Monday, August 16, 2010

Bionic Commando - Review

Okay, it's time to get back on the blogging horse. Priority number one is reviewing the games I've finished lately.

The original Bionic Commando was a NES age platformer about a soldier with a bionic arm that worked a bit like a grappling hook who has to infiltrate an enemy base (they look an awful lot like Nazis), defeat their leader, and save a captured friend named "Super Joe". There isn't much story there, but old Nintendo cartridges didn't really have the space to explain complex stories.

In this gritty, modern reboot, Spencer (the same guy from the last game) is rotting in prison because society has turned against soldiers with biotic enhancements. He's committed some kind of crime that is left unspecified throughout the adventure, but a terrorist attack on Ascension City offers a chance at redemption. The army thinks the attack was perpetrated by rogue biotics, and for incredibly contrived reasons it's decided that the only person who can stand against them is a lone fellow biotic that was framed, mistreated, and kept in prison for years.

So the story starts dumb and only goes downhill, but more on that later. BC is primarily an action title with two major gameplay mechanics - swinging around environments using your crazy arm and fighting bad guys. For the most part, these both work very well. Using the arm to launch yourself around the environment is really fun, though there is a bit of a learning curve. Still, once you get the hang of it, you'll think you're playing out the script to a Spiderman movie. As for defeating enemy soldiers, you get access to the usual assortment of guns, rifles, grenades, and rocket launchers. But it's FAR more enjoyable to take guys out using your bionic arm and the crazy physics engine. For example, you can pick up a car and use it like a bowling ball against a big group of enemies. Or you can grab a bad guy and toss him off a cliff to his certain doom. While the enemies themselves are pretty repetitive, there's such a large number of ways to defeat them that it takes a while to exhaust the possibilities.

On top of it all the camera in BC is outstanding, a major plus in a game where you're expected to fling yourself about while dodging enemies and trying not to plummet into a canyon. The camera is easy to control, doesn't catch on environmental objects, and includes options for quick turns in any direction using the D-pad.

My only complaint concerning gameplay is that while the gameworld of BC seems wide-open, there are actually many areas that are off-limits due to insta-death radiation. That in itself isn't a big problem, but there's no way to know that one building is fair game while another is bathed in deadly radiation until you've already launched yourself in that direction, whereupon it's too late to do anything but watch yourself die in midair. Checkpoints can be widely spaced in this game as well, meaning that an unfair instant death can mean redoing a lot of work.

It's also worth noting that BC continues the tradition from the NES version by being pretty damn difficult, particularly at the highest level. That's not a complaint exactly, but the sparse checkpoints and occasionally unfair mission failure will combine for some bouts of frustration.

Getting back to the story for a moment, BC uses one of my absolute least favorite plot devices - the turncoat who can perfectly predict future events. You see, it turns out that the whole terrorist attack was orchestrated by Super Joe himself, who is trying to steal a piece of top secret technology (Why? Fuck if I know...) that's hidden in Ascension City. The attack is just a ruse to spring Spencer from prison, so he can locate the device and hand it over to Joe. The whole plan requires that: (1) the military agrees with Joe that only one person should be sent rather than a massive strike force, (2) they let Spencer be that guy even though they think he's a dangerous biotic and maybe murder, (3) Spencer doesn't get killed by the legion of soldiers, battle mechs, and bosses between himself and the device, and (4) the general in charge of the operation hands over the secret access code for the device in a moment of panic. If any one of these elements fails, the whole plan would be ruined. How could Joe foresee everything playing out the way it did? And if he desperately needs Spencer to get the device, why would he constantly lead him straight into dangerous combat rather than routing him around the enemy soldiers with whom he's working?

I find this kind of "twist" to be really annoying because it isn't consistent with the turncoat's previous actions/character. It's like the writers thought "Hey, we need a surprise here...I know, random good guy X is actually a double agent! It doesn't make any sense and comes out of nowhere, so nobody will expect it!"


Ultimately, BC is a very solid action game with a really dumb story. Despite the plot missteps, I still recommend it for experienced fans of platformer/shooter titles with a reasonable tolerance level for occasional frustration.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Metacritic and the 360: Over and Under Rated Games

If you don't know about Metacritic, it's a review site for several different forms of media (movies, video games, etc.) that goes about business a little differently than most sites. Specifically, they compile ratings from around the web and average them into one score. The idea is that this process is more "fair", as the individual biases of any one reviewer are blunted by combining them with the whole.

I like Metacritic (at least more than any specific review site), but I still find myself at odds with their ratings from time to time. Obviously some of that is personal preference (my own biases if you will), but other times I think that the concept of Metacritic is hampered by inherent issues with critical review in general. In other words, if one critic is overrating a video game, it seems to be more likely that many others are doing the same. Once a few major sites tout a new game as the "GREATEST THING EVER", the rest are hesitant to give it too low of a score for fear of being too different.

Below I'm going to list the 5 most overrated and 5 most underrated games on Metacritic. These are, obviously, just my opinion. I'm also sticking to games that I've actually played, so likely some hidden gems will be missing from my list.


1. Grand Theft Auto IV
Metacritic score - 98 (these are out of 100)
Sample Review - "It's amazing that a sequel that keeps the core gameplay concepts of its prior incarnations can do so much to change itself into something new. Cabs are awesome, as is the cellphones capabilities. But perhaps the biggest innovation is the notion that you can create a game that's as valid a piece of art as any book or movie. Is this our "Citizen Kane" moment?" (TeamXbox)
My Comments - Let the controversy commence! GTA4 is the #1 overall 360 game on Metacritic, and a pretty beloved title in some circles. The sample review is pretty typical of how this game was received, and beautifully illustrates the failings of the review process. A few major review sites declared that GTA4 was a brilliant work of art, and the rest were terrified to say anything negative about the game for fear that it would seem like they don't "get it". The worst part is that this "Citizen Kane" nonsense (GTA4 has also been compared to The Godfather and various Tarantino works, amongst others) is straight out of the Gamer's Apologetics Handbook. "See, see! Video games can be art! They can be right up there with great works of other media types! VALIDATE MEEEEEEE!"

That's all well and good, but should our efforts to win the "Games as Art" war blind us to GTA4's many failings? I say no. It's a game with an involving story (though one that breaks down in several places) and a highly detailed environment. It's a pretty good game. But the camera and targeting system are both shoddy, and the core gameplay is EXACTLY THE SAME as the last several iterations of GTA. This is the same game that convinced me that Rockstar hates gamers. That's our #1 title? Not a chance...

2. Halo 3
Metacritic score - 94
Sample Review - "Halo 3 may not be as innovative as its predecessors or have the best graphics on the Xbox 360, but it’s an outstanding game and a fitting end to what’s been a fantastic trilogy." (Thunderbolt)
My Comments - More controversy...awesome! Bear in mind that the guy who did the above review still gave Halo 3 a perfect score, despite some decidedly tepid comments. It gives the impression that Halo is getting a lifetime achievement award here rather than being judged on its own merits. In any case, Halo 3 is a lightning rod for both praise and criticism, so I'll simply say that I played this game in online co-op with two friends who practically worshipped the first two games in the series, and they were DISGUSTED with the campaign. Too short, too repetitive, terrible ending...their complaints were legion. I thought it was a polished but uninspired shooter with a famous name. And for all the Halo fanboys who are quick to defend it by saying that only the multiplayer modes are important, save your breath. If the game has a shitty campaign mode, then it isn't worthy of a perfect rating. Is that so hard to understand?

3. Resident Evil 5
Metacritic score - 85
Sample Review - "The gorgeous graphics, the superb sound, the great (if sometimes twitchy) AI of your partner and the jaw-dropping gameplay take everything that was brilliant about Resident Evil 4 and ramp it up to the next level, making for one of the best gaming experiences ever!" (AceGamez)
My Comments - This is just straight up bullshit. RE5 is inferior to RE4 in practically every respect. It has a nonsensical story, an unlikeable protagonist, a broken inventory system, abysmal AI that makes your partner a constant nuisance, and enough quick-time events to make me grind my teeth. Plus the people who made it are either racists or idiots. While a score of 85 might not seem that high, bear in mind that it puts RE5 ahead of games like Borderlands, Viva Pinata, and Civilization Revolution, to name a few.

