Wednesday, December 30, 2009

WAA - Blazing Angels

This week's game for WAA is Blazing Angels, a flight simulator set during WWII. The game only has 7 Achievements and they are ALL very freebies to be had here!

The "One With Combat"Award: "Veteran"
Beat campaign mode. It should speak volumes about how difficult this Achievement set is that beating the entire freakin' game (and a tough game at that) is the easiest award to earn.

The "Mile High Club" Award: "The Ace of Aces" and "Hero"
Ace of Aces requires you to get an "Ace" ranking in every campaign mission, which in turn requires you to finish the mission VERY rapidly while recording a large number of enemy kills. For Hero, you need to get all the medals in the campaign, but to get all the medals you need to get Ace ranks in all the missions. So essentially, it's the same very difficult Achievement twice. At least you'll bank 325 points for all your effort.

The "Seriously..." Award: "Survivor"
First you have to unlock every plane by playing through the main campaign and mini-campaigns. Then you have to beat Arcade mode with each of 32 planes by downing 36 enemies within six minutes. That's 1152 kills to get this one, assuming you never get shot down, crash your plane, or run out of time. LAME.

The "Little Rocket Man" Award: "Ace Killer"
It's you against a souped-up AI opponent one-on-one to see who the real Ace is. This one will definitely test your flying and shooting skills.

The Scientist Gone Gamer Award: "Hero"
This is actually a nice looking set. I picked this one because I like the shot of the WWII-era pilot in the background combined with the Blazing Angels logo in the foreground.

Achievement Set Rating - 2
This set does a lot wrong. There are only seven Achievements, and they're all really difficult. You could play the game for weeks, discover that the campaign is beyond your abilities, and walk away with nothing. There should be some easier awards so you feel like you're making more progress on the set as you go. Plus the "Ace of Aces" and "Hero" Achievements are essentially identical in practice, so why make them separate awards? Only the sharp icons save this from being a 1.

Achievement Difficulty Rating - 9
No freebies...heck there aren't even any awards I'd call moderately challenging. Every Achievement is difficult, time-consuming, or both. Mostly both. Expect a minimum of 25 hours to finish this set, and likely much more. Worst of all, you might walk away with nothing if your flight skills aren't well honed.

The Maw

The Maw is an Xbox Live Arcade game that I picked up the other day when it went on sale. It won some awards prior to release, including the coveted Audience Choice award at PAX in 2008, so I was curious to see what it was like. For less than five bucks, I figured it was worth a look.

As the game starts, a small blue alien named Frank has been captured by galactic bounty hunters and taken aboard a quarantine ship. The ship crashes for unknown reasons, and the only survivors are Frank and an animate puddle of purple goo called the Maw. Maw is considered the "Deadliest Organism in the Universe" because it can eat just about anything (provided it's not too large to devour) and can grow to truly epic proportions.

Frank and the Maw become fast friends though, and together they have to find a way to escape the planet on which they've crash-landed while avoiding the bounty hunters.

The Maw is an odd little game. Essentially the point is to drag the Maw around and feed him local lifeforms as he gets bigger and bigger, allowing you to advance to the next area. At the start of the game he looks like this:

Left - Tiny Maw
Right - Frank checks out his cool new power bracelet

And here's the Maw towards the end of the game:

Left - Gigantic Maw
Right - Frank contemplates what his grocery bill will look like if this keeps up

The Maw can also absorb the powers of creatures he eats. For example, if he eats a lizard that breathes fire, he'll change form and breath fire as well. So the point of the game is to use Frank's power bracelet and the Maw's eating powers to solve puzzles and advance.

The controls work well, and I didn't have much trouble navigating the environment. One annoyance is that the Maw needs to be on his leash to follow you, so if you use Frank to solve a puzzle by himself, you'll have to go back and fetch the Maw. However, the levels are pretty small so backtracking is minimal. I also felt like Frank could use a sprint button because his default walking speed is painfully slow.

There's not much plot here. You move forward from level to level with no real plan or impetus that I could discern. I will say that the characters are relatively solid given that it's pretty much just Frank and the Maw, and the latter doesn't talk. Actually, Frank really doesn't say much either, but the cutscenes are well done, with enough subtext in the facial expressions and body language to convery the developing friendship between the Frank and the Maw.

While I found the Maw to be a pleasant diversion, it's very short (I completed it in about two to three hours), and I'm not sure I would have wanted it to be any longer. It turns out that under five dollars is probably the right price for this one.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

WAA - NBA Street: Homecourt

This week's edition of WAA is NBA Street: Homecourt. It's a 3 on 3 arcade-style basketball game in a similar vein to NBA Jam and Arch Rivals. For basketball fans, it's a fun little title.

