Monday, April 27, 2009

The Darkness (video game)

Platform: X-Box 360
Also On: PS3
Developers: Starbreeze Studios
Genre: Action, First Person Shooter
ESRB Rating: M
Release Date: June 25th, 2007

Adaptions of other media into video games isn't always a pleasant affair. See most movie based games for proof. But comic books have generally fared better in the way of adaptions. The track record of these games are often more hit-or-miss than anything else; but when they're good, they're damn good.

And on the sixth day the lord created The Darkness video game; and it was good. Well, not really. But it is a good game; that part is no exaggeration.

For the uninitiated, The Darkness is a comic book series handled by the publisher Top Cow. Created in part by the inimitable Garth Ennis, the books have a history of excellent talent settling down for good runs with the book through it's several volumes and has earned itself a deserved fanbase. Eventually, it's success bore fruit in the form of a video game adaption. Not bad for a series not published by Marvel or DC.

You find yourself in the shoes of Jackie Estacado, a hitman for the Franchetti family mob in New York City. It's Jackies twenty-first birthday, a date that doesn't go as well as it should. After a botched collection attempt on a nightclub which saw him knocked unconcious, he wakes in the car with two of his crew just in time for the police - whom are in the pocket of the head of the Mob, his uncle Paulie - to bear down on them with a vengeance while they're on their way to a hit, leading to a shootout through the tunnels. It's an ambush set by his uncle Paulie, who has betrayed him and put a price on his head.

To make matters worse, Jackie finds himself plagued by a dark, evil voice and strange powers of darkness that have arisen as he's begun his escape. It booms frightening words in his head, calling him nothing more than it's puppet and proclaiming that soon, darkness will fall. It's soon clear that Jackie will need to take solace in his girlfriend Jenny, his Aunt Sarah and the older members of the mob, whom are dissatisfied with Paulie, to find out what happened and why he was betrayed.

All that is really the setup for the games story and you learn what you need to know fairly quick. After the initial few scraps and aquiring the first darkness power within the first hour of the game, you're quickly introduced to key players in his life from Jackies girlfriend Jenny to older mobsters like Jimmy the Grape, setting the stage for the events to come. By the time you're halfway through the first chapter, you'll know the basic pieces; but by no means do you truly know what will happen.

The story is a fantastic adaption and a true highlight of the game. The events portrayed throughout it are generally culled from the first volume of the series and the first five or six issues of the second volume; the wheat seperated from the chaff and spliced together into an engaging story in it's own right. Despite being a known killer, somewhere inside Jackie you can sense a decent human being that might have turned out better had his uncle Paulie not adopted him into a life with the mob. His girlfriend is equally sweet and realistic, something that honestly led me to think that there simply weren't enough scenes with her.

The story is also emotionally charged. By the end of the first chapter, the stakes have been raised to a level where there simply is no going back. A couple emotional twists slam you hard, despite the limited amount of time knowing these characters, and it leaves you wanting to finish simply to get sweet revenge. I haven't quite experienced scenes this effective since Final Fantasy VII; made all the more powerful by the sick taunting of the Darkness throughout any and all terrible events that fall before you.

One thing to keep in mind is that the game isn't a direct adaption of the comics. In some ways, you might say it's a Hollywood-esque adaption. The difference is that here it works; something that's not always the case with your film adaptions. The comics themselves tend to be a bit more outlandish. On the other hand, the game takes the events of the comics and grounds them with a more realistic base; gritty and grimy with a noir style. Jackie doesn't use the armor he frequently wears in the comics, instead sticking to his usual look befitting of a moster. All of the surroundings feel quite realistic as well, or at least as realistic as you can get in a game with talking evil demons that eat peoples hearts.

If I'm giving praise to the story, I have to give props to the voices that carry it. Frankly, all of the voice acting is simply top notch, with Kirk Acevedo of Oz aptly playing as our anti-hero, Jackie Estacado, and bringing a lot to the role. Then there's the man who voices The Darkness, Mike Patton. Perhaps best known as the lead vocalist of Faith No More and possibly a death metal band he's fronted, he voices The Darkness as best as I can imagine anyone capturing it. The eerie voice changes pitch and depth seemingly at will, bleeting hoarse threats and macabre taunts to Jackie. He simply makes it sound as creepy, disgusting and evil as anyone could ever imagine it sounded; no doubt making his inclusion a stroke of genius in my eyes.