4. Crackdown
Metacritic score - 83
Sample Review - "Games like Crackdown are the cornerstone the 360's passionate user community is built upon, and why the 360 is developing an increasingly deserved reputation for being the next-gen console of choice." (Worth Playing)
My Comments - I have no idea if the 360 is the next generation console of choice, but they're definitely right that this game has a passionate user base. I've personally never understood the appeal of this game. It's insanely repetitive, and the graphical style could be charitably called mediocre. I know people who were practically frothing at the mouth for the second installment of Crackdown...were they excited or disappointed to discover that it's just more of the same?

5. Eternal Sonata
Metacritic score - 79
Sample Review - "While the balance issues are irritating, to say the least, Eternal Sonata's artistic appeal more than makes up for what the gameplay is lacking. With an excellent story, interesting characters, impressive music, and quite frankly the most beautiful graphics ever produced in a video game, Eternal Sonata is without question the first must-play RPG of the new console generation." (RPGamer)
My comments - This game's rating is skewed by a few people (such as the above reviewer) that heaped ridiculous amounts of praise on it thanks to the (admittedly) impressive graphics. What they don't sufficiently emphasize is that the game is an aggravating chore to play thanks to the repetitive combat system and lengthy, pointless cutscenes. This is the worst RPG I've played to date on the 360, so how it ranks evenly with titles like Tales of Vesperia, Blue Dragon, and Lost Odyssey (a strong candidate for the underrated list) is beyond me.


1. Hitman: Blood Money
Metacritic score - 82
Sample Review - "The gameplay gives you plenty of choices regarding progressing through a stage, and it looks good while you do so. It would've been very easy to churn out another boring murderfest, but instead we get a thinking man's game. Good showing." (Game Over Online)
My Comments - Thinking man's (and woman's) game? There's a fatal flaw if I've ever heard one. Blood Money was a great title, one of the finest stealth games ever made (only the Thief games could compete with it). It married an interesting story with tight, intuitive gameplay and added in some of the most inspired level design I've ever seen. Hitman is almost more of a puzzle game than an action title, as determining how to eliminate your target in the most stealthy manner possible is a fascinating challenge. Unfortunately the game suffered at the hands of critics thanks to the fact that it was ported from the previous generation, and was thus consigned to scores that put it behind the decidedly inferior Splinter Cell games.

2. Condemned: Criminal Origins
Metacritic score - 81
Sample review - "While it is a worthy first survival horror game for the Xbox 360, Condemned: Criminal Origins is a bit of a one-trick pony. Once the campaign is over, the player can go back to unlock more extras, but the game is pretty much done, and it has probably gotten repetitive to the average player by then anyway." (GameShark)
My Comments - Sigh. Condemned is one of the scariest, most atmospheric games I've ever played. It ramps up tension like few movies can do, let alone video games. The environments are creepy and unsettling, and the combat is almost disturbingly visceral. This game is not for everyone, but for those who like smart horror films, Condemned is a must-play. As for being a "one-trick pony", what else did you want GameShark? It's not an 80 hour RPG, it's a 10-15 hour horror game with a tight narrative and excellent gameplay. It's certainly true that once you've played it, you've seen the story and some of the scares will be ruined, but so what? It's a different kind of play experience.

3. Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts
Metacritic score - 79
Sample Review - "It's hard to recommend Banjo Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts. It's too complicated for kids, and too convoluted for adults, If you're the creative type, you'll enjoy fiddling around with all the parts, but if you're looking for an accessible game that you can play in short bursts and make headway, then steer clear." (GameTrailers)
My Comments - Nuts & Bolts is a brilliant idea for a game. You give the player a bunch of pieces that can be constructed into vehicles (engines, wheels, wings, etc.), give them challenges (carry an acorn from one spot to another, win a race that traverses both land and water, etc.), and then let them design their own custom machines to complete the challenges. It's like Lego/Tinker Toys come to life. It's quirky and different with an endearing sense of humor.

So of course, reviewers mostly disliked it. Oh, there's usually some hand-waving towards the "creative types" (see above), but games like this are generally seen as just time-wasters before getting back to the serious business of blasting space aliens in Halo and its many, many clones. What annoys me about this type of review is that it grossly underestimates children (would someone look at a pile of Lincoln Logs and say "those are too complicated for kids"?) and makes a basic assumption that anything that engages someone's mind is destined for failure. If we expect the worst from people in our society, isn't that what we'll get?

4. Thrillville: Off the Rails
Metacritic score - 73
Sample Review - "It's perfect for children, for whom things don't have to "be integrated" or "logical". A series of semi-amusing, unconnected activities: sounds a lot like a sandbox, which, once you graduate middle school, loses its charm unless you can bring your gat." (Games Radar)
My Comments - In other words, once you turn 14 years of age it's no longer possible to enjoy a sandbox game if it doesn't involve robbing banks and killing prostitutes. You know, integrated logical games like Grand Theft Auto. In Thrillville, you get to design your own theme park, build roller coasters (and ride them!), and try out a variety of well-designed mini-games, all of which are apparently activities that only appeal to elementary school kids. If only you could punish guests who complained about your park by beating them with a baseball bat, maybe Thrillville could aspire to GTA's sense of realism...

5. Sacred 2: Fallen Angel
Metacritic score - 71
Sample Review - "If you can accept it for its dated gameplay, underwhelming visuals, and pervasive bugs, then you may find something of value in this old-school hack-and-slash RPG. All other prospective dungeon crawlers are best advised to take a pass on this fallen flunk." (GameTrailers).
My Comments - I just don't get how this game slipped through the cracks. Dated gameplay? It plays almost exactly the same as World of Warcraft, which has a greater population of players than some developed nations! Pervasive bugs? I've put over 100 hours into the game and found bugs to be both rare and minor. Oblivion (another game I liked) received nothing but critical acclaim, and it was way more buggy than Sacred. Underwhelming visuals? Feh, I guess that depends on what you were expecting. I think the game has very solid graphics, and the variety of enemy models and environments is truly staggering. Compare it to Borderlands (for example), which has a very drab and repetitive art style, and Sacred easily comes out on top in that category.

Again, this is the game on my list that I understand the least. Sacred is like a combination of Diablo and World of Warcraft, which is like mixing chocolate and crack cocaine. Yet reviewers hated it. Why? I'm still not sure, but anyone who likes open-world fantasy RPGs should give this one a try.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

WAA - Viking: Battle for Asgard

I reviewed Viking a while back, but it's time to address the Achievements. Commence WAA!

The "One With Combat"Award: "Thirst For Blood"
You can't help but get this award for killing 50 Legion soldiers, as there are several hundred between you and the end of the game. This will likely be the first award you unlock.

The "Mile High Club" Award: "No Need For Immortality"
I found this one difficult largely because the requirements are unclear. The description states that you need to finish the last area of the game without dying, but it seems like that might only apply to the final boss fight. Either way, you may want to have a memory slot that saves your progress before the last section so you can retry if you fail to get the Achievement.

The "Seriously..." Award: "Skullbagger 2"
There aren't really any awards that require significant grinding in this game. Searching through cities in stealth mode and looking for hidden skulls can be a bit of a pain though.

The "Little Rocket Man" Award: "Thor's Mortal Lightning Rod"
Magic is a bit underutilized in this game, but continue to upgrade your lightning runes and you'll be able to rain some serious electric death down on your enemies...

The Scientist Gone Gamer Award: "Demon Hacker" and several others
The icons are colorful and reasonably detailed, though not terribly imaginative. The real issue, though, is that they repeat quite a bit.

Achievement Set Rating - 6
This rating could have been higher with a little more work on the tiles themselves, but the set is reasonably comprehensive and covers a solid range of difficulty.

Achievement Difficulty Rating - 4
It's a fairly average set, with no specifically difficult Achievements. Make sure to play on Hard unless you want to beat the game twice!

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Versatile Blogger Award

My far more versatile and infinitely more bloggy better half was recently given a Versatile Blogger Award. It's a way for blog writers to acknowledge their admiration for each other's work (and it functions a bit like a chain letter as well).

Anyway, she passed it on to me, amongst others. The difference between her and I is that she deserves it (seriously, check out her is awesome AND CONSISTENTLY UPDATED) while I am merely a pretender.

The award has three parts:

Thank the person who gave you the award: Thanks Scientist Gone Wordy!

