Friday, December 24, 2010

Looking Forward #4

It’s been a while since I wrote a post, so I thought I’d mesh another “inbetweener” with my overdue editorial.

I’ve been playing a lot of games on and off over the past couple weeks.

-Plants vs. Zombies; I like to settle into tower-defense games every now and then, and this is definitely an amusing way to pass the time. It’s not as “addictive” as I thought it might be given its wide acclaim, but I like it. It’s challenging and humorous (I especially like Crazy Dave and the notes that the zombies leave you sometimes). Also, new environments and plants introduced on a regular basis (in addition to the game throwing gameplay curveballs every so often) give good incentive to keep playing. I’ve been playing through it on my Macbook Pro, just got to the backyard. No post on it though.

-Super Smash Brows. Brawl; This is literally the only meaningful game I have ever had for my Wii other than a short stint with Tales of Symphonia 2 (which I never finished). Usually I just Gamefly any other Wii games I feel like playing, and even that’s pretty uncommon. Still, it’s just as fun as it was when I first played it during the spring of..07, was it? I pretty much only play Pokemon Trainer nowadays; he’s really fun to play as, though I hate how vulnerable you are switching pokemon.

-Ace Combat 5: The Unsung War; Just finished a third playthrough this past weekend; this game is just as fun as I remember. The story, characters, thematic elements, and audio all fit together into a surprisingly invigorating package. The ending left me feeling great. Like Ace Combat Zero, I’m probably going to forget the story as a whole in the next couple days, but key elements like Chopper, the “Ghosts of Razgriz”, and the unification of Osean and Yuke pilots to thwart Belka will likely stick with me forever. I might write a post on this.

-Kirby’s Epic Yarn; Wow, I’m kind of disappointed. I love Kirby, and I love his games (hello Kirby 64!), but I had the exact same problem with this that I had with Super Mario Galaxy 2: boredom. The graphics were creative, the theme was creative, and there were certainly some cool gameplay elements, but the game still felt bland somehow. It’s not lack of trophies or “next-gen visuals”, or else I wouldn’t have enjoyed AC5 as immensely as I did. I thought it might have been lack of story combined with the fact that it’s a 2D platformer (a genre I don’t usually enjoy that much), but Kirby is one of the few series in this genre that I do like! I think it’s because it didn’t feel like a Kirby game. I don’t think I’m going to write a post on this.

-Dead Nation; This is a quality title, but man it can be challenging at times! Expect a post when I feel like it.

-Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light; I haven’t actually played this in at least a week, due to Dead Nation overtaking it as my top-down co-op shooter for the time being. Expect a post on it when I feel like it, IF I feel like it.

-Sly Collection; Slowly chugging through this. I beat Sly 1 and now I’m on the second case in Sly 2. Good times. I think I’m going to do an overview post for the title as a whole, rather than posts for each game.

-Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood; I’m still enchanted by this game. I’ve just about polished off most of what the singleplayer has to offer (aside from plenty of death and mischief). Getting 100% sync is going to take FOREVER though (currently at 72%), because I still have guild challenges to do, missions to get full sync on, shops and buildings to renovate, and a few quests left to do. Crappy internet and really long matchmaking times mean I STILL haven’t had more than a couple chances to really sit down and have some fun with the multiplayer.

My only topic for the time being is mobile gaming. I’m not much of a mobile gamer. I have an iPod Touch and DS Lite. I have a number of games for both platforms, but comparatively speaking, I don’t use them that much on a consistent basis. Still, I’ve definitely had my share of good times playing portable games (most of them being immediately related to Pokemon, Phoenix Wright and Custom Robo). There are a couple philosophies that permeate the mobile gaming industry. One is the belief that portable games should be highly accessible, and playable in bite-sized segments. This is the principle that the iPhone App Store is built on. Sure, there’s a large number of “hardcore” offerings available, many of them being ports or carbon copies of console games, but they don’t enjoy nearly as much attention or market penetration as the smaller-scale games such as Angry Birds and Slice it! do. The other philosophy is that portable games should be have just as much scale and oomph as their platform’s hardware allows. Console gaming on the go, if you will. This is the primary method you see on the PSP and DS (especially the former).

