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Friday, March 23, 2012

Major League Baseball 2K12 (5.9/10)

To read the official full length review follow the link here: Major League Baseball 2K12.

I have to admit, I'm at best a fair weather baseball fan. I follow my team throughout the season, enjoy the playoffs, and love going to our minor league park to have a hot dog and a beer in the sunshine. To tell the truth, I haven't played a baseball game in a couple of years, mostly because I heard nothing but bad things about Major League Baseball 2K11. Apparently it didn't work particularly well on a technical level, so you'll understand my hesitation with Major League Baseball 2K12... I wasn't sure what to expect. I have to admit though, I was curious about the possibility of winning a million bucks. For those of you not in the know, the first person to pitch a perfect game won a million dollars! Well, I'm happy to report that I encountered only a few bugs that, while none of them were game breaking, caused some raised eyebrows and a few chuckles. Sadly, pretty much everything else: the core mechanics, graphics, animations, and controls (apart from the pitching) are just plain poor. Honestly, you might be better served taking the year off, saving your money, and maybe seeing a game in person... you know, so you can see how baseball is supposed to be.

If you want to read more of my specific thoughts about the game, follow the link to read the full length review at Game Over Online!  


Score = 5.9 / 10

Monday, March 19, 2012

Mass Effect 2 (9.7/10)


Mass Effect was a revolution in gaming... at least for me. When I was first getting back into playing games, Mass Effect opened my eyes as to what this medium could achieve: a level of interactive story-telling that left me feeling in control... and not just in control of my aim, but rather the outcome of the conflict, the fate of the entire galaxy. The cinematic presentation provides a real feeling of direct participation as events unravel across a grander scale than any I have previously experienced. I played the game through three times: first as the good guy, then the biggest bastard in the universe, then as simply Simon, the "What would I do if it were me?" scenario. All three times I enjoyed an experience that, while following a similar arc, were unique in their own ways. I couldn't wait to see how those choices played out in the sequel! That was the big promise of the series: the choices you make have outcomes beyond what you can envision. And take it from me, Mass Effect 2 doesn't disappoint. It takes everything that was so compelling about the original and makes it better (for the most part), removes what didn't work (again, for the most part), makes it more streamlined and ultimately more fun. 

This time out the narrative starts with a very literal bang... fair warning, *spoilers follow!* The Normandy gets attacked by a ship of unknown origin but possesses awesome power... and is subsequently destroyed and Shepherd is left floating dead in space. Well, game over then, I suppose. What a waste of sixty bucks! But wait! He's brought back to life by Cerberus, the organization of questionable methods referenced in the first game. Led by the mysterious Illusive Man, this pro-humanity conglomerate brings back our fallen hero to once again save the galaxy... this time from the Collectors. The Collectors are a race of aliens that show up on outlying colonies and literally collect (hence the name...) the inhabitants like over-enthusiastic nerds collecting butterflies. But to what point and purpose? And how does this phenomenon connect to the Reapers?

To face this threat, Shepherd must gather a team of the best and brightest (and cruelest and most vicious) in the galaxy to take on the Collectors. His search takes him to all corners of the galaxy meeting old friends and recruiting new members who are every bit as memorable as those who came before. This time around, each addition to the crew has their own unique side quests that directly determine their loyalty. Now, this is a minor spoiler alert... but if you don't do these quests, there is an increased chance that those compadres won't survive the end of the game. Considering you know Mass Effect 3 is an inevitable eventuality, if you're anything like me, you want everyone you can get on your side to face the Reapers.

You can import your created character from the first game, and although you don't have to, I absolutely recommend it. It's not just for the sake of continuity (you really should start the series from the beginning), but I've never felt such a sense of "owning" a created character like this. In the beginning of the game you are given a choice to go over all the key decisions from the last game: who lived in key situations, the situation involving the council, and a few other things. From there, you have a whole new slew of decisions to make... and this time around they are not always as cut and dry as you might think. Morally ambiguous "gray" areas are much more prevalent, and even seemingly obvious right-versus-wrong scenarios might have consequences beyond what you might expect.

The only problem with the Paragon/Renegade morality system is that following a more neutral path is plain boring. You need to be all one way or the other to be able to influence anyone with the possible "extreme" dialogue options, but those moments are so rare you wonder why they are included at all. On the plus side, Mass Effect 2 offers some QTE-esque choices that will come up during certain situations that, if you're paying attention and are quick enough, have some interesting results. It's worth keeping the controller in your hands during conversations just in case!