Share 7 things about yourself:
1. I have a PhD, and not in video games.
2. I'm a huge baseball fan...getting my heart broken by the Cubs is a yearly rite of passage for me.
3. I've met President Obama. Nice guy. There were even pictures of us talking together in his campaign literature.
4. Unlike my significant other, I love food (though wouldn't say I'm sufficiently discriminating to be labeled a "foodie"). One of my favorite aspects of travel is trying the cuisine in different areas.
5. Despite loving almost all foods, I HATE watermelon. Everybody I know has these wonderful childhood memories of eating icy cold watermelon on a hot summer day, spitting seeds and making a mess. The very thought of it grosses me out completely.
6. I stayed at a research base in Antarctica (the South Pole) for over two months. Everyone who finds this out asks me if I saw penguins and/or polar bears while I was there, to which I respond (1) yes and (2) there are no bears, polar or otherwise, on the Antarctic continent.
7. I have an obsession with Xbox 360 Achievements that borders on lunacy. This little corner of the blogosphere is like a journal documenting my descent into madness.

Pass the award along to blah, blah, blah:

Yeah, I'm not going to do that. Not because I don't read some great blogs, but because I prefer to be the anonymous guy who observes quietly. However, I implore anyone reading this to check out Scientist Gone Wordy as well as the other blogs she recognizes. They are all excellent and far more worthy of recognition than my insane ramblings!

Friday, July 2, 2010

Last Remnant - Part Three

I've covered the story and characters pretty thoroughly, so now it's time to get to the nitty-gritty and talk about the actual gameplay in Last Remnant. On the surface LR is a turn-based RPG, one of those affairs where the action pauses so each side can determine how they want to proceed. While that's certainly the case, LR eschews standard character-based combat and replaces it with an emphasis on squads. You arrange your various characters into groups (up to 5), which then attack, defend, heal, or whatever as a team. You don't actually get to pick an individual action for each character (a good thing, since you'll eventually be commanding 15 at a time), but rather give each squad a general command (raise your HP, attack with special abilites, etc.) and then they follow as best they can.

It's an interesting system that greatly streamlines command inputs while still allowing for large-scale confrontations with enemy troops. The issue comes, however, with the fact that each squad receives a set of possible commands (mostly at random) from which you can choose, regardless of whether your preferred action is there or not. This comes into play especially when one of your squads has taken a lot of damage - you'll be looking for an option to heal (or at least pull back and regroup), but it's quite possible that the only options available will involve rushing headlong into the fight. It's a system that creates a strong (and largely unwelcome) element of luck. Indeed, I had instances where I got party-wiped in a boss fight because I drew a series of unfortunate command options, then tried again and won easily because I got healing and special attack options when I need them.

The lack of control over your characters aside, I will say that battles are cinematic masterpieces in this game. You really get a sense of ebb and flow as the tide of battle turns over the course of a big showdown (especially with the bosses). In that sense, LR achieved something I hadn't seen before - squad-based RPGs are not common.

Other positives about gameplay:
- No random see enemies on the screen and can avoid them if you don't want to battle. Very handy when backtracking so you don't have to waste time fighting worthless enemies.
- You don't control equipment and ability upgrades for your companions. They ask for equipment that you recover, and you can choose to give it to them or not. It's nice to avoid micromanaging a couple dozen characters, though occasionally you'll end up with a Sword of Awesomeness that's going to waste while your buddies are fighting with sharp sticks.
- There are a lot of side quests, hidden bosses, and special equipment to be found if you're looking. There's plenty of incentive to explore thoroughly, and the rewards are quite worthwhile.

So much to like in LR, and yet there's two MAJOR holes that tarnish the experience.

1. As a piece of software, LR on the Xbox 360 is essentially broken. Stuttering, slow-down, massive frame drops during battle...the developers should be embarrassed that they sent this game out the door. And it's no occasional thing either, something that could have slipped through the cracks in play testing. Every battle is marred by graphical glitches and frame rate issues. They knew this game was not fit to be released, and then they released it anyway. Poor form Square-Enix.

2. LR features the most screwed up leveling system ever devised. That is no's terrible. The way it works is that you army as a whole levels together after a number of battles. However, individual characters gain strength by battling specific (tough) enemies that trigger statistical increases. What's really crazy is that the level of your army is practically inconsequential in determining how battle-ready you are, while statistical increases to individuals is paramount to victory against the tougher bosses in the game.

That may not have made much sense, so let me bottom line what it means to you, the player. The more you fight, the more your army level goes up in relation to your individual characters. Thus, fighting a lot means that you get WEAKER AND WEAKER relative to the tougher enemies. Think about that...the more experience you gain, the WORSE your team fights. The key to raising a strong party? Dashing around the map and avoiding enemies as much as possible until you get to a spot where you can battle the special "character improvement" monsters. Then grind like hell beating them over and over until you're super powerful. If you don't do it that way, you may find at the end of the game that your characters are simply too weak to continue, with little means of improving.

What a backwards, asinine system. It encourages you to skip the actual "game" part of the game as much as possible and PUNISHES you for having the audacity to try improving your roster at the beginning of the game. And don't even get me started about the fact that LR offers you the chance to recruit an enormous number (50+?) of unique generals into your army, but actually using a variety of allies rather than the same ones every time will practically doom you to failure.

The worst part? None of this is explained by the game or in the manual. If you search message board threads about LR, you'll find dozens of people complaining that they got to the end game and were too weak to continue. These people invested dozens of hours into the game playing in a manner that they thought would make their team strong, only to discover that they were RIGHT FUCKED and had to start over. Folks, that is the definition of bad video game design.

So in the end, we have a game with great protagonists and not a single decent villain. A complex political plot that falls apart at the end. A unique and engaging squad-based combat system that's done in by buggy coding. A deep customization system that's complimented by numerous side quests and then SHAT UPON by a bass-ackwards leveling mechanic that potentially ruins the game for many players.

I alternately loved and hated this game, so why do I find myself hoping they'll make another one???

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Last Remnant - Part Two

Last time, I established that Last Remnant desperately lacks a quality villain. But what it does have is a couple of likable protagonists in Rush Sykes and Marquis David (pronounced dah-veed...think French).

Rush starts the game on a quest to find his kidnapped sister. They have absentee parents (scientist/scholars who are too busy in the field to raise their kids), so Rush has understandably developed a "guardian" relationship with his sister. He blames himself for allowing her to be kidnapped (he fights the abductors but is overmatched), so it isn't hard to see why he's so driven. He reminded me of a more good-natured Fox Mulder (shout out to the X-Files fans), in that he wants to help people, but he doesn't want to get too side-tracked from his mission.

As for David, he's a young man (I'd guess late teens, like Rush) trying to fill the shoes of his recently deceased father, the former Marquis of Althum. Apparently dad was a pretty great ruler, much loved by his subjects, and David is struggling to cope with the loss and the weight of following in his footsteps. David is a good person who wants to help those in need, but he has to balance that desire with the needs of his kingdom. All the while, he has to deal with the fact that Althum is pretty low in the pecking order of kingdoms (they aren't even fully independent from another nearby country). It's a precarious position, and not easy to handle for a young prince that took the throne too early and is filled with self-doubt.

Now here's the kicker that makes these two such good characters: Rush and David end up complimenting each other perfectly. Rush is cocksure and confident, but he lacks the resources and political acumen to get his sister back. He'd "rush" headlong into danger without someone like David reigning him back a bit. As for David, he has the will to do the right thing but lacks the confidence. So through their friendship, Rush learns to fight for something greater than himself (the well-being of an entire kingdom) and ultimately recovers his sister, while David gains the confidence to lead Althum in its hour of need, saves the kingdom from a war, and gains its independence.

The best part is that everything I'm describing about their relationship is subtext, rather than explicitly stated. In most games (and movies), the writers worry that the viewer is too stupid to pick up on a subtle undertones, so they spell everything out. In this game, there's no specific scene where Rush and David express the fact that they depend on one another and cover for each other's shortcomings. They interact like normal just get to know them over the course of the game to the point where you can detect these things yourself. Mark me down as a person who prefers the more subtle route in storytelling.


One last bit of "subtext" that I felt was present in Last Remnant - there were more than a few hints that Rush and David had deeper feelings for each other than just friendship. They have a very close relationship, well beyond what even most very good friends would develop. Some of the comments that they exchange have a flirtatious undertone (example: when David requests an item from the party's inventory, Rush responds "Awww...I could never say no to you.") At one point, an openly gay bartender blatantly hits on Rush, so it's not like homosexual themes would come out of nowhere.