There’s definitely a number of compelling cases for either side. God of War: Ghost of Sparta, Dissidia: Final Fantasy, and any number of DS or PSP RPGs both new and classic stand as good examples that the idea of portable games having plenty of scope is certainly not a bad one. But titles representing the other side of the coin pop up just as, if not far more frequently, and are lapped up with less hesitation. The key difference is the customer demographics. Many of those larger games require an install base, either behind the company, franchise, or even the genre to be successful. You can’t just pick up and play a Dragon Quest game without knowing what an RPG is, or whether you enjoy them. You won’t have as much fun, probably. Casual games like Brain Age and Peggle aim for the less gaming-inclined members of society. There’s a sort of “step right up” theme that they present, offering the average person a bit of fun for low cost; no prior knowledge required.

So, as Apple continues to forge a path for casual gamers with the iPod Touch, iPhone and iPad, Nintendo and most likely Sony have their own products coming within the next year or two. Nintendo presents the 3DS, which hopes to draw casuals with its no-glasses 3D capabilities, and mainstream gamers with a surprisingly solid library full of classic remakes, ports and just plain good games. (*ahem* Phoenix Wright vs. Professor Layton). Rumors are swirling real heavily around the existence of the PSP2, which is said to be packing enough power to rival a PS3. Personally I think that’s a stretch, but given the approach they took with the PS3, I wouldn’t be surprised if Sony continued to take the hardware route, strictly upholding the principle that mobile gaming should go hand in hand with console gaming. We’ll see soon enough how well either the 3DS or the PSP’s successor does, and how the App Store (and eventually the Android Market) continues to influence and warp the portable gaming industry. For now at least, I think there’s always money to be had making a small game aimed towards the casual demographic, while developing a larger game will continue to hold some level of risk.

Now, what I’m looking forward to.


-Mass Effect 3; Now that it’s coming to PS3 as well, there is a possibility that I will actually get ME3 for that, but for the moment at least my loyalty lies with the PC version.

-The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim; Well, well well! A new Elder Scrolls game! I’m not really that invested in the series, having not played any past Oblivion--though I’ve heard really cool things about Morrowind--but I became truly addicted to Oblivion when I first played it on PS3 (which I acknowledge was a mistake). The prospect of delving into another hugely open world game like this is pretty daunting, which is the main reason I’m not actually that hyped for Skyrim. But we’ll see.

-Dragon Age 2; I really liked DA Origins, at least until I played ME2, which made it seem a bit bland. But I really, really loved the way the game got you to invest in the story through frequent decisions presented to you, some of which were weighty, with options that each had their pros and cons. It was an amazing showcase of Bioware’s writing ability. Now I’m looking forward to them taking all of that and bringing it into a game that’s actually fun to play, not just great to experience.

-Guild Wars 2; After Guild Wars showed me that an MMO didn’t have to be all PvP and grinding, but could also feature a compelling story and PvE component, I never looked at other games in the genre the same again. Maybe that’s changed in the past couple years, but GW2 is still the only MMO I can see myself playing.

Playstation 3

-LittleBigPlanet 2; It’s a shame they couldn’t get this out in time for the holidays, because it would have gotten huge sales, I think. But the delay only means this will be an even more quality product than it already will be. You’ve got to understand that this is no longer just a platformer; this is a portal to a whole new world of creativity. It’s pretty exciting just to think about the possibilities.

-Dead Space 2; I was surprised to find I enjoyed the first Dead Space quite a bit, what with its engrossing atmosphere, compelling narrative, and dismemberment feature. So I’m really looking forward to its installment AND its PS3-exclusive DS Extraction bonus. Plus the multiplayer sounds kinda interesting; a cat and mouse sorta deal where you have one side playing a squad of marines and the other side playing the necromorphs trying to tear them to pieces. It sounds like something you might get if you mixed AC Brotherhood’s and L4D’s multiplayer’s together.

-inFamous 2; I’m not sure why, but I wasn’t actually that hyped for inFamous 2, even though I enjoyed the first one. However, I get more interested in it every time I read about it.

-Batman: Arkham City; I’m not gonna lie-- this and Mass Effect 3 are probably my MOST anticipated games of 2011. There’s games that I can’t wait to play like LBP2 and Uncharted 3, and then there’s games I’m simply frothing at the mouth for in anticipation. Like this game. Jesus Christ every time I read about this game, I just get more and more excited!

-Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception; Don’t get me wrong, I’m really looking forward to playing this, and it will probably be a day one purchase. But I’m still disappointed that there probably won’t be offline co-op. Naughty Dog will probably find some other way to make it amazing, though.

-Resistance 3; It sounds like they’re trying to take the best of the first and second games and bring them into R3, which is a good thing. As grateful as I am to hear that co-op campaign is back, I still can’t help hoping they bring the separate co-op mode back in some form. It really grew on me. If Halo can do it, why can’t Resistance?

