Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Games of March 2012.


March is no February when it comes to quantity, but it boasts a few very interesting or otherwise highly anticipated titles.  Kicking things off is, for many folks, an instant game of the year contender.


March 6th
Mass Effect 3
PS3, 360, PC
Hype-O-Meter: Potential day-one purchase.

Mass Effect 3 - BioWare's science fiction magnum opus, and poster child for western-developed RPGs - will be a huge commercial success, and an early front-runner for Game of the Year 2012. I would probably be much more hyped for it if I had ever managed to complete Mass Effect or Mass Effect 2 - but I haven't, and the odds of me finishing SSX and Shinobido 2 in time to complete this game's prequel and give it its due are not good.

Still, I've always wanted to get in on the ground floor with one of these Mass Effect games you hear so much about, and experience it along with the rest of the world.


March 7th
I Am Alive
XBLA (timed exclusive - no word on the PSN release date)
Hype-O-Meter: Unless I get bored and need something to play, I'll wait for my preferred control method and platform.

Ubisoft have a great deal of credit with me when it comes to assembling a satisfying platformer - and that's much of what I Am Alive promises, along with a post-apocalyptic yet modern-day setting and survival mechanics.

I'll be paying very close attention to reviews of I Am Alive - the game's development history certainly gives one reason for concern, but at the very least it's an action-adventure game with a unique premise, as you scramble through the ruins of a metropolis in search of your family.


March 13th
Journey
PSN
Hype-O-Meter: Day One.

Journey is the next thing from Flow and Flower developer ThatGameCompany.  That's really all I need to know.

If you want to know more, simply understand that its developers are known for pushing the boundaries of what emotions a game can inspire with relatively simple tools, that Journey is an explorative platformer with very unique multiplayer implementation, and it looks gorgeous.


March 13th
Silent Hill: Downpour
PS3, 360
Hype-O-Meter: You'll have no faith from me, Silent Hill. 


There hasn't been a great Silent Hill game since 3 back on the PS2 - every game since 4: The Room has been a failed exercise in attempting to return to what made the series great, and I have little confidence that Downpour will be any better.

At the same time, it's a triple-A survival horror game - and when was the last time we got one of those?


March 13th
Yakuza: Dead Souls
PS3
Hype-O-Meter: For me?  Eh.  For Mogs?  Day One

I'm not even gonna' write anything here.  Mogs, if you're reading this, please write a comment below - or heck, email me - briefly explaining how people should feel about Dead Souls.  You're the guy to ask, on this stuff.

[update]


Mogs says,
"Five words: Majima Goro with a shotgun. 
But in all seriousness, Dead Souls appears to be a straight-up Yakuza game (meaning heavy on story that can get a little crazy and/or over-the-top, in a good way) only instead of the brawling, it's a Third-Person Shooter because you just can't-punch- the zombies that've infested Kamurocho to re-death unfortunately. Apparently, the controls were a bit tank-y in the initial release in Japan, but Yakuza Studios went on record saying, should the game get a localization, they would likely tweak the controls to play more like Binary Domain, which was developed with a more Western mindset anyway. 
From what I can tell, it'll retain the usual side-quest bits, but I'm not sure as to what capacity, and, like Yakuza 4, the story will be told from the viewpoints of four different characters: Kiryu Kazuma, Shun Akiyama, Majima Goro and a blast from the past, Goda Ryuji who literally has a machine gun for a hand. Despite all that, the story is usually handled pretty well, so even a tale of zombie infestation could end up as something special, or at least pretty neat."
...and that's Dead Souls.  Thank you, sir.


[/update]


March 27th
Silent Hill: Book of Memories
PSV
Hype-O-Meter: What have you done to Silent Hill?


Okay, so it's called Silent Hill but you create your own character and guide them through what appears to be a multiplayer co-op top-down shooter.

Way to disappoint on general principle, Konami.  I'll be thrilled and amazed if this thing gets any better than mediocre reviews.

* * *

...and that's March!  Not exactly bursting at the seams, but c'mon - Mass Effect 3 and Journey?  

Nice!

Dragon's Dogma demo docking for digital download one day.


Siliconera reports that Capcom's Dragon's Dogma - a mish-mash of Dark Souls, Shadow of the Colossus and western open-world RPGs - will be receiving a demo prior to release.  This is nothing but lovely news for folks like myself, who find the title deeply intriguing, but may not be convinced to shell out their money - and more importantly, time - when there are other games in competition for our affections. 

I'll be very interested to go hands-on with this one.  It's a real wild card. 

A new Gravity Rush trailer.

Definite day one.

What the fff....

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Jet Set Radio HD up-port coming to PSN, XBLA and PC.

