Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Rock-em Sock-em Cowgirl.

I remember seeing the trailer for this game and not being interested. I remember seeing a woman dive in slow motion, I remember seeing her acrobatic stylings on the television above at work, and writing it off.

I occasionally wonder if I'm a bit too jaded. "Another clone from the house Max Payne built", I said. I watched her outrageous, acrobatic stylings, gunplay and swordplay and remember saying to a coworker of mine - "You know, that looks awesome, but I wonder if the transitions are that smooth in actual gameplay?" I looked away and didn't pay it much mind.

It's funny, because in wondering whether or not I'm jaded, I also realize that I've been very pleasantly surprised at many of the releases this year, games I wouldn't have batted an eye towards just rushing up to me and making it known just how wrong I was.

Wet is another of those games.

Coming completely out of left field from Bethesda of all places, and being developed by Artificial Mind and Movement (A2M), Wet is a game that wants you to have fun. The game is awash in a cheesy, worn down Grindhouse style akin to House of the Dead: Overkill, is rife with blood and guts galore, has completely outlandish and over-the-top scenarios aplenty, cheesy, yet catchy music and dialogue, and the best part is, you're in control of it all.

You play as Rubi, an assassin-for-hire with the agility of the Prince of Persia and the firearm proficiency of Max Payne. From the very start of the demo, you're taught the basics. Leaping is done with the A button, Sliding with the B button, Left Trigger helps run on walls, Right trigger is to fire. Later, you gain the ability to use that huge sword on her back and your battle options increase, but it never gets more complicated than those 5 options.

Which brought me back to the point I made with my coworker about it controlling as well as the trailers made it look. I'll say right off the bat that there is a bit of a learning curve, but everything and then some is possible. Every move Rubi executes, be it a wall run, jump, slide, as soon as you move the aiming reticle over an enemy, the game slows down in order to help you aim (and looks damned cool too.) Sweeping the reticle over two enemies causes her to auto-aim at one while you focus on another, making use of both her pistols. It's actually a great design choice that takes the focus away from pinpoint accuracy and more towards how well you can maneuver her through the environments. Within minutes I was deftly executing movements that would make even Mr. Smith from the movie Shoot 'em Up blush.

Case in point: In the opening room alone, I was able to run along a wall, take out two men, flip off said wall without losing momentum catching another henchman between the eyes in midair, hit the ground sliding across the floor on my knees towards two more, taking one out by the knees before literally using him like a human staircase and backflipping off his face, not only taking him out, but the guy behind him as well.

This was all one extended movement. The moves used were literally, wall run, jump, slide. The interactions made them so much more. Even something as simple as descending a ladder will have her sliding down with her back arched backwards if you choose to pull the right trigger on the way down.

It actually wasn't until I played Wet that I realized just how much other games of this nature like Stranglehold took much of the emphasis away from your spectacle by having you focus intensely on pinpoint aiming. Here, within minutes I wasn't nearly as worried about my guns as I was maneuvering her skillfully enough to dispatch my enemies. With each battle area and stage serving as some sort of interactive playground, the possibilities actually seem endless. One area late in the demo spent a good 30 seconds highlighting all the zip lines, swinging poles, walls, and explosives in the area. My brain could do nothing but contemplate how to turn that area into an extended ballet of death. IT's something you as a player would want to do since successive kills fill a combo meter, not only giving you points but also restoring Rubi's health depending on the situation at hand.

The demo ends with a highway chase that's half gameplay, half Quick-Time-Event, having you alternately hopping from car roof to car roof while precision aiming at enemies. If the previous moments of gameplay didn't sell me, having to break away from my shooting in order to hop off one car the second it capsized , only to land on the roof of another car swerving to avoid another car flipping down the interstate had me completely floored.

If I had any complaint, it was that the camera was too close, providing a limited view or hindered one in small rooms, and that Rubi's agility can occasionally be a hindrance, with her moves either being too sensitive or not sensitive enough. The latter becomes a problem when there's always 5-6 enemies minimum shooting at you at any given time, and the wrong combination of moves can get you mowed down.

