Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Batman: Arkham Origins (Warner Bros. Games Montréal/Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment, 2013)

It's always a risky prospect when a different team takes over a popular franchise. Will they take it in exciting new directions? Will they destroy everything that made the series unique in the first place? Will they just put out more of the same and never innovate? Will they change it too much so it's no longer recognizable? There are innumerable fears and possibilities, and with good reason. Over the years there have been both hits and misses. Bioshock 2 is generally considered the least enjoyable of the trilogy, Metroid: The Other M strayed too far from the winning Prime series formula, and Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel has been getting a fairly luke-warm response. It's not always bad news though, as Halo 4 showed that the series could live on without Bungie, Capcom made some well regarded Legend of Zelda games, and Guitar Hero 3 broke sales records not just for the series, but for the industry. But what about Batman? In the world of cinema, Batman Forever completely shattered the image created by the Tim Burton films, and even fans of the modern Batman movies are more than a little worried about the upcoming Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice. But, I'm not here to talk about movies. I'm here to talk about games, and specifically, I'm here to talk about Batman: Arkham Origins.

The first thing that needs to be pointed out about Batman: Arkham Origins is that a lot of care was obviously put into recreating the feel of the first two games. All of Gotham City is open to you to explore this time, so it has the open world grand Theft Auto meets Legend of Zelda feel of Arkham City, but there are also plenty of sprawling indoor locations to investigate bringing out the claustrophobic Metroid inspired feel that the original Arkham Asylum had. Overall it's a great mix of both games made into something new.

Arkham City ended with the death of one of the main characters of the series leading many to wonder how the story could continue on. For the time being at least, that question was side-stepped since Batman: Arkham Origins is, as its name would suggest, a prequel to the existing games of the series. The origins of Batman have been told many times in various media. We've had two separate movies about Batman's early crime fighting adventures, several graphic novels, flashback scenes in the cartoons and comics, and even an ongoing TV series about Bruce Wayne's early years. This game offers a rare chance to play out these early days in an interactive format. Sure, 1989's Batman and 2005's Batman Begins both had games base on them, but in those you were mostly following a script, rather than existing in a world. There's just an amusing feeling you get when creeping along a roof ledge eavesdropping on a group of criminals as they debate whether or not you exist moments before jumping out of the shadows at them.

While we're on the subject of listening to the dialog, it should be pointed out that Batman: Arkham Origins has an entirely new voice cast. The previous games reassembled the voice actors from Batman: The Animated Series, including Mark Hamill delivering an amazing performance as the Joker. When I first heard that this game was recasting all of the parts, I was worried that it would be going in a different direction, but luckily this was not the case. The new actors actually sound a lot like the old cast, and deliver the same dark mood the series thrives on. While Troy Baker might not be quite the scene-stealer that Hamill was, he still manages to deliver a powerful performance, even if The Joker does have a much smaller role in the story this time. Roger Craig Smith does such a great job filling Kevin Conroy's shoes voicing Batman himself, that it's hardly noticeable that we have a whole new cast. Granted, about a year and a half had passed since I'd played Arkham City, so playing through the series back to back may lead to a more offsetting experience.

So, other than the cast, what's new this time around? Actually, not all that much. It seems that the new developers didn't want to rock the boat too much in their maiden voyage, focusing instead on delivering a new story within the comfortable environment of familiar gameplay from the earlier games, which was probably a pretty good call on their part. There have been a few new additions however. One of the most innovative aspects of the Arkham series has been the Detective Mode which lets you analyze your environment and follow clues to help you throughout your adventure. This has been updated with a new Crime Scene Investigation mode that lets you recreate the events and view them from any angle as a holographic reenactment. I'll admit I had fun playing DJ with the playback as virtual explosions sent shrapnel flying across the room and back.

A s a Batman game, an assortment of bat-gadgets is always available, and this game is no exception. The standard Batarang, Batclaw, Explosive Gel, and Cryptographic Sequencer of previous Arkham games make return appearances along with a few new toys such as the Remote Claw and Shock Gloves. Nothing that changes the formula in substantial ways, but these new tricks do manage to help the game feel fresh.

