Thursday, November 19, 2009

Looking back in time -- GoW Collection Review

Nostalgia is quite the rose tinted lens, and the games I’ve played in my younger years often look better in my mind’s eye than they actually did when I played them. Times change, technology changes, and especially in the case of 3D gaming, it isn’t something that ages well. Indeed, as much as we try and deny it, graphics do matter, and I’ve run into my share of dismay when trying to relive the glory of my past favorites. What looked amazing in my head suddenly doesn’t in front of me on my HDTV. Textures get muddy, animation is stilted instead of smooth, and what used to be sharp was actually a jagged mess. Paradise lost.

Time is much kinder to 2D games.

This logic even applies to my favorite titles. As amazing as I consider the God of War series to be on the whole, even it cannot escape the ever sprinting nature of technology. Even playing the originals on my PS3, smoothed out as they may have been, their hardware pushing nature was evident. The games were large, expansive, busy, lovingly textured, and the animation was excellent, but it came at a price. Resolution was as high as the PS2 could push without any anti-aliasing, the framerate was high, yet unstable, and video sync issues caused the odd torn image every so often. They're concessions we accepted at the time because NOTHING looked like God of War, but now, that just isn't the case. The games themselves have aged well, but their technology hasn't.

Enter Sony's plan to revisit and remaster the two classics, with the promise of eliminating the small technical issues they used to have, and letting us play them EXACTLY as the developers would've wanted.

(Click screenshots to see the original scenes, comparison shots courtesy of Bitmob)

The God of War Collection is finally here, and this means two of the best, genre influencing action games the last gen had to offer are now on display during the HD era. As if having both of these games on a Blu-Ray wasn't enough, they’ve been remastered as well, offering up a new 720p resolution with anti-aliasing, sharper textures, and a perfect framerate to match. To put aside the tech jargon and put it bluntly; they're much better than they were before. Much.

Oddly enough, the sound was left out of the remastering, and while it’s a touch disappointing to not be able to hear the original score in perhaps an uncompressed, dolby digital manner, it’s a small complaint because the sound is still impressive in it’s own right, and the score is still as appropriately epic and dynamic as it's always been.

In case you are somehow unacquainted with the God of War series, (and HOW did you miss it?), you are Kratos, champion of the gods of ancient Greece and all around ruthless soldier who is as mysterious as he is feared for his deeds. The first game has Kratos seeking revenge against Ares, the titular god of war who betrayed him. The second sees Kratos having fulfilled his quest, but due to some story elements I refuse to spoil, see him attempting to reach the Isle of Creation in order to ultimately change his fate. The results of his tenacity aren't pleasant though. Kratos isn't a hero, nor is he even an antihero, and his violent, ruthless methods may be a turnoff for some people. For the rest of us though, it's one hell of a violent, bloody path cut through ancient Greek mythology that takes its liberties where it needs to in the name of an epic story.

I played the originals to death, so my memory of them both, what I felt, I remember as vividly as if it were yesterday. This means it's no small thing when I say that thanks to the remastering, God of War I and II look exactly as I remember them. This is a compliment, because after all, I am talking about two last generation games being blown up way past their original resolution on an HDTV. They were literally the best looking games the PS2 had to offer, but are dated by this point, especially with games like Gears of War 2 and Uncharted 2 running amok. This is to say nothing of the massive setpieces and epic sense of scale for which the series has always been revered, but the fact that the conversion actually helps both titles hold up is a boon. The original game looks just as good as it did on the SDTV I had in 2005, and its sequel actually looks better, dare I say early current gen by comparison.

The only thing that didn’t make a next gen leap were the cutscenes. God of War makes use of three kinds of cinematic, in-game, prerendered, and full CG. While the full CG scenes still look stunning (albeit still in standard definition) the prerendered scenes look atrocious in comparison to the game itself. It’s unfortunate their resolution didn’t get the same upgrade the rest of the game did, because while the transition between the two was near seamless back in 2005, it isn’t now. Players will know exactly what I mean as the game makes the jarring shift from 720p, to a scene rendered in 480p, then back to 720p again.

Gameplay wise, nothing’s changed. The smooth, free flowing combat system is just as deep and visceral as it’s always been, the weapons are just as satisfying to use, and everything feels much more responsive and tight thanks to the improved framerate. Even the game’s platforming elements also feel more responsive because of this, cutting down on much frustration while moving around some of the trickier parts. The seamless integration of button pressing minigames into everything from combat to the puzzles feels just as fresh as it did back then as well, and mashing buttons to escape the jaws of a hydra, or to disarm other foes mid flight (has to be seen to be believed) is still intensely satisfying. Kratos has a no holds barred, visceral style that is as shocking to watch as it is empowering on the player's side, and the fact that the game now feels just as tight control wise as it does visually is excellent.

At the end of the day though, these are still two superb games being brought up to speed for existing fans and newcomers before we’re treated to the close of this trilogy with God of War III come March 2010. While certain bits of the conversion leave a bit to be desired, on a whole, this is essentially the definitive version of two of the best action games ever to grace consoles, budget priced, and with the added bonus of achievements to add a bit of replay value. If you've played through them already, the conversion and added accomplishments are in my opinion, well worth another go, but if you're a complete newcomer to the series, well..

Personally, I couldn’t ask for a better deal myself.

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Wednesday, November 11, 2009

DJ Hero vs. ExpertPenguin -- Dj Hero Review

Well, that came out of nowhere.

Though, you couldn’t blame me for being skeptical.

After all, I’ve been burned before.