The soundtrack is just as great. The licensed songs aren't bad, with a good deal of rock and metal; there's even one by a band Mike Patton fronts called Tomahawk. It's the musical score itself made for the game that truly sings. Some of the games most emotional scenes are accompanied with simply beautiful music remeniscent of the quality in Final Fantasy games that simply puts already striking scenes over the top. When the guns are drawn and the bullets are flying, pounding rock fills the speakers, driving you forward through your opponents. The game has the right music for the right moments, something that is not always recognized as such but is simply just as important as other aspects of games.

Of course, even with excellence on those aspects, the gameplay still needs to hold up for it to be a true experience, otherwise the game falls apart right there. Thankfully, while it isn't perfect, The Darkness still delivers on this front. The thing is that there's definitely a learning curve.

The Darkness might throw some at first strictly because of it's somewhat odd layout of controls. Certain actions aren't bound to the buttons you'd expect them to be. Such unfortunately takes some getting used to if you're familiar with other first person shooters. Things like jump and reload being bound to buttons different from the usual setup of games of this type is a bit jarring. Also, controlling a few of the Darkness powers takes a it of getting used to as well; there's no strafing while using your Creeping Dark, for instance, so if you want to get around something, you have to do a lot of turning and backing up, which ends up draining unnecesary darkness energy until you get the hang of it.

Other than that, it tends to work relatively well once you get into the swing of things. An interesting choice in the controls for this game actually comes from the dual weilding of the smaller weapons. With things like pistols and submachine guns, each trigger fires the gun in the corresponding hand; an interesting dynamic for shootouts once you remember to use both weapons instead of just one. It leaves you open to fire one gun while reloading the other, helping keep you from ever being without bullets flying in the thick of a gunfight; something that would come in handy in some other games. When it's a two handed weapon, a more familiar scheme comes into play with the right trigger firing the weapon and the left performing a melee attack with it. All this was far more intuitive then I expected it to be at first; it was initially frustrating because I kept forgetting that one button didn't fire both hands like in many games. Eventually it became second nature and is a mechanic I wouldn't mind seeing used in other games.

The Darkness powers are generally the bread and butter of the games controls. Without them, it's your standard FPS games. With them, there's fun to be had. Powers include things like the Creeping Dark, Demon Arm, Darkness Guns and Black Hole. Each has it's respective uses to the point where you'll find yourself switching through them at different times, whether it be to stab an enemy with the Demon Arm or to suck a good deal of them into a deadly black hole at the cost of all your available darkness energy. You can also summon Darklings from portals; little imp like creatures who will attack enemies all about and support you in battle. They come in four different flavors, each with their own unique moves and abilities.

You can bring up and put away The Darkness with the touch of a button, but strategic use of it is the name of the game. Having it up allows you to use it's powers, but it also brings up a shield that takes damage to the darkness energy instead of yourself, meaning it's not always wise to just blow through your energy in a firefight. This is especially true if there are a lot of light sources in the area; light slowly dissolves darkness energy away which can only be replenished by having The Darkness out while in the shadows. Shooting light fixtures is a quick way to darken any area, but you still need to keep your cool. Enemies will still manage to waste you if you're not careful; a satisfying balance to me as you don't want to feel too superhuman. Otherwise the game wouldn't be much fun.

There's generally quite a bit to do in The Darkness. In truth the game is somewhat linear, but it doesn't feel like it. The areas feel more expansive than they really are, especially when you're in the open areas outside buildings and the subways, and there's often a good amount of things to do on the side. A hundred collectible phone numbers and letters can be found throughout the game which, upon dialed at a phone or mailed respectively, unlocks extra content in the main menu. This content ranges from concept art to videos to a couple full issues of the comic, if you have a decent enough sized TV to be able to read them. You can also help out citizens in need, which will often aquire you a new collectible upon completion. Aside from the obvious benefits, listening to the dialed numbers messages ends up being downright hilarious at times while in other instances hinting at things that might crop up in a sequel. As you'd expect, it pays to explore.

Still, the game isn't without it's faults. As mentioned, it is fairly linear in a style we haven't seen for about two console generations. If you're the type who enjoys doing everything and checking everywhere, there's a good twenty hour game here. If you're the type who blazes through the story and doesn't care about the side bits of story, that playtime is cut by a bit more than half.

The overall cinematic feel of the game is also it's greatest weakness along with it's greatest strength. There's a decent amount of stuff to do, but the story is the main focus. While this makes it extremely strong, it also means once you have exhausted the story and the other things to do, you'll probably find yourself popping it back in mostly to relive the story. It's not a Grand Theft Auto style game where you'll probably play every day considering most of the real meat is in the stuff aside from the story. In actuality that's a very good thing for the most part, but in an age of Grand Theft Auto style sandbox games, some gamers simply don't go for that anymore no matter how great the product.

