Monday, October 19, 2009

Mario and Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story

It seems Mario games have become a bit of a mixed bag these days. There's the always widely lauded 3D platformers (Sunshine, Galaxy), and then there's the various sports and other genre games that Mario stars in, such as the long running Mario Party, Smash Bros, and Mario Kart series. Sometimes these turn out good, sometimes they turn out excellent, sometimes they turn out laughably mediocre. It is because of how not so great Mario's ventures outside of platforming have been that I chose to ignore his RPGs, such as Superstar Saga and Paper Mario.

Well obviously I made a mistake. Mario and Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story is surprisingly pleasant from start to finish, with very few blemishes to speak of.

The game begins with a scene involving an average family of toads. The mother calls the family in for dinner, and suddenly the father comes crashing in through the wall, inflated to gargantuan size by a quickly spreading disease known as the Blorbs. Innocent toads everywhere are finding themselves unable to do much than roll around, and are overall having a miserable time. Princess Peach calls for a committee meeting to discuss the problem, and the possibility of a cure, when Bowser storms in, angry that he wasn't invited. A hilarious battle tutorial ensues as Mario and Luigi send him packing.

Bowser storms off to a nearby forest and encounters a strange merchant claiming the Koopa King has won an obscure contest, earning him a mysterious mushroom. The mushroom causes Bowser to inhale pretty much everything around him, including Peach, the Bros, and a whole lotta toads when he returns to the castle.

The "merchant" reveals himself to be none other than Lord Fawful, who was apparently an assistant to the villain of the last game. He plans to take over not only Peach's castle, but also Bowser's! Of course Bowser isn't going let that happen without a fight.

This sets the premise for the primary gameplay twist; the top screen follows Bowser and his efforts to stop Fawful from taking his castle, and on the bottom screen you'll find Mario and Luigi, who spend most of their time traversing Bowser's body. Switching between the two is as easy as pressing A or B for the Bros, and X or Y for Bowser.

While these two elements share a lot of elements, there's enough differences for the two to feel very distinct from each other. Bowser has a lot beefier stats than Mario and Luigi, but also takes on tougher, larger foes. While there is some light platforming, I felt that combat was the main order of the day with him.

On the other hand, Mario and Luigi spend more of their time hopping on platforms and exploring the various nooks and crannies of their adversary's body. Though there's no shortage of combat opportunities for these two either, I think platforming makes up a bigger piece of the pie, with them gradually gaining a small arsenal of moves to help them reach various areas.

Combat works pretty much the same playing as either Bowser or Mario/Luigi, though the two still require different approaches. With Mario and Luigi, you have two characters to attack with, but unlike Bowser, who can actually just kick aside certain foes without needing to go into an actual combat sequence, they have to fight every scrub they touch. With Bowser it's often more about just whaling on the enemy with punches and fire. Since he has only two evasive moves at his disposal generally, compared to the various things you might have to do counter attacks as Mario and Luigi, I sometimes think there's less strategy involved.

Combat itself is enjoyable, and very much tuned to include the sort of things you'd expect from a Mario game. The battle menu, for example, is actually a bunch of rotating blocks that you headbutt to select.

Though battles are turn-based, this is an action-RPG. Each attack you make can be either strengthened or completely fall flat, depending on your timing. Every enemy also has their own unique attack, and with it comes a way to dodge that attack and, in many cases, counter it. A person with lightning reflexes and great analytical abilities could walk away from any battle in this game completely unscathed. But for the rest of us, success comes from carefully studying the enemy's movements (they always do something distinctive that indicates their target and what they will do), and memorizing them. And thus, interestingly enough, this is an RPG where practice can get you way farther than stat buffing or better equipment would, though both of these still help a lot.

As you explore, you'll also be able to find new special attacks, many of which are surprisingly humorous. My favorite so far involves Luigi pouncing on enemies with a gigantic pink bouncy ball, with you using certain buttons to make sure he keeps bouncing, and to keep him balanced. Special attacks and minigames, however, make up the only portion of the game that involves the stylus. Which isn't a bad thing. In fact, these parts of the game are at best decent, really.

