Saturday, January 26, 2013

I predict a hiatus.

My bandwidth cap reset, so I used my newfound Internet freedom to resume anime watching.  In fact, partially because this semester is looking to be my busiest yet, and partially because I feel like I've let them become too central in my life, I intend to switch gears a little bit away from videogames, at least for the next few months.  I'd like to get back to my other hobbies, which also happen to be easier to engage in small chunks.

While I waited for my cap to reset, I settled into rewatching my favorite anime--Spice and Wolf--on the Blu-Ray set I bought a while back.  Just as good as I remember.

Though I have been playing games, there are very few that I feel like writing a post about.

Dead Space 2; Always on the lookout for new podcasts, I recently started listening to Rebel FM.  Going through their stuff, I ended up listening to their "Game Club" on Dead Space 2, where they basically go through the entire game from beginning to end, thoroughly discussing it on a moment-to-moment basis.  I imagine it was a rather exhaustive work, and listening to it compelled me to pick up DS2 again, like I've been meaning to.  I've already beaten the game 1.5 times (I left off my NG+ save in Chapter 6).  But I didn't want to pick up in the middle, so I started a new game.  This time though, I'm playing on Survivalist.  It's not nearly as harsh as I was anticipating, though.  I'm actually ending up with more items than I know what to do with, mainly because I don't get hit often and so far have managed to be pretty efficient with my ammo.  Maybe I should have gone for Zealot instead.  Anyway, I was entertaining the thought of doing a Hardcore run, but there's no way I'll have time for that in the near future.

Dead Space 3; Dead Space as a series seems to be suffering from the same thing Resident Evil did going into RE5, which is that everyone (Capcom notwithstanding) has their own idea of what the series should be.  Personally, I wouldn't really care that much if Dead Space went full action game.  I think the mechanics and fundamentals are in place for it to be an awesome action game with horror elements.  What matters to me is not whether the game is scary or not (I've never considered DS to be particularly scary, beyond the first 15 minutes of the original), but whether it is still Dead Space, and not trying to be something else.  Anyway, I played the demo for Dead Space 3.  It wasn't long enough for me to get a good read on what to expect from the singleplayer experience, but my impressions weren't bad, overall.  The one thing that they didn't advertise at all that surprised me was the gun customization.  With DS3, they've completely overhauled the Bench system.  Instead of having a set of available weapons like in previous games, you get materials and components, that you can use to build your own weapons.  If you want, you can build a Plasma Cutter or a Force Gun or any of those classic weapons, and they'll look and handle like you'd expect.  Or, you could build a Javelin Gun and attach a Plasma Cutter to barrel.  Or make a Line Gun with an underslung grenade launcher.  In a way, you can think of it as mixing and matching the traditional weapons' primary and secondary fires, but it's a lot more than that.  It's like they adapted Army of Two's gun customization to Dead Space, with the premise of basically sticking together a hodgepodge of tools with screws and duck tape and hoping it works out alright.

BlazBlue: Continuum Shift Extend; I've recently been playing a bit of this with my friends.  I still fucking hate fighting Tager.  Dude's jab range is absurd, and don't get me started on those grabs.  I remember when you used to actually fight guys!  With Tager, it's just three grabs and then the match is over.  Anyway, I've been trying to experiment with a different characters, but I was surprised to find out how difficult it is to really get behind a new character when you've been playing someone else for so long.  I have a newfound respect for people who can juggle multiple characters and be proficient with them.  It doesn't help that I find at least half the cast of the game to be fascinating from a gameplay standpoint.  Even Relius, who represents everything I don't typically want in a fighting game character, seems really fun to play as.  Back to Noel I suppose.

Strike Suit Zero; I have to admit, this game kind of felt like a love letter to a very specific kind of demographic, of which I am a part of.  The sort of fellows who thirst for an awesome mech game.  It finally came out (though I regret not partaking in the Kickstarter),'s neat.  If I have time, I would like to write a full post about it.  But in short, Strike Suit Zero has a lot of potential based on its premise, but doesn't follow through on a lot of it.  Still, when its at its best SSZ is an impressive effort.

