Saturday, August 28, 2010

Bioshock 2 DLC update

Just a quick update this time, with a new trailer for the Bioshock 2 DLC "Minerva's Den". Never before have I been so creeped out by a computer.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Disney releases Studio Ghibli's Tales from Earthsea

Walt Disney Studios has been the sole disributor of the Studio Ghibli film series for many years now and have generally put forth good efforts in the English dubbing process. As Ponyo was Disney's 2009 Studio Ghibli release, they have decided to turn back the clock a bit and release Tales from the Earthsea, a film which debuted in Japan in 2006.

Though I honestly know very little about the plot, the film appears somewhat similar in tone to Princess Mononoke, carrying a more teen-oriented focus and taking place in environments reminiscent of old England where dragons and humans coexist. The film was not directed by Hayao Miyazaki but rather his son Goro Miyazaki. The English dub will include voice work from actors Timothy Dalton, Willem Dafoe, Cheech Marin, and Mariska Hargitay. If the past Studio Ghibli releases are any indication of what to expect from Tales of Earthsea, it's a pretty safe bet to assume the film will be fantastic. I'll be certain to post a review of the film once I view it.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Xbox 360/PS3 review: Final Fantasy XIII

As I watched the opening credits to Final Fantasy XIII, I found myself curious as to what all lay in store for me with this game. I had played Crystal Chronicles and Tactics titles in the past, but never before had I actually sat down to play one of the core titles in Square Enix's long-running RPG franchise. First some winged beasts wove their way through a valley, then an airship flew over a city hanging in the sky (at this point I had no proper name to give any of these). And then a gun barrel slowly peeled off to one side of the screen revealing the most detailed and life-like face I had ever seen in any video game. That single moment grabbed my attention like no other and my eyes remained glued to the television screen as I witnessed more highlighted images from Final Fantasy XIII unfold. As the final shots flew over the scenery of Gran Pulse, every single individual pebble visible and the river water clear and shimmering, I realized Square Enix had gone above and beyond any of their previous cutscene works and had hit the jackpot. But video games are not just about pretty graphics and, fingers crossed, I started up a new file on the disc.

Due to the length of the game, it's rather difficult to explain the story in detail without giving much away in terms of spoilers, but I'll try my best. The Fal'Cie are akin to demigods in the world of Final Fantasy XIII and every so often will select humans to carry out deeds on their behalf, often if their status as Fal'Cie prohibits them from directly intervening in matters. The people of the floating continent of Cocoon are constantly fed messages that L'Cie, humans branded by the Fal'Cie are dangerous and will threaten the stability of Cocoon. The Fal'Cie, however, are both praised and feared due to their immense power and hold on the world around them. When Lightning, Snow, Sazh, Hope, Vanille, and Fang are branded by a Fal'Cie, they must determine the focus the Fal'Cie has bestowed upon them. Should the L'Cie fail to complete their focus they are doomed to wander the world as a mindless beast known as a C'ieth, but should they complete their focus successfully the L'Cie will enter a crystal stasis for hundreds of years. Attempting to put their differences aside may not be easy, but it will be necessary if Lightning, Snow, Sazh, Hope, Vanille, and Fang are to fight their focus and seek out another fate.

The initial level players find themselves in at the start of Final Fantasy XIII is teeming with activity. Following Lightning's incursion onboard a train, the purge that was meant to be taking place as a way to hush up the relocation of a Fal'Cie explodes into sheer chaos. Players take control of one or two characters at a time, alternating between the then relative strangers that will soon become the main cast of Final Fantasy XIII. This introductory sequence, so to speak, is meant to familiarize players with the basics of the combat system and moving around the world. With so much occurring right off the start of the game, players might not take notice of the slight graphical decrease in detail from the cutscenes to the actual gameplay. This is a good thing, though, as the difference is very minor and the game still looks beautiful either way.

Final Fantasy XIII is one of the single most time-consuming games I have ever played, and as there are so many inter-weaving stories to be told over its duration, I will not be including any spoilers in this review. That said, just because the game is incredibly lengthy doesn't mean it is boring or tedious in any way. The story delivers a number of incredibly effective plot twists as the six main characters attempt to fight their destiny as L'Cie.