The "One With Combat"Award: "Online Showdown"
For this one, you just need to play 10 online matches. Wins and losses don't matter, so it's as simple as jumping into the lobby, choosing quick match, and repeating the process a few times.

The "Mile High Club" Award: "King of the Court"
Most of the Achievements are pretty easy, but this one can be tough. You have to win 10 online games in a row. The online community is fairly dead, and there's always the risk that you run into a great player who breaks your streak. The good news is that this can be done in private matches against a friend, so just pick one who stinks at basketball games and goad him/her into repeated play sessions until you grab this award.

The "Seriously..." Award: "Seeing Double"
The story mode has you create a player and work your way up in level until you can challenge for a Street Basketball Championship. This Achievement tasks you with going most of the way through the career mode a second time (Level 10), which is a pointless waste of time.

The "Little Rocket Man" Award: "Dunkalicious"
This one is fun. You need to do five "jumpoff" dunks, which is when one of your teammates kneels on the ground and you jump off his back to do a thunderous dunk.

The Scientist Gone Gamer Award: "Ultimate Finish"
Win a game with a special "Gamebreaker" move. Oh Snap!

Achievement Set Rating - 4
The icons are mediocre, though I guess the award titles are "street". Mostly the list is just plowing through the career mode and a little bit of online play.

Achievement Difficulty Rating - 2
None of the special dunks are hard to do, and the career mode is ridiculously easy (especially if you create a 3-point specialist). If you can dominate a buddy for the 10 straight online wins, you can wrap up the whole set in a weekend.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Penny Arcade: Episode 1

Penny Arcade is one of my favorite online comics (along with Ctrl Alt Del), so I knew it was only a matter of time before I took a crack at their first attempt at a video game. A while back it was on special for half off, so I downloaded it to my hard drive and promptly forgot about it.

But I finally got around to playing it this weekend. There are actually a series of Penny Arcade games (gotta' love episodic gaming), so this is the first chapter. It's subtitled "On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness", a tribute to the overly loquacious Tycho, half of the Penny Arcade duo.

You start the game by creating a character and doing a brief tutorial. Then you get into the meat of the plot...the general idea is that you join up with Gabe and Tycho to solve mysteries of a bizarre nature. The whole story is a twisted morass of sex-crazed robots, angry hobos, and evil mimes who worship a silent god. It's great! If you follow the comic at all, you can see Mike and Jerry's fingerprints all over this game.

As for gameplay, it's ostensibly a turn-based RPG. You can choose to attack, use an item, or to charge up for a special ability. As you defeat enemies, you gain experience and go up levels. Stats increase. New abilites are earned. You know the drill, I'm sure. Unlike most turn-based RPGs though, this one operates on a time based system. While you're choosing what to do, the enemies get to continue attacking. On top of that, there's a Mario RPGesque system in which you can use the triggers to block incoming attacks and even get counterattacks. The game runs pretty fast, so there's a bit of a learning curve involved. It's definitely an improvement over standard point and click RPGs though.

Penny Arcade also has some adventure elements (round up items to solve puzzles) and a few mini-games. But the point is mostly the's rife with humor and you get a fair bit of input into how you want your character to interact with Gabe and Tycho. There are tons of Easter Eggs for fans of the comic, so keep your eyes peeled.

Weaknesses? Well, it's an Xbox Live game so it's pretty short. I knocked it out with little trouble over the weekend. There really aren't a lot of alternate pathways so the replay value isn't great either. I also found battles to get a bit repetetive after a while...there are only a few enemy models in the game (though each one is GOLD), and you have to do a fair bit of fighting when I'd really rather just move on with the story.

Still, I felt like it was well worth a few bucks to play through the adventure, and I already own Episode 2 so it's inevitable that I'll check out future enstallments. If you're a fan of the comic, I definitely recommend Penny Arcade.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Sonic's Ultimate Genesis Collection

Last week I ripped through Sonic's Ultimate Genesis Collection. That's Sonic, as in Sonic the Hedgehog. It's a compilation disc containing Sonic's favorite Sega Genesis games. He's apparently a pretty narcissistic woodland critter, because it feels like Sonic himself is featured in about half the games.

