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by Ethos

Mass Effect 2 Review – Reach and Flexibility

Monday, February 8th, 2010

mass-effect-2-box-artLIKED:
-The continued conversation tree excellence
-Improved sidequests, graphics, and combat
-Way better crew beside Shepard
-Exploration to places only heard of in ME1

DISLIKED:
-Watered down Citadel and RPG mechanics
-Lack of dune buggy and crew interaction

I’ve already been relatively thorough with my thoughts on Mass Effect 2. The highly anticipated ambitious space opera by Bioware does side-quests, graphics, characters, and menus better than the original while taking away the fun dune-buggy thing and toning down the expansive and beautiful Citadel. Combat and RPG mechanics are streamlined at the small cost of feeling a little watered down.

So with all that summed up, what else is necessary to say about this middle chapter? Well, just that, really. Mass Effect 2 is the middle chapter of a trilogy, and as such it carries the necessary glories and burdens. Since the first game did the difficult job of introducing the expansive universe, the sequel could focus on fleshing out the world and characters. Consequently, missions were more intriguing since they didn’t have to worry as much about set-up, and big decisions were a lot bigger because I actually cared about the characters. To be perfectly frank, I didn’t really care who I left to die on that planet in the first game. Kaiden was boring and Ashley’s a bitch, so I was a little apathetic about the whole ordeal. However, there were moments in Mass Effect 2 that knocked me on my ass and I literally stressed over what I should chose while staring at the screen.

Still, while these decisions were very involved and the revelations made during the main plot were intriguing, I couldn’t help but feel like all the biggest answers were being held back for the conclusion. It was a little unsatisfying to know absolutely nothing more about an important character like the Illusive Man at the end of the adventure than I did when I first talked to him. Also, just as The Empire Strikes Back ends with dread and excitement looming at the adventure ahead and thus doesn’t feel concluded, Mass Effect 2 has the same issue. I do appreciate that the ending wasn’t dragged out, but it just didn’t have the same significance and sense of urgency and wonder as making it to Ilos and then taking down Sovereign.

Fear the Justicar

Fear the Justicar

But, to make up for the fact that Mass Effect 2 is almost a side-story to save humanity before the exact same impeding doom from the original takes over again for the conclusion, the game makes things far more personal. I have a feeling that finally taking down the Reapers will be more satisfying now that Shepard, Joker, and the old and new crew have been through so much more together. It was also nice to see Shepard making decisions while on a different sort of leash than that of the council’s, it made the story a lot less political which was an almost necessary change.

Final Thoughts
What’s important is that Bioware has delivered on improving the most complained about issues about the original Mass Effect while beefing up the adventure and giving a mostly new and much better cast to boot. I personally miss driving around in that stupid little dune buggy, the massive citadel to explore, the awesome end credits music, and the sense of wonder that accompanied the original, but the improvements are worth losing those things without question. The Mass Effect series is still way ahead of the curve with scripting, voice acting, and combining an incredibly epic yet entirely interactive adventure and Mass Effect 2 is the definitive proof of that. I have confidence in Bioware’s ability to bring the best of the first two with the conclusion that I’m already drooling for.

Mass Effect 2

Bayonetta Review – Move Over, Dante

Wednesday, January 13th, 2010

504x_bayonetta_box_artBayonetta has simply begged attention from the gaming world since the first details were revealed. After all, it’s not every day that a game features a female protagonist with guns on her feet, living hair, and an extremely flamboyant sense of sexuality. It looks ridiculous because it is ridiculous, but as senseless as it can be, Bayonetta’s silky-smooth combat mechanics and relentless pacing make the game a must-play for fans of the action genre.

I suppose I should attempt to explain what the game’s storyline is about.  I say “attempt,” because I know I’m not going to succeed – after playing the game from beginning to end, I’m still not entirely sure what happened in Bayonetta. The general premise is that Bayonetta, an Umbran Witch, has just awoken from a 500 year slumber, and is now trying to piece together her lost past. Apparently this process involves visiting a lot of strange, mystical places, and beating the crap out of a lot of celestial monsters. There’s an absurd amount of backstory as well, concerning two ancient clans that maintained the balance of the world, an illegitimate child who led to their downfall, and blah blah blah.

Bayonetta’s plot and storyline features a fairly intriguing mythos and some interesting concepts, but it’s told so poorly that you’ll never be able to make heads or tails of it. To be fair, their are some fun, and (oddly enough) touching moments, and the titular Bayonetta is undeniably charming. Sure, she’s ridiculously over-sexualized, but she’s also smooth, sexy and strong – no other female protagonists in gaming really compare to her. All in all, it’s really a bit of a disappointment that what could have been an almost Tarantino-esque epic fast devolves into a convoluted mess.

