May 30, 2011

Series Review: Star Wars: Rogue Squadron

This review is written for the Rogue Squadron franchise played on both an N64 with the expansion pack and the Wii.

            Let’s get one thing out of the way: If you don’t like Star Wars, you aren’t going to like the Rogue Squadron series. That’s not to say that they aren’t incredibly well made and entertaining in and of themselves, because the simplified flight-sim style of the games still pans out to a hell of a good time. However, this these games are made by Star Wars fans, for Star Wars fans. The Star Wars-iness is so baked in to every facet of the ship designs, environments, objectives and storylines that if you aren’t familiar with what Bacta is or what an A-Wing looks like, your enjoyment will be seriously hampered.

The original's draw distance is its only graphical blemish
            The core gameplay in Rogue Squadron really only needs to be explained once, as it remains largely unchanged throughout the trilogy. At the beginning of a mission, you select a vehicle, usually predefined the first time a mission is played. These range from your typical X-, Y-, A- and B-Wings to unlockables like the Millennium Falcon, Slave 1 or Darth Vader’s TIE that can be selected on subsequent playthroughs. The missions themselves range from simple dogfights to bombing runs, reconnaissance and the occasional slightly-less-than-awful escort mission. While the core objectives usually remain the same, the varied environments and spacecraft make the gameplay feel fresh throughout. At the end of a mission, you receive a medal based on the targets destroyed, mission time, accuracy and so on, and these contribute to unlocking new vehicles and missions. While getting the gold on each mission can be infuriating at times, the medals are fair in that if you know what you’re doing you can usually attain your goal. 

            Rogue Squadron on the N64 takes place almost entirely between Episodes IV and V in the original trilogy. The events of the game follow Luke through an assortment of largely unconnected missions to throw a wrench in the Empire’s plans. The story takes a back seat to the gameplay here, despite a few events that are important to the films. On top of this, the plot appears to delve largely into Expanded Universe territory by featuring bizarre Empire super weapons and planets unmentioned by the movies, but it’s easy enough to follow for someone who only really cares about the films. However, it’s the very tactile and visceral feel of flying these familiar ships that matters, and in that regard the first entry in the series is an excellent start.

The sequel upped the ante in every way
            Rogue Leader takes the above and completely blows it out of the water. The game feels insanely fast by comparison, both because of the clearly increased speed of shooting as well as the incredible graphics and environments that still hold up to this day. Whereas the entirety of the N64 game took place on the surface of planets, the sequel has space missions as well that have you zipping between huge frigates, star destroyers and the like. On top of the improved look and feel of the game is a much better story, mostly because it focuses on the plot of the original trilogy. You start with the assault on the Death Star, then travel to Hoth, Bespin and finally the space over Endor for what is undeniably the best mission in the series. There are also plenty of other missions in between, of course, including the escort of a convoy moving from Yavin to Hoth, and the infiltration of a downed Star Destroyer that stands out because of its use of multiple different Rebel ships to get to the objective. 

The AT-STs are one of the few improvements in Rebel Strike
            Finally, we come to Rebel Strike, the low point of the trilogy. The primary difference in this game is that it is split between two campaigns. One of these follows Wedge and is the traditional Rogue Squadron gameplay, although again using what I assume is Expanded Universe fiction for its plot. This half of the game is solid, and introduces the Jedi Starfighter, which despite the bad connotations of being from Episode II is probably the most fun ship in the series. The other half of the game, however, is flat out bad. Someone at Factor 5 thought that the thing that was missing in this franchise was on-foot action, and man oh man were they wrong. This campaign follows Luke, again through the original trilogy, on missions such as the evacuation of Yavin, the ground battle on Hoth and the escape from Jabba in Episode VI. The simple fact is that the on-foot action consists of running towards the objective while hammering the fire button to win. The camera is bad, the aiming is an unnecessary challenge and the entire addition is utterly pointless. With that said, the AT-ST sequences are a blast, and the Endor speeder bike chase has a sense of speed not even seen in most racing games. On top of that, Rebel Strike includes the entirety of Rogue Leader’s campaign for cooperative play and has a boatload of minor but nonetheless interesting extra features to mess around with.

