Monday, April 26, 2010

Mass Effect 2

There's something really awesome about playing as a galactic hero, commanding the most advanced ship known to man, with a crew composed of some of the most skilled and talented people in the galaxy. This is what Mass Effect 2 does, and thus it's already getting points with me.

Mass Effect 2 starts off right after the end of Mass Effect. The Alliance and galactic governments have downplayed the entire affair with Saren (a rogue Spectre) and Sovereign (a gigantic, partially organic and sentient ship that is a part of a race of antagonistic beings known as Reapers), sending main character Commander Shepard off to hunt down any remaining rogue Geth in the Normandy. Shepard and his crew know that they're really probably just being sent away so that the higher-ups can forge a story to quell public fear (because Sovereign was just one of thousands of Reapers still out there somewhere in the universe), but they know the truth.

Apparently, the governments weren't the only ones who wanted Shepard out of the way, however. At the beginning of the Mass Effect 2, the Normandy is attacked by an unidentified alien cruiser. The ship proves too powerful, and Shepard's frigate is quickly sunk. With his help, most of the crew escapes, but Shepard him/herself is blown out into space, seemingly lost forever in the dark void.

The game then fast forwards two years later. Shepard's body was recovered by the pro-human organization Cerberus, and using the best equipment and scientists, and a whole lot of money, was fully rebuilt. The Commander's recovery is cut-off a tad early though, when the facility comes under attack. Getting through this serves as the game's tutorial for basic movements, teaching you how to take cover, sprint, use the command menu to access personal and squad powers, and use medi-gel.

Evacuating the facility, Shepard is taken to one of Cerberus's primary bases of operations, where he/she is invited to speak with the Illusive Man, the organization's mysterious and enigmatic leader. The Illusive Man explains that the Normandy's downfall and Shepard's death was the work of the Collectors, a race of aliens so rare they are publicly considered a myth. The Illusive Man reveals that the Collectors have begun to kidnap entire human colonies. The strange thing is, there's never evidence indicating a struggle. One day they're there, the next the entire colony is deserted. The Illusive Man believes they are rounding up humans and taking them to their base, which is believed to be located in some uncharted space beyond the mysterious Omega-4 Relay. For what purpose they're doing this, nobody knows.

The Illusive Man tasks Shepard with finding out the Collectors' motives, and stopping them. But for all his skill and experience, Shepard is still just one human. To take the fight to the Collectors, he's going to need a team. A team of the most skilled people in the universe.

That team begins with Miranda Lawson and Jacob Taylor, who you first meet on the facility you were rebuilt in. Miranda was the director of the project to revive you, and features heavy genetic modification herself. She is curt with Shepard at the beginning of the game, but it's possible to get her to soften up to you. Besides being a strong biotic and a capable strategist, Miranda is focused (almost to a fault), and completely loyal to those that prove themselves worthy of her trust.

As the head of security at the facility, Jacob proves to be a bit more likable at first glance. A former Alliance Corsair, Jacob knows his way around a gun, and proves it when he escorts you to the evacuation area of the facility. Jacob is a bit more laid-back and headstrong than Miranda, but that also makes him a sensible and dependable ally.

The rest of your team must be gathered from across the galaxy. The Illusive Man will keep a steady stream of recommendations coming your way via dossiers containing information on those he thinks might be worthy additions to your cause. Examples of such additions include Thane Krios, a highly skilled assassin, and the salarian scientist Mordin, who is not only a brilliant scientist but a capable combatant, having run with the Salarian Special Forces for some time.

But the Normandy is gone, remember? Shepard's going to need a new ship to house his band of buddies. A ship capable of braving whatever waits beyond the Omega-4 relay. Fortunately, Shepard wasn't the Illusive Man's only big budget project related to the destruction of the Collectors.

Enter the Normandy SR-2, the most advanced frigate in the galaxy. Building off the original Normandy's overall specs, Cerberus installed multiple upgrades across the board, including stronger weapons, a custom quantum comm interface, some civilian class comfort standards, and a powerful AI. The new Normandy is twice as large as the old one though, so it uses a landing shuttle, instead of landing on planets itself. The Illusive Man even tracked down Joker and brought him back as the pilot.