But what Bayonetta lacks in plot, it makes up for with action. The best aspects of Devil May Cry and God of War are combined in a combat system that’s incredibly easy to pick up, but almost impossible to master. Instead of opening with a tutorial, the game kicks off with a large-scale battle. After a few moments of button-mashing, I was able to get the gist of the controls, and handle myself competently. However, after playing the game for over twelve hours, I’m still no expert – the depth of Bayonetta’s combat is almost unbelievable, and in fact, it’s comparable to fighting games such as Soul Calibur. You’ll get a little better every time you play, and thanks to the game’s clever ranking system, you’ll want to get better.

You’ll soon realize that dodging and avoiding damage is key to victory in Bayonetta, for more than one reason. First and foremost, enemies are numerous, powerful, and deadly – get caught in a nasty combo attack, and you could be dead within seconds, so needless to say it’s best to avoid being hit at all. Second, if you dodge at the last possible second, you’ll activate Witch Time, which is essentially Bayonetta’s version of bullet time. Witch Time is a fantastic mechanic, and is often integral to victory – it gives Bayonetta a few precious seconds to deal some damage without fear of being hit, as well as affording an opportunity to collect herself amidst the more hectic battles. Playing on normal difficulty, I died quite a number of times in Bayonetta, and you probably will too. But the game never feels unfairly difficult or unbalanced; it just requires that players keep a level head and utilize all the skills at their disposal. Sloppy play is simply not allowed, and in truth, this is one of the main reasons that the combat is so satisfying.

BayonettaScreen1Bayonetta features quite a few boss encounters, and these are always memorable experiences. Much like Devil May Cry and God of War, bosses tend to dwarf Bayonetta in size, and require a healthy mix of attacking, dodging, and quicktime events to take down.  Quicktime events are occasionally annoying, particularly when failing them results in death, but this is a minor complaint. Few other games boast boss encounters as massive and epic as those found in Bayonetta – even the most seasoned action game veterans will walk away impressed.

But in addition to rock-solid mechanics, the combat in Bayonetta has a sense of style and flair that’s never really been seen anywhere else. Devil May Cry comes to mind, of course (DMC and Bayonetta share the same creator, Hideki Kamiya) but if you can believe it, Bayonetta is even more flashy and over-the-top. Magical attacks known as “torture” attacks show Bayonetta summoning guillotines, spiked coffins, and even chainsaws with which to punish her foes. Boss battles end with Bayonetta striking a ridiculously sexualized pose, and transforming her magic hair into one of several different oversized beasts, who then proceed to finish off the boss in a spectacular, gory fashion. It’s ridiculous, yes, but that’s what makes it so damned entertaining.

As you may have gathered, Bayonetta focuses pretty heavily on combat; there aren’t many other aspects of the gameplay worth mentioning. You’ll encounter a few simple puzzles to solve, generally involving the same few mechanics: turning cranks, slowing down time in order to walk on water or get through a door, and occasionally avoiding some traps. I certainly don’t mean to imply that the game feels stripped-down; the combat is really the star of the show here, and that’s perfectly fine – it’s more than enough to carry the entire game.

Bayonetta’s graphical presentation isn’t as impressive as, say, Uncharted 2, but it’s quite a pretty game nonetheless. Environments are attractive and varied, ranging from gothic castles to industrial complexes to trippy netherworld-ish zones. You may not know why the hell you’re anywhere at any given time, but chances are that you’ll enjoy the sites. The game features some fantastic animation work as well, particularly in the character of Bayonetta herself – both in-game and during the game’s many cutscenes, the witch moves with remarkable smoothness and grace, oozing sexiness all the while.

Speaking of cutscenes, it’s interesting to note that many of Bayonetta’s cutscenes are merely static scenes with voiceovers, often stylized to appear as still frames from a move reel. Clearly Sega had a smaller budget than the game’s slick production values imply. The static cutscenes are hardly an annoyance, but in this day and age, they really do seem archaic.

BayonettaScreen2The music in Bayonetta ranges from obnoxious pop tunes to epic synth-orchestra tracks. It’s not that bad, actually; the pop tunes are forgivable, if only because it’s clear we’re not supposed to take them seriously, which is in-line with the game’s over-the-top style. Voice acting ranges from passable to painful. Bayonetta herself isn’t bad at all, with her sultry, ridiculously British accent and steady supply of snooty remarks. Luka, the tenacious journalist isn’t bad either – he’s voiced by Yuri Lowenthal, one of my favorite voice actors. He doesn’t exactly amaze in Bayonetta, but frankly, with such a campfest of a script I’m not sure he could have done much better. On the other hand, characters such as Enzo the lowlife informant and Rodin the demonic shopkeeper feature some of the hammiest voicework I’ve heard in a while.

As long as you aren’t looking for a rich or serious story (i.e Uncharted 2, Assassin’s Creed II) Bayonetta is a must-play. The combat system is practically flawless, channeling and improving upon what’s been done in other franchises. Sure, you may have seen many of these mechanics before – but rarely do you see them executed so smoothly, and with such a unique sense of style. Bayonetta is something you have to experience for yourself; it sets a new bar for the super-stylized action subgenre. God of War III now has a very tough act to follow.

Bayonetta

The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks Review – The Train Doesn’t Suck!

