Wednesday, March 16, 2011

CR-48 Impressions

(Writer’s note:  These impressions are based on my experiences at the time of writing.  The device and its OS are in-progress.  The hardware is non-release, and there is no guarantee that the OS itself will ever see an actual public consumer release.)

Okay, so I wanted to have this up sooner, but while writing I ended up getting sidetracked by various things that I would prefer not to get into.  But ohwell, here it is.

So a few months back, Google opened up applications for one of their pilot programs.  This one was a little different because it wasn’t simply a “Hey, download our new program!”  Instead, it was a “Hey, we’re doing a test market of a netbook OS that may not ever make it to public use.  Sign up and you might get a free netbook running said OS!”  The pitch was made that they wanted these devices to go, primarily, to students and businessmen, with a few lucky public users being put into the mix.  Well, I’m not a student or a businessman, so that makes me one of the lucky public users.

And so here before me I have the Google Chrome OS netbook, codenamed the Cr-48.  Now, I’m not a professional technology user or reviewer, and only actually built one PC, and that was several years ago.  So yeah, I’m an amateur at best.  The specifics of device are well documented on other, better sites.  Instead, what I’m here to do is talk about my first one or two weeks with this device.

The Cr48 is intended for people that live on the internet.  While offline modes for certain applications are supposed to be forthcoming, right now an internet connection is needed for this thing to be something other than a paperweight.  But that’s okay, as my wifi router is less than 10 feet from the thing.  Now, I already have a netbook, an MSI Wind12 U-230 running Windows7, that I bought for sitting on the table for TV browsing and when travelling.  While I haven’t had any significant travel time, beyond the standard day-to-day where I wouldn’t even be able to use it anyways, it has effectively usurped it for TV browsing.

As a device for web browsing, this thing is basically running a version of the Chrome browser.  And that’s a good thing.  While not without its problems, Chrome has been my favorite browser since finding out about it almost 2 years ago.  Google has always made Chrome about open web standards and javascript rendering, and render javascript it does.  Alot of pages use javascript and Chrome renders it faster than most other things.  Web pages continue to pop up quickly, though not nearly as quickly as on a full power PC.  This is more noticeable on sites with alot of Flash.

The downside is still Flash.  While Google has removed native support, the Adobe Flash plug-ins still exist, but they’re not that good.  On my regular PC, Flash runs alot better, but Chrome’s biggest problem has always been that the Flash plug-in crashes, not regularly, but often enough to be annoying with the number of tabs I usually keep open.  Most of the websites I use that have videos typically use Flashplayer, though one of them does have an option for HTML5 video.  That’s a good thing, since HTML5 video is one of those open web standards that Google seems to be choosing to support natively.  So the HTML5 versions of the videos on that site run very well on the Cr48.  Well, I guess it helps that HTML5 videos are progressive instead of streaming.  One thing that I noticed about Flash is not only that it doesn’t run well, but that moving into and out of full screen on Flashplayer seems to completely crash the video playback and player controls.  Audio plays back as normal though.  And it doesn’t help that Flash has always been one of Chrome’s issues anyways.

This thing doesn’t, at current, support MS Silverlight, so Netflix streaming is out too.  But that’s what the XBox, PS3, Wii, desktop PC, and netbook PC are for, so oh well.  And if I do take a trip, I doubt that I’ll be thinking about using instant streaming anyways.

What I really like about this unit though, is the design.  Matte finish that has a simulated rubberized finish.  Its simple and unadorned, and looks rather stylish in its simplicity.  The screen is anti-glare, and while that lowers the brightness a little, it helps because I have one of my primary lights right behind my futon, and my netbook’s screen is that shiny, reflective kind seen on most laptops.  Regardless of anything, I really wish the case on the MSI netbook was like this one.  If I could, which I won’t (I’m not that kind of tech geek or anything), I’d rip the guts out of it and put them in the Cr48 case.  The touchpad and chiklet style keyboard are nice, if a little unresponsive at times, though that’s probably as much to do with software as the hardware.

All in all, this an interesting choice for an OS.  It has some potential for people that just want to go online, but at the same time is up against some steep opposition.  Tablets are, and have become a big thing rather quickly.  If Google is smart, I think they should try selling this OS as an alternative to the basic webtop, quickboot OSes that some motherboard manufacturers build into them.  Or, they should try to merge it with Android in the future, and try to make a MacBook Air sized notebook that can flip into a tablet and make a dual-booting system.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Dead Space 2 Review

This reviewer is not the biggest fan of horror, let alone the survival-horror videogame genre.  So it is rather strange that Alien is one of the few films of this type that this reviewer likes, and the original Dead Space managed to hit all of the same notes that made the film so haunting and memorable.  And now, just a short time ago, EA and Visceral Games released the first official sequel, and only made things better.

Dead Space 2 begins 3 years after the events that took place on the USG Ishimura during Dead Space.  The protagonist, Isaac Clarke wakes up in a mental institution on The Sprawl, a massive space station located in the mined out remains of Saturn’s moon Titan, with no recollection of the intervening years.  Things are not as they seem, of course, as just as he is about to be rescued by some supposed friends, a new necromorph outbreak is beginning on the station.  The story follows as Isaac tries in vain to escape the station and in the process uncovers more of the continuing machinations and conflict between the Earth Government and the Unitology Church over the alien Marker.