The Normandy is composed of 4 primary decks. The topmost deck, also called the loft, is Shepard's cabin. Here you can choose your casual (aboard the Normandy) and mission (everywhere else) clothes and armor, respectively. The regular armor can be customized with various pieces found across the galaxy. The cabin is also home to some displays of Shepard's accomplishments (including a way to check your achievement progress), as well as a message terminal, where you can read messages sent to you by the Illusive Man and other characters you meet in your travels.

Deck 2 is the CIC, or Combat Information Center. It's arguably the most important one of the bunch, as it contains the Galaxy Map, which you'll use to travel to different locations. Located just beside the galaxy map is your yeoman, Kelly Chambers. Kelly is a quirky but very friendly character. She's also unofficially the ship's psychiatrist. Kelly is useful not only because she announces whenever you have a new message at your terminal, but can also tell you how the other crew members are doing. If someone on the team needs to speak with you, she'll tell you. The CIC also contains the ship armory, where you can customize your loadout, and the comm room, which acts as conference room and also houses the comm interface for conversations with the Illusive Man. At the front of the ship is the cockpit, where you'll find Joker. Joker always has a thing or two to say, either about the people you're picking up, or the status of the mission, but he can be insightful at times, so it pays to hear him out.

Deck 3 is home to most of the crew, featuring the primary crew quarters, a lounge/cafeteria, and a small medical bay (among other things). Deck 4 is Engineering, where you can view the ship's massive energy core, and also the cargo bay. Much of the Normandy is closed off at first, but as you pick up more squadmates, they occupy previously locked rooms, allowing you to explore them.

Once you unlock the science lab, you'll be able to research and obtain upgrades for both your team and the ship. Most or all of them can be useful in the right situation, so it pays to get them regularly. Upgrades include enhanced ship armor, larger ammo magazines, more health, and more efficient biotic usage.

Getting your team together is only half the battle though. Taking on the Collectors with just a frigate-sized crew is pretty much already a suicide mission, and it's highly likely the journey past the Omega-4 relay will be a one-way trip. To even have a hope of surviving, the team has to go in as a band of brothers/sisters, completely focused, with no regrets. To do this, you need to get to know your comrades on a personal level by seeking them out on the Normandy and talking to them on a regular basis. Some characters will be more approachable than others, but with time, all of them can learn to trust you enough to dedicate their loyalty to you.

And then there's Commander Shepard him/herself. A galactic hero. The first human Spectre. And an excellent leader. The really cool thing about Shepard is that he/she is whoever you want him/her to be. The fact that he/she was rebuilt gave Bioware an excuse to shape Shepard's character however you want. You choose Shepard's past, gender, even personality and combat class. Shepard has two primary personality tracks, and Bioware's patented branching dialogue trees return, allowing you to choose Shepard's responses in each conversation. Certain choices give you points in his/her two personality tracks, Renegade and Paragon. A new feature in the conversation system is spontaneous actions, which allow you to interrupt other people with a scripted Paragon or Renegade action.

A Paragon Shepard is friendly, romantic, and somewhat idealistic. He/She is able to rally crowds with powerful words of encouragement, and console saddened teammates with relative ease. Paragon Shepard is always looking for a peaceful way out, and always seems to know what's best. An example of a Paragon interruption would be to immediately reach out and verbally comfort someone who's on the verge of tears, or seize and dismantle the pistol of an eager youngster who obviously hasn't seen a real battlefield. Higher Paragon points allow you to charm people and peacefully convince them to see your perspective.

People will question the methods of a Renegade Shepard, but not his/her results. Renegade Shepard doesn't take crap from anybody, and can't be bothered to sit around dealing with people who can't keep up with him/her. An example of a Renegade action would be headbutting a krogan who is in the middle of scoffing at you for being a "weak human", or punching a suspect square in the jaw during an interrogation to show that you're not kidding around. Higher Renegade actions allow you to intimidate those who would argue with you.