Tuesday, December 8th, 2009

The Legend of Zelda Spirit Tracks - Box ArtLIKED:
-The music (when it wasn’t recycled)
-That the gimmicks didn’t turn out to be gimmicky (see: train and spirit flute)
-A chronology that is easy to follow

DISLIKED:
-When the otherwise great controls failed me
-The really really crappy and bad warp system
-The drab looking dungeons (I’m looking at you, Tower of Spirits)

Let’s be completely honest here, folks. I call myself a Zelda fanboy, but I’m not really. I’m an Ocarina of Time and a Majora’s Mask fanboy, sure. But go further back in the series and I haven’t beat a single other game. I can’t get into Link to the Past, the original NES Zelda frustrates me to no end, and while apparently the Oracle games are the best thing since stuffed crust pizza, I always gave up half way through. In fact, I just sort of wrote the handheld Zelda games off in general. I didn’t even notice when Minish Cap came out, and I casually played most of it later with mostly apathy. The DS has changed all that, however. Nintendo has brought the Wind Waker world to their portable wonder and has only improved the sub-series by doing so. For the sake of pure honesty, I don’t remember Phantom Hourglass except for the fact that I loved it and thought it capitalized on the potential Wind Waker set up.

But that’s a whole bunch of text without mentioning the game of honour once. So how is Spirit Tracks? Did the cartoony Link go too far with trying new things? As someone who cringed with the world the first time I saw Link ride on the screen in a ridiculous conductor outfit, I can happily say that this is easily the best the cel-shaded Link has ever been.

Don't mess with the best, 'cause the best don't mess.

Don't mess with the best, 'cause the best don't mess.

Perhaps the most refreshing aspect of the Wind Waker sub-series is that the games are completely transparent in their chronology. This game does feature a new Link, yes, but the connections to Wind Waker and Phantom Hourglass are everywhere and intended to be so. Spirit Tracks takes place 100 years after Phantom Hourglass on new land that has been discovered in that time. Tetra and Link discovered it and named it Hyrule in honour of the ancient land below the sea. Soon after its discovery, an evil force known as the Demon King and the spirits of good had some crazy battle that ended with the Demon King suppressed – not defeated – by the good guys by means of some magical tower. This tower acts as the centre hub for the game world. Those who played Phantom Hourglass will be familiar with how the next part plays out.

Essentially the game takes on the predictable structure of: Spirit Tower section, explore newly unlocked part of world, beat temple, repeat. Luckily, returning to the Spirit Tower isn’t quite the same annoying affair it was in Phantom Hourglass. Instead of being forced to race through the same sections time after time against the clock, Spirit Tracks lets you skip all the previous floors and uses good – and occasionally quite difficult – level design to add challenge to the experience. This eliminates almost all of the gimmicky feeling that the structure had in the previous DS installment.

Speaking of gimmicky, let’s talk about the train. Since Spirit Tracks mostly takes place on solid land instead of an expansive ocean, the boat is gone. No more sailing, not even for a single meter. Its replacement is the controversial train. My initial concerns were largely tied to the belief that it would be too restrictive. This is definitely not the case. Not only are there a large and always growing number of branching paths, but when it comes down to it, even in Phantom Hourglass you would really just draw a path from Point A to Point B. Link wasn’t able to swim around in the ocean just like he can’t run around the overworld by foot. In fact, there are so many paths that riding around in the train even has a great sense of exploration. Unexpected, perhaps, but undoubtedly true. Not just that, but there’s tons to do as an engineer. You can blast enemies, change speeds and directions on the fly, hail down travelling hot air balloon shops, capture bunnies, and even just shoot bombs at rocks. The experience is rich, fun, and even rewarding. Unfortunately it’s far from perfect. Changing directions is possible, but a pain in the ass, and sometimes the overall experience is just a little boring even with all the frills. To top off the list of negatives while travelling, Spirit Tracks has by far the most obtuse and unhelpful warp system out of any Zelda game to date. Its existence is better than nothing, but not by much.

mini bossBut back to the upside. Back are the touch controls from Phantom Hourglass, and while not everybody loved them, I’ve definitely been an advocate from the start. Link and his bizarre arsenal of weaponry control like an intuitive dream most of the time, and the touch screen allows for puzzles that just wouldn’t be possible on another system. More importantly, the weapons and items are a blast to use. You’ll see classics like the boomerang and the bow and arrow, but that’s where the familiarity will stop. Zelda is a series that continuously delivers by offering unique and fun items and weapons, and Spirit Tracks is no exception. However, for all the praise, touch controls do have their weaknesses. It might be impeccably precise to draw the path for a boomerang, but try to control Link in a tight area surrounded by enemies and lava? Not so precise anymore. It won’t happen too often, but there will be moments that you will likely want to scream in frustration because Link auto-jumped in the lava again when you really just wanted him to hit a switch. Again, it’s not common but it’s worth mentioning.