Again, this is all subtext. It's certainly never explicitly stated that the two share a deeper relationship. But I think most people who are perceptive when it comes to personal interactions would definitely pick up on at least the possibility. Compared to the atrocious homosexual themes in the equally-atrocious Enchanted Arms (featuring a screeching drama queen stereotype), Rush and David are handled with class and subtlety. Whether I'm right or not, I enjoyed them both as characters.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

WAA - Cars: Mater-National

Wow, I'm so far behind with my posting. I have a couple more posts about Last Remnant to finish, and I'm ready for some more mini-reviews as well. Plus I just beat Red Faction and I'm almost done with Dragon Age. Time to get bloggin'!

But first, it's time for WAA. This week's game is Cars: Mater-National (review here).

The "One With Combat"Award: "Stick it to McQueen"
Cars features two types of gameplay: mediocre racing and crappy mini-games. The racing portion is really easy, resulting in several easy Achievements.

The "Mile High Club" Award: "James P. Sullivan Cup"
On the other hand, some of the mini-games can be annoying to complete. It's not that they're "difficult"...I'd really call them more cheap and aggravating. The worst BY FAR is the monster truck racing required for this Achievement, as the trucks handle like a clown balancing encyclopedias on his head while riding a unicycle. The second stage, set in a bouncing offroad course that had me fuming by the end, will separate the wheat from the chaff in this game.

The "Seriously..." Award: "Beat the game!"
You'll need to get every sticker and banner available in the game, which means mastering all the mini-games and taking first in every race.

The "Little Rocket Man" Award: "Golden Gas Can"
The Fuel Frenzy events, where you need to make a couple laps around the track while picking up fuel canisters to avoid running out, were my favorite mini-game by a wide margin. There's actually some strategy to this one, as cans that you collect are gone on subsequent laps. You have to make sure that you leave enough behind so you don't hit empty later.

The Scientist Gone Gamer Award: N/A
Have I mentioned that I have a pet peeve about all the Achievements using the same icon? I have? Well, I'm mentioning it again...

Achievement Set Rating - 2
Beat the races, beat the mini-games, blah blah. There's nothing imaginative here and, with a massive deduction for crimes against icons, Cars is looking at a pretty bad score.

Achievement Difficulty Rating - 2
If you can avoid throwing a fit (or a controller) while dealing with the bullshit driving mechanics of the monster car races, the rest of this game is REALLY easy.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

WAA - Surf's Up

Posting has been light lately due to my personal and professional duties keeping me busy. However it's time to get back on the wagon, and what better way than by handing out some Achievement awards to a game designed for children?

The "One With Combat"Award: "Quick Learner"
Lots of easy Achievements in this title, but completing the tutorial is a snap (not to mention a good idea so you can learn the game's mechanics) that will earn you a quick award.

The "Mile High Club" Award: "Slide Survivor 3"
Each of the leaf sliding events can be tricky, but the third was the toughest for me. You need to zip through a series of volcanic caves on a leaf, careening around corners and obstacles and reaching the finish within a set period of time. It's imperative that you not fall off the path, as you can't afford the lost time. Also try to grab as many time bonuses as possible.

The "Seriously..." Award: "Shiny Stuff 3"
For this, you need to collect every surf idol in the game (there are 100 total). They're not really hidden well, but it's still easy to miss a number of them. Fortunately you can replay any level you've finished and there's a summary that tells you which levels still have surf idols left to find.

The "Little Rocket Man" Award: "King of Boneyards"
Unfortunately, Surf's Up's Achievements do not excel in the areas of originality. It's mostly just finishing the game and collecting widgets. Boneyards was my favorite level, so I guess I'll go with this.

The Scientist Gone Gamer Award: "First steps"
Inconsistent capitalization aside, the icons themselves ARE a strong point for this Achievement set. Particularly if you like penguins...

Achievement Set Rating - 3
The icons are a plus even if a couple are repetitive. However, the awards only reflect game completion and widget collecting, making for a dull set overall.

Achievement Difficulty Rating - 2
Surf's Up is a like a really dumbed-down version of Tony Hawk skating. The game itself is really easy (and short), though you'll spend a bit of time tracking down all the idols.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Last Remnant - Part One

If I were pressed to give Last Remnant a rating on a one to ten point scale that summed its graphics, plot, gameplay, innovation, and everything else into one simple score, I'd give it a 5. Then you'd probably walk away with the idea that it was a mediocre title that did nothing well or poorly and was ultimately forgettable. And you'd be totally wrong (which is one reason that exercise is of limited usefulness).

In actual fact, Last Remnant is a game that is alternatively mesmerizing and infuriating, brilliant and broken beyond repair. It's a turn-based Japanese-style RPG that tries to reinvent many of the conventions of that genre, failing as often as it succeeds. So should we praise Last Remnant for trying something different, or deride it for its numerous shortcomings?

Anyone who follows my reviews will know that I always start RPG analysis with the plot and characters. The genre is so dependent on the story that it's hard to make up for a bad one. Last Remnant opens with Rush Sykes, a pretty typical teenage JRPG protagonist, as he desperately searches for his kidnapped sister. Rush ends up in the middle of a war zone between neighboring countries and is apprehended on suspicion of being a spy. After proving that he's not engaging in espionage, Rush agrees to assist the leader of Athlum (Marquis David) in exchange for help locating his sister.

What follows is a tale of political machinations gone awry, as the leaders of other nations scramble to exploit powerful living weapons called Remnants to destroy one another and conquer the world. Worse, a new nation has emerged under the rule of an unstoppable warrior known only as the Conqueror, who for reasons unknown is sweeping across the continent with little resistance. Rush and his new friends must stand against the Conqueror and unravel the mystery behind the Remnants to discover his true motivations.

It's not a bad idea for a plot, and it probably would have worked well except for one glaring issue: the antagonists are badly characterized. There are four people that you might call the "villains" of this story, and not a single one combines an interesting personality with clear motivations. Let's go through them (obviously, SPOILERS):

Duke Hermeien: This is one of the two people (the other being the Conqueror) that the game pitches from the start as the main bad guy. He's the Chairman of the Congress (sort of like the head of the U.N.) and leader of the Academy (the main institution of knowledge and scholarship). These two positions make him the most powerful political figure on the continent (besides the God Emperor). And like all maddeningly stupid villains, Hermeien's goal is to conquer the continent for himself. Why? Who the hell knows...he's already supremely powerful in the political, social, and economic spheres, plus he fully controls the only academic institution in existence. Why would he risk all that just so for the slim chance that he could subjugate and rule the same people who are willingly cooperating with him already? Anyway, Hermeien is a dimwit and a total red herring villain...he's dispatched well before the end of the game and rather unceremoniously at that.

Wagram: Ostensibly Wagram is the Duke's top underling, but it's pretty obvious from the word go that he's one of those "I'm secretly manipulating the guy who thinks he's in charge" villains who turns out to be higher on the bad guy hierarchy than his boss. That might be interesting if (1) they'd tell us anything about Wagram's background or motivations and (2) again, if it wasn't terribly obvious from the start. Anyway, Wagram is portrayed as a mysterious guy, which if fine but doesn't give much context to our political plot.

The God Emperor: This guy is completely superfluous to the story. Supposedly he rules over everyone, but all the leaders under him do whatever they want, including invading each other's land. He doesn't appear in the story until the very end and is more of a lazy idiot than a villian. The good guys bluntly inform him that a plan is underway to see all humans (and humanoid races) wiped out, to which he basically shrugs and says "If it's the will of the Remnants, I'm cool with it". As far as I can tell, his only role in the governance of this land is to sit on his throne in a stupid outfit and eat a lot of fatty foods.

The Conqueror: The actual main bad guy and the only truly formidable foe in this story. The Conqueror is quite a bad ass, capable of punching right through a person's torso Bruce Lee style and catching a sword with his finger tips. But there's a problem with this guy too...he pretty much never talks or explains what the hell he's doing. Again, a mysterious villain is fine, but why should I be motivated to stop him if I don't even understand what he's doing in the first place?

What we have here is a game that features lots of cutscenes with political figures yapping to one another at various meetings and congresses, but with no real understanding of the goals and motivations of the villains, it's hard to make sense of it all. We know that Marquis David is the good guy, and it seems like the Duke is the bad guy, but what is everyone trying to accomplish? It reminds me of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, with Senator Palpatine manipulating the Republic using a bunch of political duplicity. It's effective, I suppose, but not very compelling to watch in a video game cutscene.

Next time, I'll talk about the characters that did work for me.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

WAA - Duke Nukem 3D

This week, it's back to the Xbox Live Arcade for a classic PC title that's found new life - Duke Nukem 3D. For a mini-review of the Duke's game, check here. And to remind yourself what these WAA are all about, check here.