While some of the characters may take time for players to get used to, overall they are very entertaining. Lightning is the hardened soldier who is easily the most combat-capable of the group but has trust issues and isn't overly patient. The fiancee of Lightning's sister Serah, Snow is the no-worries macho hero who sees things as 'the good guys must always prevail', but still has some insecurities that are revealed later in the story. To me, Snow came across as more shallow than the other five lead characters and a tad annoying, but I wouldn't go so far to say that he is a downright terrible character. Sazh is the eldest of the six L'Cie and a constant source of cleverly-scripted ironic humor, and his struggle between keeping things lighthearted and his desire to take certain matters very seriously creates an interesting internal conflict. As the youngest member of the main cast, Hope does plenty of self-discovery and though he is quite timid from the start, he finds strength within himself as the story progresses. Filling a similar role as that of Sazh (though notably younger), Vanille constantly tries to avoid conflict among the L'Cie and keep everyone's spirits up. While she initially came across as incessantly annoying, Vanille was easily my favorite character by the game's conclusion, in large part due to how much deeper a role she plays in the game's events than is initially let on. Fang, a member of the same Pulse tribe as Vanille (though quite a few years older than the bright-spirited teen), plays the Pulse counterpart of Cocoon-born Lightning, in that she is a tried-and-true hunter and incredibly combat-capable, albeit in unorthodox styles.

While the handful of side characters are constantly recurring, they are quite well-rounded and each play a significant role in the game's plot. Yaag Rosch and Cid Raines provide important trials that the L'Cie must overcome, but challenge the L'Cie's way of thinking, presenting arguments neither those of the L'Cie, the citizens, or the Fal'Cie, finding their own beliefs for fighting. Jihl Nabat is one of the few minor characters with whom I was not particularly impressed, mostly due to her minimal involvement in the plot. Serah, Dajh, and the (occasionally obnoxious and JRPG-stereotypical) Nora group provide motivation for the L'Cie to press onward.

The combat system allows players to have three party members in play for the majority of the game's battles. There are six classes that can be assigned to the characters, though each character will only be able to access three preset classes until about twenty hours into the game, at which point each character has access to all six classes and players can level up attributes as they choose via the Crystarium. The commando class is the equivalent of a basic soldier, while the ravager is the equivalent of a mage. The medic and sentinel classes are defense-based, with the former focusing on physical health and the latter focusing on shielding/protecting part members. The syngerist role provides assistance to offense-based classes, causing chain gauges to refill more quickly and increasing the amount of damage weapons can inflict. The saboteur role (which I personally used the least of the six) focuses on taking down the defensive capabilites of an enemy and rendering said enemy more vulnerable to the attacks of the commando and ravager classes. The actual combat itself is very fluid, though a certain level of involvement is lost with the auto-battle system. Players can choose a series of attacks of their own accord, but auto-battle will almost always choose the strongest and most appropriate moves for the battle. Still, Final Fantasy XIII's combat system is leaps and bounds above that of many other RPGs and while it might be unorthodox, it certainly maintains the game's fast-paced action style. Switching back and forth between the various combinations is intuitive and simple, as players need only access the paradigm shift menu in the midst of battle to select the combination that best suits the situation at hand. The camera angle, surprisingly, presents little problem as it auto-corrects itself in the incredibly rare event that it should choose a less-than-desireable angle while rotating around the battlefield.

The enemies players find themselves facing down progress in a traditional style, giving players easy kills and subsequent crystogen point rewards early on, and increasing both the difficulty and variety of foes as players explore new areas. Some enemies reward players with bonus items that can be used to upgrade weapons and accessories. The boss fights become increasingly challenging, and while some are much harder to beat than others, not a single one is reliant on luck. Rather, the game requires players to use a trial-and-error process to figure out what paradigms/party members are best situated for each boss battle.

