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Monday, April 23, 2012

Ninja Gaiden 3 (6.6/10)

I often cite the Ninja Gaiden series when I use the term 'God Factor.' The god factor refers to those action games where, once you get the hang of the controls, you feel invincible as you lay waste to wave after wave of foes. Combined with the infamous difficulty level the series is known for, there are few titles that can compare when it comes to feeling a true sense of accomplishment upon completion. So I was understandably excited when I saw that Team Ninja (sans their legendary rock star leader Tomonobu Itagaki) was working on the newest installment. However, it turns out Itagaki may have been a true catalyst, as Ninja Gaiden 3 was supremely disappointing.

Let me get this out of the way right from the start: I'm not even gonna bother trying to make too much sense of the story. Legendary ninja Ryu Hyabusa has been called upon to once again save the world, but this time his enemies have come back to haunt him. Early on Ryu's arm becomes infected/cursed/gross, a physical manifestation of all of his victims. Meanwhile, an evil terrorist organization is threatening the world with evil forces and there is some super-natural stuff going on as well... blah blah blah.

None of the games in this series have exactly been narrative gems to begin with, but this one is more confusing than the others. Just rest assured you're going to fight a crap load of bad guys, monsters, and giant bosses. The reasons behind doing so are convoluted at best, stupid at worst. And poor Ryu! What has happened to our hero? Ryu used to be a quiet, contemplative ninja. Now he talks constantly and even takes off his mask! Is nothing sacred?!? And to top it all off, there is no busty heroine! I could hardly be bothered to roll my eyes....

But that's okay because the action has always been Ninja Gaiden's trademark, arguably the best in all of gaming. But somehow they've lost the thread of this as well. Right from the first scene you'll notice that quick time events (QTE's) pervade the gameplay. Normally I don't mind QTE's nearly as much as some people, but they are far too prevalent here. But what's really gone is the challenge, and that's also what is most disappointing.

As a series, Ninja Gaiden is probably responsible for more broken controllers than any other game out there (with the possible exceptions of Demon's Souls and Dark Souls). It was what Team Ninja had hung their hat on. You had to earn the end game. But for some inexplicable reason, Ninja Gaiden 3 is almost depressingly easy. It's not necessarily that the combat is easier, but rather Team Ninja added some finishing moves that remove any challenge. If you kill enough bad guys in a row then your cursed arm glows red. Then Ryu unleashes a rudimentary QTE where he instantly runs through his foe before jumping to the next. You can take out four or five in a row before the effect wears off. What really drives me nuts is that every time you feel like you're getting in a rhythm with the combat, these bloody QTE's pop up and ruin your combos! Combat no longer flows, but is choppy and interrupted. But that's not even the worst part....

The worst part is the Ninpo attacks. Ninpo, or ninja magic, was used primarily as a last resort in previous games. It was a precious commodity, one you needed to use sparingly as it was hard to come by. Now, it is the last resort, but not in a good way. Rather than have different varieties for different situations, you have one all-powerful magic fire dragon attack that wipes out everyone on the screen. Basically, you have a gauge that fills during combat. Once full, you send forth said dragon to munch on your enemies. Here's the problem: it's too easy to fill and gets used FAR too often. Since each mini-area is essentially an arena where waves of foes are set upon you, using your dragon is basically an easy out. As a result, the game becomes tedious as you bounce around with your cursed arm, maiming foes with ease, just waiting for the moment your Ninpo gauge is full before unleashing your fiery friend. And then you do it again. And again. It's tedious, it's boring, and it's easy. But most of all, it's NOT Ninja Gaiden! I mean, you even have regenerating health! What... the... hell!!

I'll give Ninja Gaiden 3 this... despite it's lowered difficulty, you still feel incredibly bad ass when you take out thirty or so bad guys with nary a scratch. It's an interesting dichotomy. On the one hand, the 'God' Factor is once again very high, but because all the difficulty has been removed, the sense of satisfaction isn't as intense. I never really felt like I earned my skills.

The first two games of the series allowed you a host of weapons to slice and dice the bad guys, spirits, and demon fish you face. For some truly inane reason, you only have swords to play with this time around. Part of the fun was messing around with the different tools in a ninja's arsenal. Of course, since Team Ninja decided to also do away with the currency and upgrade system from the previous games, the enjoyment of leveling up multiple weapons is absent as well. Ninja Gaiden 3 has been cut down to just the core action experience, and that goes beyond just the lowered difficulty and quick time events. There are no more Resident Evil style puzzles to unlock after finding funny shaped keys. I really feel like, in their attempt to streamline the experience, the developers cut out far too much in the end. Some of the things that make Ninja Gaiden intrinsically Ninja Gaiden are gone, and the game suffers for it.