Speaking of frustration, Spirit Tracks gets to be one of the more difficult Zelda games in recent memory. I am a bit of a pro at Zelda dungeons, usually. I’ll blast through a complicated puzzle that even some Zelda veterans will be stumped at, but by the end of Spirit Tracks, I had to give more than just a few moments to solve the stuff it was throwing at me. I wouldn’t categorize the game as a terribly difficult one overall, but by recent Zelda standards, it definitely grows to be a toughie. Obviously depending on your preference, this will either bring you great joy or great anguish. Personally, I was generally pleased with the challenge.

Writing this review, I’m beginning to realize just how massive Spirit Tracks is. I tend to write brief reviews, and this is a novel before I’ve said half the things I want to. So let me try and be concise when describing the last things that truly stood out to me about Link’s latest adventure.

First off, the music was an absolute treat. Despite some very disappointing repeat tracks in the dungeons, the music is layered, rich, inspired, and easily the best to come out of the series since the N64 era. Of particular note are the duets with the sages that are scattered throughout the game. You play a form of pan flute by blowing into the microphone – which feels surprisingly fantastic instead of gimmicky – in response to the music a sage will play for you. The result is a sense of magic and wonder that has been notably lacking in the Zelda franchise of late.

D'awww

D'awww

Next are the graphics. Still the best on the handheld, only rivaled by the latest Kingdom Hearts effort. Close-ups are still a little ugly, and there can be some pretty nasty slow-down and pop-in, but overall the game is very easy on the eyes, especially during the rare but extremely beautiful areas that take up both the top and bottom screens.

Speaking of, the boss battles are a complete blast, true to form. I personally preferred the epic and very clever battles presented in Phantom Hourglass, but Spirit Tracks offers nothing disappointing, if not a little more safe. Although the unique train boss battles are worth mentioning as a welcome and intense addition.

Finally, the game is deceptively robust. I spent a lot time beating the main quest and dabbled here and there in some side quests. It’s obvious that there is much more to unlock even though I got to the end credits. The coolest part about a lot of the sidequests is that beating them actually unlocks more “spirit tracks” and therefore more of the world to explore. It’s a really cool mechanic that encourages side questing in a new way.

I would somehow love to say even more about this surprisingly strong title, but I suppose I should wrap things up. It’s cool to see Nintendo continue to grow their franchise in new ways. Spirit Tracks is obviously trying to build a new Zelda mythos and I’m all for it. It’s refreshing to see the start of new characters and legends forming in a land with a familiar name.

Ultimately Spirit Tracks suffers from a predictable structure, graphical slowdown, occasionally sexist game mechanics, and a train that – while usually awesome – can also be boring and hard to use to quickly get to specific places. Also the middle dungeon, while well designed, still takes up a lot of the game and even the best puzzles don’t save it from feeling tired by the end. However, Spirit Tracks succeeds by telling a charming tale accompanied by a robust world, fantastic music (when it’s original), great controls, and a much needed sense of magic. Wind Waker started the trend of proving that Zelda works and even thrives in new environments, and Spirit Tracks just furthers the cause. Highly recommended.

spiritTracks02

Assassin’s Creed II Review: Everything is Permitted

Friday, November 27th, 2009

ac2boxartLIKED:

-The major improvements to mission structure and variety

-The gripping narrative in two different timelines

-Free running. It’s still a ton of fun

DISLIKED:

-The occasionally choppy framerate

-Occasionally draggy swordfights

-The fact that I won’t see Assassin’s Creed III for two years

Assassin’s Creed II is the most improved videogame sequel I’ve ever played. Building upon the mechanics of its predecessor in spectacular ways, Assassin’s Creed II practically renders the original game useless, and stands on its own as one of the best action-adventure titles of 2009.

The game starts off with a bang. Desmond Miles is exactly where we left him in the first Assassin’s Creed: a prisoner of the evil Abstergo Corporation. And, with the help of the beautiful Miss Lucy Stillman, he’s finally busting out. Once free, Lucy takes Desmond back to a current-day base of the Assassins. By his own will this time, Desmond steps back into the Animus, in hope of acquiring skills, and finding some answers hidden in the past.

And so we are introduced to Ezio Auditore da Firenze, merely a boy when we meet him, and a member of a very influential family in Florence. You’ll soon realize that both Ezio, and the events he gets caught up in, are quite a bit more interesting than Altair and his endeavors ever were. Ezio is quite the likeable protagonist, actually, and the murder of his father and brother provide a strong motive for his actions throughout the game. Assassin’s Creed II tells a much better story than its predecessor, and maintains the same impressive attention to historical detail. Wanna take a crash-course in Renaissance-era Italy? Give Assassin’s Creed II a spin.

Like the first game, you will switch back to present-day at certain points, and take control of Desmond. Unlike the first game, these instances are painfully rare, which is unfortunate because they’re far more interesting this time around. Ezio’s historical drama is intriguing for sure, but the present-day events remain the most gripping aspect of the narrative. I’ll refrain from any spoilers, but let it be said that the ending of Assassin’s Creed II is mind-blowing, and leaves me on pins and needles for the inevitable third game.

