Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Xbox 360 review: Transformers: War for Cybertron

War for Cybertron is to the Transformers universe what Arkham Asylum is to the Batman universe: a licensed work that tries its best to hit all the bases for fans without the constraints of being based directly off one specific source material. The result is a game that feels, at its core, like the original 1985 Generation One Transformers, but certainly has an influence from both the IDW War Within comics and Michael Bay's films. And though it tries its hardest to be a love-letter to Transformers fans, it's no stretch of the imagination to say that this game could just as easily ring in new fans to the battle between the Autobots and Decepticons.

The game is split into two campaigns, and while technically the Decepticon campaign takes place first, players are free to choose either story from the moment they pop in the disc. Each mission gives players the option to play as one of three characters, all of whom have different loadouts. The story sets up the break between the two factions of Transformers with Megatron's lust for Dark Energon as he storms a research facility orbiting Cybertron. Led by then-neutral Starscream, the defending forces do their best to stop the Decepticon intruders, but ultimately fail. Impressed that Megatron is actually able to control Dark Energon, Starcream swears his allegiance to the Decepticons and aids Megatron in his assault on Cybertron.

The Autobot story opens with Bumblebee delivering a message to Optimus (who is not yet a Prime). The two hatch a plan with Sideswipe to infiltrate the Decepticon-controlled Kaon prisons to rescue VIP figures in the Autobot forces. Ultimately, this campaign story is about Optimus' reluctant rise to the status of Prime, as he valiantly defends his homeworld along some of the most iconic Autobots in existence.

The campaign gameplay is very linear, requiring players to shoot their way through levels, with sections of vehicular travel and defense of areas interspersed. A three-player online cooperative mode is made available, though no local coop is included. Playing solo through campaign is still enjoyable and challenging, as enemies and the environment both prevent a run-and-gun approach, instead demanding some level of strategic approach. The game's enemy A.I. is pretty well-balanced, considering they generally attack in groups of varying classes, but the ally A.I. leaves something to be desired. It isn't downright terrible, but can prove frustrating on the off chance that the game demands you play defense, as the A.I. partners will tend to stick to one area and chase down enemies with subpar accuracy rates.

Boss fights are presented in a very smart manner. Not only do they dish up a variety on par with the likes of a Legend of Zelda title, they also flow quite naturally with the progression of the story. There are a couple that feel a bit on the easy side, while others present a significantly higher degree of challenge, but never do these feel cheap nor mind-numbingly frustrating.

Competitive online multiplayer presents a variety of modes, all of which are pretty standard for an online shooter (team deathmatch, territorial control, king of the hill, etc.). But just because they cover familiar territory doesn't mean they are any less fun. Players can choose one of four classes, and earn experience points the more they use a class, which in turn unlocks new loadout weapons and abilities. However, players do not have to set loadouts if they wish to be able to use a specific weapon, as these can still be found in strategic locations around any given map. A cooperative mode called Escalation sends waves of enemies that increase in difficulty. Players gain a set number of points for each type of enemy killed, and can spend this on ammo, health, weapon upgrades, and unlock new areas of the map.

There are a lot of weapons at players' disposal, ranging from more traditional assault rifles and snipers to the acquired tastes of the heavier launchers and charge weapons. Each class is also granted secondary abilities, which include the likes of a projected shield barrier, whirlwind melee attack, sentry turrets, and cloaking (to name a few). Not all of the abilities are useable in campaign and multiplayer, but each different one is assigned to a distinct character in Escalation mode, which prove to be quite balanced.

Graphically, there are some shortcomings. Up close, it is quite obvious that some details were shirked on, and the occasional bump-in of textures at a checkpoint can become annoying. The artistic direction of the game demands that levels reflect the mechanical nature of Cybertron, and because of that, players might get sick of seeing varying shades of silver and bronze as they battle their way across the Transformers homeworld. Different classes of enemies are designed to look different so that players know what exactly they are fighting. Brutes are hulking and carry a shield and hammer, snipers are small and scope out the area with long visible laser sights, and cloakers are thin and wiry, charging up their weapons and lighting the area around them. While all this is good with regards to making them stand out from the environment more, the generic soldiers do become boring to look at after a while. The major characters, however, bear designs that pay homage to the 1985 series while maintaining a very alien look that displays the creativity of the team at High Moon Studios. The soundtrack also meshes well with the darker tone of War for Cybertron, though the fanfare it carries across acts as a reminder of the game's Generation One roots.

