Review: Final Fantasy VIII [1/3]


   Taking an ambitious step forward, Final Fantasy VIII ultimately falls flat on its face.

Before there was Final Fantasy XIII for everyone to hate, there was Final Fantasy VIII, a game that helped to renew my interest in the medium and was the target of gamers’ ire for years after its release. Final Fantasy VIII represented a radical departure from the series conventions, even when compared to Final Fantasy VII. At the time, it managed to garner a 90/100 metacritic score. VIII was an ambitious effort that attempted to craft a world of realistic looking people, realistic full motion videos, and a story arc that placed a great deal of emphasis on romance and the mind of the game’s protagonist, Squall Leonhart. How did this game elicit such a bipolar reception? Let’s start at the beginning.

Squall Leonhart, the aforementioned protagonist, is a 17-year-old mercenary in training. He studies at an academy that fosters children and teenagers with the goal of someday shipping them out to clients around the world. It’s a sort of anime-style Hogwarts. VIII takes this opportunity to break you into the game as Squall completes his education. And by “break you into the game,” I mean drown you in menu driven tutorials centering around game mechanics that make little sense. Where VIII deviates from prior games in the series and conventional jRPGs is that your characters are mere vessels for guardian forces: creatures that are equipped to characters that can be summoned during battle. Guardian forces are what the player builds and develops as the game progresses. The characters have levels, stats, and limit breaks but the differences between each of them are superficial. This disconnect between the avatars and the player’s investment is jarring. Guardian forces (GFs) allow characters to collect and use magic as well as utilize special skills and abilities. Magic is collected as expendable items, so if you acquire 6 fire spells you can use fire six times in battle. Spells can also be “junctioned” to the character’s stats (strength, HP, etc.) based upon which GF they have equipped. So when you find 6 fire spells you could augment your strength with them and increase that stat by 6 points (I am making these numbers of up for the sake of simplicity.) It can be difficult to judge when magic should be saved or used and what effect they have in either case.

If you are confused at this point then just be glad I condensed the explanation into a paragraph. The first stretch of the game is difficult to make heads or tails from, but the challenges of VIII are light enough for the player to blindly stumble through relatively unscathed. VIII definitely feels like an experiment of sorts. It is not as tightly designed around its game mechanics as other entries in the series. Squaresoft was clearly interested in trying something new without entirely committing to it. This is by far the worst quality of the game. It is so needlessly complex and impenetrable that it is impossible to meaningfully design levels and challenges for the player to overcome and master. This approach limits the amount of frustration the player experiences as they try to figure out the game mechanics but also robs them of the satisfaction of growing to meet escalating challenges. There is little tension in the game which becomes a blur of min/maxing and hoarding of magic and items. Strategies for effectively playing the game can be devised but are unnecessary. To top it all off, the plot is as nonsensical, if not more nonsensical than the gameplay mechanics. In the span of a week, Squall inexplicably goes from being a student to the leader of the entire academy which, also during the same time span, is tasked with defeating sorceresses across time and space.

Final Fantasy VIII attempts to do so much but still operates in a 16-bit era mindset. This is simultaneously a great flaw and its saving grace. The game system can be grasped and understood. There are opportunities for the player to exploit the system in satisfying and novel ways. And it’s difficult though not impossible to look past some of extremely silly story elements. Final Fantasy VIII still retains the strong game content that the series is known for. There is large world to explore, systems to master, good music to listen to, and vast dungeons to raid. If you can bear with it, VIII is a game that’s capable of keeping you entertained for a good deal of time. And in spite of failed attempts at storytelling and character development, there are still some novel ideas buried in there. Even 12 years later, there are a few moments that still tug at my heart-strings and remind me why I was so invested in the game when it was originally released. It’s not hard to see how gamers of 1999 were so impressed with what Final Fantasy VIII tried to do, but it’s also easy to see how it fails to deliver on its promises.

Rating: 1/3

See also: Trailer, Official Site, More thoughts at Ruminatron5000

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Review: Modern Warfare 3 [3/3]


   Another small step forward for gaming as an entertainment medium.

Modern Warfare 3 picks up where the blockbuster Modern Warfare 2 leaves off. The series villain, Vladimir Makarov, has succeeded in instigating a war between the United States and Russia that acts as subterfuge for his own agenda. Soap and Captain Price return to stop him and to seek revenge for other events that unfolded in the series’ previous games. If you’re a fan of the previous games, then MW3 will not disappoint. Infinity Ward (with the help of Sledgehammer) have polished the series formula to a shine that culminates in a tremendous final showdown with Makarov that is both an excellent finish for the series as well as one of the highlights of the genre.

