Monday, October 26, 2009

Army of Two: The 40th Day Contest

Like weapons? Want to design one for EA? Check out this contest:

Today, EA Montreal announced the return of the weapon design contest for ARMY OF TWO: THE 40th DAY. From June 23, 2009 to July 12 2009, participants can submit their ultimate weapon at the game's official website for a chance to have it included in a future EA Game. To enter the contest, gamers will need to submit an image of their weapon and a brief 200-word description. Please click on the game's official website to view the contest rules. Once gamers submit their designs, the images will be posted to the site for the community to vote on. Starting on July 20, 2009 the top weapons will be reviewed by the development team who will then pick the two best designs.

A “future EA Game” sounds kinda nebulous — personally I hope the winning design will wind up in Madden 2011.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Nintendo’s E3 Briefing

E3 continued today, with Nintendo's Media Briefing at the Los Angeles Convention Center. The Electronic Entertainment Expo is the video game industry's annual trade show where major players gather to reveal anticipated games and new technology. While Nintendo's presentation wasn't as well received as yesterday's Microsoft briefing, here are three things for Nintendo fans to get excited about (and I should note that I love the DS and Nintendo has some cool things planned for the DSi, but the Wii was the star of the show).

New Super Mario Bros. for the Wii
Can there be anything new about Mario? After all, the last New Super Mario Bros. was a 2006 DS title and the venerable plumber has been hanging around since 1981's Donkey Kong. With that said, Nintendo has something interesting here — they've taken the core 2D platform design and turned it into a 4-player co-op game. Or at least co-op in spirit — I'm thinking this game will be the new Gauntlet, where screwing over fellow players is almost as much fun as working together.

Wii Sports Resort combined with Wii MotionPlus
Nintendo's Wii captured people's imagination with a motion-sensitve controller which made you feel like you were actually swinging a baseball bat or throwing a punch instead of pulling the strings on a computer-generated puppet. MotionPlus (a new attachment for the Wiimote) ups the realism by allowing faster and more sensitive motion-tracking. As shown in the Wii Sports Resort trailer, this means archery, golf, water skiing and a host of other sports have now reached the next level of immersion. Can the ultimate lightsaber game be too far behind?

Metroid: Other M for the Wii
There was major fail at this year's briefings, with the consoles attempting to reach out to hardcore gamers and girls not realizing that hardcore gaming knows no gender restrictions. With delicious irony, Nintendo's best received title was the hardcore Metroid: Other M featuring the badass (and female) Samus. Nintendo plus Team Ninja equals stunning 3D environments, awesome boss battles and fast and furious (and edgy) gameplay.

Terminator Salvation

Terminator Salvation CoverTerminator Salvation
Developer: GRIN
Publisher: Evolved Games
Platform: Xbox 360 (also on PS3 and PC)
Released: May 19, 2009
Test Freaks' Freak Score: 5.4/10
Wikipedia tells me that Terminator Salvation is an interquel, which is a good term for a movie tie-in which takes place two years before the actual movie. The game follows John Connor (not Christian Bale), a foot soldier in the war against machines. Terminator fans know that Connor has a destiny, but it's one that seems more remote every day. Skynet has inexhaustible resources and each battle takes irreplaceable human lives. In the ruins of Los Angeles, is there still a future worth fighting for?

Re-reading the above paragraph, I realize that I've described a compelling story. I'm sorry to say that it isn't present in this game. Sure there is an introductory voiceover which introduces us to the pathos of the Terminator universe and there are scattered cutscenes which extol humanity, but this doesn't come across in the gameplay. Compared with Terminator Salvation, Gears of War seems like a meditation on violence, which is too bad since the beginning of Salvation promises a Gears of War-like experience.

After all, Terminator Salvation is a third-person shooter set in urban decay. John Connor is accompanied by Blair Williams (Moon Bloodgood), the Dom to his Marcus, and together they fight against an enemy which overwhelms. Combat is largely cover-based and you even press Y to focus in on points of interest.

