Monday, January 14, 2013

Darksiders II (Vigil/THQ, 2012)

After finishing Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time I was looking for another game to play through. I was still in a crazy platforming mood, so I settled on Tomb Raider: Anniversary, since it would run great on the windows tablet I was using. The first day I only had about an hour free to play it. The next day, Darksiders II went on sale for 60% off on both Steam and OnLive. I was a huge fan of the first Darksiders, so Tomb Raider would just have to wait a bit.

I'm going to digress into a bit of personal history. I got the first Darksiders game for free with my OnLive Microconsole, which I also got for free because, well, when OnLive was still new, they gave their early adopters a lot of free stuff. I'd been looking forward to Darksiders II since finishing the first one years ago, so I decided to jump on the chance. I just needed to decide on a platform. Even though I've purchased several games on the service in the past, I was hesitant to get the game on OnLive as they've been pretty shaky as a company lately. It wasn't clear if the service would be around long enough to complete the game. But, since I still hadn't gotten my new computer yet, and I was impatient to play the game, I decided to take the chance and get the game on OnLive instead of Steam.

As it turns out, OnLive is still around (although at this point it's still unclear for how long), and I was able to play through the whole game without trouble. I mostly played it in my living room on the Microconsole, but I also played it a bit on my Acer tablet, my Xperia Play phone, and even on my new computer which I finally got in November. I have to admit, being able to level grind and explore from my phone on my lunch break is a cool feature. Overall, the graphics weren't quite as sharp as they would have been running natively on a fast system, but at the time I didn't have a fast system, so that didn't really matter. So now, on with the review...

The first Darksiders played like a combination of Legend of Zelda and God of War (with some Portal thrown in later in the game). In fact, some people criticized it as being a blatant rip off of those games. However, the game was so good that most critics quickly forgave this, as the combination of these elements worked in a way nobody could have imagined. It was such a winning formula, it's surprising how much they changed it in the sequel.

Let's get the obvious stuff out of the way. In the first Darksiders you play as War, one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse from Christian mythology. The game starts with the apocalypse accidentally starting, and then skips to about a hundred years later as War tries to prove that it wasn't his fault. In this game you play as Death, another of the horseman. This game takes place somewhere within those hundred years, as Death tries to clear his brother's name.

Darksiders II feels different from its predecessor. Rather than Legend of Zelda meets God of War, it plays more like a combination of Prince of Persia and Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. The first game had some platforming elements in it as you would climb along walls and leap between ledges, but it was taken a lot further this time. Playing this right after Sands of Time made it feel familiar for me as I hopped from hanging poles, and swung from thin bars, and ran up walls in flowing combos that had me bouncing all around the room. You can definitely feel the influence because not only did they copy the style, they copied the feel. I did miss the gliding elements the first game had, alluding back to classic games such as MDK, and more recent games such as the Batman: Arkham series. I can see why they took it out though, as the new platforming engine would have been a lot less successful had this ability been kept.

The other big change this time around is that it plays much more like an RPG than the original. You will spend a lot of time saving up your gold to upgrade your weapons and armor, and sometimes grinding to level up. This can be a big turn off to some people who prefer the more straight ahead action adventure style of the original, but others like me eat this stuff up. Each piece of equipment has its own specs, and you can really customize your character to match your play style.

The quest system also has a nice RPG feel to it. It allows the story to flow more organically than in the original, and lets the game throw some surprises at you every now and then since it's not tied to such a rigid formula this time. Disappointingly, the side quests played more like your typical action game. Where the side quest chains of some RPGs could be released as full games on their own, Darksiders II only offers the typical collect all the hidden items style side quests, and the occasional optional dungeon. Luckily, the main quest is long enough that you won't really feel like you're missing anything.

As I mentioned earlier, the first game closely followed the classic Legend of Zelda formula. But where Zelda games typically have 8 dungeons before the final one, Darksiders only offered four. As a way to make up for this, Darksiders II gives you a dozen main quest dungeons, each with a unique look and feel, and then several more smaller optional dungeons. There is a lot of content to play through, and the level design still lives up to the same high standards set by the original. Each room is a clever new puzzle and a new challenge, rather than your typical action RPG dungeon crawl.

