Archive for the 'Reviews' Category

Too Human Not Too Bad

I finished Too Human the other day, and all things considered, my early play impressions held up for the entire game. Too Human does a lot wrong, but it also does a lot right. A choppy frame rate, clunky animation, and poor lip synching are balanced by great music, a fantastic loot system, an intriguing story.

The thing that really strikes me about Too Human is that the game takes itself unusually… seriously.  Things like Netzsche quotes and allusions to Norse Mythology provide a context unlike most other games (even the more narrative driven titles), and though such conceits push the game to the brink of self-importance, there’s no denying that the end result is, at worst, interesting and, at best, extremely compelling.

Too Human is not a great game – there are just too many flaws that dampen the experience. It is, however, an interesting game, and sometimes that’s more than enough to justify the experience.

Grand Theft Auto 4: Party’s Over

I played through about half of GTA4 over the summer, and while I was initially impressed by the game, as I continued to play, my opinion soured.

One of the most fundamental problems with GTA4 has to do with the city itself, arguably the underpinning of the entire gameplay concept. Graphically, Liberty City looks great and is designed really effectively. Each neighborhood has a unique but realistic visual style, and navigating through the city is an entertaining task. But while things look really good, the city provides a pretty lifeless experience from a gameplay perspective.

GTA4

There just isn’t much to do beyond the main story missions. After a couple of hours of gameplay, I had made enough money that taking a cab ride (over driving myself) was not a burden financially. And since the city is so static, the game ultimately devolved into quick traveling (cab rides can be skipped) between mission locations. With that, the entire open nature of the game fell apart – I had expected GTA4 to be nonlinear, but my experience was a shockingly linear one. And as a straightforward, narrative driven action title, a lot of the flaws that GTA4 exhibits that might have been excusable in a more open ended title are a lot more apparent.

My other main gripe with GTA4 has to do with the narrative itself. The early portions of the game are pretty impressive – the writing never quite reaches “Oscar-caliber”, but it was a heck of a lot better than in most games I’ve played. As the story progresses, though, Niko’s character undergoes a drastic shift in personality that undermines a lot of the success the story has early on.

Originally, Niko is a troubled and reserved foreigner who has trouble coming to grips with American culture. He approaches each violent encounter with a sense of unease, but he also has an overall understanding of the inevitable reality of his situation. I thought it was a compelling concept for a character, and the execution was spot on.

About 10 hours into the game, thought, Niko undergoes an improbable transformation into an egotistical jerk. There’s no explanation, no context given in the narrative. He simply changes. It’s a jarring shift, and it nullifies the interesting bits early on in the game. Too bad, too, because what could have been a really special story turns into a run-of-the-mill diversion.

So there I am, 15 or so hours into Grand Theft Auto 4. I’ve lost all interest in exploring Liberty City (since there’s just nothing to do), and the main character that I have been interested in has just been discarded (without reason) for a lame caricature. As the missions themselves are not terribly varied, there’s just nothing left for the game to offer me.

I was living on the other side of the country during the summer, and I was using my brother’s copy of GTA4. I had originally intended to pick it up for myself to finish off the story, but that would just be a waste of my money, as I just don’t think I’d be compelled to continue. What a waste of potential.

Final Thoughts On The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass

I finally finished Phantom Hourglass over the weekend, and as my 7 month time of completion would indicate, I was a little disappointed with the game.  As I was playing through the adventure, I was having trouble pinpointing exactly why I wasn’t digging it – there were definitely aspects of the design that I really liked, but I couldn’t shake feelings of disappointment.  As such, I wanted to make a list of my likes and dislikes when I finished to game to help sort out my conflicted emotions.

 Zelda Phantom Hourglass

What I liked:

  • The general gameplay mechanics. I was a little skeptical about the touch screen controls before playing the game, but Nintendo did a really nice job of simplifying the interface without sacrificing control.
  • The items. While none of the items were new to a Zelda game, the way that they were controlled (and the ways that they were used in gameplay) were very fresh.
  • The Temple of the Ocean King. A lot of gamers and reviewers were put off by the timed nature of the game’s main dungeon, but I definitely appreciated how each new item you obtained allowed for a new, faster way of tackling old puzzles.
  • The lack of a rupee limit. It was always annoying in older Zelda games when you were in a dungeon with a full wallet of rupees – it felt like you were leaving money on the table (at least in Twilight Princess they put treasure back in chests if you couldn’t hold it).