So many AT-ATs, so little tow cable
            If you’re looking to get in on this awesome trilogy, you absolutely should start with Rogue Leader. It is without a doubt the highpoint of the series, and has such a tight focus that every aspect is forced to be as well-constructed as it possibly could be. After that, the proposition is dicier. The original game is probably the better of the two remaining entries, but if you can only get one of them it makes more sense to get Rebel Strike. Getting both Gamecube entries gives you the same controls and the same system, and the fact that they follow largely the same story makes them excellent companion pieces (not to mention that Rebel Strike contains co-op for its predecessor).

            So there you have it. As far as I’m concerned, the Rogue Squadron series is one of those modern classics that will likely get forgotten due to the explosion of other, more successful genres that occurred in the same time frame. I cannot stress enough that while they are not all created equal, any entry in the series is worthwhile in my book. You absolutely should play these games.

Images courtesy of and

May 27, 2011

Review: Singularity

This review is written for Singularity running on a high-powered Windows 7 PC.
Singularity is a fantastic game. I also despise it.

Bad things are afoot on Katorga-12
Let’s get the basics out of the way so I can explain. Singularity is a first-person shooter that takes place on a deserted island that was once home to a Russian facility that experimented on “Element 99”, a volatile but seemingly limitless substance that allows all sorts of crazy science to happen. You play as Nathan Renko, a US soldier sent to investigate the derelict island. Of course, everything goes completely sideways the second you show up. Your helicopter is suddenly downed, and before you can do any real exploring, a massive shockwave sends you back in time to the 1950s to a building that is currently on fire. Mind you, this is in the first ten minutes of the game. Soon you are transported back to the present day and, as with every instance of time travelling ever, your actions have apparently altered history. Now, there are both Russian commandos and time monsters crawling all over the island that you need to fight through to get to the giant swirling vortex that presumably is causing all the badness. On the way you encounter a few friendly NPCs and a number of audio and video logs that help explain what the hell is going on, plus there are a number of instances where you go back to the 50s to obtain information or weapons while slaughtering a bunch of poorly equipped mid-century Russian soldiers.

The TMD can be a lot of fun
The fact that E-99 is such McGuffin allows it to alter the gameplay along with the story in some significant ways. The game features the typical rifle-shotgun-sniper-rocket weapon sets, and these all feel nice and Call of Duty-esque in terms of how they operate, but there’s more to the shooting than just that. Many weapons have secondary fires, such as the sniper’s slow-motion zoom (which sounds minor but makes sniping fun for those of us who can’t aim) and a remote controlled grenade launcher that is rarely used but is interesting for a few puzzle sequences. On top of this is the Time Manipulation Device that is a sort of Gravity Gun/Plasmid/Insta-kill weapon. It’s used most prominently as a puzzle solving tool that can move items, age and de-age things like stairs and crates to make them passable, and fired at specific story points to alter massive structures or open rifts in time. It also can be used on enemies to either age them to death or turn them into “Reverts”, the aforementioned time monsters that will attack your enemies as well as you. Finally, E-99 itself can be collected throughout the game and used at upgrade stations to improve both the TMD and weapons. These upgrades are minor and amount to increases in damage, clips size, or basic perks, but it’s still nice to see some sort of character progression throughout the game.

Now, let’s talk about the ending. I’m not going to spoil anything, but it is complete and utter bullshit. The story up to the ending sequence is really intriguing and unique in a way that I was busting my way through the ending levels just to see how it was going to wrap up. I finally make it to the top of this giant vortex of doom, and the final gigantic twist is revealed. It’s something all of the characters, and the player realize within the first few minutes of the game, but the NPCs feel the need to slowly recap what happened, including a straight-up series of flashbacks to show you exactly what they mean. It’s not only pointless, but insulting that the game automatically assumes that you never put the pieces together. The game then offers you three choices for how to end the game. In the bad ending, you turn evil and the world is taken over. In the good ending, you save the world, and then it is taken over. In the third, ambiguous ending, there is a massive world war, and then you turn evil and it is taken over. It’s one thing to have a grey moral ending, but there way the game ends makes no sense. In the evil ending, you obviously do the “wrong” thing, but the fact that the good ending makes a certain character go against everything they stood for over the entire game makes no sense, and on top of that it defies the entire premise of the game. Finally, the middle-ground ending should alleviate these issues, but it just turns your character evil again, which defies logic since I, the player, am the one making the choice.

