Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Video Game Review - Tony Hawk Pro Skater HD

It's good to see Tony Hawk games back on the right track. Now they just need to travel a bit further down the line.

I got into the series back on the original Xbox with Tony Hawk Pro Skater 4. The next several years, I would make it a tradition to pick up the new game as it released in October, usually lining up perfectly with Toys 'R Us's annual buy two get one free sale. They didn't grow substantially between each release, but I enjoyed getting back to that familiar playstyle with new maps. That's all I really needed.

American Wasteland and Proving Ground were rough patches, but I had no idea the series would bail so completely with the ill-conceived board peripheral games. I championed for Activision to embrace the HD collection route that's brought back so many last-gen titles. I envisioned one collection being the first three Pro Skater titles (all featuring the two minute objective-based levels), then a second collection containing #4 and the two Underground games. At last, all Tony Hawk games would be available on the 360, and the world would be in balance.

Well, it didn't work out quite that way, but it's still great to finally have some real Tony Hawk action again. Granted, it shouldn't be trumpeted as the second coming, but it helps fill a void.

Like I said, I really got into the series with number four, which left behind the small, timed arenas in favor of spacious, well-crafted, over-the-top stages. I played some of Pro Skater 3, but disliked the time restraint. So it was ironic that the saving grace of the ugly, juttery American Wasteland was the return of the classic mode. It gave me a new appreciation of those bite-sized levels. So now with Tony Hawk Pro Skater HD, a mash-up of the first 2 Tony Hawk games, I feel right at home. I just never would say I was good at it.

There are seven levels, only one available at the start, and completing a set number of goals on a level will unlock the next stage. It's not a cumulative unlocking, however, so completing more tasks on earlier stages won't speed up the level-unlocking process. But the more goals you complete, the more money you'll earn to upgrade your character with higher stats, more special tricks and alternate boards. But these unlocks only apply to the single skater. You'll have to play through the whole game time and again if you want to max out everyone, including your PANXE (Xbox avatar). That's what we call artificially inflating the game content, an age-old gaming tradition. I would have preferred more stages, as this selection feels too light, and I fear its set up just to be bombarded with DLC.

It is a bit difficult to go back to this time before all the expansive tricks from later in the series. I can actually handle not having the combo-extending Revert, which is planned as DLC (talk about game changing... if it's usable in these old stages, high scores will no longer be a challenge). And, sure, it'd be nice if I could control the camera, so I could actually see a collectible that's slightly out of my eyeline before attempting a manic jump. But what I really miss is the wall-plant, so I'll stop splattering violently against walls. Oh, and the ability to level out your skater when they take a crazy arc off a halfpipe. Fancy flatland tricks are missed, as is the ability to switch lip & grinds tricks (without an ollie in between). Also, you can only equip 5 special tricks... what's up with that??

But for older players, those that played the game in its earliest days, this will fit you like a comfy old pair of jeans. Perhaps it won't feel exactly like you remember, but the nostalgic memories will come rushing back. It's like playing Super Mario Bros after a decade away... it's easy to remember where all the gaps and goals are. But that familiarity is puzzling to me. As I mentioned, I never played the first two Tony Hawk games. So why do all of these levels seem so very familiar? I know a couple of them have definitely been around in HD form before, in American Wasteland. Have the others been recycled too?

Another disadvantage I had going into the game, having not played the original games, I had never before encountered the "Big Drop" indicator. If you aren't holding down the A button when you land, you will crash (though if you can land in a grind, you'll be fine). It's not very intuitive, as it will often pop up a split-second before impact.  This must be something they did away with pretty early in the series, as later games featured many areas that would launch you to ludicrous heights, from which you could land with your spine totally unfazed.

Tony Hawk games never were graphical powerhouses, especially with the character models, but the graphics here are fine. They never distract from the game. There are the same odd random glitches that I've come to expect from this series... weird collision problems, random sideways physics (especially at bowl-shaped ramps), and sometimes my character will just decide to fall down. A few times I've even had my A button stop working during gameplay on the Hanger level. It's not my controller because it still works to navigate the pause menu, it just decides it won't let me jump anymore until I start a new round. It's quite inconvenient, I must say.

The lack of local multiplayer is a shocking absence. I might have never picked up the series if I hadn't played some Graffiti Tag at my friend's house. Now, someone else might be missing out on the franchise because they can't play a game without the competitive pressure of Xbox Live. As it is, I found the online multiplayer to be very unstable. I only got into two games, across more than a dozen attempts. Even then, everything moved sluggishly. And the second game never actually ended... when the time ran out, everyone just got locked in place.

Other modes include a pellet-hunting mode called Hawkman (I didn't like it when I tried it in Tony Hawk's Proving Ground, and I still don't like it here), a survival mode that requires you continue doing tricks or your head will explode, or just an untimed practice mode. Also, if you complete every goal on every level, you will be given even more challenging "Projectives". Beat all of those for a sizable gamerscore achievement.

Like the recent Goldeneye remake (another Activision joint), it's obvious this game was not designed to ignite interest from new players, but rather to rekindle the flame of old fans. There is no tutorial mode to help newcomers. There is a map in the pause menu to help find all the goals, but it's not dynamic so even completed goals are still left marked to add confusion. You'll also have to dig deep in the menu system to find a trick list... there are goals that require a specific trick, but it won't list how to perform it. There's no create-a-character, or create-a-skatepark, or even create-a-custom-music-tracklist (Much to-do has been made about the pared down tracklist. None of it really appeals to me, so I just run my own music off my hard drive).

All and all, it's fun, and worth your time... IF you're a hardcore Tony Hawk fan. They should have named it Pro Skater Lite, as there's not a lot of real game here. It's missing so much, especially to draw in a new crowd.
2.5 out of 4 Stars.

Recommended for: The Tony Hawk Elite. Those guys putting up the million-plus runs on these two-minute course are exactly who this game is for.

Franchise Fixes: I'm still holding out hope for a complete THPS 4 thru Underground 2 HD Collection (not remake). If they want to "fix" this game, however, perhaps a few free DLC levels would be in order.

Achievements/In-Game Rewards: The vast majority of this achievement list is for the gifted players. I only got the token few for unlocking each level in career mode. Aside from unlocking bonus characters, and cheats (which will disable achievements), there's not much rewarding going on. A sick score will have to be its own reward.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Video Game Review - Super Hero Squad: Comic Combat

Oh, Squirrel Girl, you deserve so much better than this.

Marvel Super Hero Squad: Comic Combat is one of the few games exclusive to the infamous uDraw game tablet, the failed peripheral that nearly sunk THQ. And if all the uDraw games were this bad, its failure is a good thing.

