Thursday, October 28, 2010

They spinnin' - DJ Hero 2 Review

DJ Hero 2 is amazing.

You knew I was going to say that though, and it's funny how long I've come in a little over a year. Originally a detractor, turned fan, turned high ranking leaderboard jockey (I was in the top 5 on the leaderboards for a spell), it's safe to say that the unique, aurally innovative title got it's hooks into me and refused to let go.

When say that it refused though, I mean it. I've been across the original's 93 song list on Expert with 5 stars and beyond, purchased every DLC pack doing the same, and spread the love amongst my friends, hooking them as well and letting them know that an oversaturation of plastic instruments in the market did -not- mean that the music genre played not by only one note but by several, just cut and mashed to perfection. It wasn't the most social game however, with most sessions being limited to 1 on 1 battles people didn't want to engage in (especially with me), and an incredibly steep asking price turning others off (It went for $129 and $199 respectively..)

A year, and a reduced price later, the release of its sequel boasts not only a near equal number of new mixes, but a new career mode, expansions on the old gameplay, and a new social component that not only brings with it a new way to play with friends with new multiplayer options, but adds a Facebook-esque persistence to the whole online endeavor as well. Does it hold up though? Or--

Wait, are you kidding?

This is really how a sequel should feel.

Several stylized corporate logos in, and the sense of "new" is immediately evident. A new, sleek porcelain menu replaces the gaudy graffiti-like club flyer interface of the first game, a Facebook-like news feed pops up and replaces the ignorable RSS-like feed from the first game, and everything just looks and feels nicer. The visuals, the animations, everything combines to pull off a convincing club atmosphere, down to the crowd chiming in during mixes. This complete visual package carries over into the UI as well, as notes pop off the screen more than the original, the gauges and icons are larger and more prominent, and the star meter has recieved an upgrade as well. In some ways, because of these changes, it feels like more of a reboot than a sequel to the original.

The game starts you off asking if you'd like to view the tutorial, veteran or no, and with good reason. At first glance, the gameplay at first glance looks mostly unchanged, but slowly, the differences start to creep in. Vocals replace the terrible Guitar Hero mixes from the first with special attention to pitch for harmonizing and cadence for rapping/speaking, but it's really playing second fiddle to the main feature. In DJ Hero, with turntable in hand, you're tasked with crossfading, sampling, and scratching between two tracks to the beat of the music as gems and icons fall down a track shaped like a record. Much of that is still the same, but with all new held taps and long arrows during scratches that require you to hold a button and drag the turntable in a certain direction. If that sounds too boring and familiar for real change, fret not, because a whole new degree of user freedom has been injected into the mix.

At first, it's something strange and awkward, but after a few mixes, experimentation kicks in and you're left wondering why something so open ended and natural wasn't added before. Every track now has freestyle crossfade sections that let you mess around with one or both tracks at the same time, along with samples that change dynamically during the song (no more out of context YEEEEAAAAHH BOOOOYEEEE in every mix), and scratches whose tempo and duration are left up to your own creativity. It's something that makes the songs sound like they're truly under your control and practically ensures that any two people playing a mix won't have the exact same result. As you can imagine, all these new additions rear their heads constantly and to a point, simultaneously on higher difficulties.and if you thought "Groundhog" in the first game was difficult, prepare to have your fingers and wrists destroyed by what they have in store here. It's no stretch to say that the difficulty has increased, but with all the new additions feeling more natural than overbearing, the songs are still a blast whether you're a tried and true vet, or just a beginner.

Navigating the sleek new menus, there's a new option right underneath quickplay, and it's the meat of the single-player experience found within. Dubbed "Empire", it's starts you off naming your own party spot, picking a DJ, and traveling around the world mixing and battling others in a bid to build a virtual empire with you at the center. Along with some very cool intros from each venue seguing into phenomenal new megamixes (continuous sets of 3-4 songs blended together into one huge mix), there are setlists to complete, one on one battles to win, and many, many new things to earn on the way to the top. If only the "top" didn't lie in theory.

