Posts Tagged ‘ Rating: 3/4 ’

Review: Portal 2 [3/4]

I’ve delayed writing this for a while now. Portal 2 is one of the most anticipated games of the year, and will certainly have a lot written about it. So it’s hard to see my own review as anything but redundant by this point. I’ll try to keep it short and sweet.

Portal 2 is what Portal would have been like if Valve knew it would be the runaway success of 2007’s Orange Box collection. This is both a good and a bad thing. Portal 2 is polished to a sheen and fleshes out the world of Aperture Labs enormously. But you can also sense a sort of anxiety about transforming Portal into a triple-A game. Part of the original game’s success was facilitated by riding the wake of Half-Life 2: Episode 2 and Team Fortress 2. Getting those two games for $60 alone was worth the price of admission, and having Portal on top of that was icing on the cake (or a second cake, but the internet tells me that’s not true.) Would people pay $60 only for Portal on its own? This is the hurdle that Portal 2 had to overcome. It’s difficult to overstate how high expectations were for this sequel.

I try not to go into the the cost and value of games when writing reviews, but I want to provide some context so I don’t sound like a nitpicking jerk with my criticism of the game. Primarily, my problem was that the scope was too broad. The single-player campaign fills the triple-A shoes very well, but much of it feels superfluous. By the end of the campaign, I was experiencing Portal fatigue: it was becoming too much work for too little payoff.  It felt like I was retreading puzzles and concepts and waiting for something to happen. The game play was stretched too thin, and the story disposes of the subtlety of its predecessor. What is offered is still quite entertaining, and there were some fantastically memorable moments scattered throughout the game, but I could never shake off the feeling that it would have been better game overall if it had been more constrained. The original was able to work a lot of magic by keeping you on your toes and not giving you much of a chance to reflect on what was going on. In the sequel you will have plenty of time to rest of your laurels, and it has difficulty building the same dramatic momentum.

From the standpoint of game play it’s the cooperative campaign that really shines and is more akin to the original than the single player campaign. Being forced to think about how you would use four portals among two players genuinely adds new dimensions to the game play formula which challenges newcomers and veterans alike. The plot of the cooperative campaign doesn’t have as much of a punch as the single player campaign, but it worked well in keeping us engaged and wondering what was to come, which I would argue is the most important function of a game’s story anyway. Completing cooperative trials feel like great achievements, and having the option to high-five your partner both in and out of game is great. Valve’s creativity is a force to be reckoned with, the cooperative campaign exemplifies that.

Portal 2 is very entertaining game for which fans of the original will not be disappointed. It makes the transition to being a triple-A game quite well and I’m hopeful for more Portal games in the future. Never the less, it doesn’t re-capture the same magic of its predecessor and would have been better served as a smaller package. Perhaps that’s not a fair comparison to make, or an unreasonable expectation. Maybe I’ve already fallen into the line of thinking that “the older games are always better” but playing Portal 2 and constantly thinking back to my original experience Portal leads me to believe the sequel is supplement to the original. It’s good, though not great.

Rating: 3 /4

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Micro Reviews: 2010 Wrap Up

There have been many games I’ve been meaning to review around the end of 2010, and just haven’t been able to sink the time into doing more complete write-ups for them. So I just need to clear the plate and get these out of the way before too much time passes after I had completed them.

Left 4 Dead 2

As was the case with Resident Evil 5, Left 4 Dead 2 is begging for you to play it with friends. Though Left 4 Dead 2 is far more playable by one’s self than RE5 was. In either case, the game excels at keeping  players on their toes. Moving quickly from set piece to set piece, the action is intense to play through, and dramatic to witness. Between the enemy AI and ally AI, the player is given the sense that they are engaged in a chaotic, expansive scenario, rather than just a level in a game. In some levels, the difficulty can tend to spike in a way that really frustrates the pacing. Dialing back the difficulty settings is usually enough to keep the player moving on their way though. Left 4 Dead 2 offers a brand of survival horror that has progressed light years from the tank-like controls and sleep walking zombies of the original Resident Evil.

Rating: 3/4

See also: Trailer, More thoughts at Ruminatron5000

Buy it at Amazon.com, Rent it from Gamefly

Vanquish

Vanquish aims to leave its own unique mark on this generation’s action shooters, which have quickly become some of the most popular console games. Vanquish takes established genre devices (dramatic cut sequences) and game play mechanics (cover based gun play) and injects elements of arcade style twitch action. The player is given a super-suit that enables them to zip around large maps to engage enemies, large and small. However, this twist on the genre feels half-hearted. The super suit relies on an energy meter that steadily depletes whenever you use its rockets, melee attacks, or when bullet-time is enabled. The meter makes it very difficult to use these different abilities in combination, and in fact, the entire meter is depleted after a melee attack is executed. Thus, levels rarely force you to take advantage of these abilities and the game ends up being a sub-par third person action shooter. It has its moments, but neither the game play or presentation are particularly memorable.