The Paragon/Renegade system is quite satisfying, and encourages multiple playthroughs to experience the game in full. There is one minor problem it introduces, however. As you progress through the game, you'll encounter dialogue choices that require a certain amount of points in either Paragon or Renegade to choose. Many of these choices are ideal ones, and can lead to better outcomes than the regular options. Like for example, not all teammates get along, and a few will eventually get into heated arguments. You have to sort them out, but unless you are almost completely full in either personality track, you're going to have to pick a side, losing loyalty with the person who you don't side with. A character's loyalty is literally one of the deciding factors dictating whether they live or die at the end of the game, so it can feel like if you're not constantly pursuing points in a single track, you risk your squad suffering casualties later on; consequences that will carry over to Mass Effect 3.

When you're not chatting it up with other characters or roaming the Normandy, you're likely traveling the galaxy. It's a big place, to be sure. The world map of Mass Effect 2 is split up into about a dozen nebulas, which each usually contain 2-4 star systems, which in turn each have their own solar system of planets. You jump between nebulas with the use of Mass Relays, which interface with normal FTL drives and slingshot ships extremely far distances near-instantaneously. Though only a small fraction of the planets in the galaxy actually have visitable locations (much less mission-relevant ones), that doesn't mean it doesn't pay to look around.

Each planet secretes a set amount of valuable resources and minerals, which can be spent on upgrades. To obtain resources, you have to enter the planet's orbit, then set about scanning its surface. When you hit a spike, you can launch a probe to collect the deposit. This mining operation represents one of the few minigames in Mass Effect 2, and while it's not one of the game's funner points, it's nice thing to just settle into. And since those resources are the only way to buy upgrades, it's not like it doesn't pay to spend some time with it.

What relatively few planetary locations you can explore, you'll be visiting multiple times for different missions. So it's a good thing that they're not only expansive, but fully realized and very unique. Examples include Omega, a lawless space station where gangs duke it out for power, and the innocent try to scrape out a living. Its primary attraction is an eclectic nightclub run by the enigmatic Aria. There's dancing, drinks, and the obligatory shady business going on in some of the side rooms. Another example is Illium is a popular trade center, where it's said that literally anything can be bought (including people), if you know who to talk to. Because of its very lax regulations, one is advised against signing anything.

You'll visit such locations both to do some surface-side shopping, and to complete missions. Primary missions are those that have you searching out people on your dossiers. They tend to be rather elusive though, so you'll have to do some investigating, and talk to residents to pick up their trail. As people like assassins and vigilantes (the type of people you'll find yourself recruiting) are often surrounded in trouble, tracking down potential squadmates usually results in a few firefights.

General combat in Mass Effect 2 is composed of 3rd person shooting. You take cover to avoid enemy fire, and can sprint and melee in a pinch. Things are mixed up a bit with biotics, which are sort of like super powers. In addition to regular shooting, biotics add some strategic value to fights by giving you various ways weaken your enemies.

In addition, your general role in combat is determined by your chosen character class, just like in an RPG. Each character class has access to varying portions of the weapons and biotic powers. Soldiers can use all weapons (except SMGs), but cannot use any biotics beyond weapon powers. Infiltrators are snipers, and have exclusive access to the tactical cloak power, which lets them disappear for a few seconds. Adepts are full-on biotics, relying less on weapons and more on ranged powers and a powerful biotic charge that lets them slam into enemies from afar. Vangaurds are a bit Adept and a bit Soldier. Engineers use tech powers that let them hack robotic enemies and summon drones.

But you're not just a soldier, you're a commander! Whenever you leave the Normandy, you pick two people from your band of buddies to accompany you as henchmen. Each potential squadmate has varying strengths and weaknesses, and access to different powers and weapons, like you. Miranda is a capable biotic, but uses only pistols and submachine guns. Jacob has a couple biotic powers, but relies more on weapons to get the job done.

In battle, your squadmates are as responsive to your commands as your left and right arms. You give them orders via the command menu, which can be called up any time during a firefight. The command menu lets you use your own powers and switch your own weapons, as well as those of your comrades. You point at an enemy and click on a teammate's available power, and he/she uses it immediately on the targeted victim.