From the press release:
"SEGA of America and SEGA Europe today announced the upcoming digital release of fan-favourite: Jet Set Radio, the wall-tagging, trend-setting Dreamcast classic from 2000. DJ Professor K, Beat, Gum, and all the GGs are taking to the streets in this upgraded HD version of Jet Set Radio, which sees players vying for control of the futuristic Tokyo-to by marking their turf with graffiti tagged across walls, billboards and rival gang members. The slick gameplay, genre-blending soundtrack and pioneering art style of Jet Set Radio will be coming to Xbox LIVE® Arcade for the Xbox 360 video game and entertainment system from Microsoft, PlayStation Network, and Windows PC Digital Download this summer. 
Jet Set Radio lets players join the GGs, an up-and-coming street gang in the futuristic city of Tokyo-to, fighting for the right to self-expression against an overbearing, corporate-controlled police force. Rolling and leaping through crowded urban environments on magnetically driven inline skates, players take control of gang leader Beat and his growing posse of deviant artists as they steal turf from the local gangs by covering the city with colorful graffiti. Guided by Professor K, DJ for the hottest pirate broadcast in town – “Jet Set Radio” – the GGs will ultimately uncover the sinister plot hatched by the controlling powers of Tokyo-to."
Slideshow!




SSX launch trailer.



I am so glad it's here.

Monday, February 27, 2012

REVIEW - Rayman Origins.


As Rayman Origins walks into the room, you can't help but be somewhat shocked by how phenomenally attractive it is.  Just gorgeous, in a classic, wholesome, healthy way.  Origins reminds you of the lighthearted, unchained adoration you had for wonders and worlds when you were a child, and its smile is just beaming - an open, unpretentious grin of joie de vivre that lacks any cynicism or irony.  

It's is so utterly beautiful and cheerful, you don't for a moment think it has any master plan when it reaches into its jacket and lays one little card on the table.  "Can you jump from down here to up there?" Origins asks.  "It'll be fun!"  

Well, sure I can!

Origins immediately places another card.  "Can you jump a gap this wide? I'll bet you can!"

Sure!

It starts off so innocently.  So sweetly.  So expert is the conversation Rayman Origins has with you that you barely even notice it's going on - but by the end of your discussion with the game, it's laying down cards that would have once seemed utterly insane

"Can you wall-run vertically up a series of twisting, falling objects with spikes on all sides, ping ponging from one tiny patch of safe platform to the next where a button held one thousandth of a second too long or pressed one millionth of a second too late will send you right back to the beginning of the level?"

Well, sure I can, Origins.  It's what you've been teaching me to do this whole time.  

Did I mention how beautiful you are? 

"I'll bet you say that to all the hand-drawn games."  And through it all, Origins keeps that guileless, wholesome smile on its face.  "C'mon," it asks, holding out a cartoony, gloved hand.  "It'll be fun."


The game observes a strict template of teaching you one mechanic to the point of mastery before it offers you the next.  In one level, you'll be tasked with absolutely nailing a series of floaty jumps, requiring you to land on a bunch of undulating enemies.  You will not be able to accomplish this without a total control over your jumps, twisting yourself at precisely the right degree in mid-air to land on one before bouncing to the next - and it deeply ingrains in the player a sense of how razor sharp and supple the game's controls are. 

It's very challenging - but it never allows you to imagine that what it's asking of you is impossible.  You know it can be done - just look at that encouraging smile!  This'll be fun!  

So you try again, and again, and again until you absolutely master the art of fine-tuning your jumps with aftertouch.  Then, Origins lays a new card on the table.  "Now you can float after you jump.  Try what you just tried again!"

It's so much easier, now!  That floating ability was exactly what I needed.  "Yay!" says Origins, before placing another card.  "...now, can you do this?"

Before it lets you move on, Origins makes damn sure that you've seen its latest mechanic upside, downways and every angle in between.


Rayman Origins is an instant classic, thanks to how classically it styles itself.  There have been some complaints that it's too light on the plot, but that seems to be ignoring its entire premise.  As a classic-style platformer, it doesn't need a story - it just needs a set-up and a conclusion - which is has in spades. 

Once upon a time, The Dreamer is chillin' in the Glade of Dreams, dreaming worlds and characters into being.  He's dreaming up enemies, he's dreaming up faeries, he's dreaming of friends and foes and frankfurters.  

But down in the underworld, someone is having a bad dream - and these bad dreams invade the peaceful Glade of The Dreamer, and his buddy Rayman.  

Rayman is a dream, too - the dream that survives.  A dream created by the faeries to defeat evil dreams.  Everything in the game is a dream - from the collectibles you seek to the enemies you kill to you yourself - when defeated, you all pop.  "Sorry to burst your bubble," so to speak.  Sorry to end that dream.  


It wields a deep symbolism, but never feels weighed down by it.  Instead, Origins soars on wings of unfettered creativity, and a gleeful willingness to be just plain silly.  It offers as much as any old-school platformer ever did, in terms of story, and then wisely sets that aside to get down to the business of having fun.

You'll race frightened treasure chests through thumb-blistering obstacle courses (to obtain much-needed teeth for the adorable grim reaper who guards the Land of the Livid Dead), you'll pilot mosquitoes in tension-breaking shoot-em-up sequences, and you'll lay the smackdown on the undead grannies who now plague the Glade of Dreams.  

While Origins' design and mechanics are very, very classic, it leaps into the current generation of consoles with its absolutely stunning presentation, and modern sensibilities.  This is one of the most beautiful games of the high-def consoles, and there's really nothing to complain about in terms of good looks and intelligent conversation.  