Armed with an assault rifle, Connor is immediately up against swarms of flying Aerostats and, soon after, Spiders — heavily shielded crab-like machines. You won't survive out in the open, but the game has a deep cover system. Almost every structure on the battlefield offers some form of protection from which Connor can pop up and take out enemies or lay down some blind fire. Once you've clung to a wall or overturned car, you can use the thumbstick to open a radial menu and dive to another location. Using this method to move around the battlefield, you can flank enemies and fire on their unshielded areas.
Using Cover
Countering the cover system is a strong enemy AI. Spiders won't let you fire on their backs for too long before swiveling and counter-attacking. Later, the menacing T600 endoskeletons will be unleashed and they seem designed for the sole purpose of hunting you down. Fortunately Connor's weapon choices grow to include shotguns, grenade launchers and devastating pipe bombs.

Get a few chapters into the game and you'll realize that Salvation has a typical war movie setup — our men are trapped behind enemy lines and it would be suicidal to rescue them, but isn't this what makes us better than the enemy?

Connor assembles a group of like-minded troops who have heeded his “come with me if you want to die” call, and plunges in. It would make sense for them to occasionally do some flanking of their own, but they are engaged in battle theater — shooting without aiming and dying dramatically.

If there’s anything you want in a movie tie-in, it’s the feeling that you’re the star of an action movie. There are no wow moments in Terminator Salvation. No great set pieces. No thrills or chills. Just a steady march through post-apocalyptic L.A.
Watch out for endos!
Terminator Salvation is actually a good looking game, but level design is linear and repetitious. Skynet keeps throwing the same three models against you, no matter how deep into enemy territory you creep. Any half hour of Salvation resembles any other half hour – save for a few rail shooter sequences which break up the monotony if nothing else.

Looking at everything I said above, I would still probably recommend this game if it didn’t clock in at under four hours. It is utterly reprehensible that shovelware like this is being presented as a triple-A title. While Salvation does have offline two-player co-op, there is no online multiplayer component. There are no secret areas, easter eggs, collectibles, or unlocks. In short, Terminator Salvation has no replay value whatsoever.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Sacred 2: Fallen Angel

Sacred 2: Fallen Angel CoverSacred 2: Fallen Angel
Developer: Ascaron
Publisher: cdv Software Entertainment
Platform: Xbox 360 (also on PS3 and PC)
Released: May 12, 2009
Test Freaks' Freak Score: 6.3/10
Let me start with a disclaimer: I’ve made it through less than 30% of Sacred 2’s main quest and I’ve seen less than 20% of Sacred 2’s world. After over 30 hours of play, though, I feel justified in posting a review.

Sacred 2 is an action-RPG loaded with hundreds of quests, thousands of items and a menagerie of monsters. Gameplay is combat-driven so don’t expect to sneak around like a thief and you pick the good or evil path before launching the game so there are no moral quandaries to get in your way. If you need to feel immersed in a fantasy world, then Sacred 2 isn’t for you – but if you’re looking for a game that offers Diablo-style action and WoW-level of addiction, I highly recommend Sacred 2.

In the fraction of the game I've seen, I've learned that there's some problem with elves and I'm guessing a Fallen Angel comes into play at some point, but I really don't care. Not that I'm not interested in being the hero who brings salvation to Ancaria, but I'm having enough fun investigating crop circles, attending rock concerts, and collecting troll hearts. Sure there's a plot to follow, but the flavor of the game comes from the multitude of side quests available. I eagerly scour cities looking for people with ? floating above their heads, never knowing if I'm going to be asked to wipe out a skeleton army or merely tell guests that the wedding's off.
Roaming the Wastes.
Just one more quest, I tell myself and then I get sucked into a mini-campaign or find a class-specific quest I'm compelled to do because I'm a good little Dryad. Yes, I am your typical wood nymph who longs to pepper enemies with arrows and cast her voodoo. She's one of six preset characters available. Avoiding Gauntlet-style archetypes, Sacred 2 opts for classes like an angelic warrior (Seraphim), a resurrected soldier (Shadow Warrior) and an automaton resembling the Egyptian god Anubis (Temple Guardian).