Rating: 2/4

See also: Trailer, More thoughts at Ruminatron5000

Buy it at Amazon.com, Rent it from Gamefly

Donkey Kong Country Returns

I did not play a whole lot of SNES games back in the 90s. But one that I did play was Donkey Kong Country. Donkey Kong Country Returns brings the series to the Wii, and sets its sights directly on audiences that played the original games. It attempts to simultaneously evoke a sense of nostalgia while offering a greater challenge to gamers that have been playing platformers for years. DKCR fails on both counts. Part of its original charm lay in just how cool it looked at the time, with pre-rendered 3D graphics. That wow-factor is something that just can’t be recreated at this point. However, the graphical presentation was wrapped around a playground of levels for the audience to explore and enjoy. While the level themes are mostly faithful to their predecessors, the playfulness is frustrated by the game’s elevated challenge. They require a significant amount of memorization and leave little room for error. Small slip-ups early on can dramatically reduce your chances of completing a level, and can take too much time to replay to be truly enjoyable. This would make the game unplayable if it were not for the “Super-Kong” feature which puts the game in auto-pilot. It’s an excuse to make levels mindlessly challenging instead of utilizing thoughtful level design. All DKCR has to offer is a weak sense of nostalgia, which would be served better by just playing the original game instead.

Rating: 0/4

See also: Trailer, More thoughts at Ruminatron5000

Buy it at Amazon.com, Rent it from Gamefly

Micro Review: Kirby’s Epic Yarn [3/4]

I’ve struggled to come up with what I want to say about this game. At first glance, Epic Yarn appears to be a simple game styled for children. They will certainly enjoy it, but that shouldn’t stop adults from enjoying it as well. Kirby’s Adventure is one of the earliest games I’ve playing (almost 18 years ago now.)  I still remember it fondly, and picked up the Game Boy Advance re-release a few years ago.  I had never really played any other Kirby games aside from that (and Kirby’s Pinball), but with all the good reviews for Epic Yarn, I thought it would be a good opportunity to put the Wii to use. My first impression of the game was that I was far too old for it. Epic Yarn makes Kirby’s Adventure look relatively mature in comparison. But the game’s charm is difficult to resist.

The presentation of the game, and the feedback it provides, is pitch perfect. It’s just a lot of fun to bounce around the levels as Kirby. There is no risk of getting a game over, but the tension in trying to avoid game play failure is replaced with the tension over the possibility of failing to meet your own expectations. Every level offers a large number of beads you can collect which collect in a meter in the corner of the screen. If you are hurt by an enemy then all of the beads explode away from Kirby and will disappear after a few seconds if you fail to collect them again. So, the objective of the game isn’t merely to complete it, but to excel with the game mechanics the player is given.  It does an amazingly effective job at just letting you have fun.

The chief complaint that I have with the game is that the challenge can feel shallow after you’ve begun to master the controls. There are definitely sections of the game that make it very hard to hold onto the beads you have accumulated, but it’s difficult not to start imagining how the game would be even more satisfying with levels that offer complex puzzles or challenging acrobatics. As opposed to weak game play being stretched too thin, Epic Yarn offers strong game play that you will wish you had more opportunities to further master.  It’s otherwise well paced between platforming, boss battles, and “vehicle” modes that give Kirby special powers in a way that’s more like earlier Kirby games.

Epic Yarn offers a uniquely cohesive and imaginative experience.  The game’s yarn physics and logic make an absurd sort of sense, and provides instantly satisfying feedback.  It’s sickeningly adorable, and it will make you feel like you should be seven years old while playing. But it’s hard not to get into it.  While it is presented as one of the most laid back games ever made, you will still be nervously clutching the controller as you make your way through levels.  It’s definitely one of the best titles for the Wii this year, and a very memorable game overall.