Every so often players will be required to face an Eidolon in battle, generally when the characters hit an emotional brick wall. Eidolons are mechanized beings brought forth from the L'Cie's focus and players must face them down in order to advance the plot. Unlike most battles, players are given a short time period to defeat the Eidolons and are not rewarded with crystogen points or items following a victory. Rather, players can summon the Eidolons to aid them in battle when necessary. However, on the rare ocassions that I actually called upon an Eidolon, I found them to be overall rather weak offensively and better fit for taking on grunt Psicom troops than dealing damage to bosses - strange, considering the epic intro the Eidolons receive any time they are summoned to battle. Thankfully half of the Eidolon battles are dealt with relatively early on in the game, while the other three make their appearances after the twenty-hour mark.

While the majority of the game's events take place on Cocoon, a large section of the game has players venture to the lowerworld of Gran Pulse. I won't spoil any specifics in regard to the story, but I will say that the environments of Gran Pulse are much more open and free. Players can choose to advance the main story or take a break and tackle the many side-missions scattered about Gran Pulse. While this does allow players to earn rewards and crystogen points through battling Pulse beasts and completing trials, this option is only granted to the player in one of the game's thirteen chapters. Granted, said chapter is the longest of the thirteen (regardless of whether players attempt to tackle the side-missions or not), but it would have been nice for Square Enix to have spread the side-missions across the entirety of the game as to make them seem like less of a chore in piling them all on at once.

The soundtrack fits the game's events like no other. The strings and woodwinds carry moving and flowing parts while accompanying the more soft moments in the story, while powerful sounds from the brass and percussion convey accompany various boss fights. There are a few select pieces that try to incorporate a more techno-inspired sound, and I found these to be a mixed bag with some, such as "Test of the L'Cie" working cohesively with the rest of the soundtrack, and others, such as "Snow's Theme" seeming a bit out of place. Each piece is brilliantly orchestrated, however, and my feeling that some pieces feel out of place is a personal nitpicking more than critique of quality of the soundtrack. Regardless, the soundtrack that accompanies Final Fantasy XIII is one of the best of any video game ever as far as I'm concerned.

With Final Fantasy XIII being my first impression of the core Final Fantasy games, I can honestly say that it was an utterly phenomenal experience. The game isn't perfect and suffers a bit from its attempts to experiment with the RPG formula, but the story is very intriguing, the characters varied and incredibly entertaining, the wide variety of environments presented through incredible attention to detail, and the gameplay of some of the highest caliber. Final Fantasy XIII is an RPG and a very long one at that, so those who have little patience will likely struggle to enjoy this title to its fullest extent. For those willing to put forth the time and effort in playing this wonderfully imaginative game from start to finish, I can guarantee it will be an RPG experience like no other.

My rating: 9.5 (out of 10)

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

PS2 review: Dragonball Z Budokai Tenkaichi 2

Dragonball Z Budokai Tenkaichi 2 is one of the best DBZ games released for the Playstation 2. However, while it is a decent enough fighting game, there are some issues with the controls and levels of play difficulty. Though load times are relatively short, the fact that each individual mission needs to load before players can commence it becomes annoying fairly quickly. Players are given the option to tackle each mission under three degrees of difficulty and are able to replay these at their leisure, so if a player decides that level one difficulty was too easy on a certain mission they can go back and replay it on the level two difficulty setting. However, this isn't likely to happen to many players, save perhaps for longtime fans of the Budokai series, as the three levels of difficulty are incredibly unbalanced. Level one comes off as far too easy, and after a short time with it even newcomers will feel that level one difficulty is a cakewalk. From there, one would expect level two to provide a decent challenge and level three to be for hardcore Budokai fans who have spent hours upon hours mastering the game's specifics. This is not the case, however, as level two will deliver a serious beating to anyone who attempts to take it on. Enemies on level two difficulty give players practically no time to dodge or block attacks, unleashing a most unforgiving barrage upon them. Even if players manage to hold up a block against the CPU, there's little guarantee that the CPU won't charge up its attack enough to break through the block and then render the player immobile long enough to continue the aforementioned assault. With that in mind, it's highly unlikely that many gamers will choose to even attempt level three, as the majority of level two missions have only a marginal success rate.