That however, didn't stop Wet from making my wanted list for Fall 2009. I don't remember any other game since HOTD:Overkill that simply wanted me to have fun because the creation itself was born from developers having a great time.

Did I mention that I also love her character design? Something about it. So renegade and not overtly sexual like most female protagonists.

Surprise from left field. Nice one.

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Monday, August 17, 2009

Digital Kid and The Dark Knight

Both this PS3 browser and my phone are swallowing up my posts. This is out of my control.

No more empty promises until I've got something concrete.

Though I will say this in passing, and damnit if I haven't typed this into the window and watched it get sucked into the abyss three times--

Batman: Arkham Asylum is amazing, not in that "Hey this is pretty good" comic book game sense, but as the most fully realized, authentic, nailed-to-a-tee Batman experience I've seen in a very long time, and yes, that is including the last two films, both of which were fantastic.

The setup is simple - The Joker finally gets captured (and it's a term I use lightly) by Batman and dragged to Arkham Island, no sooner than he is a few steps into the prison, the guards are down, the Joker's loose inside and taking over, and it's up to Batman to contend with every single loon he's locked up in that place.

The visuals are top notch and exude creativity, the voice acting is superb (What is it with the Joker ALWAYS stealing the show? Thank you Mark Hamill), the controls are fluid and intuitive, and most of all, it's FUN. What we have coming up is a Stealth/Action hybrid that not only manages to capture the essence of the world of The Dark Knight, but it looks like it's shaping up to be a damn fine game as well.

The best thing about the game is that it truly lets you FEEL like Batman.

Utility belt and all. It's almost like a Batman refresher course in case you've forgotten his abilities.

A superb multidirectional fighting system reminds you just how adept he is at hand-to-hand-combat, complete with impressively segued counter animations, should the need arise.

The grappling hook, batarang, prehensile cape are there to remind you what a great inventor he is. When was the last time you used a weapon or accessory in a game that felt less like a appliance, and more like a natural extension of the character?

Being able to scan an entire area with his "Detective vision" (with detailed, per-enemy information down to their moods) reminds you of his above average perception and situational awareness. You know, pretty much the answer to just how he takes advantage of all those shadows and vantage points you wouldn't have thought of.

A particularly fond memory of these realizations adding up to a cohesive whole:

I was faced with a room full of enemies. 5 to be precise. All milling about, minding themselves. A flick of my detective vision from the vent revealed 5 enemies, all aware, all armed. I set forward, crept behind the first one too dumb to check his 6, and knocked him unconscious. I'm wide in the open though, another flick of my DV reveals several stone gargoyles near ceiling high. I notice one right near two enemies making their rounds. Perfect. I grapple towards them and bide my time.

They're running a tight ship, heading in the same direction. I have to separate them. I wait until they've gotten closer to my vantage point and make my move. Quickly whipping out a batarang, I knock the first one unconscious. This startles the second one, leading him to panic and try to revive his partner. He got it the worst, making the mistake of running underneath the very same gargoyle I'd made my new home. A flick of the Y button, and he was yanked upward into the shadows, strung up like a defenseless pinata. I drop down silently and pacify the still unconscious thug from before.

3 down.

I'd apparently made too much noise, as one of them noticed and started making his way towards the site of my handiwork. A quick tap of RB ziplines me back into the shadows, prime for my next move. These next two are much too far apart for me to be effective. As soon as one's back is turned, I leap off the gargoyle with my trademark glide kick, and nail one right in the back, this makes enough noise to startle the other, so much so that I don't even have time to finish my target, I have to retreat. But they're both worried. My detective vision tells me this much. Hanging from yet another gargoyle, I yank his terrified friend skyward just to spook the hell out of the last thug, and it works. He is literally so flustered, he's taken to firing up at the ceiling. I know I have him.

Right in the middle of his best Rambo impression, I drop behind him without a sound, punch him in the neck and put him in a sleeper hold.

The Joker laments my victory with taunts and chagrin for the hired help.

I am Batman.

Great game. I can't wait.

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Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Status update...

I don't have a computer anymore. I won't until September 7th.