Previous Super Hero Squad games were somewhat dull and tedious, but adding the control scheme from Hell makes you forget all about the boring monotony. Combat is equivalent to a strategy game, where you tell your troops where to go and who to fire at, then you watch them do it. The characters in this game are not well trained soldiers, and simple navigational directions get blundered as they struggle moving around obstacles or even each other. And when they get to the general area that you directed then to, they'll often immediately disperse, wandering off towards random things like a distracted toddler.

You can select a character to control individually, or the entire crew (up to three "Squaddies") at once. Using your stylus, you simply click a spot where you'd like them to go. Simple, yet trying to move then offscreen is a tedious affair.  You can touch the edge of the visible area and slowly plod them along as the screen area moves with them.

If an enemy or breakable item is on the spot where you click, they'll attack it. Ranged characters will often move away from the target, so that they're attacking at maximum distance. They don't seem to care that moving away puts them in the line of fire from something else, such as the stage where there's a GIAGANITC LASER firing down the center of the screen. Also, if the enemy they're shooting at is knocked down, they'll be out of range, so they'll just stand around like there's nothing to do. Any melee character you brought along will be on his own until you manually command his buddies to rejoin the fray. If there wasn't a way to make the A-I smart, then they should have included a general "attack" command.
There's also no defense maneuvers at all, with the exception of certain characters special moves that can heal or briefly block damage (Generally, men's special moves attack, women heal. Not the most progressive game). At least, I assume the bubbles Invisible Woman puts around her teammates are shields. The game is also horrible at documentation.

There's no help menu, and nothing to explain what anything is, aside from generic tutorial instruction early in the game. The small game manual mentions the coins (or "issue sales") you pick up in-game unlock items like upgrades and alternate costumes. Nowhere is there anything to indicate if you have everything. Everybody has one alternate outfit, and I think my powers are all up to level 2, but there's no list to tell me if I should be expecting more or not. I don't even see any place to tell me if my powers are really level two or not, the last pop-up I noticed said "Orb Attack upgraded to level 2". I guess that's good? Who knows.

 Besides moving around Squaddies, you can activate draw attacks with your stylus, by sketching a quick path from a character. They will then fire a projectile attack, or melee-only characters will perform a rushing attack. The problem is, it's only really effective if the enemies are standing still. And most projectile attacks won't go further than the first enemy. Hope nobody's standing in the way of the person you really want to hit.

You also have "Glyph Attacks" (I only know they're called this because the manual says so).  You can draw a circle to get an Orb that you can roll around to damage enemies. Drawing a triangle makes a decoy to distract enemies. And an "X" will create a bomb. Seems easy enough. Expect the game has a lot of trouble distinguishing your attempts to draw a glyph from you just clicking to move your characters. At least two-thirds of the time, my attempt to draw something is misconstrued as a movement command.

The only other abilities you have are one-time-use Earthquake and Zipper-Rift power-ups. The Earthquake is the only control I had no problem using. Simply shaking the tablet back and forth activates this powerful attack. The Zipper-Rift is the opposite story. It's activated by placing your thumb and finger on the tablet and performing an "un-pinching" motion. In theory. I only got it to work easily once. Every other time, I struggled for nearly a minute trying to get it to work. By then, most of the enemies were gone. It is an absolutely idiotic concept to make you suddenly use your fingers when playing the game. It should have been activated simply by clicking the zipper icon. Keep. It. Simple. This game has the worst controls I've ever encountered, and would have benefited greatly from just being another standard controller-based brawler.

I have to give some credit to the writer for actually making the storyline specific to the uDraw tablet. Instead of just slapping a game with hideous tablet controls, the entire storyline revolves around Dr. Doom discovering "you" helping the Super Hero Squad with your "power pen". He plans to cross into your dimension to steal the pen. It's a lot of filler, as his minions gather supplies he needs, and when he achieves his goal, it's a very brief, unfulfilling fight. There's also some inane sub-plot in the cutscenes with Dr. Doom's mom bothering hm. It has absolutely no bearing on the story whatsoever. You never fight her. She's just there to annoy her son. That's the entire game: brief, annoying, and unfulfilling. The entire game, including achievement hunting, is completed under five hours.

Graphically, it's blasé. Same Super Hero Squad graphics (which were never impressive) in much smaller play areas. There's some amusing voice acting, I assume it's the same actors from the cartoon. A lot of repetition in the dialog, of course, but I'm amused by Squirrel Girl walking around saying, "Have nuts, will travel!" And I did laugh at dimwit Hulk's answer to a certain riddle.

There's other poor programming oversights: Being disconnected from Xbox Live while playing resulted in being immediately kicked back to the main menu; There's no sound during the credits, no music or anything; And there's no explanation to the Heroic Feats. I figured out the icons for finding the comic stash, and not dying during a panel. But what's that third icon mean? And does accomplishing these feats reward you with anything at all?

All in all, this poorly programmed mess is a total kick-in-the-groin to those of us who love Marvel Comics characters.

1 out of 4 Stars

Recommended for: fans of Squirrel Girl. This is her first video game appearance. I wouldn't recommend actually playing it, but having it there in your SG shrine would be its best use.

Franchise fixes: since the uDraw tablet has been discontinued, the SHS games should go back to the old formula, just focus on making them more fun to play.

Achievement/In-Game Rewards - As I mentioned, this is a quick 1000 achievement points for whoever wants to put up with the shoddy control scheme. Aside from a single alternate costume for each character, the game lacks much reward for its players.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Video Game Review - Frogger Hyper Arcade Edition

Frogger is back, and more neon than ever.

Frogger Hyper Arcade Edition is the classic Frogger gameplay, decked out in new skins to fit your graphic tastes. You can choose how you like your Frogger action to look: the retro giant pixel look, neon colors filling the screen, or even graphics based on other classic Konami franchises. You can also choose from a selection of tunes to cross traffic to, with clever frog puns for their titles. Finally, choose between control style of single hop, or continuous hopping (while pressing a direction, not actually constant movement, thankfully), and you're ready for the old fashion Frogger gameplay you've known and loved for the past 30 years.

And I do believe they made the game easier. I was never all that great at Frogger. Looking at my achievements on the original XBLA port of Frogger, it seems I never beat level 2. I got to level 4 on Hyper, and boy was I proud of myself. But I played a round from the old XBLA title to see if I had just gotten better over the years, but as soon as I started up that game I saw the difference. It had more obstacles, all moving noticeably faster. It's rather misleading that this new version is called "Hyper" when it is much more leisurely paced.

The timer is your greatest threat. While playing, if the time hits zero, you lose. Not just the life you're on, but it is game over regardless of how many Froggers you have in reserve. That's quite harsh. And also the reason I didn't make it past level 4.

The core game mechanics haven't changed, so veteran Froggerites will ease right in. It may take newcomers a while to get used to the infamous collision detection. There's still that invisible block around the cars on the road, and jumping into a seemingly safe spot too close to the rear of a car causes death. It's definitely, undeniably Frogger.

