Friday, July 30

Glory Days

StarCraft II has the ability to disrupt space and time. It is a portal if you will, to an age long since past. After giddily pointing and clicking my way through the first few missions, I couldn't help but think that I was playing a game very similar to its predecessor, 12 years on. I understand that your average sequel introduces incremental improvements to successful gameplay formulas, but your average sequel is also usually pumped out within 2-3 years of the release of the preceding installment. Over a decade's worth of innovations have been introduced to the RTS genre, some even by Blizzard themselves, yet StarCraft II seems to have (at least so far) stoicly adhered to the formula that set the PC gaming world ablaze in the late nineties. What is different however, is how the story is told. It feels a lot like Wing Commander III, with the player initiating discussion with the supporting cast by clicking on characters and items during intermissions. While you don't have much input into these interactions, they do serve to give context to the action. Truth be told, I'm playing for these expository sequences. It is RTS narrative done right.

There are some other subtle improvements. The Zerg now look truly fearsome. When you destory a Zerg structure it lurches forth from beneath the surface and bellows in agony. In its final throes, bleeding to death, Zerglings emerge from the massive corpse and rush your forces. More death, more viscera. It is so perfectly brutal. I also love how the single player tech tree can be permanently truncated. Players can now upgrade certain units and structures via the Armory with currency earned during missions, for the entirety of the campaign. Meaning that you can now focus your efforts on building a large army, as opposed to a limited force with some helpful abilities. StarCraft II also has its own achievement point system. Unfortunately it isn't linked to your Games for Windows - Live / Xbox Live Gamertag, but it has ensured that I have replayed some missions at a higher difficulty level to earn more precious (and ultimately useless) points.

StarCraft II is more of the same, but when the same is so compelling, who am I to criticize? With the restrained improvements to the visuals, gripping story mechanics and time-tested gameplay; I feel like I am 14 again. Except of course, without the constant ridicule and awkwardness with the ladies (pronounced laydez) that plagued me (much like the Zerg) during adolescence. Solidarity my nerdy brothers!

No takers on the StarCraft II Guest Passes yet. They are still on offer for any interested and able parties.

What are you all playing this weekend?

Wednesday, July 28

Old Habits

For the first time in almost a decade, I purchased a retail copy of a PC game. A day after release, without any substantial discounts. No prizes for guessing that I picked up StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty, to further follow the adventures of space-faring whisky lover: Jim Raynor. I was gifted with the original installment on my 14th birthday (thanks Ma and Pa), and even after many defeats, I have nothing but fond memories of this Real-Time Strategy (RTS for the uninitiated) classic. Now that the first of what will be many, post-release patches has finally downloaded, I am looking forward to sticking it to the Zerg once again.

A somewhat embarrassing admission: the Terran campaign of the 1998 original is the only single player RTS crusade that I have ever completed. Lacking the skill and patience to finish the Zerg and Protoss campaigns, I also decided to forgo the expansion, Brood War. I am not entirely sure that my return to strategy gaming will be successful, but after 10 or so years I'd say that it is justified. It also doesn't hurt that StarCraft II's system requirements are refreshingly low. Low as in, I have almost met the recommended requirements for the game. That doesn't occur often with recent PC releases (read: at all).

Apart from my inevitable return to the home computer platform, I've also logged a few more hours on Super Street Fighter IV. Content that I am not the World Warrior I once was, I am happy to take a loss. 5 in a row even. I am also determined to make use of some of the new additions to the roster. Ibuki is an interesting conundrum. Mobile and quick, she should be able to make short work of most opponents. In my hands however, my redundant spaming of mid strength attacks leaves her stranded in mediocrity.

I can't tell whether it was because I was preloading StarCraft II at the time (I didn't follow through with it considering the ridiculous asking price for the digital version), but I encountered some horrendous lag while playing SSFIV online last night. It was to the point where my opponent and I got to view each other's next move until one of us (me - sad face) was unable to return fire. The game still looked as beautiful as ever, but it stuttered around like me after a few cold ones. I'm dying to play this game against humans in a local environment once again. Just over a month ago, I got to spar with some old friends and Street Fighter (any fighting game for that matter) is at its best when your fallen opponent is sitting right next to you.

Is anyone else picking up StarCraft II? I have two guest passes (good for 7 hours of play) for any interested parties. Let us know in the comments section if you would like a code. Blizzard sure do know the value of word-of-mouth marketing!  

Monday, July 26

Peanut Butter Dreams X Chocolate Reality

Tomorrow Yesterday afternoon felt like some kind of beautiful dream. I had visited a UK gaming website and happened upon the announcement of Street Fighter III: Third Strike Online Edition. I haven't been able to play through the third installment in the Street Fighter franchise anywhere near as much as I wanted to back in the day. Experienced only via Street Fighter Anniversary Collection on the original Xbox, most of my time with this game was spent battling the d-pad on Microsoft's unwieldy controllers rather than actual opponents. The news only got better from there.

Already compared by Kotaku to the joyous union of peanut butter and chocolate, Street Fighter X Tekken and Tekken X Street Fighter may serve to end a few arguments, and create many an unforgettable knock out. It's already obvious that Street Fighter X Tekken will be the horse to back. Using the artistic direction of Street Fighter IV, as well as the 2D orientation for battle, SFXT will be the Capcom fighting fan's game of choice. It also appears as though there will be a tag team element to this fighter, however given reports that a retail release is two years away, I probably shouldn't get too excited about that yet.

