Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Super Stardust HD

You know something? I love dual thumbstick shooters. Man, they are sooo addicting. Perhaps my love for them started when I first played MADTv, but I think it runs deeper. I just can't remember how or why. Perhaps they are also the root of my soft spot for cooperative multiplayer based games. To me, there are few experiences more gratifying than duking it out against the computer with a buddy by your side.

For some odd reason, I completely ignored Super Stardust HD, refusing to do any research on it, despite its overall popularity. I thought it would be a top down shooter similar to the likes of Meteos or Ikaruga, both of which are games I share a love-hate relationship with. Then I found out it was a Dual Thumbstick shooter. And with Trophies and Co-op to boot. No other words needed to be said. Now the game sits on my Ps3's HDD, and I play it on nearly a daily basis. What a fun game.

The base version of SSHD is a fairly no-frills game. You've got arcade, cooperative, and planet mode. I can't think of any significant differences between Arcade and Planet mode off the top of my head. Basically, you have a handful of planets. Each one is harder than the one before it. You pick a planet, and off you go. SSHD does things a little differently from, say, Geometry Wars, by making the playing field a 3 dimensional spherical grid, rather than a plain ol' square 2d grid. I like this idea better than Geometry Wars because it gives you more breathing room. The concept is simple; the planet is being constantly assaulted by a hailstorm of asteroids, commits, and other space debris, and you get points by clearing them out. If you collide with one of them, you die (unless you have a shield powerup). This sounds simple, but as the rocks begin to break into smaller pieces as you hit them, things get hectic very quickly. The asteroids will keep coming, all while you break down the ones already floating around into smaller, yet-just-as-deadly pieces. To throw some variety into the formula, a handful of enemies will also sometimes appear to give you trouble, as well as a boss at the end of each planet.

To give you another thing to keep in mind, there are three weapons, and three types of asteroids. Each weapon destroys a corresponding rock type faster than the other two. There's the Gold Crusher, which is essentially a flamethrower, which melts even the largest of gold rocks down to size within seconds, and is good for crowd control but is relatively weak. There's the Rock Crusher, your standard issue spread gun that's become so synonomous with arcade shooters, and is most effective against regular asteroids. And finally there's the Ice Crusher, a thin, long range weapon that is fairly powerful but not so great when there's debris all around you. It specializes in ice chunks.

Frequently hidden within asteroid chunks are glowing green bits that secrete tokens. Most commonly, they just contain extra points. But sometimes they upgrade your weapons when you touch them. Yep, each weapon can be upgraded, up to 200%. At 100% your Rock crusher fires 4 shots simultaneously with a good rate of fire and in a wide arc, invaluable for busting through crowds. Your Ice crusher fires also fires four shots (but in a much smaller spread arc) and has an exceedingly high rate of fire, good for chipping away at bosses. Not really sure what happens with the Gold Crusher at 100%..maybe longer range? I was too busy blasting stuff to really analyze it. When you collect yet another weapon token, even when that weapon is maxed out, it temporarily boosts to 200% power. I find this to be most useful with the Rock Crusher, which at 200% power shoots 5 shots simultaneously, at a rate of fire to rival that of the Ice Crusher. It's awesome.

Besides blowing up asteroids and collecting point tokens, there are a couple other ways to boost your score beyond that of your peers. First, by staying alive. The longer you go without dying, the higher a point multiplier at the bottom right corner of the screen will continue to slowly count up. It resets to zero once you die. Next thing is boosting. If you're in a serious pinch, your little ship can blast itself out of harm's way via a momentous burst of thrust, steamrolling anything that gets in the way. This takes a while to recharge, but is a good thing to have. If you can collect a bunch of tokens while boosting, you get consecutively more points for each one you collect. Another way are special asteroids. These guys are marked by a red hexagon with a counter inside. Destroy the asteroid that lands there, and another marker will spring up, marking the location of the next special asteroid. Keep destroying them until the counter reaches zero, and the next one to spawn will be a gigantic green one, which will spawn a crowd of several tokens, perfect for boosting to collect extra points.

I haven't tried the co-op yet, but it seems that with this version, both players share one screen. There is an expansion available with split screen, but while this grants more freedom, I've read that the framerate can take slight dips when things get especially hectic, and really, a smaller screen makes it harder to spot those smaller pieces that can kill you just as easily as the hulking large ones. By staying close together in the single screen coop, the two of you develop a link that strengthens your weapons. A good way to promote teamwork.