Each character has different combat skills and magic available to them (called Combat Arts and grouped under three Aspects). Using my voodoo, I can envelop enemies in thorns and use shrunken heads to summon ghosts. With 15 Combat Arts to choose from, in addition to Offensive, Defensive and General Skills to hone, Sacred 2 has a pretty deep RPG system. Combine this with the variety of armor and weapons available and, even though I can't change my character's gender or make her ears pointier, I still feel like I've shaped her creation.

There's always a concern that porting from the PC to a console involves a dumbing down of the interface, but the controller works great and allows for intuitive button mapping. You can assign potions to the D-pad and attacks to the face buttons and you can even use the trigger buttons as “shift” buttons letting you easily access up to twelve different attacks, spells, or combinations — in no way is the absence of a keyboard limiting. I have noticed that the controls could be tighter — the game doesn't always recognize that I want to shift from my longbow to sword. Also, targeting isn't precise — many times I've launched a flurry of poisoned bolts at a rat instead of the horrible monster next to it.
One of the class specific mounts.
Sacred 2 favors open-world exploration over traditional dungeon crawling. This isn’t to say that you won’t spend a fair amount of time in cellars, caves and sewers fighting subterranean fauna, but Ascaron has built a huge fantasy world and – by Lumen! – they want you to see it. Grassland, desert, mountain, jungle – name an ecosystem and you’ll find it somewhere in the world of Ancaria. This is an incredibly detailed world. There are remnants of battlefields, strange machines, ancient graveyards and other wonders which you just happen upon if you stray from Ancaria's network of roads.

Sadly, much of Ancaria's beauty is lost to me because I'm either running like mad or hightailing it on horseback. Sacred 2 doesn't have random encounters — it just has encounters. There's no patch of wilderness which isn't crawling with monsters who have the sense to travel in packs. It's cool happening upon goblins fighting spiders, but it doesn't take long for them to join forces against you. Once I barely stayed ahead of a pack of skeletons, bears, minotaurs, goblins, boars, and goblins riding boars.
Come on party people.
However, Sacred 2's deadliest feature is that you can't pause the game. While the single-player setup is perfectly fine for misanthropes like myself, Ascaron really wants you to enjoy the multiplayer experience (2 player offline or 4 players online) and has created a pseudo-perpetual world MMO type experience. The end result is that if you stop to look at a map, level up, or muck about with your equipment, it won't take long before something comes up and starts chewing on you. It's much safer to do any charactery thing in cities, where you're mostly safe. Luckily, the world of Ancaria is filled with transporters and respawny stones, so you can warp around to cities you've already visited and run to the blacksmith to have a magic necklace dropped by a diseased sheep welded to your quarterstaff to make it fiery.

I think Ascaron has a low opinion of my social life, because should I ever complete this massive game, I'll need to replay it to see where the evil path leads me. And then there's the other characters for me to try out and they each have their own quests. And I heard there's an expansion on the way, which is like hearing that Slartibartfast is adding a new continent when I haven't even seen Paris yet.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Sony’s E3 Briefing

Wrapping up the major platform briefings, Sony hit E3 today with their presentation showing what's in-store for their console and handheld system. Cutting through the marketing, here are the three things Sony fans should be saving up for.

PS3 Motion Controller
Nintendo has the Wiimote. Microsoft has Project Natal. Sony has a prototype. Looking like a small baton with a ping pong ball attached to the end, PS3's motion controller works in conjunction with the PlayStation Eye to track the movement of the controller which could be a stand-in for a tennis racket, pistol or flashlight. A motion controller in each hand lets the user dual-wield. Imagine a Zelda game where you're Link, blocking attacks with a shield while striking with your sword. Still at the tech demo stage, this has a lot of promise and I'm hoping Sony can stick to their Spring 2010 launch date.

Showing that Nintendo isn't the only company that can make their portable device more portable, Sony showed off the PSP Go. Half the size of the PSP, this sleek and sexy handheld slides open like a cell phone. With built-in wifi and Bluetooth capabilities, the PSP Go goes beyond games allowing for better access to and storage of videos, music and pictures. Full PSP games can even be downloaded to the Go, bypassing physical media. The only question is will the $249 entry price be too high, especially since Nintendo's DSi is only $169.