Hawken; I think I might kind of adore Hawken.  I haven't delved into the deeper systems and haven't bought anything yet...but the moment to moment gameplay is just so fun and well-executed, both in terms of gameplay and presentation.  The more I play Hawken, the more I like it.

Devil May Cry; A buddy of mine got me the DMC HD Collection for Christmas.  Finally got around to trying out the first game...and it's not what I was expecting.  It's actually incredibly reminiscent of Resident Evil in its design, all the way down to starting out in some spooky abandoned castle.  But it's also not very fun, so far.

Zone of the Enders: The Second Runner; I will say this: it is clear from the very beginning of the game that The 2nd Runner is the game Kojima wanted to make (or at the very least MUCH closer to it). It is better and more fleshed out than its predecessor in literally every way. There's more mechs, the combat is better (though also tougher), it looks better, and it's more mechanically refined. And not only do we get a protagonist who is awesome, Leo's back and he's actually grown a pair. This is how you make a comeback.

Armored Core For Answer;  Yeah, I've really been getting my fill of the mechs, lately.  Plus, I just started watching Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam.  It's awesome.  I will say however, that Armored For Answer is an absurdly complex game, and not necessarily in a bad way.  It just gives you so much control, I'm afraid to get too into it, lest I fuck up, because then I know it will be all my fault.  Also, I suck at the game.  I was able to completely rebind the controls (the default configurations are all kinds of backwards), but I still can't quite beat the AC Next in the test simulation.  But I'll keep at it!

Monday, January 14, 2013

Zone of the Enders

I finally got around to trying the Zone of the Enders HD Collection for PS3.  After watching a lengthy (but enjoyable) animated intro, I naturally chose to try the original Zone of the Enders first, before trying The 2nd Runner.  I didn’t know what to expect from Zone of the Enders.  I knew that it had mechs in it, and that it was a Kojima joint.  That’s largely it.

Essentially, Zone of the Enders takes place in a futuristic setting where humanity has colonized other planets in the solar system, namely Mars and Jupiter.  Earthlings still reign supreme however, and the space colonies are largely subject to their rule.  Tensions continue to rise because of this, until all-out war eventually erupts between the two sides.  Though Earth has the initial advantage due to sheer numbers, the discovery of a superior energy source known as Metatron allows the space colonists (or “enders” as the Earthlings have come to call them) to develop powerful new weapons known as Orbital Frames.  Orbital Frames are—you guessed it—giant humanoid mechs.  The colonists create two particularly powerful Orbital Frames, called Jehuty and Anubis, but the Earth forces steal them.

Note that almost none of what I just explained is really touched on in the game.  Zone of the Enders doesn’t really do much in terms of world-building.  Rather, this is a classic game in that you’ll learn a lot more about the setting and backstory reading the manual than you will playing through the story.

Zone of the Enders begins just as the space colonists are invading the colony that Jehuty and Anubis are being stored in, in an attempt to take them back.  In the process, they basically raze everything to the ground, terrorizing the population.  Though the colonists manage to retrieve Anubis, one little boy named Leo stumbles upon Jehuty and, hoping to hide from the invasion and chaos, clambers into its cockpit.  He accidentally activates the mech and soon enough finds himself thrust into a mission beyond his understanding.
Anyone who’s seen a Japanese mecha anime will be amazed by how closely this setup mirrors that of shows like Mobile Suit Gundam; particularly SEED and 0079.  A war between the spacenoids and Earth; a super-special set of mobile suits designed to give one side an edge; and most of all, an insufferable boy protagonist who ends up with one of said super-special mobile suits.

There are some interesting things to Zone of the Ender’s plot, though.  Though the space colonists are portrayed as an entirely villainous lot in the game, by and large they’re the underdogs here.  Furthermore, Jehuty and Anubis share a fun dynamic, always ending up on opposite sides of the conflict, and seemingly fated to fight each other, despite being developed for the same purpose.