The disc boasts 40 Genesis hits, though some of those are unlocked only after completing challenges in other games. It's a pretty wide variety, including RPGs (Phantasy Star), strategy games (Shining Force), brawlers (Streets of Rage), puzzlers (Columns), and a bunch of old-school platformers. Some of these games were pretty famous (who doesn't know Sonic?) while others were far more obscure to all but the biggest Sega fanboys (who the hell is Ristar?).

Since there are so many games on the disc, it would be pointless to try to describe every one of them. Instead, I'll just say that these are very faithful adaptations of the old Genesis titles, for better or worse.

If you're really into "nostalgia gaming", then you'll probably enjoy the collection. Me, I was more struck by the irony that I own a 2000 dollar television and a 300 dollar piece of gaming hardware so I can produce a picture like these:

And if you think those look a little rough these days, you should hear how they sound. It's actually a little amazing to think that this was cutting edge stuff a decade and a half ago. Now these games are comically low-resolution, and they sound like sharp pieces of metal being grated together.

Granted, some of these games were made really well, so the gameplay still holds up even today. The real question, then, is which games are still fun and which games are massively disappointing once the rosy-colored glasses of nostalgia are removed? Well, Shinobi and Streets of Rage are both still great. The Shining Force and Phantasy Star games were ahead of their time as well, so they've aged reasonably well. I hadn't played Comix Zone before, but I liked its visual style a lot and was impressed with the gameplay. And of course Sonic's platformers are still pretty fun.

On the other hand, Altered Beast has aged about as well as an NBA center. That thing was beat half to death with the ugly stick, and the emulated sound is beyond awful. Sonic 3D Blast and Sonic Spinball both sucked when they came out, let alone now. And Ecco the Dolphin...why was this a thing? Does anyone remember? He's a dolphin. He swims around. He eats fish. He uses sonar to talk to other dolphins. I don't really see the appeal.

But the biggest kick in the grapes was reserved for a game that I loved as a kid, Golden Axe. This is the danger of going back to these things later in life. It's one thing to fondly remember The Thundercats, but another thing entirely to sit through an episode today. Playing Golden Axe was both distressing and perplexing. Was this game always so shitty? Why did I think this was fun? Did the female warriors always look like dudes?

Anyway, if you have fond memories of Genesis titles and you don't mind risking them being sullied by the harsh light of present-day reality, feel free to give this one a shot. But I strongly recommend a rental...these games just don't have a lot of lasting power compared to today's digital marvels.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

WAA - Dead Space

It only makes sense to end my Dead Space series with a spot in WAA.

The "One With Combat"Award: "Pack Rat"
You just have to store 25 items in your safe. Between enemy drops and the copious number of item caches to be found around the ship, you can squirrel away 25 items within the first two levels.

The "Mile High Club" Award: "Epic Tier 3 Engineer"
You need to beat the game on "Impossible" mode, which isn't even available until you beat the game on another difficulty. It's far from impossible, but the enemies are faster and tougher, while ammo and health packs are harder to come by. This difficulty definitely puts the "survival" back in Survival/Horror. My advice is to finish prone enemies with the foot stomp to save ammo, and don't be bashful about using stasis to slow the faster enemies.

The "Seriously..." Award: "Maxed Out"
None of the Achievements require that much grinding, though this one will force you to do another half playthrough past your first. You have to accumulate enough Contact Nodes to fully upgrade everything in the game, and there aren't enough in one playthrough to pull it off.

The "Little Rocket Man" Award: "Ragdoll Check"
For this one, you need to find panels on the floor that jam enemies into the ceiling, a fate which is 100% lethal for them (and you!). You can either maneuver them into the panels while fighting, or you can use stasis and then give 'em a good shove!

The Scientist Gone Gamer Award: "A Cut Above"
The Ripper is one fun little gun.

Achievement Set Rating - 7
This is a fairly standard set for a shooter, improved by the presence of varied, colorful icons and the absence of multiplayer Achievements. They aren't breaking any new ground, but most of the bases are covered and I never felt annoyed while completing the set.

Achievement Difficulty Rating - 3
You can get all but one of the Achievements on the Normal (or even Easy) difficulty setting. It's a straightforward set, though you'll need two and a half playthroughs to get them all. It's probably about 25 hours for the full set. Plus the game is fun, which always helps!

Dead Space - Nitpicks

After nearly 2.5 trips through Dead Space, I've accumulated some petty gripes. Remember that these are just nitpicks...overall I really liked the game and will almost certainly play the inevitable sequel.