The events that started the war between the Autobots and Decepticons is largely a grey area, having only been explored in great detail in the IDW comics. So for longtime fans of the franchise, traversing this alien homeworld is a real treat. With regards to the characters, there is quite a variety of personality, and the voice actors really nailed them down to be both entertaining and strong representations of their Generation One counterparts. Longtime Transformers fans will no doubt recognize Peter Cullen as Optimus, and voice actors including Johnny Yong Bosch as Bumblebee, Kari Wahlgren as Arcee, and Steve Blum as Barricade and the narrator all fit the mood of the game perfectly. Plenty of one-liners and scripted conversation on missions keep the classic Transformers atmosphere. Admittedly, though, these can be a bit cheesy at times.

While this game will undoubtedly find its most die-hard of fans within the Transformers community, it leaves itself flexible enough to cater to gamers who may not be as big into Transformers. The campaign will probably last players around ten hours or so, depending on the difficulty setting, but the multiplayer modes present plenty of extra hours of play. A nice balance of things new and old in the franchise, War for Cybertron could certainly teach other developers a thing or two about how to make a good licensed game.

My rating: 8.75 (out of 10)

Monday, June 27, 2011

Anime update #5: Fly Away, Now

I'm placing FMA: Brotherhood at the front of the pack with regards to which anime I most want to watch and finish. I'm a fanboy of the both Brotherhood and the 2003 series, and even if I tried to cut myself off for a while to put greater emphasis on other series, I know it wouldn't last long. That said, I will still be viewing Darker Than Black, season two of Sgt. Frog, and Panty & Stocking at a more casual rate. And since Panty & Stocking only lasts thirteen episodes, it's quite likely that I will actually finish it before I finish FMA: Brotherhood.

There are a number of other episodes that I am in some stage or another of watching. I'm five episodes into The Count of Monte Cristo: Gankutsuou, while I've only completed the first couple of episodes of Hero Tales, Eureka Seven, Nabari No Ou, Samurai 7, and Beck. I don't usually feel that the first episode of any given series is enough to give me a strong feel for what te series as a whole is about, so I will certainly be watching more of each to determine which ones I want to stick with and which are simply not my cup of tea.

Which brings me to another point - series that I have dropped. I really tried to like Lucky Star, but I feel like it sells itself as a comedy when, in reality, it is more of a slice-of-life series. And since there are only a handful of slice-of-life series that I actually enjoy, I find it unlikely that I will continue with Lucky Star. If however, I do choose to pick it back up at some later date, I will of courseprovide a review. I also tried watching and sbsequently dropped Rainbow (which proved far too slow-paced for my tastes), Sengoku Basara (which proved far too ridiculous for my tastes), and Moribito (which suffered from both pacing and vagueness, though that series stands a better chance of being picked back up by me than Lucky Star does).

As far as Gundam is concerned, I'll get back to it when I feel like it. It's not that I've completely abandoned Zeta Gundam or my plans to complete every Gundam series in existence. Rather, I just feel like I need a break for a bit to explore other series and genres; mix things up a bit for both myself as a viewer and you as a reader. I am also considering a rewatch of the first anime series I ever watched, way back in 1999: Ronin Warriors. I will probably do 'In Progress' posts if I choose to go through with that.

On a side note, the trailer for the upcoming Gundam AGE leads me to believe this could be the single worst Gundam series ever. But I will still give it a try when the time comes. Gundam: The Origin, however, sounds far more promising (I am somewhat partial to Universal Century over alternate universe series, generally speaking).

So there you have it. Certainly some ambiguity in this posting, but at least you all know what I am prioritizing for viewing and reviews.

DS review: New Super Mario Bros.

Everything about New Super Mario Bros. is a love letter to fans of old-school NES and SNES Mario titles. The layout of the overworld map, the level progression, and the soundtrack represent the essence of Nintendo's poster boy plumber. Graphically, however, the game aims for a simple, yet polished look, with 3D models filling the side-scrolling levels of the Mushroom Kingdom.

Bowser is dispatched quite early in the game, leaving Bowser Jr. to fill in as the game's main antagonist. Each subsequent battle against this younger Koopa will increase in difficulty, and some environmental hazards can also present greater difficulties. That said, the Bowser Jr. fights only make up about half of all the boss fights in the game, with Monty Mole, Petey Piranha, and others trying to block Mario's path to rescuing Princess Peach. The progression from one level to the next feels very natural in both difficulty and artistic design, and players are granted some freedom in choosing which route they prefer to take in some of the later worlds. It's not all a walk in the park though, as players cannot save the game until they have either completed a tower or castle boss fight, have spent five large coins to unlock a new area, or have completed an entire world. That's not to say that completing any of the following is always going to be incredibly difficult, but some of the later worlds are host to levels that may require a number of trial-and-error runs.