Each dungeon also features a memorable boss battle. These guys are huge and full of character and fighting them is a puzzle of its own. One of them in particular is as tall as a skyscraper and at times during the battle you find yourself climbing up its limbs using all of your platforming tricks as you continue to attack each other.

Combat in Darksiders II is brutal and satisfying. A huge variety of attacks can be learned at a price from trainers you'll encounter throughout the game's world, and a large variety of weapons and special items can be used against the game's many enemies. That's good, because there's also a huge variety of enemies who will attack you in a number of imaginative ways. One of my favorite combos was to grab an unsuspecting enemy from a distance, pulling it closer and slashing it a couple times, then tossing it up into the air before it can recover and smashing it with a giant hammer as it comes tumbling back down to the ground.

While the graphics don't break any new ground from a technical perspective, they more than make up for it artistically. The game looks beautiful with visuals stylized just enough to look unique without looking cartoony. The otherworldly settings really come to life as the angels, demons, and everything in between are all presented as if they were jumping out of a fantasy painting.

The sounds and music on the other hand do the job, but don't really stand out. In ways, I think I like the audio of the first game better. As an example, you know that moment in Zelda games where you solve a puzzle and it plays that memorable chime? In the first Darksiders, there was a similar yet less memorable musical phrase, mostly with low strings. As expected, Darksiders II also has such a phrase, but this time even less memorable, just a little musical blat of a chord. With so much creativity in this game, you would think they could have done more with the audio.

Remember at the beginning of the review when I compared Darksiders II to Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning? Some of you may be wondering why I chose that game and not a more popular RPG. Some of you may be thinking it's because of the visual styles. Both games have similar looks based on the works of comic book artists. Some of you may be thinking it's because of the combat as both games have a similar feel to the fighting. The biggest reason however is in the story. While the Darksiders universe is all based on a single source, Amalur pulls from the combined folklore of multiple cultures, and where the two worlds overlap is with the Well of Souls. Reckoning starts with the player emerging from the well and the story deals with all of the ways in which this will effect the world. Darksiders II on the other hand is the exact opposite. The game is all about trying to get to the well and how this could effect the world. It's an interesting parallel, and one that I'm surprised hasn't been mentioned in any of the other reviews I've read.

Familiarity aside, Darksiders II has a good story with larger than life characters. One of the interesting balancing acts they pulled off was making Death feel huge, and then making so many of the other characters you encounter feel even larger. A few characters from the first game return for cameos, and overall the lore ties together nicely. The voice acting is also well performed and the animated cut scenes are fun to watch.

If I had to find something to gripe about, it would have to be the health potions. Since the genre first emerged in the 80's, RPG video games have almost always relied on the player carrying a large supply of health potions, sometimes hundreds. Darksiders II only lets you carry up to five at once. Because it's such a small number, these potions actually start to feel like an extension of your health meter. You find more potions throughout the world and dungeons hidden in crates or randomly dropped by slain foes, but they don't drop all that often. The few merchants in the game only carry a small number of these potions, and once you purchase them, they never restock. The big problem with this is that sometimes the dungeons will lock you in a room with several waves of enemies to battle through (which is actually fun in this game, unlike Sands of Time) and then throw you into a boss battle in the next room after you've used up a few of your potions. This sometimes leads to having to fast travel out of dungeons before a boss battle to either find a merchant who still has some in stock, or grind through enemies until enough potions drop. This is a glaring flaw in an otherwise solid and well balanced game.

My other complaint is not with the game itself, but the fact that the DLC was not released on OnLive. I knew I was taking a chance when I went with the OnLive version, but it is what it is.

So there you have it, that's my take on the game. As you can tell, I'm a fan of the series, and I'm looking forward to where they take the series in the next installment.

Stay tuned for the next review!

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (Ubisoft, 2003)

Ok, now that the introduction is out of the way, it's time for my first real post, my first review.