None of this is to Zone of the Ender’s credit though, because none of it is explored in the actual game.  The classic red vs. blue rivalry between Jehuty and Anubis is only hinted at right at the end of the game, and as mentioned previously, everything about the setting and premise was derived from the manual, not the game.
Instead, during the actual game you get a much more focused plot that has Leo being tasked with delivering Jehuty to the transport vessel Atlantis in one piece, encountering plenty of obstacles along the way.  Such obstacles include a large microwave barrier, an army of remote-controlled Orbital Frames, and a snooty ace pilot who is also one of only perhaps two worthwhile characters in the game; the other being Leo.  ZoE’s cast is already quite small, but most of the few characters introduced ultimately play little or no role, such as Leo’s childhood friend Celvice, and the big boss of the space colonists and eventual pilot of Anubis, Nohman.

So not only do we have a cookie-cutter plot mostly populated with empty characters, but we also have a cookie-cutter plot that ends rather abruptly.  After a little over five hours, Zone of the Enders throws you against a final boss that is unbeatable by design, and then it ends.

Zone of the Ender’s primary saving grace is its combat, which is not only fun, but at times nothing short of riveting.  The controls are a bit odd and took some getting used to for me, but at its heart ZoE is a hack and slash affair.

Each of the handful of environments in the game are patrolled by squads of enemies.  Get too close and they’ll attack on sight, and battle begins.  Jehuty has two combat modes that it automatically switches between depending on how close you are to the opponent you’re locked onto.  At melee range it uses its fold out blade for hacking away at enemies.  Backing into longer range causes it to switch to its wrist-mounted blaster.  In addition to regular attacks, you have burst and dash attacks, each with melee and long-range variants.  Burst attacks—consisting of a Spirit Bomb-like orb of energy at long range and a spinning slash at close range—take a moment to charge up, but are unblockable and do more damage.  Dash attacks—an extremely quick side swipe in melee and a burst of homing lasers at range—are quick and keep battles moving at a swift pace.  Jehuty can also guard and grab enemies, and the two abilities share the same dynamic you’d expect: guarding blocks most attacks but is vulnerable to grabs.

In addition to its standard moveset, Jehuty can also equip a variety of sub-weapons found throughout the game.  These have limited ammo, but give you a bit more versatility.  For example, Phalanx is a short-range bullet sprayer with a wide spread.  Halberd is a sustained beam attack that cuts through enemies easily, but is slow and unwieldy.  Geyser throws out a set of pods that emit lasers upwards, setting up a trap.  There are about a dozen different sub-weapons to find and pick up, some of which are integral to progression, like the Decoy ability that allows you to avoid getting killed in one shot by one of the later bosses.

Bosses aside, there are only three types of enemies in the game.  But with one exception, these enemies have a similar moveset to your own (particularly at higher levels), being capable of guarding, grabbing, and burst and dash attacks.  Initially, enemies use only basic attacks and simple strategies, but as you progress through the game, both the AI and its repertoire of attacks and strategies expand, offering more challenge.  By the end of the game, nearly every enemy encounter can feel like a dance with death, forcing you to constantly stay on the move and use each ability at your disposal to avoid being surrounded or otherwise outmaneuvered.  Zone of the Enders teases you with the prospect of exciting one on one boss battles with rival Orbital Frame pilots, but in reality this only happens three times, and only one of them is a battle in the traditional sense.

With only a few exceptions, all of the environments in Zone of the Enders look bland.  The CG cutscenes are also pretty bad, and while it’s not fair to judge them by today’s standard, I do wonder if Konami (or High Voltage, who developed the port) couldn’t have done a better touch up job.  The one facet that stands above what is mostly a visually mediocre game is the mecha design, which is interesting.  Unfortunately, as very few Orbital Frames aside from the enemy grunts show up in the game, once more I can’t give Zone of the Enders a lot of credit for it.

Overall, Zone of the Enders feels like a low key game.  I understand now why people often see it as a tech demo.  The combat is great, but outside of that there’s just not much to it.