The core gameplay is pretty much the same as Mass Effect with a few notable, and welcome, improvements. First of all, ally AI is drastically improved. No, it's not as good as most modern FPS's on the market, but they do a far better job than the borderline useless comrades from the first game. I'd make a "Shepherd"ing joke here, but it'd be too easy. The gunplay is also much tighter and the cover system more refined. Combining these improvements with being able to map powers to face buttons for use on the fly makes combat a more organic affair (sorry for the insider pun... what, I thought it was pretty funny!).

It's always nice when a sequel comes along where the developers clearly listened to the complaints of their fanbase. Gotta love Bioware. Considering the Mass Effect universe is unabashedly sci-fi, you know that fanbase will be all the more rabid and particular. What impresses me is they took what didn't work and removed it entirely. Gone are the boring and poorly implemented vehicle sections from Mass Effect, as are the overly long elevator rides (although load screens can still be pretty long, fair warning).  

Gone are many of the "RPG" elements that were both a strength and weakness of the first game. The original was all about collecting loot and outfitting your team. I love looting, but sadly it just didn't work very well. If you hadn't had to access each individual's locker it wouldn't have been so cumbersome, but as it was, the implementation fell short. Why we couldn't do it all from one menu I'll never know. Fortunately, this clumsy contrivance is gone in Mass Effect 2. Unfortunately, it's been stripped down to the point that you have virtually no options when it comes to outfitting your team. I appreciate their efforts, but they dumbed it down too far. I would have still liked to have had some choices, but just streamlined the process. As a result, it feels like an essential part of what makes an RPG has been removed. But in its place is even bigger irritant... planet scanning.

Ohhhh, the planet scanning. Seriously, if not for this crutch, Mass Effect 2 would be close to perfect. The idea is that you scan planets to collect resources that can ultimately be used to upgrade weapons, armor, and most importantly, the Normandy. Unfortunately, it's a tedious and boring process, made all the more unbearable by the fact that you really need to do it to ensure the best outcome from the final encounter. I'm trying to be as spoiler-free as possible, so I'll just leave it at that. But here's a quick addendum; Bioware did release a patch that made the process much quicker (although it is still a bit of a slog). Again, I'm glad to hear them listening to their fans. The other mini-games for opening locks and hacking computers have also undergone a make-over, but they are still more frustrating breaks in the action than anything.

From a technical standpoint, Mass Effect 2 is phenomenal. The graphics overall, but especially the lighting, are brilliant. The facial animations rank among some of the best out there, although the syncing isn't always perfect. For some reason I think the lip-syncing is more believable with the aliens than it is with the humans. What is even more impressive is the fact that, for me at least, the game ran with hardly a hiccup or glitch. Once again, the voice acting is phenomenal, even better than the original. Mordin Solus, your Salarian cohort, is one of the best voiced characters I've ever heard. The fact that Martin Sheen plays the Illusive Man is the icing on a very deep and tasty cake. Add in a brilliant soundtrack and you get the complete package. I can honestly not think of any series that can compare.

As a card-carrying sci-fi nerd, this series really scratches me where I itch, filling an aching void left by disappointing Star Wars prequels. I've read the comics and novels, I can't get enough Mass Effect! Mass Effect 2 is a rare sequel indeed: one that takes the fundamentals and fantastic premise of the original and improves upon them in just about every way (except for that blasted planet scanning...). This series is incredibly deep, one where you get out of the game what you put in. What I love is the fact that appeals to so many different genres: the shooting mechanics are pretty darn good, the RPG elements, while stripped down, are still intriguing enough to require forethought, and the story is an incredibly rich and detailed narrative that has more twists than an M. Night Shyamalan film. I can't recommend this series enough. Mass Effect isn't just for sci-fi fans or particular type of gamer... it's an experience, one that should be had by everyone. And the sequel sets up the inevitable finale in such a way that the wait is virtually unbearable....


Score = 9.7 / 10

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

FIFA Street (7.0/10)

To read the official full length review follow the link here: FIFA Street.