I've been putting a lot of thought into what game to use for my first review. When it was first suggested that I write reviews, I was in the middle of playing Risen, so I assumed that it would be my first subject. The problem was that I didn't actually finish it. I was enjoying it, and I hope to get back to it at some point, but it was having performance issues with the computer I was running it on, so I set it aside. Since I wouldn't want to review a movie that I hadn't seen the ending of, I  have decided not to review games that I didn't play all the way through. I know that this will limit the number of reviews I'll be able to write, but I feel like I'll be able to give a more honest review this way.

So, the next game that I played after that was Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.

I'm no stranger to the Prince of Persia series. When I was in highschool in the early 90's I used to play the original Prince of Persia (or the PC port of it at least) on my Gateway 486 that I had at the time. I was used to console platformers, but this was something entirely different. The rotoscoped animation, the thoughtful pacing, the intricate sword fighting, and of coarse, the gruesome deaths, they all added up to a unique gaming experience that was in a different league than the NES games I was playing. Shortly after, I got Prince of Persia 2: The Shadow and the Flame. This sequel added a more developed story, more detailed graphics, and a better variety of settings.

Years went by and I didn't play any Prince of Persia games for a while. I remember seeing the commercials for Sands of Time when it came out, but for some reason I just never got around to playing it. At various points I collected Warrior Within for the Gamecube, and The Forgotten Sands on OnLive, and I even spent some time playing 2008's confusingly named Prince of Persia on OnLive's PlayPack service. But, I always kept an eye out for Sands of Time. Finally, last summer I picked up a Prince of Persia bundle on Steam during their big summer sale. This bundle had every game from Sands of Time on. Like most games I pick up on Steam, it just sat in my library for a while. After I set Risen aside, I looked through my library for a game that would run well on my Acer Iconia Tab W500 Windows 7 tablet. So, it was finally time to play Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.

To break the game down into simple terms, it's a linear platformer with hack n' slash elements, but this description really doesn't do the game justice. To try to expand further on that, I'll start with what the game got right. And what this game got right, it really got right.

The platforming elements of the game were revolutionary when it came out, and directly influenced many of the best platformers that have come after it. It pioneered a lot of techniques that continue to show up in modern games such as wall running and hopping between hanging pillars. The level design is simply inspired, useing the space in a way that allows you the sense of freedom to fully explore your environment, but at the same time leading you down a linear path. In the style of a Castlevania title, the game takes place entirely on the grounds of a single palace, but the sprawling estate with it's varied environments always have something new to offer, and never feel as if they were just stitched together in order to fit in the obligatory ice level or water level.

Of course the big twist in the gameplay is the ability to rewind time, allowing you to take leaps of faith that may or may not be suicidal without fear. This element continued in one form or another in every Prince of Persia game since, becoming a staple of the series. Navigating through the areas of the game's world requires a combination of puzzle solving, impeccable timing, and experimentation thanks to an almost endless variety of traps, such as spikes, saw blades, and guillotines that pay tribute to the early games of the series. It may seem odd for a palace to have such an elaborate security system, but it makes for a wonderful atmosphere, and great gameplay.

I have to admit that the controls at times felt a bit off, but that probably had more to do with how I had my system configured. As I mentioned earlier, I was running the PC version on a windows tablet. A console style platforming game like this really needs to be played with a gamepad, not a mouse and keyboard, so I was using an X-Box 360 controller. The game did have a gamepad section in the options menu, but I wasn't able to get it to recognize my controller, and instead mapped the controls using xpadder to mimic the original X-Box controls. For the most part this worked well, but using an analog stick to mimic the 8 directions of the WASD keys occasionally had me running along a wall when I meant to run up it or other such issues. Luckily, the ability to rewind time after an unexpected leap to my doom helped to keep the game flowing, and keep the frustration level down.

The story is simple, but serves well to move the game along without getting in the way. The short cut scenes get to the point and give the action sequences meaning without ever feeling like a distraction from the gameplay. And, as a rarity in gaming, the romance elements between the prince and Farah are handled in a subtle and convincing way, lacking the awkwardness displayed in most games that try to shoehorn in a love story, and even coming across more naturally than in the 2010 movie loosely based on the game.

The graphics are pretty standard for the time, nothing mind blowing, but very well done. I did like the little touches like having the prince's shirt get more torn throughout the game. It's a small thing but it makes the game's world feel more believable. It also directly influenced later games such as Batman Arkham Asylum that use a simiar technique.