Graphically, the game performs well. I havent noticed any framerate issues (not that I've been looking), and there have been no hitches or glitches. The game's realistic 3d representation of a 2d game remind me of LittleBigPlanet, where objects on the screen looked so real they could have been sticking out of the television screen. The soundtrack was overall forgettable, but I have found myself humming it after particularly long sessions, only to quickly replaced by something from Gundam 00.

Super Stardust HD is a fun game that I'd recommend to anyone. It's concept is simple, and implemented very well. If you're looking for a game of epic proportions, this isn't it, but it does provide an incredibly addicting way to pass the time, if you're bored. On a scale of 1-10, I'd give it a 8.5.

Another Take (July 6th, 2009):

So, the other day I downloaded both the Team and Solo expansion packs for this game, almost entirely on a limb. There are things I liked and disliked about both of them. I'll start with the Solo pack, which adds Endless, Survival, Bomber, and Time attack. Among these, Endless is my favorite. In Endless, you basically just have to survive as long as you can. The waves will never end. The game will throw everything it's got at you, and on a constant basis. If you thought the Planet and Arcade modes were crazy, you haven't seen anything yet. Debris of various types drop in by the hundreds, and enemies appear in far greater numbers (there are also more varieties). On the bright side, there's so much stuff flying around, leading to an excess amount of green rocks, you'll have all of your guns fully upgraded (and a decent stash of bombs and ship lives) probably within the first few minutes of playing. Which is good, because you'll be needing all the firepower you can get to blast your way through this neverending, unforgiving blizzard of space junk. Occasionally a nuke will appear, which you can detonate to wipe the entire playing field, leaving only a veritable hoard of power ups. This rest lasts only a few seconds, however, as the rocks and enemies begin to pour in once more.

Bomber, while a mildly innovative concept, just didn't really stick with me. In this mode, you start out with 10 bombs, and try to last as long as you can using bombs and ONLY bombs to survive. Survival felt more like a novelty than anything else. Instead of shooting your way through stuff, you are challenged to simply manuever through them, as your weapons are, for the most part, useless against the indestructible space probes that land on a mildly freqent basis.
Haven't tried Time attack yet, but I guess it's not hard to guess what it is: blast your way through a level in record time.

The Team Pack is pretty nice, I think. It introduces split-screen co-op. While there's obvious benefits to now being able to go wherever you want, the game does run at a slightly less smooth (but still noticeable in comparison to single player) frame rate. Also, the resource sharing rules remain unchanged; both of you share ONE boost, and your lives and bombs are pooled together. Fortunately, a downed partner is able to come back when you reach a check point. The Team pack also features a Ship Editor, where you can change the appearance of your ship. The customizations are purely cosmetic, though, and given how small your ship is, and further aside the fact that you won't be paying any attention to how cool it looks while blasting through space junk, it's a pretty pointless feature.

The packs also come with remixed musical scores. You can choose to hear the game in either an Orchestral or Retro remix. I haven't heard much of the Retro yet, but I really like the Orchestral themes.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Resistance 2

I actually got the Collector's Edition of this, but couldn't be bothered to find a picture of a non-watermarked picture of the exclusive cover art. Besides cooler box art (in my opinion), the Collector's Edition came with a code for a downloadable exclusive in-game skin for the Wraith, a Chimera action figure, an art book, some sort of bonus Blu-Ray disc, and of course the game.

This is the first time in years I can remember getting a Collector's Edition of a game, because generally its just extra junk anyway, and I never look at the making-of videos. But for some reason, the Collector's Edition was actually selling for a couple cents less than the standalone game on Amazon when I bought it, so I figured what the heck. I got the skin and looked through the artbook, but the action figure and making of disc remain completely untouched. The model Bullseye does look cool though, even though I'm not impressed with the figure that's supposed to be holding it.

Having played the first Resistance and enjoyed it, I had high hopes for this game. And for the most part, I don't feel disappointed. The game improves on some aspects of Fall of Man, but also takes a couple steps back here and there.