Rating: 3/4

See also: Trailer, More thoughts at Ruminatron5000

Buy it at Amazon

Rent it at Gamefly

Review: Chrono Trigger [3/4]

The label “greatest game of all time” gets tossed around a lot in the gaming community; too often for it to be meaningful, but the sentiment is sincere.  Chrono Trigger is among those games classified as the “greatest of all time.” It is certainly one of the best that the jRPG genre had to offer on the SNES, but what can be said about its merits beyond simply just fond memories of a bygone era in gaming history? Does Chrono Trigger have anything to offer that can’t be provided more effectively by today’s games? I believe it still does. I only played the game for the first time after completing Chrono Cross almost 10 years ago now. It was time in console RPGs when full motion video and complex combat systems dominated the genre. But Chrono Trigger still outshined most of these games and provides a compelling model for the genre today.

Chrono Trigger puts the player in the shoes of a silent protagonist named Crono. He is characterized by the facts that he 1) lives with his mom, 2) likes swords, 3) and he’s excited to be going to the local fair. Life for Crono is turned on its head when he and his brainy friend Lucca accidentally discover that one of her inventions can be used to travel through time. The pair, along with Crono’s new friend Marle, jump from period to period getting into, and out of trouble. It’s a basic formula that you’ve probably seen played out in any number of movies and TV shows that deal with time travel. But eventually, the trio stumble across a post-apocalyptic future. They manage to uncover records of the day that the world ended and uncovered the culprit: a monster named Lavos. Naturally, they feel compelled to try and use time travel to stop this from happening, and the game follows them in their pursuit to save a future which they technically will never live to see.

CT’s game play model is similar to that of Final Fantasy IV’s. For most of the game the player must complete a series of levels with a predetermined party of characters. Each character carries with them a distinct collection of abilities to aid the party in battle. As the player navigates the map they will be confronted by monsters and other enemies which triggers the combat interface. Characters draw their weapons and wait for their action gauge to fill up. Where CT expands on FFIV’s model is in the coordination between characters to create new techniques from innate abilities. The party isn’t just a couple of characters with prescribed roles to play, they represent a unit that has unique abilities for that combination of characters.   The player really does get a sense that they are working together towards a common goal, and aren’t just interchangeable pawns.

The main campaign is a polished, but limited package which the player can take or leave. As far as linear, story driven games go Chrono Trigger is definitely one of the most memorable. Over the space of roughly twenty hours, the player will explore five periods in time and amass up to seven party members. The tone of the story can go from being cute and amusing to surprisingly serious science fiction. It is also a game that is very successful at channeling and twisting the player’s expectations. On its face, it is a simple game, but the depth of its world can push the player’s imagination past what’s immediately on the screen.

The game play mechanics serve the story and characters well, but they are narrow in scope. CT is a very story driven game, and if the player buys into its world and characters (it’s hard not to) then the game play adds a compelling dimension to the experience. If the player doesn’t get hooked, then the game play will be novel, but not worth completing the game for. There are several points in the game that draw heavily from the player’s actions, but when it comes to combat it is more difficult to play a role beyond selecting the composition of the party and which techniques the player sees to be effective. That being said however, the difficulty curve throughout the campaign never requires for the player to “grind” for levels. You only need to grind if you want to unlock more techniques for characters that you have not used regularly in the campaign.

Chrono Trigger presents a cohesive and compelling experience that has endeared it to a generation of gamers. Built by a “dream team” of developers, producers, composers, and writers from the Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest teams, Chrono Trigger is a gem of a game that can still hold it’s own today. Perhaps not with the same luster it did during the SNES era, but it’s still a game that designers would be well served to study. I’ve enjoyed returning back to its world 10 years later, and find it very accommodating even now for a jRPG.

Rating: 3/4

See Also: TrailerMore thoughts at Ruminatron5000

Buy it at Amazon

Rent it at Gamefly

Review: Red Dead Redemption [3/4]

If you’ve ever played the iconic Oregon Trail, then chances are that you fondly remember naming characters after your friends, having them become ill with dysentery, burying them with a tombstone reading “Here lies butt face”, shooting buffalo for half an hour, then wrapping up the whole ordeal by wrecking your wagon as you ford a river.

Or maybe that was just me.

In any case, Oregon Trail provided a lot of neat little “what if” scenarios to play around with in your mind. Red Dead Redemption is barking up the same tree. Upon disembarking from the train, I (as John Marston) proceeded to the convenience store where upon hitting what I thought was the “Hi there” button, I ended up hitting the “Pistol whip the sucker” button. The controls were going to be complex, but I knew at that moment that the potential for entertainment was going to be great.

The game is structured passively. John Marston has a destination or a goal, but the audience isn’t prodded or rushed towards it with the same urgency as a game like Bioshock would do. It is very open ended but there’s always a good sense of where you are and what you’re doing as the story progresses. At some points, the game could have used stronger signalling to indicate what the player needs to do to continue the story, but overall the amount of breathing room the player is given is well appreciated.