-Ace Combat: Assault Horizon; The announcement trailer for this game was pretty amazing, and I’m certainly hyped for it. But I am disappointed that they’re bringing it into the real world this time. I was really enchanted with the fictional worlds they had dreamt up for previous games. Now I can’t help but feel it looks a lot like “Call of Duty in fighter jets” now.

-SSX: Deadly Descents; Another SSX game! I’ll admit I didn’t see this coming, though it’s definitely not unreasonable. It looks like the series is taking a more serious, grimdark turn, with grizzly-looking dudes fighting for their lives as they snowboard down the most dangerous slopes in the world. If they execute this theme well, it could be really cool. But it sure doesn’t feel like SSX.

-Ratchet and Clank: All 4 One; I had doubts about how well this game would work. I mean a four-player Ratchet and Clank game sounded awesome on paper, but I couldn’t imagine how it could be properly handled, concerning the camera. But after watching a gameplay walkthrough, I was sold. I’m officially looking forward to this game.

-Bioshock Infinite; A Bioshock game that isn’t grimdark? Sure, why not? I haven’t played Bioshock 2, but I played and really enjoyed most of the first game.

-Twisted Metal; This strikes me as being purely a homage to the “good ol’ days”. I never actually played the original Twisted Metal games, but I’ve heard good things about them, and looking at the concept it does sound like good fun.

-Motorstorm: Apocalypse; I’ve always felt the Motorstorm series is a tad under-appreciated. Maybe it’s because the racing genre as a whole isn’t as prominent this generation as it used to be, but they’re all top quality titles. It got my attention with Pacific Rift, and though I didn’t jump on the bandwagon back then, I’m ready to now. Definitely looking forward to this gem.

-Catherine; I wasn’t paying much attention to this until I looked it up on a whim and really read into its concept. Now I’m all ears. The premise is something you could only expect from Japan, with some elements from the eroge, horror, romance, psychological, visual novel, and adventure genres all tossed into one big melting pot. I don’t even fully understand it, but I really want to.

-Metal Gear Solid Rising; After the colossal buffet of plot and everything MGS that was Metal Gear Solid 4, I’m STILL not sure I’m ready for Rising, as cool as it looks. Good thing its not due out for some time, probably.

-Final Fantasy XIII Versus; What with the FF14 fiasco and a lot of people not liking FF13 (though I liked it a lot), this stands as the last thing people may still be looking forward to from Square-Enix, myself included. Here’s truly hoping they don’t mess it up.

-LA Noire; This is another one of those games that I have to read about to really become interested in. And from what I’ve read, it’s going to be pretty great. Rockstar’s had a pretty good track record, so I’m actually confident it will satisfy expectations.

-The Last Guardian; I want to be excited about this game, but given it’s probably not coming out for at least another year, and Team Ico’s still being tight-lipped about its development progress, I’ll just have to put my energy into being excited over other Arkham City.

-Sly 4; Yeah, I think it will come eventually. And Sucker Punch will find some way to make it a good time. That’s all I have to say on the matter.

-No More Heroes: Hero’s Paradise; I liked No More Heroes well enough, but grinding boring tasks to get to each boss killed it for me. I am looking forward to giving it another chance with this port, though.

-Tomb Raider; pure 3rd person action-adventure games likes Jak and Daxter and the Tomb Raider franchise haven't been quite as prominent this generation, even though I enjoy playing them. Even though so far Crystal Dynamics (the developer) has only released screens and a trickle of info on this Lara Croft reboot, it's already piqued my interest, offering a younger and far less experienced Lara stumbling through what appear to be some of her first adventures, promising the addition of a survival element to gameplay. Color me intrigued.


-The Legend of Zelda: The Skyward Sword; I’m beginning to consider selling my Wii. This is the only game on the horizon for it that I’m interested in, and from what I’ve seen of it, even this new Zelda game doesn’t look like it will be as fun as past titles have been. But it’s a Zelda game nonetheless, and thus something worth looking forward to.


-The hardware itself; Though the reported battery life (3-8 hours playing 3DS games) is regrettable, mostly everything else about this new portable tickles my fancy, from unique features like Cross Pass and AR functionality, to the hardware utilities such as 3D cameras and an included charge cradle (New tech, regardless of what it is, is always at least a little exciting to me).

-Tales of the Abyss; This is probably my favorite entry in the Tales series, and it sucks that it's no longer being printed. So imagine my surprise when it was announced it would be remade for DS!