Assassin’s Creed II is built on the same groundwork as the original, but the entire package has been given some serious renovations. From the most radical additions right down to the smallest of adjustments, every tweak and every change integrated in Assassin’s Creed II makes it a better game than its predecessor.

The largest addition to the game is the Currency system – there is money in Assassin’s Creed II, and you’ll use it to buy weapons, mercenaries, prostitutes, and much more. While it’s not a terribly prominent aspect of the gameplay, it does have its uses that make it a solid addition overall. It’s also worth mentioning that one of Assassin’s Creed II’s main sidequests involves restoring an entire Villa – which acts as Ezio’s home base. Restoring the Villa is as simple as pumping money into it, and over the course of the game it’s quite rewarding to see it shift from a run-down ghost town to a thriving little city. Oh, and as an added bonus, the town makes you money.

ac2screen2Another welcome change is a different approach to the stealth elements of the game. In the original Assassin’s Creed, the player had one way to blend in with a crowd, and that was to follow one of those creepy monk processions around. Pretty stupid, eh? Well worry not, because Ubisoft has taken a much more versatile approach to the stealth elements in Assassin’s Creed II. Ezio can blend in with any crowd at all, so long as he doesn’t disturb them. It’s as easy as slipping in and out of different groups of people. Also, you can now hire prostitutes and mercenaries, for the purpose of distracting guards or simply cloaking you in the crowd. Aggression from city guards is directly correlated to your Notoriety – aka, how much trouble you’ve been causing lately. Your notoriety level tends to go up rather quickly, with Ezio being an assassin and whatnot, but there are a variety of ways to lower it. Ripping down wanted posters, bribing town heralds, and offing certain politicians will do the trick. All said, unlike the first game, you won’t find yourself in many unwanted confrontations with armed guards. Quite the relief, really.

The fantastic free-running mechanics have been given a minor facelift. Running and jumping across rooftops is just as thrilling as it was in the original game, and you’ll likely find yourself platforming around without any objectives in mind, just for the fun of it. Ezio is much faster at scaling walls than Altair, which not only saves time but makes the climbing that much more enjoyable. Like the original, the game’s gigantic city environments not only provide fantastic platforming opportunities, but they maintain a consistent level of realism, which is quite impressive indeed; especially since they’re much larger this time around.

Combat is slightly improved as well, though it’s not as different as some might hope. Some new weapon types spice things up a little, if only for their unique counter-kill animations. A disarm tactic has been integrated, which helps make short work of weaker enemies. However, attempting an old-fashioned down-and-dirty swordfight remains a very slow, clangy affair. Your enemies block a lot, and you’ll find yourself relying mostly on counterattacks. Actually, if you’re like me, you’ll discover that you can actually engage in physical combat with your Hidden Blades, which makes extremely short work of any enemy. Counterattacks with the Hidden Blades are, as you can imagine, instant kills. Pretty neat, and definitely a timesaver, but unquestionably broken. Oh well. Combat really isn’t bad at all in Assassin’s Creed II, but it’s far from perfect.

ac2screen3If you were to simply watch someone else play Assassin’s Creed II, you might think it looks like largely more of the same. When you play it, you’ll think otherwise. The greatest improvement Ubisoft has made with this game is its mission structure and flow. The original Assassin’s Creed featured essentially the same four missions over and over again. Walk into a town, get some information on where your target will be at what time, go there, and stab him. The assassinations themselves were always fun, but everything around them became rather dull after the first few hours. In Assassin’s Creed II, there is far, far greater variety – and the missions themselves display much better mission design. Let’s take the assassinations themselves, for example: in the original game, they were merely stabbings bookended by lengthy cutscenes. In Assassin’s Creed II, you might assault a noble’s castle with an army in tow for the sake of routing out one man. One impressive segment of the game requires Ezio to assassinate six different men in order to learn the location of one target. Others might require you stealthily follow a target for an extended period of time. One of them might even require to you fly. And the inevitable moment of truth? Even sweeter than it was before.

Side missions are still aplenty, and they’ve been improved as well. They offer actual rewards this time around, such as added health squares and equipment. The Assassin’s Tombs sidquest deserves special mention: scattered throughout the world are six different tombs to be found and navigated. These tombs require Prince of Persia-esqe platforming and puzzle-solving to traverse, which is especially thrilling to a Prince of Persia fan such as myself. And the reward for completing all six tombs is so sweet that I refuse to spoil it here. Smaller side missions include “beat ups,” in which you literally hunt down an unfaithful husband and slap him around just for the hell of it. On the less ridiculous side are Assassination Contracts and Mail Deliveries, which are occasionally fun, and offer monetary rewards if nothing else.

AC2screenNeedless to say, Assassin’s Creed II is quite the looker. Not quite on the level of, say, Uncharted 2, but regardless, it’s one of this generation’s better looking games. Environments are absolutely gigantic, featuring not just cites this time around, but the accompanying countrysides as well. The game’s depiction of 14th Century Italy is absolutely gorgeous to behold; the art direction is absolutely top-notch, and the sense of realism is impressive. Playing on the PS3, the only problems I’ve experienced are an occasionally choppy framerate, as well as a few glitches such as audio cut-outs. None of these are game-breaking issues, but they’re present and worthy of mention nonetheless.