Now, the original Dead Space was already impressive on a visual and audio level.  It had some of the most impressive visuals for the year it was released, and is still one of the best implementations of 5.1 positional/directional audio in any game, even now.  The style was that of an homage to Riddley Scott’s Alien, with the claustrophobic, techno-industrial interiors with low, sometimes no, lighting, and lots of sound to keep the player jumping, even when there are no enemies around.  Gameplay was very much about using weapons to dismember your opponents and survive to escape the ship.  Its only real problems were that the overall objectives were rather samey throughout, and that most of the enemies spawned from rather obvious monster closets.

So if Dead Space is Alien, then Dead Space 2 would definitely be James Cameron’s Aliens.  By all accounts bigger, louder, and often just as harrowing and tense as the first.  Dead Space 2 takes the same basic formula and improves on it without breaking anything in the process.

The first and most obvious improvements are on the graphical fidelity.  In the original Dead Space, no character was ever shown close-up in frame, even main character Isaac.  Lighting helped obscure creatures on the rare occasions when they managed to get into full frame.  So even though the models were all impressive, the player could never be quite that sure about the appearances of the few human characters.  This time, there is no question, as the first things the player sees are Isaac close-up from the side, followed shortly by another character (from a related title) being turned into a necromorph, also close-up in frame, which is meant to be both shocking and disturbing.

But simple polygons and texture maps are not everything.  What really provides the kind of visual atmosphere the game requires is the lighting.  One place where many modern generation games have furthered is dynamic lighting: multiple lightsources, usually moving, capable of casting shadows of varying degrees across multiple surfaces.  Some games do it well, but Dead Space 2 does it phenomenally.  Every area, no matter how intricate or simple, contains large numbers of lights of varying colors and intensity.  Many areas are dark, with a small number in spots designed to let the player see just enough to know something is there, and not much else.

What sets the Sprawl further apart is the sets themselves.  While the Ishimura did include some some sections in the crew quarters, most of the areas were utilitarian industrial corridors and complexes.  Though they did have some special touches, they could become rather samey as they went on.  While the Sprawl does have its own industrial sections, there is a greater variety areas.  The developers pull no punches by putting Isaac in civilian areas straight away after the opening section.  Areas that look old, lived in, and fragile compared to the Ishimura.  Areas that include family apartments, shopping areas, a rather unsettling trip through a children’s school and a Unitology Church (that looks largely untouched by most of the chaos).

But all the graphics in the world would not mean anything without sound and music to go along with it.  Again, like the original, Dead Space 2 has probably the best 5.1 directional audio mixing of anything this reviewer has ever played.  Necromorphs howl and roar in the background, always making the player feel uneasy, though the beginnings of the more bombastic cues that signal actual attacks can be a little obvious at times.

When there are no enemies around, every sound is there to accentuate the quiet.  The fact that this is a place where there should be alot of noise from all the people that live there, and yet those people are no longer there.  Instead in its place are the advertisements, the hum of ventilation and electricity, and even on occasion a children’s toy.  It is all intended to make the player feel uneasy with all the sounds that should be there, but are not.

The voice acting top notch as well.  All of the characters are well written, with very few wallbanger moments.  The big change from Dead Space here is that Isaac is no longer a silent protagonist.  Alot of the story is about Isaac trying to deal with the events on the Ishimura, as well as the guilt over the death of his girlfriend, who was only there do to his insistence.  He is given a significant amount of character development.  While his voice-acting is occasionally a bit flat, but it is obvious that he is trying, and the writers thankfully avoid giving him any witty one-liners.  Everything is played completely straight.

When paired with the graphics, everything just comes together with the atmosphere and style.  That hallway is just a little darker, the flashlight does not illuminate far enough.  Was that a necromorph skittering across that doorway, or is that howling close or far away?  You know you saw something there, behind the crates, almost cackling as it peeks out, before another screams and rushes from the opposite direction you never expected.

The controls are largely the same from Dead Space, and those are themselves a modern generation refinement of the Resident Evil 4 control scheme.  Players have full control of  movement and camera.  Regardless of movement or not, pressing the key to aim the weapon immediately faces the player in the direction of the camera, with only a loss in movement speed, instead of being rooted in place.  Players can switch weapons, pull up the inventory quickly, though inventory management is lessened here than previous.  The 3d map has been removed in favor of the objective marker also showing paths to the nearest shops and save stations.  All of the game’s HUD elements exist within the world somewhere, instead of on the player’s screen, from health to ammo.  Even the inventory and communications are represented as holograms that appear within the game world instead of simply on the screen.

The Kinesis ability is still a glorified Gravity Gun, but its ability to throw weapon-like objects is emphasised early on, as most players do not seem to have thought of it in the original game.  An early section even requires the player to survive a small attack with nothing but Kinesis and  some rod-like objects.  The Stasis ability, at first, seems to be only semi-useful, but becomes more useful as the game goes on, as it now splashes to hit multiple objects instead of just what it actually hits.  As well, Stasis now automatically regenerates, the timer can be upgraded, but the initial timer is rather long.

One rather noticeable, though welcome change, is that the game actually plays faster.  Its not terribly noticeable at first.  Here, Isaac simply moves faster in every way.  Walking and running no longer feel plodding, and the difference in setting gives his movement a different weighteness.  The melee attacks are even faster, and that is definitely helpful.  The basic melee swing is faster, and no longer has the tendency to clip into and be blocked by scenery.  The curbstomp happens faster and now moves Isaac forward instead of standing in place, as proper distance to use it is not always easy to judge, and it can be chained together quickly.