Combat in Mass Effect 2 is a very linear and straightforward affair, making it compare unfavorably to the game's more open-ended features. But it's still very enjoyable. Weapons come in several typical classes (shotguns, sniper rifles, assault rifles, etc.), with a couple weapons of minor variation in each class. Weapons themselves don't really have stats. The idea is to either augment your ammo to fit the situation, or simply change weapons. There are a few different "enchantment" powers, such as Cryo ammo which freezes nonshielded enemies after a few shots, leaving them vulnerable to shattering, and Disruptor ammo, which is designed to slice through shields and robotic enemies with its EMP qualities.

For a part-RPG, Mass Effect 2 features little in the way of side content. But what side missions present are substantial, and relevant to the survival of your team. That's because most of the actual missions (known as loyalty missions) are carried out as favors for your teammates. For example, Jacob hasn't spoken with his father in years, and their relationship has fallen out. But he eventually learns that the ship his father was commanding went off the radar some time ago, supposedly crashing into a nearby planet. You have the option of going there and investigating what happened, which serves as Jacob's loyalty mission. Each character's loyalty mission explores that person's past, and completing it raises their loyalty, which helps ensure their survival in the final battle. For some, it can also open up romance options.

In addition to this, if you buy Mass Effect 2 brand new, you are given free access to the Cerberus Network, which Bioware uses as medium to release free DLC (such as another recruit, or the original Normandy's crash site).

Mass Effect 2 is a beautiful game. Character models are clear and detailed, and the game makes excellent use of depth of field and blur to increase the feeling of realism. Each environment is remarkably unique, from the dark and murky alleys of Omega to the bright and sterile hallways of the Normandy. Every location has a visual style to call its own.

The soundtrack is filled with tons of moody and mostly forgettable space themes, but the more exciting moments in the game (the Normandy SR2's reveal) are done justice with just as exciting BGMs. The voice acting, on the other hand, is phenomenal. Regardless of whether he/she is male or female, and regardless of what options you choose in conversations, Shepard is fully voiced, and voiced with skill and enthusiasm at that. Other characters are given similar treatment.

Mass Effect 2 isn't the perfect game. There's an annoying bug where you sometimes find yourself stuck up high on a wall. The Paragon/Renegade system is mildly flawed, and combat doesn't stack up well against the game's better features. But the voice acting is exemplary, the graphics are excellent, and with multiple ways for Shepard's journey to play out and end as well as an entire galaxy to explore, the game's hardly lacking replay value. This game does so many things right, what few faults it has are immediately and easily forgivable. That's why Mass Effect 2 is getting my first 10 rating. A 10/10.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Games I'm Looking Forward To #3

