Saturday, January 26

Halo 4 Review (X360 - Single player): Glory Reclaimed

You get the idea that 343 Industries, the developer that supposed the mantle from Bungie, was nervous about Halo 4's reception. They even go so far as to thank the series' fan base for their faith and goodwill at the campaign's conclusion. Having played through the first instalment of the "Reclaimer Saga," I'm happy to report that their anxiety is somewhat misplaced as this is a fine addition to the series; may not be the best one, but still worthy of the line.

If you're seeking the wide-open battlegrounds, floaty physics and varied arsenal that are the hallmarks of the Halo series, you're in luck. It's a bit slow to get going (read: the first three levels were fairly tedious), but the excitement and enjoyment keeps building with battles that seem to only increase in terms of scale. There's also some lengthy and memorable vehicular sequences, with one in particular that should be a real treat for Star Wars fans (read: original trilogy or death). It did feel a little bit shorter when compared to its predecessors, but in this case, that isn't necessarily a bad thing. No cast member, enemy type or play mechanic really has a chance to overstay its welcome. 

Master Chief's latest outing is also the most visually spectacular entry in the series. I thought Reach would represent the limits of the Xbox 360's power, but I'm actually struggling to think of a better looking game on any console. To more effectively illustrate just how breathtaking the visuals are, please observe this salty quote from Hip Hop Gamer: 

Funny thing is, I didn't even think the jungle looked that great. The caliber of the visuals -- much like the scale of the action -- becomes all the more impressive as you progress.

When you're shooting, driving, jumping, boosting and sniping, you've got a winner on your hands. The story, however, is a bit of a clusterfuck. Obviously, I won't go into any detail for fear of spoilers, but there are a few events that the player is supposed to accept without exposition. Alliances, crazy AI diseases and Cortana's new dimensions all pose questions for which I had no real answers when the credits rolled.

Also concerning was the feeling that there was nothing substantially new to play around with. There's only a handful of Forerunner enemy types mixed in with the usual Covenant rabble, and the functions of most Forerunner weapons overlap with that of UNSC and Covenant equipment. The new vehicles do breathe some life into the formula, but if you've never been sold on the series previously, Halo 4 isn't going to change your mind. 

When it comes down to it, Halo 4 is more of the same. 343 Industries have done nothing to sully the name of Microsoft's flagship game franchise, if anything, they've crafted something that will keep it in high regard. Slow start aside, those who do sign up to fight alongside Master Chief will experience some thrilling scenarios as well as see exactly what the ageing Xbox 360 is capable of. Highly recommended for anyone who's enjoyed a Banshee flight or Warthog ride. 

Saturday, January 19

Paper Mario: Sticker Star Review (3DS): Absurd Nostalgia

I'm going to have a good hack at my nerd cred with the following embarrassing admission: I never completed a single "point and click" adventure game without the help of a walkthrough. That's right, friends: I'd have never seen the end of Discworld, Full Throttle, Sam and Max: Hit the Road, or pretty much any other title released by LucasArts pre-Dark Forces II: Jedi Knight without assistance from a packed-in guide, learned friend or AOL Era website. For someone who often postulated as to how they refused to use cheat codes and various other game-related vices, these games often called for me to double-back on my principles.

Despite compromising my personal standards and, on occasion, having to concede that I wasn't quite as cunning as I thought I was, I loved pretty much any game that asked me to stare at pre-rendered backgrounds for items of interest. The worlds, the characters, and the one-liners all made for many a cherished memory. Even though developers like Telltale Games have done their best to resurrect the genre, I still feel as though the modern point and clicker does more to help players along (read: solutions to puzzles in these games are often intuitive/make sense). Until recently, I thought maybe we should go back to a time when players were asked to combine and use unrelated items to progress past the seemingly impossible.

Then I played Paper Mario: Sticker Star.

Sticker Star is a game that I both love and loathe in equal measure. It is a game that evoked memories that were funnily enough, often unrelated to the Super Mario franchise, and that also did a great deal to undo some of the romantic feelings I had towards adventure games of old. It was also -- in terms of its art direction and script -- undeniably charming and offers up enough content to justify the asking price.

In terms of RPG elements, Sticker Star is pretty light-on. Mario doesn't level up through genre-standard grinding, and our hero will only see an increase in HP through the acquisition of a specific type of item. Attack power scales up through the collection of bigger and prettier stickers, so battle is best avoided wherever possible as a result. Not because conflict is necessarily challenging, more because the dynamics don't really change over the course of the game. 