More weapons have been added to the mix as well.  While the trusty Plasma Cutter is still the go-to weapon in a pinch, the returning weapons are more useful.  The new weapons also have a more real weapon feel, as opposed to the improvised tools-as-weapons approach of the original.  Also, the Flamethrower is no longer useless before upgrading.

If there is anything that can be said about Dead Space 2, it is that it is one of those few sequels that improves on original without doing anything worse than the original.  It is an incredible audio and visual presentation in equal respects.  Dead Space 2 is a phenomenal addition to this relatively new franchise, as well as to the collection of any gamer that likes Resident Evil 4 style survival-horror/action games.

Score: 10/10

Pros:  Incredible visual design.
Great sound effects, music, and acting.
Well written story.

Cons:  Can potentially get repetitious.
Spawn points for enemies still rather obvious.

Weird:  There’s a reason I refer to Resident Evil 4, and not Resident Evil 5
Not demonic babies, but rather “exploding” babies.  Literally.
You made me go to a Unitology Church and back the Ishimura.  Visceral, you guys are fucking bastards. :P
This is really my kind of horror game, so it was very effective for me.
Seriously though, this is the first true GotY contendor of the year.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Picks of the Year: 2010: Movies


(author's note: My picks of the year are taking longer than anticipated to write, so this post is only my movies of the year, videogames and miscellaneous things are coming later.)

Well, here we are with 2010 over, and 2011 just beginning.  2011 has yet to tease many things of interest beyond the upcoming Marvel movies, but 2010 was definitely a bumper year.  There were alot of things worth seeing, playing, reading, and listening too.  I myself saw, played, read, and listened to many things, though not everything.  Like everyone, I have my own personal tastes.  Sometimes they coincide with other people’s, sometimes not.  And if they don’t, then I’ll tell you that that doesn’t matter.  This is my work, not theirs.

So now that that’s out of the way, here are my picks of 2010.  There WILL BE some obvious omissions, and I will note ahead of time that those omissions are because I haven’t seen, played, read, or listened to it.  In fact, nothing I listened to will make this list because I didn’t listen to much new music, and even if I did, I simply don’t have the vocabulary to speak about it.  These are my personal favorites for 2010, and nothing more.

Movies:

Despicable Me:  Straight up, this is sort of tied with How To Train Your Dragon as my favorite animated film of the year.  Yes yes, Pixar had a tour de force with Toy Story 3, and yes it was an incredibly well made film.  BUT, it did not make me want to go back into the theater and watch it a second time, or even buy it on DVD when it came out.  Despicable Me and HTTYD did that for me.  The story of a supervillain who learns that there’s more to life than supervillainy, while at the same time not using it as an excuse to turn him into a hero.  At the end, he’s still a supervillain, just one with a bit of a soft spot.  The characters are all well written, and well acted, and was an incredible suprise to me.  Oh, and the Minions are awesome. XD

How To Train Your Dragon:  Like Despicable Me, a genuine suprise this year, especially considering that it bucks the trend that Dreamworks Animation has continued to do since Shrek 2, IE, crappy writing.  My thoughts have always been exactly that.  That Dreamworks can match Pixar on a technical level, but are seriously in need of better writers.  Based off a book that I am probably doing to have to read now, its the story a young, weak Viking that learns to talk to dragons, something no other Viking has done.  Everything about it is, like Dreamworks’ Kung Fu Panda, well written and realized beyond almost all of their other films.My only real issue was the dragons were a little too cartoony for my tastes.

Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World:  Where was this comic and why hadn’t I heard of it before?  This is pure, right up my alley, geekery, and I loved every minute.  With a little time, and extra cash, I’ll read the comic its based on too.  The movie, as well as the books, play with the imagined battles any kid who ever played 8 and 16-bit videogames ever dreamed of.  A guy who has to fight off his new GF’s exes while learning to be less of a douche, who’d have thought?

Kick-Ass:  Geeky kid wants to become a hero, gets his ass beat for it, so he tries harder the next time around.  But even then, he still sucks, and gets in over his head.  Like Scott Pilgrim, this is very much about the nerd fantasy come true, though in a different way.  Rather than being a crazy way of dealing with personal inadequacies in mind-bending ways, this one is more about someone with no power trying to take control in a physical sense, and finding out things are much harder than he thought.  As for Hit-Girl, she’s the most unrealistic thing in the movie, but she adds alot of fun to the proceedings.  A little girl like that doing parkour and gun-kata?  Seriously fun, and just as crazy.

Honorable Mentions (IE, stuff I want to mention but can’t come up with anything to say about):
The Social Network
Inception
Iron Man 2
Splice
Shutter Island
Toy Story 3

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Need For Speed Hot Pursuit Review

Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit is the third game in the NFS series to carry the Hot Pursuit subtitle.  Unlike the other games, which were developed by various internal EA studios, this interation of Hot Pursuit was developed by Criterion Games, best known for the Burnout Series (though studio DICE helped with world building).  As with the other two games in this subset, the emphasis is placed entirely on driving various exotic supercars as either racers or police.  By exotic supercars, this reviewer means racing specced vehicles from well known manufacturers, most of which only hardcore car nuts will have even heard of.  But they are all licensed real world vehicles.  Point of fact, the game’s tagline is  "All the cars you dreamed of driving, in the way you dreamed of driving them."  The Racer vehicles are available in most of their real world paint schemes, while the Police variants have Police specific paint, sirens and lights, and other equipment.