The sprites are big, sharply-drawn and gorgeously animated.  The worlds are ridiculously detailed - the likes of which we've honestly never seen in a hand-drawn game - and a constant exercise in imagination.  The Ice World, for example, it's not just the Ice World - it's Gourmand Land, where frozen treats give way to spicy leaps over roasting weenies and swings from chains of hot peppers.  

I often loathe Ice Worlds in platformers - and Water Worlds - but Origins' practiced method of constantly switching things up as it edges your abilities that much closer to platforming perfection keeps the play engaging, and its remarkable presentation means you'll never be less than overjoyed with the view as you zip by. 

The game's stellar presentation is not limited to the visuals.  Origins employs one of the best soundtracks of 2011, replete with kazoos and horns and the high-pitched singing of the shining, golden Lums you seek on your journey.  Characters speak in a mix of gibberish and pig Latin (ike-lay is-thay), and the game wisely covers the only gap in its armor - loading screens - by allowing the player to run Rayman around a tableau of his current world's theme in backlit silhouettes as the game assembles itself behind the curtain.  


There's a reason most modern 2D platformers are smaller downloadable fare which keep things relatively brief - for, without save states, most classic titles could be beaten in just a few hours (if that).  This allows the games to not overextend themselves - to not suffer from the boring filler one imagines would plague any attempt to extend the 2D platformer experience to the lengths we would ask of a full-sized, full-priced modern release.  

It was breathlessly daring to even attempt, yet here we are.  

By way of its gentle but firm hand as it constantly tutors the player in the nature of its mechanics, Origins slowly brings itselfs in line with the profound challenge we enjoyed in the genre circa 1987.  By adhering the modern tenets of game design, it's built with wisely-chosen checkpoints across its sixty-or-so levels, ensuring the player is only ever encouraged to continue, and rarely frustrated by what it asks of us.  

In terms of design, in terms of presentation, in terms of ambition, in terms of mechanics, in terms of control,  Origins is excellent.  

There's nothing more to say.  

If you have any appetite for 2D platforming, Rayman is the stuff of dreams. 


THE GOOD
  • a triple-A, hand-drawn, full-length, gorgeously animated platformer
  • totally adorable character design
  • gorgeous, creative environments
  • wonderful music
  • sharp, comfortable controls
  • excellent design and pacing - always asking just enough to push at your comfort zone, but never so much that it frustrates
  • a perfect measure of challenge
  • a well-thought-out checkpoint system
  • lots of unlockables to discover 
  • lots of additional challenges to take on
  • it covers load screens with a bit of ground to run around on - nice touch
  • fun bosses
  • the Land of the Livid Dead is a perfect cherry on top
  • an ice world and water world that I don't hate
  • it looks absolutely incredible on the Vita - and I love being able to zoom the screen to get a closer look at the art

THE BAD
  • it may be some time 'till we see its like again

THE VERDICT
If you have any appetite for platforming, Rayman Origins is the stuff of dreams. 

Klei is making a stealth game! Eeeeeeee

eeeeeeeeee!  Since I fell head over heels for Shank 2, Klei (sounds like 'clay') Entertainment has moved way up on my list.  News that they are now creating a 2D stealth title is nothing but sweet, sweet music to my ears.

Today I opened my email to discover this link - making me very pleased I subscribed to Klei's mailing list.

It brings one to a kind of text adventure, where clicking highlighted text indicates your decisions, and you're able to guide your prose assassin through a hit.  When you finish, you're treated to a little slice of the game in action - see below.

Can't wait!






Oh shits.  And it looks like its exclusive to 360.  Sad panda.  Ah well, at least Klei's obviously got some kind of publishing deal - that's nice.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Beat Rayman.


My hope was to get it wrapped tonight and write the review - but it's currently eight minutes until the point where I really need to be in bed, as I have work in the morning - so it will have to wait 'till tomorrow night.

Sorry, folks.  Still, though - counting the Vita review, that'll make five reviews this month.  That's rather... insane.

Oh, and speaking of the Vita, I'm in love with this thing.  My whole life, I haven't been particularly interested in handhelds.  When the Game Boy came out, I wanted one terribly until I got my hands on it and saw that it did in no way, shape or form resemble the games I was playing on my NES.  I felt much the same about the Color, the DS and the 3DS.  The only previous handheld I was at all interested in was the Game Gear, and that dream died when I discovered its battery life.

Aside from the PSP - which I pretty much only purchased for God of War: Ghost of Sparta, God of War: Chains of Olympus, Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker and Valkyria Chronicles II - I've never really wanted a handheld.  The Vita feels very, very different.

It feels like the handheld I wanted all those times I picked up the Game Boy or the DS or the PSP.  I have significant techlust for this item.

Gaming media folks like to label the Vita as a platform that's designed for "the hardcore" - which is, I suppose, what I am - and in that regard, it's a complete success.  This thing is exactly what I want in a portable gaming platform.

Now it just needs some RPGs.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Game Diary - the Gravity Rush demo!