As for what Tekken X Street Fighter means for fighting game fans is yet to be deciphered. While it is reported to play more like Tekken (obviously), the mechanics behind the hadouken in a 3D environment are yet to be revealed. I hypothesize that it will be similar to the flash of light seen in the regrettable (so bad it's awesome) 1994 film interpretation starring Jean-Claude Van Damme (about 35 seconds into the video below). Pax Bisonica! If not, it will be probably be a charged, unblockable move with lots of pyrotechnics.


Just when I thought that I had seen it all, Thor has since been added to the roster of Marvel VS Capcom 3: Fate of Two Worlds. I normally prefer my Street Fighter experience to be less on the crazy side, but sometimes you need to super jump over your opponent and hit them with a Level 3 Hyper Combo Finish!

What is your dream crossover event? Mine is already on the cards!

Friday, July 23

Crazy Train

Even after Peace Walker has been stopped in its tracks, the story of Naked Snake continues. Albeit, at a snails pace. I've listened to over an hour worth of audio logs, which do give a nod to Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, but nothing amounting to the desired introduction to the series' titular hero or other characters of interest like Frank Jaeger (Grey Fox). On top of that, Kojima Productions' latest masterpiece took a turn towards creepy after the conclusion of the main narrative arc. I won't spoil it for you, in case you ever decide to experience this classic yourself (which I strongly recommend that you do), but the multiplayer-minded multi-person Love Box is now, for me, a crime scene. I'll restrict my discussion of Peace Walker from this point onwards, however I will reiterate that this portable powerhouse (as per the High Horse Audit) is a Game of the Year contender. Avoid at your own risk.

Now, let's talk crazy. BlazBlue: Calamity Trigger crazy. As there are only 12 selectable characters I've decided to specialise initially. I have selected Bang Shishigami as my character of choice, and I'm glad I did. Not only is he a self-important ninja, Bang also employs a variety of moves that clearly demonstrate how BlazBlue is different to the competition. Bang can place markers in the area around him which, when jumped into, propel you across the screen in the direction in which you jump. This has both offensive and defensive conotations, meaning you can escape from attacks, or dash towards your opponent. He has a limited amount of shuriken that you can throw at enemies; meaning that projectile attacks are a luxury, not a spammable defense. I'm yet to fully acquaint myself with the fundamentals, but so far the experience has been enjoyable, even if it is slightly convoluted.

Forget about the story with this 2D fighter. It is a mess. It's even presented in a way that is brutally difficult to follow. You can have a screen worth of text with exposition and dialogue, with no indication as to who is speaking. If you don't have the volume, you wouldn't have any idea who is talking. The fights however are a wonder to behold, with a beautiful blend of 3D backgrounds and high-definition sprites. Colours abound, and lights flashing across the screen; BlazBlue is the fighting game equivalent of a fireworks display. The sound however, particularly when playing with Bang, is grating, painful even. His exclamations are tongue-in-cheek ("Opening!"), but repeat add nauseum. I can't wait to play this against human competition though, as the AI seems more than happy to accept my guess work on its chin.

Finally, the sexual inuendo (if it can be called that) present in BlazBlue is blatant to the point of making me uncomfortable. With a character referred to in tutorials and select story sequences as "Boobie Lady", sometimes I felt like asking Taokaka to settle. You can't grab a woman like that, it's assault. A redundant observation given that this is a fighting game, but the context is different to that which I am used to seeing.

Enough about amorous cat people. What are you guys playing this weekend?     

Wednesday, July 21

In case you haven't played it: Metal Gear Solid - Peace Walker Review (PSP)

For over a decade, the Metal Gear Solid series has been the premiere franchise in the stealth shooter genre. Tackling heavy subject matter such as nuclear proliferation, genetic engineering and more extensively, the human cost of conflict, the series has delivered some iconic characters and unforgettable action sequences. Each installment has transitioned incrementally more towards the shooting aspect, rather than tactical espionage. I can attribute this to the fact that the need for stealth alienates those looking for a solid (ha! MGS pun) shooting experience. Further to that, the development of combat in the series, from first-person shooting to Close-Quarters-Combat (CQC for the uninitiated) has ultimately led to more compelling action and generally speaking, better review scores. The process of improving the series' combat mechanics appears to have come full circle with the release of Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker. While you are empowered with the tools and abilities to sneak through every mission (with the obvious exception of boss battles and one very memorable sequence), you could just as easily shoot your way through every base, jungle and outpost. Big Boss, or Naked Snake as he prefers, makes his return in what is the best portable entry in the franchise, and one of the better in the series as a whole.

The Good
Very little lost in translation - This is for all intents and purposes, a true Metal Gear Solid title, complete with all the trimmings you would expect and some that are completely unexpected. Towards the end of the game, the scope and quality of the visuals is unbelievable: brilliant set-pieces, huge mechs and explosions aplenty. Most cut-scenes (everything save for boss mechs exploding) are presented in a stunning, comic-book style illustrated by Australian artist, Ashley Wood. These sequences are directed expertly, and quick time events are employed to great effect (with the sole exception of the obligatory MGS torture sequence). The quality of the voice-acting is also on par with the series' best, and leagues ahead of any other game released on the PSP. The script is also mercifully succinct when compared to other Metal Gear Solid titles, and entirely suited to action on the go. The score, particularly towards the end, adds dramatic weight to the action on screen. MGS - Peace Walker is just as polished, beautiful and sensational as its console forebears.