I say in theory because really, if there's any complaints to be had about Empire mode, it's that the feeling of being an up-and-coming DJ building a superclub from scratch is surprisingly absent. Yes, you start out picking a DJ, naming your club, and starting out in Ibiza of all places for your first set, but it's a red herring of a setup that ultimately doesn't deliver. You end up spinning in several venues across the world, go toe to toe with DJ superstars and amateurs alike, but it simply doesn't feel like it goes anywhere by the conclusion. There's no management to be seen, no money to earn from playing sets, no crowds to manage as a barometer for your own club's success, hell, even customization of your avatar is limited to a few predetermined costumes. It's a bit of a missed opportunity, and it's not something that ruins the career, but the potential in customizing and expanding your own party spot (or being able to create your own venue) is hopefully something that'll be explored in future DJ Hero games. As it stands, Empire is little more than a new coat of paint on the challenge based structure of last year's game.

Somewhat making up for this though, are the varied community options available. Every significant action you take, from making into a certain bracket on the leaderboards, to completing a challenge in empire, gets reported in a "Hero Feed" that shows up on all your friend's screens via pop up like Twitter. Challenging a friend's dominance in a particular song is a button press away from a notification, and the upgrade to the star meter I mentioned earlier? It now dynamically lists your friend's gamertags in order of high score, and you can either come close to or knock them off their pedestal in real time. It's a small tweak that goes a long way in making the game's userbase seem consistently alive. Fansites like Scorehero have been doing this since the release of the original Guitar Hero, but to see it seamlessly woven in here is a sign of progress.

The multitude of modes injected into the multiplayer do well to inject some much needed life into the original and its boring score battles, addressing a chief complaint about the first having very little to do when a second turntable is in play. There are star battles as before, though now you can steal rewinds and freeze the other player's track, accumulator and streak battles for you to compete on a technical level, DJ battles on special versus tracks that leverage speed and skill over scores, and more. Better still, a Call of Duty like experience and rewards system was added as well, and there are a ton of levels, icons, and titles to unlock on the road to the top. Playing constantly to get a higher score was the most addictive thing about the original, and with all these new features (including issuing challenges to friends after a mix), it ends up feeling more like an Empire mode than the actual game.

My small complaint about the career doesn't detract from the true backbone of this game though, and it's in the game's phenomenal soundtrack that DJ Hero 2 ultimately delivers. The first soundtrack was mostly composed of hip-hop, R&B, and a smattering of electro and techno. Things haven't changed drastically for the second,but things are more eclectic this time, with a broader range indulging disco, trance, house , reggae, and even current pop hits for this intallment. There are overall less mixes than the last game, but it's a moot point. Ever wonder what Kanye West's "Heartless" would sound like mixed with Lady GaGa's "Lovegame"? How about Sean Paul's "Get Busy"mixed with Harold Faltermeyer's iconic "Axel F"? Busta Rhymes vs. House of Pain? Once again, the game boasts an absolutely amazing soundtrack of mashups that'll have you scratching your head when read on paper, then dancing when you actually end up hearing them. The aformentioned megamixes of several of these tracks are a welcome addition the package as well, not only do they nail the seamless transitions between tracks that's normally common in turntablism, but they are an absolute knockout as well. One can only hope that they make it into the next game in a broader form, or that they at least become front and center during the deluge of generous DLC the developers have planned in the upcoming months.

It was a bit tough writing this review to be honest. I have a very strong love for this game, and it took a great deal of effort to simply not fanboy myself all over the place, but at the end of the day my original statement still stands. This game is amazing. The additions and refinements echo a developer who clearly listens to their fanbase, the game was made more challenging without sacrificing fun, the multiplayer is fun, and somehow, they managed to trump the first game's soundtrack with one that's even better, and arguably without peer in the genre.

Yes, even with Rock Band 3 on the horizon.

It's that real.

Why are you still here? You should be playing this. Now.

Continue Reading..

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Say what you will about Sonic 4..