And to find out how the Achievement set fares in Duke Nukem, keep reading!

The "One With Combat"Award: “Looks Like Cleanup on Aisle 4”
This one is so easy that I got it completely by accident. You just have to step in a pile of poop, of which there are a number scattered throughout the game. And if that doesn't tell you something about this game's sense of humor, I'm not sure what to say.

The "Mile High Club" Award: “Oomph, Uugh, Where is it?”
The Achievement set in Duke Nukem is a bit odd in that there are no difficult Achievements, but only a couple that I'd call easy. This particular award can be a little tricky because it requires the player to find 70 secret areas, which are not easy to locate. While there are well over 70 scattered through the four acts of the game, it's still best to search thoroughly (or use a guide) so you find enough before you're done.

The "Seriously..." Award: "Hail to the King, Baby"
Sigh...a classic "get a ridiculous number of kills online" Achievement. In this case, the number is 500. I hate these things. TIP: Suicides count as kills, even though they aren't tallied on your kill total. Pipe bombs, rockets, trip mines, jumping off ledges or into traps...all viable ways of maxing out your "kills". Hell, grab a jet pack and rocket your way to the top of the map, then TURN IT OFF!

The "Little Rocket Man" Award: "Shake It Baby"
The reason I love this Achievement is that it's classic Duke...unabashedly crass and laden with testosterone. I still can't believe it made it to the Live Arcade without major cuts.

The Scientist Gone Gamer Award: "Hail to the King, Baby"
One of many highlights from an outstanding set of icons. Also, one of many references to the thoroughly awesome Evil Dead series.

Achievement Set Rating - 8
The icons and Achievement titles are absolutely top notch, particularly compared to most Arcade titles. The single player awards also do a solid job of covering the various activities available in the game, as well as a reasonable range of difficulties. However, I have to take points off the final score for the unimaginative and repetitive multiplayer awards.

Achievement Difficulty Rating - 5
A very average set. Playing through the game and grinding multiplayer for a while (remember what I said about suicides!) will net you the full 200 points. There's nothing outrageously difficult (or easy) here.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Mini-reviews: Movie Edition

I'm currently playing through Dragon Age and Red Faction, but that hasn't stopped me from filling in with some throw-away titles on the side. Here are a few games that share a running theme: crappy movie tie-ins

Night at the Museum 2: Battle of the Smithsonian

Based on the (very) surprisingly popular Ben Stiller films, this game is hard to describe. Much like Hannah Montana, the striking aspect of the title is that there's no "game" here. It's ostensibly a platformer, but there isn't much in the way of actual platforming (thankfully so, given the sloppy camera and controls). Mostly it's just a lot of wandering around mostly empty environments looking for poorly hidden items. Oh, and there are some brutally unfunny cutscenes to waste a little time...kudos to the designers for allowing you to skip these.

There is a flying section with Amelia Earhart that offered moderate amusement, and I will give the game credit that they got Ben Stiller to do the voicework (though the rest of the vocals are terrible). Movie tie-in games are often below average, but this particular title is scraping the bottom of the barrel.

Cars: Mater-National

Did you know there are actually THREE Xbox games based on the Pixar film Cars? Strange but true, I assure you. I found Cars to be an odd film. It's essentially Doc Hollywood with anthropomorphic animated cars. Who is this film for? I can't see kids caring about how small western towns decayed after freeways became popular. But the zany antics of the characters probably wouldn't entertain a lot of adults either. I'm not trying to slag the film, as it was well made. I'm just not sure what audience they were trying to reach.

In any case, I'm not here to be a film critic. The nice thing about Cars (as opposed to Night at the Museum) is that there's a style of game that's built into the movie's concept - car racing (duh). The game features races between various characters from the film, all done in environments befitting the dusty American southwest. It's a solid game graphically, and they were able to get some of the original actors to do voicework (including the thoroughly awesome Tony Shaloub).

However, the big fly in the ointment here is that the 360 is JAM-PACKED with quality racing titles. Seriously, people refer to it as the FPS console, but the number of excellent racing games seems to exceed any other genre. And while Cars: Mater-National is okay compared to other kids games, it pales in comparison to Forza, Dirt, Burnout, and a plethora of other titles. Cars tries to set itself apart with mini-games to complement the racing, but unfortunately the mini-games range from tedious to infuriating (the Fuel Frenzy games excepted...that was actually an entertaining diversion). The worst offender by far is the monster car racing, which is like regular racing only with an abysmal control scheme that was equal parts confusing and unresponsive. Children's games should not push me to controller-snapping fury but Cars did its level best at times.

Overall, Cars: Mater-National is only appropriate for young children. Even older kids would almost certainly prefer a more focused racing title.

Surf's Up

I didn't see this movie, but I get the gist from the game. It's penguins that surf. Simple enough, right?

But here's a shocker - I actually enjoyed the game. Seriously. It plays a bit like Tony Hawk - your character surf's along a predetermined course. Your job is to navigate the course while doing tricks off the wave, grabbing power ups and tiki statues, steering through gates, and grinding along ramps and rock formations. The game isn't overly difficult, but the gameplay and control scheme are instantly accessible and there's enough variety of moves and environments to keep it fun over the course of the relatively short career mode.

As you play, you unlock new characters (with their own unique abilities and move-sets) and surfboards. There's also a loose story about dethroning a champion surfing penguin, but it's not fleshed out terribly well. Still, the game definitely includes some laughs (much more so than Night at the Museum)...enough that I didn't skip the cutscenes.

Surf's Up is a pretty short game, and that's probably for the best as it would wear out its welcome quickly. I don't know that it's worth a purchase, but a rental might be worth your time.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

WAA - Hannah Montana: The Movie

Honestly, there's only one reason why a grown adult with no interest in Hannah Montana would play her game, and that's the Achievements. So following my review of the game itself, I might as well also hand out some WAA. Then I can put this whole Hannah Montana chapter of my life behind me.

The "One With Combat"Award: “Champion Rider”
I try to avoid the copout of saying "all of them" but it's awfully tempting in this case. "Champion Rider" is the easiest of all of them, as you just have to ride Bluejeans the horse 10 times. You don't even have to do well in the mini-game (though it isn't tough) could literally wander away from the controller and still get this one.

The "Mile High Club" Award: “Perfect Aim”
The only Achievement that offers any challenge, this one is earned for working through all 10 levels of the bottle toss mini-game. It can be a little tricky until you learn how to aim properly, but after practicing a few times, you'll get it.

The "Seriously..." Award: "Big Spender"
Buy 100 items of clothing?'s like playing with dolls only in video game form. NOTE: By clothes, they mean shirts, pants, and dresses. Accessories like bracelets don't count, so be warned.

The "Little Rocket Man" Award: "Coop Fixer Upper"
It makes me sad to think that there's a place in this world where working on a chicken coop with a dim-bulb farmhand counts as a flirtatious encounter.

The Scientist Gone Gamer Award: N/A
They're all the same, and all an eyesore.

Achievement Set Rating - 3
I can forgive the designers for the limited scope of this Achievement set, since there isn't much game here. Hell, I even appreciate the fact that they didn't wedge in a stupid widget collecting Achievement like most of these games do. What I can't forgive is the fact that every icon is the same crappy picture that has nothing to do with the game. Lame...

Achievement Difficulty Rating - 1
I doubt any game will knock Avatar off it's perch as the easiest 1000 points in the 360 library, but Hannah Montana is certainly in the top 5. Three hours at most with nary a challenge to be had is all that separates you from a perfect score in this game. Well, that and your sense of self-respect.

Monday, May 31, 2010

"Real Men Play Hannah Montana"

The above should be the official Achievement Whore motto.

Which of the following activities have you always wanted to do in a video game:
A. Make a pop star pose and dance around during a concert
B. Buy a variety of dresses and accessories, then customize them with designs
C. Ride a horse and make it jump over hay bales (note: horse may handle more like a fighter plane than an actual animal)
D. Flirt with boy in cowboy hat by helping him build a chicken coop.
E. All of the above

If you answered E, then holy shit do I have the game for you. It's Hannah Montana: The Movie. Uh, The Game. Except I'd barely even call it a game, so maybe more like The Tedious and Short Lived Experience.