On the last note is the X-Box Live multiplayer. For the most part it's a pretty standard affair. First person shooter multiplayer for the most part. No darkness powers. The only real wrinkle is that you can choose if players are allowed to shapeshift into a darkling during play, which is fun but not enough to really make the multiplayer a big deal. It's not terribly hard to find matches online, but it's also not always a cakewalk. Compared to far more robust online games, The Darkness's multiplayer is more like icing on an already sweet cake; glad to have the extra sweetness but it wasn't really needed.

My Opinion: Play It

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

New Super Mario Bros. (video game)

Platform: Nintendo DS
Developers: Nintendo
Genre: Platforming
ESRB Rating: E
Release Date: May 15th, 2006

Prior to the release of this game, there was something of a drought in relation to Mario games. The last main entry in the franchise had landed four years earlier with Super Mario Sunshine. To top it off, this was the first 2D Mario entry in a staggering fourteen years after Super Mario Land 2, thanks largely in part to Nintendo switching the franchise to 3D and never looking back. Needless to say there were high expectations.

I couldn't help thinking as I played the game, however, that it was something of a step back for the 2D Mario titles, much less the franchise itself.

As usual, the story is the same as any other Mario title; Princess Peach is kidnapped once again and it's up to our favorite plump plumber to save her. The only difference is that this time, gasp, it's not Bowser, but Bowser Jr.! Oh yeah, with all the sarcasm I can possibly muster, I can say Nintendo really went for broke on the story this go around.

The look of the game is something that surprised me right off the bat. If you wanted to split hairs, this game is really a 2.5D game, or 3D models in a side scrolling fashion. Usually 3D in a sidescroller has a nasty habit of looking downright awful, especially if the game uses a combination of traditional 2D sprites and 3D models in any fashion. Thankfully this game is not one of those. The graphics are one of the most impressive displays of 3D sidescrollers this side of Bionic Commando: Rearmed; lush and colorful with little to no clashing. If nothing else, the game certainly looks better than just about anything that came before it.

The sound doesn't suffer either here. The sound effects and music all sound great for a portable title, much less a Nintendo DS game. It's rare for portable titles to sound this good; all too often the sound comes off as muted and tiny due in large part to the systems small speakers. Mario leap frogs the competitions standards yet again.

The gameplay is something that really doesn't even need explanation. You run, jump, wall kick, eat mushrooms to grow big and throw fireballs to get through the levels. There's a new wrinkle or two, however, in Mario's new ability to swing on ropes and shimmy across narrow ledges. There are also three collectible coins per level, which is more or less the games currency, but they're not used to buy anything interesting like unlockables; just powerups. Just about all of this plays as well as you'd expect, bringing back the classic core 2D platforming goodness that made Mario a household name in the first place.

Unfortunately, many of the entertaining powers brought forth in previous 2D games have vanished, as is par the course for modern Mario games which have all but dropped most of the old powers. The only one retained is the classic fire flower. There is a new power, however, in the blue shell suit, which allows you to duck into the shell and bowl over your enemies like your typical thrown koopa shell. There are also two new flavors of mushroom; giant and tiny. As you can guess, they both affect your size, making you either a screen encompassing Mario that destroys aything in his path for a limited time or a teeny tiny Mario that can be felled in one hit but can fit through special places.

The game is, unfortunately, not without it's flaws. Some like to call this a second coming of Super Mario 3 thanks to the return of several different elements lost since then. Truth be told, it's more like the original Super Mario but with a new coat of paint and borrowed features from 3. Arguably a bit too much like the original.

While the graphics and sound are excellent, there's way too much "sameness" to them. Levels will look generally like one another far more than I would have liked. If you've seen one water level, you've literally seen them all sans layout; this is one of those instances where it's a bit too much like the original. Also, there aren't enough different themes in levels; all too often will you hear a music theme you heard not two levels ago and what songs are different blend in with one another way too much, lacking a distinctive pop you usually get in these sort of games.

Another relatively large problem is that the game is simply way too simplistic. For all the people who want to compare this favorably to the mother of all Mario games, Super Mario 3, there is surprisingly little complexity to the levels; a complete shift from the short but layered levels of Super Mario 3 and the even better structure of Super Mario World. You move along your designated path, only to occasionally drop down a pipe into a small area before quickly being pumped back into the main track. At times this leaves some levels feeling bland and rather boring because of it; while the throwback to the general structure of the original is nice, it doesn't quite work in modern day Mario games, which are much easier than the original and Lost Levels and thusly harder to really grab you.