One thing I noticed is that the graphics that were once so overwhelming now look antiquated. Back when Ninja Gaiden released on the original Xbox, I'd never seen cutscenes that looked so amazing! Now, it's simply standard. Oh, and I know I probably shouldn't say this, but the lack of giant animated cleavage was also moderately disappointing as well.

While the game runs pretty smoothly, I did encounter some lag. However, there were other graphical glitches as well, like texture pop-in. As bloody as the game is (well, as bloody as it can get once you subtract dismemberment...) I found multiple instances where the resulting blood splatters would hover.

The soundtrack is still a highlight, I've always felt like it worked well. But the dialogue is trite at best, and the voice acting doesn't help. When in combat enemies spout repetitive lines that don't fit the context. Towards the end when you face more foes, they will even repeat over each other. It sounds like they are singing in a round! It's laughably bad.

If you're a Ninja Gaiden veteran, you know that the camera is arguably the biggest hindrance on the action. After so many tries you'd think they'd make some of the requisite changes, but they don't seem so inclined. It doesn't pan as quickly as you'd like at some points. At other times there are so many enemies on the screen (especially towards the end) that the camera makes it difficult to tell where you are. I found myself mashing the attack button just hoping I was hitting the bad guys. This is only exacerbated by those moments where your cursed arm gets the better of you and the action slows down... and so does the camera. Getting caught up on the environment is a major hitch as you stagger around blindly trying to find someone to hack at. In an interesting contrast, during the QTE's in combat, the camera moves so fast it's enough to give an epileptic fits.

One new thing introduced in Ninja Gaiden 3 is an online component. I'll be honest here, I didn't mess around with it too much (I was too annoyed with the atrocious campaign!). However, it was fairly interesting. You can play four on four matches that can be entertaining, and there is a rudimentary upgrade system in place so you can customize your avatar. However, the polish quickly wore off for me after I realized that it basically came down to who started their combo a fraction of a second before the other. Just like the single player campaign, strategy goes out the window.

Here's the thing... if you gave me this game with some non-descript ninja hacking up bad guys and changed the name and I still wouldn't think it was particularly good. It's kind of like a watered down version of Dynasty Warriors. At best, Ninja Gaiden 3 is a passable action game, but considering its pedigree, it really should have been better. The fact that we are talking about Ninja Gaiden and Ryu Hyabusa adds salt to the wound, making the resulting farce all the more unbearable.


Score = 6.6 / 10

Saturday, April 21, 2012

MLB 12: The Show (8.1/10)

To read the official full length review follow the link here: MLB 12: The Show. 

MLB 12: The Show is once again the king of the hill of baseball games, but I'm starting to wonder if the developers might be taking the series for granted slightly. They aren't taking risks or dramatically improving the mechanics to any significant degree. This is all well and good seeing as how they are miles ahead of the competition. Despite their best efforts, they have fallen behind in both pitching and commentary to the 2K Series. Ultimately resting on your laurels allows said competition to draw even. I'd like to see The Show continue to evolve because it really is one of the better sports games out there; it's just a pity that it's limited solely to PlayStation 3 owners. Still, if you're a true baseball fan MLB 12: The Show is undoubtedly your best bet.

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 = 8.1 / 10

Monday, April 16, 2012

Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City (5.7/10)

Regular readers know I'm a fan of all things zombie! However, it seems to me that one of the most venerated franchises in not only video games but also a cornerstone in the modern zombie resurgence, Resident Evil, has really been dropping the ball as of late. Sure, Resident Evil 4 was a true classic. However, I wasn't overly impressed with Resident Evil 5, and a lot of the more peripheral titles were disappointing. This year we are treated to a total of three new Resident Evil games to wet our appetites for more braaaaaaaains...  first up is Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City. And let me tell you, it's bloody terrible!

Where to begin with this mess? First of all, there is no story to speak of. I had been looking forward to unlocking the secrets of the evil Umbrella Corporation from another point of view as it were, but literally nothing is answered. There are a few moments where you see an important conversation taking place from a different perspective or catch a glimpse of someone or something important to the canon, but I never felt like I was affecting the outcome in any way... until the very end, which was so out of the blue and stupid that I literally threw my hands up in frustration.