It's that time again, folks.  Welcome to the Games I'm Looking Forward To editorial, where I discuss games I have on my radar, as well as the industry as a whole.
The gaming industry never ceases to surprise and interest me.  I've seen two new major trends develop since I last wrote a discussion post; game quality consistency and motion controls.  I'll start with the latter.
I hear people complain and scoff at the Wii all the time.  From what I've heard, it's attach rate (amount of people that actually continue to regularly play the console months after buying it) is incredibly low compared to other consoles, which makes sense since the system was essentially pitched on a single gimmick (it's surpassed by other platforms in pretty much every other way); motion controls.  Complain all you want people, that idea Nintendo managed to evoke through a gigantic marketing push has stuck, which is why the Wii has been soaring over other consoles since the very beginning of this generation, in terms of sales, despite the 360's one year head start.  While it is starting to wane significantly (the PS3 surpassed it in sales once or twice in the past couple months), there's no doubt that this has been a very profitable little venture for Nintendo.  As a result, we've also seen a change in the Big N, one that's not so necessarily positive.  Having apparently grown fat from their success, Nintendo seems content to spend most of their time remaking and reiterating on their classic franchises.  Money that could have been spent on development resources for more innovation, or new IPs is instead dumped into advertising, making sure everybody on the planet and their grandma has heard of the Wii.  This is an unhealthy thing, because compared to other platforms, the Wii's 3rd party support is very poor.  AAA games made by devs outside of Nintendo only come once in a blue moon, it seems, and with the Wii's own 1st-party support losing steam as well, the other reputation it's gained (for spawning mostly poor-quality motion games) will also stick.  If Nintendo doesn't step up their game, the Wii will become a sinking ship.  With its fad-like status dying out, the system's flaws (stripped down online multiplayer, lack of processing power, etc.) are beginning to tug that much harder.
Nevertheless, the Wii has had the same effect on gaming that the iPhone had on mobile devices.  Now we have Sony and Microsoft jumping on the motion control bandwagon, trying to get a piece of Nintendo's success.  Microsoft is at least going bold with Project Natal, which promises hands-free gaming, while Sony makes their own version of the Wiimote with the Playstation Move, which uses the PSEye in combination with a wand-like controller for 1:1 precision.  Personally, I think they're both going to flop.  The reason Nintendo's strategy worked so incredibly well is because they worked hard at giving the Wii a friendly and casual image, making it highly approachable by even the most technology fearing of consumers.  The PS3 and Xbox 360 don't have that image, though they're both working at it.  While Microsoft replicates Nintendo's advertising approach, trying to draw users in an idyllic setting, Sony's been getting some success with their comedic "It Only Does Everything" ad campaign.
But both of them jumped on a little too late, I think.  Neither systems have the wide public appeal to match the Wii's, and the limited number of consumer dollars (particularly in the current economy) indicates they never well.
Another concern I have is support.  Whereas the Wii remote is the Wii's primary control accessory, both Natal and Playstation Move are accessories, meaning it's highly likely that support for them will be limited at best after the initial wave of software.  Sony in particular is noted for releasing peripherals and not pushing to support them later on (EyeToy, PS Eye, PS2 Net adapter).  Both are also releasing at a fairly high price, with Natal supposedly looking at a $100-$200 price point, and Playstation Move probably looking to be around $60-80.  Not a good thing in the eyes of the casual audience, who probably look at the price tag first and the experience second (another reason the Wii excelled; it was and still is the cheapest console of the generation, and is low maintenance).
Software is what will obviously make or break Sony and Microsoft's motion control solutions, which brings me to my other observation.  You just can't afford to make a bad game anymore.  The guys on Joystiq have said it a few times, and I agree.  Games are taking longer to develop, leading to larger costs.  Most companies can't afford to dump resources into a game and have it tank, so their only option is to make quality games.  We've seen evidence of this with EA and THQ, both of which have shaped up significantly this generation.  EA, which used to be disliked almost as much as Activision is now, has started taking in new IPs, and making larger strides to improve on their already existing franchises.  The result is a truly quality sports release once or twice a year, and fantastically innovative games like Army of Two, Mirror's Edge and Bioware's Dragon Age: Origins.  THQ is precisely the same way, with interesting new games like Darksiders and the Saboteur.
Just look at this past spring; we had Final Fantasy XIII.  We had Bad Company 2.  We had Mass Effect 2, Heavy Rain, God of War III, and Splinter Cell Conviction.  To a lesser extent, there's the afore-mentioned Darksiders, and incredibly fun Bayonetta, and we've got excellent games like Red Dead Redemption just around the corner.  There's so many games of excellent quality being released within such a relatively small time frame, it's astonishing.  And with games like Assassin's Creed II, Modern Warfare 2 and Uncharted 2 releasing last fall, there's been no downtime.  People like myself are finding themselves with a backlog full of AAA games just released within the least six months.  We don't have time to even bat an eyelash at mediocre releases, much less spend our money on them.  And it doesn't look like the torrent is going to let up.  Going into summer, we have Metroid: Other M, Super Mario Galaxy 2, Alan Wake, Lost Planet 2, Modnation Racers and Split/Second to look forward to, taking us right back into the fall/holiday season, which is always known to be the prowling ground for the best games the industry has to offer.  I'll say it again; if your game doesn't stand out, it tanks, and you lose significantly.  It's a sad thing to see a studio close or go under, but current industry standards demand a high level of quality, at least in retail releases.
Some think this may become a hurdle for Japanese developers in particular.  I think developers like Square-Enix, Capcom and Koei are having some trouble striking a balance between Japanese and Western influences.  Prime examples of this are Resonance of Fate (or Star Ocean, come to think of it) and Final Fantasy XIII.  While I consider both to great efforts, and probably great games, the former is sometimes criticized for it's blatant Japanese tendencies, while the former was seen as SE trying too hard to please Westerners.
Finally, one last discussion point: downloadable games.  Digital Distribution has introduced a new, cost-effective method of making a decent game and not risking being completely financially overwhelmed if it does't sell as well as you hoped.  While most people still favor having full-length games in boxes, the lack of retail costs (disc manufacturing, box licensing, retailer fees, etc.) makes selling smaller, value-priced games a safe proposition.  As a result, we've also seen a lot of innovation on the downloadable game front.  As they cost much less to develop and sell, devs are able to take bolder, more creative approaches to games without fear of being devastated by low sales.  The epitome of this, perhaps, is the iPhone App Store, which features games of literally all kinds of flavors at prices that make $10 seem outrageous.