But this is something impressive. With spot-on gameplay, vibrant colors, an intense (though possibly a little too busy) visual style, and music that faithfully represents the original yet has a style all its own, a three act demo for the infmaous Sonic Fan Remix is finally here. The best part is, without a shred of fanboy bias or hype behind my words, I can admit it is damn fine. While I won't go as far as the rest of the internet and say that the two(!!!) guys who worked on this have beaten Sega at their own game and bested Sonic 4, it is certainly impressive, and gives me chills just thinking about what they could do to the Chemical Plant Zone or Mystic Cave.

The three act demo of the Emerald Hill Zone can be found here, and it's definitely worth checking out if you even have a shred of Sonic fandom left in you.

Even if you don't, LOOK AT THIS THING. Here's hoping no one's lawyers try and put a stop into this gorgeous labor of love, eh?

Continue Reading..

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Hot Rod Time Machine - Sonic 4: Episode 1 Review (iPhone)

Also on Chocolate Lemon!

From the outset, Sonic 4 wants to win you over with nostalgia.

It's evident in the opening splash screens, Sonic running back and forth before that iconic and instantly familiar "SEGA" scream rings out. It's front and center as Sonic pops out of his crest and shakes his finger with a 'tude. Pressing start yields the sound effect from the original Sonic Adventure. All the pieces are in place, it seems, and after numerous delays, controversial fan backlash, and the ever-present notion that this attempt to be a reboot/remake/sequel could just completely jump the shark (problematic mine carts notwithstanding), Sonic 4 is finally here, and before the console releases to boot. The #1 question in fans' minds though, is: Sixteen years after the release of Sonic 3, is it the sequel we were all waiting for?

Well....let me just say I understand "hardcore" Sonic fans a bit more now.

Now don't get me wrong, I'm not advocating the abrasive, heavy-handed way that the more dedicated of Sonic fans approach every new game in the series. Pitchforks and stakes in hand, they're ready to completely trounce every new attempt to bring this series anywhere past 1992, both aesthetically and gameplay wise.

I am not one of those people. I'm in fact a huge fan of Sonic since the series' beginning and couldn't care less about their petty grievances, but immediately upon starting the game, something does stick out like a sore thumb.

The series trademark physics, something very easy to take for granted, seem off here.

Sonic games have always had a tangible, weighty sense of speed and inertia, and what developer Dimps have come up with here is a system that works, albeit inconsistently. Navigating Sonic is rarely a serious problem, But rarely does he feel like he has inertia, as he often just feels heavily programmed. It leads to jumps being floatier than they should be, speed getting marred by an almost erratic acceleration that's simply too fast to start or too slow to peak, a strangely magnetic attraction to flippers and bumpers, and things like ramps and loops occasionally defying gravity by making Sonic lose all momentum when curled into a ball.

This should NOT be happening.

It's as if a heavier sort of physics system from Sonic Rush was in play, but where the former had almost an entire focus on speed and moving forward with very little platforming, Sonic 4 shares level design quirks with the Sonics of old. Given that this was the general spirit, having controls that are slanted towards his new gameplay design is a bit ill advised. It works, but it's something to adjust to. If I had any abrasive fanboy whine of theirs to subscribe to, it would be this one, yes.

With that immediate gripe out of the way, I can finally let you know that despite that odd quirk, Sonic 4 is an absolute blast.

From the outset, the game's four Zones outright let you know this is a sort of retro revival, as the Splash Hill, Casino Street, Lost Labyrinth, and Mad Gear zones all have the distinct look and feel of previous stages in the series. Splash Hill has the rolling hills and corkscrew loops that made the previous Green and Emerald Hill Zones iconic first stages, Casino Street has the neon, oversaturated feel of Casino Night Zone, Lost Labyrinth is a trap filled maze akin to the Labyrinth Zone, and Mad Gear has all the tricky platforming and infuriating enemy spawns that made the Metropolis Zone one of the toughest Sonic levels ever. The music filling each stage is great as well, emulating many of the original 8-note compositions from the Genesis originals, and sounding truer to the spirit of Sonic than the horrible butt-rock that has plagued the series since 2000.