And really, that's what it comes down to... if you've enjoy classic Frogger, you'll enjoy this colorful remix. But there's not much here to draw in Frogger haters.

Sure, there are a few new modes.

There are some paint-by-numbers missions to draw a picture while avoiding traffic and not touching unmarked squares. Not very difficult; once you paint a spot, it stayed that way even if you touch it again. The timer is the only thing really you have to keep in mind.

There's a multiplayer Battle Royale mode, where you actually use a button! Your objective is to kill/outlast the other players. This is accomplished by either grabbing the lady frog power-up, giving you a few moments to squash your fellow frogs, or by picking up colored flies which grants you powers to screw with other players, leaving them more susceptible to oncoming traffic. It's not very deep, as there are no defensive powers. It's all just a matter of getting to the power-ups first.

Other modes include steering two frogs to safety simultaneously, trying to colors as many tiles as possible, and even a challenge mode that makes you duplicate feats you may have done before, but on a much stricter timer.

There are a few poor decisions with the menu navigations, leading to unnecessary annoyances. Challenge mode does not offer a "next" option after you complete a challenge, instead making you go back to the challenge selection screen, where you must scroll through them all starting with the first challenge, to find where you left off. There's no "random" for the music selection, so you're stuck with the same song repeating over and over while you're in a level. The unlockable movies are hidden in the Help & Options submenu, rather than being out where they could be accessed as an actual feature. Small things like this can really add up, and a little more work on the user interface could have easily circumvented these issues.

This game really tries to be the equivalent of the recent Pac-Man Championship Edition games, but there's just not enough content to hold your interest for long. The problem is that its content is pretty much all available from the get-go. Pac-Man CE had you unlock things as you played through it all, which kept you coming back for more. If Frogger Hyper Arcade Edition rewarded you for getting so far on each stage with each skin, there'd be more incentive to stick around longer.

You can see and do pretty much everything this game has to offer in an hour or two. Then it's just a matter of how often you'd like to go back to the classic mode, as if you were playing original Frogger. Still, it's probably the best version of the old game yet.

2.5 out of 4 stars.

Recommended For: gamers who love these classic arcade titles, and who are keeping the Konami Code alive!

Franchise fixes: Honestly, I've never been convinced that Frogger is very viable in today's market. His original 2-d static-screen platforming still works, but it really hasn't grown, nor is there a call for it to do so. This game adds some flourishes and superficial extras, but that's really as far as I can see this franchise going without sacrificing Frogger's core and becoming the horrible crap that his last-gen 3D games have been.

Achievements/In-Game Rewards: The only unlockables in the game are the Frogger movies (featuring  "Frogger In Love" shorts, reminiscent of Pac-Man cutscenes) and a couple skins for classic mode. The Achievement list is easy pickings for any Frogger fan.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Video Game Review - Dead Island

Dead Island is one of those games that you just want to keep playing a little more, and a little more, and a little more...

It's not a well-written masterpiece, by any means. The cut-scenes range from "What is going on?? Who is that guy??" to a head-slapping "WTF?!? Did I miss a plot point somewhere??" The main characters are flat and have no emotional arcs or any real involvement in the storyline. They're just there to kill things and be bossed around by everyone they meet.

But the combat is visceral and exciting. Once you get the basics of combat down and find yourself a hearty weapon, the thrill of killing hordes of zombies is undeniable. A well-timed expertly aimed swing of a sharp blade can decapitate a zombie instantly. A savage swing of a blunt instrument can reduce an enemy's bowling arm to a floppy, useless appendage. And as your character is upgraded, you can unlock a head stomp that will kill any knocked-down foe, even "special" zombies.

Add in modified weaponry with fire and electrical upgrades, and cruise around with a full four-player team? You're in for a night of a fun, unstoppable zombie smackdown rampage.

And it looks great! There's an impressive number of character models. That's not to say you won't occasionally see two identical brain-biters charging at you, but there is a very nice variety of zombies and survivors. And thanks to the first-person perspective, the models are huge and all the bloody details look fantastic in high definition! And while the main characters have personalities composed of tired clichés, their visual design is top-notch, each looking distinct and unique to the game. Too bad they don't offer some different outfits; zombie killing is always more exciting with a little dress-up.

The game can easily be compared to Left 4 Dead or Dead Rising, but it distinguishes itself as more of a gritty brawler, and somewhat casual open-world action game that just happens to have many, many zombies. I call it a brawler, because 98% of the combat will be close-quarters. There are guns, which only become available later in the game, but they're not nearly as effective against the undead. The limited amount of ammo you can carry makes firearms only reasonable choice against human opponents who are shooting back. Yes, it wouldn't be a zombie game without human bad guys spoiling the "let's stick together" atmosphere.

I wish there were some more hand-to-hand fighting techniques, though it would sacrifice some of the realism if you were busting out wrestling moves on zombies ala Dead Rising. One character, Sam, has a Charge move, which essentially knocks over anybody he runs into. But otherwise, if you're without a weapon you can punch zombies with your bare fists or you can kick them for minor damage. Kicking can knockdown most enemies, and they'll take more damage while on the ground (more importantly, they can't fight back until they return to their feet). One thing you have to be extremely aware of: your stamina. If you played the game upon release, kicking took no stamina, so you always had that as a last resort when you tire yourself from swinging your giant axe around. But the developers have since patched the game making kicks use stamina, like everything else.

The game is filled with very interesting choices made by the developers. Most of the time I'm totally unsure if they were conscious decisions, or if they were merely oversights, or perhaps they just ran out of time/budget. For instance, there are almost no ambush moments. In a game like this you expect certain dark corners to be hiding a zombie ready to lurch at you as the game intentionally directs you into its path. Or as you go into a building to retrieve a quest item, common gaming knowledge tells me to expect bad guys to show up behind me to try and stop me. Maybe a big betrayal will occur when I take this item back to the quest giver and I'll have to fight him for it. But these things don't really happen. It's bizarre, and initially it seems disappointing. But then again, it seems to fuel the uniqueness of the game. It's trying to be less of a "game" and add more realism to the desperate struggle for survival rather than adding a lot of convenient gameplay clichés. Even the couple "boss battles" are hardly such... they absorb extra damage, but really not all that much.

And I'm not sure I've played a game with less penalty for dying. You do lose some of your money... five or ten percent, maybe? But you'll regain that after looting a few corpses. And you'll usually start within about 30 feet of where you died (Unless you're wandering... I've noticed that if I've veered away from the course of an active quest, my respawn will be a lot closer to the quest objective than I was). You won't loses your inventory, and slain enemies are still dead. It's quite generous and helps keep the fun going. No rage-quitting here.