Overall, can't say I have much to say against Bowser's Inside Story. It's simply a well done game. 9.o/10

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Army of Two

In Army of Two, co-op isn't just a bullet point on the list, or even a separate, albeit full-featured mode. It's the game. At least, that's what the line folks at EA are using to pull in buyers of their new IP.

Army of Two is a good reason why I've been paying more attention to EA lately. In the past year or two they've been putting out a lot of surprisingly creative titles, from the 1st-person action adventure Mirror's Edge to the horrific 3rd person hit, Dead Space. And then there's Army of Two, another game coming out of left-field from EA, and they don't seem to be showing any sign of stopping their new direction. Which is good.

Co-op has become a very common feature in third person shooters. And with good reason. Flanking enemies with a buddy, or taking up a distant sniping position as you cover comrade(s)'s advance from cover to cover is simply exhilarating. Somehow, co-op in third person games always feels more involved than co-op in first person games.

Army of Two clears up a bit of the fog surrounding reasons why this is so by introducing a few handy elements of teamwork, such as giving your partner a leg up, going back to back, or dragging him/her to safety when they're downed. This game makes it clear from the get go that for a variety of reasons, this is in no way an experience where you two can just go your separate ways, meeting only to open a door that for some reason requires two buttons pressed near simultaneously to open. I played through the game with my sister on the lowest difficulty, Recruit, and found that in the latter half of the game, this supposedly easiest difficulty felt more like medium-hard. Several times I found myself realizing that a certain situation would be so much easier if tackled as a tightly coordinated team. What I'm getting at is, this is a game that demands teamwork, even on the lowest difficulty. Not just in getting past doors and obstacles, but in regular combat as well. United We Stand, Divided We Fall.

The most outstanding method the game uses to encourage partner communication is the Aggro system, represented by a red and black meter. Whenever you fire a weapon or take someone out, the meter tips towards your side of the screen. The more Aggro you have, the more attention you'll suck up. On the bad side, this means that you will have pretty much every person in range gunning for you, but this also means they won't be paying attention to your partner, who has become all but invisible. The main benefit to this as that it allows for some pretty flawless flanking maneuvers, for those enemies who have a near impenetrable front defense, but a squishy backside. When the Aggro scale tips completely towards one end or the the other, you have the option of going into an adrenaline mode that gives you infinite ammo and all the aggro, and makes your partner completely invisible, for 10-15 seconds. you can also affect your aggro meter drastically by feigning death, an option that becomes available when you are about to die (though it only works once in a while). Understandably, doing this instantly maxes out your partner's aggro, and makes you invisible.

Other teamwork options encourage coordinated or co-op attacks. For example, when you are downed, your partner doesn't have to heal you on the spot. He can grab you and haul you to somewhere safer. In the meantime, you can cover both of you by picking off pursuing adversaries before they can KO your buddy. It's a great mechanic, and works well. And then there's back to back shooting, where you land in an area and find yourself surrounded, and have to take out people as they rush in from all sides. Moving on, there's also co-op sniping, which helps you two take out two people at once from afar, and two man parachuting, where one man steers, and the other snipes.

Overall, the co-op was done pretty well, and I was impressed. The actual shooting gameplay is also solid, though it's a bit clumsy at close range. (I've missed with a shotgun at point blank range more times than I can count). Another small peeve I have with the controls is the fact that melee attacks are mapped to the same button as gun attacks. The game automatically allows you physically attack enemies when you are right next them, but it's sometimes too slow to recognize that I should pistol whipping my target, not shooting him in the face.

Army of Two also has way too much loading and/or fancy menu effects going on. Maybe this is just a matter of opinion, but I felt like it was a serious chore to have to wait 2-3 seconds after each menu choice I made, before I'd see results. It was even worse in the weapon menu, where you had a wait several seconds every time you wanted to see a selection of weapons. The game also apparently doesn't cache the map you're playing on, because if you die you get to wait about 20 seconds while the game loads all over again. And if you happened to die right after a cutscene, you have to watch it over again. Checkpoint frequency was never a huge issue, though, so this only became a glaring nuisance once or twice.