The fact that this is a fighting game means that players can expect to be using the same controls over and over again. However, there a number of variations on these basics that can be achieved by holding the joystick up, down, left, or right while performing an attack to get a slightly different punch, kick, or beam attack. Players can charge up their energy with the L2 button. When fully charged, their character will be able to unleash physical attacks without pause for a brief time frame, or unleash the energy in the form of a much stronger beam or rush attack. If a player is knocked around hard enough, they will be temporarily rendered immobile and must recover by repeatedly pressing the circle button. This isn't a bad recovery system, but the circle button is so out of the way in the basic control scheme that a rotating a joystick or pressing one of the trigger buttons would have been much more fluid and practical. While each character has the same basic set of attacks, there are some slight differences that make them distinctly different in their play style. For example, Piccolo can reach over twice the distance of most characters with his grab-and-toss attack, first form Cell can sap health from his foes while grabbing them, and Super Buu can release an energy wave around himself that also acts as a self-destruct giving players the option to gamble with Buu's remaining health in order to take down their opponent(s).

In regards to the characters included in Dragonball Z Budokai Tenkaichi 2, there are over 120 playable, and a handful that merely show up in the single player adventure mode for the sake of the story. The majority of these characters are from DBZ, though there are a number of guest inclusions from Dragonball and Dragonball GT. Initially, players are granted use of the original Z fighters, and while this allows for a decent balance of play styles, advancing through the single player mode will result in the unlocking of more greatly varied characters and play styles. While one might think this would ultimately litter the multiplayer character roster, the fact is that each different form of the various DBZ characters is considered to be a separate character, and said different forms can be accessed from a single push of a button while hovering over a character's picture icon. So while there are technically 120+ characters to choose from, players should keep in mind that Goku, Super Sayin Goku, SS2 Goku, and SS3 Goku count for four out of those 120+.

The main story mode is every DBZ fanboy's (and fangirl's) dream. Players can advance through every story from Dragonball Z, beginning with the Sayin Saga and ending with Goku's final showdown with Kid Buu. Most of the films and specials see inclusion, though Broly's inclusion is only that of his first film. While it is a riot to play through the Freiza Saga, Android Saga, and Cell Games, the films and some of the lesser story arcs get kicked to the curb and see the same battlefield reused time and time again. A prime example would be Bojack Unbound, wherein players fight a half-dozen matches against Bojack and Zangya on the same battlefield. However, a few of the film story arcs, including Super Android 13 and Cooler's Revenge only include a handful of matches and wrap up quickly enough that it doesn't seem nearly as mind-numbingly repetitious.

Aside from the main story mode, players can compete in tournaments to earn in-game money, advance through a series of battle to level up characters, and engage in duels against the CPU or a second player. The difficulty levels in these modes make a lot more sense in regards to balance than those in the single player mode, though sometimes the hardest difficulty in duel mode can be surprisingly easy. Players can use Z fusion to give their characters health and attack bonuses in the style of an RPG, and can visit the store to buy and sell various upgrades or items.

The art style hides many of the PS2's graphical limitations from the time of DBZ Budokai Tenkaichi 2's release by giving everything a cel-shaded look. Overall this both makes the game look better and maintains a similar feel to the anime. The soundtrack is completely original, and while it doesn't use any pieces from the show's original soundtrack, it's all very fitting to the game just the same. The majority of the voice actors from the Funimation English dub provide the voices of their respective characters in the game, so players can expect the same voice acting - which, in my opinion, is top-notch. However, players are able to switch to the Japanese voice actors if they desire.

Dragonball Z Budokai Tenkaichi 2 is easily one of the best Dragonball Z games as well as one of the more solid anime-based games released to date. A huge roster of playable characters, fluid game mechanics, and a variety of game types makes it a solid fighting game. Inclusions like the Z Fusion and level-up system make the game more player-driven and interactive. It isn't a perfect game and DBZ Budokai Tenkaichi 2's shortcomings stick out like a sore thumb amidst everything the game accomplishes well, but it's incredibly enjoyable and carries much of the anime's charm and excitement.