Today I looked in to the possibility of snagging the demo for Gravity Rush off the Hong Kong PlayStation Store.  An ultrasharp individual on the Penny Arcade forums sorted out how to get content from multiple PlayStation Network - or, I guess SEN, now - accounts working on the Vita.
"Keep your memory card in your Vita at all times. Do not format it. 
For this to work you're going to already need your other-region psn accounts. (If you create them on the vita you'll have to reset it again for them to work.) 
1. Set to factory defaults. Deactivate, don't format memory card, go through setup again.
2. Do setup as normal, but enter your other-region SEN account in the setup. This loophole does not work if you set up your account later.
3. Download what you want in the store (I can't personally confirm purchased content myself with this method, but totally works with apps/demos for sure).
4. DO NOT OPEN THE APP ONCE IT DOWNLOADS.
5. Repeat Step 1
6. Set up your normal region account as normal. Reactivate your account.
7. Enjoy 
Items don't attach to your account until you first open them. If you make a mistake of opening them in your other-region account just delete the app/game and redownload it fresh."
-Vagrant Winds, an ultrasharp individual-
...that said, I wasn't about to try it out - best of luck, if you do.  I have a bad habit of totally destroying my hard drives/memory cards, so I decided to err on the side of caution.  Tonight, Kayla and I went to Best Buy to look into cheap blurays (I got Nausicaa and Enemy at the Gates) - and there was a display Vita set up.  I'd heard about GameStop having the Gravity Rush demo up on theirs, so decided to check it out.

It was totally on there!  Eeee!




As the demo was only about four minutes long (and I didn't want to have Kayla standing there waiting for me for a half hour as I push at its edges), I can't go in to any great depth on it - but...

Very, very nice in-game presentation.  The framerate is solid, the art direction pops, the characters are boldly designed and everything is very, very sharp.  Cutscenes aren't quite so impressive - though their comic-book-style approach retains the title's striking art.

Manipulating gravity is as easy as it should be.  The demo rolls you through a quick tutorial of how to disengage yourself from your the earth's pull and send yourself flying to distant platforms of skyscrapers and billboards, and it quickly becomes second-nature.  It certainly helps that, as you're doing it, it looks really, really cool.

Combat it simple and impactful.  Which is exactly the way I like it, for a game like this.  You roll in on enemies and smack them around with arcing kicks - but to up the ante, you can perform a 'gravity kick' by releasing yourself from gravity, aiming like you would if you wanted to go flying towards a building, and hitting the attack button (square) instead.  It works really well, and feels nicely powerful when you let one off the chain.

I'm not sure how I feel about having to swipe to dodge, but perhaps there's a button command for that I didn't find.

A definite day one.  We have a lot of "classical" games on the Vita, right now - Uncharted, Rayman, BlazBlue, Ninja Gaiden, WipEout, Hot Shots Golf - titles that take advantage of our familiarity with their genres and style.  While Gravity Rush's combat is a relatively simple and analog affair, it's very heartening to see a title that's trying something very new, in other directions.

IMPRESSIONS - Rayman: Origins.

First thing's first.  You need to crank the resolution, skip to 1:20 and watch this for seventy six seconds. 


...if you're unfamiliar with Rayman: Origins, that is. And by "unfamiliar," I include situations where maybe you bought it around Christmas last year and put a bit of time into it because you'd heard it was awesome, but got sidetracked with other stuff.

Right now, my time on the Vita is split between Rayman and Shinibodo 2, with Rayman being the palette cleanser of a sparkling, triple-A pursuit to break up the heavier, acquired taste of Shinobido. I was enjoying my time with it, but when the above level came up - which seems to be about 1/2 or 2/3 of the way through the game - it was just sublime. The entire Origins experience seemed to crystallize within this level - or, more precisely, what's rare and valuable about it, which is... a lot.




I feel I really shot myself in the foot with the Escape Plan Impressions article, in which I explained some aspects of the game to the point that I didn't feel I could explain those aspects any better, come review time, and so just quoted the impressions article.  


I'm going to try to protect myself from that, here, and merely suggest that the critical and commercial success of smaller games like Super Meat Boy, Bionic Commando Rearmed and 'Splosion Man - throwbacks, to a time when running and jumping with twitchy, razor-sharp precision were the primary tenants of every action game - has given Ubisoft the grit required to offer a triple-A take on what was once the most hallowed of genres.  


I know that seems a simple and, well, obvious observation - but the product of that ambition is ambrosial.  




If someone accurately described Rayman: Origins to me - and to you, I'm guessing - I would flip out.  In fact, I would just apply the speech I give people when I mention "Vanillaware" and they ask me what the heck that is.  




"Well, did you have like, a Super Nintendo or a Genesis when you were a kid?  Yeah?  Okay, remember looking at the graphics in Sonic or Super Mario World and thinking "wow, imagine what this will looks like next gen when the graphics are even better"?"


Everyone says yes, to that question. 


"...and the next gen was the PS1 and Nintendo 64, everyone went with 3D polygonal graphics, and games looked like crap for the next ten years, right?"




"Well, there's one studio that specializes in doing big, beautiful sprites on current-gen systems.  They're called Vanillaware."


Now, with the advent Origins, Vanillaware are no longer the only ones (outside of fighting games) applying big, gorgeous 2D hand-drawn sprites to triple-A video games.  