Visually, Batman: Arkham Origins is a bit of a departure from the dirty grit of the series. Sure, there are some dirty gritty environments that you'll visit, but most of the game's world is actually pretty nice. Rather than being secluded to an overgrown penal colony, you are in Gotham City itself. Being a snowy xmas eve night, most of the citizens are safely at home and out of your way, leaving only the cops and the criminals, not mutually exclusive, out to play. If you have fond memories of any of the Batman Begins games of the early 90s then you might feel a bit of nostalgia as you swing the Caped Crusader among the fully decked halls of this festive winter wonderland.

While Arkham Asylum was mostly linear with a few scattered collectibles, Arkham City introduced the idea of more fleshed out side mission quest chains. Arkham Origins expands on this with a number of ongoing optional objectives to keep you occupied wherever you go. Some of these have practical purposes such as unlocking fast travel locations, but most are simply opportunities to gain additional experience points to put towards upgrading your equipment and abilities. While the previous titles provided customization through learning additional moves, you're presented here with a full skill tree rivaling many RPG titles.

One issue that has been bugging me more and more lately has been pre-rendered cutscenes. This game isn't alone in this issue, it did put the issue in the spotlight, especially later on in it. You see, there are two types of cutscenes, pre-rendered, and in-engine. Back in the 2D days, it was simple, either your sprites moved on their own with dialog text, or you saw custom images that looked much more detailed than the actual game. In the early 3D days, N64 games would generally just animate the game characters and camera in a more cinematic way, while the PS1 and its CD-ROM allowed for playing back video files that were put together beforehand using advanced lighting and rendering techniques. At the time, this provided a whole new view into the worlds of our games, and we didn't mind that everything looked completely different than during the levels. Now that the games themselves already look detailed and realistic, using pre-rendered cutscenes has a new effect, it points out how much better the game could look, but doesn't. After hours of playing Arkham Origins, your mind starts to accept it as reality. When the cutscenes suddenly have drastically different lighting, and the room you were just in looks far more detailed, you think maybe it didn't look as good as you thought. When you're then thrown back into the level, the amazing graphics you were so immersed in before are suddenly a disappointment. This isn't unique here, but it's something that I think needs more discussion.

Overall, I had a lot of fun with Batman: Arkham Origins. It had the same addictive combat/exploration/stealth/puzzle solving combination that made the series such a hit, with just enough new ideas to keep things interesting. It's not a ground breaking entry to the series, but it does prove that even without Rocksteady Studios behind it, the series can live on. I'm looking forward to seeing what Arkham Knights can add to this formula next year. Before I end this, I figured I'd add an interesting youtube compilation I stumbled across featuring nine different on-screen portrayals of the moment that created Batman...

Friday, December 5, 2014

The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds (Nintendo, 2013)

When Nintendo first announced the 3DS with The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D as a launch title, my mind quickly began racing about the possibility of new original 3D Legend of Zelda adventures utilizing the Ocarina of Time engine. At the time, it was still a closely guarded secret that Majora's Mask 3D was also in the works. Years later, when the first 3DS exclusive Legend of Zelda title was finally announced, I was admittedly surprised that it bore little resemblance to Ocarina of Time, but I was even more caught off guard by how much it looked like another Zelda classic, A Link to the Past. This game of course was The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds.

The Legend of Zelda is a confusing series to follow. Not only are the games released in a different order than they take place, but there are also multiple timelines that run parallel to each other. While the occasional direct sequel does happen, it generally involves exploring a new area far from the events of the previous game as in Wind Waker to Phantom Hourglass or Ocarina of Time to Majora's Mask, or revisiting the same area so long after the events of the previous game that the world is unrecognizable as in Ocarina of time to Wind Waker or Phantom Hourglass to Spirit Tracks. A Link Between Worlds breaks this mold by returning us to the world of Link to the Past, released more than two decades earlier.

Although the graphics are presented in 3D polygons rather than 2D sprites, it's remarkable how well the look and feel of the Link to the Past map presents itself in this new format. If you're one of the many who has completed this classic SNES adventure on multiple occasions, you'll feel like you've returned home as you wander through familiar environments noticing the subtle changes that have occurred during the generations that have passed between these games. In addition, many of' the boss battles from Link to the Past have been reimagined in 3 dimensions, to make it that much more of a nostalgia trip.