Shooter Type - After the horrendously awkward Portable Ops, the option to pick from three control types in Peace Walker is appreciated. Shooter Type plays like your standard third-person shooter, with the camera being mapped to the four face buttons. While you will miss the accuracy afforded by a second analogue stick, the scheme is functional and will empower you to defend yourself during the more fierce of firefights. The PSP's analogue nub is sensitive enough to have you sneaking at a snails pace or double-timing between conflict zones. The CQC system has also been revised and the combo system makes for some satisfying knockouts. Depending on how you move the stick, and the timing of your input, can perform less powerful takedowns, or restrain enemies and then throw them to the ground with brutal impact.

Depth - As I've touched on in previous posts, through the assignment of recruits to various teams at Mother Base will give you access to new gear, allow you to dispatch squads to conflicts across the globe, and even have you developing your own bipedal battle tank. As your troops gain combat experience (Combat Unit via Outer Ops) you will earn more money (GMP) which can then be spent on new equipment, or upgrades to existing gear (R&D Team). Your Medical Team will treat any of your combatants that are wounded in Outer Ops and your Mess Team will keep your recruits well fed and maintain morale. Your Recon Team is linked to the quality of support you receive on the field, which is crucial to your success in some of the more difficult conflicts later on in the game (especially if you are playing solo). For action heros, you can jump right into each mission and let bullets fly, but for any micromanagers out there, there is more than enough to consider off of the battlefield.

Structure - Missions in Peace Walker, both story missions and Extra Ops (non-essential missions and challenges) are just the right length for a bus trip or lunch break. This installment has all the drama and action of its console predecessors, but it is structured in a way that works on the PSP. Understandably, towards the end of the adventure, some story scenes run a little bit over time, but the missions themselves (as in gameplay) rarely exceed 10 minutes in duration. The only exception to the previous statement is boss battles, which typically run from 20 minutes to half an hour. For those of you put off by a supposed lack of narrative that the series is famous for, have no fear, each mission is accompanied by several audio logs with dialogue between Snake and the supporting cast which better prepare you for the action ahead. Anything that isn't covered in cinematic sequences will more than likely be discussed  in these logs and effectively serve to develop the central characters.

Gravity - Outside of the usual Metal Gear-flavoured melodrama and Cold War tension is the account of a man without a country, coming to grips with the loss of his mentor. Finding others similarly disenchanted with their own governments, or those without the impetus to defend the will of their own countrymen, Snake's army and arsenal grows to meet the threat of nuclear armageddon. Forced to reflect on the trauma of events passed, Snake and the supporting cast learn the heartbreaking secret of Metal Gear Solid 3's memorable anti-hero, The Boss. I'll be one hundred percent honest with you, I cried when the story concluded. I haven't yet been able to decide whether it was a hard day at work, the shock from the final confrontation with a beloved legend, or the beauty and betrayal from the game's final scenes. Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker is the powerful story of deterrence and the legacy of past wrongs.

The Bad
I used to be able to do this - While the action is slick, and the controls responsive, abilities from previous game have been stripped away.  Most notable is the ability to shimmy across walls and the tactical advantages that presents, such as shooting from cover and gaining a better view of your surroundings. You can also no longer crawl. You can only lay prone, unable to fire.

I've seen you before - While the visuals are technically and artistically impressive, you will notice that most enemy combatants look and sound exactly the same. Sometimes (rarely) they will be wearing different outfits, and you could almost dub this game Attack of the Clones. In additon to clone troopers, you will find that most Extra Ops take place in locales from story missions. Also, environments do tend to repeat in the story missions themselves.

This is war isn't it? - I understand that in Metal Gear Solid 3, Kojima san, through the boss battle with The Sorrow portrayed the cost of war in lives. Any enemies you lethally dispatched were there to haunt you, forcing you to reflect on how you got to where you were (as in how many men had to die), and how you could have done it better (as in only killing when necessary, if at all). It was a powerful message that was not lost on me, I guarantee it. Peace Walker also penalises you for killing your enemies. The penalty is not so much having to live with yourself after taking a life, but copping a deduction on your mission score. There are some conflicts where eradicating a few enemy soldiers is just short of a necessity. With the only weapons capable of tranquilizing your foes being a semi-automatic pistol, a bolt-action rifle and a melee weapon; sometimes you need to use lethal force.

Questionable characters - Dr Strangelove (sigh). I don't get how she fits in. The character, and their implied relationship with another was completely unnecessary. Even after the final revelation, that conclusion could have been reached with stronger, better established characters.

The Ugly
Multiplayercentric - MGS:PW is a co-op action game. The single player experience is obviously an option, but not the way it was intended to be played. Fact of the matter is, I know very few people who own a PSP nearby (let alone within Australia), and even less (read: none) who own a copy of this game. With this in mind, I could only dream of how the events of Peace Walker would have unfolded with a friend in tow. There are very few missions that are exclusively a solo affair, and I would sorely have liked to have explored the comprehensive suite of multiplayer options on offer here. In addition to cooperative play, you can also face off against friends in competitive action which I regret to say I have also been unable to playtest. Seeing the amount of content that I simply could not explore, I felt as though I had only played through half the game.

You didn't answer my question - Just as Metal Gear Solid 3 fell short of making sense of the baffling final scences of its predecessor Sons of Liberty; Peace Walker's implications, save for the establishment of Outer Heaven, are not immediately obvious, especially when you consider installments set in the future. There is no passing of the guard to Solid Snake, and this feels like a missed opportunity. This could of course be what the inevitable Metal Gear Solid 5 explores, but given that this was originally touted as the fifth game in the series, I do feel somewhat cheated. 

9/10: Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker is the genuine article. Despite the less capable platform, Kojima Productions have delivered an essential part of Metal Gear Solid lore with all the visual and narrative flair of its console brothers. While I lament the fact that I may have only experienced half of all that was on offer, the single player experience is still an essential one, and definitely worth playing.