For years in North America, 2D animation in gaming has only been the (rare) pursuit of smaller, independent studios.  Even then, more often than not, developers will turn to 3D polygonal graphics in their games - whether that actually proves beneficial to its presentation or not.  A really well-made, full-release 2D animated title just... hasn't really happened since Muramasa: The Demon Blade on the Wii. 


I would kill for Shank 2 on the Vita.


We all love and value the smaller games, but it's a different beast entirely to enjoy such stunning presentation in a full-price, high-ambition boxed release.  


Perhaps I'm going a bit overboard, here, but I don't actually recall a triple-A platformer that's used 2D animation since the fourth generation of consoles (we're now on the seventh).  Ubisoft has offered something we haven't seen in almost fifteen years.
"But Chance, what about Kirby games?" 
"Shut your face, that's what.  Epic Yarn sucked."
Rayman: Origins is bursting at the seams with stellar production values, from the creativity in its visual design to the alarming sharpness of its art to its (incredible) music - but that's not where it ends, in terms of returning us to a time when the platformer was the king of action games. 




This game is hard core.  It requires the same degree of pixel-perfect timing and skill as a classic Mega Man, without the frustration which accompanied games born during the transition from arcades to consoles - when they were designed to be as punishing as possible, decreasing the odds that you could beat them and increasing the amount of quarters required to master them.  


Origins offers that wonderful, satisfying, high-flying challenge of the classics, along with a  comfortable checkpoint system in keeping with modern appetites, which significantly reduces frustration.  


...shit... I should have saved that for the review.  I'm stopping this Impressions article right now before I start talking about the game's pacing!  

Friday, February 24, 2012

Takin' the night off.


Long week, Friday night, I'm out.  Gonna' spend some time with Rayman: Origins and Shinobido 2, if I can keep myself from going back to Golden Abyss.

G'night, wonderland.

Hey Blue - have I got a deal for you.


Blue's been talking for a while now about picking up Alice: Madness Returns for himself and his girlfriend.  I was never able to direct him towards a better price than the $40 PSN version - 'till now.

There ya go, Blue.  From February 24th to March 1st, Alice is just thirty bucks at EB Games.  And Bulletstorm for $20 is a pretty sweet deal, too.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

REVIEW - Escape Plan.



Escape Plan is a pleasant, petite amuse-bouche of a game.  Structurally, and in terms of entry barrier, it is Sony's attempt to show that the Vita can easily be home to the next Angry Birds.  Indeed, this launch title rips much of Birds' staccato rhythm and enticement, as each bite-sized challenge grades you on how long it took and how many gesture commands you required to succeed (out of three stars, no less).

Each tiny, done-in-ninety-seconds level is a puzzle of lethal traps to guide your adorable wards through.  You learn early on just how fragile and clumsy they are - Lil (pictured above) will trip over a two-inch brick, land flat on his face and splatter his black little brains halfway across the room - to the applause of some hidden audience.

Its charming presentation and addictive structure could take up a very great deal of your time, if you aim to get three stars in each level and master its optional challenge modes.


Whether or not you'll want to depends largely on how seduced you are by the game's unusual grayscale styling and its near-constant insistence that the last room you defeated can actually be overcome with much greater efficiency - which would be more enticing if it weren't so liberal with what it considers gestures.

The rear touch pad is the offender, here, for as you grip the Vita, swiping and tapping Lil and Laarg through their lethal world, your fingers on the back of the unit are constantly registering as control gestures.  You do often have to use the rear touch pad - to frighten sheep, to knock platforms into the foreground, to squeeze a fart out of an inflated Lil, which sends him shooting forward - but it's no less disappointing to discover you received a low grade on a level because you used forty-three gesture when you only meant to use five.

That said, the title does an excellent job of leveraging and showcasing the Vita's touch and tilt functions.




"Escape Plan uses every single motion control in the Vita's arsenal - touch screen, rear touch pad, and giro - and none of them feel wrong or awkward as you make requests of them.  Given the amount of objects you have to interact with in a given level - pushing objects, tapping walls, shoving Lil and Larg, squeezing them (by pressing on the front and back of the Vita) - just wouldn't work with a standard physical control method.  It wouldn't feel as good.  
The only option with traditional controls would be to use a pointer - which has never been more than halfway decent in any strategy or puzzle game that doesn't use a mouse.   
If you've read this blog for any length of time, you know how I feel, as a general rule, about motion controls.    
I hate motion controls.  I have never played a game with any degree of motion control - from Ratchet And Clank Future: Tools of Destruction to The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, and not found myself thinking "this would be so much more intuitive and fun if everything was just mapped to a goddamned button."   
Until now."
-from a Game Diary-


Escape Plan further endears itself to you by way of its adorable presentation.  For some reason, getting Lil hopped up on coffee and watching him trip balls (pictured above, which grants him a dash ability) never gets old.  The soundtrack is a comforting mix tape of classical tunes, and between their dopey, expressive animation and cheerily oblivious exclamations - hollering "weee!" as they plummet to their doom - it's hard not to become rather fond of Lil and Laarg.

