Jul 20, 2011

Retro Review: Star Wars: Battle for Naboo

This review is written for Star Wars: Battle for Naboo played on an N64 with the expansion pack.

             This review was originally going to be a footnote at the end of the Rogue Squadron review. However, at the time of writing that review I had not repurchased the copy of Battle for Naboo that had been sold off at the Great Accidental Garage Sale of 2004, and despite having very fond memories for the Rogue Squadron spin-off set during Episode I, I figured that it would be wrong of me to give recommendations for a game that I had not touched in seven or eight years. I tell you this because I am extremely glad I didn’t gin up a paragraph about how Battle for Naboo is a great addition to the Rogue Squadron gameplay because it would have been entirely false. This was a case of positive nostalgia making a poor game out to be something that it certainly is not.

The aerial combat is more or less identical
            If you want to know the basic structure of Battle for Naboo, you can go read the full series review for Rogue Squadron, because the basic tenets of the game are identical, with a dozen or so missions that grant you different vehicles and hidden bonuses that make them stronger as you progress. Even the controls are the same as far as aircraft missions are concerned, so if you’ve played any of the original N64 Rogue game, you’ll have no trouble flying your Naboo Starfighter this time around. The main addition to this game is the ground combat which makes up slightly more than half of the game. These give you access to various speeders and even a boat at one point, and you’ll be spending more time blowing apart Battle Droids and their tanks than aircraft. These sequences are largely fine, and one in which you’re given an armored speeder and are tasked with liberating a prison camp is actually kind of fun, but the fact is that driving along the ground is a less dynamic and engaging form of gameplay than the full 3D movement allowed by the flying vehicles that Rogue Squadron specialized in.

Imagine shooting that rear droid if he was twice as far away
            The ground sequences also bring into stark relief the fact that Battle for Naboo looks bad. Yes, I know, harping on the graphics of an N64 game in 2011 is kind of ridiculous, but rather than just looking old, it makes the game hard to play. In Rogue Squadron, the TIE Fighters and their ilk were black and grey shapes in front of the dirt or sand on the ground. Even if the ships themselves looked like a bit of a muddled mess, they were distinctly recognizable from the browns and reds that made up the background. In this game, however, you fight Droid Starfighters, which are brown, and the droids themselves, that are beige. The game tries to remedy this by having many more grassy or icy environments, but it’s still easy to lose your target amidst the blotchy textures that the N64 could offer. On top of that, the skinny design of Battle Droids turns them into stick figures on screen, which are often little more than one or two single-file columns of pixels that you’re speeding by and trying to shoot. The Droid Starfighters have the same issue when viewed from the side, and seeing as how most dogfights take place at the same altitude it can be infuriating to miss your target simply because you couldn’t see them.
You know what's better than two engines? Four engines.
            I also want to take issue with the design of the vehicles in Battle for Naboo. Obviously there’s an elephant in the room here in that this game takes place during Episode I. Anything artistic or otherwise related to that film is inherently tainted simply due to association, but honestly I say the film at such a young age that the designs are mildly endearing to me, whether I like it or not. That said, the game just has no variety. Sure, the Naboo Starfighter was in the movie, but the other two aircraft are the Police Cruiser, which is basically a blue reskin of that ship, and the Naboo bomber, which is a bulkier version of it. On the land side, you get a basic landspeeder, and armored variant of that speeder, and a weaker, droid version of that speeder. There’s also the aforementioned droid boat, but between crappy handling and poor mission design for it, it’s the worst part of the game. In Rogue Squadron, you got to fly an X-Wing and a Snowspeeder and the Millennium Falcon; here you fly that one ship from the movie and that one speeder from the movie in slightly different incarnations. Sure, they didn’t have much to work with, but that doesn’t make the lack of variety and less lacking.

            That’s really all I can say about Battle for Naboo. Yes, there’s a story, but it basically consists of “retreat, regroup, retaliate”. The final mission, which predictably takes place during the final space battle from the movie, is pretty cool looking even for an N64 game, but the objectives themselves are boilerplate and don’t make for a great time. And as with Rogue Squadron, there’s a bunch of unlockable stuff to work at getting, but the fact is that even after unlocking the majority of it, I still went back to the early game and felt underpowered and bored.

            If you really, really like the N64 version of Rogue Squadron and want something resembling that but noticeably worse, Battle for Naboo isn’t the most horrible thing that could happen. Still, even after six-plus hours of playing, I felt that I hadn’t quite gotten the five dollars’ worth of fun that I had expected after buying it. Usually when I go back with great nostalgia for a game, I’m pleasantly surprised with how well my old favorites hold up. In this case, however, it only served to make me even more disappointed with an already mediocre game.

All images courtesy of Google.com

Jul 7, 2011

Series Review: Metroid Prime

This review is written for all versions of the Metroid Prime trilogy.

            Sometimes I worry that the games I love won’t be remembered in the future. Maybe it’s bizarre of me to think of the things I’ve played in the last few years to be “classics”, but at the same time certain games make certain impressions that are going to stay with you for as long as you are a player. And for every Super Mario Bros. or Ocarina of Time that is classified as “one of the greatest games of all time”, there’s a Lode Runner or River Raid that is highly regarded by older gamers but hasn’t been played or heard of by the newer generation. That’s part of the reason I started writing these reviews; some of my favorite games seem to have come and gone in such a way that I wouldn’t be surprised if gamers ten years from now haven’t ever heard of them. One example of this is a series that has received extremely positive press after it was debuted in 2002, but seems to have completely disappeared since the trilogy was completed. I’m talking about Metroid Prime.