The “Hero” series of music games has almost become a caricature of itself by now. With full priced releases every few months that don’t dare to innovate and incredibly expensive bundled instruments that aren’t getting any cheaper, the overall lack of enthusiasm towards the genre now is something we all should’ve seen coming. Plastic instrument games aren’t what they were two years ago (some would say that’s where they peaked) and the current economical situation makes these premium priced games an even harder sell than before. After all, if you’ve flailed around on a plastic guitar for one franchise, you’ve done it for all of them.

But what about something different, like say…a turntable?

A group of people from Europe came to the same realization and offered up their answer in the form of DJ Hero. The good news is, even though it isn’t light on expense, I don’t think anyone will feel shortchanged after taking it for a spin.

I’ll say it up front, DJ Hero is unlike any rhythm game I’ve ever played. From its unique controller, to it’s highly original and well produced mixes, the game somehow achieves a level of familiarity and overall freshness that hasn’t been seen in any music game to date.

The best thing about the game, and this may sound a bit funny, is that it doesn’t feel like what is now a traditional “Hero” game at all. It, in fact, feels more like the series used to before they started overloading on features in an attempt to outdo Rock Band, and the game itself is much better for it. This may turn some party gamers off, as the game is almost entirely centered around a single player experience, but believe me when I say the game is much better for it in the end with one small exception that I’ll mention later.

I was able to get my hands on the “Renegade” edition of the game (pictures in an earlier post), and I honestly consider it the definitive edition of the package. Inside that massive box comes a copy of the game, a special gold and black version of the turntable controller, a Eminem/Jay-Z mixtape, and a very sturdy carrying case that also serves as an actual stand/platform for the controller itself. I consider it the definitive version of the game simply because of the inclusion of that last detail, but anyone who can’t get their hands on that one will still find the game and turntable controller in the regular package.

The controller itself is very well put together, and as far as complexity goes, can range from daunting if you’ve never/rarely picked up a music game, to challenging if you’re well versed in the art of vicarious music making. There’s the turntable itself with three platter buttons for effects and skips that can be manipulated to scratch or spin a full 360 degrees, an effects knob for distorting sounds, a “Euphoria” (think Star Power) button, and a crossfader for switching between records in a single mix. The interface in-game is modeled after a record, with three tracks representing the first song, sound effects, and second song being mixed, respectively. From there, it's matching notes to the beat, placing effects, scratching or spinning where necessary, and using the crossfader to switch to the extreme left or right to isolate a single record in play.

While it all sounds complex on paper, thanks to the mandatory tutorials you have to run, and the game’s gradual but balanced difficulty curve, using this new instrument becomes second nature after an hour or so of play. Of course, there are a bevy of advanced techniques to learn and use, but the fact that it’s still useable on a beginner’s level is a great job on the developer’s part.

It’s a great thing too, because the soundtrack is phenomenal. I don’t even second guess myself in the slightest when I say it’s easily one of the best put together soundtracks in a music game to date. Each of the game’s 93 mixes have been produced from over 103 songs by various professionals, be they in-house or famous ones like Cut Chemist, DJ AM, Grandmaster Flash, or even the inimitable Daft Punk, and it shows. Genres like Hip-hop, R&B, Dance, House, Techno, and even Rock are represented here, and the fact that it’s all original music immediately makes it stand out, even having the effect of making the marriage between controller and screen more pronounced. Usually, when playing a music game, you’re simply emulating, or pretending to be your favorite stars of an established song. Since everything in this game has never been heard before, it actually feels like you’re the one producing, and the sense of satisfaction, particularly when completing a challenging song, is second to none.

If there is one misstep in this, it’s that the Guitar/DJ tracks easily stand out as the worst of the package. Given that the game is, at the end of the day, a part of the whole “Hero” canon, you figure publisher Activision was going to force Guitar gameplay in there somehow, and it feels exactly like that, forced. None of the (thankfully few) songs featuring the dual gameplay mix together well at all, and even though they aren’t bad per se, in a game full of otherwise great and inventive mixes, they stick out like a sore thumb.

On the multiplayer front, aside from the above mentioned, there really isn’t much to speak of. You have Guitar/DJ, DJ vs. DJ..and that’s about it. I can personally tell much of the focus went into the single player campaign, what with a dizzying number of setlists to complete and 255 stars to unlock prizes across the board, but the multiplayer gameplay isn’t anything to write home about. DJ vs. DJ can be played locally independent of difficulty, and the aforementioned is painful to participate in, though the Guitar tracks are challenging on their own (though a bit repetitive). Hopefully in the (inevitable) sequel we’ll see DJs battling tracks on separate mixes, some sort of tug of war mode, or even more of a custom sound element in the future, but it’s a small complaint in an otherwise solid first entry into the franchise.

Visual wise, the game is surprisingly well done. Even though the art style may be hit or miss for some people, there isn’t any denying that a ton of effort was put into it, despite the fact that your attention will be focused mostly on the notes played. Colors pop, the DJs are surprisingly well animated (though they don’t always match up with what’s going on controller wise), and each venue is a spectacle, with flashing lights, effects and camera tricks that pulse to the beat of whatever song you’re playing, with massive crowds that do well to make you feel like you truly are the life of the party.

In case you couldn’t tell before I reached this conclusion, I found Dj Hero to be fantastic. The controller is sturdy and unique, the music is mindblowing, and even though the game hits a snag here and there, for a freshman entry to a new franchise, the room for improvement is definitely there, and as an entire package, is very, very tight indeed. Of course, even DLC is on its way ensuring that the experience can only get better from here on out. I recommend everyone give this game a try, from new people unaware of what the music game craze is all about, to even seasoned players like myself who are all too quick to write the game off because of its radically different focus.

After all, I was one of them. Look at me now.

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