July 14, 2009

Complete: Earthbound

I recently beat Earthbound for the first time, I have played it before, but went through a point of no return without being prepared and couldn't defeat the end boss.

For a relatively late SNES game, the graphics are primitive, almost to a fault. The graphics are very similar to previous game in the series, Mother on the NES. in the same style of classic Dragon Quest games, in battle your group of adventurers isn't shown at all save for the boxes that display their health counters and status. A psychedelic background and any enemies you happen to be tussling with are the majority of what is shown. I'm not quite sure where they were going the backgrounds, as they generally don't fit the area that your combat is taking place in. Characters on the overmap generally consist of sprites that have only 2 frames of animation and are merely flipped when changing direction. This becomes especially evident when a bus with writing on it turns around, leaving the writing backwards.

The actual gameplay is a pretty standard Japanese RPG fare, again very similar to Dragon Quest. Though there are still a few new, good ideas here. There is a rolling HP counter, making it so that when you take damage in battle it doesn't immediately subtract the damage from your health. The counter rolls down slowly enough for you to get a chance to react. If you're dying and manage to heal yourself before your HP reaches zero, you'll be just fine. The main healing items in the game are various foodstuffs. When you eat food, and have the proper condiment in your inventory, it will add a healing bonus to the food automatically. You don't randomly encounter enemies on the world map, instead they are seen walking around, and can be avoided entirely. Some enemies can even be snuck up on for a tactical bonus at the beginning of battle. Also, there are enemies in towns, normally a safe haven from any danger. Some of the hostile town inhabitants are visually similar to the friendly townfolk, so you have to be on your guard.

The big draw of the game for me was the humor. There were a huge number of times when I was playing that the game made me laugh out loud. It compelled me to do something that I rarely do in a game, to talk to everyone, just to see what they would have to say. One particularly humorous group of bosses are the 5 Mole Guardians who all claim to be the third most powerful of their group. They also have "No. 3" written behind them, in case you didn't get it when they told you before. Even when the story takes a darker turn, it still comes off as humorous. One thing that I'm not sure if it is supposed to be comical or not, is how the band in the game "Runaway Five" has 6 men on the stage while they're performing. Part of their name comes from the fact that there are 5 men in the band, and the elusive 6th man disappears whenever they aren't playing music and you have the chance to actually talk to them.

Earthbound is an amazing game. It honestly didn't seem like much when I first started it, but after I gave it a chance, it turned out to be a wonderful experience.
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May 5, 2009

Overrated Games

I got to thinking earlier about a few of the popular game series, and how I find some of their entries completely devoid of amusement.

Final Fantasy - I believe Final Fantasy to be the single most massively overrated game series of all time, though I found the original 6(excluding 4) to be enjoyable. I admit I haven't played all of the games from the Playstation(2) era, and even then, never got through 7, stopping shortly after the first disc due to boredom. 8 had a similar stopping point before the intro finished when I realized I just didn't want to play the game. 9 and 10 I skipped, but from everything I've seen, they're just more of the same. 12 I picked up purely because it WAS a change in the formula, and one I really enjoyed, as selecting moves from menus as in traditional JRPGs has worn on me over the years. The only problem I have is that with the Gambit system in place, the game pretty much plays itself after you set it up right, making it poor for play while you're drowsy.

Mortal Kombat - Of all the fighting game franchises to come along, Mortal Kombat remains probably my least favorite. I can only remember playing it once when it was current, and I simply don't remember much about it from the minimal playtime I did have with it, so my impressions are all from revisting the first 3 games of the series in hindsight. Everything about the characters' movements, from their running, jumping, and movesets feel extremely rigid to me. Though it could be that the pacing of combat is just foreign to me, as I was a fan of OMF 2097 and Capcom's fighters. The series was not without installation that I enjoyed, however, I found Shaolin Monks on PS2 to be a great deal of fun. Gone was the fighting game style, replaced instead with a brawler that was gratuitously cool, and with a cooperative mode, which is getting harder to come by these days.

Space Invaders - I feel like I'm the only one who doesn't like the original Space Invaders. I realize that its an extremely early game, and thus slightly unfair to pick apart with the retrospect of 30 years of progress, but I grew up owning a 2600, and this is one of the few games we owned for it. Being in an extremely limited and inevitably dangerous place armed with a gun that fires one bullet at a time isn't my idea of goodtimes. I much preferred Asteroids, to the point where I would avoid Space Invaders entirely to play it. However, with the release of the newer Space Invaders Extreme series, I now have 2 games that I enjoy in the franchise.