Red mushrooms and fire flowers play out the same as in past Mario games, while the Blue Shell provides protection while Mario is ducking from enemies or traps, the Tiny Mushroom lets Mario run across the top of water and access smaller pipes, and the Giant Mushroom turns Mario gargantuan for a limited time as he smashes through pricks, pipes, and enemies of all sizes. All of these abilities feel very well-balanced and can accommodate to different play styles. If Mario happens to be powered up and encounters a duplicate of the power he currently has, it can still be grabbed and saved for later use. There is only one space to save said items in, which maintains the challenging element of the game. Players may find that having a Fire Flower or Blue Shell on reserve may prove quite helpful in scaling a tower or castle to reach a boss fight.

There's plenty of replay value presented through a number of side levels unlockable through large coins collected in each stage. Players can also use these large coins to access mushroom houses, where they will play simplistic mini-games to stock up on extra lives or gain a power-up to save for later use. Also included is a decent sized collection of Mario Party-influenced mini-games, which can be played solo or with three friends via the DS' local connectivity.

Overall, New Super Mario Bros. is a fun portable platforming experience in the style of older Mario titles. The DS controls feel much smoother than that of a SNES controller, and the presentation is very appealing. New Super Mario Bros. may not aim to be the next greatest thing in handheld gaming, but because it keeps itself grounded and its aims simple enough, it's tons of fun to play.

My rating: 9.0 (out of 10)

Sunday, June 19, 2011

DS review: Sonic Rush

A fairly simplistic story sits at the heart of Sonic Rush, with two Eggmans from different dimensions fueling the story as Sonic the Hedgehog and Blaze the Cat try to stop their attempts to collect emeralds with the extravagant mechanized weaponry for which the doctor is so well known. Other characters including Cream and Tails make appearances, but this game is primarily about its cover art characters. A simplified approach when compared to more recent console titles, Sonic Rush excels in certain areas, while taking a few hits due to gameplay experimentation.

The controls for Sonic are very smooth, and despite some initial easing into the gameplay, players should find the dual screen display quite a natural for keeping track of the blue hedgehog. There are times, however, when the game glitches and sends Sonic hurtling to his death because he overshot his landing after a predetermined trajectory. Some inconsistencies with fast-paced and slower puzzle heavy sections present a minor annoyance, and seem an experiment on SEGA's part to try and translate similar areas from some of the Adventure games to this 2D platformer.

Players can also control Blaze the cat, a new addition to the ever-growing cast of characters. Though still quite fast, Blaze does not use the same spin style attacks as Sonic, opting instead for a fire tornado attack, wherein her character attacks while still in the upright position. Blaze is a rather odd character to control, but it's probably better for SEGA to test out something like this in handheld release with more simplified controls than try and have players learn yet another control scheme for a full-blown console release (ala Adventure, Heroes, etc.).

There are objects in certain levels that seem rather pointless. It's not so much that these objects in question play out poorly, but rather that they don't do much at all. For the most part, though, anything in level design that is familiar to veteran Sonic fans should react exactly as they would expect it to. Boss fights shift the game into a pseudo-3D setting, with the camera adjusting to accommodate for the attacks of Eggman's various mechanized weapons. Some of the boss fights will be repeated between the two stories, though overall a nice variety is presented.

Old-school Sonic titles are known for super-catchy and upbeat tunes, while the newer Adventure titles play host to a nice variety of tunes that - despite some cheesy lyrics - explore a greater variety of genres, namely rock and hip-hop. Sonic Rush seems to aim for some sort of middle ground, following the more basic repetitive musical patterns of the older games while infusing stylings from the new age Sonic titles. The results are, unfortunately, not pretty. Certainly I've found particular songs to be minor annoyances in past Sonic games, but never before have I found a Sonic soundtrack to be so bland and obnoxious to the point where it almost seems better to play the game without any sound at all.

The cel-shaded 3D character models fit the games atmosphere quite nicely, and there is a very smooth transition between the 2D and 3D segments of Sonic Rush. While I would normally complain about the trend of current generation games shirking on story, it actually works to Sonic Rush's advantage. As it isn't bogged down by weak storytelling and mediocre voice acting (the latter being almost completely absent in exchange for typed out dialogue), the game can focus on the high-speed platforming that made Genesis-era Sonic titles so successful. Sonic Rush is by no means the best title in the franchise, but it's also far from the worst. The experience will only last a few hours, but if you're someone who doesn't mind a blending of Sonic new and old, Sonic Rush might just be your answer to a handheld fix of SEGA's blue hedgehog.