My rating: 7.75 (out of 10)

Friday, August 13, 2010

"The market is patient, and we must be too"

Following hot on the heels of the release of 2K's Protector Trials DLC, more Bioshock-related news has arrived in a very big way. In the Protector Trials, among the various other unlockables, is a concept art gallery for an area known as Minerva's Den. This area was not included in the original disc of Bioshock 2, and will be released as narrative-driven DLC. Players assume control of a never-before-seen Big Daddy who is helping Tennenbaum to take out some VIP in Rapture's central computing area. This new Big Daddy looks uncannily similar to the statues seen late in the events of Bioshock 2's main story. Whatever the inevitable outcome of this new DLC, it's nice to see that 2K is wrapping up some loose ends from Bioshock 2, particularly in regards to Tennebaum.

Even bigger news is the announcement by Irrational Games of the 2012 release of Bioshock Infinite, which puts players in control of a Pinkerton agent named Booker DeWitt in the year 1912. DeWitt has infiltrated Columbia, a floating city in the sky, in order to rescue a woman named Elizabeth. It appears supernatural abilites similar to the plasmids will play a major role in gameplay. While Columbia carries a much brighter art style than the decaying undersea city of Rapture, footage from the teaser trailer suggests things are not all fine and dandy in Columbia. Propoganda posters and American flags are everywhere and Booker DeWitt finds himself being tossed around frequently by a mechanized being (who is an obvious nod to the Big Daddies of Rapture). A lot of what has been presented thus far of Bioshock Infinite looks strikingly different than that of the previous two Bioshock titles, but also wildly intruiging, as (in my opinion) the Bioshock series is easily one of the best for this generation of consoles.

Teaser trailer for Bioshock Infinite:

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Anime Update #3: "I'll take a potato chip... AND EAT IT!!!"

The second intro theme to Death Note is beyond annoying. I really can't stand the sound of death metal or thrash metal in the first place, but this song embodies everything obnoxious about the genre. That aside, the series is shaping up to be pretty good. It's not as perfect as many people have expressed (at least, in my opinion) but it is easily one of the best mainstreamed anime in recent years. I'm about two-thirds of the way through the series and I will post a review of it once I've completed Death Note, but for the time being I'm going to take a little break from the series as I feel that I've been rushing through it more to finish it than actually taking time to savor the series.

Mush-Shi is shaping up to be fantastic and I'm only through the first seven episodes. I've been watching this series with large gaps between each episode and it's paying off through how much I genuinely enjoy the series' odd charms. The Pillow Pathway was an absolutely phenomenal episode, as were the first two episodes of the series. Even episodes I felt were notably weaker than the rest, such as Those Who Inhale the Dew, are much better than that of many other anime. Expect a review of this series sometime in early Fall, but no sooner than that as I really want to take my time and enjoy this series.

As for one of my longtime favorite franchises, It's been about a month since I finished watching Gundam Wing. I've watched three episodes of After War Gundam X and it's a very interesting spin on an old formula that I hope keeps the series going strong. I still haven't picked up from where I left off in Zeta Gundam and the reason for that is that I intend to pick up the DVDs in the Fall because of of much I loved what I saw of the series so far. I might pick back up on MS Igloo with Apocalypse 0079. I have considered a few times in picking up the DVD of Gundam F91, but if I do so it will be with the intent of starting Victory Gundam directly thereafter (and as I stated in a previous post, Victory Gundam will likely be one of the later Gundam series I watch). SEED Destiny is the only series I'm not looking much forward to, but I may choose to complete that by the end of this year as well, seeing as how I've already knocked three major Gundam series out of the way before July.

I'm definitely going to pick up season one of Axis Powers: Hetalia when it hits store shelves this September. I'm also considering picking up Eden of the East along with it, as that series comes out only a week or two later. I'm eager to pick up season two of Full Metal Alchemist, as season one was near perfect, but at the same time I don't want to rush through the series. When I do get around to picking season two up, however, it will likely be with Conqueror of Shamballa in the same purchase.

I started Macross Frontier a while back and never got very far in it. That's not to say that it wasn't entertaining, as it was very much so, but it kind of got put on the backburners (so to speak) in favor of Death Note, 009-1, and and Mushi-shi. As I've mentioned in the past, there are a number of older anime films and series I have yet to watch, such as Cowboy Bebop, Ghost in the Shell, and Akira. I feel like these are all a sort of "I'll get to them when I get to them" sort of a situation, as they all look good, but I'm in no real rush to complete them either.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

XBLA review: Hydro Thunder Hurricane

For those who played Hydro Thunder as either an arcade racer or console game on the Dreamcast and N64, a second entry has been released exclusively for the Xbox Live Arcade. New developer Vector has taken over for Midway and added a bit of their own spin on things while maintaining the overall feel of the original title. Hydro Thunder Hurricane will run players 1200 Microsoft Points to download the full game.