Anyway, here's the list.

Playstation 3
-Lost Planet 2; Mechs, 3rd person shooting, engaging co-op and competitive multiplayer..the only thing holding this game back is Capcom's stubbornly old-fashioned gameplay tendencies. Your character moves as slow as molasses, and takes forever to get even the simplest things done, like climb into a mech, or activate a data post. While I have no doubt it'll still be a blast to play, here's a game that could do with some more modern gameplay styles.
-Modnation Racers; If Mario Kart and LittleBigPlanet had a baby, you'd get something pretty close to this. It's a kart racer that gives you the freedom to make your own characters, your own karts, and even your own tracks! That alone is awesome in itself, but the devs also promised a full multiplayer suite, featuring 12 player online races, 2-4 player splitscreen, and even splitscreen online. Like LittleBigPlanet, you'll also be able to upload and download custom made karts and tracks. I don't get what's not to like, unless you don't like kart racers.
-LA Noire; Done right, this game should be nothing short of splendid. And so far, it looks like it's being done right. From what I understand, you basically play a detective in the mid-20th century, solving dark cases and such, looking for clues. I dunno, the mere concept seems great, so I don't need a lot of details just yet for this make my list.
-Castle Crashers; An original XBLA-exclusive, Castle Crashers is a wacky 4-player hack n' slash that sports a surprising amount of replay value. Can't wait to take it for a spin.
-Split/Second; Bluntly put, this looks like Burnout, with more explosions. You race through a multitude of urban environments while building up energy to initiate "powerplays", which trigger [possibly] track-altering explosions, that can also interfere with your opponents, or destroy them altogether.
-Red Dead Redemption; While I have my reservations about a shooting game set in the Wild West, RDR seems to have all the trappings of a good game: Interesting multiplayer, a convincing and well-realized game world, and overall plenty of things to do.
-Transformers: War for Cybertron; As very little as I know about the game, I so dearly want it to be good, because mechs beating the crap out of each other is always a great thing to see and play.
-Armored Core 5; Once more: Mechs beating the crap out of each other is always a great thing.
-The Grinder; As generic as it sounds, the Grinder will have co-op, so it's already getting points with me.  And I've known HVS to make fairly quality stuff recently, even though they seem to operate on a schedule similar to Valve time.
-Batman: Arkham Asylum 2; Since there's still no real footage or solid info about the game, I can only build my anticipation of how good the first one was.  Good thing the first one was excellent.
-The Last Guardian; From the same people that tugged on the heartstrings of gamers everywhere with Shadow of the Colossus and Ico, we have the Last Guardian.  If nothing else, the game's visual fidelity was beautiful, and that was just in an early build shown at last year's E3.  I've no doubt this'll be another experience to remember.
-Sonic 4I wouldn't mind picking this up for sheer nostalgia.  Besides, it looks like basically Sonic Rush adapted to HD.  Heck, why not?
-Assassin's Creed III; Ubisoft was dropping hints about this a few months back, but now it's completely dropped off the radar.  Deep in development, no doubt.  After AC2 though, I'm more than willing to take another dip in the Animus.
-Resistance 3; It's coming, we all know it is.  Just a matter of when Insomniac decides to announce it.
-Uncharted 3; Making a sequel to what is literally the PS3's killer app and system seller right now is a no-brainer, though I suspect it'll be at least a year before we start hearing real stuff about it, if they don't mention it at E3.
-Final Fantasy Versus XIII; This game looks badass, so get it done SE.  Or at least start talking more about it.  They've already indicated that VersusXIII is what the FF team has moved on to though (what with XIII out of the way), so I think we'll be hearing a lot more about it in the near future, particularly at E3.  I'm still curious what the heck happened to Agito.  Not that I really care, but are they still even making it?
-EDIT**LittleBigPlanet 2; It was worth editing this post just to add in this spectacular entry.  The first game let you make your own levels; the second game will let you make your own GAMES.  That's not an exaggeration.