Assassin’s Creed II sounds quite good as well, featuring a better, more noticeable soundtrack than the original, and a solid voice cast across the board. Ezio, thankfully, is voiced far more competently than Altair was, which makes everything that much better.

Frankly, there isn’t much bad to say about Assassin’s Creed II. My main complaints border on nitpicking. This is a prime contender for Game of the Year, and one of the best open-world adventure titles I’ve played in some time. Oh, and it’ll keep you entertained for quite a while – even if you stick strictly to the main storyline, it’ll probably take you 15-20 hours to complete. I played for 25 or so, and I’m far from 100 percent. If you have the means, do not hesitate to give this game a try, even if you didn’t enjoy its predecessor. Given how the game ends, I’m quite interested in seeing where Ubisoft takes the series from here. Don’t be too surprised if goes somewhere completely unexpected – with Assassin’s Creed II, this franchise has shown that it can evolve, and better itself in the process.

Reviewbutton

Modern Warfare 2 Review: History is Written by Victors

Wednesday, November 11th, 2009

PS3boxBefore yesterday, I honestly couldn’t recall the last time I sat down and played a game from start to finish, without taking a single break.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 has been billed as the most anticipated game of 2009, and for good reason. The original was a smash success, much to the surprise of everyone, including its own publisher. Smooth-as-silk gunplay, addictive multiplayer, and a stunning campaign mode were enough to push 14 million copies – so, it’s understandable that the hype train for the inevitable follow-up has been all but insane.

So, does Modern Warfare 2 live up to all of this self-made hype? The answer is a resounding yes. Modern Warfare 2 is a game that everyone should play; even those with aversions to the FPS genre. Few other titles manage to rival the sheer intensity of the game’s tightly-woven action sequences, and there’s not a single other shooter on the market that’s so easy to pick up and play, yet features such amazing depth.

First and foremost there is the game’s campaign mode. To be sure, the original Modern Warfare is a hell of an act to follow – but believe it or not, Infinity Ward managed to push the envelope a bit further. Sure, it’s still fairly short, but it’s relentlessly intense, blindingly fast-paced, and features mind-blowing action setpieces that rival – or perhaps even surpass – the recently-released Uncharted 2: Among Thieves.  You don’t have to be an FPS junkie to enjoy the story here. It’s a thrillride from start to finish, featuring more twists, chills, and “oh shit,” moments than you can shake a stick at.

What really sets it apart, however, is how realistic everything feels. Being Modern Warfare, it’s entirely fictionalized – and yet, every tragic event that takes place feels like it’s just a minor extrapolation of reality. The infamous airport “terrorist” scene is, indeed, a part of the game – and yes, it’s one of the single most disturbing gameplay segments ever created. Yet at the same time, it’s one of the most emotionally evocative sequences I’ve ever experienced. Modern Warfare 2 clearly sets out to evoke the horrors of war and terrorism, and it accomplishes this goal to a chilling effect. As much as I’d love to reference specific events, it would be a great injustice to any potential players. Bottom line: this is one ride you don’t want to sit out.

MW2screen1It’s unfortunate, then, that a story this good is conveyed rather… incoherently, at times. Like the original Modern Warfare and World at War before it, Modern Warfare 2 doesn’t pause long for the sake of plot development. Intelligence screens in between levels supply fairly bare-bones information accompanied by voiceovers. All in all, it feels like much of the plot is conveyed by angry orders barked from up top. On one hand, this makes the game feel like a more authentic war experience. On the other hand, trying to listen to an extremely plot-relevant conversation taking place in the midst of a large-scale gunfight is, to say the least, a little frustrating. However, this isn’t to say that the game is entirely incomprehensible as a result. This balls-to-the-walls method of plot development has always been a weak point of the Call of Duty franchise. If anything, Modern Warfare 2 does a better job of keeping things straight than previous entries have.

Modern Warfare 2 looks absolutely fantastic. You’ll constantly be amazed at how much is taking place on-screen at one time, and how good it manages to look throughout. Character models are detailed and expressive, textures have received a step up from the previous game, and the framerate never dips to noticeable levels. Some of the game’s levels display remarkable artistic direction as well, from the colorful locales of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to the war-torn streets of the United States. Sound design is worth mentioning as well; the chaotic noises of battle constantly crowd the air in Modern Warfare 2, and they’re a vital part of the game’s oppressive atmosphere. Voice acting is solid across the board, and veterans of the original Modern Warfare will be glad to hear (and see) some key returning characters.

New to Modern Warfare 2 is the Spec Ops mode, which was essentially designed to provide a co-op experience where the single-player campaign could not. (Although many of the missions can be played single-player as well.) At the time of this writing, I haven’t spent much time at all with Special Ops, but the gist of it is fairly simple. If you have a friend and a second controller, it can be a lot of fun, but don’t expect any additional story content. The missions are essentially challenge rooms, in which you complete certain objectives in order to earn stars.