I'm actually typing this from my PS3. Looks like the Blu-Ray/Mixed Media player that also plays games has another useful function, eh?

Does this mean a lack of posting from yours truly though? Not really. I'll be posting here and on Chocolate Lemon to the best of my ability. I've also managed to snap up applications for my phone that handle just about every blogging client I use, so aside from some small transition issues related to just HOW I manage my posts, I shouldn't be too off track.

I also missed half of my self-imposed quota for July, but that's water under the bridge by now.

What's upcoming? I haven't done any of my industry related thoughts in a while, so that's on the block...Upcoming games are of course getting some degree of focus (I'm playing the fantastic Batman: Arkham Asylum game, expect a writeup) as well as more news, even though, when put to scale, it's a relatively tame fall season as far as gaming goes. Many of the hits have been pushed back or are simply not releasing until 2010 (Bioshock 2, Splinter Cell, God of War 3, No More Heroes: Desperate Struggle, Super Mario Galaxy 2), but there is some saving grace in the form of some great niche and mainstreamers pulling out their guns. They're guns we'll be able to ENJOY because there ISN'T a avalanche of AAA titles clogging our collective interest and spreading us thin.

I'd also like to try my hand at some videos as well, but I'll save that for when I've got some decent hardware in tow. It's very hard to remember I'm essentially a blogging MacGuyver (iPhone, PS3, USB Keyboard combo, mooching off friends' PCs) at times.

There's also a new category, it's called IRL, for when I have to make a post like this regarding LIFE.

New post in a day or so!


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Thursday, August 6, 2009

Turtle Soup.

(TMNT: Turtles in Time - Xbox Live Arcade: 800 points, PSN: TBA)

My earlier post, Pizza Time, had a mixture of excitement, and a dose of skepticism. After all, Turtles in Time is a beloved game, both the Arcade version and the SNES home conversion. I booted up the trial (read: unpaid for) version of the game and took it for a spin.

What happened?

After an admittedly stylish and well done rendition of the original intro, I jumped in. The artwork is nice and high res, the title song was different, and I sensed nothing amiss. Selecting my favorite Turtle also proved to be a non issue, and the power ratings adorning each turtle were a nice touch as well, moving the selection past being more than a (mostly) aesthetic affair. The announcement of “Big Apple, 3 AM” also did much to ease my concern that perhaps, this was done to form.

Then the game itself started.

What happened exactly?

I had my share of skepticism with the new art direction for the game ever since I saw it in screenshots, but seeing it in motion is something else entirely. The game looks flat. SNK set out to make a point with The King of Fighters XII that NOTHING can replace good old fashioned sprite art when the chips are down, and this game’s visuals unintentionally solidify this fact. The colors no longer pop, the stage itself has lost its cartoonish charm, and the overall package left a dry taste in my mouth. Gone are each turtle’s signature animations, gone are the incompetent gaits of the foot soldiers, gone are the speech bubbles and general tomfoolery that truly made you feel like you were playing a TMNT comic. Even the meaty, screen shaking effects brought on by your hits and slams are all but gone here, and it contributes to the flat feeling the visuals bring about. Things are happening on screen, foot soldiers are being beat down, but it’s hard to care when every attack seems like it was done with a feather touch.

You can tell they were trying to save it a bit with the cartoonish “THWACK” effects and comic style explosions, but they don’t help the game’s case, they only solidify that perhaps this should’ve been done entirely in high res 2D. It’s a pipe dream however, because the reality is that there is no way Ubisoft would’ve ever committed that much effort to a downloadable title.

It isn’t all terrible though. The 3D visuals are slick, and certain things do pop, such as Krang’s robot coming from the shadows to zap the stage, and small touches like Baxter Stockman breaking the fourth wall by flying up to the screen and laughing at the player before powering up, do well to signal that they wanted to at least retain the charm of the original.