What I disliked:

  • The narrative. Pegged as a sequel of sorts to Wind Waker, I was expecting a decent story.  Unfortunately, the games has very little exposition, and outside of the decent ending, you hardly get a chance to know about any of the characters.  Linebeck could have been interesting, but he was a simple caricature that was given very little time to develop any real depth.
  • The pacing. Perhaps this can be traced back to the poor story, but I never felt the need to play “one more dungeon.” I usually find Zelda adventures to be pretty addicting, but Phantom Hourglass didn’t grip me like I thought it would.
  • The ocean. While I understand how some people found the ocean in Wind Waker to be a little boring, I thought it was a nice change of pace from the usual Zelda overworld fare.  But the ocean in Phantom Hourglass is a big step backwards, and the thought of having to cross the thing was enough to make me turn off my DS more than once.
  • The dungeon design. While I liked what Aunoma and team did with item design, I was disappointed with how they used those items in dungeons.  In general, the dungeons felt very sterile and unexciting – there was never a question of what I had to do next, and the way I had to do it was rarely enthralling in and of itself.

I should note that I have always preferred the console iterations of Zelda more so than the handheld versions (with one exception – Links Awakening is superb).  Still, this is the first original handheld Zelda game that has been produced in-house at Nintendo since Links Awakening. My expectations were high.

If I had to describe Phantom Hourglass in one word, it would be “Lite.”  As in, “Light Cola” or “Lite Dressing.”  Everything about its design feels like a simplification of the Zelda formula. That’s not to say that this minimalist approach was without its successes – the lack of a rupee limit (noted above) is a great example of how simplification made the game more fun to play.

But my issue with the game is that everything is so simplified, so sanded down,  that the entire experience feels very charmless. I’ve always enjoyed Zelda games for their quirky side quests and interesting townspeople.  Unfortunately, Phantom Hourglass all but exterminates any extraneous quests or characters. This refinement might serve to make the main quest more well defined, but it also causes the entire adventure to lose a lot of its charm (and fun).

A great example of what I’m talking about is how the note taking feature was handled.  After a cool puzzle to introduce the mechanic, it was not used to its potential for the rest of the game.  In fact, that’s how I felt about the game in general – a lot of potential with uninspired execution.

As a game, Phantom Hourglass may be good, if not great.  As a Zelda game, though, it fell short of my expectations.

Call of Duty 4: Eatin’ Crow

So I have to admit, I made a mistake.  I prematurely judged the value of Call of Duty 4, and in doing so I almost missed out on a completely entertaining and worthwhile single player campaign.  From an article I wrote back in December after reports of CoD4’s short length:

While the Call of Duty games are mostly popular for their robust multiplayer modes, I value them more for their visceral, engaging single player campaigns. Therefore, even amidst the launch excitement, I was a little disappointed by what I read about COD4’s single player mode – a play through on the standard difficulty is said to only last around 5 hours. Is that long enough to justify my purchase?

To that question, I answer a resounding “Heck yes.”  Even though I won’t touch the much lauded multiplayer mode (Team Fortress 2 will cover my FPS online gaming until Left 4 Dead hits later this year), the single player alone has been worth the price of admission (admittedly, I borrowed the game, but I would have been satisfied with the 60 dollar tag).

It’s hard for me to pinpoint what it is about CoD4 that is so appealing.  Taken at face value, the game is not unlike your every-day, generic first person shooter – you are a faceless soldier (2 different soldiers, actually) who finds himself up against a large quantity of faceless baddies.  Even the scenarios are conceptually run of the mill.

I guess it’s the general quality of the game that really sticks out at me – the entire package is just put together very solidly.  It just goes to show that, while original concepts are desirable, ultimately it is quality of the execution that matters.

Is Call of Duty 4 short?  Yes.  Does that matter?  Nope.

Boom Blox: More Fun Than A Hat Full Of Hand Grenades

Boom Blox is the best “accessible” Wii game since Wii sports.  The play mechanics aren’t especially deep, but the multiplayer is a blast (ha ha) and content is varied enough that the single player stuff is compelling.  I haven’t touched much of the level creator, but I’ve seen some awesome results online, so I’ll no doubt give the mode a shot as time goes on.

Boom Blox

At one point, I was playing against my 12 year old brother, my girlfriend, and my 60 year old aunt, and each of us was having a great time (and legitimately competing with each other).  For once, I didn’t feel like I had to let other people win for everyone to have a good time – I had my hands full staying competitive and often ended up on the short end of the stick (without feeling cheated).  As many of you know, that’s a rare experience for seasoned gamers. 

How refreshing.

Thoughts On Super Smash Bros. Brawl

Super Smash Bros. Brawl, the third installment in Nintendo’s mascot-fighting franchise, is both a fantastic success and a missed opportunity.

The the offline portion of the game is even more feature packed than previous installments.  In addition to the multitude of modes and features available in Melee, an astoundingly awesome (and huge) soundtrack, a stage creator, and screenshot and video capture abilities make for an even more robust experience.  But perhaps the most notable content addition to Brawl is The Subspace Emissary, a 1 or 2 player story mode in which the Smash Bros. cast joins forces in an entertaining, if nonsensical, side-scrolling adventure that features the most (and best) FMV ever seen in a Nintendo game.  Gameplay is similar to the Adventure segments in Melee – think traditional Smash controls in side scrolling levels. 