Once you sit down to run through one of Escape Plan's rooms, you may look up to notice a half hour has gone by as you find yourself in the clutches of its mildly addictive, just-one-more-room temperament.
"The fact that [the load times are so damned short and] there's no punishment for failure only compounds the problem.  It's hard to stop playing - it's hard to feel that you've really failed at all - when Lil or Laarg gets splattered all over the scenery and a laugh track plays."
-from a Game Diary-

By the time you're two thirds of the way through the game, however, it begins to have less fun coming up with ideas than it does subjecting you to ever-more-complex use of the touch screen.  One puzzle had me holding my fingers over five leaks in a toxic pipe, so as not to let the gas harm my precious duo - which may sound bad, but it's nowhere near as frustrating as having to make precision taps on the rear touchpad with very exact timing.

It's great when it's taxing your mind, and tedious when it tasks your fingers with too much to do.

Near the end of my time with Escape Plan fatigue had set in, and I was anxious to return to the Vita's higher-caliber offerings.  This is by no means a bad game, but fifteen dollars is somewhat steep for such a small experience.

The price tag will likely prove well worth it for those prepared to take their time with Lil and Laarg, and nibble away at the title over the course of a month.  It's a strangely beautiful, very endearing title - and a great tech demo for the Vita's motion controls - but its only a little nosh of a game.

A pleasant, petite amuse bouche - but not very filling.


THE GOOD
  • endearing overall presentation
  • the funny, wordless sounds of Lil and Laarg 
  • the animations are full of character and charm
  • bold, sharp, minimal art style
  • lovely orchestral music
  • the use of the Vita's touch and tilt is actually better than analog control would have been
  • often clever puzzles
  • a very addictive structure.  It's Angry Birds by way of Tim Burton on St. John's Wort. 
  • ultra-short load times
  • a great game to hop into for five to ten minutes

THE BAD
  • the puzzles become less puzzle-y and more "let's see you tap all this!" as the game goes on.
  • not a particularly good value for the money -  ten dollars would have been a more reasonable price
  • my inability to hold the Vita without hitting the rear touchpad totally screwed up my score on 90% of the levels
  • for some reason I could never bring myself to play it for more than thirty minutes at a time

THE VERDICT
A pleasant, petite amuse bouche - but not very  filling.

I never thought I wanted a daughter...

...until I realized I could dress her up like this:


D'awww!

Game Diary - The Vita.



No news today!  Unless you count Google Glasses - which sound nice and sci-fi, but I've decided to only start caring about it when it's actually a thing that's happened. This works out just fine, as things have been a little nuts for me, lately.  The Vita - and attempting to cover it in any reasonable sense (which I haven't really managed) - has taken up nearly all of my home time, and the rest of my days are dominated by this Full Time Job thing that refuses to be anything but a necessity.

For me, the story of owning the Vita began this past Christmas, when I asked my family and loved ones for nothing but HMV gift cards with the aim of putting said cards towards said Vita.  Prior to this request, I went down to my local HMV and verified with the manager, Cory, that he would, in fact, be getting the Vita in stock and he would, precisely, have it on launch day.

Turns out, Cory lied to me - though I'm sure he didn't know that at the time.  Not only is HMV not carrying the Vita or any of its games, HMV is not going to carry video game products of any kind from now on.

Well, fuck.

In early 2011 I went into my local HMV and asked to speak to a manager.  This was my first chat with Cory.  I explained to him that I was sick and fucking tired of EB Games (GameStop in Canada) screwing me on my preorders, and discussed his store's preordering policy.  Duly satisfied, I hooked myself up with an HMV rewards card and I spent - no joke - over three thousand, nine hundred dollars in HMV last year.

That landed me with 390,000 Pure Points.  At 475,000 points you could get a $100 HMV gift card.

No, they're not exactly breaking the bank with their rewards thingie - and given that I could no longer preorder my video games through them, I could be assured I would not be spending a further thousand dollars at HMV this year and not hitting the 475,000 point mark.

Anyway, after learning that they would no longer be selling video games at all, I went in this past week and turned what remained of my Christmas gift cards into PSN funbucks.  Today, I went down to EB Games and traded in the sealed copy of Little Deviants from the First Edition Bundle towards a $20 PSN card, and then I went to another HMV to cash in my 380,000 for a $50 and $10 HMV gift card, which were promptly turned into $50 and $20 PSN cards.

Did you know you can't have over a hundred and fifty dollars in your PSN wallet?  I found that out the other day.

So, yeah.  I have a lot of cash sitting on my PSN account right now - but on the bright side, it gave me the financial balls required to purchase a game I've long been curious about.


I've always wanted to try Plants Vs. Zombies, but the PS3 version never interested me - and given that I need to get rid of money in my PSN account just to redeem my surplus of PSN cards, I took the plunge.  It just never seemed like the type of game I would want to play on my TV - and the Vita seems like an ideal platform for it.

I still haven't given it a spin - but it's there.  It's nice to have it there - and it brings my total Vita games to five.  I've decided I can't play it, yet, because I already have a semi-casual-type game on the Vita which I'm like, eighty per cent done and I really want to finish it and get another review out.



Escape Plan continues to be a largely pleasing experience, but after having played Golden Abyss, I find that's what I'd rather be playing.  Escape Plan isn't the type of game one zips through and reviews - it's a light little nosh of a tittle.  Something to nibble on for five minutes here and three minutes there - but given that I'm within striking distance of completion, I find myself playing that instead of the games I want to.