The game is absolutely meant to be played co-op. It's much more fun and exciting to have help around, and even some impromptu zombie-killing competitions. And since the cutscenes all involve the entire group, it makes more sense if you're actually playing with a full crew (NPCs also refer to you in the plural sense). What's impressive is that you're given free reign around the very large maps. You're limited to being in the same area map (such as Act 1's resort area, or Act 3's jungle setting) as the host, but these things are huge! Everyone can be off completing separate quests, or teaming up to power through them one-at-a-time. The only time you need to all be together is to fast travel to other locations, to enter buildings/sewers that have their own play area, and at certain points in main storyline quests. But don't believe the original packaging... this game is online (or system link) co-op only. No local co-op options, which is really disappointing. This game is best shared with a buddy.

Leveling up gives you access to a wealth of character-specific upgrades. These allow you to do more damage with specific weapon types; use less stamina; gain more XP, and so on. Each character also has a Rage ability. When activated, your vision goes stylistically black & white, with enemies glowing red. You have unlimited attacking ability while Rage is active, using your character's weapon specialty to deadly effect.

The missions are limited in scope, almost all are fetch quests, with a few escort or clear-the-area missions thrown in for good measure. But the size of the five maps gives you a good variety to travel around, even if you are doing essentially the same things over and over.

There is a strange decision to make the "storage locker" be a character that's heavily involved in the storyline. At times, she's off being part of a mission, meaning you have no access to your storage! You won't even meet up with her until the end of Act 1, which is several hours into the game. So, if you're on a second playthrough, you can't access your saved loot until you reach that point of the game. Bizarre choice.

There are some bugs with the game. Aside from the occasional lag you might experience online, there's not too much that's incredibly bothersome. However, there is one mission where you have to escort "Jin" to a bunker. I played the mission on three separate playthoughs, and every single time, she glitched out. Twice, she got knocked down and ended up with her head in the sand like an ostrich. The other time, she just stopped walking for no reason. I had to reload a checkpoint and it proceeded without hitch from there.

Overall, I had an incredibly fun time with this game, so it deserves my highest recommendation. I played so much of it when it came out, I had to stop myself to give other games a chance. And when I recently got into it again, to join a friend on his playthough, it quickly became an obsession again. I can't wait until they make the sequel!

4 out of 4 stars.

Recommended for: everyone not put off by graphic head-splitting zombie violence.

Franchise fixes: Couch co-op would be nice. Customizable characters would be a huge bonus. More weapon mods, with power ratings listed on the description. Just more of everything would make it a bigger and better game. And I'd like to see a scenery change so this island doesn't just get rehashed.

Achievements/In-Game Rewards - I got the full 1000 core achievement points for this game, thanks to a fun list. A bit of grinding is offset by a variety of specific tasks, such as setting 10 zombies on fire at once, or getting 10 headshots in a row. Apart from the regular RPG-type upgrades, there's not much else as far as in-game rewards.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Video Game Review - Lollipop Chainsaw

It's amazing how much Lollipop Chainsaw feels like Grasshopper Manufacture's previous game, Shadows Of The Damned.

They appear quite different on the surface: The main protagonists are different ages, genders, and attitudes; Damned is a shooter, Lollipop is (mostly) a combo-heavy hack'n'slash (more reminicent of Grasshopper's No More Heroes); Lollipop is filled with bright, candy colored visuals, Damned... not so much.

However, on closer inspection, the similarities are obvious: Damned hero Garcia Hotspur is a Demon Hunter, Lollipop's Juliet is a Zombie Hunter; They each have a chatty sidekick that's mostly inanimate; Damned is a battle through Hell, In Lollipop, Hell comes to Earth. The shop system is practically identical, the levels equally straightforward, and game designer Suda 51 injects the same "WTF?!?" brand of humor.

When coming up with game ideas, could they not decide on which characters, settings and gameplay mechanics to use, so they decided to just make two games? Is Lollipop considered a spiritual sequel to last year's Damned? Whatever the reason, I'm truly happy with the end product. And if Grasshopper keeps making new IPs, I hope it ultimately leads to some mega-Suda-51-crossover-smackdown game.

Lollipop Chainsaw is the story of cheerleader & expert zombie hunter Juliet Starling, who arrives at school one morning to find the undead filling the halls. Her boyfriend, Nick, is victim of a zombie attack and ends up a decapitated head dangling off Juliet's waist. Together with Juliet's zombie-stomping family (though they don't actually provide much direct help), they will fight the hordes through six stages, complete with the standard boss battles.

The combat system is a mix of light pom-pom attacks and strong chainsaw moves, with the requisite dodging suitable for an agile cheerleader. These attacks can be bolstered by using gold coins (called medals) won in combat to buy powerful combos. As you progress through the storyline, an upgrade for your chainsaw will be presented to you, allowing your chainsaw to be used as a gun. Seriously (This also makes me wishful for a sequel to Bulletwitch).  You will also gain the ability to use Nick's head in a number of ways, though it's limited to one-time-use "Nick Tickets" that are rarely found, but available for purchase in the store. Unfortunately, using a Nick Ticket activates a roulette, and if you aren't good at stopping the spin where you'd like, you might end up activating a less-helpful Nick ability.

Levels are designed to leave little room for exploration, sending you through on a linear path. Boss battles at the end of each stage are a mix of active combat and button prompts.

Graphics are colorful and appropriately sparkly, but the designs of the characters and backgrounds aren't very memorable. Same with the animation; it works well, but just seems like it's been recycled from a number of other games. The sole exception to the mediocrity is Juliet herself. She obviously received full attention in the character design and animation stages. The game rests on her playability, and it truly shines. As does her voice acting. Veteran voice actress Tara Strong does a remarkable job bringing Juliet to life. She's supplied with some highly amusing dialog as well. Her brief conversations with Nick about his favorite color and if he wants to have a baby are downright hilarious.

I do have a few quibbles with the decisions made for the gameplay... What is the obsession with making me actively cut through a door?? That concept stopped being interesting two console generations ago. It was a big annoyance in games like Spider-Man Edge of Time, and they fixed it for The Amazing Spider-Man. When will Grasshopper stop relying on such an archaic "gameplay" extender? If there's a door I need to kick open or chainsaw through, let me press a button once and then watch Juliet take care of the rest on her own. I'm not in danger of being attack or dying if I fail to get through in time, so there's no reason for strenuous activity when I could better use this moment to get a drink.

There's also a "Sparkle Hunter" bonus that pops up whenever you kill 3 or more zombies with one move (or if using the gun, within a certain time... I guess? It doesn't seem to be well defined). When this happens the screen turns bright pink and with rainbows and glitter and such, as it shows you cutting through those zombies and everything else disappears for a moment. You also get bonus Platinum Medals, used for unlocking concept art, music, and costumes for Juliet. My problem with this is that is stops the action too often. Aside from the fact that I often get hit as it returns to normal because if the disorientation, but if you're good at this game, you'll be seeing this so often it becomes quite an annoyance. A simple pop-up announcing your multikill, without interrupting your game flow, would be so much less intrusive.