-Sin and Punishment: Star Successor; Nothing particularly special about this game.  It just looks like a really good time.  After all, a shoot em up with co-op is always a good time.
-Metroid: Other M; Whenever I contemplate selling my Wii, this is really the only thing that stands in defense of keeping it.  A game set to show both Samus's more personal side, and her more brutal side?  Sign me up.  There's still a lot about this game that's still up in the air, I think.  Like how well it balances 3rd person action, classic Metroid side scrolling, and typical shooting.  And then there's the plot..
-Epic Micky; I get the same vibe from this game that I get from Kingdom Hearts; that is, classic Disney characters portrayed in a new and interesting way.  The Wii could certainly use more twisted games like this.
-Super Mario Galaxy 2; Like the first SMG, I'm having a lot of trouble generating any interest at all for this game.  To me, it's just another Mario.  It'll have excellent graphics, charming gimmicks, and interesting gameplay, but at its core it's still just a lot of running and jumping.
-Zelda; Besides Metroid Other M and the possibility of a new Star Fox game, this is the only thing from Nintendo that is pulling my interest.  And it is pulling it quite fiercely, I might add.

-Mass Effect 3; Bioware has cursed themselves with a reputation for making awesome games.  If Mass Effect 3 is a flop, gamers everywhere will cry endless tears, and I will be among them.
-Guild Wars 2; Still waiting, NCSoft...
-Dragon Age 2; I still haven't finished Origins (and haven't even played Awakening), so I don't know if its story can serve as a jumping off point for a sequel, or if Bioware is spinning something fresh.  Either way, when you're dealing with Bioware, things can only get better, so I don't see why I shouldn't be looking forward to this.
-Crysis 2; I'm not actually sure whether I'm going to get this on console or PC.  On one hand I have more friends to play with on the console, but it'll be cheaper and probably look better on PC.  But I think it looks like it'll be a novel game to play on either platform.
-RUSE; For a game with its head buried deep in tactical trickery and strategic decoys, RUSE is surprisingly simple to get into.  I played the beta, and it was actually quite fun, and I picked up on most of the game elements very quickly, unusual for an RTS game, and pleasantly surprising for a game with RUSE's premise.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Ratchet and Clank Future: A Crack in Time

If there's one series that has tested the "If it ain't broke don't fix it" saying time and time again, it's Insomniac's Ratchet and Clank series.  These guys took one clump of ideas, melded them into a single excellent gameplay formula, and continued to apply it to each game they made, polishing it just a little more with each entry.

Before it entered the 7th generation of gaming, the Ratchet and Clank series didn't have much of an overarching plot.  There were numerous references, sure, but the games were primarily episodic in nature.  That changed with Tools of Destruction, the duo's first foray on the PS3.  ToD introduced a single grand plot, which was continued by the downloadable title Quest for Booty, and is now concluded with A Crack in Time.

And just what plot is that?  Well, the origin of our two buddies!  As I discussed in my review for Tools of Destruction, Ratchet is supposedly the only Lombax left in the universe.  His search to understand his past leads to him being separated from Clank.  Soon enough though, he meets General Alister Azimuth, who is another Lombax, surprisingly enough.  Most of the game is split into two parts; playing as Ratchet, who is searching for Clank, with Alister's help, and playing as Clank, who finds himself in the Great Clock.

The Great Clock is a gigantic space station sitting in the center of the universe that regulates the flow of time, to prevent the universe being destroyed by the space-time continuum.  It is the home of the Zoni (who you'll remember from Tools of Destruction), and also Orvus the senior caretaker, who oversees the clock's functions.  Orvus is Clank's father, and wants to pass on the job to him.  As Clank, you'll go through some training for your abilities as senior caretaker, as you make your way to the Orvus Chamber, the central control room for the clock, which holds the power to manipulate time.  Unfortunately, Dr. Nefarious has his eyes on the Chamber too, and won't stop until he gains access to it.