It's worth noting that as consistently universally acclaimed as console Zelda titles have generally been, mobile titles of the series have been much more hit or miss. Oddly, it's generally been the Capcom produced mobile titles such as Minish Cap and the Oracle series that feel the most like true Zelda games, while Nintendo's own attempts such as Link's Awakening and the DS titles tend to have more of a lighthearted, childlike, and comical approach. With A Link Between Worlds, the big N has finally bucked that trend by actually taking a mobile Legend of Zelda game seriously, and producing something as emotionally moving and meaningful as many of the "real" games.

Okay, that's enough pretext into what the game isn't, but now let's talk about what The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds actually is.When you really look at it, A Link Between Worlds is a classic 2D Zelda game, simply rendered using modern technology. If you grew up on the old-school Zeldas, you'll feel right at home with this one. On the other hand, if you tend to think of Ocarina of Time as "the first one" and never could figure out why people made such a big deal out of the classics, then maybe this isn't the game for you.

While it would have looked a little different, most of A Link Between Worlds could have easily existed on the SNES or GBA and still been just as enjoyable. The exception to this is the game's biggest new feature, the ability to turn into a flat painting and travel along walls. Reminiscent of the indie platformer Sideway, Link can become a piece of living graffiti opening a hidden world within the world. Surprisingly, by becoming flat, the world becomes more 3D as the camera zooms in and follows you to allow movement around objects, letting you finally see what the backs of all of these houses look like. Paintings of hearts or rupees become real items in this mode, but so do painted enemies. The most inventive use of this ability is how it relates to exploration allowing you access to new areas of the overworld and dungeons, as well as the magical slits that lead between the two parallel worlds.

The parallel worlds scenario has been a staple of many Zelda adventures. Ocarina of Time and Oracle of Ages used time travel, while Oracle of Seasons presented four versions of the world, one for each season. A Link Between Worlds follows more along the path of Twilight Princess and, unsurprisingly, A Link to the Past by presenting a light and dark world. This dark version of Hyrule is called Lorule. Yes, it's a bad play on words, but luckily it's a rare exception. Unlike the previous dark world examples, Lorule has its own bustling population with their own problems and issues. The story focuses closely on the citizens of both kingdoms and how these worlds interact. Parts of the story reminded me of the second and third seasons of the show Fringe in how it handled this delicate balance.

In case you've played the DS titles and have less than fond memories of fumbling about with the stylus, you can rest assured that this time Nintendo has remembered how to use buttons again. Sure, the touch screen is still utilized for navigating menus and switching items, and works smoothly for those tasks, but for the most part you'll be using the hardware's actual controls for playing the game, which allows it the tight and responsive controls you'd expect from an action adventure game. No more having to blow into the microphone in the middle of a boss fight!

A Link Between Worlds does do its share of experimenting though, especially when it comes to the items. Ever since the original The Legend of Zelda, it's been the standard that each dungeon contains a new item, and usually these items allow you to reach the next dungeon's location in the overworld. These new goodies are acquired one at a time, giving you time to master each before getting distracted by your next new toy. And, as they say on Wheel of Fortune, once you win a prize, it's yours to keep. This time around, things are a bit different. Early on in the game, Link's house is converted into an item shop, but at first you are unable to purchase these items, only rent them.

This changes things up in a few ways. More items are available earlier on in the game, but you only have them until you die, making the prospect of running out of hearts much more threatening. Later on you also get the opportunity to purchase the items, if you have enough rupees that is. One of the problems Zelda games have had in the past is that at a certain point you simply run out of things to buy unless you're in a hurry to refill your ammo, and then the rupees become meaningless. This new approach allows you to have access to what you need, but still gives you motivation to save up towards it, making the economy of the game stay active longer.