The events and progression is split between Racer and Police campaigns.  Racer events are the typical arcade style events of Racing and Time Trials, both standard styles and against AI controlled Police.  Playing as the police takes those events and turns them slightly on their ear.  Racing becomes around stopping them, while Time Trials have an added amount of precision, with penalties for sloppy driving.  

NFS:HP is not a simulation game in any way, but since it is using real world vehicles, it is not entirely an arcade affair, like Criterion’s previous title, Burnout Paradise.  The emphasis is on driving the cars fast and completing the objective.  As such, there is no vehicle performance tweaking, nor any paint, emblem, and decal editting, or even any cosmetic after-market parts.  Paint colors are limited to white and blue/green for Police, and manufacturer available colors for the Racers, which are different for every vehicle.  With the nature of the game’s progression, players will be changing vehicles often until they are all unlocked, so no tweaking is okay, but allowing players to make universally appliable custom paint and decal skins, at least on the Racer side, would be nice.

How does it play though?  Very similar to the events in Burnout Paradise.   The vehicles start off very light on the control, but become much tighter as the vehicle specs increase.  Tighter controls are needed to control them at higher speeds, though they end up a bit squirrely during acceleration.  Drifting comes into play as the best way for making tight turns, shortcuts allow multiple paths that are not always actually shorter.  All cars have Nitrous systems, with filling it coming primarily from drifting, drafting (called slipstreaming), and driving dangerously.  The nitrous is incredibly important for quickly accelerating to speed after turns and crash resets, regardless of vehicle.  Basic controls are responsive, and require a fair amount of skill to be successful.

If there was any problem with NFS, it is the same problem most other racing games seem to have, and that is rubberbanding AI.  The player is never really allowed an opportunity to get and stay ahead of the competition by any significant margin, while making nearly impossible to catch up should the player get very far behind.  It is incredibly annoying, on the Racer side, to be far ahead of a pursuing Police car only to have it suddenly burst ahead, faster than the vehicle is capable of, so that it can drop a Spike Strip in front of the player.

To help set NFS apart from other arcade style underground racing games, Criterion added in special equipment.  The core takedown (ramming) mechanic from Burnout and the other Hot Pursuit titles returns.  In some missions that include both Racers and Police, the players are outfitted with up to 4 special weapons to aid in event completion.  These include Spike Strips and EMP launchers.  Additionally, the Racers receive Radar Jammers and Turbo Boosters, while the Police receive Roadblocks and Helicopters.  They all add a dynamic element to the races where they are included.  Limited uses and recharge times keep them from becoming overpowered, as the limited number of uses will usually not even be enough, thus requiring ramming and skillful driving, especially in the later events.  The AI is aggressive and tenacious in any case, able to use the same equipment as well as actively try to dodge it.

Graphically, NFS is impressive.  While the models are not as impressive as the premium models in other recent games, they are more than good enough.  These are the world’s hottest cars looking their absolute best.  Where the cars do not look their best is during crashes.  One of the downsides of using licensed vehicles for game such as this is that the manufacturers do not want them looking bad at any time, while the nature of the game requires it.  It appears that the concession made was that Criterion was allowed to show damage, just not realistic damage modelling.  As such the damage model is the same on every car:  paint scratching, broken windows, and a hanging bumper.  The lighting effects are good as well, headlights and Police lights are dynamic, reflecting off all close objects, from cars to the environments.  The world itself, the city-less Seacrest County, is nice, but rather boring.  There is technically more roadway than in Criterion’s previous game, but without the city or possibility of non-shortcut branching paths, the player will have seen the entire map by the time they are halfway through either campaign, and some areas are repeated in events more often than others too.

The cars all sound impressive, though this reviewer is unsure how close to the actual vehicles they sound like.  Tires one pavement and off-road are different, Police sirens have an authentic wail to them as well.  Hits and crashes have a satisfying crunch to them as well.  The only downside is the soundtrack.  It is almost entirely licensed music, none of which are all that memorable, except maybe “Edge of the Earth” by “30 Seconds to Mars”, and then only because it is used on the title screen, everything else is largely drowned out by the car and siren sounds, at default volume and viewpoint settings.

Probably the big change from previous NFS games is the Autolog.  As with many things, Criterion has learned from their work on Burnout Paradise, in this case the online functionality.    NFS has no free-roaming in terms of finding and starting events, they cannot do quick, drop-in/drop-out play,  What they can do is bring other aspects in, namely the syncing of event  results, rank progress, screenshots, and comments between friends lists, as well as making it easy to add people to the friends list.  Basically, for every event completed, the best times and scores for that event are posted both to the standard online leaderboards, and a friends leaderboard that is always displayed on the event select screen.  In Autolog messages are sent when one player beats another’s time/score, and comments can be posted on them.  The idea is supposed to be along the lines of an ingame Facebook.

There is also online play.  Game types include all Racer races, and various Racer vs. Police types.  This reviewer has not played any of the online modes, and is unable to properly write about them.