This had so much promise...
Singularity is a great game. If you are looking for a lengthy, atmospheric and fun shooter, it’s under $20 on Amazon which is a steal for the amount of content this title has. That said, the game disappointed me in a way that I don’t know anything else has. It would be one this if it was a mediocre game with a crappy ending, but the story shows so much promise and lays out such a solid foundation that it both shocked and disgusted me when it essentially called me an idiot and then disregarded my moral choices. People should probably play this game, if only to support Raven Software to make more great games instead of the Call of Duty maps that they’re currently tasked with. That said, if you want a game that you feel good about after the fact, or want a story that concludes in any sort of satisfying say, you should not buy Singularity.

Images courtesy of

May 25, 2011

Retro Review: Battlezone 2

This review is written for Battlezone 2 running on a high-powered Windows 7 PC.

            Nostalgia’s a bitch, isn’t it? There are certain games that you can completely adore despite the obvious fact that they are not actually well made or especially fun. This is where my conundrum with Battlezone 2: Combat Commander lies. I remember playing the game years ago, and loving the both the tone and unique gameplay, and going back today I still enjoy it immensely. That said, I first played the game when I was still in elementary school and never played the reportedly superior original that came out only a year prior to BZ2. It’s because of this that I want to give the huge caveat going into this review that, while I’m going to present the game as objectively as possible, I may in fact be completely biased in saying that Battlezone 2 is a great game.

Guard towers can be your best friend or worst enemy
            The game itself is a hybrid of first- or (optionally) third-person shooting and real-time strategy. The beginnings of a match or mission will usually revolve around you floating around in a basic scout or tank class unit protecting your Recycler and Bio-Metal pools, which serve as your main construction center and resource points, respectively. Each unit has its own weapon slots, which can be customized at armories to your liking. As you gain more resources you are able to build insanely powerful base defenses, tech and power structures and more advanced factories that give you access to larger and larger units, such as giant walking mechs or bomber strikes. The fun part of this is that, while any unit can be computer controller and ordered around in typical RTS fashion, you as a lone pilot can commandeer nearly any of your teams vehicles, the largest of which can completely dominate a battlefield. Another neat touch is that most pilot classes come with a sniper rifle that can be used to snipe out the cockpit of an opposing unit to steal it for yourself, which can be a huge help if you get stranded without a vehicle in hostile territory. It is also possible to play the game completely hands-off from one of either factions’ specific buildings, which pulls the camera out to an overhead perspective for a traditional RTS style game. The basic interface for commanding your troops is more or less identical in either scenario. It used both the function keys and number keys to select and command units and structures to perform a number of actions such as “build this”, “go to”, “deploy here” or “follow”. Early on the interface can be slightly daunting, but once you understand the basic layout it is very effective for relaying orders and organizing units into control groups.

The game can be played entirely from a birds-eye view
            Of course I wouldn’t be nearly so positive of the game if it didn’t have some sort of story, and BZ2 delivers in that respect. It picks up some time after the original (which, as I said earlier, I have not played), in the presumably near future where humanity’s technology has been radically advanced by the discovery of Bio-Metal, which is basically just the Ore or Tiberium of the game. You play as NSDF Lieutenant Cooke, who is dispatched to Pluto to investigate a communication failure with an outpost there. Of course all hell breaks loose as aliens show up and start ruining everyone’s day. The campaign follows Cooke as he and a small contingent of NSDF push the aliens (called Scions) back off Pluto and then follow them as they retreat further and further towards their homeworld. The story itself isn’t anything to write home about, but the between-mission presentation of dialogue between some of the main characters fleshes out the true history between the humans and Scions. Also, while Cooke himself is a dry character with few lines, some of the supporting cast do a decent job with their bits, especially towards the latter half when some ulterior motives start rearing their heads. There’s even an extremely unexpected bit of branching storyline near the end where you get to choose how the rest of the campaign will play out.
The late-game units get pretty gnarly
          This all sounds pretty cool, right? Well, the game has some real issues, the most significant being the AI. While the enemies do a decent enough job of beating the crap out of you, the friendly AI ranges from just-good-enough to atrocious. At times I found the repair truck that was supposed to be following me stuck halfway up a mountain at the boundaries of the map, or an entire contingent of friendly tanks ignoring an assault on just the other side of the base. This could be bearable if the player could pick up the slack, but the shooting controls leave a lot to be desired. They feel very floaty and inaccurate in a way that makes sense for hovercraft, but not so much for a game featuring them. This is especially apparent in the sniping, which more or less requires the target to be completely immobile to even attempt a shot. Another issue is some extreme graphical glitches that appear throughout the game. I know graphics are a bad thing to harp on for decade-plus old games, but weird things like trees randomly falling over and not having collision physics and strange shadows appearing in the air around certain vehicles stood out just as much back then as they do now. Finally, the game fails to capitalize on the interesting universe that it has set up. Story occurs almost exclusively in between-mission radio transmissions, and apart from a couple minor revelations and the aforementioned mission branching, the entire game plays out in a fairly predictable fashion.