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood

As many people I talk to know well enough, I loved, Assassin’s Creed II. No, let me change that; I love Assassin’s Creed II. I’m not sure it was my game of the year (can’t remember all the games that came out this year but Uncharted 2 was likely a good contender), but if nothing else it was damn close. I was still roaming Florence, Venice, and good ol’ Monterigionni, slaying people as I pleased as Ezio when Ubisoft announced (and indeed, released) Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood. Ezio’s back for another round, and man am I glad.

Firstly, spoilers ahead for those who haven’t finished Assassin’s Creed II. (skip to the next paragraph) Brotherhood starts literally moments after the first one ends, at least in Ezio’s timeline (Desmond’s starts effectively in a similar manner, but I can’t say moments after). Ezio’s got the Apple of Eden, and together with Mario they escape Rome and head back to the villa. The other Assassins and other allies--Machiavelli in particular--aren’t happy that Ezio didn’t opt to finish off Rodrigo Borgia, who is now the Pope. Ezio reasons that the Apple was far more important, but it isn’t long before the Borgia stage their retaliation. A full-frontal assault on Monteriggioni leaves some major characters dead or captured, the villa you may have worked so hard on in shambles (and with it your armory), and the Apple of Eden lost to enemy hands. In a nutshell, you’re back at square one, and once more have a bone to pick with the Borgia.

Meanwhile, Desmond and company are hoping to find out where Ezio stashed the Apple of Eden after he retrieved it from the Borgia. To this end, Desmond jumps into the Animus once more to find out precisely where he put it, but the memory pertaining to this appears to be broken. They discover that the memory repairs itself as Desmond continues to live Ezio’s life leading up to this mysterious segment.

Brotherhood really is a direct sequel to AC2 in every way. There’s a very brief recap shown at the beginning like in AC2, but to be honest if you hadn’t at least played the previous numbered entry it would probably be difficult to pick up, especially given AC2’s twist ending (hoo boy; Brotherhood’s ending is a doozy). This really is purely a case of the gameplay being updated rather than completely overhauled or redesigned. Combat still works pretty much exactly the same as it did in AC2, with you being able to taunt enemies, grab them, dodge attacks, strafe, guard, and pull off counters and disarms (with the former resulting in a satisfyingly brutal kill). There are now some minor changes and tweaks, though. For example, enemies can now grab you (like how you could grab them), and attack a little more tenaciously. Attacks have more weight to them, with the camera shifting and the controller rumbling appropriately. You also can’t guard continuously. Taking hits continuously will smash through your guard, with some weapons being more suited to guarding attacks than others (for example, you can’t guard at all with your fists, and the hidden blade only blocks an attack sometimes). Ezio also locks on with his gun much quicker. Apparently Ubisoft realized how important counters and parries were to combat in AC2, because now they’re the name of the game, and it’s much easier to pull off a successful counter now.

The game assumes that you acquired pretty much every upgrade in AC2, so in Brotherhood you’ll be decked out in the Armor of Altair (for a little while anyway, before it gets destroyed), all the capacity upgrades (throwing knives, medicine, etc.), and such. All of the weapons from AC2 return, including the arm pistol, dual hidden blades, poison, and the ability to throw money. You also start off with the extra moves already learned, like throwing dust to blind your opponents and the climb-leap. Even though you lose them early on, you gain most of them back very quickly (or they at least become accessible). The game takes the special moves that the heavy weapons had and takes it a step further by giving most of the other weapons some kind of extension attack if you hold the button down instead of press it. For example, you can use the pistol with the sword equipped to kill a fleeing guard without having to open the weapon wheel. Speaking of heavy weapons, you can buy them and carry them around with you now (excited yet?). There’s nothing like strolling through town with a bastard sword strapped to your side, huh? Other new stuff you can carry on you include a crossbow (which is an insta-kill like the gun, but has more ammo and doesn’t make noise) and poison darts, which let you poison people from a distance.

The biggest change to the combat though is the ability to chain kills, and with that comes new finishers. And boy, does this speed up the pace of battle. I can NOT believe how I got through the last game without the ability to do this. Basically, by pulling off a finisher on one enemy, you can roll right into executing another nearby enemy, Batman-style. This improves the flow of battle immensely, bringing it a step closer to Arkham Asylum’s brawling system. I mentioned new finishers, right? Well firstly, you can now melee-finish enemies from the front, like you could with your bladed weapons, so there’s no longer a need to even draw a weapon when dispatching lone enemies that you can’t catch from behind. Beyond a few new exclusive animations for each weapon (like Ezio thrusting his sword right into an enemy’s throat), Ezio now integrates his arm pistol into kills sometimes, like grabbing an enemy by the neck with his gun arm and firing.