Combat won't have you searching for a walkthrough (at least initially), but the increasingly obtuse puzzles will have you scratching your head within hours of commencing the adventure. The ability to "Paperize" allows players to use stickers from their album as well as collected "scraps" to right various wrongs committed by Bowser et al. On paper (puns!), this sounds fine, but the ability and resulting requirement to find "real world" items to convert to stickers to then solve puzzles proved seriously problematic. Often, the required item would be hidden in plain view in an another level. The requirement to source items from various levels also undermines the apparent freedom of being able to pick levels from worlds at your leisure. 

These ridiculous solutions are eventually required in combat situations, although to be fair, this doesn't become a problem until the final hours of the adventure. The final boss fight in particular felt like a forty-five minute open book exam. With the amount of stickers players can carry being limited, I honestly needed to read an overview of the encounter so I could organise my sticker album accordingly and survive the battle. The first time I got close to victory, I actually ran out of offensive stickers that could actually deal damage on the final form. It was infuriating!

Sounds bad right? Well, for someone who's a sucker for nostalgia, there were so many -- what I'm assuming to be unwitting -- nods to adventure games of old that had me grinning. Grinning even when a walkthrough was required in some instances. That, and Sticker Star  has to be one of the best looking games on the 3DS. Massive structures, screen-hogging bosses and an unrestrained colour palette characterised my experience.

There's no denying that Sticker Star has problems; it is in fact, rife with them. However, when I managed to solve one of the hundreds of absurd puzzles by myself, the resulting satisfaction was hard to beat. Yes, the level design can be mind-boggling, the combat repetitive, and there's a huge amount of backtracking required, but in the end it didn't matter: I still kept playing. So after the requisite twenty-something hours I can say that, while certainly not for everyone, Paper Mario: Sticker Star was great and terrible and a blast from the past. 

Wednesday, January 16

Milkshake Resolved - A Dead Island: Riptide Poem

Trigger warning: Violence against women. 

Butchered and bloodied by the Male Gaze
Misogyny and games, Deep Silver's malaise
Zombie Bait nets an unintended reaction

Is this the way to sell a game?
A woman butchered, bloodied, brutally maimed
Reduced to breasts and washboard abs
Requisite blood, wounds and weeping scabs

Should I mention that the tits were clear:
of wounds, of gore, naught but blood smear?
Is this all that women are good for? 
I ask with memories of "Feminist Whore"

The internet exploded regardless
Responses you'd expect, no points if you guess
"Would anyone care if it was a dude?"
Why wasn't it a man chopped and displayed half nude?

Is this about sex and how it sells?
Who would find this hot? It just repels
Who would pop this on their coffee table?
I for one, would not be able

Yes, the publisher begged for fans' forgiveness
Even though more than once had they been careless
Catherine also tainted by their sloppy sales pitch

Let's hope we learn from Torsogate
Stop reducing women to nothing but bait
Their will and form, for men dissolved
Demand more than this Milkshake Resolved

Monday, January 14

Gamefast 2: The Plum Sake Slushie Mandate

It's time for another crack at busting my game-buying addiction. Having already survived just about 2 weeks without having purchased a single game or piece of downloadable content, I am now ready to declare my second tilt at Gamefast...

Gamefast 2: The Plum Sake Slushie Mandate!

For those not in the know, my first attempt at Gamefast lasted just over 8 weeks and I ended up 3 months shy of my ultimate goal. You know what the crazy thing is? I ended my last quest to pre-order the Wii U, and I never ended up buying the damned thing. Allegations of child labour (I'm not so naive to think that other systems haven't been made using less-than-ethically-sound means, but still!) and news of the delay of Rayman Legends was enough for me to move the deposit to something less problematic (he says sheepishly, knowing that he used that money to buy Call of Duty: Black Ops II).

For the sequel, I aim to last until April 30 - the current release date for Injustice: Gods Among Us. I'm not even really interested in that title specifically, if anything, the true tests of my willpower include the following:
  • Devil May Cry (DmC) - January 15th
  • Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance - February 21st
  • Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon - March 
  • Gears of War: Judgment - March 19th
  • Bioshock Infinite - March 26th
  • Fire Emblem: Awakening (plus limited edition console) - April
Threat i-fucking-dentified!!!

I'm going to take this Gamefast as an opportunity to not only attack my Pile of Shame, but also try and expand my horizons and read a bit more. My New Year's resolution for 2012 was to read 4 books: a feat I just managed to accomplish. For 2013, I want to best that (2 down so far) as well as get into some semblance of "shape".

For the sake of transparency, I'll lay out the rules for this thing in plain English:
  • I cannot buy any game, item of downloadable content or item of gaming hardware until April 30th. This also includes apps for my phone and tablet. 
  • Free-to-play acquisitions are allowed provided that no in-app purchases are made.
  • Gifts are acceptable. If I ask you for a game specifically, tell me to "Show some dignity, broheim."
  • If I fail, I will pledge $200 to a charity of choice (if you have any suggestions, please hit me with them).
Wish me luck, people. 