If you've played ANY other Ratchet and Clank game before, there won't really be anything here that's new to you.  Ratchet's sections involve heavy platforming and shooting.  You'll be jumping across platforms, grinding down rails, turning cranks, and (when he receives his hoverboots) boosting through treacherous passes.  When you're not doing that you're dealing with Dr. Nefarious' henchman, who are determined exterminate you.  As always, however, you have a variety of big weapons at your disposal.  There's the Rift Inducer 5000, which generates a black hole from which large tentacles snap out and maul your foes before snatching them away.  You have the always-reliable Negotiator, which solves any argument with two rockets.  Fan favorites Mr. Zurkon and the Groovitron Glove return, this time made into full weapons.  Mr. Zurkon taunts your enemies while blasting them to bits, while the Groovitron Glove tosses out a portable disco ball that, when activated generates pretty lights and some fabulous tunes.  What else are your enemies going to do but stop attacking you and dance?  

The bomb glove-esque weapon and your typical blaster and shotgun-types have been re-introduced as modifiable Constructo weapons.  Weapons of the Constructo line have interchangeable parts, allowing you to change their properties (and their color scheme), a little like the weapon customization present in Deadlocked.  Another returning feature is weapon and character experience.  As you fight and defeat enemies, you and your weapons gain XP.  When Ratchet levels up, he gets more health.  When his weapons level up, they get boosts to their stats.  On your first playthrough, your weapons can get up to level 5, and you can further upgrade them to level 10 in Challenge Mode.

Ratchet's gameplay is split up primarily across several space sectors, each containing a couple primary destinations (planets or space stations), as well as several smaller planetoids (think Super Mario Galaxy) that you can explore for collectibles such as Gold Bolts and mods for your Constructo weapons.  Though you'll still have to warp between sectors, you can freely roam each one (and they're quite large) in the Aphelion (Ratchet's talking ship), getting into battles with Nefarious's henchmen and visiting planets as you please.  For the most part, Ratchet is still as fun to play as as he was back in the first Ratchet and Clank game.

Though the amount of gameplay content is dipped in Ratchet's favor, you'll spend a meaty portion of the game as Clank, too.  While there is a bit of combat and some platforming, it's more about puzzles.  Fittingly, you'll encounter a set of time pads that let you record temporal clones of yourself.  You step on a time pad to begin recording one clone and proceed step on a button to open a door, for instance, then you step on a second time pad to playback your first clone stepping on the button, allowing you to travel past the open door.  It's difficult to explain, but the puzzles are pretty fun.  They're introduced gently, but get pretty complex later on, with four clones to manage, who have several tasks to do.

Overall, the tried and true gameplay formula is just about as fun as it was back on the PS2.  Clank's puzzles are difficult, but engaging, and Ratchet's hoverboots, as well as full space combat and exploration are both extremely welcome additions.

Graphical-wise, the game looks pretty darn good.  The cutscenes are simply beautiful, and the gameplay features impressive animation and detail, without a single hitch.  Most of the environments are well done and fully realized, load times aren't particularly long or common, despite a modest install size (300-400MB if memory serves), and there are almost no bugs or slowdown to speak of (though the game did freeze once during my playthrough).

The audio doesn't always stand out, (though the Groovitron churns out some pretty catchy beats) but when it does it makes an impression.  The voice acting is also superb, as always, and while not all of the game's numerous attempts to humor me hit home, some of them did indeed rip a chuckle or two out (Using the Groovitron on certain bosses, and Mr. Zurkon, for example)

As excellent as the gameplay is, I can't help but feel that it's begun to wear thin.  It's amazing that Insomniac has gotten away with just building on the same formula for eight years now, but I don't think another console entry in the franchise will do well without major innovation.  If you never liked Ratchet and Clank before, I severely doubt this game's going to change your mind.  But when you look at the attention to detail, both big and small (space radio, the fan-made weapon, Challenge mode, etc), you'd be blind to not see that this was a labor of love, and designed as a present for the fans.  And for that, this game gets a 9/10.