Speaking of weapons, Army of Two has quite a few of them. Rios and Salem (the two playable characters) have a large arsenal of gear and guns available to them, albeit for a price. You'll always carry four weapon types: A primary weapon (usually an assault rifle or shotgun), a sidearm (a pistol or submachine gun), a sniper rifle/special weapon (special as in rocket launchers), and grenades. For most of the guns there's a decently large amount of room for customization for each weapon. There's options to change the stock, barrel, add a silencer or different cartridge..and of course the mandatory "pimped" paint job. I'll let you think about what that might mean.

It feels a little weird having waited this long to talk about the characters and story, but that's probably because the co-op is more important than they are. The game follows the two mercenaries Rios and Salem, who are good partners and tight buddies. They work alongside Alice Murray in a PMC, taking on various jobs and hits for money. However, they are betrayed by the higher ups in the company, and you play them as they unravel the question of who framed them, and why. Neither the plot nor characters were very interesting to me, though, and seem to serve solely as a way to move the game forward.

The graphics in Army of Two are pretty good, though a lot of objects have a strangely bright shine to them. The music is largely forgettable, and the amount of swearing going on kind of bars you from getting into the experience sometimes.

Overall, Army of Two is an interesting endeavor. The gameplay was done pretty well, but the presentation could of used some ironing out. 7/10

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Tough Love: PSP Go

It saddens me to see a great concept implemented so poorly. In this case, Sony had a real awesome idea on their hands, but fell flat on their faces trying to implement it.

For the uninformed, here's the lowdown: the PSP Go is an alternative to the regular PSP3000. Sony is promoting a dual platform, so that the two can live on the shelves in harmony, and thus the PSP Go isn't necessarily better than the PSP, just different. Besides the form factor, it differs from the regular PSP by swapping out the UMD drive for 16GB of flash memory, and Bluetooth. The lack of the UMD drive makes it lighter, and probably smaller as well.

Without a UMD drive, how do you play games? You download them of course! Yep, that's right. The PSP Go relies entirely on Sony's Playstation Network digital distribution marketplace to obtain content. It is "portable" defined.

Sounds, awesome, right? Having several full length games that you can switch between on the fly without having to fumble with discs? Oh, it is. But besides how sexy it looks, the PSP Go's portability is probably one of the only good things it has going for it. Indeed, I can't imagine Sony really selling many Go's at all, because I can't imagine why anyone would want one. Let's go through the reasons why.

No plans for UMD conversion; Sony initially announced that they were considering a way for current PSP owners to trade in their UMD copies for digital ones. It was recently announced that they scrapped whatever plan they might have had. Also recently, it was announced that Sony had thought of a little something for the UK. Buyers of a Go can activate up 3 of certain UMDs they might have as legitimate downloads. So you can only take 3 of your games with you onto the Go. It's better than nothing, like what SCEA's doing, but it's still not satisfactory, given the premium they're asking for one these systems. Which brings me to my next problem.

$250 Price tag; Besides the fact that it's just plain expensive, here's the problem with this. It's only $50 less than the PS3. For just $50 more consumers could grab a PS3 instead, which has Bluray, a harddrive several times bigger, a far healthier game library, and....seriously, do I really need to prove to you why it's stupid that the PSP Go is almost as expensive as a PS3? On the other hand, it's also $80 more than the PSP3000, which is compatible both with digital content and UMDs. You're getting less content, for more money. So let's say you've never bought a PSP before, have no UMDs to get mad about. Why would you buy the PSP Go over the PSP3000? I can't think of a valid answer besides the reason trendy Mac users use: It's sexy.

802.11b; Yeah, you read correctly. This system is confined to 802.11b wireless signals. The same system that relies entirely on giant 1GB+ downloadable games. To hell with that. To be fair, it is possible that you could do all downloading on PS3 or PC, and then just sync it over periodically, like the relationship iPods and iTunes have. But it's still absurd that for $80 more, Sony couldn't give us at LEAST a G-type signal, if not N. Really guys? People call Apple overpriced, but for $50 less they've got 802.11G on the iPod Touch. This is inexcusable.

Game availability; I'll give Sony partial credit for this one, because they are making an effort to ensure that at least a very large majority of the PSP library becomes available as digital content on the Playstation Store. Just last week, they added nearly 100 titles to the already fairly sizable library of PSP games available on the storefront. If they want to sell any significant amount of systems at all, they'll add another 100 this week. But the fact is, it's probable that not all games are going to be available digitally. This means the chance constantly exists that PSP Go owners will miss out on some big, awesome game. In fact, it's already happened. Dissidia Final Fantasy isn't available on the PS Store. I looked, the demo's there, but the full game's not. PSP Go owners have no way of playing this game.