The mechanics of Hurricane are largely the same as those of its predecessor. The default control scheme places the throttle at the right trigger and the boost at the 'A' button, though the controls can be changed to various configurations via the options menu. There are three boats for each class of difficulty, and with three classes of difficulty (novice, pro, and expert) players are granted use of nine total boats, each with its own positive and negative attributes. Certain boats are aimed at players who wish for a more balanced ride, while others put greater emphasis on speed or handling while sacrificing other aspects. The slide effect that the water has on the boats may take a little time for players to get used to and the ocassional big wave can toss boats quite a distance, but these become very minor annoyances once players get the hang of the game.

There are a total of eight tracks to choose from, each with obvious inspirations from the original game. Each track looks phenomenal with a perfect balance of stylized elements and realism - the lighting effects in particular outshine those in many full disc games (no pun intended). Scattered along the track are boost canisters which - as their name implies - grant players a limited amount of boost. The more of these players collect, the longer their boost will last. Players can also use the boost to jump to higher areas of the courses in order to find shortcuts or snag some of the hidden packages hidden on each course. Also found on most courses are switches which, when activated, open secret passageways or ramps to areas otherwise unreachable by a boost jump alone.

Hydro Thunder Hurricane has an incredible amount of replay value. Aside from the standard races, players can take part in gauntlet runs and ring challenges on each individual course. The gauntlet runs are largely the same as the standard race, but test players for individual time instead of placement as they navigate the course, avoiding explosive barrels along the way. The ring challenges also test players on time as they navigate their boat through rings that become smaller with each increased level of difficulty. Missing a ring will add an extra one to three seconds to the player's overall time ranking. Championship challenges stack a number of races, gauntlet runs, and ring challenges in a row and tally up the player's overall ranking (and respective point reward) at the conclusion of the combined races/challenges. Online play is included and players can go head to head with other racers to compete for the top three spots and a subsequent reward in points added to their overall score. Local/splitscreen matches pit four racers against CPU racers in a fairly straightforward multiplayer take on the traditional race mode.

As mentioned earlier, players are awarded points for winning gold, silver, and bronze trophies in the game's various events. Racking up a certain amount of points will unlock different races, challenges, though not in the most straightforward manner. In this way, the game attempts to force players to mix things up a bit by unlocking gauntlet and ring challenges in between each new track. Players can either play through these to earn more points or stick with the traditional races, using the different boats to earn more in rewards. Online play will also merit gamers a nearly limitless amount of point rewards, presuming players can finish in first, second, or third place.

Hydro Thunder Hurricane doesn't change much from the formula laid down years ago by the original Hydro Thunder, but that works almost entirely to the game's advantage. The gameplay is smooth and solid but still poses a decent challenge to players. A variety of play styles were kept in mind with the varying strengths and weaknesses of each boat. Players who wish to go the extra mile and complete each challenge with gold trophies in each event and find all hidden packages to unlock new paint jobs for each boat will find themselves with a tall (though not impossible) order to fill, while more casual gamers will find this title easy enough to jump into and enjoy. I was initially concerned that the price tag might be too steep for the game, but ultimately 1200 Microsoft Points is perfect for Hydro Thunder Hurricane.

My rating: 9 (out of 10)

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

DLC review: Bioshock 2 Protector Trials

Following hot on the heels of Bioshock 2’s Rapture Metro Map Pack, 2K has released the Protector Trials, a series of single player challenges that require the player to protect a Little Sister from waves of splicers as she extracts ADAM from a corpse. There are six distinctly different levels to choose from, and each level has three challenges to complete, for a grand total of eighteen challenges. Here’s the catch: players are only granted use of a predetermined set of weapons, plasmids, and occasionally tonics to use on any given challenge. With a variety of different combinations the game allots the player, no two challenges will play out quite the same.