This breathing room works as well as it does because of the incredible aesthetics of the environment and organic nature of surrounding events and actors. Had the entire story been removed, in favor of free form exploration, RDR would have suffered little for it. The world is rich with detail and realized in a way like few others have. Characters and back story are just icing on the cake.  They are believable (for the most part), voice acted well, and are fairly well written for what they are.

Occasionally, the story is dragged out. The game play revolving around some of these points of the story become exceedingly repetitive and definitely lose their luster by the end of campaign in Mexico. It can end up feeling like game filler that serves only to demonstrate explicitly that there is a beginning, middle and end to the game, but it is unnecessary. The amount of effort required to complete the story’s tasks are more often not worth the rewards that follow.  Plot points are repeated often, and plot development is sporadic.  It wasn’t unpleasant, but easily forgotten.  The world is thoroughly convincing while you are in it, but it’s not a game that sticks with the player afterwards.

RDR’s most memorable moments come the unstructured time spent in between story segments. In addition to many “what if” scenarios (where you may be tempted to create mischief, hunt, or otherwise “get ahead” in the game) there are many times when the game will sporadically challenge the player. Animals can attack, people will try to trick you, or plead for your help. These are mostly optional. There are rewards, but it’s not as if you need to meet a quota to progress through the game. The player can enjoy them for their own merits where and when they see fit, and however they might please. If someone suspicious were to approach you in the wilderness pleading for help, nothing will stop you from drawing a gun and scaring the person off. Or you could wait and see what he wants, and wait to react. And you can take a more vicious course of action and kill the person on the spot, loot their cash, and take off since no one saw you do it.

The world of Red Dead Redemption is immersive in that there’s very little feeling of restriction, as well as many opportunities to explore and interact with the game world. I can’t speak to its historical accuracy, but it is convincing enough to stimulate the player’s imagination about that period. The complexity of the controls is initially daunting. Even just running requires repeated button presses, so it can be easy to become overwhelmed when coordinating between several different actions in quick succession. And when the context of the controls changes (e.g. during duels) you can find yourself fumbling awkwardly to best your opponent. It can really break the momentum of the game.

RDR’s parallels to a game like Oregon Trail lie in both having similar themes (adventures into the wilderness) as well as the freedom for the player to make the story something of their own. RDR’s narrative is clearly defined, but what occurs in between scripted sequences may offer even more on the whole.  It’s a beautiful game to roam around in.  It shares the same calm satisfaction that Shadow of the Colossus exuded.  But it also has the capacity throw you into  danger in the blink of an eye.  The underlying combat mechanics hold up well in making gun fights as immersive as the rest of the game.   If you’ve got any inclination to play a western themed game, or simply enjoy a game with a good sense of spontaneity and freedom, then it is hard to go wrong with Red Dead Redemption.

Rating: 3/4

See Also: TrailerMore thoughts at Ruminatron5000, The Red Dead Redemption Short Film

Buy it at Amazon

Rent it at Gamefly

Review: Limbo [3/4]

I was initially hesitant to pick up Limbo, fearing that it was either going to be A) too short, or B) too artsy-fartsy to be enjoyable.  The bitter after-taste of Braid was lingering in my mind.  I still downloaded the demo and found that the initial level was incredibly nerve-wracking for such a simple looking game.  It was enough to convince me to pay for the full game.  I had known that the player deaths could be gruesome, but Limbo adds a layer to that which is even more unsettling.  The boy controls almost whimsically as you smoothly move through the environments and jump through the air.  Contrasting this with the brutality of the different ways you can die gave those deaths more impact, and the visual contrast of light and dark made it stand out in ways that would go entirely unnoticed in a fully colored and three-dimensional world.

That feeling was stronger during the initial levels of the game but seemed to dissipate later on as the focus shifted more towards puzzles than danger.  The puzzles were clever yet they don’t bring you to the brink of madness as they did with Braid though (which is a good or a bad thing depending on how you felt about Braid).  Platforming elements are mixed into the game’s challenges very well, and I was on my toes from beginning to end.  It doesn’t take a great deal of time to complete, which can make it a tough sell at $15.  But as a result of brevity, it doesn’t overstay its welcome.  There’s no filler in between interesting portions of the game.  And given the choice, I’d rather spend 2 hours enjoying good level design rather than 65 mediocre hours with just a few memorable moments (Final Fantasy XIII still has me irritated in that regard).  Save for a couple of exceptionally tricky puzzles the game flows very well.  It’s easy to just pick up and play from beginning to end.