For example, Shinobido 2. You know how long it's been since I played a dedicated stealth title, and not an action title with bits of stealth in it?  It's been almost 21 months - Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker in mid-2010.

Prior to that, it was arguably Siren: Blood Curse or Metal Gear Solid 4.  No, Assassin's Creed doesn't count.

Thank goodness Hitman: Absolution is on its way.

The point being, there hasn't been nearly enough of my favorite genre on the current gen - and Shinobido 2 satisfies, thus far, on that fundamental kill-the-hell-out-of-guys-who-don't-know-you're-there level.  Many reviews have pointed out that it's "like Tenchu" - heck, so did I, yesterday - but it's important to note that that's a double-edged sword.

The Tenchu games have always had middling presentation and a tenuous grasp on technology, at best.  Shinobido 2 is not graphically (or even mechanically) impressive.  It's a bit like a Way of the Samurai game in that its setting and core conceit count for a lot, allowing one to accept its sub-par graphics and touchy controls.

I haven't spent enough time with it to be certain, but it's worth noting that Tenchu games always felt too touchy as well, until you mastered them - and then you realized they weren't so much touchy as incredibly precise.

I'm hoping Shinobido 2 turns out similarly excellent on such a basic level - but I'm not prepared to pass any kind of judgment at this early level.  I'll say this:

It's a stealth game, and I love good stealth games.



A friend came up at work, today, and told me a friend had suggested to him that Golden Abyss was, in fact, shitty.  I've made my position on the title abundantly clear, but that's not to say it doesn't have sticking points.  As I was playing through its opening sequence again on hard mode the other day, it occurred to me that I should, perhaps, do up a "Five Things Wrong With Uncharted: Golden Abyss" post, the same way I did with Uncharted 2.

Of course, I don't have time to, so I probably won't.

Anyway, Kris tells me his friend says Golden Abyss is shitty, and I probably looked at him like he just told me chocolate is not, in fact, delicious.

"Your friend hasn't played past the opening, has he?" I asked.

"He hasn't played it, he's just talking about a review he read."

I rolled my eyes, which, honestly, I feel kinda' bad about.  I still have to worry about the whole "Elitist Gamer" thing. Gotta' work on that - but I'm quite certain of my opinion on Golden Abyss.  It starts off mediocre and quickly becomes everything I want from an Uncharted title, and more.

* * *

So that's where I'm at, dear reader.  Well, that and still needing to catch up on a sleep deficit - so I'm gonna' go stretch out and see if I can figure out how to get past the 'Bodyguard' level on Escape Plan.  It's not what I want to play, but it's what I need to play.

I'll getcha' a review as soon as I can - and then it's on to Shinobido 2... or maybe Rayman: Origins - I'm not sure yet.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Eight words about Shinobido 2.


A brashly self-promoting trailer? Well, I never!

Mass Effect 3's cover caters to Femshep fans.


EA put up an unboxing video of Mass Effect 3's 360 version, today.  Blah blah two free days of Xbox Live, blah blah Kingdoms of Amalur demo DLC, blah blah two discs, bla-oh em gee!


The cover you'll see facing out on store shelves is your standard male Shepard, but the cover is reversible, and the other side sports Femshep!  If you so choose, your copy of Mass Effect 3 can sport the official female Shepard design, instead of that bland old dude.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

REVIEW - The PlayStation Vita.

This was written seven days after I unsealed my First Edition Vita.  
It is not a final word on this platform - merely how I feel about it
at this moment.
What can I say?  I really like that wallpaper. 
The PlayStation Vita promises triple-A, console-quality games on a handheld.  That is a bold statement - but the only question I'm at all concerned with answering - so this review will be rather different from those you've read on other gaming sites.

The Vita has a great deal of facets I don't care about and so, won't talk about.  Many reviews concern themselves with its pleasant list of bullet-point features - the cameras, which allow for augmented reality games.  The 'Near' thing, which I won't begin to get into.  The strange interface with its hidden menus which feels totally alien after the largely intuitive XMB...

I'm not about to discuss most of that.  The Vita can do a ton of stuff - and while having a Google Maps button right on the main page is very cool, I don't much care about that, either.

I don't care about anything the Vita does that isn't involved in allowing me to play awesome video games.  I'm willing to bet that if you were to consider shelling out two hundred and fifty dollars for a dedicated gaming handheld, you too are much less concerned with all its little extras than you are with how well it does the whole "video game thing."

Well... Near is weird,  the cameras seem like a needless tack-on, the fact that it requires you to purchase a separate memory card feels kinda' douchey, and it is without question the best portable gaming device there has ever been - if...

And this is The If.

...if you, like me, concern yourself first and foremost with playing gorgeous, immersive, high-end and high-production-value video games - and all the other ones, too.


Keep in mind - I actually have to downgrade these screenshots in order to fit them on the blog.  These images are 640 x 362 pixels - a direct screen capture from the Vita is 960 x 544 - yet the screen is only five inches.  The Vita's minuscule pixels provide images so attractive it's almost unsettling.

Its OLED (organic light emitting diode) screen is bright, lightning-fast and supernaturally sharp.  But heck, the PSP Go had a fancy screen, and where did that get it?