For those who are only now jumping into the series: the player is dropped from location to location around the world as one of several different soldiers in order to witness and participate in spectacular battles. The experience is often compared to a roller coaster ride based on the linear structure of the stages and the dramatic events that unfold as the player moves along them. The player’s job is to utilize the weapons and artillery to make their way with allies through enemy targets to the end of the stage. Each stage stands independent of others and the player’s performance and decisions on one will not have any impact on the others. The variety and weapons and vehicles, in combination with unexpected twists and turns will keep each stage entertaining and novel throughout the game.

The Modern Warfare series continues to break entertainment records. I’m sure that’s in large part due to it’s multiplayer component which refines and builds upon the combat mechanics of the single player campaign while introducing competitive goals rather than simply getting from point A to point B. It also introduces a survival mode that tests the player’s skill against waves of increasingly difficult enemies. Both of these modes introduce options for the player to make decisions about how to arm themselves and prepare their defenses which almost becomes a separate game in its own right. But whether you are playing Modern Warfare 3 for it’s single or multiplayer modes the game as a whole represents one of the best game packages of the year that takes the simple foundation of the FPS and builds a layered and multi-faceted experience that is pushing gaming into the mainstream’s consciousness.

Rating: 3/3

See also: TrailerOfficial SiteMore thoughts at Ruminatron5000

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Micro Review: Aliens: Infestation [1/3]


  A shallow and underwhelming excursion into the world of Alien

I can’t help but get excited about a game that blends Contra, Castlevania, and Aliens (which is undoubtedly one of my favorite movie experiences of all time.) Unfortunately though, while Infestation does an excellent job of bringing the atmosphere of the Alien series to the DS, the gameplay is very underwhelming. The game can offer tense exploration of several different locations utilizing weapons pulled straight from Aliens. Your “lives” are essentially individual marines which are given short back stories and unique dialogue. One appears on the screen at a time, and several others wait in reserve in the event that the player is killed. Losing a marine can be disappointing, but it’s unfortunately the only way that the player can acquire new characters if their team is already full. And oddly, many characters are given personalities that feel entirely out of place for the game (for instance, a Korean girl that sits around texting — in space (where no one can hear you scream.)) Combat is initially an engaging part of the game but becomes either routine after upgrading your weapons, or entirely irrelevant during boss battles that have no discernible strategies for winning. These battles are reduced to simply unloading magazines of bullets and sacrificing marines until the boss is dispatched. If you are a fan of the Alien series, Infestation is fun but shallow. Otherwise you’ll be better served by watching the movies or playing a Castlevania game instead.

Rating: 1/3

See also: TrailerOfficial SiteMore thoughts at Ruminatron5000

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Micro Review: Gears of War 3 [1/3]


   A fun game that’s hobbled by it’s investment in it’s own story

Tis’ the season for sequels. The nice thing about them is that they continue to keep a series out in public view long enough for people like me to finally take notice and play them. Such was the case with Gears 3. On an impulse, I decided to rent it and play through the campaign cooperatively. Gears of War 3 (and I safely assume the previous games) have some great verbs that players can execute. Using the chainsaw bayonet doesn’t get old, and it’s easy to just run around like you’re leatherface tearing into meaty bad dudes. Everything on the surface of the game is a lot of fun.

Here comes the but: Gears 3 sacrifices fun for drama and makes for a bummer of an experience. Where I felt like I was having a fun blasting through everything that was unfortunate enough to be in my path the game was telling me “everything sucks and Marcus is sad/mad.” Every so often there is a funny line of dialogue but the entire atmosphere is saturated with a manufactured sense of dread and contrived drama. Using “Mad World” worked as an idea for a trailer but it isn’t representative of the experience of playing the game and, furthermore, works against the game’s strengths. How much Marcus hurts inside has no bearing on the fun I’m having stomping monsters and it is really irritating to follow along in a story I’m not interested in. By the end of the game, I was made to feel like I really was leatherface, and for no good reason. My avatar was an asshole, and it deflated my enjoyment of the underlying game play.

I suppose that all of this indicates that the multiplayer game modes would be more satisfying, but the single-player campaign sends mixed signals and delivers a story that tries too hard to be dramatic.

Rating: 1/3

See also: TrailerOfficial SiteMore thoughts at Ruminatron5000

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Micro Review: Trials HD [3/3]


   A compelling game about jumping dirt bikes

Trials HD is a toy; a digital toy for the player to master.  It’s a virtual RC dirt bike toy that comes with a series of obstacle courses and assorted game modes to challenge the player to explore different aspects of the simulation.  And even if it is just a game about jumping dirt bikes, there is enough depth to negotiating the courses to occupy you for a good deal of time.  Trials HD caters to all skill levels and makes it addictively easy to push yourself to try a course just one more time in the hopes of finishing it just a little more quickly.  And if that’s not enough then maybe seeing how your times stack up against your friends will motivate you.  Unless the basic idea of Trials doesn’t do anything for you, this is a game that you can’t go wrong in playing.