Monday, July 19

Unintended Consequences

I doubt that when All Interactive decided to release BlazBlue: Calamity Trigger in Australia with a bonus arcade stick, that they intended for me to boot up Super Street Fighter IV instead of their acclaimed product in an attempt to test drive the included peripheral. It's not that I don't want to play BlazBlue, in fact the opposite is true. My rationale for playing what is the fighting game equivalent of my comfort zone instead of the new kid on the block is that I know how, let's say, Ryu is supposed to respond to my movements. I want to familiarise myself with Ragna the Bloodedge and Hakumen, but for now, I know that forward, down, down-forward + punch = Shoryuken.

I must admit that initially, I thought this generic looking controller would cease to function within minutes; that quarter-circles, double quarter-circles and charges would be beyond its capabilities. I was glad to find that my assumptions were not entirely confirmed. Up-left isn't as responsive as I would have hoped, however I am working it in, and the more I jump around, the more functional the area becomes. The suction cups are making out with my coffee table, and their joyous union is leading to increased accuracy with input. Under pressure however, I can't tell whether the fault is with my articulation of the stick or the controller itself. I lost a few close matches due to the inability to bust an Ultra. I'm going to persist. Not only because I have wanted an arcade stick since I first owned Street Fighter II: Championship Edition on the Sega Mega Drive, but because of the ridiculous price of the package. At least two major retail chains (JB Hi-fi and EBgames) are selling BlazBlue with the stick, for less than half the RRP. The value propositon this package presents is unbelievable: a universally acclaimed fighter and a (so far) competent peripheral for less than (in both cases) 40 dollars. I'll be sure to subject the controller to much more rigorous testing and will pass on the results. Let's hope they are favourable.

I also picked up Blur after playing the multiplayer demo, which was awesome. After 30 minutes I was convinced I was playing the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare of the racing genre. After some positive word-of-mouth marketing from reader 4XScope, I'm hoping that Blur doesn't turn out to be the slot machine that the Penny Arcade team and several other outlets have purported it to be. Also very close to the end of Peace Walker and I will hopefully have a review ready next week.

What were you all playing this weekend?

Friday, July 16

The High Horse Audit (Part 1): Top 5 Games of 2010 (so far)

With another financial year having drawn to a close, I think it's an apt time to take stock of the better gaming experiences on offer from this year. I will qualify my choices for this section of the High Horse Audit using the following criteria:
  • The game must have been released in Australia from 1 January, 2010
  • I have to have played the game extensively (preferably to the point of completion)
  • Both downloadable and full retail acquisitions are eligible
With those criteria outlined, you also need to be aware of the following limitations:
  • I do not own a Wii, DS or powerful gaming PC
  • While I do spend an exorbitant amount of money on games, I cannot buy everything released on the Playstation 3, Xbox 360, PSP and PC
  • While I do spend a lot of time playing videogames, I have not been able to play though all the releases on the afformentioned systems
I am well aware that this exercise is not wholly original, however this will allow me to expand on some titles that I may have played through prior to establishing the blog. This will also impart some indications of what I believe the "Game of the Year," nominees will be for a videogame blog that can only consume and criticise within the confines of a finite budget. With the legalities out of the way, please enjoy my thoughts on what are (in my opinion) the finest offerings of the year that has so far been 2010.

5. Bayonetta (PS3/360 Played on PS3) - Put simply, this is Devil May Cry done better with lots of female nudity and unbelievably frantic action. Look further than that puerile statement and you will find one of the more visually stunning, and just plain wacky 3rd person action games on the market. In what other games can you torture angels, kill creatures with your hair and turn into a butterfly? The boss battles are of unmatched scale, the last of which tasked with conquering a massive, shapely lady that was larger than a planet! Bayonetta the character, is a walking, talking superlative; whom through her emasculation of the male members of the cast brought many a laugh. The narrative is campy to the point of being melodramatic, and while at times you may ask yourself: "What just happened?"; inevitably the ridiculousness of what is occurring on screen will only cause you to laugh harder. The jazzy theme that accompanies the majority of the action is undeniably, and at times, painfully hilarious. Everything about this game screams crazy, and that's why I love it.

4. Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing (PS3/PC/360 Played on PS3) - For those unable to play with Nintendo's iconic plumber, this game is the closest you can get to the market-leading mascot racer. This was a real surprise packet for me, especially after the initial impressions left by the demo. The tracks are well-designed and the AI opponents are competitive, not cheap like their Ninty competitors. The weapons are balanced, if not a little uninspired. Perhaps most importantly, you can drive in a car shaped like a bunch of bananas! There are enough classic SEGA characters, environments and theme tunes to warm the heart of even the most cynical gamer, with special weapons that are bound to draw a wry smile. The local multiplayer is also a great joy, and I only wish there were more people close by to share it with.

3. Bioshock 2 (PS3/PC/360 Played on PS3) - My return to Rapture was much better than I could have anticipated. The submerged, art-deco dystopia was not as shocking this time around, nor was the narrative. Sofia Lamb is no Andrew Ryan. Where Bioshock 2 succeeded however, was in making the action feel different to its predecessor. As a Big Daddy, I felt as though I was a force to be reckoned with. Duel-wielding plasmid powers and firearms allowed for some truly chaotic firefights. Not to say Bioshock 2 is without challenge, the new additions to the Splicer genus were much more fearsome and deadly than those featured in the original. The Big Sisters also managed to inspire fear with the assistance of the truly exceptional score. While your character is not especially complex, your Little Sister does provide some genuine inspiration to progress. I am not a father, but I felt as though there was a real sense of urgency whenever Eleanor (the Little Sister to which you are linked) appeared. The greatest moment of the sequel is when you are forced to walk in the shoes of a Little Sister (if only for a little while), such a visual and philosophical feast!

2. Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker (PSP) - I am yet to finish this game, but it has made a strong impression. So strong, that initially I had this as my pick of the litter. Peace Walker is a big deal for many reasons. One, because it has all the visual flair and narrative melodrama typical of a Metal Gear Solid game. The boss battles are for the lack of a better word: epic, and require a depth of patience and strategy not usually seen in portable action games. There are so many ways to play this game. You can repeat missions and minor boss battles to acquire troops and vehicles for your mercenary army. You can spend hours managing your troops and resources. You can develop upgrades for the arsenal you employ in standard gameplay to the point where I am now packing M16s with suppressors, RK47s with smoke grenade launchers, extremely interesting girly magazines (lol), great curries (lolololololol) and Carl Gustav recoilless rifles. Perhaps greatest of all is the soundtrack. I now have the home base theme playing in my head whenever I look at myself in the mirror, you know, because I'm so pensive and legendary.

1. Red Dead Redemption (PS3/PC/360 Played on PS3) - Obvious choice? Yes. But, if there was one game you could buy this year, this would have to be it. Will there be more compelling offerings this year? It's possible. Will there be better looking games? With Crysis 2 launching this year, that is a (red) dead certainty (plus there are loads of visual glitches to be seen in this blockbuster). However, where Red Dead Redemption will conquer all of the competition is the sheer breadth of activities available in which players can engage. If the story missions are starting to exhaust you, you can ride to a cantina and play a round of Texas Hold 'Em. If you become weary from human company, ride into the great expanse and start hunting wild game. Even if you have no interest in interacting with artificial intelligence, you can go online and posse up with friends or total strangers and tame the Wild West. Perhaps most importantly, at the heart of this robust package is a gripping tale of revenge and ultimately (and obviously), redemption.

What are your favourite games of the year to this point? Do you agree with any of my choices?

Wednesday, July 14

Deadliest Catch

Before I start ranting about the politics of acquisition in portable adventure games, I would like to mark a dubious milestone. This the 50th post on The Unbearable Lightness of Dutch. What started as an outlet for nostalgic musings has turned into a creative project in which I am now thoroughly invested. Hit or miss, there are some thanks that must be distributed:
  • Alex Connolly, who created the banner for the blog and gave it a sense of identity.
  • The opinionated few who comment regularly on each of my deliberations. Thank you for your support.
  • Anyone who has read, or who is (hopefully) still reading my thoughts.
  • Carly, my unofficial editor and love of my life
Reading the majority of critical ruminations regarding Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker, I was stunned to see how many had protested that the difficulty curve employed in the portable actioner was too steep. This is not me attempting some 50th post, celebratory dick swinging, rather I believe this is a trapping of the storied franchise. Apart from the first instalment on the original Playstation, I've never thought that a Metal Gear Solid game had lacked a sufficient level of challenge. Whether it be the sneaking grind you play through for the majority of each chapter or the grand, attack-pattern heavy boss battles, I've had to replay sections of each title recurrently. I will concede that some of the boss battles are more prolonged than their home console forbears, the strategies one needs to utilize to attain victory haven't really changed as time has passed. You memorise attack patterns, and pummel your opponents when you can no longer hear/see  explosions or bullets ricocheting off of hard surfaces. These battles may be shorter and less challenging with the help of a friend (several reviewers have hinted to as much), but I'm afraid that I can't comment. If anything (and this is a concession made due to the fact Peace Walker is a portable game), some levels are so short that even if you do fail, it won't take long to progress past your last mistake. I would even go as far as to say that the regular sneaking action is punctuated so expertly and regularly, that I have not encountered anything akin to frustration.

I've read two reviews (funnily enough both from Australian sources) that have taken exception with the recruitment methods employed by Naked Snake on behalf of Militaires Sans Frontiers. Both also likened the process to that of the Pokemon games, each with its own redundant misappropriation of the franchise's battle cry: Gotta Catch 'Em All. Yes, you kidnap and brainwash enemy combatants, but how is it different to assaulting a wild animal and then poaching them with your Pokeball? I'm not defending the use of the Fulton Recovery System to abduct American (both of Central and Northern origin) soldiers, but Peace Walker isn't the first game that tasks players with the brutal subjugation of opposing forces. The alternative is far more troubling and guilt-inducing. For anyone who has ever played through the brilliant Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, there are consequences for firing a weapon. With the option to either kill or tranquilize Russian forces as you attempt to prevent Cold War tensions from boiling over, players are confronted with the faces of the fallen (combatants, even the animals you killed for sustenance) during one of the games later sequences. The result of spilling blood isn't so apparent in Peace Walker, the only noticable outcome being a reduced mission score. Still you would rather have these men alive and working with/for you as opposed to on your conscience.

The video lacks the effect of that when I first played through MGS3 and had racked up a regrettable kill count. There were so many apparitions of soldiers, boss characters and animals approaching me on my initial playthrough of the game. I believe this is one of the first post-modern boss battles which calls for reflection as opposed to observation and action. The Metal Gear Solid series has almost always presented significant challenges and features some of the more memorable boss fights that I've had the pleasure of playing through. Besides if you find it too hard, you can always lower the difficulty.

Care to share some memories of exemplary boss battles?