            Which leaves me to figure out what I want you to take away from this. Battlezone 2 is a weird game. The hybrid of shooting and RTS is well implemented (although it apparently was in the prequel as well), except neither facet is overly appealing. However, the game is unique and fun enough that I think if you can look past the readily apparent flaws, there something really great at its core. And honestly, at under $5 used on Amazon, there’s not a whole lot of risk in giving it a shot.

Images courtesy of and

May 24, 2011

Review: L.A. Noire

 This review is written for the installed Xbox 360 version of L.A. Noire.

I’m usually not the go-to guy for details on historical fiction of any kind. I typically eschew the past in my entertainment in favor of either modern or futuristic settings. That’s what I thought when Red Dead Redemption came around, and that game shocked me with how engrossed in the story I became as it continued on. By the time I had finished, it had already ranked among my top game stories of all time. So when Rockstar and Team Bondi started talking up L.A. Noire, I was similarly skeptical but was willing to give it a shot despite the seemingly less interesting post-WWII time period and my complete lack of knowledge for the film genre off which it is based.

You'll follow even the smallest clues throughout the game
            The game itself basically amounts to an incredibly high-budget adventure game, which is in no way a slight against it. As war veteran-turned-detective Cole Phelps, you’ll get involved in foot chases, car chases and large scale shootouts, but all this is ancillary to the actual meat of the game: You travel to crime scenes, collect evidence and interview suspects to narrow down your search until you have what you need to convict the criminal. Collecting the evidence is a simple yet satisfying process; musical cues and controller vibration lead you to clues around the environment, and the game informs you when you have located all there is to find in an area. If this sounds a bit like the game is holding your hand, you’d be right, but it’s still fun and rewarding to locate and examine an item to extract whatever information it has to offer. This evidence all comes into play in the interrogation sequences, in which you need to decide whether an individual is telling the truth, withholding information or flat out lying about a subject. If the subject is accused of lying, direct evidence is needed to be shown to contradict the statement. The “Doubt” vs. “Lie” options are pretty finicky early on in the game, where I was using evidence in a way the game didn’t understand, but once you get the hang of what the game is expecting of you it becomes a much more satisfying ride through to the end.

            But how can you tell if someone is lying or not without proper evidence? You read their face, of course. That’s right, L.A. Noire’s much flaunted facial capture system is in full effect on just about every character in the game world, and it, quite frankly, looks incredible. It’s easy to write it off as a gimmick or a tech demo, but it adds so much life to the characters that you really need to see to believe it. As a matter of a fact, go take a look for yourself. There is, however, a noticeable disconnect between the facial movements and the rest of the body; if you’ve seen Tron Legacy, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Like Jeff Bridge’s Clu character, the heads in L.A. Noire occasionally appear jittery or out of sync with the body, but this is honestly a small price to pay for such otherwise incredible fidelity.