MW2screen2And of course, no review would be complete without mention of Call of Duty’s infamous multiplayer modes. And there are a lot of them, for both online and offline multiplayer. There is still the ability to play offline split-screen with friends on your couch, which is still a lot of fun – though with only four players max, it can be difficult to find eachother on the game’s gigantic maps. Online is where the main course is with multiplayer, and it’s a ton of fun. It becomes an addiction in and of itself, not just because of how much fun it is, but because of all the little incentives that Infinity Ward included – simply put, the more you play, the more you unlock. Weapons, classes, titles, emblems, game modes, and more. I’ve currently acquired a mere 7% of the available goodies, and I’m thirsty for me. Also, maybe I shouldn’t be surprised, but it works fantastically on PSN. I’ve never had to wait more than a minute to join a game, and I’ve never experienced any noticeable lag. Just be careful, because the online arena is no place for a noob. You will be torn apart, and quickly; and people will jeer at you while they do it.

As the world expected, Modern Warfare 2 is one of 2009’s best games. I doubt that it will win quite as many Game of the Year recognitions as the original did, but the only reason for that is… well… amazing as it may be, we have seen most of this before. To be sure though, Modern Warfare 2 is a better overall package than the original Modern Warfare, and it beats the hell out of World at War. Unless first-person shooters give you migraines, you have absolutely no excuse not to pick this one up. You won’t have a better time with a shooter this year.

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves Review – Fortune Favors the Bold

Saturday, October 17th, 2009

uncharted2boxartIt’s not often that a game like Uncharted 2 comes along.

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is an experience that defies traditional reviewing methods. No other game in recent memory presents such a complete, well-rounded, and polished experience. To call it flawless may be a stretch, but Uncharted 2 comes about as close as a videogame can get. You thought the original was a thrillride? Just wait until you see what Mr. Drake has in store for him this time.

Those who played Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune will feel right at home here. Uncharted 2 doesn’t stray far from the superb formula set down by the first game; rather, it just adds a few dozen layers of polish to an already very polished experience. This time, Drake is on the trail of the infamous explorer Marco Polo, and the treasure he brought back from his travels to Asia. Unsurprisingly, things become much bigger in a short span of time. What begins as a simple treasure hunt soon becomes a desperate race against time to prevent a madman from gaining the powers of the mystical Chintomani Stone.

Suffice to say, Uncharted 2 is one hell of a ride. The pacing is absolutely impeccable; you’ll never, ever want to put your controller down. The game never goes too long without a bombastic high-energy gameplay segment, or a dramatic twist in the storyline. But you’re also given just the right amount of time to take in the sights, per se, in the game’s slower portions.

The plot is narrated through a liberal number of non-interactive cutscenes, which are among the most well-produced cutscenes in videogames. Like the original Uncharted, all the voice actors were motion-capped for the dialogue scenes, which not only lends an incredible believability to the voicework, but to the character animations as well. A fine thing, because Uncharted 2 is very much a character-driven story. As well-crafted as the plot may be, it would be nothing without the presence of the infamous badass, Nathan Drake. Drake’s devil-may-care attitude and snappy dialogue is back and better than ever in Uncharted 2. He is, quite simply, one of the most likeable protagonists in gaming, and his ability to crack a sarcastic joke no matter how dire the situation will keep you chuckling the entire game.

That’s not to say he’s the only character from Uncharted 2 worthy of mention – quite the opposite. Uncharted 2 features an extremely well-rounded cast of both heroes and villains that drive the story along. Each and every one of them is a well-conceived and well-developed character; there are no flat stereotypes here. (With the possible exception of the game’s main baddy, Lazarovich.) Even Nate, who generally acts the part of invincible action hero, has a few moments in Uncharted 2 that show a weaker, less cocky side. And, rather than seeming out-of-place or melodramatic, these moments only make him that much more likable.

However, the writers at Naughty Dog did screw up in one regard: Sully’s role in Uncharted 2 is practically non-existent. It’s almost as if they didn’t realize how likable he was in the first game. Sully is around for some brief moments near the beginning, but that’s about it. It’s a minor nitpick given how enjoyable the story is, but here’s hoping that the pessimistic, foul-mouthed codger sees a little more action in Uncharted 3.

drakespearIn all, Uncharted 2 features one of the best stories ever told in a videogame. Not necessarily due to the originality or depth of its content, but because of its unparalleled presentation, and the quality of the writing, acting, and directing. Uncharted 2 is living proof that the non-interactive cutscene is hardly a dated convention, if it’s utilized correctly.

But it’s not what you watch that makes the game such a constant thrillride, it’s what you do. In Uncharted 2, you don’t watch as Drake and Chloe escape from a collapsing hotel building, you do it. Naughty Dog could have just crafted a pretty cutscene showing Nate fighting his way up a moving train, but instead, they designed a lengthy gameplay segment in which you do it yourself. I could go on and on, but suffice to say, Uncharted 2 features some of the most intense, enjoyable, well-crafted gameplay segments ever seen in a videogame. Ever.