PSP Minis; With introduction of the Go, Sony also revealed their plans for a new game section, called PSP Minis, which would cater to "bite sized" games less than 100mb in size. This is no doubt an attempt to replicate Apple's success with the App Store, but there's a problem. There isn't a single game in that section selling for under $5. I've heard that Sony simply doesn't allow them to set the prices lower than that, which I hope isn't true, because it's foolish. The App Store took off because of the overwhelming high number of quality games selling for $0.99 a pop. You could hop onto the App Store from your iPhone or iPod Touch and grab a surprisingly great game for dirt cheap. That ain't happening with PSP Minis. This might not be so bad if developers actually made their games worth the price, but so far this hasn't appeared to be the case. Tetris is on there, selling for $10. This is a 25 year old game, there's nothing new about it. And it's the most expensive Mini in the section. When I can buy full length PSone games like Final Fantasy 7 for the same (or less) price as Tetris, we have a serious problem.

Unfortunately, it doesn't take a genius to see that the PSP Go is, in almost no way, worth it's price tag. Technophiles will eat it up just fine, but anyone actually wanting to get some use out of the thing will probably find the 3000 (or even the DSi/Lite) a fine alternative. Current PSP owners and people seeking value in their purchases need not apply.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Beyond Good and Evil

Beyond Good and Evil is one of those games where you're not quite sure what to expect as you pop the disc in, but find yourself pleasantly surprised by what you discover. It's not a God tier title, but at least above average in nearly every way.

BGE hits the ground running, with the opening cutscene introducing you main character Jade, who is sitting outside meditating when the area is invaded by the mysterious DomZ. Little is known about these aliens, but the Alpha Sections (the planet's paramilitary army) have been at war with them for quite some time in an attempt to protect Hillys (the name of the planet the game takes place on).

The DomZ attack Jade's lighthouse home, kidnapping several children. The first gameplay segment has you taking up a nearby stick to fend off as many DomZ as you can in an attempt to get the children back. Jade herself temporarily falls prey to the DomZ until her adoptive uncle Pey'J comes to the rescue with her Bo Staff.

Conveniently, it isn't until immediately after the DomZ have left that the Alpha Section troops arrive to take all the credit and press. It's Jade and Pey'J's intense suspicion of them (moreso Pey'J's) that leads them to be scouted by IRIS, a rebel organization that has been investigating the Alpha Sections, attempting to reveal them to be the swindlers they think they are.

Really, the world of BGE is a somewhat bleak one, as the cover art might imply. Despite the constant Alpha Section propaganda stating that they're trying their hardest to beat back the invasion, everytime the DomZ attack, more people die. People seem to also be disappearing on a regular basis. It's obvious that the Alpha Section has some secrets, and the game goes out of its way to hint at an overarching conspiracy.

Even under such circumstances, BGE manages to be surprisingly humorous, especially in the first half of the game. Like in the very beginning of the game, Jade attempts to turn on the lighthouse's shield to stop the attack, but the electric company has cut their power, even under the given extenuating circumstances. And of course there's Pey'J's jet boots, powered by a highly compressed pack of methane. In other words, fart-powered boots.

Though the game's main plot hook/twist (the conspiracy theory) was guessable from a mile away, BGE still keeps a few aces under it's sleeve (like who the leader of IRIS is).

Though Beyond Good and Evil isn't a very long game, it packs in a satisfying amount of really fun and challenging gameplay. As Jade, you'll use your camera, natural agility, and bo staff (among other gadgets and abilities) to fight and sneak your way through various Alpha Section facilities in an attempt to expose the truth. When you're not snooping in the Alpha Sections' business, you can engage in a couple minigames in the Downtown district. There's even a small kart racing segment that actually ties into the infiltration of one of the Alpha Section facilities.

The fighting is fairly simplistic, with Jade being able to execute a variety of moves depending on how time each button input. As simplistic as this is, it's interesting because it challenges you stay calm even when enemies are swarming you (and they will, multiple times), and remember to continue timing each attack (button mashing will only dish out 3 hit combos, which feels like a way of punishing those who panic easily). It reminded me of the very first scene in the game where Jade was meditating.