Monday, July 12

Best Laid Plans

In order to focus my energies this weekend I picked a genre: First Person Shooter; and even nominated some titles to play through; but I never got around to it. A psychotic, talking bunny and a 6 foot-tall dog wearing a suit hijacked the better half of the weekend. Sam and Max: Hit the Road was one of my favourite games during my childhood, where the Point-and-Click Adventure game reigned supreme for quite some time. With a dry, quirky sense of humour, the original Sam and Max featured some of the more memorable characters and (albeit nonsencial) puzzles I've played within this classic genre of videogames. More than 15 years since their debut on the PC, the Freelance Police have now made their way to the Playstation 3.

Unfortunately, PS3 owners have been made to follow on from Season 3 (The Devil's Playhouse) of the comedic duo's episodic adventures. Having now completed the first episode, The Penal Zone, I can't help but think the best days of this genre are well behind us. Sure the laughs are there, and the puzzles will force the occasional scratch of the noggin, but the whole process felt tiresome, dated, even redundant. This observation extended to the gags as well. I'm not saying that the standard of the humour was purile, but apart from a few restrained chuckles, laughs were not assured thanks to the hit-and-miss jokes employed throughout the episode. Thankfully, the episodes are now being made available individually so you can judge if the full season would be of interest; but for those of you (thanks Rubes) who paid for the entire season initially, this is a bit of a gamble. The second episode, The Tomb of Sammun-Mak is proving to be much more interesting due to the non-linear nature of the narrative, however once again the laughs do not occur as consistently as you might suspect.

Another contradiction to my words on Friday for your consideration: Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker  had several protracted tours over the weekend. More challenging boss battles were punctuated by simple, yet entirely necessary micro-management, as well as some good, old-fashioned target practice. In its predecessor (Portable Ops), the recruitment and troop management system seemed pointless. In Peace Walker, with the exception of the Recon team,  the troops you employ can reap some tangible benefits that have noticeably enriched the experience. Further into the game, you can deploy squads of your recruits, as well as any vehicles you acquire to various conflicts, which in turn earns money for research and development (R&D). Any upgrades to gear and equipment can be used by the combatants you control, and by the soldiers you dispatch to various conflicts across the globe. Militaires Sans Frontiers is now packing fully-upgraded rocket launchers and tommy guns. Classy! Navigating through the menus is seldom tiresome, and the conflicts peripheral to the main adventure do require some consideration if you are wanting to expand your arsenal and make the most of your time in Nicaragua. There is a whole mercenary economy at work here which at times demanded more attention than the adventures of Naked Snake, and given the quality of the voice-acting and illustrated comic cut-scenes, that is a compliment of the highest order.

Finally, a tip of the hat to the Oranje boys who put one hell of a fight against Spain. They may not have come away with the trophy, however I am still proud of the team and their efforts at this year's tournament. Go Nederland!

Friday, July 9


Apart from some short sessions on Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker, I haven't played anything since completing Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands. My feelings about TFS are the textbook definition of a mixed reaction. There were some truly amazing sequences during the latest Prince of Persia title, experiences that every gamer needs to have; but a lot of what was on offer also felt rushed, or uninspired. When I managed to pull off some of the more difficult platforming puzzles, I felt genuinely satisfied; but when I was forced to destroy hunderds of skeleton warriors on my way to another climb I felt fatigued. As outlined in the review, you just would not believe how arbitrary the combat is in TFS. Honestly, if the developers had no intention of delivering a thrilling swashbuckling, swordfighting experience, then I would have preferred that they didn't bother with it. Just give me some parkour, with some ancient Persian seasoning. Spicy!

Now that I have completed yet another adventure from one of my favourite franchises I find myself searching for direction once again. I'm also not loving the feeler of a controller in my hand this week, I need a whole console! MGS: Peace Walker is to me, not a game that you can complete in a few, long sessions. This is truly a portable game, designed for bite-sized sessions. I am of this belief, primarily because a lot of the environments and enemies reappear frequently. If I leave it for a few days it doesn't distract too much from the action on screen. Compare this to when I first purchased the game and I logged a few longer sessions, and it did serve to cheapen the experience. Further to that, if your first experience with game after a few days is a boss battle, you pretty much fall in love with it all over again. More difficult than your average MGS boss encounter, and just as time-consuming, these conflicts have kept me well and truly engaged. So much so, that I have repeated them several times already.

This weekend I'm going to kill some time by reacquainting myself with the First Person Shooter. This is by no means a declaration of intent to purchase the Resurgence Map Pack for Modern Warfare 2, but I am planning to log some time on the Infinity Ward RPG/FPS. I also want to revisit Team Fortress 2 now that the Engineer Update has finally hit the interwebs. Last but not least, I am going to give MAG another go. First impressions were good, but there was nothing on offer to rival Bad Company 2 or Modern Warfare (or its sequel).

What are you playing this weekend?

Tuesday, July 6

In case you haven't played it: Prince of Persia - The Forgotten Sands Review (PS3)

I can remember when I first played a Prince of Persia game. My Uncle Peter (RIP) had gifted my brothers and I with an Amstrad PC and a copy of PoP on floppy disk. The titular prince had white hair, pink (fuchsia, almost purple) skin and a white jumpsuit. He died a lot; at least in my hands he did. Luckily, my older brother possessed a greater level of skill with the classic, keyboard-controlled platformer; and, as a result, I got to view his first adventure in full. I have plenty of fond memories of the original, including its DRM. In order to play PoP, you had to complete comprehension questions using the game's manual. The Prince made appearances on several consoles after his PC debut, but you need not notice until the release of The Sands of Time (TSoT) on Playstation 2, Xbox and Gamecube in 2003. Not only was it one of the better looking games of the previous generation, it was also a joy to play and it truly reinvigorated the franchise. I never played the sequels to TSoT because, from all accounts, they focused more on combat, which was the weakest aspect of this modern classic. In addition, they seemed to ooze a level of cliched darkness and baditude that I found repulsive. Fast forward to 2008, and the PoP franchise was once again the recipient of a reboot in terms of both artistic and narrative direction which for me, elicited a mixed reaction. The cel-shaded visuals looked beautiful, and the platforming was (for the most part) enjoyable, but the open-ended structure and lacklustre combat (in respect to the lack of variety in both moves and enemies) ensured that I did not find motivation to complete the adventure. I must not have been the only one to greet the previous PoP title with mixed emotions, as Ubisoft has decided to return to TSoT lore for The Forgotten Sands (TFS). Released to coincide with the release of the live-action feature film, TFS is a good game suffering from a lack of direction.