What separates the Vita from every other portable gaming device is what's under the hood - what it's capable of producing - with its quad-core processor and 640 MB of RAM.  That's right - the Vita actually has more random access memory than the PS3 or 360.  512 MB of RAM and 128 MB of dedicated VRAM.

This allows the system to produce visuals that - while not quite on-par with the best-looking games of the current gen - easily surpass titles available at its launch.  Let's compare with a trio of third-person shooters, shall we?


Technical wizardry, neh?  The Vita can't match it...


...but look at those textures!  Look how sharp it is.  Now look at the first third-person shooter to drop on the PlayStation 3.


Bleugh.  Character models are detailed, but effects are almost nonexistent and the textures have all been smeared in vaseline.

The Vita leverages a half-decade of industry knowledge of how to create art from technology, and applies all the little tricks of the trade folks have learned.  The high-end games look absolutely stunning - but that's only halfway to keeping its promise.  The other half is something consoles have understood since the turn of the century, and it's not just one thing - it's two.


In March of 2000, Sony's Dualshock solved the 3D Game Dilemma.  This was a very important step in console gaming.  Movement had been handled by analog stick in polygonal games on consoles since Super Mario 64 in 1996, but the experience had always been marred by the inability to intuitively control the camera as well.

Since the introduction of the Dualshock, with its twin analog sticks, every major 3D action game has utilized this classic control scheme - movement on the left, camera on the right - and things have never been better.  This is a lesson Sony should have learned with the PSP in 2004 - and you'd think Nintendo would have had the mind to include it with the 3DS, instead of as an afterthought peripheral.

You simply cannot produce a modern, console-style action game without two analog sticks.  Given that the PlayStation Vita's primary concern is providing such titles, there was only one control scheme they could have used:


So, we essentially have a Dualshock with a gigantic, gorgeous OLED screen and guts capable of producing current-gen high-end graphics.

The math is simple.  Correct controls plus cutting-edge technology equals what is, perhaps, the greatest handheld gaming device ever produced.

Now that, too, is a bold statement - a blanket statement, which makes assumptions about your consumption.  If you only want to play Angry Birds when on the go, you may as well stick with the iPod.  If you are entirely aligned with Nintendo's largely excellent but never-quite-up-to-current-gen first-party titles, you definitely want a 3DS.

There has been a renaissance in gaming over the last five years, led by Apple.  We call it "casual" - which is, perhaps, a fair moniker - but let's not ignore that billions of dollars are spent on ninety-nine cent games which boast little more than cute 2D sprites and clever mechanics.  People want to play those tiny games, and if you love gaming, chances are you do, too.

I'm not saying These Games are better than Those Games - Those Games are often pretty damned fun - but it begs the question of why, then, one should invest $250 plus (memory card) plus (games) plus (accessories) in the Vita?  The only answer is that you don't just want to play Those Games.

You want These games, too.


...and no handheld has ever produced games on par with the highest standards technology will allow to the degree of the Vita.

In that, it is a sublime success.  It is precisely what Sony promised and intended it to be.  It's extravagant.  It's a luxury item.  It's not the game device you want to buy for your preteen niece - she'll just break it.

It's, honestly, for adults. For the discerning gamer palette.  For people who grew up with a Dualshock or 360 pad in hand.  People who love gaming.  All gaming.

We want to play Plants Vs. Zombies, and we want hardcore fighting games.  We want Angry Birds, and we want BioShock.  We want it all, and no portable platform can deliver games across such a broad spectrum as the Vita.

Potentially, at least.  Aye, there's the rub.

Did you forget that Irrational Games has committed to making a BioShock game for the Vita?
Man, that'll be sweet!  ...if it happens!

A gaming platform can only ever be judged by its library. If we could judge it based on a single game, then the Vita is fantastic.  It will be years before we know the true measure of the Vita, and all it has to offer.

It's entirely possible that this thing will tank so incredibly badly that it will be pulled from store shelves halfway through 2012 and all developer support will cease.

That could happen.  It's unlikely, but let's be honest - at this point, the Vita is not the best handheld ever made - merely the one with the most potential.

I am entirely and uniformly happy with the device, at this point - having only played Rayman: Origins, Escape Plan and Uncharted: Golden Abyss on it - and Golden Abyss suggests nothing but great things to come.
"[It] asks and answers the question of whether or not there is a place for a dedicated, high-performance gaming device in a handheld market saturated with ninety-nine cent cell phone titles, and successfully makes an argument for the existence of the PlayStation Vita.  If nothing else, it says very, very good things about what we can look forward to on the platform."
-from the review-

The Vita, with all its extraneous bullet points, with its casual-friendly touch screen and cameras, integrated Facebook apps and GPS - does hone itself from that spread of features to a very, very fine point.  

We're gamers.  We want to play games.  

With its phenomenal screen, impressive tech and classic, comfortable control scheme, the Vita has positioned itself as the answer to our portable gaming dreams.  Whether or not it makes the most of its sizable gifts remains to be seen - but never have I observed so much potential in a handheld device.  

The question is, are you prepared to pay two hundred and fifty plus, plus, plus dollars for something that has a few great games and a ton of possibilities?