- Isaac is you typical mute protagonist, so it's hard to feel strongly about him one way or the other. But your two "sidekick" characters during the game are gratingly obnoxious. The female computer expert is a hate-filled harpy and I actively rooted for her death throughout the adventure. Fortunately they aren't around much, mostly filling the role of narrating what your next objective is.

- The monsters in this game can continue to attack even after losing limbs, and even their heads. That's fine, but it's really hard to tell when they're dead versus when they're just reeling from getting a leg blown off. Some kind of death animation would help to prevent situations in which I unload an extra half a clip into a monster's corpse because it's still twitching a bit.

- The game uses a strange offset camera where Isaac sort of stands off to one side a bit (the left), and you see past him. It's almost like someone is filming his exploits from behind (like an episode of COPS). It's not a big issue but it takes some getting used to, especially because it means you have far less peripheral vision on one side than the other.

- The object physics in this game are a little...touchy. For example, if you bump into a dead body it can flip and careen around the floor, sometimes knocking limbs off for no good reason. It feels like environmental objects don't have the proper weight, as if gravity isn't working properly.

- The game has several sections where you move around in zero-G. This is actually pretty cool, and there's even a boss fight where you have to jump around to the walls and ceiling during the fight. Two issues though. One is that it's really hard to tell what constitutes an "allowed" landing point and what doesn't in this game. The other is that trying to run around a wall and fight monsters while hanging upside down with a whirling camera can be disorienting at best, and nausea-inducing at worst.

- The weapon progression is a little bizarre. Usually you start with a weak weapon and find better ones as you go. In this game, I found that the starting weapon (the plasma cutter) was the most effective in the game. It's accurate, it fires quickly, it carries a lot of ammo, and after a few upgrades it's pretty powerful. Most of the later weapons didn't impress me much, though the ripper certainly has its uses (what is it with me and chainsaw weapons...I was getting Dead Rising flashbacks!). I guess this isn't really a complaint, but it seemed strange to toss all the other guns into storage and stick with the original weapon.

- Finally, a quick note to whoever came up with the little creepy-crawly enemies that march along the floor in a swarm, are nearly invisible in a dark hallway, and jump onto your back, forcing you to hammer on the A button while Isaac dances around in a pitiful attempt to dislodge them: WHAT THE FUCK???

Monday, December 14, 2009

Dead Space - Gameplay

Comparing Dead Space to other Survival/Horror games, one bullet point at a time:

- Typical S/H games have gimped controls, with controller inputs that are purposely awkward to make the game less about twitch reactions and more about...well, survival. Dead Space largely breaks from these traditions by featuring tight, intuitive controls. The camera does turn slowly though, occasionally creating issues in those "There's something right behind you!" moments.

- Dead Space really de-emphasizes melee combat. You can pat impotently at enemies with your gun, doing negligible damage while they gnaw your face off, or you can SHOOT THEM. I recommend the latter. There is a footstomp which is occasionally useful for downed enemies, but it still isn't as effective as bullets.

- All the "enemies jumping out of nowhere" stuff that you've seen in other S/H games is repeated here, albeit more often. Those evil aliens have a real knack for falling right out of the ceiling on your head, eliciting a startled jump and a bunch of panic fire from the player.

- Despite that, the enemies are not terribly competent at dealing damage, at least at the normal difficulty level. They telegraph their attacks, they back off after they've hit you once rather than finishing the kill, and unless you get swarmed you won't die often. While this may sound boring, it actually fits well with a theory from one of my favorite game bloggers Shamus Young, who once wrote about how "perceived danger" is more scary than "deadly danger" in video games. The idea is that it's far scarier to feel like you ALMOST died in a video game than to actually hit the game over screen and realize that now you just have to reload and replay that section. Dead Space hits this note well.

NOTE: Shamus Young's site gets my highest recommendation for people who are interested in video games or other aspects of geek culture.

- Speaking of reloading, most S/H games have infrequent save points so punishment for failure is high. Some even tie saving to disposable items (ex. typewriter spools in Resident Evil) so you have to decide for yourself when you should use a precious save. Blech! Dead Space has frequent save points that you can use freely, as well as checkpoints between saves. Death means replaying just a couple minutes tops.

- The difficulty settings are also well done. My playthrough on normal was pretty simple...I only died a couple times due to environmental puzzles, and not once because of enemies. I'm a pretty experienced gamer, so most people would be mildly challenged. There is an easier setting as well for beginners. I'm now playing on the highest difficulty, and it's very challenging. I wouldn't say death is "frequent" but I do need to replay certain sections a few times to pass. For those who prefer a challenge, it's definitely available.