The world maps share in this simplicity, lacking much of the branching paths that populated the previous 2D outings. It's a straight shot through the main levels with a seperate path once in a blue moon and signs you can spend star coins to knock over to reach the mushroom house they usually block the path to. There are also only two instances where you have a choice which world you can go to, on the path, but taking the alternate world through often requires you defeat a boss in the castle with a tiny mushroom, something you rarely realize until it's way too late. Not exactly inspired.

Then there's the new powerup, the blue shell. This thing is a complete nightmare of a powerup. Whenever you reach running speed Mario automatically ducks into the shell, going off at a steady pace in that direction. Not only is it way too easy to do this when you really don't want to, thanks to the automatic activation, but it's not horribly easy to go off in a pit and have it cost you a life. Even after you learn that letting go of the run button will make it stop, it still won't help you. The shell moves at a quick pace, which means you'll either go off into a pit or, if you're unlucky enough to have it for a fortress level, bounce off the walls and right back into a hazard before you can even think to let go. This leaves the powerup as quite literally worthless as it's a hindrance nine times out of ten; it'll get to the point where you'll actively avoid it or if you do pick it up immediately leap into an enemy to get rid of it.

Then there's the save system, which is a very large annoyance. You will only be given the option to save after either defeating a fortress or spending five star coins to gain access to a mushroom house; you're not allowed to save at will until you've beaten the game. For a game that is perfect for the pick up, play a bit and put it down style of portable titles, this is an odd choice. You can't just pop it in, play a quick level and be done; you either need a plethora of star coins and a post you haven't knocked over yet, be forced to sit there and get through the three some odd levels it takes to get to a fortress and then beat that or simply turn off the game and waste any progress you made.

The add on stuff isn't much better. Multiplayer in portable Mario's has never really been all that engrossing. Don't expect that to have changed here or you'll be disappointed. Also, the minigames are nothing more than a dozen or so cherry picked games from previous DS Mario's. Nothing new here. They didn't even have the courtesy to just pack in all of them.

This is a very enjoyable game, but there are far too many little things that add up.

The Score: Dramatic Thumbs Up

Some people say this game is like Super Mario 3; I'm here to tell you that ain't the case. In fact, I suspect far too many people were too starstruck by new 2D Mario to really look at it for what it really is. Unfairly compared to the pinnacle of the franchise, this game looks like a chump. The truth is that it's not. There are several niggling flaws to this game and a good deal of curious choices were made, but the gameplay is very solid and it's a worthwhile purchase for the DS. It's not going to be hailed as the best Mario game ever, but you simply cannot go wrong with it. It comes with my recommendation no matter how you manage to get a hold of it, from a cartridge to a download from the DSi's store.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Armored Core 4 (video game)

Platform: X-Box 360
Also On: PS3
Developers: From Software
Genre: Action, Vehicular Combat
ESRB Rating: T
Release Date
: March 20th, 2007

It's pretty easy to love giant robots in just about any entertainment medium they may pop up in. It's pretty much assured that when you see giant robots you're also going to be privy to massive explosions, bitchin' combat, usually some laser weaponry and the type of wars too cool for real life. Oh, and quite often an anti-war message within it. You know, to help teach the kiddies that war is bad while the rest of us actively root for the giant robots to wipe an opposing military base off the map.

And yet, despite having all these very necessary elements, something about Armored Core 4 simply doesn't gel.

Part of it is the story. Or I should say the lack thereof. There really isn't much of a narrative here. Just some cut scenes interspersed between chapters narrated by some guy we never really see, telling of the war your character fights in; a war between companies of the world. The details are sparse at best and little is explained, even of the previous games. There are references to events in the series past, but they come without rhyme, reason or explanation, leaving you with a jigsaw puzzle missing half of it's pieces. The game doesn't even have a real ending; upon completing the final mission your coordinator will thank you. Roll credits. You don't even find out how things really shook out in the aftermath of the war. Some games thrive off of story, making it an integral part of the experience. Armored Core 4 forgoes this; but unlike other games that do the same, it doesn't quite have the outstanding quality in the other facets of the game to make up for it.

The graphics aren't horribly impressive, especially for a game that came out in 2007. Environments are varied, from snow covered regions to cities to battles in the oceans, but a lot of effects seen in most next gen titles are surprisingly absent with the exception of the occasional level with varied lighting. The result is a visual experience that is decent overall, but barely passable even for the period it was published in.

Sound fares better on the whole. The usual mech sound effects are in place, with thuds accompanying every step, the creak and groan of metal, explosions, crackles and booster thrusts. The music itself ranges from decent to good, but you aren't going to hear any memorable themes throughout the game. The standouts are generally the menu music pieces of all things. Everything passes muster, but isn't what you'd call spectacular.