But what about buying ammo? In past Zelda games I'd almost always have the boomerang equipped as my secondary item, at least until I got a hookshot. It made sense, a ranged weapon that could be used as often as I want without worries of resource management allows for more carefree gameplay. This Time, I tended to use the bombs and arrows much more than I had in the past. Why would this be? In the Zelda games, arrows and bombs are more than simply weapons for dispensing your foes, they are keys to unlock solutions to the puzzles blocking your path so you can continue on in your adventures. Running out of either in regular combat could mean having to backtrack when you reach that next roadblock. A Link Between Worlds uses a recharging mechanic that is shared between all of your items, as well as your wall painting mode. This takes the pressure off, and lets you bomb away without fear.

From what I've seen in discussion boards, reviews, and simply in casual conversations, the most divisive aspect of A Link Between Worlds is the art style. The art team on this game had a clear vision to recreate the look and feel of A Link to the Past, and make it come to life in 3D. They pulled this off beautifully, even though it meant modeling vertical objects at strange angles in order to replicate the impossible perspectives implied by its 2D predecessor. Unfortunately, recreating the hand drawn cartoon style in a more solid form lends it a strange look that some find to be too simple and lacking detail. Those less familiar with the earlier games especially seem to be turned off by the visuals, while those of us with fond memories of Link's 8 and 16-bit days tend to be more appreciative of this style. You'll have to decide for yourself what to think on this point.

Since this is a 3DS release, it's worth mentioning the actual stereoscopic 3D aspects. Being a top down 2.5D style game on mostly flat planes, the 3D effects are mostly subtle. They do give a little more depth to things, but for most of the game you won't miss much if you turn down the 3D slider, or play it on a 2DS instead. There are exceptions though, mostly later in the game. There is an open multi-leveled fortress that must be explored in which seeing how far away paths and platforms of lower levels are really helps out in solving the puzzles and navigating the mazes of the structure. The most noticeable moment however is while descending through the lava filled caverns of Death Mountain. There is an extended section of carefully timed jumps from moving platforms onto other moving platforms far below. The added benefit of depth perception on these wild leaps can't be understated!

In my opinion, The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds is the greatest original 3DS game I've played so far. On a platform littered with re-release ports and mobile inspired casual titles, having a lengthy epic adventure that takes itself seriously is a welcome change. I've always found it odd that games for mobile platforms which can be played anywhere at any time tend to be short and repetitive, while the sprawling time consuming experiences are generally linked to the platforms I have the least amount of time to play. This game provides the portable adventure many of us crave, and if you've been looking for something like that, this is one not to miss!

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Flow Free (Big Duck Games/Noodlecake Studios, 2012)

Games come in all sorts of shapes, sizes, and styles to appeal to a wide range of gamers, many of whom don't even consider themselves gamers. If Mom's playing Candy Crush on her iPhone while Junior blasts through Call of Duty on his XBox as Grandmom works out Sunday's crossword puzzle on an iPad, they are all gamers. From Solitaire to Cut the Rope, one of the fastest growing genres is mobile puzzle games. The simple to approach interfaces and short session times make them ideal for a quick distraction to idle away your hours on the go. One such game that's been taking up a lot of my time lately is Flow Free.

The basic idea of Flow Free is that you're presented with a black grid containing multiple colored dots, two dots of each color. You need to connect dots of the same color by dragging a path between them, and end up with every pair of dots connected in a way that fills every piece of the grid. It's a simple premise, and the challenge level scales well from simple to total brain stumper.

Puzzles in Flow Free are arranged based on grid size. From the main menu, you can select any size grid without having to have completed the previous sizes, allowing you to jump right into whatever level of challenge you are in the mood for. This approach makes the game more accessible to casual players, and allows the easier earlier levels to be skipped if they don't provide enough difficulty, but on the other hand, you do lose out on any sense of progression you might get otherwise.

Lacking a progression map may seem like it would make the game less addictive, but if it does, I didn't notice. This is one of those "Just one more level" games that is difficult to put down. It loads fast and remembers where you left off, so it's a quick go-to when waiting in line, waiting for a download, waiting for a text reply, or just plain waiting. I found myself going through the lists on my phone until I'd completed every puzzle, even the larger ones intended for tablets, with a careful hand they are playable on a decent size phone screen, iPhone 5 users may have trouble with them though.