You play as one of a slew of different Umbrella hit squad members, but as far as I could tell, they have virtually no impact on the story. There is no emotional connection to the characters whatsoever. I hate Chris Redfield with a fiery passion, but at least he is mildly relate-able. Here's an example of the last of interest displayed even by the characters themselves: right in the middle of the game, there is a moment where you're stuck on a rather long elevator ride waiting for the next segment to load and no one says anything. If I was giving the benefit of the doubt (which I'm not), I'd say that sociopathic hit men don't need to have much interaction beyond being pointed at who to kill next, but that doesn't really stand up in an interactive medium! It feels like a lack of effort on the part of the developers.

Operation Raccoon City is a third person shooter, just like the other recent Resident Evil titles. Now class, what is the biggest issue in most third person games? That's right, all together now, the camera! Very good, I'm glad to see you've been paying attention. The camera works fairly well, except when the environments aren't cutting it off or you aren't completely surrounded by zombies... which is, of course, happening constantly. The zombies can be very quick, and the camera can't seem to catch up which ultimately leads to some cheap deaths. The cover mechanic also fails. For some reason, your playable character seems to have a hard time responding to the cues, as if they are somewhat reluctant to find cover, ultimately leaving you exposed. Another problem is the melee attack, which is often used because ammo is at a premium. It's pretty ineffectual against single foes and even less so against mobs.

I think a big problem with Operation Raccoon City is the fact that the control scheme is poorly designed, thereby exacerbating other flaws in the structure. To sprint you need to click the analog stick. To dive you press 'A.' But take cover, you also need to press 'A.' Do you see the problem? Trying to get in cover while sprinting usually results in your character diving forward... then standing up, then taking cover. Oh, and if you're around any ammo or items, the same button controls that interaction as well. All the while you're getting peppered with bullets. It's insanely frustrating. A proper dodge or roll function would have been greatly appreciated and its absence is all the more noticeable.

From a technical standpoint, Operation Raccoon City fails to impress. To be honest, the graphics on Resident Evil: Revelations are better (review coming soon)... and that's a 3DS title! There are some texture loading issues, and backgrounds aren't nearly as sharp as they could be. The character models don't look terribly impressive either, something I found surprising since so much effort was put into Resident Evil 5. Even Leon's trademark hairdo looks awful. For some reason the developers decided to make the game very dark. Seriously, it's almost to the point that you can't see anything at all. One wonders if they are trying to hide something? Normally, good lighting goes a long way to creating a scary atmosphere (see Dead Space), but if things are too dark it becomes an exercise in frustration as you stumble about blindly.

The soundtrack is decent although repetitive, but that's nothing compared to the scant voice-acting. Remember how I said how the characters made little or no difference to the story? Well, that's thanks mostly to the fact that they hardly ever talk, and when they do, the one-liners they spout can barely be called drivel.

So what does Operation Raccoon City do right? Well, I like the fact that you can become infected. If you get bitten, you have a brief time to find some anti-viral spray otherwise you'll turn into one of the walking undead. It's fun in multiplayer because you can stick it to your teammates. Having said that though, it's a novelty that wears thin quickly.

Then there is the ally AI which, you'll be surprised to hear, is passable. Your squad mates don't run in your line of fire all of the time, which is a good thing. The other thing they manage to do well is die... a lot. But what really bothers me is that you can heal them but they can't heal you. There were levels where I literally ran in circles, a mob of angry zombies chasing me, so that I could build up just enough distance to heal someone before they caught up with me. All that was needed was Benny Hill music. They naturally have no interest in healing each other. Of course, if you go down at all it's Game Over.

However, running around to save my AI cohorts did yield positive results. It was during one of these noble crusades that I made a wrong turn and ended up warping my entire squad, including the dead ones, forward past some imaginary check point line. From then on I deduced that I could simply run on ahead if things got too hairy and hope to reach a new checkpoint while my comrades were slowly being digested. It's astonishing how cheap this is... if I found myself in a really sticky situation I can just dash past the bad guys who are either shooting at me or trying to eat me and essentially skip that section. If the game wasn't so terrible I'd actually be curious to try a speed run trying to skip everything, just to see how long it would take.