But make no mistake -- while these levels are clearly a homage, their designs are completely original, matching and in some ways even besting their inspirations. Massive, and filled with alternate paths, shortcuts, and secrets aplenty, they very closely nail that perfect balance long forgotten since the franchise's heyday. Well timed jumps and tense platforming sections are rewarded with stretches of speed or alternate (usually faster) paths through a stage, and each stages three acts are all detailed enough to warrant multiple playthroughs, especially for the boss battles that balance looks from the past with surprising new moves. (Special stages have returned as well, with a special surprise for anyone who collects them all) There are also clever gimmicks thrown into a few of the stages, and while they don't all work, tilting the phone to direct a minecart through a high speed maze, or keeping up momentum as a grinder bears down on you are nice diversions from the action.

The control, something I didn't mention until now, is very nice as well. The d-pad and single button given are very accurate, and very responsive (save for the occasional crouch), which is something considering the fact that you're forced to use a touch screen. However, as great as it is, a lot of this wouldn't feel as tight without the newest addition to Sonic's arsenal: The homing attack. It seems like a minor convenience at first, but what you'll find is that it lends a subtle rhythm to his usual run 'n' jump formula, something you'll notice as seemingly innocuous strings of enemies become paths to a shortcut, a botched jump gets corrected, or previously impossible jumps become manageable with just that small boost. It's a fun, logical addition to Sonic's classic gameplay, and its one of the many factors that make this truly feel like a real sequel.

All of this does not make for a perfect game however, and Sonic 4 is not without its flaws. Some levels still feature the series much maligned bad enemy placement and cheap shots, and while some can arguably be avoided with sharp enough reflexes, others simply have to be tripped in order to be aware of their presence. Some of the gimmicks are suspect as well, with one in Lost Labyrinth that doesn't explain itself until you've spent a life or two, and a particularly nasty one in Casino Street that makes the level impossible to finish if you mess up a homing attack on a string of enemies towards the end. The homing attack is a bit suspect as well, sometimes not locking on to targets right away, or locking on when they can't be reached (sending you flying into a wall or to your death) There's also a funky screen rotating effect when going through loops that you'll either love or get motion sickness from, depending on your cup of tea. I thought it was cool, frankly, while it drove a friend of mine crazy.

Motion Sickness!

The graphics are nice too, featuring colorful backgrounds and a great looking 3D model for Sonic himself, but the game inexplicably lacks retina display support, which means that the game looks great on anything but an iPhone 4, where the low resolution becomes more apparent and the game takes a bit of a washed out tone more akin to a DS title. For a iOS game released after June 24th, this is not just a minor oversight, it's inexplicable. The console versions feature some of the most gorgeous high-res CG I've seen in a downloadable title, it would've been nice to say the same here.

A list of complaints is a bit moot however, when the overall package is so well done. Despite its minor and occasionally major flaws in the design and gameplay department, Sonic 4 on the iPhone is not only a sequel that successfully updates classic Sonic gameplay for the next generation, but is a great sneak peek of what to expect from the HD versions as well. If the small bugs and annoyances are ironed out of the next installments of this planned episodic series, then we are all in for a real treat indeed, as Sonic Team (with help from dimps) seems to have tapped what made Sonic successful in the first place, and man, are they on the right track.

Just like '91.

Here's to many more.

Continue Reading..

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Shut up long enough to make a good game.

My god, they've been running a smear campaign on the power of the 360 since the damn hardware was revealed (Xbox 1.5, anyone?), and 5 years later, against all odds (measured by Sony), the system has been able to hold its own, in many ways matching and even besting the PS3's lineup technically as well as artistically.

So why am I still reading lines like this?

"Well, yeah. Yeah. I mean we're still a way away from launching so we're probably going to throw more stuff on that Cell processor. So yeah... Do you think [Xbox 360] could pull off Uncharted 2? Everyone's comparing us to Uncharted 2, so if you think you can make Uncharted 2 on Xbox then OK maybe you can make Infamous 2 on Xbox."