As the grids get larger, the number of dots increase, and with them, the number of colors used. This is where an unavoidable problem arises, there just aren't really that many different looking colors. Sure it's easy to tell the red dot from the green dot, but when you finally snake a path from the blue dot across the screen only to find that the other blue dot is slightly darker and therefor a different color, it gets frustrating. Sometimes it seemed like they stuck with slight brightness variations of the different colors too much when altering the saturation as well might have made them stand out more, but with a careful eye, all of the puzzles are still playable.

Another issue was with the puzzle designs themselves. Some of them were clever intricate bits of brilliance with only a single possible solution that must be deduced from the clues provided. Others were more sloppy messes with large empty spaces that just need to be filled in by whichever color you're connecting last. It's as if the designer was more inspired some days and just phoning it in others, or else there were more than one designer, and some were just better than the rest. The way they are mixed together gives the game an inconsistent feel rather than a progressive ramp up, possibly another reason why they opened access to all of the puzzles from the start.

While it's far from a perfect game, Flow Free still managed to capture my attention for more hours than I would have thought. Some of the more difficult puzzles had me stumped for days at a time, and one particular puzzle took me weeks to figure out. If you've been keeping an eye open for a simple free mobile game to kill time with, then Flow Free may be exactly what you need.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Bastion (Supergiant Games/WarnerBros. Interactive Entertainment, 2011/2012)

I talked a lot about clones in my Ittle Dew review, and about how most games released these days are slight variations on existing ideas. The recent renaissance in indie games by smaller groups or even individuals has lead to some pretty radical new gaming concepts, but sometimes games come along that manage to give us something we're already familiar with, but in a new way that makes it feel like something fresh and unique. This is the case with Bastion.

If you had to categorize Bastion, it would be an Action RPG with Hack n' Slash combat, but that immediately brings up images of Legend of Zelda mixed with God of War as seen in the Darksiders series, and really Bastion is not at all like those games. It has a laid back patient pace to it, and a strong charm that while not exactly whimsical, is definitely leaning in that direction.

Much of this charm comes from the ongoing narration. Ever since Joe Montana II: Sports Talk football for the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive, sports game fans have seen, or heard rather, the evolution of real time play-by-play commentary, and while it's nothing new in the world of digital ball tossing, it's something rarely featured in adventure games. Bastion utilizes this technology to tell you a story in past tense about not just the main objectives and plot points, but what you are doing moment to moment, and how well you are handling various situations. It's a surreal experience that pushes the art of interactive storytelling into new territory. Hopefully it becomes a trend and we can see how far it can go.

I mentioned the Hack n' Slash roots of the gameplay, and as would be expected, Bastion has a very active combat system. What I found unique was how large of a variety of weapons the game offered the player, and how different the gameplay felt with each weapon. It's not uncommon for action games to have fully fleshed out projectile vs melee combat systems, but the differences between using a sword vs spear vs hammer, or a shotgun vs bow and arrow vs machine gun felt almost like playing different games.

You are able to carry any two weapons at a time, and since they map to different buttons on the controller, switching between them seamlessly becomes a large part of the experience. Optional training areas for each weapon are available as side missions allowing you to learn the pros and cons of each without the need for standard tutorials, and really help in trying to find the combination that best matches your preferred play style.

Try not to get too comfortable with any one play style though. As you progress through the many environments and enemy types Bastion has to offer, you'll be changing up your equipment of choice to best suit whatever challenge you find yourself up against. What works great against swarms won't get you far in a boss fights, and the best way to take down larger enemies won't work well when attracted by quicker moving airborne foes. Some areas require a more focused style of play, while others demand flexibility.

Throughout Bastion, resources are collected that can be used to upgrade your character, or your weapons, allowing the ability to further customize your playing experience by making your weapons stronger or faster, or increasing it's range or ammunition capacity. The ability to perform these upgrades isn't available right away however, first you must upgrade your main base of operations, the Bastion itself.

Bastion takes place right after a horrible accident destroys the world. You play as The Kid, as you try to reassemble some of the pieces to build a small bit of habitable land floating in the vast nothingness, all the while befriending fellow survivors and unlocking the mystery to discover the cause of the calamity. Each character has their own back story, and their own take on the land's history. The Kid's story gets fleshed out the most, and there are some touching moments as he discovers the fate of his lost loved ones. This is where the narrator really helps, allowing the emotions to surface in more of a literary way, rather than a typical cinematic approach.

