all of the gameplay, other than some text-based decision making (that apparently determines which ending you get). In its simplest form, you are pulling and pushing blocks to make staircases, so that you may ascend the tower of blocks as the bottom falls out. Throw in a variety of rules and items, and even the occasional boss to mess you up, and you have a puzzler that becomes quite challenging. Although I've only read about the challenge Catherine presents, I had to retry a few times on the end of just the second puzzle, so I can see how the difficulty apparently spikes rapidly. There are only two puzzles in the demo, but by the end of them, you should have a good feel for whether it's your cup of tea or not. It sets the foundation, and I like it a great deal.

The demo is only a sample, and as such, I can't immediately recommend the game. But I must admit, for a guy who is somewhat cynical about demos, color me impressed. This demo really made me want more...more puzzles, and definitely more of the wonderful narrative that has you bouncing between the two lovely ladies, (K)Catherine. This game just looks really promising, if you walk in wearing the right expectations. I hope to play this one in the future.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Welcome to my's been too long coming.

The opposite of a Sunshine Hydra.
My humble "Hello and Welcome" to anyone who comes here to read what I have to write type. My name is Stephen Maxwell, and I have played video games for a VERY long time. In this time, my interest grew to include things like the gaming industry itself, the issues, the controversy, the lawsuits, the murders, the mergers, and pretty much anything that has had even a remote connection to gaming.

But at the end of the day, it all comes back to the controller in my hand, my mind on the television screen, and my heart in whatever universe I have chosen to get lost in on a particular night. You see, to me, games are the most superior form of media. That's not to say I don't like to read books, or paint, or watch films...but I truly believe gaming brings all these art forms together, in an interactive way, that I can only compare to lucid dreaming. And with each generation of technology, my dreams feel more and more rivaled by the achievements of gaming.

That said, my favorite non-gaming, gaming-related activity for years has been to read reviews. I LOVE reviews. I love reading reviews of good games, and bad games, and new games and even old games. Sure, I read reviews to become educated on the latest "hot" product, but I also read them because I really and honestly just derive enjoyment from them (especially after playing the game in question). It's natural that musicians listen to the music of other musicians, and poets read the poetry of other by this logic, I began finding myself writing reviews, on websites like MySpace, and Kotaku.

That has all been well and good, but I have begun to feel that it's time I write some REAL reviews, on a whole new level of professionalism and intensity, in a space dedicated to them. I will also just be talking about anything on my mind gaming-related, and my progress or impressions during games as well (since honestly, having a life filled with responsibilities, combined with my tendency to get caught up in a single game for dozens of hours tends to mean I don't finish games as often as I'd like...that said, I don't believe you HAVE to finish a game to review it, in all cases...I'm looking at you Oblivion!). But I digress.

So sit back, grab a coffee or a beer or a pineapple juice if it makes you happy, and enjoy a good read at Sunshine Hydra. Because at Sunshine Hydra, you will read quality gaming commentary, from someone who has the credentials necessary (good writer AND lifelong gamer). And you will read it with a smile, because the atmosphere here is going to be positive, friendly and enjoyable, much like a ray of sunshine. A Sunshine Hydra. So enjoy, and thanks for reading!