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.