- NO QUICKTIME EVENTS. That's so important that I feel like I should say it again. Quicktime events are (unfortunately) a staple of S/H games. They are not fun. They are the opposite of fun. Dead Space doesn't have any. Three cheers for Dead Space!

Overall, Dead Space is a very well made game and a solid example of the S/H genre. It's without a doubt one of the best S/H games on the 360 (not the highest praise in the world, but still sincere). Just bear in mind that it leans more towards a shooter than a Silent Hill clone and you'll be on the right track.

Next time, nitpicks!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Dead Space - The Survival/Horror Genre

One quick note: I passed the 80,000 point mark while playing Borderlands last night. Six figures is definitely in my sights.

I've been pretty negative on the blog lately owing to a string of frustrating or outright crappy games. So I thought it was time to talk about a game I'm enjoying: Dead Space.

Dead Space falls into the Survival/Horror genre (at least, to the extent that you can shoehorn games into categories these days). I like this particular genre, but I'm forced to admit that for every gem (Silent Hill 2, Resident Evil 4) there's a lot of junk (the other Resident Evil games, anything featuring the words Alone in the Dark). Dead Space happily resides much closer to the "gem" side, not really in the same class as the two aforementioned Hall of Famers but a strong candidate for the All Star team.

S/H games fall into two broad categories based largely on gameplay. The first is the "Badass in a Freaky Situation" game (example: Resident Evil 4). In this one you'll usually play as a special forces operative, a police officer, or some other character trained in combat. The game will feature a number of weapons (probably guns), and the main character will be proficient in each of them right away. The game will play a lot like a shooter, but the controls will be a little awkward (purposely so) and the enemies will come lurching out of the shadows or popping out of closets to scare the player. Essentially, these are shooters with "atmosphere"...they're scary because of the ambiance but get less frightening as you realize that your character is equipped to handle the waves of enemies that they'll face.

The second category is the "Wrong Place, Wrong Time" game (example: most of the Silent Hill games). In these games, you usually play as a helpless civilian with little combat training. Weapons are mundane, generally melee (bats and crowbars are common), and the resources are carefully portioned to insure that you're always one major screw-up away from death. These games are emphasizing the "survival" portion of the genre by giving you a few enemies, very limited resources, and a sliver of hope that you can make it through alive. The gameplay is usually very awkward and unintuitive, especially in combat, to capture the feeling that you're controlling a helpless idiot that has wandered into a situation well beyond their abilities. These games are most closely related to adventure games, because they're less about killing enemies and more about exploring the environment, solving puzzles, and advancing the story.

Dead Space falls into the "Badass in a Freaky Situation" category. The protagonist, Isaac Clarke, may be a space engineer (I'll get more into the story in another post), but he acquits himself pretty well with the weapons you'll find. The game involves a lot of fighting, a little light puzzle solving, and a horde of monsters that love to leap out and say "Boo"...then tear your face off.

Next time I'll talk about how Dead Space went right where a lot of games in this genre go wrong.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

WAA - Bully: Scholarship Edition

This week's WAA focuses on Bully: Scholarship Edition. Actually, the game is called "Bully". The "Scholarship Edition" part comes from the fact that it was originally a PS2 title that they reworked for the 360 with added content.

Note: As much as possible I try to preserve the Achievement titles as presented by the game. That includes typos, bizarre capitalization, and plain nonsense. Bully uses Achievement titles with all capital letters, so that's how I've written them here. Personally, I find the all-caps approach obnoxious, but c'est la vie.

The "One With Combat"Award: "KICKIN' THE BALLS"
Step One - Find soccer ball lying around.
Step Two - Press button to kick ball.
Step Three - Repeat Step Two 99 times.

The "Mile High Club" Award: "PERFECTIONIST"
To get this one, you need to to complete everything in the game, including the story missions, the side missions, the classes, the collections...everything. There's no single aspect of the game that's difficult, but keeping track of what you've done and what you still need to do can be pretty tricky. Use the stats page under the menu to determine what you're missing.

The "Seriously..." Award: "THE WHEEL DEAL"
Unfortunately, there are a lot of tedious Achievements in this game. This one requires that you perform 200 wheelies on a bike. The problem here is that there's really no reason to do a wheelie at all besides getting the Achievement, so why make the number so ridiculously high? It seems like ten would have been plenty.

The "Little Rocket Man" Award: "OVER THE RAINBOW"
This one made me laugh. You can give presents to girls in this game and eventually they'll kiss you. Score! But for the non-traditional gent, there's no need to feel excluded. Certain members of the male student body are also amenable to your advances. Collect 20 kisses from the boys and you score this humorously titled Achievement.