            I’ll break down the gameplay of this series first, seeing as how it is largely unchanged game-to-game. Prime effectively takes the old school exploration and adventure formula of the earlier games in the franchise and converts it into a 3D first-person game. The core of the NES and SNES games is here, but expertly upscaled to modern standards. You’ll explore an expansive world that spans several different environments while obtaining plenty of new items that unlock either new environments or secret areas in ones you’ve already traversed. The shooting is governed by the lock on system, which may sound overly simplified, but in reality grants a level of control to battle that can take place of large distances or in close-combat with multiple enemies. The upgraded beam weapons are also here, with Ice, Wave, Plasma and others all being fully represented (although the ability to switch between them at will adds some extra dynamicity to the shooting). You also have access to the Morph Ball, which usually switches the game into an either top-down or side-scrolling puzzle/platformer that requires a good bit of timing and finesse to get to the goal. Finally, the one thing that Prime really adds to the exploration formula are visors. These range from things like the Thermal visor that lets you see enemy weak points and follow electrical circuits to the X-Ray visor that makes certain targets and platforms visible. The real draw to the visors is, however, the scan visor, which lets you scan just about every single object in the world to get more info. This ranges from environmental targets like destroyed walls or ruins to scanning enemies for improved targeting data and scanning computers and ancient relics for backstory into the world that you are exploring.

Ridley really is unkillable
            I’ll be frank with you: while the entire Prime trilogy is quite good, the main reason that it sticks out to me as a modern classic is because of the original game. Simply put, it’s the best. I starts out with Samus Aran, intergalactic bounty hunter extraordinaire chasing down some evil Space Pirates (because honestly, is there such thing as a good Space Pirate) to their space station above Tallon IV, a desolate planet near to Zebes, where Metroid and Super Metroid take place. In typical action-adventure fashion, everything aboard the station is crapped up and Samus end up losing her advanced weaponry and is sent to Tallon’s surface to figure out the reason for the Pirate’s fascination with the planet. What she finds is that the planet is afflicted with Phazon, a material similar to the Tiberium of the C&C franchise that landed on the planet decades before and has infected much of the wildlife. The Pirates, being evil as they are, are attempting to harvest the Phazon for evil purposes and Samus is required to traverse the planet to recover her lost gear and fight her way through numerous, extremely complex locales to locate the Pirate base and wipe it out.

One of the reasons Metroid Prime stands out so much is because of the variety it presents to the player. While the core systems remain largely unchanged, the game smartly amps up Samus’s abilities in such a way that it stays completely manageable despite double jumps, four different beam weapons, five different missile weapons, two Morph Ball bomb attacks, boost modules, gravity suits and more. Every area, be it the rainy jungle or the desert ruins or the ice and lava worlds not only feels different, but has different enemies that require different attacks to beat. On top of that, just moving around the environments is a blast because on top of the extremely controllable running and jumping you have things like Morph Ball half-pipes and grappling points that are always fun to zip around in. Finally, I need to give a specific shout-out to the boss battles. This is a game that came out years before Shadow of the Colossus, and an FPS to boot, yet it still manages to pack some of the biggest enemies every seen in gaming onto the screen. Among these are the early-game Flaahgra, and praying mantis looking boss that you need to burn out with sunlight, and the late-game Omega Pirate, an eighty-foot behemoth that is simultaneously one of the hardest and most satisfying battles of the game.

I also need to express my admiration of Prime’s atmosphere, which is unmatched by anything before or since. There is an overwhelming sense of loneliness in the game, and I don’t mean that in a depressing way. It’s simply a fact that you are alone on this planet. There are no allys, no whitty sidekicks. It’s just Samus trudging along, trying to survive and thrive on this extremely hostile world. Hell, if you turn off the hint system there isn’t even any indication of what the objective is, which is absolutely how I recommend you play the game. Even the way that rain hits your visor and you can see Samus’s face in her visor if you’re nearby a large enough explosion just show how isolated you are Tallon IV. The music also contributes to this, ranging from eerie, ambient sounds in the ruins to a light, sad bit of piano in the snow area to the deep, menacing bass in the lava. It sounds great, and that’s boosted by the fact that there is literally no voice acting whatsoever makes it even better. That’s not to say that it’s a Zelda-style system where you have subtitles but no audio. There’s just no dialogue, nor any reason for anyone to talk. Samus will grunt if she’s shot or falls a long way, and enemies will roar or snarl at you, but that’s it, and it makes Prime that much more riveting to play through.

Boss battles in Dark Aether: Not a fan
Now it’s time to move on to Metroid Prime 2: Echoes, which is sort of a bummer. Make no mistake, Echoes is in no way bad, and in many ways it is as good as the original Prime, but that’s just because a huge percentage of the game is effectively the same. This time Samus is investigating a distress call from another unexplored planet, this time Aether. Upon arriving, she finds out that another Phazon meteor had broken the planet into two separate dimensions, light and dark. While the light side is just the regular planet, full and angry wildlife, the dark side is covered in a damaging dark aura and is full of Ing, an evil race that is trying to take over and merge the two sides of Aether. The Ing are also being run by Dark Samus, an entity created by the events the occurred on Tallon IV. After falling into the dark side of Aether, Samus has the crap beat out of her by Dark Samus and retreats back to the light world, losing all her gear. Now she needs to reequip herself and help a friendly race called the Luminoths fight the Ing and destroy Dark Aether for good.

A few of my issues with Echoes should be apparent. First off, the format of the game is largely the same as Prime, with Samus losing everything and having to start from scratch again. Sure, it’s a staple of the genre, but the way it happens identically to before is kind of lame. Also, the world of Aether just isn’t as interesting. Instead of fire and ice and jungles and underwater spaceships and all the crazy variety of Prime, Echoes has you traverse environments like “arid wasteland” and “swamp” and “horribly-detailed tech city”. On top of that, the game doubles up on environments because you travel through both the light and dark versions of them. And sure, there are minor differences and new enemies between the two, but really it’s just a darker re-skin of the same places you’ve been, except you take damage when outside of certain safe-zones. Finally, the tone of the first game is gone. While the idea of exploring this messed up, dark world seems perfectly in line with the isolation of Prime, the fact that your Luminoth friend has all sorts of vaguely-philosophical things to say is annoying, and the fact that he straight up tells you “Hey, go here and turn off this giant generator to save Light Aether!” completely breaks the immersion. If you really like Prime, then Echoes is more of the same, except a tiny bit worse. That’s by no means a bad thing, it’s just a little disappointing that rather than innovating even more on their concept, they sort of drove it into the ground.