My rating: 7.5 (out of 10)

Thursday, June 9, 2011

DMC E3 gameplay trailer

Though we got some early glimpses at the newest entry into the Devil May Cry series earlier this year, the trailer shown at E3 was the first substantial footage of DMC's gameplay. It appears Capcom will be sticking with the formula of the previous entire, though throwing in some Parkour style elements to place a heavier emphasis on agility and quick reactions. Dante's iconic silvery-white hair will seemingly be part of a transformation he undergoes at certain points in the game. Overall, the footage thus far seems to be less demon-slaying in a gothic setting, but more of a dystopian society which Dante aims to take down, grotesque puppet monsters and all. I know a lot of Devil May Cry fans are upset with this new direction for the franchise, but to be honest I haven't yet made up my mind one way or the other. As someone who has only recently discovered the Devil May Cry series, I feel this could be an interesting direction to take the series in, so long as they don't deviate too much from the core of what makes Devil May Cry work as well as it already does. And this trailer may point towards Capcom doing just that - balancing the old with the new.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

New Kirby Wii title announced at E3

Nintendo and Hal Laboratories will be bringing the pink puffball back to the Wii for another adventure. This new Kirby title looks to be more in the vein of Kirby 64, allowing Kirby to use many familiar abilities, as well as a few new ones. It will feature four player cooperative play, with players two through four controlling Meta Knight, Kind Dedede, and Waddle Dee. This announcement is a bit of a surprise, considering how recent the release of Kirby's Epic Yarn was. But perhaps Nintendo felt it beneficial to release a more traditional Kirby, even with the overall positive reception Epic Yarn recieved.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Legend of Zelda 25th anniversary E3 announcements

On top of the highly-promoted Ocarina of Time 3D for the 3DS, Nintendo has also announced that Link's Awakening will released for download on the 3DS shop this week. There will also be a Four Swords title released in September for the DSi, free of charge for anyone to download. This Four Swords, much like its predecessors, will focus on four player cooperative play. Finally, Skyward Sword will be released by the Holiday season, with a gold Wiimote available as a promotional item.

As for Skyward Sword's gameplay trailer, a fair amount of new material was revealed. We were given a look into Link's home, a land that floats in the clouds above Hyrule, as well as some brief footage of the various dungeons. It seems Link's blond-haired friend (who bears a striking resemblance to one Hylian princess) is taken by a gale of some sort, and it would also seem that one of Link's primary foes will be the white haired individual shown in much of the previous footage. The trailer highlighted a number of new enemies, which all seem to be designed with the Wiimote combat in mind. I can personally say that I am very excited to play through this Wii prequel to Ocarina of Time when it releases.

Nintendo announces new console, the Wii U

Nintendo announced the Wii U, their new console release for 2012. The Wii U will use a more standard style controller over the Wiimote and Nunchuck combo, and will allow players to play without the need for a TV, as the controller has a 6.2 inch touch screen built in. This touch screen can also be used in tandem with the TV for some games. The controller also features a camera, gyroscope, microphone, and speakers. The Wii U will be HD-capable and will be host to a number of titles including Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor's Edge, Assassin's Creed, Darksiders II, Ghost Recon Online, Batman: Arkham City, DIRT, Tekken Wii Succession, Metro: Last Light, and Aliens: Colonial Marines. A number of small demo games created by Nintendo for E3 were shown off as a means of exploring a few of the ways in which developers can utilize the console and controller. I'll admit, the Wii U was different from what I had expected, but I'm curious to see where things go from here and will keep my ears and eyes open for new information.

Final Fantasy XIII-2 E3 gameplay footage

Gameplay footage of Final Fantasy XIII-2, the direct sequel to Final Fantasy XIII, showed that the Paradigm Shift system will be retained, along with the basics of the gameplay. One new inclusion, however, are quick-time cinematic events, and the one that stood out the most to me was when Lightning was riding Odin while fighting a monster off in the distance. This could mean that Square Enix is retooling the way the Eidolons are used in FFXIII-2. As for the story, not a whole lot was revealed, but there was enough to tease fans. A new Bodhum has been constructed on the surface of Gran Pulse since the conclusion of FFXIII, and it was made clear that Lightning and Serah have been separated, with some of Snow's friends from Nora believing Lightning to be dead. A handful of new characters were introduced, though only one of them was shown in combat as an actual party member (who bore a resemblance to Final Fantasy X's Tidus), fighting monsters alongside a now much more combat-capable Serah. No sign of Sazh or Snow in this trailer, though I'm sure there will be plenty more footage to come before the game releases in early 2012.