All in all, Need For Speed:  Hot Pursuit is an excellent  game.  It offers great arcade style racing with top notch visuals and an incredible sense of speed.  It is a great counterpoint to the more simulation based Gran Turismo and Forza series.  If arcade style racing games are your forte, this is a recommended buy.

Score:  9/10

Pros:
Large collection of the world’s fastest cars
Autolog keeps players in competition with their friends
Great sense of speed

Cons:
Rubberbanding AI
Limited environment

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Disney Epic Mickey Review

Mickey Mouse was not the first character created by Walt Disney.  Some time earlier, when he was contracted to Universal Studios, he created Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.  However, dissatisfaction with his superior caused him to leave Universal, leading to the start of his own studio, and the creation of Mickey Mouse.  Mickey’s popularity grew, while Oswald was soon left by the wayside, and ultimately forgotten...

Until recently, when Disney Studios reacquired ownership of Oswald as part of a contract negotiation.  Designer Warren Spector, a self-admitted Disney-phile, knew of Oswald, and was determined to bring him back to the world.  He made Oswald one of the cornerstones of Disney Epic Mickey, a game envisioned as part of Disney Studio’s attempt to update Mickey for modern audiences.

In Disney Epic Mickey, the player plays as a retro looking version of Mickey Mouse.  As the story goes, before his rise to fame, Mickey wanders into the workshop of Yen Sid (the sorcerer from Fantasia).  Yen Sid is using a magical paintbrush to create home for those things that have been forgotten.  After he retires, Mickey attempts to create something with the magic paintbrush, and fails spectacularly, instead creating a creature of ink.  Mickey escapes, and some time later, the Inkblot comes and pulls Mickey into Yen Sid’s creation.

The creation Mickey is pulled into is the Wasteland, an idealized version of Disneyland that is home to all of Disney’s old and forgotten characters, primarily ones that most people of the current generation have probably never heard of.  The Wasteland is ruled over by the longest forgotten Disney character of them, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.  But Mickey’s inadvertent creation has laid waste to Wasteland, while Oswald grows further jealous of his predecessor, ruling Wasteland from a literal mountain of old, forgotten Mickey Mouse merchandise.

DEM’s most successful feature is the art design.  All the characters and settings have that bright, friendly, retro-Disney charm, except where the blot has taken away the paint.  These areas instead take on a dark and demented look that could easily be cribbing the styles of Tim Burton or Jhonen Vasquez (in a good way).  These differeing visual styles create an interesting dichotomy, as the areas are placed together.  This works with the game’s paint/thinner mechanic in that the areas that can be affected are clearly delineated.  When thinner is used on bright areas, color, as well as portions of the environment are removed, and the remaining area matches the unpainted portions in color and style.  Adding paint to those unpainted areas returns them to their former color.  Some cinematics use the in game engine, but many others use a unique, stylized, limited animation that captures a unique art style that this reviewer has trouble describing.

Also of note is the 2D stages.  When transitioning between zones, Mickey must travel through projector screens set up throughout the Wasteland.  Inside the screens are 2D sidescrolling levels that are based on classic Disney cartoons, from early Oswald up to Fantasia.

Sound design is also very good.  No character speaks, except for Yen Sid, who provides the narration for the opening and closing cinemas, but most of the characters have some basic vocalizations to represent them.  While simple, the vocalizations are enough to add alot of character.  The music is primarily modern arrangements of classic Disney tunes, with a small number of original tracks that complement those quite nicely.  As with many of the characters, this reviewer is not a follower of classic Disney minutiae, and thus does not know which were which or if they were right.  They simply sounded good and fit with the visuals properly.

Where the game falls apart, however, is the gameplay itself.  It is not the only issue, but the first, and definitely foremost problem is the camera.  DEM makes an excellent first impression with the opening cinematic, but makes a terrible second impression when the player reaches the first area where actual camera control is needed.  As the game is primarily a platformer, the camera rarely ever reaches positions conducive for it without alot of struggling with Wii-mote d-pad, which takes the place of the right thumbstick on other controllers.  Often the camera turns slower than desired, except during combat, where it actually seems to swing around quickly enough to keep enemies in view.  The big offenders though, are that the camera often gets caught on scenery, and that in some areas the camera is completely locked.  This is okay during the 2D stages, that is how they were made after all, but in 3D areas, the camera is often placed at terrible angles.  The developer often intends that the player will go left or right from the static position, when many times the player will probably not.

The camera never truly makes the game unplayable, but struggling with it mars the experience more than any of the game’s other faults.  Warren Spector has stated that the game is an action-RPG with some platforming, but he obviously does not know what kind of game his team made.  Sure, there are action elements, but RPG is minimal at best, and the game is primarily platforming.  A camera that cannot swing around quickly and constantly gets stuck on scenery is not okay.  Why is the camera doing that anyway?  Getting caught on scenery may still happen today, but it has not been a significant issue in any game type since the N64/PS1 era.  Most developers have learned how to let the camera move through or, should it get caught, around scenery quickly to help avoid issues such as this.

Thankfully, controlling is generally okay.  Movement and jumping work well.  Mickey can run, jump, and double-jump as well as he needs to.  Most any jumping issues are do to the camera, except in the 2D stages, which have minor hit detection problems on platforms.  Painting and thinning is aimed by an onscreen cursor.  The stream follows the cursor very well, but the cursor does not travel across the screen as smoothly as it should.  As well, the paint stream originates from Mickey, and he fires from the hip.  While the player may be able to see the target onscreen, if Mickey cannot, then he will not be able to hit it, which is especially difficult when the player has to fire at targets below Mickey.  Firing at high targets is, again, made difficult by camera positioning.