Visually, Bastion also manages to stand out from other games. The 2D isometric artwork presents a detailed world that flows into place from the empty vastness beneath as The Kid nears an edge. Everything has a strong and consistent style to it that packs just the right amount of eye candy into it so it never seems stale, but never gets distracting. This is complimented by the laid back twangy yet atmospheric music reminiscent of some of the lighter soundtrack pieces from the Borderlands series.

Bastion's relaxed pace brand of introspective combat adventuring may not appeal to gamers looking for pure adrenaline fueled twitch combat, and the desolate world devoid of traditional towns and NPCs may feel a bit lonely for rabid RPG fans, but if you've been on the lookout for something that feels just a bit different, Bastion is an experience you won't want to miss out on.

Friday, November 7, 2014

[TRAILER] Nintendo 3DS - The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask 3D - Announcement Trailer

Ok, I've been posting a lot of trailers on here lately, but this is the one I'm most excited for:

Ever since The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D was announced as a 3DS launch title, there's been a lot of speculation as to its sequel also being adapted. Now we know, The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask 3D will be making its way to our portable screens in the near future so a whole new generation of gamers can experience what is undoubtedly the strangest chapter of the Zelda series.

I might even pre-order this one!

[TRAILER] OverWatch Trailer Premiere At Blizzcon 2014

Remember when Blizzard announced that they were canceling Titan recently? Well, it looks like they're hanging onto a lot of what they'd made and reworking it into a shooter instead...

Overwatch looks interesting, but there's not a lot of information yet on exactly what it is. Is it a Defiance style MMO Shooter? Is it a new MOBA? Is it the next Team Fortress? It goes beta in 2015, but until more info starts leaking, we'll just have to wonder.

Thursday, October 30, 2014


I've been aware of the Final Fantasy series since the first game launched for the NES in 1987, but I wasn't really a fan until the 16-bit SNES releases. It wasn't until Final Fantasy VII in 1997 that the series became a mainstream success, and it's been part of the gaming culture since then.

Games of the Final Fantasy series tend to have vastly different moods and settings. There's usually a combination of medieval fantasy, steampunk, and sci-fi, but the balance shifts from game to game. Lately, the series has been leaning more towards the contemporary to futuristic end of the spectrum, but this trailer seems to be harkening back to the magic combination that made the mid-90s games so memorable.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

[TRAILER] Official Call of Duty®: Advanced Warfare Gameplay Launch Trailer

Some game franchises have started releasing sequels so regularly that they become less like novels and more like magazine subscriptions. One of those franchises is Call of Duty. The frequency of new releases tends to turn away as many players as it attracts as the constant hype cycle fades into white noise.

That said, this new trailer caught my attention...

Back in the early CD-ROM days when Full Motion Video was a new gimmick, games based entirely around FMV were a popular genre. Once the novelty of watching video in a videogame started to wear off, celebrities were quickly recruited in an effort to stave off the genre's inevitable demise just a bit longer. Once games jumped from sprites to polygons, celebrity likenesses in games were still attempted, but turned out awkward and embarrassing more often than not.

Technology has come a long way in the decades since then, and modeling, rendering, and motion-capture capabilities of modern hardware allow a better opportunity for celebrity appearances.

Kevin Spacey plays a large role in Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, and if his performance is anywhere near as good as he's been in House of Cards lately, this alone might be enough to make people who've been lukewarm on the series for a while to take another look.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D (Nintendo, 2011)

How do you review a game that's not just a classic, but according to some people the greatest game of all time? What is there to say about it that hasn't been said before? I've mentioned The Legend of Zelda series several times in my reviews. It's had an obvious influence on games such as Beyond Good and Evil and the Darksiders series, and was payed deliberate tribute to in games such as Evoland, Ittle Dew, and 3D Dot Game Heroes.