Sneaking is a bit more challenging, but it's entirely about evading enemies. Though you can take them with some careful planning and execution (depending on the area), Jade doesn't have any special grabs or choke holds to put enemies to sleep and such. Don't expect Metal Gear or Splinter Cell-like stealth here. It's more in the vein of Sly Cooper. It does get progressively more difficult though, with missteps becoming more and more of a punishable offense as you proceed through the game.

Call me arrogant, but at this point I sometimes have trouble returning to last generation games, because of how incredibly bland their visuals are in comparison. Beyond Good and Evil, however, looks great. Its graphics are colorful and easy on the eyes, and aside from some impossibly violent waters in some docking areas (maybe it has to do with the fact I played it on PS3), runs very smoothly. The music is a mix of catchy beats with nonsensical lyrics and very emotional themes that make your spine tingle.

Overall, this is a great game that apparently didn't get the attention it deserved. Admittedly, the story is a tad on the shorter side of the scale in length, and besides collecting all the pearls (currency for upgrading your vehicles), there doesn't seem to be much incentive to come back. But this is definitely a game worth your time. 8/10

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Games I'm Looking Forward To #2

I try to do this once every ~6 months. I swear, great new games seem to be popping up by the dozens. What I've noticed however, is that a LOT of games previously slated for a Holiday '09 release were pushed to a later date, most commonly Spring '10. Most think this has a lot to do with the impending release of Modern Warfare 2, and I don't blame them. That's a game that will inevitably sell "Halo 3-well", and probably be the biggest release of the year. So I can't blame publishers for feeling a bit intimidated. Ironically however, like I mentioned before, most of the games fled to the same release window, and are now threatened by Gran Turismo 5, God of War 3, and Final Fantasy 13, all three of which are almost guaranteed to top the sales charts when they release. Nice, guys. At this rate I wouldn't be surprised if they simply pushed the games again to summer or early fall. Perhaps what publishers need to understand is that there's really no escape. I'm not sure why, but good games are coming out by the boatload at this point in the current generation. I hear Square-Enix is juggling at least 5 games (or is planning to) at the moment, and other houses like EA, Capcom and Ubisoft are chugging along with fervor as well. The market is going to be at least a little crowded, so all that can be done to avoid losing out financially is to make sure the game is actually good, and for Christ's sake, advertise it! Even the best games will fall flat on the sales charts if nobody knows about them (See: Valkyria Chronicles).

Anyway, let's get this going.