Like Drake’s Fortune, Uncharted 2 has three basic gameplay tiers: combat, platforming, and puzzle-solving. Those who played the original game will know what to expect here, because practically nothing has changed. The most notable difference is the hand-to-hand combat, which has been given a bit of a facelift. Rather than confusing button-combos, Uncharted 2 adopts a punch-and-counter system, which gives the combat a much more enjoyable feel than the original game. To go along with the improved melee combat is the ability to perform sneak attacks on unsuspecting foes. If you’re careful, it’s possible to take down a whole room full of enemies without a shot being fired. However, it’s clear that the developers expect you to rely mainly on firepower to take enemies down. Stealth kills can be useful, but they’re almost never required.

Platforming and puzzle-solving are also largely identical to what was seen in Drake’s Fortune. Drake has a few new tricks up his sleeve, such as the ability to swing on horizontal poles, but they’re very minor addition to say the least. Puzzle-solving takes on a somewhat smaller role in Among Thieves, but you’ll find that the puzzles themselves operate on a much larger scale than before. Generally, Drake must navigate entire, massive rooms for the sake of solving a single puzzle. They’re always a lot of fun, but never really challenging; in fact, most of the time all you’re required to do is reference Drake’s journal, and then solve the puzzle based on what’s written inside. It sounds cheap, but in reality, it’s quite a rewarding mechanic. You’ll feel like a real fortune hunter when you make sense of the clues scrawled in Drake’s journal. In fact, you’ll probably find yourself flipping through it when you don’t have a puzzle to solve; there’s more than a few humorous goodies inside.

However, as solid as they are separately, what makes these gameplay conventions so impressive is how well they complement each other to form a cohesive whole. This is particularly noticeable during the game’s more intense segments – such as when Drake must escape a hotel building that’s literally collapsing around him. While the building implodes, Drake must dodge bullets from a helicopter, engage in a firefight with the tenacious guards trapped in the building, and perform the run-and-jump acrobatics required to get the hell out of there. It all feels perfectly natural, and above all, fun.

The Train SequenceThat’s to say nothing of the fact that the entire sequence looks fantastic as well. No matter what crazy things are happening on-screen, Uncharted 2 never slows down for a second, and never stops looking amazing. In my firm opinion, this is the best-looking game of this generation, bar none. When I played the original Uncharted, I didn’t really see how it could look better, but take my word for it: in Uncharted 2, the character models have even more depth, the environments are grander, and the water looks even better. No, seriously. It does. But it’s not just the technical aspect that impresses: Uncharted 2 is simply a piece of artwork. Never before have I played a game that so frequently made me (and Charlie, who doesn’t even play videogames) open my mouth and say “wow.” (Or some other, more inappropriate expletive). To put it simply, the game features the most inspired and skillful art direction I’ve ever seen in my life. Uncharted 2 defies the gritty-grey aesthetics featured in so many of today’s games, and instead presents us with a world that’s lush, organic, colorful, and above all, larger-than-life. If you don’t find yourself frequently stopping just to take in the sights, be it the view of a cityscape in Nepal, or the ruins of a tainted paradise, then you might want to do a little soul-searching.

Anyone who likes to say “graphics don’t matter” clearly hasn’t played Uncharted.

If you really wanted to nitpick, it’s possible to find a few minor chinks in the armor of Uncharted 2. The cover mechanics aren’t as graceful as they could be which can be frustrating in tight spaces when you have literally dozens of enemies firing upon you. Naughty Dog clearly strove to keep the environments realistic, despite the fact that they must be properly engineered to allow Drake to platform around them. They did a fantastic job, but in some cases, they did almost too good a job, and you’ll find yourself stumbling around a room without the slightest clue what Drake is suppose to jump to, swing on, or climb in order to advance. Finally, I have to say, by the end of the game I was pretty tired of hoisting my partner up to just-out-of-reach ladders. It was fine for the first few hours, but it soon began to feel amazingly contrived and annoying.

However, these complaints are so minor that they’re barely worthy of mention. I’ll say it once and I’ll say it again: Uncharted 2 comes about as close to flawless as any game can get. The plot and narrative is brilliantly conceived, and feels like Indiana Jones at his best. The scripting and acting is absolutely unparalleled in the world of videogames. The gameplay is unbelievably fun, featuring some of the the most unique, high-energy sequences I’ve ever experienced. The graphical presentation is, again, unparalleled. Oh, and the game features one hell of a soundtrack to go along with it. Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is interactive entertainment at it’s very finest. It doesn’t just set a bar for action-adventures; it sets the bar for the medium itself.

Note: While I played the campaign in its entirety, I’ve yet to spend any time with online multiplayer or co-op. If I find the time, I might check said components out and review them separately. If that’s something you’d really like to see, be sure to let me know in the comments.