I may have alluded to this previously, but very little has changed since AC2 in terms of gameplay. The guard response, blending, and free-run systems are all almost exactly the same, with the exception of a new free-run mechanic called the lift, which takes you instantly to the top of a structure if you run towards it. The biggest difference comes in the sheer amount of new stuff to do, on top of what you could already do in AC2, virtually all of which has also returned. The platforming-centric underground areas are back in the form of Romulus tombs, which each contain a key needed to unlock the best armor and dagger in the game. And the quests, oh man the quests! The thief, courtesan and mercenary guilds are back, and bigger than ever. In addition to still having respective representatives stationed around available for hire like in AC2, each guild has their own series of quest lines. Furthermore, you have a slew of miscellaneous unrelated memories (what the game calls quests) involving citizens that are having trouble with Templar agents. Still more, Leonardo’s back, and since the last game the Borgia family have forced him to make them war machines, so you have several quests involving the destruction of those machines. Still more, you have a series of totally random quests unrelated to ANYTHING about a particularly lovely girl in Ezio’s past. Assassination missions are also back.

And that’s not even half of the stuff you can do. The villa upgrade system is back in a BIG way. Rome is in shambles due to the Borgia’s shoddy rule, with most of the shops closed and many buildings closed. With enough florins, you can change that. Instead of renovating one of each type of shop, there’s several of each shop spread out across the city (obviously). The aqueduct system is also out of order. You can fix that. There’s empty buildings you can fill with either courtesans, mercenaries, or thieves. With the revenue of an entire city flowing to you every 20 minutes, you’ll be making bank. The shops also have special items you can unlock in exchange for special trade items you can find in treasure chests or on enemies. There’s even a set of VR missions! You can test your mettle in combat challenges, timed runs, stealth assassinations, and one or two others I’m probably forgetting. Feathers are back, though there’s only 10 of them this time. But don’t worry, because there’s also 100 Borgia flags to collect!

Now…let’s talk about the reason Brotherhood is called what it is. When you first arrive in Rome, the Borgia have an iron grip on the place, which is carried out most directly through the several Borgia towers dotted across the map. The city is split up into sections/territories, which are each watched over by a tall tower overlooking a guard outpost. Strolling around either in the tower or somewhere nearby it is the captain of the outpost. To remove Borgia control from the area (reducing the amount of guards present and making it possible to renovate stuff), you’ll have to kill infiltrate the outpost, kill the captain, and light the tower on fire, telling the citizens that their oppression is now a thing of the past. It’s a shame there’s only a few more than a handful of these towers, because this represents some of the most fun you’ll have in the game (which is saying a lot, considering how much fun you’ll have and much stuff there is to do).

It’s about time the Assassins began expanding their ranks, which is why Ezio, now a Master Assassin, plays the recruiter in this game. Freeing an area from Borgia control opens up a slot for a recruit in your guild. When this happens you’ll encounter citizens rebelling against the guards. Help one out and he/she will join your guild.

There are two things you can do with the recruits now that they’re in your guild. The first thing is you can send them on missions across Europe. The Order is expanding its operations, but Ezio is occupied in Rome, so instead you can send your assassin recruits to carry out various tasks ranging in difficulty from delivering a letter to carrying out espionage in another country’s royal court, or assassinating key Templars in other parts of the continent. The other thing you can do is keep them with you as Assassin Signals. By looking at a nearby guard, you can press L2 to use one Assassin Signal (which regenerates after a couple minutes), which will summon your assassins to off the guy. Sometimes they might ride in on horses, other times they may strike from above, or from a haystack, either way they’ll get the job done, and take care of anyone else that gets in their way before making themselves scarce. They’ll also help you out in combat. As they off guards you shake your fist at or complete missions, recruits will gain XP and new levels, RPG style. With new levels comes new equipment to use. By the time your assassins reach level 10, they’ll have smoke bombs swords, daggers, their own hidden blades (one per recruit, of course) and arm pistols, and eventually even their own Assassin outfit reminiscent of Ezio’s. A recruit’s ascension to full-blown “Assassino” is a little more celebrated than your typical level-up, but I’ll leave that little bit as a surprise. I will say that it’s very satisfying seeing someone you picked up off the street ambush a group guards with a smoke bomb before expertly moving in for the kill, while decked out in the elite Assassin garb. So with an entire Assassin brotherhood at your back, as capable as Ezio is by himself, you’ll no longer feel like you’re in this on your own.