Star Wars Kinect announced

A new Star Wars title has been announced for the Xbox 360 Kinect. Now, to be quite honest, I think the Kinect is more of a joke than a worthwhile add-on peripheral, but this is the first Kinect title that has piqued my interest to levels of mild interest. The E3 trailer started off by higlighting the most predictable use of the Kinect's motion recognition: weilding a lightsaber and using force powers. But then it went on to show podracing and some space dogfights. All of the footage was pre-rendered, and at this point there's no way of knowing what all will make into the final game. But if the gameplay meshes well with the motion-recognition control scheme, this could pave the way for more full-fledged Kinect releases.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Tomb Raider E3 footage

It seems Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light was only a teaser for a much bigger project from Crystal Dynamics and Square Enix, which comes in the form of the new Tomb Raider. The game will focus on a young Lara Croft, as she wakes up on an island following a shipwreck. Being an origin story, the game will focus on Lara developing her adventure and survival skills. Both a trailer and gameplay were revealed, and the visuals are pretty impressive thus far, with a very gritty artistice direction charging this new Tomb Raider. The demo highlighted a few quick-time button events (not unlike portions of Resident Evil 4), butrunning and jumping through caverns were the primary focus and there was a real sense of desperation surrounding Lara's escape run. It would not be surprising if this Tomb Raider took a much darker tone, which would seem an obvious marriage with the gritty art style. Either way, Square Enix's cutscene visuals were stunning as ever. My only negative feelings towards the gameplay stemmed from the fact that Lara never shut up the entire time.

Halo E3 announcements

Two Halo titles have been announced already at this year's E3 (well, technically four, but I'll explain that more in a bit). First up is an HD version of the original Halo: Combat Evolved, which, at first, I was simply going to cast off as Microsoft trying to sucker people into buying the title from the Xbox Live marketplace again (since Halo: Combat Evolved has been available for download among a number of other titles from the original Xbox for quite some time now). As it turns out, however, this is a completely redone Halo, with updated graphics and an art style more reflective of Halo: Reach. Online multiplayer will be available, and based on some of the gameplay footage, it appears players may be able to customize their multiplayer SPARTANs much like in Halo 3 and Reach. This HD remake, officially titled Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary, has already been slated for a November 15, 2011 release.

Halo 4, as the current working title is, takes place post-Halo 3 as Cortana desperately awakens Master Chief in the drifting wreckage of the Forward Unto Dawn. Chief uploads Cortana into his helmet and races through the ship until standing on its edge in space. The screen then reveals a gigantic ship of some sort, which looks similar in design to Covenant tech, but based on the way Halo 3 wrapped up, that seems more likely that it would belong to some new faction. Though the trailer revealed very little, it was all very cinematic and it makes me wonder if this will ultimately play out to be the Halo: Chronicles project that Peter Jackson was formerly to be involved with. For those unfamiliar with Halo: Chronicles, it was a project first announced around the time Halo 3 was released, and was reported to be a sort of involved cinematic experience (which I understood to be something of a movie that players could determine the outcome of based of various decision made along the way). While Microsoft and 343 Industries did not give any concrete details on the gameplay of Halo 4, they did confirm it would be the first of a new trilogy for the Xbox 360, which leaves me curious if these will be three full-fledged games or perhaps downloadable episodic gaming.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Konami announces HD collections

As a pre-E3 announcement, Konami has revealed three HD collections that will see release for both the PS3 and Xbox 360. Arguably the most exciting is the Metal Gear Solid three pack, which will include Sons of Liberty, Snake Eater, and Peace Walker. Peace Walker reportedly will allow players the option of transferring data over from their PSP copy of the game. The Silent Hill collection will include Silent Hill 2 and 3, while the Zone of the Enders collection will include both Zone of the Enders and The 2nd Runner.

I really liked how Konami and Capcom went ahead and did complete collection releases a few years back, with game series like Metal Gear Solid and Devil May Cry respectively, and these new HD collections are equally as appealing to me. While I think this is a great move on Konami's part, I'd personally like to see Capcom and others cash in on this. Perhaps a Resident Evil HD collection? As much as I enjoyed Resident Evil 4 (which was a lot), it's seen release on the Gamecube, PS2, Wii, and... iPhone. So I'd prefer to see the first two games, plus maybe Code Veronica or Resident Evil Zero just to mix things up a bit. I also wouldn't mind seeing Square Enix do a few HD Final Fantasy collection releases, specifically with regards to the PSone and PS2 releases.
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