Friday, January 4

The High Horse Audit 2012, Part 2: The most disappointing game of 2012

It was always going to be hard to follow 2011. If it's possible to pity a year, I truly feel sorry for 2012. That's not to say that the year just gone failed to deliver any worthwhile experiences. I think it's more accurate to say that 2012 was full of double-edged gaming swords (if I think of a less elegant analogy, I'll be sure to be post it here).

"What do you mean by that?" I hear you ask, mildly frustrated. Well, in all but a few instances, there was something significant that detracted or was missing from the best games released in 2012. How about some examples to qualify my nonsense: Journey was a beautiful, heart-wrenching experience, but it wasn't really a game. Rayman Origins is the best game on the PlayStation Vita, but it's a port of a game released in 2011. Far Cry 3 delivers wild animal attacks and high explosives, but is also troubling with its Colonial themes and apparent racism. Seldom did I find myself playing something for what it was -- or in the case, of Far Cry 3, what it was trying to be according to the author. Every good game released in 2012 came with a catch.

I don't think I played a truly terrible game this year. At the end of the day, I only have so much time to play video games, and I'll always be somewhat discerning in how I choose to use my spare minutes, hours, even seconds. There were some games that disappointed though, some that failed to deliver on promises or assume the lofty weight of my expectations. Where to begin?

Let's start with the PlayStation Vita. I love the machine, I love the controls, I've even come to love the "bubble" interface. I can now play PSone games on the device, and the amount of compatible titles from the PSP back catalogue is slowly increasing. Yes, despite flagging sales, the Vita is finally delivering on most of the promises made by its maker. There's only one, relatively-large problem: there's no games exclusive to the Vita which could prove to be system sellers -- the fabled "killer apps", if you will. Yes, there are some great -- amazing, even -- games available on the portable, but none that couldn't be or haven't already been done better on home consoles.

Uncharted: Golden Abyss was a solid outing, and the initial stages -- which have Drake acting more the treasure hunter than wily mass-murderer -- almost had me convinced the series was heading in a promising, less-violent direction. So enamoured was I with the initial stages, that I even lashed out at Kotaku's Kirk Hamilton via Twitter over his negative review of the game. For what it's worth, Kirk, I apologise, as after enough time, the play formula reverted to the mass of firefights and death I've come to associate with the series. Back to my previous point, I'm not sure that anyone would take Golden Abyss over any of Drake's home console adventures.

AAA releases like Halo 4 and Borderlands 2 failed to hold my attention long enough to see either game's end. These big guns also failed to deliver the compelling narratives that many a critic promised. Master Chief and Cortana don't measure up to any of Reach's Nobility (see what I did there), but I will concede that Gearbox's second effort is better written than the sparsely-storied original.

Yes, there were a few games that left me wanting in 2012, but none quite like Street Fighter X Tekken; a game that took two storied franchises and combined them to produce the most lopsided contest in fighting game history.

That's right, I'm not even (that) mad about Capcom's hideous DLC strategy that had players shelling out for content included on the disc. Why? I didn't buy any of the costume packs, and I got a voucher for the extra characters with my copy of the Vita version. I wasn't even (that) upset about the game's lacklustre online offering, which was at first plagued by audio glitches and is now, in some cases, unplayable following efforts to fix problems found at launch (I can remember Gamespot reporting that a fix for the fix is due this month). When it's all said send done, I prefer local competition, so the online issues are a pain, but they wouldn't stop me from playing altogether.

What killed me is that save for a few exceptions (the Mishimas), the Tekken side of the roster has a hard time defending itself from the projectile-laden arsenal of their Street Fighter opponents. Paul Phoenix, a powerhouse in his native series, is neutered by his inability to fling fireballs. King and Marduk, intimidating, hulking wrestlers with prowess in throws, parries and counters in their home realm, are most often pinned to corners in this crossover effort. Even a fighter as wacky and nimble as Alisa is able to be relegated to the edge of the screen.

Also problematic is the combo system, which relies heavily on sneaking in light hits to chain into launchers and juggles. It's not something that can be imparted easily to newcomers (read: I've tried to get friends that are comfortable with both series playing this game to no avail), and worse still, it's not a system that proves satisfying after sustained play.

For someone who's been playing fighting games for nearly twenty years as well as someone who's invested a lot of time in both series, Street Fighter X Tekken is the most disappointing game of the year. It takes legends of the genre and delivers something that is glitchy, at times cheap, and one-sided. I like the game, but there's no way it could've met my expectations.