--Darren Bridges, Sucker Punch

Nevermind the fact that inFamous wasn't a technical marvel to begin with and its sequel is really less than groundbreaking in the visuals department (compared to Uncharted 2? WHERE?)It's always the same thing. Somehow, some way, if you're making a PS3 game, it's absolutely imperative that you annouce it isn't possible on any other console at some point during its development.

I realize that mudslinging is a favorable part of any console makers strategy, but when does it stop being clever and start being shortsighted? I keep seeing this trend exemplified in first-party titles like Ratchet and Clank, God of War 3, Killzone 2, and most infamously in Assassin's Creed 5 years ago, with an all-too-catty Sony ready to declare that the game's advanced animation system and physics were too detailed for the 360 to handle. (The game later released with negligible differences.)

Anyone ever hear of Nintendo constantly defending the Wii's honor, touting its motion control like some kind of safety net? How about Microsoft? As far as I can see, they or Nintendo don't care, because at the end of the day, people either buy the games or they don't. Sony devs however, feel it necessary to prove themselves through statements and graphical or hardware specs instead of gameplay. Does PS3 have more raw power? Yes. However, all the potential in the world means nothing if no one's tapping it, and so far very few developers outside of their vaunted first party on PS3 has used it in a unique or compelling way.

Haven't I seen this before?

What WOULD be appreciated, are statements rooted in fact about actual limitations, and how they relate to a game's direction. Not some mini seminar about the PS3's SPUs, or the Cell processor, or the blu-ray disc, and how it adds up to some unassailable miracle formula. There are a ton of factors that go into a game's development on console, from how their CPUs delegate tasks, to their GPU and the amount of redering techniques possible (zzz), but at the end of the day, they are JUST SPECS. They aren't physical, or legal reasons a game can't be multiplatform, they are numbers, and numbers were invalidated the minute consoles became so complex we couldn't define them by bits anymore.

64-bit game. Seriously.

It's really unfortunate, but Media Molecule (LittleBigPlanet) has been the only exclusive Sony developer I can think of to buck the trend, citing that the game was not possible on another console not because of a technical reason, but because of the unique way they were using the PS3 hardware in regards to user-file sharing and other factors unrealated to the RELATIVE power of the console. In fact, they said it was very possible on a rival platform, given enough time and leniency of Microsoft's policies.

And that game is gorgeous.

I can't put my finger on it, but I think the thing that irks me the most is the fact that these baseless comments are being made from a limited, marketing perspective. If you are only using one kind of hardware, how exactly can you be absolutely sure that it's impossible anywhere else? It's cowardly, prattling on about how your game can't be done elsewhere when you have no plans to attempt bringing it aywhere else. It's akin to zealots declaring their religion the one true following, while turning a blind eye to even the slightest opposing idea. Any developer using both systems has stated that the systems both have their strengths and weaknesses (NOT that one is explicitly 'better'), and when a like-for-like game releases on both consoles and looks simply amazing, it only makes those who spoke up seem less talented than they actually are.

Post-Castlevania, No one has any excuse now.

"You'll look at it and see that there's no way we could have done this game on 360."

Really, Sucker Punch. I know Sony needs to market their first party titles and this tradition is a huge part of it. I know there's a need get the fanboy fires raging and the tin hats in play, but I really don't think I'm alone in saying that maybe they should focus less on how their game compares to Uncharted 2 (read:it doesn't), and more on just making a good enough game to be noticed in the glut of highly anticipated releases next year. Because I must say. inFamous barely held itself up when being relentlessly (unfairly?) compared to Prototype, and that was a new IP. In fact, I'd go as far to say that if it weren't for Prototype, it probably wouldn't have sold that well, relative quality be damned.

Many things in 2011 are sequels and reimaginings of some -very- strong titles.

With that in mind, and the prerequisite PS3 dev braggart quota filed, I hope it's back to work.

Continue Reading..

Monday, October 11, 2010

Accurate depiction of your friendlist on 9-14-2010.


Continue Reading..