So! Let’s tally it up. In addition to the main story, you have a series of quests for each of the three main guilds, a bunch of Templar agents to assassinate, tombs to raid, a girl to reminisce on, war machines to destroy, a city to renovate, chests to raid, VR missions to try, targets to assassinate, feathers and flags to collect, Borgia towers to destroy, and a guild to run. Whew. And that’s on top of how fun it is to just run around killing guards like some sort of freedom fighter. Also, Subject 16’s puzzles are back.

And the amazing thing isn’t the staggering volume of content, it’s the variety present among it. Each the missions have a different flavor to them. The Christina missions (the afore-mentioned lovely girl of Ezio’s past) take you back to Ezio’s younger days, meaning they run mostly parallel to the events of AC2. For example, one mission takes place right after Ezio’s father is killed and before he gets the hidden blade repaired. So you’ll have to carry it out stealthily. Many of the Courtesan missions involve stalking a target before performing the kill. Each of the Borgia Towers and their captains are located in different locales, requiring different approaches and presenting different challenges. One of the Romulus tombs has you searching a masquerade party (which for some reason is going on underground) for a hidden target, while another has you sneaking into a church session and ends in an epic chase across the rooftops, attics, and generally places very high up from the ground. One of the storyline missions has you fending off an army. Each of the war machine destruction missions are also widely different from one another, though they all end with you getting to pilot the given contraption, with the vehicles themselves ranging from a bomber (which is basically the flying machine with a cannon strapped to it), to a tank.

One final addition is challenges. Almost every mission, story-related or not, has a side objective you can pull off to achieve 100% synchronization. Challenges can range from killing targets a certain way, not getting hit or detected to finishing within a given time limit or never touching the ground. With this comes the ability to replay memories and missions, with unlockable cheats enabled if you so choose.

However, it’s not all good times. As a game developed in a single year’s time, it’s amazing that this game is as good as it is, but that probably has to do with the devs saving time by not really updating the engine. Brotherhood’s graphics are exactly the same as AC2’s, with some perhaps very minor touch ups to character models. The graphics are still pretty good, but compared to some other AAA series, the engine hasn’t aged well. For one thing, the game almost never runs at what would be called a buttery smooth framerate, and dips quite often. It also froze a couple times during my playthrough. Load screens aren’t especially prevalent, but there are some moments (like when loading the map or pause screen) where the game takes a little longer than expected. Frankly, even AC2 ran a little better than this. To be clear, I’m not saying the game is a buggy mess, but it still looks like it could have used more polish in the technical department.

However, once again the developers did an excellent job building a living, believable world to roam in. For one thing, there’s a level of NPC activity present here that you’d only expect from a Rockstar game. The populace once again have limited minds of their own. You’ll overhear a variety of conversations (many of them concerning you), as you stroll down the street, and often observe a wide set of mannerisms. Some particularly disgruntled people will even aid you in battle if you find yourself in a scuffle with guards. Furthermore, the city is full of unique architecture and landmarks, from the Castel Sant’Angelo to the Pantheon. Many of them, such as the Colosseum, are simply breathtaking. The music is also just as enchanting as it was in the first game (in particular, I’m a fan of the BGM that plays as you roam Moneteriggioni in 2012), and the dialogue is delivered very well.

The main story in Brotherhood, while not bad by any means, is one of the few, if only areas that is, at least in my opinion, inferior to that of AC2. And that’s not simply because it is shorter (if I had to guesstimate, I’d say Brotherhood is approximately 2/3 as long as AC2 purely in terms of plot length). AC2’s story was one that spanned entire decades, with the player witnessing and playing through segments of Ezio’s life ranging from the moment of his birth, to his induction into the Assassin Order as a young man, and finally to his acquiring the Apple of Eden as an adult Master Assassin. The player guided him through the wrongful execution of half his family, and as he learned what it meant to be a Assassin. Brotherhood lacks that scope. Instead we see Ezio mentor a new generation of assassins, which is great, but it just doesn’t have that magical feel that I loved so much about AC2’s plot.

Meanwhile, Desmond’s story doesn’t move forward that much either. However there is much more character interaction than there was in AC2. The game begins with Lucy and Desmond exploring the catacombs underneath the Monteriggioni villa, searching for a hidden entrance. As they travel together, they chat it up, cracking jokes and one liners at each other the whole way. This suddenly cheery atmosphere felt abrupt coming from the somewhat more grave atmosphere that was previously present. Incidentally, now you can leave the animus any time you want and talk to the other characters (they get some new dialogue options periodically as you progress through Ezio’s story). You can even get some fresh air, spending some time outside, and roaming a now-deserted Monteriggioni.

Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood improves on its predecessor in almost, almost every way. The combat is better, the world is better, and holy jeez the volume of content is way better. I was really looking forward to some more adventures with Ezio Auditore, even if it was more of the same, and this game has sated my appetite perfectly. That said, I’m definitely ready for Ubisoft to make the next big transition, like they did from 1 to 2. Another merely iterative approach at this point would be very disappointing. For now though, this game gets a 9.5/10 from me. This really is a case of "more of the same", which is great if, like me, you really got a kick out of AC2. But on the other hand, this game (apart from the multiplayer) might not change your mind if you didn't like its predecessor.

*Note: Brotherhood also features a full suite of online multiplayer. The reason I didn’t talk about it in this post is because I haven’t had the chance to spend a lot of time with it. I HAVE played a few hours with it though, and it is really innovative. I think I’ll just do a separate post on it. The score was still granted with the multiplayer in mind, however.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney: Trials and Tribulations

I wasn’t planning to write another post about a Phoenix Wright game, because to be honest, very little changes between the games, outside of plot and characters. Trials and Tribulations is the third game in the series, and currently the final one featuring Phoenix as the starring character. You’re still a defense lawyer, with the gameplay segments broken up between court and investigation phases.

Someone accused of murder comes to you for help, to prove them innocent, and during the investigation phase you set out to learn more about the case, and gather clues and evidence that will help you in court. You’ll examine various locales and talk to various characters new and old. One new gameplay element introduced in Justice for All (the previous game) is the addition of Psyche-Locks. Frequently you’ll meet characters who aren’t giving you the full story. Maya’s Magatama will react to lies, and the person in possession of it (usually Phoenix) will see a varying number of locks around the lier in question, indicating they’re hiding something. With the number of locks representing how badly they want to keep the secret, Phoenix will have to blow away each lock by presenting evidence that contradicts their excuses, eventually forcing them to tell the truth. It’s just like finding contradictions in court.

What I came back to talk about was the story, by which I was thoroughly impressed. Even though each case throughout the series thus far has had its own, fully fleshed out story, there’s also been one overarching plot slowly developing since the first game, involving Phoenix and the entire Fey Clan. This plot comes to a finale during the 5th case, which is is epic. All the major characters come back for this case, including Franziska von Karma, Dahlia Hawthorne, Mia Fey, and even Edgeworth, who you even get to play as for a while!

The 5th case, and indeed, the entire game ends the entire trilogy on an amazing note, and left me wanting more, only to be saddened when I realized this was the last Ace Attorney game with Phoenix as a playable character. A 9/10.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Enslaved: Odyssey to the West

This past few days, I’ve had the Sly Collection, Enslaved, and Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood in my hands. I’ve been switching between the three at intervals. For the moment, I’m gonna talk about Enslaved: Odyssey to the West.

Enslaved is a bit of oddity. It’s another one of those games where the story takes precedent above all else. As a result, while the graphical fidelity, voice acting, and overall production values are all very good, but the gameplay suffers a little for it.

This all-important story revolves around two characters (and later three): Trip and Monkey. Trip is a beautiful, curvaceous young woman with some impressive tech skills (you don’t see too many of those these days). She probably failed a couple PE classes when she was younger. Monkey is large, musclebound dude who’s as agile as he is strong. He doesn’t have any relatives, or even a name (Monkey is a just a nickname some people call him after seeing his climbing skills), and drifts through the land aimlessly.

The story is set 150 years in the future, long after a global war ravaged the planet, leaving nothing but ruins and wastelands. Now, mechs roam the surface, killing or capturing any remaining humans that they encounter and carting them off to some destination in the west using flying slave ships.

Monkey and Trip are held aboard one such slave ship. Trip manages to escape using her hacking skills, and when an explosion dislodges his container, Monkey follows suit. Whatever Trip did to escape did a number on the ship, because it crashes in the remains of New York. But not before Trip and Monkey can get away in an escape pod. Monkey’s menacing demeanor apparently gave Trip the wrong impression however, because she fits a hacked slave headband onto his head after they land while he’s unconscious.

With the headband on, Trip can make voice commands that cause Monkey immeasurable pain and eventually death if he fails to heed them. Her request is simple: her home is a few hundred miles to the west; if Monkey can get her there in one piece, she’ll take the headband off. If she dies, the headband is coded to kill Monkey as well, so he has no choice but to accept. And thus the duo’s journey to the West gets off to a shaky start.