The gameplay is more of a mixed bag than anything else in the overall package. Several of the games contemporary's contemporaries use a tactical roleplaying style of gameplay; in stark contrast, Armored Core 4 uses a far more straightforward action approach to mecha combat. Your nameless mercenary main character chooses a mission within the chapter you're on, you get a debriefing and are plunged right into the action.

The action itself, along with the missions, are actually rather solid. Missions aren't a horribly varied affair, but they're not exactly straightforward either. As you'd expect, you usually have to blow something up; but target objectives will range from every enemy on the battlefield to one unit to the destruction of key structures. You'll find yourself doing anything from taking on fortresses and stripping their defenses, taking on crack pilots who pose a danger to your forces, sinking battleships, collapsing entire bases, blowing up huge structures in an impressive explosion, stopping the advancement of enemy forces all the way to actually defending things like structures or vehicles. Sometimes there are even some twists you'll need to worry about, such as the battlefield being contaminated and damaging your mech more and more the further down you go, necessitating speed and smarts to win. It rarely feels like you're doing the same thing in each successive mission, even if you actually are.

In between mission you are given the ability to customize your mech with new parts and armaments. The system presented is very similar in a lot of ways to the way it's handled in the Square-Enix tactical roleplaying mech series, Front Mission. You choose a core body, arms, legs, head, boosters, weapons for the different arms and shoulders; as I said, much like Front Mission. However, unlike the aforementioned franchise there's sadly far less to do here. Even after you've beaten the six chapter campaign You'll realize just how few parts the game actually offers you as opposed to the usual sprawling choices of weapons and parts offered to you in contemporaries; hampering the sort of thing that you usually find yourself happily whittling away hours into.

Actually using the general upgrade sections also tends to be a pain in the ass. There's no real "shop" to speak of like you expect in these type of games; instead it's integrated directly into your garage. This can frustrating, especially considering the manner to buy things in this game is far from obvious. You'll find yourself able to get the hang of it, but there will be bouts of frustration on the way to that point considering this aspects limitations.

On the plus side, this game does retain the simulator aspects of it's contemporaries. After you've loaded up your mech as you wish, you can pop in the simulator and choose from data packs which give you several different opponents to take one on one. If you lose, there's no penalty, but if you win you'll be paid a specified sum of money and sometimes even parts of the mech you've beaten. Considering the action oriented nature of this game, this also feels far less tedious than it's contemporaries; whereas in a tactical roleplaying mech game any one battle can stretch onwards for a half hour or more Armored Core's simulation matches should take no more than five or six minutes to complete at the maximum, keeping it from getting boring.

Once you've thrust yourself into the action, actual mission or battle simulation, things tend to get cooking rather quickly. This is where a good control scheme is necessary to help elevate the product overall. Thankfully, Armored Core 4 offers decent controls, though there are some issues. Three of the face buttons are used for firing different weapons loaded onto your mech; one for the left arm, one for the right and one for the shoulders. The other face button is for something called an overboost, which is something you'll learn rather quickly is not something you want to use much. The bumpers are for switching your arm weapons; you're also able to load the mech with weapons attached to the back at the cost of weight such as a long range laser sniper rifle or a missile launcher. The triggers are for boosting, something you'll e doing a lot of; the lest being your standard boost and the right being a quick boost used primarily for dodging.

Once you get the hang of it, the controls work rather well. However, there are issues that crop up as the game goes on. The Overboost button is all too easy to nail when you're actually looking to fire your primary weapon, which is a mistake that can cost you a lot of one of your energy bars; in particular the one in charge of your laser shielding. Then there are the auto options. By default, the game automatically switches your sighting to what it deems the best possible target or the best possible weapon. This can have a tendency to completely piss you off if not turned off in control options; it's no fun to try and fire off a missile volley only to find yourself thrusting forward and stupidly slashing at the air with your laser blade, all while gunfire and missiles rock you to your core. The same goes for when you're in close, perhaps wanting to use your laser blade, only to find the game decided it was a good time to switch to whatever you had mounted to your back; cue standing there looking stupid as you fire off some missiles when you wanted to slice the enemy mech in half. This would be infuriating if you couldn't turn it off, but even still you may not even realize you can until halfway through the game if you're the type who doesn't tend to screw with the controls unless the defaults are god awful.

The Score: 6 out of 10

This game is, in the end, a rather mediocre one despite it's potential. Once you get the hang of things you're bound to have some fun, but the game is far from without flaws, soem crippling. If you don't mind that or a lack of real story, the game is a good enough time on the whole. Armored Core 4 is a solid rental for certain, but I'm not sure it's worth more than that.