The Scientist Gone Gamer Award: "OVER THE RAINBOW"
Yup, I went there...

Achievement Set Rating - 5
This set has pros and cons. The variety of Achievements is impressive, and it really does a great job of encouraging you to explore everything that the Bullworth Academy has to offer. On the other hand, some of these call for WAY too much repetition of specific activities. Give 50 wedgies? Egg 25 cars? Bike 100 kilometers? Pick 50 flowers? This seems suspiciously like busy work to me.

Achievement Difficulty Rating - 3
Of course, there's nothing particularly difficult about these activities either. Go to the flower garden and run around grabbing flowers. When your inventory is full, give them to girls, get a few kisses, and repeat. Or if you want the one for biking, hop on your bike and make circles around the driveway. The soapbox derby races can be marginally tricky but for the most part, it just takes time (around 20 hours to be precise).

Monday, December 7, 2009

Jumper: Griffin's Story

Congratulations are in order for Collision Studios and Brash Entertainment, the minds behind Jumper: Griffin's Story. After all, any game can suck in ordinary ways, but it takes monumental indifference to quality or even basic competence to create a game like Jumper. If there were such a thing as a "Shitty Video Game Hall of Fame" Jumper would be a first ballot honoree. It's easily one of the five worst games I've played on the 360, and bear in mind that I've spent time with some real turds.

I didn't see the movie (I have a fairly strict life policy concerning films that feature Hayden Christiansen), but it's about some people called Jumpers who have the ability to teleport. Like Nightcrawler from the X-Men, they're feared and misunderstood by the public. Unlike Nightcrawler, they're dull jerks with little personality who have no qualms about killing people by the dozens if it suits their needs.

The game follows Griffin, one of the characters from the movie (I gather). He's chasing after a Paladin (people who hunt Jumpers) who killed his parents. That's the whole plot...there are no interesting twists or revelations along the way. Griffin goes from one locale to locale, finding one clue that leads to another, until he meets up with the bad guy at the end.

As for the gameplay, this is a strictly linear brawler with no puzzle elements or exploration. Every fight is basically the same, with little evolution as the game progresses. You can find new combos or weapons if you care to, but none of it makes the combat feel fresh or different.

Speaking of combat, the fighting system in this game is really strange. Instead of mapping attacks to different buttons, they went with cardinal directions instead. So if the enemy is facing you and you want to attack his right side, you push the B button (on the right side of the controller). Rear attack? That's the Y button. In isolation it makes sense, but once everything starts moving? Not so much. See, if the camera turns, then the enemy's back may now be on the left side of the screen. So now a rear attack is X, while Y attacks his "right side". I'm not sure if this makes any seems like it would be easier to explain with a complicated diagram. But then, that tells you about how well combat flows in Jumper.

Further muddling matters is the fact that enemies have "strong sides" and "weak sides". If there's a little green bar on one side of an enemy, it's his weak side. Attack him there and you build up a special meter. But if the bar is red, it's his strong side and he'll immediately block incoming attacks from that direction and counter for heavy damage. It gets worse...the strong and weak sides move around the enemy at random moments while fighting. And sometimes enemies hunker down into a "defensive position" in which they're completely surrounded by red bars. So what we have is a fast-paced battle against numerous enemies where you can only attack from a specific direction that keeps changing, with a camera that's wildly rotating around the screen and the attack buttons remapping along with it. Fun!

This may make the game sound really difficult, but in fact Jumper is, as they say, "piss easy". Oh, you'll definitely die from time to time. But not because the bad guys outsmarted you. It'll just be because either 1) you got caught between camera rotations a couple times in a row or 2) because a couple enemies locked you into an unstoppable combo until you died. What's crazy is that these things just sort of happen randomly. You'll get your ass kicked in a fight thanks to some cheap camera/button remapping crap, reload, and breeze through it the second time. But outright failure is pretty rare. I'm not sure why these Paladins chose to feud with Jumpers...if this game is any indication then a single Jumper can mow through hundreds of Paladins without breaking a sweat. And if you ever do get in trouble there's usually a health item nearby.

Of course the biggest reason the game is easy is because it's so ridiculously short. There's an Achievement for beating it in 2 hours or less, and I assumed that was going to be difficult. Nope, actually I got it on my first playthrough without really trying. There are only six levels, one of which is the tutorial, and the longest of which is 20 minutes max. I guess if the game is going to be tortuous to play, it might as well be done quickly.