Each world in Corruption look completely different
Prime 3: Corruption is weird. It’s also a better game than Echoes. But God, is it weird. The game starts off by completely throwing out all semblance of atmosphere set up by the first two games by putting Samus into the middle of a gigantic war between the Galactic Federation and the Space Pirates, who continue to be extremely evil. While Samus remains completely silent, you get a boatload of voiced dialogue from admirals and computers and your fellow bounty hunters, who are literally some of the worst characters ever to be in a game. Seriously, all the other bounty hunters are selfish, cocky and generic characters who I’m guessing I’m supposed to find cool and edgy, but just make me want to murder their digital selves. As it turns out, the Space Pirates decide to team up with Dark Samus, who survived the events of Echoes and is now trying to spread Phazon across the galaxy by smashing gigantic Leviathans into targeted planets with the intent of slowly corrupting them to be absorbed by Phaaze, the source of the attacks. This means that Samus is deployed to three different planets in order to destroy the implanted Leviathans and to track down Phaaze to stop Dark Samus once and for all. Samus and her shitty friends are also infected early on by her doppelganger, which of course causes you to lose some of your weapons but also grants you use of Hypermode, the ability to sacrifice health to completely obliterate everything in your way and is pretty fun to use. It’s also fortunate because it turns the other bounty hunters evil and lets you kill them over the course of the game, which is satisfying evil if the battles themselves are not.

These worlds are where the vast majority of the game takes place, although again the environments aren’t the most interesting ranging from everyone’s favorite “arid wasteland” to “steampunk sky city” to “industrialized Pirate homeworld”. They aren’t the most exciting levels ever put to game console, but they are still worlds above those from Echoes. I do need to point out two more environments, however. The first of these is the GFS Valhalla, a derelict ship that you get more and more access to as you earn more weapons and abilities throughout the game. It is such a warped bit of space scrap full of weird enemies that it’s fascinating to explore and scan everything you can see  just because of how eerie and quiet the atmosphere is. Also worth mentioning is Phaaze, which is encountered very late in the game and is, like the Valhalla, a twisted and bizarre world but in a completely different way. Finally, I want to give a shout to the final boss, which manages to take something from the pre-Prime games in the franchise and make it fit extremely well into the tone and plot of these games.

So there you have it: my thoughts on the Prime series. In reality, the first Prime is the only one that I would consider a modern classic. Echoes is fun but is mostly just a less interesting rehash of the same material. Corruption is bizarre and strays significantly from what makes the first game work, but in the process made a fascinating and complex world that is impressive on any system, let alone the Wii. If you haven’t played any of these games and just want to see the best, pick up the Gamecube version of Metroid Prime, which you can get for a couple bucks at this point. However, if you’re fully interested by what I’ve had to say, you should absolutely spring for the newer Metroid Prime Trilogy, a compilation for the Wii with updated graphics and controls for the first two games (for the record, I’d be the first person the bitch about horrible Wii controls, but the fact is that the Wii versions of Prime and Echoes play better than the originals). The problem is that Trilogy is relatively rare and has actually gone up in price since its release. It may sound ridiculous to pay $70+ for multiple older games, but I cannot stress enough that they all hold up extremely well, and each with give you 20+ hours of gameplay. You could probably buy all three games separately for significantly cheaper, but Trilogy is well integrated and does so well by all three games that I would wholeheartedly recommend you cough up the extra cash if you can afford it. Still, no matter how you do it, Prime is a game that demands to be played. You need to get your hands on it at some point, lest it disappear into the void of great games that no one remembers in the years to come

Images courtesy of Google.com

Jul 2, 2011

Review: Bioshock 2

This review is written for the installed Xbox 360 version of Bioshock 2.
            Did you like the original Bioshock? Of course you did. Everyone did. Now imagine they took Bioshock and made the gameplay better. Not in a dramatic, game-changing fashion, but enough to make a noticeable impact on how you play the game. Also imagine that they took Bioshock and made the story worse. Not in a horrible, mind-numbing way, but enough to make you remember how great the original was. If you can read that and say “that doesn’t sound too bad”, then you should stop reading this review and go buy Bioshock 2, because the fact is that it is still a pretty excellent game. However, if you’re looking for a sequel that lives up to the promise of the original, you may be a bit disappointed.

The dual-wielding can make a big difference
            I’m going to go ahead and assume that you played Bioshock 1, seeing as how it is one of the biggest and most well-liked games of this generation. Everything from the first game is in here; there’s a wide assortment of upgradeable guns; you get plasmids that can have elemental effects of enemies and the environment; there’s a hacking minigame that unlocks doors or turns hostile machines to your side; you’ll research enemies to gain damage bonuses and other rewards; and you’ve got a light RPG element where you can upgrade your plasmids and other secondary characteristics using ADAM, a resource gathered by saving or harvesting little sisters. While this may sound extremely derivative (and let’s be honest, it is), every aspect of the game has been tweaked to make it just a tiny bit better than in the original. Guns and plasmids can now be wielded simultaneously, a seemingly small addition that actually makes combat more about chaining multiple kinds of attacks together than just spamming a couple extra-effective ones. Also, both types of attacks have an extra upgrade level, that can do things like add an electrical effect to your shotgun shells, or fire a solid beam of electricity from your Electro Bolt plasmid. The hacking is significantly different in that the minigame is now a short, timing based task compared to the pipe-orientation that was in the first game. It’s hard to say whether it’s an improvement, per-se, but it does serve to making hacking a more action oriented task that can be incorporated into regular combat. The photographic research camera from the first game is replaced with a video camera here, a change that is extremely irritating at first but is actually nice once you get the hang of hitting your research target with every type of attack possible before it stops filming. The gene tonic system of the first game is streamlined in that, instead of having four separate skills to place your perk-style tonics into, it’s all funneled into a single row of tonics, a simplification that works out surprisingly well. The final and most significant change in the game is your interaction with Little Sisters, the ADAM gathering girls from the original. You are still given the option of harvesting them immediately, but because of your position as a Big Daddy (oh yeah, by the way, you’re a Big Daddy again in this game), you can adopt the little girls. This means that you get to take them to a pair of corpses and defend them from waves of splicers for a minute or two while they harvest ADAM for you to take later. Hey, you know what makes a game fun? Multiple escort missions! It mixes up the primary combat a bit and makes sense within the context of the universe, but really, it just feels game-y and detracts from the game as a whole.