The Good
Jump around - If there is one thing the Prince of Persia should do, and do well, it is to jump. Over the course of TFS, you will find yourself not only jumping; but wall running, rolling and pole-swinging across, around and through a vast, intricate castle. The ratio of platforming to combat is heavily in favor of the acrobats amongst you, and the game is all the better for it.

Art direction - While the Prince is now looking somewhat more generic than the disheveled vagrant from the 2008 reboot; the environments and some of the enemies are truly memorable. Personal favourites include the larger creatures who sport fascinatingly detailed, menacing suits of armour, and the home of your Djinn ally: Razia. Her floating palace, with fragments of structures floating in clear view is a nod to TSoT, which provides a tranquil break from the (usually) frantic action.

Mr.Dependable - While it is not the most technically or artistically proficient title on the market, TFS enjoys a consistent frame rate and very few other noticable visual hitches. There are some moments of note, such as the descent on a (massive) crumbling staircase and the Persian version of an observatory; but for the most part, the game is pretty enough with not much to make the jaw drop. Despite the scale of the environments, instances of screen tearing and clipping are sparse. Without many noticable glitches to pull you away from the action on screen, I found myself engaged for the entirety of the experience, taking very few breaks.

The Bad
Short, as in dwarven - TFS is a short game, with very little to encourage repeat playthroughs. There are only two difficulty settings available (Normal and Easy), and a playthrough on Normal difficulty lasted about 8 hours. There is a God of War-esque Challenge Mode on offer, but there are only two different levels available and they offer absolutley no resistance to a prince that has been taken through the main campaign. If you refuse to sign up for a U-Play account, one of the two levels will be locked.

Easy, as in cake walk - Despite a few areas that provide a moderate level of challenge, most players should find themselves breezing through the adventure without care for their mortality. I know that this is partly due to one of the game's central mechanics (specifically, the ability to rewind time), but TFS is simple. Ridiculously simple.

Confused camera - The game employs fixed camera angles for the entirety of the single player adventure. As a result, I often found myself losing my sense of direction. Not as in, get from Point A to Point B; rather that the camera was fixed in a way that I should be pressing left and jump to jump to my left, but because of the previous fixed angle, I would have been wanting to press up and jump to what was in front of me. Sounds confusing? Try it in practice when you have two saw blades approaching you from opposite ends of a track, it can get frustrating to the point of controller destruction.

Convoluted control scheme - It won't appear so early on, when there are few abilities at your command; but when you are required  to freeze water, wall scale, jump back, freeze water, and rebound jump about 3 times in the space of 5 seconds it can get a bit hectic. Especially considering that the sequence described above would require the well-timed use of 3 shoulder buttons, a face button and directional inputs (camera permitting). Let's just say you make an error in the midst of that sequence, that means you can add the final shoulder button to the sequence. What if you are required to use the Power of Flight? Then add another face button. Shit be gettin' crazy bout this time fo' sho' homeez.

The Ugly
The story and characters, as in what of them? - So there is the prince, his jerk of a brother and some attractive, elder god. There's also a central villain, but he isn't really given much depth, apart form the fact that he is packing some armageddon-bringing powers. You don't really care about the relationship between Princey and Malik, as they don't appear to care much for each other. Razia acts as a history teacher, but due to the cold delivery of her analysis throughout the adventure, you don't connect to her either. When it is all said and done, you don't feel as though you have achieved anything tangible, and the cliffhanger is disgraceful. It essentially concludes with: The End...... OR IS IT?!?!?! I assume (and hope) that the true conclusion will come via DLC in much the same way that an epilogue chapter was released for the 2008 iteration. If however, that is how the story ends the writers should be ashamed of themselves.

Superficial, unbalanced combat: Smash square and she'll be right mate. Honestly, save for some sequences during boss fights where you are required to mount gargantuan enemy combatants, you can mow down most enemies with mindless mashing of the attack button. To add to the farcical nature of the action, the magic powers, while visually appealing (not impressive, but pretty) completely undermine your opponents. One power (Stone Armour) renders you completely impervious to harm. This includes from boss characters as well! Up on the D-Pad is an "I Win!" button. Your enemies also lack the intelligence and attack power to cause you any trouble, so in every respect, fighting in TFS is an absolute mess.

No blood - This might sound like a  petty complaint, but the prince has been bleeding since his first adventures on the PC, and bleeding a lot. If you fall into a pit of spikes, you should be impaled, mangled and dripping crimson. If an enemy combatant strikes you with a sword, you should be leaking plasma. There are a variety of sharp hazards within the castle gates, but none of them will cause you to bleed. Also troubling is the prince's merciful dalliances with the undead. Sometimes when preforming close-quarter finishers you only knee your opponents in the face, or bash them with the butt of your sword. You don't often enough stab demons, and twist the hilt to ensure their return to the afterlife. TFS lacks any real visual representation of punishment for n00bery, and in an iteration of a franchise like Prince of Persia, where I've been bleeding to death for twenty something years, that is hard to forgive.