Of course, this squad based shooter was designed to be played online with a full contingent of human squad mates. Playing with friends does ease the pain somewhat, but what kind of friends do you have that enjoy inflicting pain upon each other? At least playing together together means that you can heal one another. There are some other interesting online options, but to be honest I couldn't be bothered to try them out.

My fiance watched me play Operation Raccoon City for five minutes, glanced at me, and literally said "This looks generic." She's right (she usually is). This game fails on pretty much every level for me. It's a spin-off hoping to cash in on a venerated franchise. My biggest issue with this game is this: releasing a sub par product banking on sales numbers due solely to name recognition is just plain wrong. The fact that they're trying to pass off this joke as Resident Evil is all the more insulting to a fiercely loyal fanbase... making it all the more unbearable, and ultimately all the more disappointing. I only hope Resident Evil 6 manages to live up to the standard of the franchise and we can relegate Operation Raccoon City to a failed experiment, dusty and forgotten, where it belongs.


Score = 5.7 / 10

Friday, April 6, 2012

Dead Space 2 (9.5/10)

I loved Dead Space. I'm a huge sci-fi/horror fan, and that game scared the sh*t out of me. The eclectic, unholy mixture of Alien meets The Thing gave us something else to fear when the lights go out: the now iconic Necromorphs. Issac Clarke's tale of survival aboard the doomed ship Ishimura (the ship arguably becoming a character in and of itself) was surprisingly deep considering he never uttered a word. So I waited and waited with baited breath for the sequel, and I'm here to tell you, Dead Space 2 doesn't disappoint. Holy fargin' snit! The first 2 minutes alone are as intense as the first game! It scared the bejessus (is that the correct spelling of 'bejessus?') out of me! And it only got better from there....

As the game begins, our hero Issac Clarke is back, three years on from the horrors he survived on the Ishimura. Now in the 'Sprawl,' a massive space station orbiting one of Saturn's moons, he is being interrogated about the events aboard the Ishimura. But his delusions get the better of him and he is put back under. He is still haunted by memories of his beloved Nicole and doesn't seem to be in complete control of his faculties. Upon waking, all hell breaks loose and Issac flees. Necromorphs on the Sprawl? How is this possible? What about the Marker? He is soon contacted by someone named Daina, who promises to get him to safety. Considering the luck Issac has had with women, he's understandably skeptical.

And then you suddenly notice that our previously silent protagonist isn't silent any longer. Issac has found his voice! And his face! Our hero now talks to those around him, swearing like a sailor (I can't say I blame him, keeping in mind the situation). It's a little weird at first, I was used to the strong, silent type, but I'll admit it does give him a more relatable personality. 

The narrative takes a great many twists and turns, and I want to keep this review as spoiler-free as possible, so I'll just leave it at that. Needless to say, Issac's journey takes him all over the Sprawl, uncovering more horrors at every turn. It's a thrill ride with some truly iconic moments spanning a range of different gameplay styles. It's fantastic, if a little confusing at times.

The majority of gameplay once again revolves around using any weapon at your disposal to de-limb the hideously mutated monsters before they can get close enough to rip you into tiny pieces. You have a lot of old favorites to play with like the plasma cutter and line gun, as well as some new toys that are absolutely worth trying out. As was the case with the original, ammunition is always at a premium, so you need to keep an eye on your reserves and make sure you're carrying appropriate back ups. Certain weapons work better in certain situations; more than once I had to re-load a save and re-arm before heading back out to face the horror.

Issac also faces some new enemy types, some more cleverly designed than even the previous incarnations. Enemy AI is fairly advanced in some cases, rather than just charging you head on. Reliance on stasis to slow down enemies seemed more prevalent to me. It's hard to talk about without giving too much away, so I'll just say that you need to be on point and your fingers on the button!

Another thing that I liked the increased reliance on telekinesis this time around. Before you even get your trademark plasma cutter Issac needs to make use of his telekinesis to throw anything and everything at the Necromorphs. Using their own severed limbs against them is now no longer for laughs, but rather necessary for survival. Considering how rare ammo is, especially in your first playthrough, keeping an eye out for usable objects to chuck at the baddies saves valuable bullets for when you really need them.

The other chance from the first Dead Space is the zero-gee sections. Whereas before they were disorienting (yet still very cool), Issac now has thrusters on his suit giving you far more freedom of control. You could design a entire game with these mechanics alone, I really feel that they worked that well. If anything, these moments are too rare, but that's just me wishing for more!