The hacking is much, much quicker
            The reason I point out all of these minor points about the gameplay is because it’s really all that Bioshock 2 has to differentiate it from the original. When it comes to everything surrounding that gunplay, all you get is Rapture. Remember Rapture? Remember the moody, post-WWII atmosphere, the art-deco stylings and the audio logs that capture the periods both before and after the fall of the underwater city? It’s all here, largely copy-pasted from the assets of Bioshock 1. There are a few interesting new environments, such as a cool historical museum/theme park that briefly details how Rapture came to be, as well as a prison embedded in the sea floor that has some great views through its long, glass hallways, but all in all, there’s nothing really unique about the feel of this Rapture compared to the one you journeyed through in 2007.

The short submerged sequences are relatively cool
The way that Bioshock 2 tries to divert itself away from the original is by changing the tone of the story. The game takes place eight years after the first game, and the effects of Jack (the player character of the original), are still felt. With Ryan and Fontaine dead and Jack himself gone to the surface, psychologist Sophia Lamb now rules Rapture using a socialist framework instead of the objectivism that had been the foundation of Rapture from the beginning. You play as the first successful Big Daddy, Subject Delta, who is revived ten years after his death by his particular Little Sister, who also happens to be the daughter of Sophia. Remember how in the first game there was a portion where your heart slowly began to stop beating? Well your goal of this game is to get to Eleanor Lamb before this happens to you. Of course, Sophia Lamb has other plans for both Delta and her daughter, so you get to fight against hordes of splicers in your quest to save Eleanor and retreat to the surface. Other characters are in play as well, such as Tennenbaum, who returns for a bizarrely short amount of time, and Augustus Sinclair who fills the position that Atlas did as your sidekick/mentor of this game. The thing that bothers me about Bioshock 2’s story is how it tries to take every idea from the first game and stretch in its own unique way. Things like Sophia’s presence, which was never mentioned in 1, make sense even if they need to somewhat retcon the world of Rapture to make her seem to have been around the whole time. Other things, however, stand out as just bizarre when placed in the world devised by the first game. The premier example of this is the fact that apparently ADAM absorbs the memories and personalities of its host, which can then be harvested from their corpse and seen for yourself. It’s a weird “twist” that just doesn’t jive with the core atmosphere of the original, and ends up coming across more as a piece of fan fiction than a coherent, self-contained story.

It’s worth noting that I tried and failed once to complete the game, having only passed the first few levels before giving it up. It wasn’t until all the E3 buzz about Infinite that I decided to go back and play both Bioshock games back-to-back to get myself psyched up. That may be the reason that I have a somewhat negative opinion of Bioshock 2; it just doesn’t achieve what the first game did, let alone surpass it. Let me again emphasize that it is by no means bad or even mediocre, and for ten bucks new there’s a lot of game here to enjoy. However, if you’re a big fan of the original, I really can’t blame you for giving this one a pass and waiting for the actual sequel (/prequel?) that is Bioshock Infinite.
 Images courtesy of Giantbomb.com

Jun 29, 2011

Retro Review: Uplink

This review is written for Uplink running on a mid-line Windows 7 laptop.

I didn’t really “get” the internet until the early 2000s. Sure, I had my good old Compuserve dialup around ’95, but even after the upgrade to DSL it took me a good couple of years to truly understand what the internet was and how it worked. Because of this, I seem to have missed what sounds like one of the coolest parts of computing. Things like manually dialing in phone numbers to play Doom online or running programs in a command prompt off of a foot wide floppy seem so foreign, but still  movies like Wargames make me wish that I had been born just a few years earlier to mess around with all this retarded technology that used to be so commonplace. It is because of this that I was so drawn to Uplink: Hacker Elite, a game that, very deliberately aims to capture this moment in time of the early internet, despite being released in 2001.

Sometimes you hack to help others
Describing the structure of Uplink is next to impossible, because on paper it simultaneously sounds so complex and monotonous that it should be hard to classify it a “game” at all. At the base level, you’re a hacker that joins Uplink, a semi-shady organization that is effectively the hub of hacker activity in this fictionalized version of the internet. You start the game with a basic Gateway given to you by Uplink. The Gateway is basically a hacker’s PC, and it runs an Uplink OS specifically designed for its task. This is where the logic already starts to get wonky, seeing as how you’re running a game on your Windows PC that is emulating a fictional desktop running on an imaginary PC, but just hang with me for a bit. It is from an Uplink server that you can purchase software such as password crackers or trace detectors that are essential to surviving the Wild West that is the internet as well as hardware upgrades that can increase your processing speed or memory capacity (which is measured in Gigaquads, the best named unit of measurement of all time). These in turn are needed to complete missions that are posted on a virtual bounty board, where you can determine the risks and negotiate pay before accepting. These missions grant you money used to upgrade your gear and advance your rank, which in turn allow you to accept more complex and better paying missions. 