Playstation 3
-Assassin's Creed 2; Ever since I played Batman Arkham Asylum I've found myself paying more and more attention to Assassin's Creed 2. The two share a few gameplay concepts, and frankly I can't wait to get my hands on it.
-Uncharted 2; This is promising to be a complete package in a vein similar to Resistance 2; A full-featured singleplayer campaign, with competent multiplayer and co-op to boot.
-Star Ocean: The Last Hope International; Yep, it's been announced for PS3, and it's coming early this February. Hopefully the story won't be as prone to being sidetracked as Till the End of Time.
-Modnation Racers; Mario Kart+LittleBigPlanet=Modnation Racers. It's that simple.
-Borderlands; It's a little like Diablo, except instead of fantasy, magic and medieval weaponry, you have FPS action, a desert wasteland, and 4 player Co-Op.
-Demon's Souls; This has actually been out for quite some time in Japan and other Asian countries (with English vocals to boot!), but I decided to wait. It seems Atlus knew there would people like me, and is thus including some swag with their localized version. The game is praised both for it's old-school hardcore difficulty, and for its simple addictiveness. I haven't played it at all, but besides the difficulty (which has been rationalized by some), I've heard nothing but good stuff about it.
-Dead Nation; This is a zombie dual-stick shooter that came from the people behind Super Stardust HD, a game very close to my heart. It'll have two-player co-op, and an interesting metagame. I wish Housemarque would give us some sort of release timeframe, so I can decide whether I'll be able to get it for Christmas.
-PixelJunk Shooter; I'm intrigued at how subtle, yet totally impressive this game feels. Plus it'll have co-op, which I'm a sucker for.
-Castle Crashers; I love this game just from the videos I've seen from it. I have an innate feeling that this game will simply be great, and there will be little reason to read reviews first. Plus, it has 4 player multiplayer! How bad can it be?
-Tales of Vesperia; Still no word on if this game is even getting localized, but I sure hope so. Otherwise I'll have to just continue being satisfied with Tales of the Abyss.
-The Last Guardian; People know very little about this game, but they already love it anyway. I am among those people.
-3D Dot Game Heroes; It is, for all intents and purposes, a clone of the old 2D top-down Zelda games, except that each pixel is instead a 3D cube. It's wierd and difficult to explain, but an awesome concept. You really need to see a video or two before the visual style begins to dawn on you.
-Front Mission Evolved; I'm not holding my breath for this one. Mech games have an innate tendency to not be so great, which is kind of ridiculous, because who doesn't want to duke it out and unleash beam spam and Macross Missile Massacres(TM) in big friggin robots? I want this to be good, don't get me wrong. But too many mech games have disappointed for me to get my hopes up just yet.
-Resonance of Fate; This game is beautiful. Really. It still sucks that they couldn't keep the original, more..original name (End of Eternity), but it's still got some uniqueness going for it. I saw a full battle once, and I have mixed feelings. I'm hoping that was a boss battle, because it took forever. The characters flipping around doing ridiculous stunts and acrobatics while squeezing off dozens of bullets was awesome at first, but got to be repetitive eventually.
-Final Fantasy Versus 13; Yep, still have looking forward to this one. Hopefully SE will have more info on it soon.
-Heavy Rain; I'm a bit worried for Heavy Rain. It's a new IP, and overall a risky concept that's suddenly found it's release date bogged down by a whole lot of other big games. I will probably buy it, because I love the replay value potential, but I hope it doesn't get flattened by its competitors.
-Lost Planet 2; The demo was all sorts of fun, especially with a full 4 player party. I think I will probably buy it if they manage to work in splitscreen, but if they don't...we'll see. I like graphics, and love the mechs and enemies, and of course the multiplayer, but I still have trouble seeing this as worth the full $60 price tag.
-Darksiders; It's Zelda, with a brutal God of War-like twist on the combat. Will it be good? We'll see.
-Army of Two: The 40th Day; As of this writing I'm currently playing through the original Army of Two. I'm undecided whether a game like this is worth the full price tag, but it's not out of the question.

-The Grinder; I like High Voltage and all, but they are really bad at keeping their fans informed about the games they're working on. They talked up the Grinder a few months ago, then went completely off the radar about it.
-Animales de la Muertes; Another High Voltage game that might as well have been scrapped, for all I know about it. Animales de la Muertes (is that it? can't fully remember the name) was announced what feels like at least a year ago, but we've heard nothing about it. It's just a WiiWare game! How long could it possibly take to develop?
-Metroid: The Other M; Given how badass Samus is, I'm honestly surprised something like this hasn't been done before. Team Ninja (the dudes behind Ninja Gaiden) are co-developing, so I have no doubt this game will have no shortage of awesome alien pwnage.
-Red Steel 2; I have mild hopes for this game. I remember reading about the first Red Steel in Nintendo Power. God that game sounded so ridiculously awesome, and the concept it boasted was one of the reasons I bought a Wii. But then I played it. The game wasn't horrible, but I was sorely disappointed. Maybe with Motion+, Red Steel 2 will deliver.

-Pokemon Heartgold/SoulSilver; I'm fully aware this a blatant attempt to continue milking the franchise that is Pokemon. But I don't care, because you know what? I had the original Gold for Gameboy Color, and that thing quit on me. I loved that game to tears, so I will buy this for nostalgia and because I love Johto's pokemon.

-Guild Wars 2; Fuck you, subscription fees. Why should I buy a game, and only get to play it for a month before I have to continue paying for it? No, to hell with that.
-Kingdom Under Fire 2; This is probably going to be a Games for Windows Live game, which will deter me from buying it. But I know one thing; If hacking n' slashing random dudes in the middle of a crowded battlefield isn't awesome, I might not be sure what is.

There you have it. The list of games I'm looking forward to most at this point in time.