When Cole gets angry, people listen
            What this face tech provides is characterization quite unlike anything that I’ve seen in other games. All of the faces and voices are those of usually recognizable real-life actors, but that is easily looked past due to their stellar performances. The main character, Cole, is played pretty straight, but at times you’ll see him angry, upset, depressed and elated, and all these emotions play perfectly on screen. The NPCs all bring it as well; the criminals tend to look and act like the maniacs, ice-cold killers or rich and aloof assholes that they are, and the fellow cops (particularly Cole’s various partners) all make you actually like working for the police. All of the partners start out relatively unhappy with their assignment to Cole, but as the cases roll by I came to really enjoy and eventually miss the company of each, with one significant but deliberate exception.

            Of course, the game isn’t just a series of disconnected case files. Early on when Cole is learning the ropes, the game doles them out slightly a la carte, where the only constant between them is the player’s increasing popularity as a star detective, but as you advance to different police divisions the cases themselves start to become linked in some pretty significant ways. The game also has between-case flashbacks to the war, as well as scattered yet easy to find newspapers that both show well-acted scenes designed to flesh out the characters and backstory. In the back half of the game all of these disparate threads start to all become relevant in the cases themselves, which kept building up my interest to see where the crazy story would end up. In the last few hours a number of memorable twists and set pieces kept me white knuckling my way through until the wee hours of the morning, and make up for the slightly lackluster ending scenes.

The chases range from good to thrilling
            So what’s not to like about L.A. Noire? For one, the game seems to be split in two. The first half culminates in the homicide division, which has an excellent conclusion in and of itself, but it is followed up by a completely unrelated series of cases that all works towards to another larger story arc. Furthermore, this second arc starts to drag a bit in the middle. In terms of the story, it makes sense, but there’s about an hour and a half’s worth of investigation that isn’t nearly as compelling as what comes before or after. Finally, there’s a large conflict between the individual cases and the overarching stories between them. Without divulging too much, the ends of each arc partially void the smaller decisions you make earlier. It doesn’t make the cases themselves any less engaging to complete, but the end result is that I felt slightly gipped on some of my detective work.

            Despite my gripes, L.A. Noire managed to keep me interested in a setting and characters that are completely outside of my usual comfort zone, and it only took a few hours of game time before I was digging through Wikipedia to learn more about the real-life characters and events that much of the story revolves around. The main issue I have with recommending the game is whether or not a roughly 15 hour experience with a limited amount of replay value is worth full price. That said, L.A. Noire is completely unlike any other game I have ever played, and the story presentation and incredible tech on display give it a huge leg up on that value proposition. It’s not a recommendation without caveats, but I think you should buy this game.

Images courtesy of

May 23, 2011

Where Am I?

Home Sweet Home
Howdy! Chances are you’re stumbling by this blog on accident, in which case let me introduce myself. My name is Kyle and I’ve been gaming my whole life. From my toddler days of playing dusty old NES Looney Tunes carts to my years with Homeworld on Windows ME to my obsession with hundred-percenting every GTA game possible, video games have always been an integral part of who I am. I do however feel the need to point out that I’m a child of the 90s. The NES was an antique by the time I knew how to play it, and as a result the console I have the most attachment to is, of course, the N64. As a result, my knowledge of what the classics are skews significantly towards the modern era, and my opinions may not hold as much weight as someone who has been with the medium since the beginning. I do, however, have an immense respect for the OGs of the gaming world and try to experience the most revered titles any time I have the chance.

With that out of the way, welcome to Gut Reactions, my blog for game reviews and other miscellaneous content that may or may not be related to them. “But Kyle,” you may ask, “Why does the internet need another set of reviews?” The answer is that I tend to approach my games in a different fashion. I care less about the core gameplay conceits and more about the experience the game presents and what kind of story it tells. I don’t care whether something reaches out with pure visceral excitement or a deep, thought provoking narrative, but it is that core tenet of the medium that actually matters to me. A game that plays excellently with no real heart appeals to me very little, and it is around this that I will be basing my reviews. That said, I’ll certainly point out the quality of the game itself to try and determine whether adds or detracts from the experience and if it’s worth slogging through a mediocre game to get to an excellent story.
Does this game deserve another look? We'll find out!
I’ll be focusing on the newer crop of releases, but I fully intend to delve into the back catalog of games that I enjoy to try and retroactively give them the attention that I feel they deserve. So once again welcome to the formative stages of Gut Reactions. Enjoy your stay.