The Last Guardian
When the “games as art” argument rears its head, two games come to the forefront: Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. It's no wonder that the company behind them, Team Ico, would have created the beautiful and mysterious The Last Guardian revealed today. The trailer shows a young boy hunted by knights in an eerie ruin who is befriended by a giant griffin. Haunting and poignant, this game is set for a 2010 release.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Army of Two: The 40th Day Contest

Like weapons? Want to design one for EA? Check out this contest:

Today, EA Montreal announced the return of the weapon design contest for ARMY OF TWO: THE 40th DAY. From June 23, 2009 to July 12 2009, participants can submit their ultimate weapon at the game's official website for a chance to have it included in a future EA Game. To enter the contest, gamers will need to submit an image of their weapon and a brief 200-word description. Please click on the game's official website to view the contest rules. Once gamers submit their designs, the images will be posted to the site for the community to vote on. Starting on July 20, 2009 the top weapons will be reviewed by the development team who will then pick the two best designs.

A “future EA Game” sounds kinda nebulous — personally I hope the winning design will wind up in Madden 2011.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

King of Fighters XII

King of Fighters XII CoverKing of Fighters XII
Developer: SNK Playmore
Publisher: SNK Playmore, Ignition Entertainment
Platform: Xbox 360 (also on PS3)
Released: July 28, 2009
Test Freaks' Freak Score: 5.3/10
It might be the King of Fighters, but uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.

Unlike most fighting games which track the progress of a single fighter against increasingly challenging opponents, King of Fighters XII is team-based. The 22 character roster covers the spectrum of martial arts from Muay Thai to Drunken Boxing and features members of the expanded KoF family like the Bogard brothers, Joe Higashi and Goro Daimon. Players pick three fighters and either face an opposing team in an online or offline versus mode, or go up against five waves of teams in the single player Arcade mode’s time trial.

King of Fighters XII has the typical array of heavy and light kicks and punches which can be stringed into combos and special moves. New features include a critical counter system – which can quickly turn the tide of a battle, guard attacks – quick counters – and blow back attacks which occur when two attacks cancel each other out.

With the “time trial” arcade mode being the whole of the single player experience it's hard not to feel underwhelmed by King of Fighters XII. Twenty-two characters would be sufficient for many games, but since you’re going through it three characters at a time, it doesn’t take long before you’ve seen everyone.

In the single-player mode, there's no strategic advantage to picking a balanced team or even spending time on determining the order of your fighters. Although it’s technically 3-on-3 combat, battles are fought one fighter at a time with fallen fighters being replaced by the remaining teammates. There’s no tag system, buffs or assists.

The single player mode is so lacking, it feels incomplete. There’s no narrative, no boss battles, no challenges, no triumphant ending and no unlockables other than artwork. But! – skeptics will say – this is a game that’s meant to be played online.

Even after patching, I can’t recommend playing King of Fighters online. The lobby system will have you staring at a menu screen for at least five minutes and then you’re thrust into an appalling level of lag. There’s nothing more frustrating than launching a ranged attack only to watch it stutter across the screen. I have no doubts that this is a problem which can be solved, but there are too many competent fighting games available to advise waiting for this one to get better.

King of Fighters XII is a 2D fighting game and has a long legacy – both factors point to this game having a built in audience. I don’t believe there’s anything here which will draw a wider appeal, which is a shame because when everything is working, it’s a competent fighter.

A final note about the graphics: King of Fighters XII features handdrawn graphics which gives the game a distinct look. Animations are amazingly fluid and there’s good detail, but the sprite-based graphics result in heavy pixilation. This may be intentionally retro, but it comes off as a misstep for a franchise making its first HD appearance.

And you will get tired of seeing the same six stages. Even if you don’t read ethnic stereotypes into them, stages like China and Egypt manage to be simultaneously over-animated and uninspired. France in particular freaks me out.