The campaign starts right where the previous game left off, with Hale being picked up by an allied transport. After a rough welcome, he's introduced to a division of soldiers known as the Sentinels, who are the same as him in that they are part Chimera. The game moves two years later, where the base Hale is currently in is under attack by the Chimera. The situation is dire; an entire fleet (Where the heck did they pull a fleet from), complete with huge ominous warships, floats in the sky, and the Chimera have sent in a mighty Kraken to rip the submerged portion of the base apart. You just go from there. There is a story here, but its strung together somewhat loosely, without the strong narration present in the first installment. Really, the plot line in this game is a little erratic. Most of the game, you may find it easy to just ignore the story and just shoot the bad guys. Then suddenly you're listening to a long lecture about the Chimera's origin, or watching Daedalus mouth off about how awesome him and his species are.
And let's not forget the ending, which I won't spoil, but really shoves the plot into your face. It was a great cliffhanger, but the campaign feels both bland and exciting.

But hey, I've seen many cases of people who don't even bother with the offline campaign and head online right out of the box. And I must say, this is a pretty great package. Though unfortunately, the full campaign coop has been removed, it is replaced with a separate campaign playable only in coop mode, which is hit or miss, I guess. I liked the previous feature, and do miss it, but at least they didnt do away with offline coop entirely. You can still play through the separate campaign offline with a friend, and now you can also play it online with up to 7 others. What's cool about the coop is that not only do the mission objectives tend to vary each time you play a map (meaning you won't have the same experience over and over again), but the game automatically adjusts the difficulty appropriate to how many players are in the game. With just two players, you'll encounter small squads of Chimera, but nothing the two of you can't handle. With a full 8 player party though, your foes are absolutely relentless, and will come at you by the dozens. Towards the end of one mission, in a full eight player party, small regimes of Chimera (at least a dozen units or so) teleport in on both sides of your motley crew, and try to swarm you. Besides your typical grunts, they'll have Steelheads (Augur carriers) and even one or two Titans (big guys with huge cannons) among them. Its exciting, and really feels like full scale warfare.

The coop is not only an adrenaline pumping experience, but its rather unique for an FPS. It incorporates minor MMORPG elements, such as an XP system which, as you level up gives you access to better equipment and skins. The game also uses a class system to better encourage cooperative play. There's three classes: Medic, Spec. Ops, and Soldier. The three classes are designed to work closely together, and you're in for a rough mission without at least one person playing each class (and doing their job). They each have their own set of Berserks, which are special abilities that you can use periodically when you're in a pinch. As you level up, you also gain access to better equipment, like larger ammo cartridges and better armor.

The Medic's job, is, of course to keep their allies alive. Medics are equipped with a special (coop-only) weapon that shoots a ray beam that sucks energy from the foes it hits. This is the primary fire. Its really weak compared to any real weapon, but still very useful, as not only does absorbing energy refill your health (thus, Medics are the only ones able to heal themselves), but it stocks up your alt-fire, which lobs a glob of pure healing energy. You shoot it at your allies to heal them, and it has a splash effect so you don't have to waste precious time aiming directly at the person (though it heals more if its a direct hit). So in a sense, Medics thrive on the battlefield. Without enemies to suck energy from, they can wilt rather quickly, so while its important to be on the frontlines so you can gather more energy, its also important to know when to duck and cover. Parties lacking a Medic quickly fall apart, so its extremely important you stay alive to keep your buddies healthy, so they can watch your back. Medics also revive the fastest. The two Berserks I've unlocked so far for Medic class are "Ring of Life" and "Chloroform". As a Medic, Ring of Life is the better choice I'd say. Activating it sets up a small "ring" around you and nearby comrades. Not only does activating fully restore your health, but anyone standing within that ring will have regenerative health. Its great for digging your heels in to stop your team from having to fall back too far. Chloroform is more offensive. It temporarily adds a paralyzing and poisonous effect to your Phoenix's ray beam, both paralyzing and doing lasting damage on enemies you hit.

In RPG terms, Soldiers are the "Tanks" of the party. They come equipped with a Wraith (Minigun with an Augur-like energy barrier for alt-fire), and are basically the guys meant to kill the most enemies. Soldiers have the beefiest health bars, and use their Wraiths to shield themselves and their allies from harm while dishing out plenty of punishment with their minigun primary fire. However they're hardly invincible. Once his shield runs out of ammo, he's vulnerable and dies quickly, so Soldiers are, sadly, at the mercy of both the Medic and Spec Ops. If you're going to have a lot of soldiers in your mission, you NEED to have some responsible Specs Ops to keep them stuffed with shield ammo, or they probably won't last long. Enemies occasionally drop ammo, but its not something to rely on. The two Berserks I've unlocked so far are Ironheart and Self-Destruct (I doubt that's really the name, but I can't remember what its really called). Ironheart is a no frills defense boost, while Self-Destruct, when activated, sets a 30 second timer that, once finished, causes you to explode. You can self-destruct sooner by standing close to an enemy. Its basically a hilarious take on kamikaze. I don't think the death counts against you, by the way.