Finally, there is the paint and thinner mechanic itself.  It is both a means of affecting the world, but also plays into a morality system that determines how other NPCs act towards Mickey.  Paint restores objects, while thinner destroys them.  This is interesting, except that its very binary.  Only certain areas of the world can be painted and thinned, the rest are static in their thinned state.  It makes for some interesting puzzles, as well as additional danger during combat.

The related morality system, on the other hand, does not really exist.  It is supposed to be based around completion of some sidequests and how the bosses are defeated, but has no effective ingame purpose.  It does not change anything significant.  Rather, it is more of an excuse to cover up the fact that the paint/thinner mechanic allows for two ways to solve almost all problems in the game, from combat to puzzles.  Paint makes enemies friendly, thinner will destroy them.  Paint will unlock the secret door in the wall, thinner will find a way to simply break the wall down.  It is a good mechanic, it simply is not taken as far as it should be.

Really, the saving grace of Disney Epic Mickey is the story.  Its rather simple, but still a well written and executed morality tale.  Mickey did something wrong, and it is up to him to try and set things right, and escape Wasteland, potentially leaving it better or worse off than it was.  The plot arc involving Oswald is interesting as well, how he had to try to fix Mickey’s mess and hold the Wasteland together in the interim, all the while growing more jealous of Mickey’s otherwise easy life up until then.

In the end, as Disney Epic Mickey went on, it got better.  That initial second impression after that opening cinema was very off-putting, with the camera being the primary culprit.  That problem never goes away, but this reviewer learned that it was just better to try to ignore except during combat.  Really, this is a great story trapped in an average game.  This is a game that could have lived up to its hype, and a couple more months in development could have gotten it there.


Score:  6/10

Pros:  Art design
Strong Story
Large amounts of unlockable content, including two classic Disney cartoons

Cons:
The camera is terrible
The morality system is inconsequential
Paint and thinner mechanic is somewhat limited

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Donkey Kong Country Review

When Retro Studio finished their work on the Metroid Prime series, they went silent for a very long time, working on a secret project.  Speculations ranged from non-Metroid based side-stories within the Metroid universe to the revival of one of their original titles before production of Metroid Prime 1, to a totally new IP.  No one was expecting the announcement at the 2010 E3 that they were working on a retro-revival project, Donkey Kong Country Returns, a reboot of the SNES franchise originally developed by Rare.

As with previous entries in the series, DKCR begins on the island, with all of Donkey and Diddy Kong’s bananas being stolen.  Only this time, instead of the reptilian kremlings being the thieves, a meteor falling from the sky releases musical tiki creatures from the island’s volcano that brainwash the animals to do it for them.  They even try to do it to the heroes, and get pummeled for it.  That’s all anyone needs to know about the story, the rest is unimportant.

Graphically, DKCR is impressive.  The same general art style as the original series is kept, while successfully making the transition from prerendered sprites to full 3d characters and environments.  Each section of the island has its own general theme, from the starting jungle stages, to the beach, factory, and volcano, to name a few.  In keeping with each style, the backgrounds often have a lot of activity in the main area, as well as in the background, some areas even using the backgrounds to create multi-plained stages.  Often the scrolling nature of the 3d backgrounds allows for some interesting perspective shifts, and there are several easter eggs hidden there too.

Sound design is adequate.  Basic sound effects seemed to be pulled from the original series and rerecorded.  Music are modern remixes of the original music as well.  There really is not anything to say, good or bad about it.

Gameplay is standard platforming.  Running, jumping, navigating through stages designed to test the skill of players.  As with the original, Donkey Kong still has his roll maneuver and ground slap abilities, which can allow longer jumps, stun enemies, and solve some basic environmental puzzles.  Diddy Kong is along too, this time riding along Donkey Kong’s back instead of running behind him.  Diddy Kong has a jetpack which serves as a way of extending jumps for an additional second or so, and as a safety net as jump distances often seem to be a bit deceiving.  Diddy also has a peanut gun, but it is only usable in 2-player mode, which this reviewer did not play, as the player cannot switch control between the two anymore.

Additionally, there are more collectibles this time around.  Originally, there were only bananas, which served the same function as coins in the Super Mario series (collect 100, get and extra life), balloons (extra life), and the K-O-N-G letters (collect all four letters in each stage for an extra life).  Added in DKCR are banana coins, used for buying items at the shop, and puzzle pieces.  The K-O-N-G letters no longer grant extra lives, but instead act similarly to the added puzzle pieces, and grant unlockable music and concept art if all within a stage are collected.

All of the K-O-N-G letters are placed out in the open, but are often placed in difficult to reach places.  Deaths cause the player to lose any they collected since the last checkpoint reached in the stage.  The Jigsaw pieces, however, are always hiddens.  Often they are hidden behind often obvious foreground scenery, poundable objects, from collecting a specific set of bananas, and as a reward for completing the secret rooms.  The secret rooms make a return, but they are not as interesting, as there are only about five or six rooms that are repeated throughout the entire game.  The jigsaw pieces at least do not have to be recollected after death, as long as the stage is completed without having to use a continue.