The original The Legend of Zelda was actually the third game I ever played on the NES (Metroid was the first, Rygar was the second), and the new approach to gaming it offered through a unique combination of exploration, combat, and puzzle solving over a vast variety of settings is something that stuck with me. During the summer of 2011 I was playing through Ocarina of Time again and thinking how great it would be to see an updated version. It was only a couple months later that I saw the announcement from Nintendo that it was being revived for the 3DS. One wonderful xmas gift from my awesome wife later, and I was finally playing The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D.

Before I get into the actual review, I just want to point out how ironic this name is. The meaning of the term 3D in the context of videogames has been constantly evolving. At first, any game with graphics (I'm leaving out text adventures for now) took place entirely on a two dimensional plane. At a certain point, games started calculating positions in three dimensions, even though the graphics were still displayed as 2D sprites, this gave us games such as Sonic 3D Blast. Eventually, we had primitive 3D worlds populated by 2D sprites in games such as Wolfenstein 3D and Duke Nukem 3D. Once games dropped the 2D sprites for polygon based models, they were referred to as 3D games, and sprite based games such as Sonic 3D Blast were the 2D games. Then, we got 3D displays, both at home with 3D TVs and on the go with the 3DS. So, now the polygon worlds are 2D games, and the games supporting 3D displays are the 3D games, even if they are 2D sprite based. It's also worth pointing out that none of these new games are actually presenting us with a 3D image, simply separate 2D images for each eye, creating an illusion of 3D, so at some point in the future the term is sure to change meanings once again. Anyway, on with the review!

As this is a remake, it makes sense to start by pointing out the differences between this game and its N64 predecessor. While several design elements were altered, the most noticeable differences are with the game's visuals. Back in 1998, Ocarina of Time was considered a nice looking game, but as the N64 was Nintendo's first attempt at a dedicated 3D console (not counting the handful of SNES Super FX Chip titles) the low poly models and pixelated textures look awfully primitive by today's standards. For this version, all of the character, item, and environment models have been replaced by much higher poly-count versions, and all new textures were included providing a more detailed world.

This alone would have convinced a lot of players to pluck down their cash on a remake, but Nintendo took things just a bit further and took advantage of this opportunity to fix a couple visual elements where they had to cheat things a bit to get around the N64s limitations. After the opening cinematics, the game finally begins in Link's tree hut home. Later, you venture into the bustling city of Hyrule Castle Town. If you were playing this in the 90s, you remember both of these areas being presented as grainy stretched images in a primitive version of what would later become the Google Street View style of environmental mapping. This time around these are full realtime rendered 3D modeled worlds that pop out of the 3DS display. The same is true for details such as the statues in Zelda's garden, which were previously 2D billboard style sprites due to the N64's polygon limitations.

With all of the visual upgrades, it's interesting to notice that the audio hasn't changed. If anything, this is a statement to the quality of the original music and sound effects, more than a lack of effort on the part of the developers. Music is a very important part of Ocarina of Time, not just to the experience, but also to the gameplay and even the storyline. As such, updating the music could easily have altered the feel of the game. Given the hardware differences between the N64 and 3DS, the amount of effort needed to keep the sound the same must have been monumental in itself.

In addition to the updated graphics, several design elements also got a touch up. The five notes of the titular ocarina mapped nicely to the N64 controller, but are more awkward on the 3DS, needing a combination of triggers and face buttons. The touch screen allows an alternate method of playing through your songs. The touch screen also comes in handy for switching items or swapping equipment. The 3DS's accelerometer works great for quickly looking around and aiming with the first person weapons such as the bow or slingshot. A hint system has been included that can play helpful videos when you get completely stuck. Yes, it's cheating, but it means you don't have to pull up that walkthrough on your smartphone. And speaking of being completely stuck...

If you ask almost anybody who's ever played through The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time what the most frustrating part of the whole game is, the response you'll hear most often is the Water Temple. The problem with this temple is that there are switches hidden throughout the structure that change the water levels, meaning areas that were previously dry are later under water. This much is already disorienting, but in the coarse of solving the Temple's puzzles the water level must be changed multiple times, and due to the limited texture memory of the system, all of the corridors tended to look the same, making these switches hard to find when you need them. This time around there are highlighted passageways with glowing color coded paths leading to each of these switches. Sure, it's still the most frustrating part of the game, but you'll be much less tempted to throw your 3DS out the window than you would have been.