I would have liked to see less linear game progress. After you finish the first stage, it shows you all the bosses on the map, but will only let you play them in order. There's no real reason for this. They could have provided you with the upgrades and story dialog between stages, regardless of what order you chose. Instead, you're unnecessarily stuck with the order they give you.

Aside from that, there's an occasional problem with the camera, and at times it seems like Juliet isn't doing the combo you're telling her to do (it couldn't possibly be a fault on my end!!). But that's stuff pretty standard troubles that unfortunately I've gotten used to in games.

The game does feature an impressive number of unlockable costumes for Juliet, though they cost a lot of platinum medals, so you'll be grinding a lot to afford them. There's alternate cheerleader outfits, incredibly skimpy bikinis, and some cosplay costumes from what I'm told are Japanese cultural icons. The American-inspired ones, such as one based on Ash from the Evil Dead series, were (so far) strictly pre-order bonuses. Too bad, because Ash seems to me to be the most directly related to the gameplay.

Some people may take issue with how short the game is: Six Stages, plus a prologue. You can run through it in four to five hours. It almost feels designed like a twin-stick shooter, equivalent to something like Deathsmiles.  You'll be replaying stages to grind out medals to unlock everything. Perhaps this should have been marketed at a more budget price? Sixty dollars seems steep for this amount of game and its unimpressive secondary designs. $40 would have been a good starting point. Or perhaps it could have made an impact with $5 episodic stages?

Lollipop Chainsaw provided some good times, and a few great laughs. But apart from Juliet herself, the game has a bit of a cranked-out feeling.

Also... crazy stereotypical characterization aside, why doesn't Juliet's father, the supposed bad-ass head zombie hunter, actually do anything helpful? Maybe they're planning some Dad DLC to explain what he was up to while Juliet was actually fighting things. Though I'd prefer Sniper Sister missions. Then again, both those things would lack Juliet which is the best part of the game, so maybe that type of DLC isn't such a good idea.

3 out of 4 stars.

Recommended for: fans of combo-heavy Hack & Slash gameplay, though waiting for a price drop would be beneficial.

Franchise fixes: Since I mentioned it, I would like to see a full-fledged cross-over game featuring Juliet in other character's game worlds. It would break up the monotony of the zombies.

Achievements/In-Game rewards: A rather dull list of do-everything, collect-all-stuffs, get-high-scores. No avatar awards or other such unlockables. The multitudes of costumes for Juliet are about all to really strive for.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Activision's Time-Release Strategy

Activision seems to have yet another strategy to get gamers to keep their games, rather than selling them off right away. This attempt to circumvent the used game market involves doling out special content slowly. And I think it wasn't planned out very well, as it seems designed to actually hurt the all-important first week sales.

Prototype 2 & The Amazing Spider-Man games released with essentially locked content.

Prototype has RADNET: Individually released challenges that awards prizes - avatar items for Xbox 360 users, exclusive themes for PS3 owners. Starting a week after release, they would dole out a new challenge pack once a week.

Spider-Man has spider-symbols hidden around its open world city map. Finding these will reward you with a spiffy alternate costume to wear. Each of these symbols only becomes available after a certain date.

My question is, why are they punishing early adopters of their games? If I buy a new game, I'm (hopefully) excited about it and rush home to play it and eagerly play through it as soon as possible. Had I had this extra content available from the get-go, I would have enjoyed trying it out. But once I finished the experience, I move on to something new. Personally, I'm the type to keep my games, so I can replay anything I get the urge to experience again. But hiding content behind a time lock appears designed simply to annoy me, the eager consumer. I'm not sure I want to go back to those games that crippled my experience in such a way.

And, it's true, you can mess with your console's clock settings to make it think that it's August to get all your Spider-Man goodies now. But akin to rewarding cheaters for finding a way to break your system.
 Presumably, this whole procedure is designed to get consumers to keep their games in their collections, rather than trading them into used game stores while the value is at its apex. But realistically, it will drive the informed consumer to wait until all the content is available before purchasing it, at which point the price has probably dropped. In fact, in today's market, very few games don't reach the $20 mark within six months of release; whether it's part of a sale or a permanent price cut.

So, if I have to wait until August (two months after release) to get all the Amazing Spider-Man costumes, maybe I'll just keep waiting until I can get it really cheap, right? And if everybody hold off on buying it upon release, the price will plummet really fast as panicked retailers try to scrape this pariah of a game off their shelves. That doesn't seem like a winning marketing strategy.

Circumventing the used game market is a difficult task, to be sure. Most attempts have a greater risk of alienating your first-run  consumers. But punishing early adopters is essentially what is happening here. Those are the people that they need to be rewarding.

Instead, why not have these bonuses be unlocked for free the first week of release, perhaps as an automatic reward for just starting up the game? Procrastinating players would have to complete tasks to unlock them later, or maybe just purchase them as DLC. It's not a perfect solution, of course... they'd probably need to make the unlock part of an in-game download so players can't use the clock-cheat to unlock the costumes. It'd also be a problem to recode that part if the game was delayed. And what if you ordered a game from an online retailer that took more than a week to ship your package?

The system is absolutely flawed. It needs to be closely re-examined to properly adjust who it truly is that it wants to target.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Video Game Review - Fable Heroes

I thought a game about puppets would be more entertaining.

Fable Heroes is a 4-player brawler, devoid of any actual narrative. You move from one level to the next over the playable area of Albion. Most levels have a fork in the road, allowing you to choose how you'd like to end the level: a boss fight or a minigame. Neither choice alters the route of the game. You'll still play through the same handful of stages, before unlocking "Dark Albion", which features "dark" versions of the exact same stages for you to play through again.

 - They tried an interesting concept with one stage: Named "The Cloud", this stage was initially locked until the player community reached a certain benchmark in earned gold. However, it was reached within a couple days of the game's release and is now open to play. It's an odd thing to think about… What if the game failed to sell? This level would just be sitting there? And now that it's permanently open there's nothing special about it. It was sort of there to punish early adopters. Day One players weren't able to play the whole game. But they could have helped to unlock it. A weird experiment, but ultimately short-sighted.

You have several characters to choose from: Four to start with, a handful more to unlock as you progress through the game. You'll also choose your three A-I teammates, if playing alone. Most are melee characters, but there are a couple ranged fellows. You can also unlock the powerful Jack of Blades, which features both fighting styles. Aside from one basic attack, you have a much slower Flourish attack. You'll need to spend in-game gold to level up your attack speed, strength and range. The dodge-roll button will be your best friend when battles get chaotic.