6.5/10: Prince of Persia - The Forgotten Sands is short, easy and lacking any replay value. As a full retail purchase, this game is not deserving of your hard-earned cash. The game is not entirely without charm, but for every step forward there are two steps back. For those of you looking for an attractive platformer without a narrative (or difficult combat sequences) to distract you, this is however a great choice.

Dutch note: PoP - TFS appears to be one of the notable victims of the packed May release schedule. I picked up my copy for $39 from GAME, and several other retailers have it on special for less than half the retail price. At a budget price, you might (as I did) find yourself very happy with the game. If I paid $110 for this game (and that is the RRP), I would be very unimpressed. I liked the game and I would like to have scored it higher, but there are too many issues to give it the praise deserving of the game's best moments.

Monday, July 5

Like Riding a Bike

Embarrassing admission: I can not ride a bike. Unless of course it has training wheels, then I'm sweet. More to the point, the saying "Like riding a bike," means nothing (other than of course, humiliation) for me. More apt would be something along the lines of, "Like playing Super Mario Bros. (or any early 90s 2D platformer)."  Sure it doesn't flow as well, but its implications are essentially the same.

This weekend I spent some time with a Wii at my parents' place. It wasn't entirely horrible. When I think about it, I don't think I have ever discussed my feelings about the Wii with you all. In detail at least. To be frank, I am deeply troubled that this console is leading the market and the direction of the industry at large. Why? I don't have a huge problem with motion control. I am yet to see it implemented to great effect, but that is not why I object to the Gamecube Plus. I detest the Wii because it is the foremost, and unrivalled platform for shovelware. That, and almost any game worth owning on the system has been released on the Gamecube minus a few features. Even then, if it was not on the Gamecube, it would have been released on some other Nintendo console in some way, shape or form.

Case and point: New Super Mario Bros Wii. New Super Mario Bros Wii is startlingly similar to New Super Mario Bros released on the Nintendo DS, both in terms of gameplay and visual presentation. This isn't a game-breaker by any means, but the sense of deja-va is palpable. At times it even registers as a distraction. I swear that I had played through some of these levels before. I'd stop dead still in the midst of the game's 2D planes, and my mind would be cast back in time a few years. I got over it eventually, but I couldn't help but think that the iconic plumber hadn't come that far since the game's portable predecessor, released not even 4 years ago. Since Super Maio World even (in this iteration at least). As a matter of fact, I'd recommend Wii owners save some money and download Super Mario World for the Virtual Console instead.

I also spent some time with Mario & Sonic at Winter Olympic Games and I was surprised to find that there was actually some fun to be had. Simplistic, shallow fun, but fun all the same. As with the generalisation mentioned previously, the motion controls are functional but they did not allow for me to fully engage in the activities I was supposedly replicating. Holding a Wiimote to my chest and bobbing from left to right is a poor emulation of Skeleton, it is however as close as I am prepared to get to the real-life sport. What forced me care about what was going on was the competition, and the spectator. My fiance picked up the fundamentals very quickly, and before long she was almost lapping me in Speed Skating. My Mum was the lone spectator, and she mocked any demonstrations of n00bery with her infectious cackle. After a few rounds of Curling, with my hands mimicking the most personal of rituals and two loved ones laughing to the point of tears; I realised the true power of this device. Motion controls, in all of their ridiculousness, allow everyone in close proximity of the console to engage with games due to either the action on screen, or the displays of vicacity from those people actually playing.         

I am still yet to play the most acclaimed games on the Wii (specifically: Super Mario Galaxy and its sequel), but my cynicism will not allow me to be anything but a Weekend Warrior when it comes to Ninty's foray into motion-contolled gaming.

What are your thoughts on the Wii? What did you play this weekend?

Friday, July 2

Waiting for the End

This is it my friends. Less than an hour away from the quarter-final confrontation between Brazil and the Netherlands. The Dutch have gone one better than their effort in the 2006 tournament, but I lack faith that they will be able to overcome this South American hurdle. I am more nervous than I am excited, and as a result, my attention span is shorter than that of the average goldfish.

When I have been able to sit still and focus, I've enjoyed playing LocoRoco Midnight Carnival. I haven't been compelled to play through the first two installments, as they both travelled a little too slow for my liking. Midnight Carnival however, with its Boing mechanic is fast, striking in its use of colour and endearing. LRMC has you bounding across dark, cartoonish landscapes filled with crumbling platforms, hostile monkeys, beautifully-animated boss monsters and killer gaps. The unforgiving nature of some of the later levels is reminscent of the platformers of old. If you die, you are punished. You go back to the beginning of the level, and are then forced to remember your errors and learn from them. I love it! My only complaint is that the whole adventure is nearly over; and of late I haven't been one for score attack gameplay, so replay value is limited.

I also got to check out the Ron Mueck exhibition at the Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane today. Do yourself a favour and check out if you're in town. The sculptures on show are so unnervingly life-like that I will struggle to forget them.

This weekend I'm catching up with some good friends and enjoying some Gamecube classics. There weren't many good games on the Wii's predecessor, but there were a handful of true classics: Super Monkey Ball, Mario Golf, Mario Kart: Double Dash and Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance. Not that we'll get to those gems. I'm pretty sure we'll be playing through some old, lovable trash like GoldenEye: Rogue Agent or even (hopefully) Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2005.

What are you playing this weekend? What are your guilty gaming pleasures?