 Smash FMV

Some reviewers have complained that The Subspace Emissary is ultimately repetitive, but I enjoy it.  I’ll admit that it’s essentially one fight after another (the platforming and puzzle solving is secondary to the brawlin’), but I don’t see that as a bad thing – I love Smash’s gameplay.  And yes, the story is confusing (the characters don’t speak, which leads to some ambiguity), but the cutscenes are fun to watch and do a great job of expressing the various personalities of Nintendo’s wide array of characters.

The local multiplayer is as tight as ever – nothing has really changed from Melee in regards to the general gameplay paradigm, but the fighters seem to be more balanced and the introduction of some new items (most notably the Smash Ball) keep things feeling fresh.  Further, a lot of new characters are introduced to the series, from lesser knowns like Pit (from Kid Icarus) and Lucas (from Mother 3), to 3rd party icons like Sonic and Solid Snake.  Multiplayer has always been the main draw of the franchise, and Brawl does not disappoint in this regard.  It’s a blast to play with friends.

One of the most highly anticipated features of Smash Bros. Brawl was the online component, and while the ability to play with friends online is fantastic, Nintendo has neutered the experience so much so that a lot of potential is wasted.  The central issue regarding the online design is the inability of friends to communicate with each other.  You can map 4 messages to character taunts that are usable during a match, but this system doesn’t allow any real communication between players, and it can’t be used in the lobby between games.

Smash Gameplay

Further, there’s no way to invite friends into your games, and since there’s no way to communicate with people on your friend list, it’s difficult to organize a match.  It’s too bad, because the actual online gameplay is pretty solid – the netcode is decent and ability to humiliate your friends and family across the country is awesome.

Overall, Super Smash Bros. Brawl ups the ante with new features and modes that add a lot to the Smash experience.  Unfortunately, the online mode suffers from poor design choices that dilute its potential.  But while Nintendo missed a real opportunity with Brawl in regards to online play, the rest of the package is so well put together that I can almost forgive them for the lacking online experience.

Audiosurf: The Ride of the Forever

Audiosurf is a music/puzzle game (think Tetris meets Amplitude/Guitar Hero) from Dylan Fitterer. It’s the first game developed under the Steamworks framework from Valve, and it’s completely awesome.

The basic gist of the game is this: you control a car/ship that you race on a track scattered with various colored blocks that are generated in sync with the background music. But here’s the twist – while games like Guitar Hero and Amplitude have soundtracks chosen by the games’ developers, Audiosurf allows you to use any (compatible) song from your music library. And since the gameplay (and also visual presentation) is determined by song content (rhythm, speed, tone, etc), this means that Audiosurf becomes the experience you want it to be since it tailors to your musical tastes and situational whims (“hey, I feel like riding some Radiohead right now”).

Audiosurf Verse

A Long December by Counting Crows (first verse)

For each song you pick to ride, Audiosurf creates a unique (but not random) track for your car to traverse – inclines, declines, and turns are all generated as to make each song a fresh experience. Blocks, generated by the rhythm patterns of the song, are scattered across each track, and Audiosurf’s multiple game modes consist of collecting blocks in various ways. Further, each track has a leaderboard so that you can compare scores with friends and strangers who have played the same songs as you. You can even subscribe to an email notification system so that you are informed if one of your high scores is beaten by another person. This is a neat concept, and if you’re anything like me, you’ll find yourself playing your favorite songs repeatedly as an outward display of your fandom.

Audiosurf Chorus

A Long December by Counting Crows (guitar solo)

The game is compelling to me for two reasons. First, the aforementioned gameplay modes are, at worst, interesting diversions and, at best, a lot of fun. I particularly enjoy the Mono modes, where you have to dodge grey blocks and catch all of the colored blocks. It’s a simple gameplay concept, but out of all of the modes, it’s the one that most establishes a palpable connection with the music that you choose to ride. Second, the surrealistic way that audio (mood, rhythm, speed) is represented visually by the game is perhaps Audiosurf’s most differentiating design aspect. Just as the game generates a track for you to ‘surf’ on for each song, it also creates a unique, wildly-colorful world of imaginative shapes and structures as a backdrop for the action.

When you hit a colored block, an explosion of shapes appears in the sky. Loud choruses and solos result in sharp color shifts, changes in tempo are reflected by the speed your car moves on the track, and the game world in general pulsates in time to the song. The game is visually arresting, and I’ve found that that presentation is so evocative that it reflects the very essence of the songs you choose. I know that sounds corny, but it’s the truth. You’ll have to experience it for yourself to see what I mean.

At 10 dollars, it’d be silly to pass up Audiosurf. Even if the concept of riding your music collection is not terribly exciting, the game’s graphical presentation, online leaderboard integration, and decent gameplay variety should be enough to at least leave you satisfied with your purchase. And if the concept resonates with you at all, the prospect of riding future music releases will no doubt leave you as excited about the game’s longevity as I am.

Highly recommended.