I subscribe to the "Always Be Bouncing" philosophy
Which leaves me to try and explain what the gameplay of Uplink is. As a hacker, your first priority is to keep your identity and location hidden. You achieve this by bouncing your connection to any given server through a few (or a few dozen) other servers, in order to keep your IP hidden. However, the government and corporations can still run a trace, which is displayed to varying specificity based on what version of trace tracker you have. Even if you manage to complete your objective and get out of a server before being traced, it’s still important to locate one or more of the servers you bounced through, hack into it, and delete all logs of your activity in order to not leave a direct path from the target system all the way back to your Gateway. Once security is tight enough, you get to focus on the actual hacking-for-profit of the game, the act of which makes you feel like an e-badass. One of the early mission types requires you to steal a data file from of opposing computer system. This requires you to bounce your signal into the target system, run a password cracker on it to log in as an administrator, navigate into the file directory, run a copying program to put the designated file into your Gateway’s memory, then back out, delete all logs of your presence and email the file to the mission provider. That’s the simplest mission type. Later in the game you’ll hack into the Global Criminal Database, bypassing proxies and firewalls and deciphering the passkey just to get in, then searching the database for a specific individual, planting a fake crime on his record and authorizing his arrest. Or you might sneak your way into a corporation’s central data store, open up a fully functional in-game command prompt, and delete the entire “user” and “system” directories in order to destroy both the data on the server as well as the server itself. Or maybe you’ll hit a bank, cracking a rich individual’s account number and transferring funds to your account, then hacking into the banks central server (using a voice sample taken from the administrator’s home phone) to delete the records of the transfer from the target’s end, then quickly deleting those same records from your bank’s end before they trace it back and freeze your account. Keep in mind that, depending on the number of bounces you performed, you may have sixty seconds or less to complete an entire hack and get out before getting your home door kicked in (unless you have a security system in place in which case you can self-destruct your Gateway, costing time and money but keeping you away from the all too common Game Over screen). On top of that, there are considerations like processing priority for programs, literally navigating your way through nodes in local networks, functioning IRC channels, manually looking up found IPs to trace other hackers, your reputation that affects who will do business with you and a dozen other factors you need to take into consideration to play Uplink successfully. If this sounds completely over whelming, it is, but the game has a short tutorial that takes your through an extremely basic hack just to show you how the interface works and the core tenets of the gameplay. Apart from that, it’s largely trial and error, and while you’ll probably be busted a few times before you start to be really successful, the early game goes really quick once you’ve done it a few times. If you made it through this wall of text, just hang on; we’re in the home stretch.

When in doubt, delete system32
I feel obliged to mention the story, even though it’s a completely minor part of the game. Taking place in the far-flung future of 2010, you start as just a lowly hacker getting his bearing in Uplink. After a month or two of game time you receive an automated email from a fellow (now-dead) hacker that includes a scant few details about what he was researching when he was killed. From there, you can independently track down the conflict between two rival companies and are given the option of who you side with. The cool thing about the story is that it’s completely optional; if you want you can simply delete the initial email and forget it ever happened. Word to the wise, though: the events of the story occur whether you become involved in them or not, so if you’d prefer that the entire internet was not destroyed down the road, it may be worthwhile to do some investigating once you get your sea-legs.

I realize that the insane contents of this review are probably a turnoff to a large majority of game players, but if the concept of hacking even remotely interests you, it’s worth checking out. The simple fact is that you really need to play it to “get” why it’s fun at all, because words just make it sound more like work than play. However, there’s an unexpected rush that comes once you successfully transfer a half a million dollars into your account after hours of preparation and manage to get off completely scot-free. The nice thing about Uplink is that, despite being an older game, it runs totally fine on modern systems. There’s some resolution weirdness and some issues with alt-tabbing, but apart from that it works great. It’s $10 on Steam or $15 directly from the Introversion website, which puts it marginally above the price that most of these old games go for today, but if you get into it you’ll have no trouble getting your money’s worth. Uplink is completely unlike anything else that has even been conceived by other developers, and I can’t recommend it enough.  

Images captured by author

Jun 25, 2011

Review: Trenched

This review is written for the Xbox 360 version of Trenched.

            You know what are awesome? Mechs. You know what else can be pretty cool? Tower defense. Anything else? Add in a loot-based upgrade path. What this should add up to is an exciting and addicting game with an extremely long lifespan. Double Fine’s Trenched, however, doesn’t quite hit as hard as its component parts indicate it should.

The story is told only through voiceover and static images
            The story of Trenched is a relatively minor part of the game, but is bizarre enough to semi-rationally set up the universe that it exists within. In a post-WWI time, a veteran and scientist intercept an alien message referred to only as “the Broadcast”, which gave them both super-human intellects. The veteran, crippled during the war, used his knowledge to create the mobile Trench, which is literally just a bunch of sandbags strapped to heavy weaponry and legs. The scientist of course used his power to create the evil Monovisions, TV monsters intent on spreading their message to the world in the most violent way possible. As a result, you are tasked with travelling around the globe to destroy the different Monovision headquarters and prevent Evil Scientist Man from messing up everyone’s day. As far as Double Fine games go, this one is much more subdued in the comedy, but there are still enough clever jokes hidden in there to give it some good personality.

Certain waves can go real sour if you aren't careful
            The gameplay is, as far as arcade-style mech games go, fairly standard. You have two weapon banks, mapped to the triggers, each of which can contain up to three different weapons depending on the chassis of your Trench and the weapon’s size. These weapons range from machine guns and shotguns to huge artillery and flamethrower-like “broadcasters” that can take out dozens of enemies at short range. Additionally, you can customize your Trench’s legs which confers abilities such as sprinting or a lockdown mode that sacrifices movement for increased durability and lessened reload time. The final piece of the puzzle is the idea of emplacements, a fancy term for the defense towers. As you play through a mission you earn scrap from downed enemies that can be used to launch in a capsule that will automatically deploy into a tower, which range from more powerful versions of your mech weapons to emplacements that slow down enemies or repair your vehicle. These can be essential to survive wave after wave of different Monovision enemies that continually storm you assigned objective.