Going into Hannah Montana as a person who knows nothing about her, her music, her TV show or her movie, I wasn't really sure what to expect. I figured there'd be some music, and maybe some mini-games, but beyond that I couldn't guess. Video games are generally driven by conflict of some kind, and the type of high school/pop star conflict that drives Hannah's life doesn't seem like it would translate.

Which, to tip my hand, it doesn't. Hannah Montana isn't a poorly made video game by any stretch. It's just incredibly limited and not at all fun. Even if you were a crazed mark for Miley Cyrus and her alter ego, I can't see how you'd enjoy this title.

To emphasize my point, let me go over the sum total of activities in the game:

1. Concerts: Over the course of the game, Hannah gives several performances of her various songs. Your job is to perform little mini-games to keep the crowd excited. You use the thumbsticks to strike poses, tap buttons to play the drums and guitar, catch falling notes to play the keyboard, and play a timing game to sing. This is as close to game content as you're going to get.

2. Mini-games: There are only four of these - the aforementioned horse riding game and three carnival style attractions. Two of the carnival games have atrocious controls, though the third, knocking over soda cans with bean bags, was as close to fun as this game ever got for me.

3. Dress up: If you've ever wanted to dress a virtual Hannah Montana in various outfits, this is your big chance. In terms of actual gameplay, you can largely (and thankfully) ignore this.

4. Faffing about: Not to steal from Yahtzee, but the majority of this game (80%+) is spent wandering around talking to people and looking for poorly hidden objects. It's excruciatingly dull, in large part thanks to Hannah's snail-like walking pace (my kingdom for a run button) and the painfully lame dialogue. Like it or no, this is what you'll mostly be doing.

One might hope that the game would at least have an interesting plot given the paucity of gameplay, but prepare for disappointment. Miley's small podunk town in Tennessee (which somehow has a fairground, a petting zoo, and a university) has attracted the interest of a real estate developer, who wants to build apartment complexes and a mall. For some bizarre reason, everyone in town agrees that this is terrible and will ruin the town. (By the way, this includes the mayor...are elected town officials generally this opposed to what would represent an economic boon for their constituency?)

Anyway, the plan is for Hannah Montana to give a benefit concert, which is odd because it's right there in town and attended pretty much just by the townspeople...the same townspeople who couldn't afford to keep the developer out in the first place. Maybe the 360 hardware couldn't render the throngs of out-of-towners who came to the concert?

Meanwhile, Miley is trying to keep her secret that she's Hannah Montana and score a date with a slow-witted boy (man? it's not clear) named Travis. This leads to an awkward scene in which she's supposed to be attending a mayor's welcome event as Hannah and a date with Travis as Miley at the same time, with Three's Company style results. Oh, and there's a running subplot that goes nowhere in which some tabloid reporter is trying to discover the identity of Hannah Montana. And there's some crap about her retarded brother missing a college deadline (they must have very low standards) and her dad (Billy Ray THAT'S star power!) trying to woo some other woman while keeping Travis away from Miley. If all this sounds like it would work better as a TV show, you've appraised it well.

All told, Hannah Montana is about three hours long...pitiful for a retail release and yet still more than enough for me. I can't recommend this title to anyone. Even hardcore Hannah Montana fans should stick to her music and television show, because there isn't anything to find entertaining about this game.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

WAA - Penny Arcade Adventures: Episode One

We go from a crappy retail game last week to a very solid arcade title this week. I've already reviewed the first Penny Arcade game, but that doesn't sate my need to pick apart the Achievement set for your amusement.

Let there be...WAA!

The "One With Combat"Award: “Stray Cat”
You will receive this Achievement automatically when T. Kemper, the lovable housecat, joins your team at the beginning of the game.

The "Mile High Club" Award: “Silent, But Deadly”
This one is difficult, but the proper strategy can make it a lot easier. You have to beat the game's final boss without using a single healing item. Obviously it helps to be at max level and weapon power before you attempt the fight, as well as having a full complement of items and all your special helpers (e.g. T. Kemper) charged and ready. The key to winning this fight without sustaining a lot of damage is to take advantage of the fact that enemies can't attack if one of your characters is executing a move of any kind. So while one of your allies is charging an attack, have the rest of the team use damage items like dynamite to prevent the boss from taking a turn. If you're ever stuck in a spot where none of your characters can do anything, send one of your helpers to distract him. It also helps if you use the item that decreases your opponent's attack power in case he gets an attack in here and there.

The "Seriously..." Award: "Pack Rat"
For this one, you have to find all the collectibles. Unfortuantely, collectibles can be hidden in essentially any item you can click on, meaning you'll have to run around the environment selecting everything you see. Or use a guide...there's always that.

The "Little Rocket Man" Award: "Nine Lives"
This Achievement is amusing because you have to kill an enemy using T. Kemper's special attack, which only does one damage. Obviously the best way to do this is to whittle down an enemy's health to almost nothing and then let the cat finish it.

The Scientist Gone Gamer Award: "Steel Devils"
If I told you it was called a "Fruit Fucker", would you wonder why?

Achievement Set Rating - 4
Though I loved the game, I have to admit that the Achievement set was a bit lackluster in Penny Arcade Episode One. For a game based off of a webcomic, the icons are surprisingly disappointing. As for the goals, there's a fair bit of grind here (hunt down every enemy, find every collectible, hit max level) and not much in the way of unique ideas.

Achievement Difficulty Rating - 5
Most of the Achievements can be earned by thoroughly searching every nook and cranny of the game. However, getting through the entire story without having a character ever fall in battle and beating the final boss without healing are both pretty challenging.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Review - Viking: Battle for Asgard

It's about time I got something on this blog other than Achievement awards!

Viking is a game that got a pretty tepid reception from most reviewers. It's metacritic score (68/100) is decidedly mediocre and it didn't do much volume in sales. So maybe I'm tipping my hand here a bit, but this review is partly a defense of a game that I think is a bit of a hidden gem. I liked Viking. In fact, I was surprised how much I enjoyed it.

Viking is a third person action/hack-and-slash game set (obviously) in the world of Norse myth. You play as Skarin (pronounced Scar-in), a Viking warrior felled in battle by demonic forces who is chosen by a goddess to stem the tide of evil. Over the course of the game, you'll travel to three different islands, free imprisoned warriors to fight beside you, and drive hordes of enemies from the Viking homelands.

Now, that's a pretty basic setup - kill the baddies and free the good guys. Sprinkle in some Norse mythology with about the same depth as a Thor comic book and that's most of the story. However, I was surprised to discover that there's a fascinating undercurrent to the plot. You spend the game fighting as the champion for the beautiful goddess Freya and against the forces of the evil goddess Hel. While that seems pretty straightforward, you slowly learn over the course of the game that everything is not as it seems. I don't want to give away a bunch of spoilers, but I will say that Norse gods (much like the mythos of the Greeks and the Romans) make for interesting characters precisely because they share the same foibles, shortcomings, and penchants for jackassery as their human counterparts. Best of all, the game provides a pretty satisfactory ending (though not the one I was hoping for) that wraps up the loose ends. These days they usually end games with cliffhangers to set up sequels that may or may not ever get made.

It wasn't just the story that was a pleasant surprise. Gameplay consists of roaming freely across maps and finding enemy encampments to attack. I wouldn't exactly call this open world gaming in the vein of Grand Theft Auto, as you often have to perform tasks in specific order to advance. Still, there's a strong exploration element that rewards the player with money and allies to further Skarin's goals.

At its heart, Viking is a hack-and-slash'll definitely be stomping the skulls of a LOT of Hel's forces. The battle system in Viking is solid, with a number of combat moves to employ (and you can learn more in the battle arena for a price, though what ancient spirits of dead warriors want with cash is unclear). What's interesting about Viking is that there are a number of enemy types, and specific combat moves work better on some than others. You could get through the game spamming nothing but the basic attack, but some enemies would be awfully difficult to defeat. It's a system that encourages the player to learn a few different combat options so they'll be ready for anything.

And you'd better be ready, because Viking does not kid around about throwing you into the fire. Hel's forces are honestly not so hot in the fighting department, but they make up for it in sheer volume. The game is not bashful about sending a dozen or more enemies after you at the same time, especially if you rush blindly into danger. The game also features massive battles between your Viking army and enemy legions. These are a sight to behold, as soldiers clash in combat and tamed dragons assist you from the skies. The only bad news is that the larger battles can tax the Xbox 360 hardware, causing some stuttering and other graphical issues (burning the game to your hard drive helps).