Dead Space 2 looks amazing, even improving on the first. Dismemberment has never looked quite as good. I love the fact that they decided you needed to stomp on your fallen foes to get the goodies deep within them. Where do you keep your ammo? Inside, of course! As if this game wasn't gory enough! The impressive splatter factor aside, the lighting and shadow effects do so much to add to the oppressive atmosphere. Issac once again looks amazing, and there are so many little things like the holographic interfaces that are great graphical touches. It's worth taking a look out of some port windows... the views are breathtaking. It shows just how much effort was put into the little details and I, for one, appreciate it. 

One of the things that made Dead Space so scary, and indeed most horror franchises, is the soundtrack. Everything you hear in Dead Space 2 is designed around heightening the tension. Sure, the argument can be made that giving Issac a voice takes something away from the profound effect of silence, but even those moments are still prevalent. Hearing his ragged breathing, the only sound in zero-gee, is just awesome. Add in the sound effects of the weapons, the screams of the monstrous Necromorphs, and stuff constantly clattering around in the background making you jump... well, the combined effects induce true fear, something that is impressive enough as it is. I swear, every time my cat ran out from behind the couch while I was playing this game, I jumped because I was so on edge!

Dead Space 2 is not without some flaws. Utilizing the air ducts to transfer from area to area makes sense as I'm assuming the next section is loading during these scenes. But these sections go on for far too long and are overused. I know you're trying to create a sense of claustrophobia, but honestly.... do we need to do this every thirty steps? I'm also not a fan of the new hacking mini-game. It's hard to see what you're doing, even on a big screen. I understand why it's included, but I don't think it's necessary. There are plenty of other ways to heighten tension and break up the action.

Then there is the Hardcore mode, which I have to say scares me as much as the Necromorphs. Not only do you face stronger enemies, but with less ammo than normal... ammo not being the easiest thing to come by in the first place. To make matters worse, there are no checkpoints, so if you do happen to get chopped to bits, you revert to your last save. But here's the kicker... you only get three saves. Yeah, you heard that right... three. In other words, you need to complete the entire game in with only a few breaks. Considering a standard playthrough takes roughly a dozen hours, any deaths will set you back a significant amount of time. Only true sadists need apply. Having said that, if you ever want to check it out, the secret weapon you get up on competition might make the effort worth it. It's crazy cool, and pretty funny to boot. Check it out on YouTube if you're interested.

Overall, I didn't like Dead Space 2 quite as much as the original. To be honest, I think it comes down to the setting. In my opinion, the Ishimura, while a somewhat bizarrely designed and dank ship, had much more personality than the Sprawl. I don't know if it's my Alien obsession coming to the forefront, but it just didn't ring as true for me. That's not to say that the Sprawl isn't a great locale. I thought the more domestic atmosphere was terrifying in its own right. But apart from that admittedly nonsensical pseudo-argument (it really comes down to personal preference), Dead Space 2 is still an absolutely fantastic survival/horror game that left me sleeping with the lights on. I love this franchise, and can't wait to see what horrors await Issac in the inevitable next installment!


Score = 9.5 / 10

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Tiger Woods PGA Tour 13 (8.2/10)

To read the official full length review follow the link here: Tiger Woods PGA Tour 13.
There are moments where Tiger Woods PGA Tour 13 really gets it right, and those moments are suitably impressive. The first time I holed out from a bunker I was pumping my fist just like the first time I ever did that in real life! It was pretty awesome! It's nice when a game manages to illicit real emotion, even if it just the simple pride of hitting the sweet spot or sinking a big breaking putt. The new swing mechanics work well, and I loved the freedom to experiment with different shots. I was also pleasantly surprised by the Kinect functionality. It won't replace hitting the links with some buddies in the sunshine, but it's definitely a viable alternative on rainy days.

Sadly, for everything Tiger Woods PGA Tour 13 does right, the experience is ultimately marred by EA's use of coins to determine so much of the experience. It feels wrong... and I wouldn't have such a problem with it if it didn't cost so much to unlock the extra courses, and that so many of the extra courses are unavailable to you at the beginning. To access it all either involves a major time commitment or shelling out more of my hard-earned money for what I honestly feel like I've already paid for. It's difficult not to feel extorted.

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