You play as a wooden puppet version of "your favorite characters from the Fable Universe". That presents a problem for me, since I never made much of a connection with any character in the Fable games. I liked my farty show-off create-a-character that I molded throughout each game. That was a highlight of the Fable series, being able to be your own character, to make choices that affect your life and your story. None of that is in this game. They could have at least let me play as my PANSE (Xbox Avatar).

Aside from ignoring the core foundation of Fable, they seem to have gone to great lengths to make this experience as dull as possible. Aside from the aforementioned fork in the road at the end of the levels, the stages are frightfully linear, as you literally walk down the street, unable to interact with houses or backgrounds. There are no combos to your attacks, just a basic attack and a flourish. You can purchase an upgrade to get a finishing move, which you will have to unlock for every group of enemy types.  The most exciting part of the game is building (and keeping) your multiplier so you earn more money. Killing enemies, or finding multiplier bonuses in treasure chests will raise your multiplier, while getting hit or going too long without making a kill will decrease it. Of course, it starts with a pretty low maximum until, you guessed it, you buy the upgrades. It seems like this game was designed as a micro-transaction affair, though thankfully the end product does not take any money beyond your initial Xbox Marketplace transaction.

While the graphics and animation are all solid, they do lack any special qualities. I think this again is due to the limits of the franchise it draw upon. For me, Fable doesn't necessarily have its own recognizable art style. It's just sort of a semi-cartoony version of historic English villages, maybe a little steampunk thrown in here and there. And while the look of Fable games is connected to that certain era, that historic period isn't connected necessarily with Fable. So, this just looks like it could be any game. It's Fable? If you say so.

The stages, besides being lackluster and linear, are too spaced out. Groups of enemies pop out at certain areas, and in between there are usually long stretches of road with nothing to do but break barrels for coins or open treasure chests for mostly useless prizes like balloons that drop a couple coins when popped (as opposed to just letting you have the coins) or turning you into a slow-moving giant for a time. Remember how the multiplier decreases when you aren't actively killing enemies? With these huge gaps in between enemy groups, it's obvious the game is against you getting those high scores.

The simplistic combat and straight-forward level designs are not the unfriendliest part of the game, though. That award would go to the unlocking system. Between levels, you are placed on a square game board. Your performance on that level awards you with a number of dice rolls. To unlock an upgrade, you must land on that tile and then spend your hard-earned gold on the new perk. However, there are usually three upgrades on each tile, so you'll have to land on that same space three times. But the spaces don't disappear when you complete them, so as you near full completion, you'll be wasting your rolls trying to land on that last elusive space.
You'll also be in charge of upgrading your A-I buddies. This means you can work on upgrading all your characters four-at-a-time this way, though you will probably need to give them some of your gold (by going to a certain spot on the game map) because their take will likely be significantly lower than your own (which also means they'll get less dice rolls to use on upgrading).

Once a character finally purchases all of their upgrades, they move to a special section of the board where they spend their gold on one-time perks such as invincibility, to be used on the next played stage. These are also governed by luck, having to land on them instead of just being able to purchase them outright. A more user-friendly game might have just put these tiles on the board in place of the fully-purchased upgrade tiles. Actually, a better game might have just made a store for your characters to pick and choose what they wanted to buy whenever they wanted!

One other thing, on a technical side... while the game played well, the A-I characters would routinely disappear and reappear. Almost always this would happen mid-level at a giant object you're supposed to smash to get coins. Sometimes they won't reappear. But they'd still be there, totally invisible, because later in the level I'd see enemies getting beat up with no one around them. A bizarre glitch.

So, who is this game for? Sometimes it feels like it used to be a Facebook game, other times it feels like it was being geared for Kinect controls. It seems very much marketed to a young childhood audience, yet it's based on a series that has been very much Mature rated so far. I know Fable 3 had a more-simplified combat system from the previous games... is this game the ultimate goal they were heading for? Are they telling us that the upcoming Fable: The Journey (with its lower Teen rating) is not at all intended for long-time series fans? I just hope it's not as dreadfully dull as this game was.

1.5 out of 4 Stars

Recommended for: Kids that aren't very picky.

Franchise fixes: This could have been a great game, it just needs some amount of depth. It's cute, but it's not cute enough. It could be a good brawler, but it needs something more. A story, perhaps? Unlockable combos?

Achievements/In-Game Rewards: The achievement list is nice and varied, though you'll have to read it to know what to do, as it wants you to use specific options in specific levels. The game even comes with a couple nice Avatar awards: a shirt for completing the first stage, and a Jack of Blades mask for fully upgrading the Jack of Blades character. Too bad, beyond new characters, the in-game unlockables aren't great.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Video Game Review - Bejeweled Blitz Live

Bejeweled Blitz Live is yet another obsessively addictive puzzle game from Popcap, available through Xbox Live Arcade. It is a stand-alone version of the Lightning Mode from Bejeweled 3, and similar to the version of Blitz available to play on Facebook.

This version of the sparkly gem-matching puzzle classic will absorb your free time with the greatest of ease. The strict one-minute timer will test just how well you can handle the pressure of a countdown. If you've played any iteration of Bejeweled before, you'll ease right in, though the changes may take some getting used to.

Mainly, the control scheme, while quite brilliant in its obvious simplicity, is quite different than that of the old game. The face buttons now indicate which direction to move the selected gem. For instance, moving the cursor over a gem and pressing X will switch that gem with the one to the left, the A button will move it downwards, and so on. It works marvelously, once you get the hang of it. Though a lot of long-time Bejeweled players will balk at this revolutionary control scheme.

Other changes include lightning gems, which are formed by getting five gems in a row (or T or L shapes). These powerful items will obliterate their entire row and column when detonated, usually guaranteeing a multiplier being dropped on to the board. These multipliers, which show up whenever a certain amount of gems are removed from the table in a single move, are key to racking up crazy scores in such a short time.
Also new: online multiplayer. You can either go head-to-head with one person, with both game tables on the screen at once (though you really don't have time to be watching their board), or with up to a total of 16 players in Party Play mode. The party mode displays only your game board, but a graph shows everyone's gamerpics as they move upwards in real time.

While these new features are great, there are a few things missing from the features list.

If you've ever played Bejeweled Blitz on Facebook, you'll notice something's missing. The Boosts which you could purchase with in-game currency are gone, as is the entire coin-earning system. This significantly reduces scoring opportunities, and was an unnecessary removal. They could have easily kept them in and simply increased the high score achievement goals to compensate.

Another dramatic change from the free Facebook version: the timer no longer stops while the gems cascade to fill holes. This robs you of precious seconds while you wait to see how things are going to line up. They likely made this change for purpose of adding Online multiplayer, so everyone is on the same clock… but I would have preferred if everybody's clocks stopped each time rather than never.