The music is less forgivable though. If ever there were a case for a game’s soundtrack, and just how integral it is for the overall feel of a game, this is the most recent shining example. Anyone who has come within even breathing distance of the game knows how excellent the soundtrack was, and diehards can recall a theme off the top of their head with frightening accuracy. This is how beloved the soundtrack of Turtles in Time was. I expected at the very least, if not the original tunes, an arranged or remixed version of the original music. For them to not even bother remixing, but to REPLACE the entire soundtrack begs the question of why they bothered calling it a remake at all. What’s on play here is not only frighteningly generic, but it changes the tone of the game as well from whimsical to off puttingly serious at times. The sound effects are also flat as well. Explosions don’t pop, impacts don’t even sound half as meaty as the 16 bit home version, and voices sound muted, though at the very least, the voices of some the characters and enemies somewhat emulate the original well.

Gameplay is the only area where things were consistent and improved. While the original moveset is more or less intact, making it easy to jump in and have fun, the one flaw that was improved over the original is depth perception. Because the game is in full 3D this time, there are no longer planes of movement to contend with. Fighting foot soldiers, not to mention bosses feels much more natural because of this, and the game is much better off because of it. This comes in handy especially during multiplayer with 4 other people, where the deluge of thwacks, foot soldiers and flying turtles can create a confusing scene. Speaking of the multiplayer, I’m also pleased to report that it’s mostly lag free, and I had no trouble getting into matches.

You’ll find that most of my problems stem from the lofty expectations I had for the game reputation wise. Despite the faults on display though, I still want the game and would encourage others to play, especially in multiplayer. It is a solid beat-em-up and there is much fun to be had while playing, it just isn’t what Turtles in Time used to be. Taking this title on its own merits, it’s very easy to enjoy, and it’s admittedly the most solid TMNT game I’ve played in years. Playing it a bit longer did help it grow on me, but I didn’t forget I was having the most fun when I put aside my desire for a true remake and took it as is.

At the end of the day though, this game was supposed to live up to the legacy of the original, and it falls short of that mark. It’s not so much a remake as it is a reimagining, and for them to advertise it as the former instead of the latter is where the majority of the disappointment lies, especially as a fan.
Whether or not you’re willing to discard that notion and have a bit of fun anyway is up to you. If you're a newcomer, you have even less to worry about.

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Saturday, August 1, 2009

King of Fighters XII - Review

It’s the year of the fighting game, of that there is no doubt, we’ve already been treated to Street Fighter IV, the very welcome surprise BlazBlue, and now it’s time for another in the form of SNK’s latest, The King of Fighters XII. SNK claims to have gone back to the drawing board with this one, and with its new, updated high definition makeover, can it truly stand up to its competition?

The answer is: Not really.While KOF XII is a solid fighter, it has a number of glaring omissions and design choices that keep it from the greatness it was hyped up to be.

To start off, the fighting is very solid. It plays just like KOF should (read: like a tangible, heavy Street Fighter) but with a few changes. New to KOF XII is the Critical Counter system, where successive attacks, blocks, damage taken fill a small meter. When it’s full, you can either tap a heavy punch or kick button to initiate a custom combo, or a more damaging version of your super move. The critical counters are simple to execute, and fun to experiment with, much like the Focus in SF4. They’re also very rewarding visually when executed properly, and I can see them becoming a staple of high level play. Taken out however, are a great deal of the offensive options. Gone are the tactical shift, skill bar, dream cancels, and super desperation moves of previous titles. The game has literally been stripped down and scaled back to the basics, ala Street Fighter 4, and while it may be a series of somewhat unwelcome changes at first, it becomes easy to appreciate the tweaks they did make and settle into a satisfying rhythm.

Of course, this wouldn’t be a review about KOF XII if I didn’t mention the visuals. It’s already no secret that SNK went back to the drawing board completely regarding KOF’s look, and for the most part, I can say they did a spectacular job. Rather than modernize it with 3D again ala KOF:Maximum Impact, or even giving it razor sharp vectors ala Guilty Gear and Blazblue, the KOF team went completely old school and animated everything with old-school pixel by pixel sprite animation. The results are more than impressive. Characters move with fluidity and weight, and are large and colorful. The stages, while very few in number are bustling and full of personality. Subtle touches like the animation of fabrics, and the fact that even environmental lighting was considered--in a 2D fighter--will continue to impress even years after this title’s release. Not one of these screenshots actually does it justice, it has to be seen in motion to be believed. The only complaint, if you can call it one, is that while the sprites are very detailed in and of themselves, their dot matrix nature means that despite the high resolution, they can come off as jagged or pixilated when displayed on an HDTV. There is a filter in place that can smooth out the rough edges( I’d recommend the 1 or 2 setting; 3 is too blurry) , but this problem is merely a consequence of the medium used, not any failure on SNK’s part.