Prince of Persia (the ‘08 game) had a cool dynamic where you had two characters, one player controlled and the other computer-controlled, who had to work closely together to accomplish a goal. Along the way, they eventually developed a bond. Enslaved features a similar mechanic. As you might expect, Monkey and Trip’s relationship starts off pretty uncertain. Trip retains a sunny disposition toward Monkey for the most part, but he is (understandably) unable to reciprocate her efforts. However, the land is littered with mechs and other hazards, so they’ll need each other’s skills to stay alive.

Besides being able to get to many places Trip can’t using his expert climbing skills, Monkey uses his raw strength, an energy shield, and a staff for protection. He’s able to take the mechs head on, clearing the way for Trip. He has a good sense of survival, and is often the one to notice when there’s danger afoot. Trip is a tech wizard, able to hack just about anything to suit her needs. She’s a tad clumsy though, and frequently needs Monkey to help her cross gaps or throw her up to a ledge. Though at first Monkey sees her as little more than a burden, she shows her worth. Trip is able to upgrade Monkey’s equipment and abilities to increase his survivability (and, indeed her own in turn). She can also use a dragonfly camera to scout the area ahead for Monkey, letting him know of anything she spots, such as mechs and turrets. She can transmit relevant information directly into his headband, to better show Monkey where he needs to go, or what he needs to do, for them to progress. Trip can also distract the mechs with a holographic decoy, allowing Monkey to flank them.

These two will need each other’s skills to survive the journey, something that even Monkey realizes early on. And when he does, this is also when the two begin to develop something a bit more pleasant than animosity.

That’s enough about the story and background; let’s talk gameplay. Well, it really is just filler. The game is at its strongest when it’s either playing a cutscene or having the player work together closely with Trip. For example, you’ll often encounter areas that are under the watch of automated turrets. Monkey’s shield will withstand some punishment before he starts taking fire, but for him to get close enough to neutralize the turret, he’ll need Trip to distract the turret so he can get by safely. Likewise, sometimes Trip will need Monkey to distract turrets for her so that she can move safely. Cooperative movements such as these aren’t always that complex, either. For example, occasionally Monkey will toss Trip across a gap, only for her to not make it the whole way and grab onto the ledge, requiring the player to jump across and help her up before she falls.

Unfortunately, areas that require close coordination with Trip aren’t as common as I hoped they would be. More often than not, the two will have to momentarily part ways, with Trip either hanging behind on the computer, or taking the direct route, while Monkey either takes the scenic route or has to cover her by fending off assaulting mechs.

Which brings me to combat. Most of the game, the controls feel a bit sluggish to me, but during combat they’re more responsive. Though the game goes to some lengths to shake things up, the combat is mostly a simple affair. You have a light attack and a strong attack, and the ability to block. There are a few variations on the typical mooks that you’ll encounter, each requiring just a little bit more thought, but for the most part you can probably get by with just button mashing, to be honest. While I found the combat to be enjoyable, it still feels like filler content.

In terms of gameplay, the biggest problem I have with Enslaved is the same problem many other story-dominated games suffer from; hand-holding. When you’re climbing, each handhold is highlighted, telling you precisely where to go next. It’s often not even possible to fall to your death, whether you’re climbing up a wall or walking on your own two feet. Many interactions is explained with a giant bar across the screen, saying “press X to throw her up” or “press O to finish him/her off”. The gameplay doesn’t feel linear, per se, just shallow at times.

Back to the good stuff. The world of Enslaved is atypical of what you might have come to expect from the post-apocalyptic theme. With mankind near demolished, Mother Nature has retaken the planet. As a result, the world is a surprisingly bright place, saturated with color (most dominantly green). This came as a pleasant surprise, very refreshing. Unfortunately, the game almost never ran at a smooth framerate (save for cutscenes), with the visuals coasting right between smooth and jittery. I also noticed some visual glitches such as pop-in, slow-down, and objects (such as tech orbs) disappearing. During my playthrough the game never once froze, though. Furthermore, I wanted to give special mention to the animation, which is superb. The facial animation in particular is probably the best I’ve seen since Heavy Rain and Uncharted 2. There are often times in the game where characters are able to communicate believably just by contorting their faces; lesser games would have required spoken dialogue to get the same point across. The audio is also very good. The voice acting is a treat to listen to, and the BGMs serve their purpose well. As I said, the productions values are excellent.

Enslaved’s strength lies in its presentation and concept. The characters (what few of them there are) are all quite likable, and the overall plot is good. I was, however disappointed by the ending, but your mileage may vary. Not all of the developers ideas are as consistently well executed as I might have hoped, but when they do all come together, Enslaved shines very bright indeed. A 7.5/10.