If all that wasn't enough, Viking features a cleverly integrated stealth component that comes in quite handy. As long as you haven't been seen by an enemy, Skarin creeps along to show that he's in stealth mode. If you sneak up on an enemy, you can perform a stealth kill with a single button press. This ability is absolutely vital during sections where you need to skulk through an enemy stronghold to accomplish some task. The reason I love this system is that there's no "stealth mode" vs. "combat mode"'s all seamless.

As for gripes, there are some legitimate ones. Like almost any hack-and-slash game, Viking gets pretty repetitive after a while. The pattern for liberating each island is virtually identical, so by the third and final island you'll probably have had enough Viking-themed fun. That's particularly true because the game stops throwing new enemy types at you and focuses on pitting you against more enemies, which just has the effect of making each battle longer. I could have used one less island and more story elements, particularly about the gods. And I suppose I should beat one of my favorite dead horses when it comes to third person action titles - the camera. To be fair, the one in Viking isn't terrible, but it still loves to play tricks on you at inopportune times. Things like lurching around the screen at a key moment or reorienting itself so that you can't see enemies that are attacking you. There are even a few caves/dungeons with instant death pits (why???) that would be obvious to a person walking around but can be near invisible given the camera angle.

Those issues aside, Viking was definitely a pleasant surprise. It isn't a long game and doesn't require much of a time investment for people willing to give it a shot. Given it's repetitive nature you may prefer it as a rental or at a bargain price, but it's definitely worth a look.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

WAA - Blitz: The League

Posting has been sparse here lately, but work has been keeping me busy. Still, I can't let a Wednesday slide by without some Achievement awards.

This week I'm handing out WAA to one of my all-time most hated Xbox 360 games - Blitz: The League. I had some (decidedly uncharitable) comments about Blitz in a prior mini-review, but let me reiterate what a turd of a game this is. It has terrible controls, it's riddled with glitches, and it features some of the dumbest AI I've ever encountered. But hey, at least it's built on a solid foundation of toilet humor and shitty graphics.

Still, can it at least appeal to Achievement fans? Read on to find out! (hint: NO)

The "One With Combat"Award: “Sticky Fingers”
For this one, you need to gain 200 receiving yards in a game with one of your players. If you play through season mode, I guarantee you'll get this because Blitz is all about the passing game. Running is not an effective strategy, particularly once you join the higher Divisions. Just continue to air it out when you have possession and this award is yours.

The "Mile High Club" Award: “Bling Bling”
I can't believe this one is only worth 25 points. To get this award, you have to buy every piece of bonus equipment in the game. To do that, you first need to unlock all the bonus gear by completing every secondary challenge throughout the campaign (if you miss a single one, forget it) and then you need to somehow accumulate over 3 million in cash just to afford it all. For 25 points? It's definitely not worth it.

The "Seriously..." Award: "Pwnage"
Winning 25 online games doesn't sound that bad, right? Well let me set you straight. First of all, this game is ancient and terrible, so nobody plays it online. Also the online servers are so unstable that you'll be dropped before completing a game unless your opponent is very close by...possibly even in the same household. Unfortunately, asking someone with whom you live to play Blitz just so you can get some Achievements is the moral equivalent of domestic abuse, so I wouldn't advise it.

The "Little Rocket Man" Award: "Tables Turn"
This one is a spoiler but it's actually kind of clever, so I'll use it anyway. Once you hit Division One (the toughest league), a Lawrence Taylor look-alike named Quentin Sands will purposely injure your star player in the first game of the season, forcing you to go without him for much of the year. In the championship game, you will face off against Quentin's team. To get this Achievement, you have to use your rookie to injure Sands and get your revenge.

The Scientist Gone Gamer Award: "Blind"
Blitz uses negative Achievements - i.e. awards for doing something wrong. They're like badges of shame, though I just find them to be annoying. All that said, Blitz does feature some interesting icons, particularly for the negative awards. Throw five or more interceptions in a game and you can pick up this little gem.

Achievement Set Rating - 5
This set covers a wide variety of goals, plus features above average icons and Achievement titles. However, there's a bunch of negative awards and the set is a serious grind. Throw in the awards that focus on the broken online play and I can't call this anything better than an average list.

Achievement Difficulty Rating - 9
Some of the Achievements are difficult, but it's the sheer time commitment that clinches this score. Win a game with every team? Play through season mode three times? Win a bunch of online games while battling their glitchy servers? I don't know how anyone could stomach that much Blitz.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010


No, I'm not shouting "UNO RUSH" at you. My caps lock is not broken. Unfortunately, the game's original designers thought that an all-capital-letters name was clever, and they're sticking with that notion despite all evidence to the contrary.

But enough analysis of the game's's time to turn my magnifying glass to the Achievement set. And you know what that means - WAA! UNO RUSH is an Arcade title that takes the classic (if simplistic) game UNO and adds a timed component. It allows you to lay as many cards down in a turn as you can, but within a very short time period. The idea is to arrange your hand so that you can create a chain of cards that can be played in sequence. Of course, your opponents will be doing everything they can to impede your strategy, so it helps to be able to react quickly.

Here are the awards:

The "One With Combat"Award: “Graduation Party”
UNO RUSH is known for being one of the easier Achievement sets to finish on the Arcade, so there are plenty of options here. I went with finishing the tutorial, as it's very easy and probably a good idea for people familiar with the original game but not used to the new rules.

The "Mile High Club" Award: “Party Decorations”
For this one, you have to change the color of the discard pile five times in the same turn. So if the card at the top of the pile is a yellow 7, and you lay a red 7 followed by a red 4 followed by a blue 4, then you've changed the color twice. As you can imagine, it's going to require a long chain of cards to make this one happen, so I recommend a House Rules game with the maximum number of cards to begin the game. That way you'll have plenty of options.

The "Seriously..." Award: "Life of the Party"
Not much grind to UNO RUSH, though it does feature the typical "Win X games on Live" Achievement. In this case (much like with Roman numerals), X is 10.

The "Little Rocket Man" Award: "Party Planner"
You need to discard a chain of nine or more cards in one turn. Forming long chains of discards is the draw (no pun intended) of UNO RUSH.

The Scientist Gone Gamer Award: "Surprise Party"
UNO is not a game that inspires great Achievement icons. With that in mind, the designers actually did a pretty good job here, with colorful, cartoonish tiles that do an adequate job of emulating the game's style.

Achievement Set Rating - 7
A reasonably high score, not so much for any specific innovation but because they did the best they could with what was available. UNO RUSH is fun but very limited in scope. Still, the designers did a pretty good job of creating a varied set of Achievement goals. Plus, bonus points are in order for quality icons and the fact that they worked the word "Party" into every single Achievement title.

Achievement Difficulty Rating - 2
Party Decorations and Party Planner take a bit of skill/luck, but for the most part this set is very easy.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Episodic Content - Pros and Cons

I talked a bit about "episodic content" in my last batch of mini-reviews (specifically concerning the Penny Arcade Adventures series). It's a business model that's really catching on in the video game world, so I thought I'd share some of my thoughts about the positives and negatives inherent to this system.

For the uninitiated, episodic content is the release of shorter, more focused games that build on each other to form an overarching narrative. If a full retail game is like a 3 hour epic movie, then episodic games are like a television miniseries. The episodic style originated on the PC, where downloading smaller games over a network and storing them on a hard drive was a feasible alternative to buying them in a store. However, the shift in console gaming to an "online all the time" model has opened that possibility for the Xbox 360 and PS3 as well.

Episodic gaming has distinct advantages over the full retail model:

It's cheaper for gamers - A retail game is usually 60 dollars. But if you broke the game into four episodes and only charged 10 bucks each, the customer saves substantially. Plus they feel like they got four games for less than the price of one. On top of all that, a gamer can use the first episode like an extended demo. If you buy the 60 dollar game and decide you hate it after a couple hours, there's not much you can do about it. But if you hate Episode One, you just don't buy any more. Now you're only out 10 bucks!

It's more flexible for developers - Again, the 60 dollar game has to be all-encompassing. It needs all the code to run the game, all the graphics drawn, all the story written, all the voice-acting finished, etc. If something is done wrong, or fans complain that some part of the game doesn't work well, all the developers can do is try harder for the sequel. With episodic gaming, the code to run the game is largely finished for the first episode. But after that, the developers can lean on that code for future installments, allowing them to focus on storytelling and presentation. Does the fanbase hate some part of the game? You can probably change or eliminate it in future episodes. Is the game super popular? Then do six episodes instead of three as you originally planned. As long as people are buying them, what's to stop the developer from cranking out more games in the series and printing money forever?