Rounding things out, the graphics are original Playstation quality. In particular, the character models are a joke. In big fights I often lost track of which character was me because all the characters are so bland and poorly designed. Also, it's been a long time since I encountered a camera that made me sick, but the low-resolution graphics and the overly touchy camera controls did a number on me this time. Thank God the game was short!

I should find some positive things to say, so here goes. Between chapters the plot advances in comic-book style cutscenes, which are over-the-top cheesy but otherwise tolerable. And the voice acting for the main character is fine, though he does repeat catch phrases a little too often.

Oh, and it's a great source of easy Achievement points if the camera doesn't make you lose your lunch. There's some mild collecting to do and two playthroughs are required for all the Achievements, but 800+ points for a lazy afternoon of stupidly easy brawling is good work if you can get it.

I don't recommend Jumper to anyone. Not even as a rental. This game is a wretched effort through and through. Jumper makes Disney's Bolt look like Half Life 2 by comparison.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

WAA - Banjo Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts

It's time for the Wednesday Achievement Awards! I forgot to mention yesterday that I'd also finish each of these with a rating (out of 10) for the quality of the Achievement set and another rating for how difficult it is to finish.

This week's game is Banjo Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts.

The "One With Combat"Award: "Blueprint Buyout"
Talk about simple. All you have to do is buy one blueprint from Humba in Showdown Town, which involves such challenging tasks as talking to her and clicking a button on one of the many blueprints she offers.

The "Mile High Club" Award: "A Lot of Trophy Pts"
No typos on my part there...that's actually how the Achievement is listed. I assume that "Pts" is short for points. In any case, every challenge in the game has three levels of success - the bronze level where you earn some notes but didn't really succeed (much like getting a certificate of participation), the silver level where you earn a jigsaw piece (which is what you need to proceed in the game), and the gold level which isn't really necessary but earns you a special trophy from Trophy Thomas. For this Achievement, you need to finish 60 of the 61 challenges at the top level, and while some of them are not that difficult, others are RIDICULOUSLY hard. There's not much advice I can give except to access the leaderboard on Live, which allows you to see a video replay of the top scores. Hopefully you can adapt some of their vehicle designs and strategies to beat the challenge. You'll still need sick B&K skills to beat some of these though.

The "Seriously..." Award: "Premier League"
Why are multiplayer Achievements such utter crap??? For this one, you need to complete a multiplayer "league" that includes every race and every sport/game available ALL IN A ROW. The good news is that you can do this locally if you have two controllers, so you don't have to find someone else crazy enough to go after this too. The bad news is that it takes several hours to complete with no breaks. I suggest starting up a local game with two controllers and then wandering off to do something else while it autoplays. What a stupid Achievement...

The "Little Rocket Man" Award: "Speedy of the Colossus"
Again, not a typo. This Achievement cuts to the heart of everything that makes B&K: Nuts and Bolts fun - designing crazy vehicles to meet a specific purpose. For this one you need to build an enormous vehicle of 200 or more pieces and then get it to go over a set speed (the game doesn't say, but it's pretty fast). Of course, that's not so simple because a big vehicle is heavy and so it isn't easy to get it moving quickly. If you're stumped, highlight this section for a hint: (Use wings to get high in the air, then use gravity and a little rocket power to build up some serious speed!)

The Scientist Gone Gamer Award: "Arcade Pwner"
Yes, just yes. This is everything that Achievements are about in my eyes. Within the game is a separate mini-game starring Klungo, the lizard assistant from previous B&K games. It's an old-school side scroller out of the Pitfall school, but with a hilarious take on the genre. If you beat all the levels (some are actually pretty tough), you get this awesome Achievement. As if that wasn't enough, you also get a free Gamerpic of the Achievement as well, which you can then use online. AND I DO!

Achievement Set Rating - 8
It's a very solid set. You'll find the Achievements come pretty steadily throughout the game, and there aren't too many multiplayer awards to get in the way. The icons are colorful and reasonably varied.

Achievement Difficulty Rating - 5
If you want around 800 points, you can accomplish that in 20 hours or so without much difficulty. The final 200 are going to take some real effort though, both in setting up online matches and grinding out those last few trophies.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Achievement Awards

It's like Achievements...for Achievements! I used to do these in my reviews on, and I've decided to bring them back. Each Wednesday, I'll pick a game and post my selections for its Achievement Awards. The categories:

The "One With Combat"Award: For the easiest Achievement
The "Mile High Club" Award: For the hardest Achievement
The "Seriously..." Award: For the most tedious/annoying Achievement
The "Little Rocket Man" Award: For the most innovative/fun Achievement
The Scientist Gone Gamer Award: For the best looking icon (because I'm the one person on earth who cares)

So check back tomorrow and I'll hand out some awards!