One other major addition was made for the XBLA version… Twist mode. I've never played Bejeweled Twist, so I don't know how the blitz version compares to the regular, but I'm loving it here. You have to enter a different mindset  than in Classic mode, as you are rotating blocks of 4 gems at once (I recommend using the triggers for your rotation controls in this mode). You're still matching 3 or more gems, but you're no longer limited to only making moves that make matches. Instead of relying on lucky drops where you can use them, you can move gems wherever you want, one rotation at a time. I average twice the score in Twist mode than I do in Classic. Once you get the hang of it, it is great fun. More addiction awaits you!

Only having to commit to a minute of gameplay at a time is a fun break in your day, though playing for an hour really burns my eyes with all the sparkling gems, flashy effects and pulsing screen effects.

Overall, I enjoy this game quite a lot. The addition of Twist mode really helps offset losses from the Facebook version. However, it's value is decreased with a similar product included in the full version of Bejeweled 3. Twist mode is a fantastic inclusion, but with only 2 modes, fans of the series may feel a lot's missing.

3.5 out of 4 stars

Recommended for: Puzzle gamers, fanatic and casual alike, as well as anyone wanting a game to help train their power of observation.

Franchise Future: As much as I like the game, it is a bit short on game modes. In the future, I hope they stick with releasing full proper versions of Bejeweled.

Achievements/In-game Rewards: Bejeweled Blitz Live come with a pretty straight-forward list of achievements, for making gems for the first time, to achieving certain score & level benchmarks. I played off and on for over a year before finally ranking up to Level 50.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Video Game Review: The Amazing Spider-Man

I forgive Beenox for Spider-Man: Edge of Time.

It's rather ironic that I enjoyed The Amazing Spider-Man so much, as it is a return to the thrilling open-world web-slinging of past games… a formula that was growing stale when developer Beenox took the Spidey franchise reins and delivered the wonderful change-of-pace Shattered Dimensions.

A note of caution should be issued for those not wanting to spoil the Amazing Spider-Man movie… this game takes place after the movie, and is directly related to the ramifications of that plot. Some big spoilers are in casually tossed about right away. If you're concerned about knowing such things, this game really shouldn't be played until after you see the movie.

The game's story revolves around the outbreak of a cross-species virus infecting New York City (again? NYC was already plagued in the recent Prototype 2, as well as in Spider-Man: Web of Shadows. That's apparently Activision's go-to plot device). You fight off scores of thugs with your fists, webs and super-fast reflexes, on the way to saving the city single-handedly (cameos from other Marvel  heroes are sadly lacking). It's a solid enough excuse for a story, with not too much plot padding.

The big selling feature is that Spider-Man is back to swinging around in the wide open area of New York City… between story missions, anyway. The structure of the main story is shockingly similar to Edge of Time. A lot of corridors and almost entirely indoor locations. I do believe many of the environments were just reskinned to use in this game. But they removed a lot of the frustration by not having to jam on an action button to open every… single… door, as it was in the previous game. And there's none of those long "falling & dodging" sequences, though there were a couple places that scared me into thinking they might happen… a nice wink to how annoying those were.

In fact, if anything, the game may be too easy. They removed the "Web of Challenges" from the past couple games, so you're no longer required to pull off certain feats in certain areas in order to 100% the game. "Web-Zip" is now "Web Rush" and it will momentarily freeze time so you can line up a quick movement or attack. Attacking is mostly a one-button affair, switching only if you need to use webs or dodge. Even the web-slinging is simplified to just holding a trigger; No turbo boosting, no extra aerial acrobatics. It's still the most satisfying way to travel, in my opinion. I hunted down the hundreds of comic book page collectibles around the city map simply because I enjoyed swinging on the web (In the Web of Shadows game from a few years back, I collected all 2000+ items, even though I only needed 2000 for the achievement. And I didn't even finish that game. Web-slinging is fun, I tell ya!).

The biggest problem I encountered was the lack of responsiveness with the controls. I'd often hold down the Web Rush button without it ever activating. Same with the "Web Retreat" and "Web Cyclone" and activating the camera. This always leads to being hit or a quick death. Even jumping off the wall can be sluggish.
Load times between levels are pretty lengthy, even with the game installed to the hard drive. They did include Twitter-esque dialog scrolls from citizens to read, which is a nice touch. Wish they updated more than once a chapter, though.

And the side missions lack depth. There are no "side-stories". Nothing random or dynamic, either. They'll pop-up as you progress through the main story, but after you've completed them all, don't expect to deal with random muggings or car chases.

The graphics… are a mixed bag. The human character models are pretty ugly and outdated, but the monsters looks good, the city looks great (There's even a handful of different atmosphere conditions for the city throughout the game, and post game roaming allows you to choose between them), and Spidey's animations are pretty spectacular. The game starts off on a bad foot, with an extended first-person perspective of Peter Parker walking around the Oscorp facility. You get to see the ugly character models up close. Reminded me of Batman: Arkham City, which started off with the ugliest graphics in the game. They should have begun with some open-world web-slinging, to get you excited rather than bore you with an extended walk-and-talk sequence.

All in all, despite the flaws, I really enjoyed myself all the way through. It took me about 20 hours to get 94% completion, most of that side missions or item collecting. Or just having fun swinging around the city. Did I mention how much I enjoy that?

I just wish they had spent a little more time on the game, tightening the control responsiveness, and integrating the side missions dynamically (Most side quests, excluding simple muggings, "fade" out to the mission, and the "fade" back to the map when you're done). But it's a decent blend of standard beat-em-up fare and Spider-Man quick-web goodness.

3 out of 4 stars.

Recommended for: Lovers of Spider-Man! It is a solid entry in the series, and certainly a step up from last year's frustrating mess.

Franchise Fixes: Take some more time before the next entry. Get everything polished up and seamlessly blend the open-world with the story and the side missions. Also, take a cue from Batman: Arkham City and give the side missions some story and depth of their own. And next time the game is tied to a movie, how about make it a prequel so you're not spoiling the film's plot?

Achievements/In-Game Reward System: Not a big mix of challenges, most achievements are given for story progression, difficulty setting and task completion. A couple diversionary achievements don't do much to make this list  too exciting, although it is an easy game to boost your score with. I wish they had more in-game rewards, though. When I completed the storyline, I was at level 22… upgrades stop coming at level 20. The game could really use additional unlocks, perhaps making the costumes obtainable this way? Which reminds me… one redeeming quality about Edge of Time was that it awarded players from Shattered Dimensions with unlocked costumes. Sadly, the tradition did not continue here.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Review: Lego Batman 2: DC Super Heroes

I hate a love/hate relationship with the Lego games.

I want to love them. They have an endearing goofiness, simple yet engaging gameplay, and are some of the most respectful adaptations of their source material. And for achievement hounds such as myself, they're usually good for an easy 1000 gamerscore (if you want to put in the time for the repetitious grind).