That is something I unfortunately can’t say about the rest of the game, and this is where the bad news begins. The core fighting is solid, the visuals are top notch, but that’s all there is to the package.

At about 22 characters, the roster in KOF XII is actually the smallest the series has ever seen. The explanation for this was, due to the massive undertaking redrawing each character proved itself to be, the roster had be cut. This would be something easy to forgive if it were filled with the best of the best KOF had to offer, but that isn’t the case. Series regulars and favorites like Yuri, King, Geese, Billy, Mai, Rugal, and K’ are only the tip of the iceberg when mentioning the amount of missing characters from the roster, and even though there are some series mains inside (Terry, Athena etc), it’s not only a shame, but it’s almost a slap in the face if you’re a fan. How could some of SNK’s most beloved characters not make the cut for KOF’s next gen leap? It’s a strange decision on their part, because if their aim was to have a rebirth of the series, they had to have known that Mai would be at the top of many people's lists for a reinvention. Furthermore, the characters who did make the cut, you’ll find they’re missing moves or had their movesets changed for the worse. Gone are Terry’s Power Dunk and Buster Wolf, same goes for Clark’s Mount Tackle, Kims Haki Kyaku, and Iori, well, anyone who’s mained him for the past 15 years or so is in for a surprise.

A very unwelcome one. The loss of some iconic moves means a drastic change in character strategies, also to the overall feel of matches.

It’s this mixture of questionable and/or missing content that makes KOF XII a package I can’t recommend to anyone other than the most diehard of fighting fans. The “Arcade” mode is a 5 stage time trial with no end boss, and when you’re done with that…that’s pretty much it. An offline and online versus mode are all that remain, and if you don’t happen to have Xbox Live (for 360 owners) then the game drops in value even further. No survival, no true story mode, no 1v1 arcade, not even a mission mode to fill in the gaps. The only thing left to do is fight. Fight through a time trial, fight the cpu, fight online. While this seems like a ludicrous complaint for a fighting game, with Street Fighter 4 providing a ton of content in comprehensive training, survival, time trial modes, and BlazBlue providing extra challenge modes along with a detailed, per-character story mode, for KOF to come up short for any other incentive to play, even with regards to unlockables (everyone’s open from the start, there’s a gallery but no instructions on how pictures unlock) is disappointing.

[Note: at the time of this writing, the online play ranges from decent to nearly unplayable. The netcode is quite bad and I’ve actually had dropped matches in a 1v1 room due to it being unable to handle people coming and going]

In a sense, it’s almost as if the much lauded graphical overhaul has been a blessing and a curse to this game. Every interview I’ve read, the developers’ explanation for the lack of (insert name here) in this game was due to the amount of time it took to create the character sprites. There’s no continuation of the story because of the sprites. There’s a lack of characters because of the sprites, no bonus modes because of the sprites. I hate to say that after playing, I believe every word. While KOF XII is a very impressive looking 2D fighting game, it seems as if the team was too tired to do anything else after completing the art. Even the menus are convoluted and boring to look at. That notion of laziness, it’s unfortunately a feeling that carries itself through the entire experience, and only the truest of arcade driven fighting game fans will be able to overlook this. Everyone else will feel cheated of their $60 after their first run through “Arcade” mode. I’d even go as far to say that the game is vastly overpriced, and would’ve still felt like a bit of a wash at $30, but it'd certainly sting less than it does at this point in time.

In my opinion, calling this a “Rebirth” of The King of Fighters is a bit of a misnomer. It’s certainly a step forward visually, and to some extent technically, but it’s definitely a step backward where it counts, especially as a console release.

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