Each challenge is built off a preexisting area in the main single player game of Bioshock 2, though slightly retooled for the Protector Trials. None of the Protector Trial challenge areas will see as drastic a change as their multiplayer map counterparts, but elements of the environment are moved around for the sake of providing cover for both the player and the splicers, making trap placements more practical, and making vending machines and health stations more accessible. The Protector Trials maintain much of the main game’s eerie charm, as pieces from both original and licensed soundtrack start up over Rapture’s loudspeakers each time a trial is commenced.

While players are not granted any money at the start of a trial, they can rack up funds quickly by killing off enemies. Since looting bodies for ammo and money is no longer necessary, it makes the trials a lot more fast-paced and fluid. Also, the longer a Little Sister goes uninterrupted in removing ADAM from a corpse, the higher the ADAM reward a player receives.

As previously mentioned, there are three challenge styles for each area, designated by a number of stars for its degree of difficulty. These use the same layout, but change up the weapons and plasmids a player can use from the previous iteration of the same trial. For instance, the first trial on Atlantic Express Train Upkeep has players using the hack tool, machine gun, security command 2 plasmid, and handyman tonic, the second trial has players using the rivet gun, grenade launcher, spear gun, electro bolt plasmid, cyclone trap 2 plasmid, decoy 2 plasmid, and armored shell tonic, and the third trial has players using the drill, insect swarm plasmid, and armored shell, drill vampire, and drill power tonics. The types of ammo players are allowed to use is limited as well, with trap rivets and proximity mines in trial two. On occasion, a trial will make further restrictions on the player, such as denying them the ability to earn money to use at vending machines. However, these only come into play in the three star trials and there is always a tradeoff in these instances, such as a considerably larger EVE bar.

Technically the Protector Trials are tied into the overarching story of Bioshock as much as the multiplayer mode is. You play as another Alpha-series Big Daddy and are working along with Tenenbaum in order to extract as much ADAM from corpses around Rapture and slow the progress of Sofia Lamb’s Utopian project. In this way, the Protector Trials are essentially a side story to the main events of Bioshock 2. Aside from explaining where Tenenbaum disappeared to after her brief appearance at the start of the game, however, it’s kind of a weak attempt on 2K’s part to tie it into everything else. That said, this aspect has zero effect on gameplay, so it’s a very minor complaint at worst.

For 400 Microsoft points and $4.99 in the Playstation store, the Protector Trials is a fantastic deal, especially in comparison to what some other games charge solely for map packs or new weapons/characters. There is plenty of incentive for player to complete the challenges, as (aside from seven new achievements/trophies) players can unlock concept art galleries, Bioshock 2 trailers, and animatics for content that never made it into the final game. The Protector Trials are an interesting twist on the formula set forth by the gather sections of the main game and provide plenty of challenge for players, requiring them to be strategic in completing each trial.

My rating: 9 (out of 10)*

*(rating applies solely to downloadable content, not its inclusion with the content on the original game disc or other downloadable content)

Monday, August 2, 2010

Funimation announces rights to three films

Just a brief update, but exciting news nonetheless. Funimation has announced that they have acquired the rights to Evangelion 2.22, the DVD release version of Rebuild of Evangelion 2.0: You Can (Not) Advance. Rebuild 2.0 is, in my opinion, easily the best of the Evangelion films released thus far and I can't wait to add it to my collection. As for the actual release date, nothing has been specified other than the fact that it will be a 2011 release. This isn't terribly surprising news, since Funimation put a lot of focus on Axis Powers: Hetalia as their major Fall 2010 release. Considering how things like this tend to work out, I'd wager Rebuild 2.22 will hit US store shelves around late Spring or early Summer 2011.

Speaking of Axis Powers: Hetalia, season two has been confirmed for an October 12 release, following approximately one month after the US release of season one. Funimation has subsequently acquired the rights to dub and distribute the Axis Powers: Hetalia film Paint it White. No news yet on Hetalia World Series, but as the third season is still running in Japan at present I imagine Paint it White is Funimation's way of tiding fans over until then.