Spec Ops could be considered the "Buffers" of the group. They're equipped with Marksmans (3-shot burst sniper rifles) and are expected to toss ammo on a regular basis. Spec Ops play a pivotal role because they're main source of the team's ammo. Medics can do well enough without a Spec Ops since any good Medic won't stray too far from their Phoenix, which has unlimited ammo, but Soldiers rely heavily on them, as their miniguns and shield chew up ammo very quickly. One of their Berserks allows them to toss out special ammo boxes that have special ammo that does extra damage (I think that's effect, either that or the ammo paralyzes).

The coop, in my opinion, is the best part of the package. There are some truely exciting moments, and they come often. I remember just a couple days ago, me and a friend were playing, we were in a full party, and got separated from the rest of the team along with one other guy. While the rest of the group desperately tried to find us, we were hopelessly pinned down, crouching behind cover and hardly daring to peek out long enough to squeeze out a couple shots, as there were at least dozen or so chimera firing at us from two sides, and we couldnt advance through the blizzard of opposing fire. It was intense, and a tough situation. We could only wait for our team to find out where we were, before launching a pincer movement of sorts on the enemy and finally pushing through.

I have only one gripe with the coop, which is the 2 player offline coop. Really, after surviving an 8 player mission, playing with only 2 players feels just weak. And besides that, there's three classes...and only 2 players. It's not an optimized situation. Its easy to see that the coop in Resistance 2 was not tailored for offline play. However, like in Warhawk, you can play with a friend in splitscreen online, which is a great option.

I haven't spent much time at all with the competitive (only played 1 or two rounds) aspect of the game yet, but I do like how hectic things can get, especially with more players. Resistance 2 holds the current record for the max amount of online players in an FPS on a console, with up to 60 players being able to duke it out in one arena. Even so, it's still surprisingly possible to be alone. Like I said, havent spent much time at all with competitive, so im sure there's probably more modes, but the one I played was just your typical red vs. blue death match. Fun, but very no-frills.

Like in the campaign, you can carry two weapons at a time, and you get to choose your loadout before you spawn, which is nice. I'm the irritating kind of fellow that likes to shoot people who can't see me (until they die, oh that darn death cam), so I usually go out with a FarEye as my primary weapon, and a Magnum for self-defense.

With Resistance 2, Insomniac also introduced a bunch of new weapons. Some were removed, but the added:removed ratio isn't that bad. VERY UNFORTUNATE HOWEVER, is the absence of the Hailstorm, one of the coolest weapons ever.

New weapons are..
The Magnum, which is a beast of a pistol that easily downs grunts in one or two shots. But for those guys who seem extra resilient, each bullet fired also has a small explosive tagged onto it. By pressing the alt-fire, each bullet you fired will detonate in small explosion. Great for getting some extra damage out of what's left of your ammo, or setting up traps.
The LAARK returns, but instead of the air brake, it now fires a cluster bomb as its alt-fire.
The Bellock is a simple grenade launcher, and also fires napalm charges (they erupt in magnificent flames) as its alt-fire
The Wraith is the new Hailstorm, I suppose. Its a minigun that has an Augur Force barrier for its alt-fire. However, instead of firing a shield that is only temporary, this one generates a shield that can be toggled on and off.
Also new is the Marksman, a sniper-rifle that fires a three shot burst. It doesnt have quite the prestige and elegance of the FarEye, but makes a fair alternative.
New but extremely rare (and exclusive to the campaign) is the Pulse Cannon, a huge bazooka that fires pure kinetic energy (I think?), and is the only effective weapon against the Kraken. It takes a while to load a shot, but has destructive power comparable to a LAARK. Its alt-fire looses off a short range, wide arc concussive blast.
Also new (and rare) is the Splicer (which I, now that I think about it, might not actually be new..), which fires razor blades that slice and dice through your target's limbs. Holding the alt-fire revves the blade, and while its powering up you can dice up anyone who gets too close. Loose it off at full power, and most grunts and steelheads it hits will be instantly mutilated. Dead Space, anyone?
Finally, there's the Spider Grenade, which, upon activation, begins spreading a searing hot web of pure plasma right from where it lands. The stuff goes quite a distance, and even climbs up walls, so its a terribly cruel thing to throw into crowds. The toxins that the "web" releases also does lasting damage.