Advance Wars - I like a good tactical game, but I feel the entire Advance Wars series is masquerading as strategy, while it is in actuality a giant puzzle. Without any random elements in the game, every stage becomes an exercise in using terrain in an equation with a definitive optimal solution, with the possibility of other solutions that aren't so good. I haven't played every one of them, but if one of them features any sort of randomness combined with units that stay with you between battles, I'd be happy to try it out.

Silent Hill 2 - While being the only game in a long-running series that I have played, I had heard that Silent Hill 2 was the best, so I started with that. When I first started the game, the default controls rendered it completely unplayable for me, and after switching them, I did start to feel immersed in the game, but never was I having any fun. I understand that you aren't necessarily supposed to be having fun in the creepy atmosphere the game throws at you, but some sort of reward for striking my opponents dead would have given me at least a sense of accomplishment, rather than just losing health and seeing them reanimate themselves shortly thereafter. I wound up not getting very far in the game at all before I stopped playing entirely, but I'm thinking of giving it another shot, with Silent Hill Homecoming instead.

Let me know if there's any popular games that YOU, the reader, can't stand.
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April 17, 2009

Complete: Rainbow Six Vegas 2

This is another game whose main draw for me is in the coop, as it's the sequel to one of the greatest coop experiences I've ever had.

The AI is terrible just like it was in Vegas 1. As far as I know, there's no way to turn off babysitting your useless partners when you're in a splitscreen coop game, which is a big deal to me, if I'm having people blocking my path, I'd much rather have it be someone that I can tell to make like a tree. What you can do, to alleviate the AI from being useless, is tell them to wait at the very beginning of the map where they'll certainly stay out of trouble. The problem with doing this, lies in the fact that you are REQUIRED to bring them back when you get to areas that require the lockpicking or demolitions skills they have in lieu of any self-preservation instincts.

Luckily, should you be playing without the benefit of another human player to back you up, when your suicidal henchmen are eventually struck down by a hail of bullets as punishment for their crimes of stupidity, they aren't dead for good. They lie on the ground wounded, waiting for you to bring them back to life. This is good, considering how easily they die, but it makes it frustrating that you die for good in singleplayer, even though I understand the tradition of a little more death realism in the Rainbow Six franchise.

A useful change that they've brought over is the ability to choose to sprint, instead of always walking at the same metered pace. It makes dodging from cover to cover much less of a gamble. The cover mechanic employed in the game, which is brought over from the first game, has to be the best I've ever seen. Once you get used to it, ducking in and out of cover to keep yourself safe from the thousands of bullets flying at you. Unfortunately, the cover is broken in some spots of the maps, with some useful walls seeming to not be marked out properly for you to hide behind them, leaving you to uselessly cower in a corner to be shot dead. Normally, I dislike shooters on consoles, as I feel I lose too much precision moving from a mouse to thumbsticks, but the cover system really makes this game into a console-centric experience to me. The manipulation of ducking in and out of cover just comes completely naturally with thumbsticks, which is a VERY rare occasion for me.

The graphics in Vegas 2 are a big improvement over those in Vegas 1, making for a greater spectacle as you're doing battle in the neon-infused casinos that Vegas is home to. Even the outside areas look better, ridding itself of the low res textures that I assume are a result of Vegas 1's relatively early 360 development period. A feature to use the Xbox Vision Camera to map your own face to your player model makes a return with an addition; now everyone who's playing on the same console can use their own face. Seeing yourself on the screen sneaking around corners and pumping terrorists full of lead is surprisingly cool.

I'd say you owe it to yourself to pick this game up if you have a friend to play with and you're a fan of the series, especially if you missed out on the first one.
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April 7, 2009

Donkey Konga (2)

In my post on Rock Band, I neglected to mention that I'm the proud owner of 4 sets of another plastic instrument, the DK Bongos.

To make the most of the Bongos, I picked up almost every GameCube game there is that makes use of them. Donkey Kong Jungle Beat is an amazing experience, but deserves a post of its own. The only one I'm missing is the third Donkey Konga entry, as the game would be in Japanese. Being unable to read any of the text would probably take away from the simplistic nature of the game, and no doubt confuse everyone if I brought it out for a get-together. So what I'll be talking about is the two Donkey Konga games that came to the United States.

The bongos are a pretty nice piece of hardware, and I really wish they were used more often. They consist of two bongo pads for each drum and a microphone to clap into. Donkey Konga 1 and 2's main games both consist of throwing specific notes at you to hit in turn, with the second one offering more options, more multiplayer modes, more sounds when you hit the bongos and more minigames, though the first does have all those things, just less of them.