Finally, the film Summer Wars has also been acquired by Funimation. I have heard very positive things about this film, though I must admit I know rather little about the plot at present. Summer Wars is from the same team behind The Girl Who Leapt Through Time and Madhouse Studios, responsible for the animation and production on works such as Paranoia Agent, Paprika, and Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Anime review: Mobile Suit Gundam Wing: Endless Waltz

One year after the conclusion of Gundam Wing, the people of Earth and the colonies have adjusted their way of life in the wake of the White Fang vs. Oz conflict. Relena Peacecraft has successfully managed to promote her pacifistic ideals to many groups of people, though not all are convinced of her methods. Thus enters Mariemaia Khusrenada, Trieze’s daughter, who kidnaps Relena and, under the watchful eye of Dekim Barton, intends to continue the cycle of war, peace, and revolution – an endless waltz.

While the setup might sound a bit cheesy, these events are executed in a tense and suspenseful manner that it ends up as very intriguing, latching onto Gundam Wing's 'spy vs. spy' methodology. Though Mariemaia is still a child she is very collected and intelligent, having made accommodations for a number of possible outcomes should the Gundam pilots choose to intervene. Unfortunately Relena doesn’t play much of an important role until the film has neared its conclusion, mainly due to the fact that she is being held hostage from the start.

Mariemaia’s plan to drop a colony onto Earth should they refuse to surrender to her evokes a variety of responses from the Gundam pilots. Quatre and his team decide to chase down the carrier containing the Gundams, as it is currently headed for the Sun, and redirect the carrier’s path back towards Earth. Wufei and Trowa both infiltrate the ranks of Mariemaia’s forces, but with distinctly different initial objectives in mind. Trowa hopes to assassinate Dekim Barton while Wufei sympathizes with Dekim and Mariemaia to an extent. Heero and Duo team up to infiltrate Colony X-18999, with some assistance from Sally Poe and Noin Lucrezia, and have every intention of preventing the colony from falling to Earth. A few characters presumed lost or forgotten during the events of Gundam Wing make returns and add a handful of interesting twists to the plot.

The element that really helps the plot along the most, however, is the inclusion of flashbacks to events preceding the original Gundam Wing. Finally, viewers are able to witness Quatre, Heero, Duo, Wufei, and Trowa before they became Gundam pilots and understand their reasons for taking part in Operation Meteor. These flashbacks provide some much-needed human characteristics to the Gundam pilots, making it easier for viewers to relate and sympathize with them.

On top of the improvements to the story are the improvements from the voice actors. The Japanese cast doesn’t seem as ridiculous or over-the-top as in Gundam Wing, though they still could have benefitted from toning things down further still. But the English voice actors are borderline fantastic this time around. Their performances – in particular, those of the Gundam pilots – are a complete polar opposite of how they portrayed their characters in Gundam Wing and that aids Endless Waltz in a huge way. The combination of greater explanation on the characters backgrounds and the improvements in voice acting strengthen the character-driven story to great extents.

The soundtrack of Endless Waltz is easily one of the best to accompany any Gundam work. The pieces pay tribute to the soundtrack of that of the Gundam Wing series, but are far more complex and fitting to their respective scenes. A variety of sounds ranging from brass, woodwinds, piano, synthesizers, and electric guitar mesh together incredibly. The animation is top-notch and really puts the series to shame due to how great of an improvement Endless Waltz achieved in little over a year between the two. The coloring and lighting effects are phenomenal and a great amount of detail was put into the mobile suits, backgrounds, and characters. Granted, Endless Waltz is a separate OVA/film project, but compared to it the animation in Gundam Wing series looks rather pathetic.

There are a few nitpickings that could be made here and there with Endless Waltz and it’s true that Bandai and Sunrise could have pushed the envelope even further with this project. But despite the fact that Endless Waltz falls short of perfection it is a vast improvement over Gundam Wing. The balance between action sequences and story progression is solid. Things are less convoluted and yet still complex enough to keep the plot tense and entertaining. The characters are given many more human elements while the soundtrack and animation are greatly improved upon. Endless Waltz truly puts the Gundam Wing series to shame and (though there are currently only three released to date) is arguably the best of the standalone Gundam films.

My rating: 8.75 (out of 10)
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