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