Rating: 3/3

See also: TrailerOfficial SiteMore thoughts at Ruminatron5000

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Review: Deus Ex: Human Revolution [3/3]+


   One of 2011’s best.  An impressive game all around.

I’ve never seriously considered playing a Deus Ex game until the day before Human Revolution was released. At the height of the game’s marketing push I finally decided to watch the game’s trailers and was impressed that they were confident enough in their world as to create trailers with zero in game content:

The game itself revolves around Sarif Industry’s chief of security, Adam Jensen, who is trying to uncover who is responsible for a devastating attack on the company’s headquarters.  It is equal parts action/shooting and planning/strategizing.  Jensen is outfitted with augmentations that greatly enhance his ability to fight, hack, and infiltrate.  The player determines what types of augmentations suit their play style and will offer the greatest advantages.  Human Revolution steadily ups the ante of each of the levels that Jensen must negotiate, but they are punctuated by boss battles that are equivalent to arm wrestling matches: the individual with the strongest offensive capability wins.  If you aren’t investing in your offensive abilities, then these could possibly derail your experience and interrupt what is otherwise a great player-drive system.

On the other end of the spectrum are portions of the game where Jensen must persuade or outwit others in conversation.  What makes these interesting is the ambiguity of response types that the player has to choose from.  The player doesn’t simply choose from options that can be categorized by how they appear at face value (e.g. nice, mean, cool, etc.)  They require that the player leverage theory of mind to anticipate how other characters will respond and guide the conversation to a desired outcome.  This may be at odds with what you as a player may feel, and the game sees fit to throw in significant bits of information in the middle of the process.  Some of the most memorable parts of the game for me unfolded during these sequences.  Human Revolution’s dramatic moments can occur as both emergent or scripted events which lend themselves to a consistently entertaining experience.

I’m further impressed not just by how the game itself is constructed but how the experience extends itself beyond the confines of the game.  Like Metal Gear Solid before it, Human Revolution builds a fictional world with enough of reality blended in to engage the player in ways that can color their views of the world.  If you think that’s a stretch then watch this Sarif Industries “advertisement” and then read this news story.  Each section of the game gives the player insight into how augmentations affect people, for better or worse, directly or indirectly.  You can see how real-world themes of scientific advances, corporate ethics, contractors, civil unrest, and technology, come into play.  The player will be challenged to weigh the consequences of arguments from all sides in these matters. As the scale of the overarching conflict broadens, the game puts more pressure on the player to figure out which side they come down on, at the cost of (virtual) human lives.  Even if fictional, players that find themselves engaged in the plot will pause to consider how their in game decisions might reflect on their own real world thought processes.

What separates Human Revolution from the likes of Bioshock or other games that challenge the player to face ethical quandaries is that Human Revolution does a remarkable job of restraining itself from judging the player on their decisions or painting scenarios as being black and white in nature.  There are no good endings or bad endings.  The only thing making them good or bad is how they square with the player’s ethical priorities.  This isn’t to say that the game blindly supports your every decision; on the contrary, it many times will actively challenge you no matter what you decide.  Human Revolution offers the player a world in which they can explore gameplay mechanics that are plainly seen as well as an ethical obstacle course that is quietly laid out through the game and then brought into full view in the game’s final moments.

It’s hard to see Deus Ex: Human Revolution being the game of the year competing with the likes of Modern Warfare, Skyrim, and The Legend of Zelda, but it’s definitely one of the most notable games of 2011 in as far as what it accomplishes as part of the medium of interactive entertainment.

Rating: 3/3 +

See also: TrailerOfficial SiteMore thoughts at Ruminatron5000

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Micro Review: Half Life 2 [3/3]


   Still as much fun as it ever was.

I’m not sure which play-through this was for me, I just remember being reminded that Half Life 2 was a great game, and it still is.  The novelty of the physics puzzles have worn off but that hasn’t done much to damage the pacing of the experience.  HL2 manages to construct an overwhelming atmosphere that always leaves the player wondering “what is going on? I need to know more.”  It all ends rather abruptly and you all but expect a voice to tell you to “tune in next time!”  It was a high point in gaming history, and it’s still quite an enjoyable ride, but I don’t know if I would go as far as to say that, on its own, it’s still a shining example of the what the medium has to offer.

Rating: 3/3

See also: TrailerOfficial SiteMore thoughts at Ruminatron5000

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