As mentioned, there are now banana coins, which are used to at the new shop.  Aside from Donkey and Diddy, Cranky Kong is the only other Kong character to appear, the rest seeming to have been excised, and he runs this shop.  The coins can buy multiple balloons, and single use items such as the parrot (finds jigsaw pieces), a heart container (additional health point for the stage), banana juice (10-hit invincibility), and a key (unlocks an alternate stage in each area).  Aside from the banana juice, which can potentially kill the difficulty of the bosses, there is nothing game breaking, as the balloons can be lost quickly, and the other items are one-shots.  Coins are plentiful enough that any used item can be replenished easily.

If there is one word this writer had to describe DKCR, it would be “hard”.  DKCR is long stages that can have long difficult sections between checkpoints, with several seconds and sometimes long stretches of progress lost.  Its often difficult to tell how far into the stage the player aside from the ever present K-O-N-G letters.  Some stages have one checkpoint, some two, and the distance between them is often  inconsistent.  As well, while a Diddy Kong barrel is usually placed near the checkpoints, but sometimes there is some platforming between the two, with the problem being that the platforming difficulty seems to be tuned to having Diddy with you at all times, the additional safety net of his jetpack making difficult jumps slightly safer.

Also, the minecart stages return, and are accompanied by new rocket-barrel stages.  There are many difficult portions of the game, but often times that difficulty is increased from trying to reach the collectibles.  The minecart and rocket-barrel stages break from the basic platforming gameplay and into automatically scrolling areas of rote pattern memorization, where a single miss is an instant death, and the uneven spacing of checkpoints truly becomes noticeable.  There are some minor branches that can be taken, but there is basically one critical path that must be followed, or the player is thrown back to the checkpoint.  These stages, while the most dynamic, are also among the most frustratingly difficult stages in the game.
One of the other iffy things about the difficulty is the controls.  This is a game where the inclusion of motion control is particularly contentious.  Simply, it is required where it should not be.  DKCR is supposed to be an homage back to the original SNES DKC, and that was a three-button game, this is a two-button-with-waggle game.  Where in the original, important moves like the roll and ground pound were mapped to the d-pad and button, those moves are mapped to d-pad and waggle.  While it works okay for the ground pound, it is impractical for the roll, and consequently the roll-jump, which is an important move for grabbing collectibles in each stage.  Even nearly finished with the game, this writer still has not quite gotten used to it.  There is no Classic Controller support.  Every major outlet, when DKCR was shown off at E3, told Retro Studio that support needed to be included.  The fact that they did not was probably a choice made by Nintendo and its want for a consistent marketing message with the string of 2D retro-revival games for the Wii, despite DKC having been an SNES game as opposed to NES.  Wii-remote and Nunchuk combo is also a control option, but this reviewer did not use it.

Being a retro-revival, the purpose is to restart a franchise by harkening back to its original fanbase, while at the same time creating a new take on the franchise.  After their work taking Metroid from 2D to first-person 3D, going for a 2D game is an interesting choice, but this writer has to say that they were generally successful with their efforts.  This writer say’s generally because despite being a reboot, at times it feels like a retread.  Everything is done well, but there are places where it seems to be missing that intangible thing that makes it all fit together.

Score:  8/10

Pros:
Strong, consistent art style
Great use of multi-plained stages for level design.

Cons:
No Classic Controller support.
Often feels more like a retread than a reboot.
Minecart and Rocket-Barrel stages are too difficult.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Assassin's Creed Brotherhood

A slightly modified version of this was originally posted here on 11/26/10, this is the original text as written.

Assassins Creed Brotherhood is a direct followup to 2009’s Assassins Creed II.  The story follows Desmond Miles, heir to the assassin legacy, as he further experiences the life of his ancestor, Ezio Auditore, literally picking up the story with the closing scene of ACII.  In a combination tutorial and Metroidvania style “abilitease”, Ezio escapes the Vactican and returns to his family’s villa, days before it is attacked and destroyed by the Papal Armies under the command of Borgia family (this is early enough in the game that it is not a spoiler).  Following the attack, Ezio escapes to Rome to take his revenge.  Meanwhile, in the real world, Desmond and co. are forced to move their operations to the now ruined Auditore villa.

Now, ACB is a direct sequel to ACII, but seeing as it does not follow a new lead character or take place in a different historical era, it isn’t really a full continuation of the AC story as much as it is an intermediary, inbetween story that, supposedly, will lead better into ACIII than simply going from ACII.  But that’s okay in this case, as there is so much here that it cannot be written off as a simple side story.  The writing is strong, the VAs from ACII reprise their roles, continuing to provide strong acting alongside the handful of new characters, including primary antagonist Cesare Borgia.  The accents in the English track continue to be believable, with the included Italian phrases helping add further authenticity to the acting.  Make no mistake, name and numbering aside, this is a necessary story in the greater overall plot of the franchise.  My only problem is a personal one, as this is effectively the end of Ezio’s story, and he was a great character.

If ACB is about anything besides the story, it is 1) the refinement of ACII in preparation for ACIII, and 2) the mulitplayer.