However, episodic gaming has its dark side as well. Here are some of the cons:

Narrative momentum is an issue - Braveheart is certainly an epic tale. But imagine if Braveheart was broken into 10 little episodes and you had to wait six months, a year, or maybe even longer between each one. I'm willing to bet that it would really change how people felt about the movie. Whatever suspense was built in one episode would have long dissipated by the time the next was available. It's the same way with games. One of the long running jokes in the video game industry these days is about Valve and their endless quest to avoid making Half Life Episode 3. Understand that I LOVED the first two episodes, and yet by this point I can barely remember what happened in them. That's the risk you take when you wait for years to give the conclusion to a story, no matter how interesting it might be.

Story structure needs to be altered - For episodic gaming to work, each game in the series needs to be largely self-contained. Much like a TV show, each episode needs to work on its own or else people will feel like they're being coerced into experiencing future content. But again, that changes the way a story is told. The plot needs to be written in such a way that there can be a beginning, middle, and climax to each episode (almost like vignettes). Despite that, you don't want your customers to get the impression that you're telling boring little mini-stories, so there will probably be a larger overarching plot to tie everything together. After all, that's what keeps them coming back for more. But that leads to the biggest problem...

The video game industry is not terribly stable - It seems like such a good idea at the time. "Hey, rather than doing one big game, let's do episodic games so we can keep the story going for years and years!" Great, but is your company even going to exist in a couple years? Who will be running it then? The current CEO might love your series of games, but will he work there forever. What if you get bought by a larger company, or at least get tied to a big time publisher? What I'm getting at here is, will you be able to finish what you started? I really enjoyed the first two Penny Arcade games. Solid gameplay with some new tweaks, great art style, engaging story, and tons of humor...what's not to like? But now it's been announced that there won't be any more, and I find myself two games into a series that just croaked, invested in a story that will likely never be finished. Now, I don't blame the developers (or the guys who do Penny Arcade). This is a business and they shouldn't be forced to make games that aren't selling. But it makes one wonder whether episodic gaming is a trustworthy business model in the first place. If enough people get burned halfway into a series, will they swear off these games forever? Once you buy your Mass Effect disc, you can play it beginning to end as much as you want.

I know that episodic gaming appeals to developers and publishers because it offers flexibility (as well as a way to cut retailers, renters, and the used games market out of the picture), but it will be interesting to see how it develops over the coming years.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

WAA - Dante's Inferno

If you missed the review, look here. Now it's time to review the Achievements from Dante's Inferno by handing out some WAA.

The "One With Combat"Award: “Holy Warrior”
Kill 30 minions? You'll need to kill hundreds before you complete this game. Dante annihilates 30 minions while he's taking his afternoon nap.

The "Mile High Club" Award: “Poetry in Motion”
This Achievement requires you to build up a 666 hit combo. Your combo meter goes up every time you hit an enemy and resets any time you don't strike a foe for a couple seconds. So obviously, you need to get into an area with LOTS of enemies and then hammer away without getting knocked on the ground or otherwise incapacitated. The best spot to get this one is on the first stage of Malebolg (Infinite Magic) near the end of the game.

The "Seriously..." Award: "Gates of Hell"
Mild spoiler: After you beat the game, you unlock Gates of Hell mode, which is a combat-only mode with increasingly difficult opponents spread over 50 identical rooms. You need to make it all the way to the end to get this Achievement. It's not terribly difficult if you use your super-powerful character from Story mode, but it can be a bit dull given the lack of plot or dialogue.

The "Little Rocket Man" Award: "Bad Nanny"
I can't help it...I just love that they went there even if it's SO SO wrong!

The Scientist Gone Gamer Award: "Like Father Like Son"
THIS is what an icon set should be! A variety of tiles, each appropriate for the given award, and with a cohesive artistic style that complements the game perfectly...kudos to you Visceral Games!

Achievement Set Rating - 9
This is a top notch set of Achievements in every respect. Great icons. Clever titles. An assortment of requirements that cover all the different activities in the game. Some are easy and some take more dedication. My only nitpick is that there are quite a few collection Achievements, but nothing too outlandish.

Achievement Difficulty Rating - 3
The beauty of this set is that you can get all the Achievements on any difficulty setting you choose, thus making them as easy or challenging as you want them to be.
I recommend playing through the game twice (it's not terribly long) - once just to enjoy the story, and once with a guide to find all the artifacts and Judas coins you missed.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Mini-reviews: Arcade edition

Mini-reviews represent the perfect format for Arcade titles, which don't stand up well to the nit-picking I do for retail games. Since Arcade games are only priced between five and fifteen dollars, it's more about value than depth. So here are three Arcade titles that I've finished recently:

A Kingdom For Keflings
In A Kingdom for Keflings, you play as your Xbox Live avatar (or a generic one if you don't have an Avatar) who has been tasked with assisting a group of tiny people (Keflings) in constructing a kingdom. You start the game with just a couple small structures and four Kefling helpers, but over time you can build castles, cathedrals, and armies of Kefling minions.

The mechanics of KfK couldn't be simpler. Need some wood to build a house? Grab a Kefling and set him or her down next to a forest. He'll make like a lumberjack and you'll have the lumber you need. Once you assign a Kefling to a job they'll keep doing it until you tell them to stop, so there's no need to micromange each of your followers at all times.

What makes KfK so enjoyable is that, unlike a lot of video games, it's a relaxing game that you can play at your own pace. It's a bit like SimCity, except without all the spoiled citizens bitching about their petty problems the whole time. There's no real conflict in KfK, so it's just a matter of building your kingdom as you see fit. Some people would be bored with the experience, but I found it refreshing.

Other positives include:
- A real artistic can arrange your buildings and color them as you choose.
- Multiplayer options to co-build a city with up to four people at once.
- A really nice (if slightly repetitive) acoustic folk guitar soundtrack

Duke Nukem 3D
This is a remake of the classic PC title. It's essentially a spot on port, which like most classic games is both a good and a bad thing. On the one hand, there's a reason this game is remembered fondly in the annals of FPS titles. The action is fast and furious. Duke has access to a nice arsenal of weapons that each serve a distinct purpose. And of course, they couldn't rely on fancy graphics back then, so the designers went with a sardonic sense of humor instead. If you're a fan of South Park and aren't easily offended, you'll likely get a kick out of Duke Nukem.

(As an aside, kudos to the designers for leaving everything intact in the 360 version. I would imagine that they may have been under a bit of pressure to tone things down for a console release, but the game was ported unscathed.)

As for the negative, it's the same as all classic games - this title looks and sounds really dated. Now I'm a gameplay over graphics type myself, but do realize going in that the Duke's game doesn't hold up well compared to modern standards. The aliens make these grating metallic shrieks that probably seemed a lot cooler on a sound card from the '90s.

However, if you can get past the graphics and sound, there's a lot of solid gameplay to be found in Duke Nukem 3D at a fraction the cost of a retail game. And as a huge bonus, the 360 version features a rewind feature so if you die, you can try again from any point within the level (see screenshot).

Penny Arcade: Episode 2

I've already reviewed the first episode of Penny Arcade. I finally got around to playing the second one, and all my comments from the first are appropriate again. The game features an interesting RPG battle system with real-time elements, a varied cast of entertaining characters, and an art style that mimics the comic beautifully. I was excited to continue the story and definitely wasn't disappointed...there's equal measure of humor and plot to keep the player engaged throughout the relatively short adventure.

That's why I was quite disappointed to learn that this will likely be the last Penny Arcade game (at least in this series). Apparently the second episode didn't sell well, and the design team that had been making them picked up a new property on which they wanted to focus. Mike and Jerry (the creators of Penny Arcade) decided to pull the plug rather than becoming the redheaded stepchildren of that team. I understand their decision, but it's disappointing to discover that I won't be able to find out how the story finishes (there are several cliffhangers that will now be unresolved). Supposedly they might finish it in comic form, though I'm not sure that will be quite the same. Perhaps later this week I'll do a post about episodic gaming while this is fresh in my mind.

Despite the fact that the story will never be complete, I still recommend Penny Arcade: Episode 2 to fans of the series (but play Episode 1 first!). The game is sufficiently self-contained that it's still an enjoyable experience.

It occurs to me that these reviews are a lot more positive than my last set of mini-reviews. Maybe I should stick to arcade titles rather than renting low budget retail games that seem to disappoint me so often...