Your weapon choice can drastically alter the gameplay
            The structure of the game puts you on a walking aircraft carrier between missions (because everything should have legs, right?) where you can pick your destination, interact with other players, or customize your Trench. The customization really is the core purpose of the game and can make it play completely differently depending on how you spec yourself out. The main factor is the type of chassis you have, with the Assault being a typical run and gun variant with lots of weapon slots, down to the Engineering Trench, which sacrifices weapons from a larger selection of discounted emplacements. The way you unlock new chassis, weapons, emplacements and more is both through in-game challenges such as “earn 100 kills with weapon ‘X’” or “complete 50 missions”, as well as through loot boxes dropped by boss enemies and particularly difficult waves. While the loot is technically randomized, I found that in multiplayer I tended to get the same or similar loot at the same time as other players, which ruins a bit of the fun of having a completely unique and beastly Trench. Even with that concession, the customization is still fun and the ability to completely swap out your parts makes the game fun to keep playing for a little after finishing it just to compare the effectiveness of different loadouts.

            On the topic of multiplayer, if you intend to only play games by yourself, don’t get Trenched. I’m typically the guy that will play through games like this alone, then move into multi after I’m already spec’ed out. However, Trenched gets both real boring and real hard early on if playing alone, and having more people both makes it more fun socially and by giving you a bit more wiggle room to try out different weapons and strategies. The neat part of the multiplayer is that it is fully integrated into the game; all you need to do is walk over to a room on the top of the carrier and hit ‘A’ to search for and match up with other players. This puts them straight onto your ship with their Trench, allowing you to inspect exactly what they are going into battle with. On top of that, there is a ridiculous character customization aspect as well, where your in-game avatar can get new clothes and hats that alter his salute, an ability that is always active on the right trigger. It’s stupid and a diversion from the actual game, but it’s hilarious that it made it in at all.

            My issue with Trenched is that once you have an awesome mech and have completed the 15 missions that make up the campaign, there isn’t much to do. Sure, you can go back to the later missions to try out new layouts and hope for better loot, but all-in-all it’s sort of a one-trick pony. I played through it in about six hours, and that’s including multiple replays of certain missions and a healthy bit of on-carrier action between. It just feels like a missed opportunity, because the game’s ideas are cool in a way that I haven’t seen in a while. On top of that I had a few issues with low framerates and serious lag, but these were spread thin enough that I’ll just chalk it up to chance encounters with someone running on a 56k modem or the like. Overall, if you like this sort of game, it’s worth the $15 on XBLA to check out, but it’s certainly not something you need to be falling head-over-heels for to get it right now.

Images courtesy of Giantbomb.com

Jun 24, 2011

Retro Review: Fallout

This review is written for Fallout running on a mid-line Windows 7 laptop.

            Speaking of 90’s sci-fi isometric turn-based games that feature a high degree of player choice, I recently decided to buckle down and play through the original Fallout. I came to the series with Fallout 3, which is obviously a completely different style of game, but I liked the universe enough that I desperately wanted to consume as much Fallout content as I possibly could. That said, I started and stopped playing the original multiple times due to both technical and design issues. However, once I truly declared that I was going to beat the 1997 classic, I was able to push through the old-school-ness of it and recognize what a great game it actually is.

In motion, the game still looks great
            I don’t want to just compare Fallout to X-COM, because on the whole they have little more than genre conventions in common. Nevertheless, the combat that takes up probably half of the game is similar enough to point out. As I said above, the game is presented in an isometric fashion, and aspects like line-of-sight and distance to target are integral to outgunning your opponents. You are given a certain number of “action points” per turn that allow movement or attacks with various weapons. Also like X-COM is the ability to choose how to attack, with options like a normal attack, a targeted attack that can cripple various limbs of your enemies, or burst attacks that are inaccurate but very damaging. Where the similarities between the two games begin is in the deep RPG nature of Fallout. Without going into the history of the development, a business deal gone sour forced those making the game to create their own skill system instead of adapting the norm at the time. The result is the SPECIAL system, which grants seven core disciplines including Strength, which determines melee damage and carry weight, Intelligence, which boosts certain skills and allows more conversation options, and Luck, which determines critical chance, gambling skill and more. On top of these disciplines are the skills, which are 18 different specific abilities ranging from multiple different gun stats to lockpicking, medical training and more. These can be improved when leveling up, at which point you can also sometimes pick a Perk, a permanent addition that can have drastic effects, such as dramatically improved critical chance, more APs or the ability to recruit more companions to your party. All of these different stats can increase in different ways during the game, and I have to give the developers props for making every minor improvement to the stats feel significant to your character’s abilities both in combat and out.

Captain Awesome lived up to his name
            While the combat is surprisingly fun to this day, even for a kid raised on FPSs and the like, the real draw to Fallout is the atmosphere and story. If you played Fallout 3 or New Vegas, you should have a basic grasp of the alternate-history, 50’s-esque aesthetic of which the Fallout universe is comprised. The original game is clearly where this began, but even more memorable is how goofy it can get, in a good way. Don’t get me wrong, the game has some serious gore and dark aspects, both in story and character design, but little touches here and there keep Fallout from being a horrible post-apocalyptic nightmare like most other media in the genre. One bit that stuck out is when conversing with a character over the laws of a town, you are given typical options like “Sounds fair” or “We’ll see”, alongside the bottommost choice which is, in all caps, “SHUT UP, I DO WHAT I WANT”, which immediately turns the entire town hostile and forces you to fight or die. It’s a minor touch that is largely inconsequential in the grand scheme, but still it allows Fallout to tell an interesting story without becoming overly serious about the side aspects. 

This guy is sort of a jerk
            The story itself in Fallout is fairly boilerplate, but is interesting in how it is presented. Your characters begins as a Vault Dweller, born is a sealed Vault that has been protected from the nuclear apocalypse for the last hundred-odd years. When the water filtration system breaks down, you are tasked with leaving the Vault to find a new one. This typical fish-out-of-water scenario isn’t anything new, but the fact that you are sent out with little to no instruction, just a pistol, knife and jumpsuit and a vague idea of where a new water chip might be is pretty cool. The game gives you dozens of ways to locate the objective, so whether you’re good or evil you are rarely ever truly out of luck. On top of that is the fact that, if you already know where you’re going, you can totally skip ahead and go anywhere you want at any time. It’s an interesting game design that you don’t really see nowadays, and it’s impressive just how many ways you can succeed, and how organically the narrative and backstory of this world is explained through both environments and conversations that are completely optional.