The biggest problem I have with the Donkey Konga series is that the song selection is very limited. The first game contains maybe three "regular" songs that I enjoy playing, but have terrible covers like all Nintendo rhythm games(I'm looking at you, Elite Beat Agents!). The entire rest of the setlist consists of whatever could be scrounged up from the Public Domain, and as you'd expect, first party Nintendo songs. You've got your standard Mario and Zelda theme songs, and even the HORRIBLE theme song for the short lived Kirby cartoon, Right Back At Ya. The shining moment of the soundtrack has to be the Pokemon Theme Song though, being one of the few songs that actually sounds good with the addition of bongos, and is universally known. Donkey Konga 2, again, improves on the gameplay features, but winds up throwing out all but one of the Nintendo tracks in favor of more modern songs. Almost modern at least, some genius decided it would be a great idea to take songs that were about 3 years out of style when the game was launched. The soundtrack hasn't aged very gracefully since the game came out, especially considering every one of the "real" songs is another bad cover. With a better song selection, I would be dragging out those bongos for myself, not just for the multiplayer.

I'd have to say that Donkey Konga makes for an even better game than Rock Band for parties, as its simplicity goes a long way, eliminating the confusion of managing profiles and characters. The bongos themselves are limited by the extremely short length of their cords, but this has the side effect of transforming any group of people playing the game into a line of bongo'ers. The ease of playing this game does ALOT for it, I've convinced people I was sure would never play a rhythm game with me to pick up a bongo. Even my parents!

If you're just going to be playing solo, the game is still fun, but you REALLY need a group to play it the right way. The best part is, you don't even need bongos to play the game, standard GameCube controllers work fine.
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April 4, 2009

Complete: Resident Evil 5

I picked up Resident Evil 5 because I liked Resident Evil 4, and the demo for 5 showed there were lots of similarities between the games, and most of what wasn't similar felt like an improvement to the format.

The biggest feature of the game is the coop aspect, it's been built from the ground up to be played by 2 people at a time, and just isn't the same if you're playing by yourself. To Capcom's credit, they did a pretty good job on the AI, so long as you had the decency to turn it off of the default "Useless Mode" setting, where Sheva runs around wasting all of your healing items whenever you sneeze or stub your toe. Also, if you don't set Sheva to the "Attack!" setting, she will exclusively use her peashooter of a handgun, regardless of enemy range, strength, number or other weapons she might have in her arsenal. She does stick by you while she is set in "Useless Mode", but she neglects to pick up any items, leaving you to do all of her dirty work. Again, this is solved by changing the setting on her behavior, wherein she goes and fetches what you would expect her to and it really has me wondering why Capcom set her up to be useless by default.

The inventory no longer drags down your game every time you want to switch a weapon. There are 9 slots in you inventory, laid out in a square. Weapons automagically go into your inventory on one of the four cardinal directions of the inventory square, where they can be selected by hitting the designated direction on your d-pad. The game isn't paused while you're dealing with your inventory, which makes the first hour or so with the game very tense, as you're getting accustomed to messing around with it can lead to the occasional fumble. Once you are practised enough with the inventory to never spend more than a second shuffling items, you won't have to worry about it slowing you down. Now, 9 slots isn't a whole lot of inventory space, but that blow to your carrying capacity is softened by the fact that between levels you can dump anything you won't immediately need into a larger inventory, which would take scrounging up every last item you can find in multiple playthroughs of the game to fill up.

As you go through the game, you upgrade your weapons just to be able to survive, but at a certain point, it becomes less a matter of survival, and more of splattering all of your enemies with a single shot. Most of the weapons in the game are overpowered for all but the very hardest difficulty level, which isn't even unlocked from the start of the game, requiring completion of the previous difficulty. Further overpowering the weapons, is the ability to unlock unlimited ammunition for every single weapon in the game. I actually enjoy this ability, as it allows me to play the game without constantly fearing my life will be ended by running out of ammo, but still allowing me to turn off those godlike powers if I do want a challenge.

One thing I don't agree with what they've done with the game, is that they got rid of The Merchant, one of my favorite characters. I understand why they changed the shopping system the way they did, as it would be frustrating to have your partner pause the game to go shopping in the middle of a mission when all you really wanted to do was keep moving. Still, it would have been a neat addition just to have his voice while you are in the shop, and maybe have him physically present, but functionless at the beginning of every level as an homage to the role he played in Resident Evil 4. I guess what all this means, is that I'm expecting to see him again in Resident Evil 6.