EDIT: It was pointed out in the comments that these titles might not be crystal clear to people who aren't IMMERSED in the world of Achievements. With that in mind, here are the origins of the awards.

"One With Combat" was the fifth and final Achievement in Avatar: Burning Earth. All five could be completed within 45 seconds of the game's opening with little more effort than tapping a single button repeatedly. These are the easiest (and cheapest) 1000 points available in the 360 library.

"Mile High Club" is from Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. After beating the game, there is a short, timed bonus level to complete. This Achievement requires that you beat the bonus level on the Veteran (i.e. hardest) difficulty, which is a near-superhuman task. I'm not claiming it's the most difficult Achievement out there, but it is definitely not for the faint of heart.

"Seriously..." is a now infamous Achievement from Gears of War that tasks the player with accumulating 10,000 kills in online multiplayer. Current estimates put the time needed for this milestone at 400 hours. Also, the Achievement is known to be glitched in such a manner that some kills, while registering on your total, don't count towards the Achievement. Many people have reported needing up to 13,000 kills, which would add an additional 100 hours minimum. There is a difference between "Achievements" and "Ludicrous time wasters"...apparently Epic Games and Microsoft don't know the difference.

"Little Rocket Man" is from Orange Box and is one of my all time favorites. At the beginning of Half Life: Episode 2 you can find a garden gnome in a building. You have to carry the garden gnome with you throughout the entire episode and stuff it into a rocket that gets fired into space at the very end. The trick is that you can't fight or drive a car while holding the gnome, so you have to set it down for combat, wedge it into the passenger seat while driving, and above all make sure you don't lose it along the way. While it can be frustrating (particularly while fleeing from enemy helicopters!), this award makes you approach the game in a totally different way, the hallmark of a great Achievement.

Disney's Bolt

Yes, that title is serious. I played through Bolt. I did this despite the fact that it's based on a kid's movie. And despite the fact that I haven't even seen said kid's movie.

What a man will do in the name of Achievement points...

Anyway, Bolt is a simple little 3D platformer. It doesn't really warrant a full review, so here are some quick hit points:

- Anyone who reads my stuff should hear "3D platformer" and instinctively think "How's the camera?" straight away. The answer: surprisingly competent. I can count the number of deaths I incurred as a result of the camera on one hand, which I consider acceptable.

- The game is divided into sections that use Bolt (the dog) and sections that use Penny (the girl who owns him). The Bolt sections are combat heavy, while the Penny sections are stealth/platforming based. I have to admit that Penny's sections were actually pretty amusing. The platforming is tight and is complemented by the solid camera. Penny uses this weird retractable stick thing with wheels on both ends to roll along ledges and up between vertical columns. She can use knockout gas bombs to knock out enemies as well, which helps with the stealth bits.

- However, the Bolt combat sections are really tedious. This game is not bashful about sending waves and waves of identical bad guys after you. Bolt has a small arsenal of attacks that he'll use over and over and OVER to dispatch these foes. It's hard to believe that a game about a dog that shoots lasers out of his eyes could be boring, but when the enemy roster consists of hundreds of generic drones, you can get tired of just about anything.

- As far as I understand the plot of the movie (I've only seen the trailer), it's about a dog that acts in a T.V. show but doesn't realize it, so it thinks it really has super powers. The game makes the smart decision to abandon that and instead have you play through a few "episodes" of the show so that Bolt really does have super powers. Kudos to the designers, because I suspect following the actual plot of the movie would have made for a dull game.

- Bolt isn't quite as short as a lot of kid's games, but it certainly isn't long either. I beat it in a couple days, with the full 1000 Achievement points coming shortly thereafter. Thus a rental is probably the way to go.

- Speaking of Achievements, the list is solid and mostly fair. My one complaint is that you need to collect a bunch of power ups that are hidden throughout the levels. There's a chapter select to replay specific levels if you want to target a power up you missed, but there's no indication of which levels contain the missing collectible. As always, it's best to follow a guide so you don't end up casting randomly around in the game hoping to find the power up that you missed.

Bolt is okay for kids who have a high tolerance for repetitive combat, but I wouldn't recommend it much beyond that. It does offer 1000 fairly pain-free Achievement points though!