As for the refinement of the formula, the simplest way to explain it is this: if you (the reader) like ACII, you will like ACB.  Every refinement ACII made from AC, as well as every additional thing ACII added are here, and refined to make everything cleaner, easier, and more streamlined.  While the Auditore villa is gone, the city of Rome is essentially the new villa, and is the size of probably two of ACII’s cities mashed together.  Systems for buying and upgrading the shops are in place and are actively, there are just more of them, though you no longer have to return to central place to collect the rent, instead being able to go to the nearest bank.  ACB however contains the previous game’s problem of artificially blocking off portions of the map until certain plot events happen, keeping the player from fully exploring the world early on, if they feel like it.

The vistas are still sweeping and impressive, and the city itself contains and interesting mix of Renaissance era buildings and Roman era ruins existing in the same space.  While the graphics did seem to be a bit better than ACII, the clipping and mip-mapping plane was incredibly obvious to me at times.  To keep the city from getting too boring, the crypts make a return, but now with some additional elements beyond being simple platforming challenges, as well as several side missions have Ezio travelling to destroy warmachines created from Leonardo da Vinci’s designs, or remembering the woman he left behind in Florence (which ties into the beginning of ACII).

Combat is still based around counterattacking, but it was rebalanced to make doing them more effective.  Ezio is now able to perform chain-kills after a successful counter in a way not disimilar from Batman:  Arkham Asylum.  Enemies seem to be less difficult, with the new chaining mechanic further lowering it, and this is usually offset by the game throwing larger numbers of enemies at you.  Free-running still feels generally the same, it works but still occasionally seems slow and sometimes camera angles get in the way of making proper jumps, usually involving jumps at weird angles.

The biggest new addition to the single player is the addition of the Assassins themselves.  After a certain point in the story, Ezio is able to save civilians from enemy troops and then train them as assassins.  The training takes place as a sort of management minigame where you send the recruits on missions to gain experience and level up.  Why is it important?  Because when they are not on missions, the recruits can be called in at almost any time to take out enemy troops, appearing from shadows, hay bales, and out of sight ledges to attack.  The higher level of the recruits, the better their equipment and the more likely they can survive during combat.  With enough recruits ready at once, they can even launch a crossbow attack, killing all nearby enemies in one fell swoop.  The entire thing adds a great dynamic to the combat, and is pretty cool.

The biggest addition to ACB though, the addition that the game was practically sold on, was the inclusion of online, competitive multiplayer.  For a long time, before the beta test and tradeshows that showed it in progress, the big question was how this would work given AC’s core stealth-based gameplay, which confused even myself.  And actually, they did a good job of translating that very gameplay to a competitve multiplayer mode.

The basic premise is for all modes is Hunter/Prey, where each player hunts down a player, while being the prey for another hunter.  Now this by itself would lend to either rather chaotic killing, or cat-and-mouse hiding, depending largely on how the areas are set up.  The areas in ACB are large, open, and multi-layered, allowing for the same kind of free-running as the main game.  How the game keeps this kind of layout from getting chaotic is the inclusion of NPCs.  Lots and lots of NPCs.  Before a match starts, every player (or party leader) chooses one of the several types of avatars available to play the match as, and NPCs of almost every one of those types, including the ones chosen by each player, populate the map many times over.  The point is to find your prey and avoid your hunter among all of these roaming NPCs.

Scoring is based around being unnoticed, with increased scores for killing in many different ways except being noticed by your prey.  And there are quite a few ways to escape hunters too.  From blending into crowds, throwing smokebombs, hiding in haystacks, and simply outpacing pursuers during a chase.  Added into the mix is another multiplayer advancement structure, where higher levels grant access to different abilities and perks that only serve to make the game more interesting.

I, personally, have had alot of fun with the multiplayer mode.  It is well made, very good looking, and its impressive that the game is running so many AI’s at once, even if they are just simple pathing scripts and animations.  It has a unique style that is different from other games, and requires a skill set different from other games.  The almost requirement for patience is significantly different from the dominating first-person shooters.  In the set of Hunted mode matches I played, a team-based mode where each team takes a turn being the hunters and prey, the opposing team would equal the number of kills of my team, but lose because they don’t know how to be subtle, thus having low scoring kills.  While the abilities and perks do not cause any significant changes to the core strategies, the minor variations they allow keep things from becoming completely stale.

The downside though, is that when the kills start, things can go downhill in a matter of seconds.  With the hunter/prey style, many times one player will kill their target, only to get noticed by their hunter and killed, and so on, forcing several players to respawn very quickly.  As well, while prey cannot kill their hunters, they can stun them, but stunning them is often difficult, given the placement requirements, though I have seen some players who were proactive with stunning.  And above all, that same playstyle difference that makes the multiplayer unique will probably also keep it from staying popular in the long term, unless there is alot of DLC released on a regular schedule.  This isn’t like BioShock 2’s mulitplayer, which was unneeded, this is something truly outside the norm and can become even better with a few interations.

The bottom line is this, never mind AC, if you like ACII, you will like this.  Everything about ACII has been refined and improved, and the curious addition of multiplayer is a welcome change from the volume of military shooters out there.  I wholly recommend it.

Score:  9/10

Pros:
Training up Assassins is fun, and watching NPCs do what you do is badass.
Continued great storytelling and acting.
Multiplayer is interesting and different from most other things out there.

Cons:
Multiplayer, while good, is not for everyone.
Load times are long, even longer if the game isn’t installed on the hard drive.
Minor control issues from previous entries remain, namely camera angles causing missed jumps and reduced combat awareness.