There is no narrative to the game other than the Xbox Live description and what you can infer from the events and environments of the game.  It can be fun to attach a story to a game, but a half-hearted story is almost not worth telling in the first place.  Instead, Limbo focuses on keeping your interest based on level design.  It would have been helpful to have some sort of introduction to how grabbing and moving objects worked (I’m sad to say that the beginning of the game had me stumped for a good part of 10 minutes) or perhaps a more intuitive way to accomplish that.  There are a couple of other elements that are not immediately obvious, which will lead to a couple frustrating scenarios.  Otherwise, Limbo takes the route that most early console games had to take: game play had to be intuitive and interesting without text or cut scenes moving you along.  And it does a pretty good job of this.  Limiting the narrative elements also kept Limbo from trying to dump a message on the audience, something that usually turns me off to a lot of independent games.

Like Braid, Limbo is an interesting game to have on your virtual shelf.  It’s easy for you, or anyone else that picks up the controller, to jump into a macabre adventure without having to already be immersed in gaming culture or knowledge of gaming genres.  Oddly enough, I can see the game as conversation piece for guests (think like books you’d keep on a coffee table).  You know, if you entertain the kind of guests that aren’t put off by violence and death.  Never the less, it is still more approachable than Braid.  If you’re the only one that’s going to be playing it, then Limbo is not the greatest value at $15.  But based on its merits, it is a good game that’s worth picking up if you’ve got the extra cash.

Rating: 3/4

See Also: TrailerMore thoughts at Ruminatron5000

Buy it at the Xbox Live Marketplace

Review: Deadly Premonition [3/4]

Deadly Premonition is not a game that’s beautiful to look at.  It’s not exactly fun to play.  And it’s not very scary either.  However, it is a bizarre little story about an FBI agent with a dual personality and a small town with an even more bizarre past.  Deadly Premonition takes it’s cues from the television series Twin Peaks.  In many ways the setup is almost identical: A quirky FBI agent begins an investigation into the murder of a young woman in a remote town in the middle of the woods.  It would sound like the game is a total ripoff of the TV series.  I’m probably not the best person to judge if this is entirely the case: I hadn’t watched the show until I completed the game.  My impression after watching the first season though is that Deadly premonition is a creepy, stalkerish kind of homage to Twin Peaks.  It wants to be Twin Peaks very badly and at the same time it wants to go to the next level as well.  Being a TV show, Twin Peaks had lines which it couldn’t cross in order to maintain its broadcast worthiness.  Deadly Premonition doesn’t have to follow the same rules and delights in jumping across that line frequently.  It turns up the volume and lets loose where Twin Peaks could never go.  It’s for that reason that the game is not simply derivative of the TV show.  It’s a experience that is at times gruesome and terrible but almost always hilarious.

Where the game surpasses the TV show is in the immersion of the audience.  Agent Francis York Morgan isn’t merely quirky, he seems to be downright crazy.  He has an imaginary friend Zach.  Not a tape recorder that he talks into incessantly, York talks into thin air.  Shortly into the game it becomes clear that you are Zach even though you control York as your avatar.  York is very supportive of Zach and will hold friendly conversations with you throughout the game.  York seems to defer control to Zach when it comes to combat, and even praises you for how well you’re shooting.  Being directly addressed by York in a cheap attempt by the game to tell you how to play, York will just shoot the breeze with you and talk about the game or whatever just might catch his attention.  It’s surreal but it endears York to the player when to every other character York just comes off as a wacko.  But even they begin to warm up to York, and Zach too eventually.  This is why I didn’t really mind the shoddy game play and production values, I just wanted to hang out with York as Zach and see what happened.  When things get to be frustrating (with irritating enemies or quick-time events) I didn’t really hold it against the game.  It’s like the same way you don’t hold it personally against a friend when they ask you to help them move a couch.  Sure, it stinks, but it’s not the point of your friendship.  At the same time if York doesn’t endear himself to you then there’s little more that the game is going to have to offer you.  Masquerading as a survival horror, real-time open world game, in the end it is really just about hanging out with York.

What Deadly Premonition has managed to accomplish (intentionally or otherwise) is to take a collection of mediocre ingredients and mix them into something tasty.  You don’t need the best quality ingredients to make an delicious chocolate cake and the finest ingredients won’t do you any good if you don’t follow the correct recipe.  It’s a game that felt unique, and gave me a sense of curiosity in a game that I haven’t had in a while.  It’s by no means perfect, but the game ismore than the sum of its parts.

Rating: 3/4

See Also: Agent York profile trailer

Buy it at Amazon
Rent it at Gamefly

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