Overall, Resistance 2 is a great value. Insomniac tried to stuff a lot of great things onto one disc, and it didn't work quite as beautifully as they might have thought, but it was an impressive endeavor nonetheless, and still remains one of the best games 2008 had to offer. A 9/10 in my opinion.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed

Gamefly's been pissing me off for the past week or so. It skipped at least 10 games on my GameQ and fished out two seemingly random games was totally not expecting. This was one of them.

But I'm not one to hold grudges, and I had been meaning to play this game at some point or another (just was looking forward to a weekend of CoD WAW..*grumbles*..), so I didn't consider it any sort of big deal.

So, here's the run down, plain and simple: Force Unleashed is really, really kick ass. But only for the first hour or so. Then it gets boring.

The game starts soon after Revenge of the Sith; Order 66 has killed off most of the Jedi, and any remaining are in hiding. You start the game as Darth Vader, who has been sent to Kashyyk to kill off a Jedi master living there in secret. After a short romp across the battleground, where you show off your badass-ness by easily destroying any Wookies or allied soldiers that get in your way, you face off against the Jedi, and kill him. Interestingly, before Vader can strike the final blow with his lightsaber, the thing flies out of his hand, and into those of the Jedi's toddler son. After Force choking the Jedi and tossing him aside, Vader takes the boy into his care, raising him as his secret apprentice. From then on, you play the game as him, having grown into a young man.

The Force Unleashed is, at its core, a hack n slash game. Starkiller (the apprentice's codename) has a wide arsenal of fancy combos at his disposal, but if you so please, you'll probably get along just fine with the standard 4 hit combo (though you'll have a harder time if you don't at least take advantage of your force powers when they are likely needed). Most enemies can be taken down quickly and efficiently in this manner. Besides his physical lightsaber attacks, Starkiller employs the Force as a weapon too. Someone out of your range? Toss your lightsaber at him, and itll slice right through him from a distance before heading back towards you. Don't feel like fighting your enemes? Use Force Push to knock em down, and make a break for it. But what Sith warrior can't use Force Lightning? Indeed, pressing the triangle button prompts Starkiller to release mighty electricity from his fingertips, zapping the poor fool caught by it into oblivion. You can also Force Grip a LOT of stuff, from enemies to various objects around the area (even Star fighters!), but the controls for it are kind of sketchy. They work, but require most of your concentration to use with any sort of accuracy. And since you can't move while Force Gripping something, it tends to go unused in the thick of battle. You'll also use your Force powers outside of battle too, like using a massive Force Push to blast open a door, or Force Lightning to overload a generator.

I'm betting a majority of the people who got this game were more interested in its story than its gameplay. And it delivers well enough. Its not a grand masterpiece on par with the likes of Metal Gear Solid or any better-than-decent RPG, but its compelling, and ties together the old and new trilogies well. Most of the characters are likeable, and are voiced well in my opinion. But honestly, unless you hate reading or something, you might be better off checking out the novelization of this instead, as it probably portrays the story even better than the game, and you don't have to bother with repetitive gameplay.

As for graphics and overall performance, the game does glitch occasionally. But this seems to be typical of most Star Wars games. I've seen glitches on SW: Bounty Hunter. I've seen them on Battlefront 2, Jedi Starfighter, Starfighter, and probably Rogue Squadron. They're usually just visual ones, like distorting views or soldiers freezing in place, but I have encountered clipping issues in this one often as well, like being stuck in between a door or the physics engine miscalculating. None of them are game-breaking, and the title as a whole looks pretty darn good.

The Force Unleashed isn't something I'd recommend anyone to buy for keeps for more than $20-30. There are a wealth of costumes to be had in the game, as well as more that can be bought via DLC, as well as standard extras like concept art, but overall there's just not much to keep this game from becoming shelved after the first or second playthrough. Gameplay-wise, the free demo offers almost as much excitement as the entire game. A 7/10.