If you've never witnessed some of the amazing footage of street soccer players showing off their tricks, check it out on YouTube sometime. The guys (and girls) have skills that are truly phenomenal: the depth of control seemingly defies physics, their flair is almost artistic. Actually, these athletes are more performance artists than anything. I played soccer a lot growing up, and I've tried to pull off some of the more rudimentary techniques... and almost ended up injuring myself. Seriously, it was frustrating. But it looks so cool! If nothing else, those failures made me realize the insane amount of practice involved in honing these techniques. So having the chance to create my own "Simon" in the new FIFA Street and pretend like I was capable of pulling off some of these moves was an empowering feeling... I just wish the learning curve wasn't so high that I still felt the same frustrations.

It's not that FIFA Street is a bad game per say, but I don't think it works nearly as well as it should. The fact is that FIFA Street was designed specifically for a small percentage of gamers; namely those with the same fanaticism I have. I don't see this appealing to anyone who isn't a diehard footy fan, but then I can't see anyone who isn't a diehard footy fan buying this in the first place. So consider this a warning to temper your expectations football fanatics: FIFA Street is worth playing if you can get past a slew of minor annoyances and some sore thumbs.

If you want to read more of my specific thoughts about the game, follow the link to read the full length review at Game Over Online! 


Score = 7.0 / 10

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Syndicate (8.2/10)

To read the official full length review follow the link here: Syndicate.

Back in 1993, Peter Molyneux (of Fable fame) produced a game with Bullfrog Productions called Syndicate. The idea was simple: in the not-too-distant-future you control a squad of four super-soldiers called "agents" whose goal was to sabotage rival mega-corporations, all the while upgrading your team to make them more competitive. It played out as a real-time tactical simulation when on the battlefield, but also on a larger, Risk-esque world board as your corporation vied for global dominance. Apparently, it was something of a cult classic... not that I'd know, I found all this on Wikipedia! Look it up some time though, it actually sounds quite clever....

Fast-forward to 2012 and the game has been given the reboot treatment by Starbreeze Studios (known for The Darkness and The Chronicles of Riddick games). The new, shinier version of Syndicate shares the name, the basic premise, and not much else. Instead, we get yet another FPS in an over-inundated market... with enough originality and fun toys to make it worth playing.

If you want to read more of my specific thoughts about the game, follow the link to read the full length review at Game Over Online!   


Score = 8.2 / 10

Monday, March 5, 2012

The Darkness II (7.7/10)


I love mob movies, but I've always struggled to explain why. Sure, there is some romantic ideal involved, and the opposing dichotomy with the generally disgusting, amoral jerks who tend to be the central players makes for an almost paradoxical intrigue. So following the trials and tribulations of one Jackie Estacado, head of his crime family, should yield similar emotional connectivity, channeling both positive and negative connotations simultaneously. Oh yeah, and he's possessed by an ancient demonic force called "The Darkness" that manifests itself by sprouting slavering serpents from his shoulders that have an unfortunate (but fun) habit of ripping your enemies limb from limb.

I never played the first game (it's on the shelf, I'll get to it eventually), but the premise intrigued me. Another in a long line of comic book adaptations, The Darkness tells the tale of the aforementioned Jackie as a young man: working his way up the killing ladder of a mob family and trying to impress his young lady friend with the proceeds of being a hitman. Of course, in a totally predictable twist, Jackie discovers that he is the chosen vessel for The Darkness, granting him veritable super-powers, while he remains cloaked in shadow. The mob naturally tries to take advantage of Jackie's unique new skillset. However, when they try to use his girlfriend Jenny as leverage they take things too far... and end up killing her. Jackie proceeds to butcher the lot of them and take control of the family himself.

"But wait Simon," I hear you cry, "if you never played the first game, how come you know so much???" Well, gentle reader, that is taken care of for you with a well made (and fun to watch) "Previously on The Darkness" intro sequence. But enough with the back-story (I suppose you could always read the comics), what happens in The Darkness II? In the intervening two years Jackie has tried his best keep The Darkness quelled within him, all the while sitting on a large pile of money in a swanky mansion and crying himself to sleep every night over his lost love. But then, during a nice quiet night out at his restaurant with blonde twins who I'm sure are only there for lively conversation, some bastard drives a truck through the wall and all hell breaks loose. Jackie must embrace The Darkness once again just to survive. But the more he learns about the attempted hit and the sinister motives behind it, the more he realizes he must struggle with the demon within to get to the bottom of things. It turns out there are others who want The Darkness for their own, and they are willing to go to any lengths to get it.