            It’s important to note that Fallout not for the faint of heart. That statement certainly applies to the game itself, but even more so just to get it running. If you’re on Windows 7, make sure that you either get the game from GOG or Steam, as these versions are pre-patched in a way that cannot be done on a 64-bit machine. On top of that, there can be numerous display issues, including a major problem getting colors to work. I was able to fix that with this utility, although your results may vary. Finally, there are a huge number of mods for the game, many of which can dramatically improve the experience; it’s worth it to shop around and apply some of the most popular ones. I’ll specifically shout out the High-Resolution Patch, which can essential for large, modern displays, but wouldn’t recommend the Restoration Project, which, while good in concept, reinstates a time limit in game that was patched out. It’s more faithful to the original release that way, but the game is just more fun without it in my experience. If you can get through these hurdles, I highly recommend Fallout. It’s largely unlike any other game, including the modern Fallout games, and if you like turn based strategy or great atmosphere, you should check it out.

Images captured by author

Jun 21, 2011

Retro Review: X-COM: UFO Defense

This review is written for X-COM running under DOSBox on a mid-line Windows 7 laptop.

            When it comes to old games, there seems to be diminishing returns as to whether or not it’s worth it to go back and play it. Even when you can get it to run on modern hardware, the gameplay is usually so outdated when compared to modern iterations that all it serves to do is destroy any nostalgia you have had. However, with all of the recent hubbub about the new XCOM game and the associated revilement from the dedicated fanbase, I decided to go back to 1994 and see what was so great about the original. I’m happy to say that not only is X-COM: UFO Defense a fantastic game, but it still holds up and feels unique even after nearly two decades.

            In short, X-COM puts you in charge of an international group of G-men that are asked with defending the world from an ever increasing alien threat. And when I say “in charge”, I mean in charge of everything. From your base layout to manufacturing to budget management to directly commanding troops, you call all the shots. If this sounds daunting, it’s because it is, and the game gives you very little instruction of what you’re doing. That said, a few hours of trying and failing is more than enough to get a grasp of the basics, and on the easiest difficulty that’s all you need to survive long enough to learn the rest.

The Geoscape is where you manage large-scale operations
            The best way to describe X-COM is to divide it into its component parts. The first of these is the Geoscape, a world map where you locate and hunt down UFOs around the globe. From here you can see all of your bases, and can deploy aircraft to attack enemies within radar range. There is a fair bit of strategy in how you deploy your craft; early on, all you need to do is send a fighter to shoot down a hostile, but as time wears on you’ll be tasked with multiple UFOs at once, including some that can make mincemeat of your basic interceptors. This forces you to determine which UFOs are high priority and make a guess as to which is heading where in order to deploy and shoot down as many as possible. It is also beneficial to simply follow certain enemies in order to either recover them whole or tail them to their base, which you can assault to slow down the alien advance. 

As your troopers level up, they can get pretty badass
            Speaking of assault, the ground level turn-based Battlescape is where the majority of your time will be spent. What you bring to battle is entirely of your own choosing; from which troops to what gear, X-COM never makes any decisions for you. The Battlescape is governed by Time Units that determine how far any one trooper can move, whether they can change stance or how they can fire. As the named individuals survive multiple deployments, they can level up, increasing TUs alongside health, accuracy and other statistics. The levels in the Battlescape range from tiny forested areas to larger urban environments, depending entirely on where a UFO is shot down or tailed to. This can drastically alter the combat, which relies on distance, line of sight and verticality. The vertical aspect of combat is one of the truly dated bits that I ran into; the fact that units (friendly or hostile) on a higher plane cannot be easily selected without manually moving the camera up and clicking them takes far longer than it should and can be infuriating later in the game when your troops have flying suits and may be on up to five different planes. That said, the combat still feels good, with the different weapons feeling powerful and shots often being one- or two-hit kills on either side of the battle.

Your various bases can get very complex
            The final aspect of X-COM is base management, and while this may sound like the boring part, it actually does well to split up the combat and can have a huge influence on the flow of a specific game. Here you use money earned for defending the countries of the world (or selling captured alien goods) to build structures like hangars, laboratories or factories, as well as living quarters to house the required soldiers, scientists and engineers. The labs are able to research dozens of different things, such as new weapons, UFO parts or the aliens themselves. As research is completed, the workers can construct these alien technologies for you own use, including improved radars and UFO-esque interceptors. The interface for all of this is dense, and there’s a constant struggle to ensure you have ample budget, parts and on-duty soldiers to be constantly producing and protecting from potential alien retaliation. On top of that, you can have up to eight bases, which can be quite a handful. Once again, however, enough trial and error can show what you should and shouldn’t focus on and the best way to keep yourself in the black, financially.

            As far as story goes, there isn’t much to go on. Each game you play starts you out with a single base of your choosing, and from there you decide how to proceed to turn your small agency into a worldwide alien ass-kicking powerhouse. The information that you do get comes from research, where apart from discovering new technologies you can look into alien anatomy and origins, as well as interrogating live prisoners to learn more about what is going on with the increasing alien attacks. Once you have developed certain technologies and have discovered the necessary info about the aliens, you are given the option to engage in a final mission to finish them off once and for all, which is how you can actually finish the game. It comes down to a Civilization style of gameplay, which is by no means a slight against it except that it gives any one game of X-COM only as much personal involvement as you are willing to give it.

            It’s not a walk in the park to get running, with DOSBox being a requirement to even install. That said, you can get the original off of Steam for $5, and it has all of that external software included and configured. It’s easy to write off as crazy those people who hate new sequels simply because they’re too different from the original. While I certainly think that the new XCOM looks interesting, my experience with the 1994 version has been so positive that I absolutely see where those superfans are coming from. If you have any interest in older games and have a bit of patience, you should definitely check out X-COM.