However, they tend to rest on their laurels, afraid to make needed changes as they crank out game after game (There's as many Lego licensed games on the Xbox 360 as there are Guitar Hero games, a franchise which died from over-saturation). They mostly ignore core improvements desperately needed: AI partner, targeting and camera problems continue to persist through these games.

I had high hopes going into this new Lego Batman game. After all, they added voice acting. That's a huge step up from the grunts and giggles these games are known for.

The game starts out with a whole flock of villains for you to take down in the first couple of levels. Each battle is small and quick, giving you the impression that these are just cameo appearances from the first Lego Batman's baddies, just getting you ready for a whole slew of new bosses to battle. Sadly, that was not the case. Do you like Lex Luthor and the Joker? Hope so, because you'll be chasing/fighting them for the entire game. Really. They build a robot and you'll be fighting that for the last half of the 15-level adventure. That's disappointment # 1.

Disappointment # 2: the misleading title of the game. Lego Batman 2: DC Super Heroes… should have been Lego Batman, Robin & Superman: With Brief Appearances by Other Super-Guests! Superman shows up a few levels in and you'll spend a lot of quality time with him. I particularly like how rightfully overpowered he is, and how his presence annoys Batman. There is a cutscene with Batman & Superman in an elevator that was the highlight of my game.

However, aside from Supes, no other hero will show up to help you out until the final two stages. Which makes the end of the game play out like a tutorial level! I'm still shocked that anybody thought that was a good idea. And why are all these super-powered icons fighting like Batman & Robin? Why isn't Wonder Woman just ripping the robot apart with her bare hands? Why isn't Green Lantern using his ring to pick up the robot and throw it into space?

Did I mention this happens at the end of the 15-level game? That's right, one single storyline and then it's over. No multiple episodes, or even a few levels from the villains' perspective like the previous game. Disappointment #3. You can finish every level in 3 or 4 hours.

Let's compare that to the previous Lego release, Lego Harry Potter Years 5 - 7. I'd say lengthwise, the storymode in LB2 is probably slightly longer than one "year" from LHP, which had plenty of between level puzzles and navigation and new spells to learn.  Conservatively, I'd say there is 3 times more content in LHP than in this game. That's quite a step down.

But they did add something new. A giant hub world in the form of Gotham City, filled with all red bricks, gold bricks, citizens-in-distress and unlockable characters. Or, as I like to call it, Disappointment #4! The biggest misstep in the game.

I don't know if they outsourced the creation of this hub, but having the navigation controls change going from the levels to the hub world is a monumental failure in judgment. In the levels (and even in the small Batcave area), flying is simple and easy. The analog makes you go, holding the jump button makes you ascend, and the "context" button brings you back down to the ground. It's not perfect, mind you… when you release the ascend button, you begin to drift slowly back down instead of hovering. But in the hub, you have a twitchy reticule you point towards where you want to go and then hold the jump button to move. It sounds simple, but it's an absolute mess for any precision flight. Especially since your character will do some crazy super-swoop if you get close to an object…. Such as a small rooftop I'm desperately trying to land on. So, as you shoot past it, you'll need to slowly reorient the camera without any available sensitivity options. It's a frustrating disaster.

The hub world is a glitchy fiasco upon itself. Vehicles and enemies not spawning, or sometimes appearing half inside a building's wall. Remote control minigames that stop accepting certain inputs (After about ten seconds, I could only move my vehicle in reverse.). And most annoyingly, whenever you acquire a Gold Brick you become frozen in place for ten seconds while the game saves. The bad guys running around beating on you aren't subjected to the freeze, so you get to sit and watch as they beat up you and your co-op buddy. Sure, "it doesn't matter" because it's all post-game stuff and dying doesn't really mean anything. But when you have to go through it 200 times(!) it becomes a huge blemish on your day. That's over half an hour of just waiting on the game to let you continue playing.

The worst part of this city mode, in my mind, is that nothing gets accomplished. You never "cleanse" sections of the city. Thugs continue spawning, civilians continue to run in circles, panicking. It's just very unfulfilling. Find the gold bricks and move on. Bleh.

This game sets a new benchmark in user-unfriendliness.

You'd think a mini-map would be standard technology for open world areas, but developer Traveller's Tales is so far behind they only give you a useless compass that marks landmarks which are already visible just by looking around. Instead, on your quest to find all the bricks and characters, you must enter the start menu and scroll down to select view map (despite having unused buttons on your controller which normally would be assigned this task), find what you're looking for, back out to the menu and scroll back up and press Resume to continue. You'll have to do that A LOT. There's another hour that could have been shaved off this game with some very standard programming. Is that their way of making up for the lack of story levels?
In previous Lego games, as you struggled to navigate platforming sections, your AI partner would suddenly make miraculous leaps and join up with you (often trying to knock you off your ledge). Now, he's been programmed to lag behind so you have to manually bring him everywhere you need. Even when the AI is in control of Superman, I always find him earthbound, walking on balance beams, or stuck behind some slight outcropping in the wall. I'm going to mark this up as not an improvement for the AI.

But it's not all bad! One thing I am particularly grateful for is the change in the vehicle levels. They are all on-rail shooter levels now! No trying to drive with horrible controls (Though, they're not totally gone; The hub world still has drivable vehicles which you'll need to manage in order to get those darn gold bricks. I envy non-completionists.)!

The on-rail sections are fun, but they're quite easy. In fact, the whole game is crazy-simple. I don't recall any non-boss even using a gun. And puzzles are practically non-existent. It's just a matter of "where's the suit I need to wear?"

Overall, the lack of true content and challenge,  as well as overall lack of open-world programming experience, really brought this game to its knees. It's fun for a quick play-though, but ends up a sad failure to live up to its huge potential, and not worth the full purchase price.

2 out of 4 Stars.

Recommended for: Families looking for a short rental, and achievement hounds willing to deal with the poor navigation to get all their gamer points.

Franchise fixes: They seriously need to slow down their production process. Stop cranking so many of these games out each year. Instead, consolidate talent and even hire some experienced outside help to expand the knowledge base of more advance game programming. Then make some real high-quality games that you can support with DLC. Also: how cool would it be for an open-world game where every building is demolishable and able to be rebuilt from the Lego rubble?

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Opinions To Follow!

A brand new blog; a fresh palette upon which to spill out bunches of thunked-up words! It's exciting to think that this will get me to write more, to openly express my opinions about the video games I play. 

It's also a bit daunting.  Writing every day doesn't leave much time for thoughts to evolve. Will this blog be too kneejerk and raw? Will I regret the bulk of these entries? Quite possibly! I'm already regretting that this is going to be the first hundred words on this blog and I'm not even talking about games yet.