The plot is driven by some interesting interludes between the actions which serves to both break up the pacing and provide plenty of background and character motivation. In between chapters, Jackie does the soliloquy thing and tells interesting stories that actually provide a surprising amount of motivation for the flawed protagonist. You can explore Jackie's mansion and take the time to talk to various stereotypical mobsters, learn back story, and even engage in a couple of mini-games (who doesn't enjoy shooting pigeons out on the ledge of your penthouse?). However, there are some darker, far more brooding sections in an asylum that are very well done... to the point that I was actually questioning the reality the whole story was founded on. I don't want to give anything away so I'll leave the major plot points at that, but I will say it's far from predictable. Some of the moments with Jenny are actually quite poignant, eliciting real emotion, a rare feat indeed considering the rest of the subject matter.

The gameplay in The Darkness II revolves around shooting everything that moves with lots of guns combined with the liberal use of the aforementioned demonic shoulder serpents to rip your foes into tiny pieces. The control system is intuitive and easy to use: guns on the triggers (you can also dual wield), serpents on the shoulder buttons. Just don't forget that you can only use The Darkness in the dark (duh) so stick to the shadows... or at least have good enough aim to knock out every light source you see. My only real complaint about the gameplay is that it's pretty much a one-trick-pony. Grabbing a wounded foe and ripping him in half from the butt up is brutally satisfying... until you've seen it so often that it loses the shock value.

There are several upgradable skill trees you can use to augment your powers and even some other fun ones to try, but in the end they don't change your strategy much. You gain these new skills by killing enemies in different ways (the more clever and gory the better, reminiscent of Bulletstorm), and finding hidden relics. These relics are actually worth seeking out as they come with some interesting text that provides background, apparently related to the expanded universe of the comics.

Oh, and I forgot to mention your little Darkling buddy! The creepy little imp (who I have a particular affinity for, considering he wears a Union Jack toga) has several roles. You can pick him up and chuck him at enemies. He also goes a long way toward providing comic relief in a dark and tragic tale (usually by urinating on the mangled corpses of the dead lying in your wake). Lastly, he constantly plays the follow-the-leader role by running out ahead of you and bitching when you take too long to catch up. I don't like feeling like I'm being shepherded, particularly in linear shooters, so having the little bastard constantly berating me when I try to have a look around for hidden goodies was slightly aggravating. However, all was forgiven during the few sections of the game where you get the chance to play as the Darkling: sneaking around, ripping the throats out of unsuspecting baddies (sadly, you're not given the option to piss on them), and opening paths for Jackie. 

For the most part the controls work well, but the hit detection can be a bit spotty when using The Darkness powers. Slashing a giant serpent horizontally ought to hit the guy when I'm aiming six inches to the left, don't you think? This issue is only exacerbated when they start chucking more difficult, melee focused baddies at you. It's easy to get turned around and lose your bearings. Still, Jackie is virtually a god, and if anything the game is too easy... except for the boss fights which trend dangerously close to being unfair. Each one seems to have an un-dodgeable attack, and I could never seem to get the timing right. Fortunately, the autosave kicks in during these slogging battles, so dying doesn't mean you have to start from the beginning.

Graphically, The Darkness II is a major departure from the first game. Gone are the dark corridors and gritty realism. Instead, they've eschewed this for the increasingly popular cel-shading anime style. It works pretty well, but there are some problems with movement animations. On the whole, the game looks great, especially with the copious amounts of blood that end up splattered everywhere. A word to the wise, The Darkness II is pretty gory, but what really surprised me was the graphic content in a brothel scene. There's no nudity, but it's practically soft-core porn. Of course, you don't have to go peeking through every partially opened door in a whorehouse either. Just so you know....

Sound-wise, The Darkness II works well. The voice acting, despite some eye-rollingly cliched mob dialogue, is pretty convincing. There are some great licensed songs that work well when used, and the rest of the time the background music does a decent job of setting the ambiance. Oh, and The Darkness constantly nattering in your ear fails a bit... I know they were going for menacing but it comes off as more annoying than anything.

I'll be honest, I need to go back and play the original. That says a lot in and of itself... I enjoyed Jackie's second chapter enough that I'm curious about the differences between the sequel and the first. In the end, The Darkness II is a perfectly average shooter augmented by a fun gimmick that stales due to a lack of variety. The story has some surprisingly poignant moments that contrast its darker undertones, creating that striking paradoxical dichotomy that seems to pervade mob stories in general... with that one not-so-subtle difference. Just imagine what The Soprano's would have been like if Tony had had The Darkness at his beck and call... now, that would have been great television.


Score = 7.7 / 10