Images captured by author

Jun 19, 2011

Review: Dead Space 2

This review is written for the installed Xbox 360 version of Dead Space 2.

Dead Space 2 is my favorite game of all time. No, that’s not hyberbole, and no, contrary to the name of this blog it is not just some quick, gut reaction. I’ve played dozens of games since, including some of my previous favorites, and DS2 still holds its position in my mind as the best of the best. I know that the immediate response to saying any new game is the best ever is immediately met with a million and one screams of anger, but let me clarify. I’m not saying the gameplay is necessarily the best (although it’s great), nor am I saying it is the best looking (but it looks incredible). I’m not saying that it is the most revolutionary game of all time, or that the face of media will be forever changed by its existence. Despite all that, one thing sticks out in my mind: Dead Space 2 is without a doubt the most fun, atmospheric and mind-blowingly awesome thing that I have ever played.

The shooting is not only intact, but improved
I don’t want to spend too much time on the gameplay, just because if you played Dead Space 1 you know what to expect here. The third-person shooting still retains that Resident Evil 4 core that has been omnipresent in the genre since 2004, but it is so refined that it’s impossible to level any complaints of it feeling derivative. Raising and lowering your weapon, melee attacking, stomping, running and any other essential activity are all mapped intuitively and they all occur quickly, to the point where I never once felt like I was fumbling against the controls or waiting for an animation to play out. The “strategic dismemberment” of DS1 is at play here as well, with the primary way of slaying Necromorphs still being to sever two or three of their limbs and take them out of the action. The weapons all facilitate this, with the originals Plasma Cutter, Line Gun and others showing up alongside newbies like a sniper-type weapon and the immensely satisfying Javelin Gun. On top of this the Stasis and Kinesis modules return but are much improved, with the Kinesis being used to impale Necros with environmental objects (or their own amputated claws) and the Stasis automatically regenerating, making it actually viable in regular combat. Finally, the shop and workbench system from the first game returns, where you collect credits to buy new guns and armor along with power nodes that are used to upgrade them. Even this is improved over the original due to the special bonuses that certain armor permutations grant and unique upgrades for certain weapons, such as incendiary bullets or the ability to electrify fired javelins to eliminate groups of enemies.

This looks ten times better in motion
Vacuum and zero-G sequences also return in Dead Space 2, the latter of which is drastically improved. Your suit(s) now have small thrusters on board, which make a huge difference for how these portions of the game play out. You are given full 360-degree movement around the weightless segments, and the controls are simple enough to let you navigate the huge outdoor environments with ease. The thrusters come into play in a few of the jaw-dropping scripted sequences as well. The game throws these chunks of gameplay out at a pretty regular pace, such as when you need to take out a monster’s weak point while being violently dragged across the floor, or when you are flung into space while grappling with another enemy and need to detonate some nearby barrels before you are ripped in half. The most memorable of these are portions where you need to move very, very rapidly from place to another, and need to pilot your suit to avoid flying rubble and the like. Most games would relegate this to a series of button presses, and while DS2 has its share of button mashing, the fact that most of these sequences are directly controlled by the player is awesome. One in particular involves Isaac being literally catapulted from one district of Titan Station to another, and the combination of the fantastic large-scale graphics and story-motivation to get there fast make this sequence incredible to play.

This is literally the first event of the game
Wait a minute. What are all these proper nouns doing here? Well, as it turns out, Dead Space 2’s stories holds up the crazy bombast and polish that the gameplay supplies. You play as Isaac Clarke, clinically insane zombie-killing machine that barely survived the events of the first game. You show up on a mining colony embedded into one of Saturn’s moons with little to no idea of how you got here from three years before. However, whereas most games would give a nice, long period of learning exactly what the circumstances are, the game instead has one of the strongest openings I’ve ever seen, with Isaac immediately thrust into a second Necromorph outbreak. Is the Marker involved? Probably. Is Isaac’s evil, hallucinated girlfriend back? You betcha. But the willingness of Dead Space 2 to let you pick up these facts across the game and make the connections yourself without explicitly spelling everything out from the word “Go” is refreshing and makes you actually care about the struggle Isaac is going through on his quest to literally stomp as many deformed creatures into little tiny pieces as possible. I also want to call out the ending that is, without spoilers, one of the greatest emotional rollercoasters of all time. The game wears you down with a good hour of insanely difficult combat where running is often the best option, then throws you into one a completely mind-bending boss battle, and then manages to hit both the depressing and triumphant notes. It is masterfully done, and it left me sitting there after the fact, completely brain dead in the best possible way.

I feel like I should point out that I beat the game in one sitting, but that is in no way a slight against the length of the game. It took me roughly eight hours to finish, and that’s coming from the perspective of someone who was extremely familiar with the first game going into it. It’s more a testament to just how compelling the gameplay, atmosphere and narrative all are that I neglected food, sleep and schoolwork to pound out chapter after chapter of the DS2’s campaign. I don’t want to disparage the shooting, which is great, but the real drive comes from the things in between, be it one of the high-action scripted sequences or a particular chapter that is completely combat-free. This one portion, while technically a back-tracking sequence, is so dark, eerie and fascinating that I recall it as one of the best things in the game. On top of the incredible focus that Dead Space 2 granted me (a focus that led to the consumption of more than two liters of water despite being completely sedentary), there is an immense amount of replay value here, between carrying over upgrades to higher difficulties, to completing the insane save-limiting hardcore mode to getting every achievement, a task that is actually reasonable due to the lack of multiplayer-centric ones. My grand total as of today is a good eight and a half playthroughs, and while I am indeed a crazy person, there is more than enough game here to keep you busy for a long, long time.

So there you have it. Dead Space 2 is an amazing game, regardless of whether or not you agree with my assessment as the best game. Yes, the gameplay is derivative, and the story may have a few inconsistencies. But the caveats are so miniscule and the praise I can lay on it so great that you really need to own this game.

Images courtesy of Google.com