The music is mostly orchestral middle eastern themes, but as the action picks up, modern elements such as drum kits and electric guitars are introduced. While not at all anachronistic, these modern touches never felt out of place and added an edge that made the combat sequences slightly more bearable. Yup, now for the bad news...

The combat started off fun. It was an acrobatic style of hack and slash fighting with entertaining combo moves such as running up and flipping over an enemy while attacking from mid air, or running up a wall and launching yourself into an enemy to knock it back. I felt like a bad ass ninja-monkey bouncing around the room. The problem is that any time you enter a combat sequence, the game does not advance until all of the enemies are defeated. Not all of the enemies are in the room when the combat sequences start, instead they are spawned into the area throughout the sequence. Since there's no way of knowing how many more enemies have to be defeated, the battles sometimes feel endless, and not in a good way. When the last enemy is finally killed, the sequence simply ends with no real sense of epic victory, just a quick cut scene of the prince sheathing his sword.

The enemies themselves come in a very small repetitive variety that doesn't get updated very often, and when it does, it's often just a palate swap. They tend to try to surround the player which prevents the effectiveness of most blocking strategies, but if you get too far away, they teleport to surrounding you again in one of the cheapest moves in combat AI history! This leads to a frustrating balancing act of trying to stay far enough away to not be surrounded, but not far enough away to be surrounded. Not to mention that each enemy actually has to be killed twice. First you have to weaken it enough to defeat it, then you have to steal its power with the dagger of time. If you don't take the enemy's power in time, it gets back up and the whole process starts over again.

The combat almost drove me to rage quitting more than once, but the rest of the game was so good I just had to see more of it. So I finally ended up installing a "trainer" patch to get past the combat sequences with one hit kills. Was I cheating? Yes I was. But I saw this as two games. First there was the puzzle/platform game that I enjoyed, then there was the combat game that I did not. So, in order to play the game that I enjoyed, I had to cheat my way through the game that I didn't.

So, overall I mostly enjoyed this game, and it was mostly great! Do I recommend it to others? Yes! Will I ever play it again? Probably not. The games that came after it retained all of the elements I enjoyed in this one, but with improvements in the areas that I didn't. I hope to play through Warrior Within soon to continue my trek through the Prince of Persia series, but for now, it's on to other games.

Since this is my first review, and is setting the precedent for future reviews, I'm not going to assign a number or letter grade or a graph breakdown of scores. I'm not expecting my reviews to get calculated into metacritic or anything. I'm just going to give my opinions my personal experience playing through the game and let the readers take from it what they want.

See you next time!

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

An Introduction

I've been playing video games my entire life, at least, as much of it as I can remember. I was born in the late 70's and my parents had an Atari 2600 and an Odyssey 2, and some various handheld games. My brother and I would spend hours playing Pitfall!, Pickaxe Pete, and KC Munchkin. We also had various early computers that let us play some great text adventures, and finally graphic adventures such as King's Quest II (I spent way too many hours on that game!). In the summer between 5th and 6th grade I got a Nintendo NES, and that's when I really got hooked. I would get home from school and play through Metroid from start to finish in one sitting. Almost every weekend I'd get together with friends, rent a game, and we'd try to get through as much of it as possible before having to return it. Eventually I'd get a Gameboy, a Sega Genesis, a PlayStation, an X-Box, a PlayStation 2, a Game Cube, A Gameboy Advance, a Wii, a 3DS, and a Playstation 3, not to mention a variety of PCs along the way.

The point is, I've been playing games for a long time, and I'm still playing a lot of games. I enjoy talking about the games I'm playing, and I'm as likely to play some obscure retro game, or indie game, as I am to play the latest best seller. A friend of mine suggested that I start this blog as a way to tell the world about the games that I'm playing. I'm not trying to compete with Gamespot or IGN or anything, I'm just going to provide my honest opinion and insight into the games that I'm playing. Hopefully, somebody out there will find useful the information that I provide.

So, I'm not an expert, I'm not a professional game reviewer, I'm just somebody who likes playing games and talking about them. Anyway, I hope you enjoy this blog!