The ingame story reminds me heavily of the previous installment, at times taking itself seriously, and others pushing the dialog so far over the top, it becomes comedic. There's alot of pamphlets hidden throughout the game containing backstory, and I would love to go through and read it, but the only time you can do so is right when you come up on it, making you immobile. I thought this was a strange choice given how streamlined they made the inventory. There are files you can read in the game's library, outside of actual gameplay, but I believe those are entirely different documents.

You can play online coop with anyone, but I recommend that if you pick up this game, you find a second controller and a friend to play with, as nothing beats good old-fashioned splitscreen coop.
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April 3, 2009

Call of Duty 4: Top 5 Moments

Call of Duty 4 was an amazingly cinematic game, with a very well-paced story that rivals that of must action films. I remember one time I fell asleep watching a movie on my 360, and when I woke up, I thought I was still watching a movie, but in fact, my brother was playing this game.

There were 5 moments that especially stuck out as memorable to me from this game.

5. Blowing off Imram Zakaev's arm with a headshot from 900 meters.

4. Being the gunner of an AC130 as it flies over a town infested with enemy combatants.

3. The end, where your entire squad is gunned down by Zakaev in front of you, and you take revenge for them with your dying captain's pistol.

2. Being President Al-Fulani as he is murdered by Al-Asad.

1. Surviving a nuclear explosion... for a minute.
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April 1, 2009

Complete: The Darkness

The Darkness was one of first 360 games I bought, but I didn't get very far in it to begin with, but I finally finished it last month. It was a rarity for me though, while I found the gameplay interesting, it didn't strike me as all that gripping, luckily it was made up for with its excellent story. There will be spoilers here, as the story is what I mainly want to talk about.

The Darkness is a game that is based on a comic. Jackie Estacado is the main character, he is a hitman for the New York mafia with a heart of gold. Uncle Paulie, the mafia's don, is Jackie's boss, and a very unscrupulous man. Jackie is returning from a hit, he is betrayed by Uncle Paulie and a high speed car chase ensues, ending in a crash, with Jackie narrating that the event was "the first time he died".

Jackie wakes up in a cemetery and finds that he is the host to a supernatural being known as The Darkness that gives him inhuman powers of regeneration and other abilities while Jackie is standing in darkness. These powers are shown off in an empowered first person cutscene showing destruction done by The Darkness in first person. The gameplay mixes using those supernatural powers, be it by skewering enemies with a tendril of The Darkness's, or sending out one of The Darkness's hungry mouths to bite people's faces off. I thought the gunplay was a little lacking, and mostly I was using bullets as light switches to ensure Jackie's Darkness powers were available. You also have the ability to summon minions to do battle for you, but they seemed far too stupid to ever be of any help to me.

I should point out here that the voice work for the game is amazingly done. The real standout character is The Darkness himself, he's voiced by Mike Patton(of Faith No More, Tomahawk and even Portal fame) and is just the perfect evil sound. Jackie is narrating the game during loading screens as you play, and it's actually interesting hearing what he has to say, as it fleshes out the game's backstory a little further. I really wish more games would put at least some sort of content into loading screens, beyond turning them into elevator rides.

Shortly after Jackie leaves the cemetery, where Jackie hides his predicament from his girlfriend Jenny and relaxes on a couch watching tv with her. What made this payoff emotionally was that shortly afterwards, Jackie is forced to watch while Jenny is murdered by Uncle Paulie and a corrupt police chief. The Darkness is holding Jackie back, stopping him from saving her. Directly afterwards, Jackie pulls a Romeo and commits suicide in an effort to end his emotional suffering and rid The Darkness of his host.

Jackie is resurrected, but he is now in hell, where The Darkness has complete control over him. Here, Jackie actually gains more powers, but has to fight The Darkness to regain control and return to the world of the living to get revenge on Uncle Paulie. As Jackie starts to pursue his goal of revenge, he goes on a murderous killing spree of Uncle Paulie's henchmen, with The Darkness sometimes taking control, with more cutscenes showcasing just how powerful he makes Jackie. At the end, Jackie is holding a gun to Uncle Paulie's head while he begs for his life and The Darkness coaxes Jackie on. As he pulls the trigger, he surrenders himself completely to The Darkness and the game begins a final dream sequence. This is a touching sequence that is mirroring the moment that Jackie and Jenny shared on the couch at the beginning of the game, and actually brought a tear to my eye as the game faded to black.

I've never been much of an advocate for story in games, seeing them mostly as a tacked-on addition, but this one showed me that when story is done right, it can be very rewarding.
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