So, we've pretty much got a nicer looking version of a game you've probably already played and a handful of design improvements, is that all? Well, no, it's not. Way back in 2002, if you pre-ordered a copy of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, it came with a bonus disk. This disk included a copy of Ocarina of Time that ran on the Gamecube at a higher frame rate and supported progressive scan. But, it also contained something called Master Quest. If you've ever played the first 8-but NES The Legend of Zelda, you might have noticed that after you defeat Ganon, the game starts over with harder enemies and new dungeons. The Master Quest was similarly an alternate Ocarina of Time. The main environment maps for each dungeon remained unchanged, but the all new puzzles had you navigating the rooms in a different order. It was a much harder game, and after mastering the original, it was a great challenge. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D contains a the entire Master Quest version, but with a twist, the entire world has been flipped left to right as with The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess when it moved from the Gamecube to the Wii.

So, what if you've never played Ocarina of Time before? Well, in that case, much of this review probably doesn't mean all that much to you, so I'll simplify it for you. Go play it. Seriously, right now! It was an amazing game in 1998, and it's still an amazing game now. It set the standard for 3D adventures, and invented Z targeting which has become the norm for just about every third person action game since. It raised videogame storytelling to new levels and gave us unique and memorable characters. Is it perfect? No. But, even with the long winded owl and the constant "Hey, listen!" it's still a great game. Is it the greatest game ever made? That's a mater of opinion, and I'm not going to weigh in on that debate, but it is a game I highly recommend.

Bottom line, if you've played Ocarina of Time before, and want to experience it in a whole new way, play this game. If you've never played Ocarina of Time before, this is the best way to start. If you just plain don't like Ocarina of time, you probably still won't, so you might as well stay away. With the irony of so many of the better 3DS games being 2D or 2.5D games, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D provides the immersive 3D adventure this hardware begs for, and for that, it's worth having as part of your 3DS library.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Portal 2 (Valve, 2011)

I've written reviews on game sequels before, but this review is a little different simply because it's my first time writing about a game that's a sequel to a game I've already reviewed. Why did it take so long for this to happen? Well, mostly it's because when I first started this site I wanted a larger variety to the types of games being reviewed. This directly influenced which games I chose to play next. For example, after finishing Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, my first instinct was to pop in Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, but I figured having three reviews in a row of the same series might not be as interesting, so I changed directions and went for 3D Dot Game Heroes instead.

Now, since it looks like most of my traffic comes from google searches for specific games rather than loyal readers who come back for each new post (which you totally should be doing, add me to your RSS feed already!) the lack of variety has turned out to be a much smaller issue than I'd first imagined it might be. Plus, I've had time to post quite a variety already, so I'm much less worried about getting repetitive at this point. Expect a string of Batman and Zelda reviews coming up in the near future. Anyway, if you haven't seen it yet, you might want to take a minute to read my review of the first Portal. And now, let's take a look at Portal 2.

The best way to start this review is probably to talk about what's different this time around, and the most noticeable difference has to be the approach to storytelling. In the first Portal, you simply went through each puzzle until escaping the final stage and going rogue. For the most part, the only dialog was from the GLaDOS artificial intelligence instructing/heckling you, and the occasional mumblings of the turrets or corrupted cores.

In the sequel, you know from the start that you must escape, just not how. While you still play as Chell, the silent protagonist from the original, there are a variety of robotic characters along the way to speak to you, and to each other, providing actual dialog scenes. In addition, much of the game involves listening to pre-recorded messages, as well as watching how the others react alongside you. In typical Valve fashion, this is all achieved without ever breaking the action for a typical cut-scene, instead allowing the story to happen around you as you continue to play in more of a theme park ride style than a passive movie experience.

Portal 2 once again takes place within the compounds of the Aperture Science Enrichment Center, however it's not looking so good these days. Thanks to a stasis chamber malfunction, you awaken an indeterminate but obviously really long time in the future. The game starts with a crane ride through the now rusted and decaying facility in a not so subtle tribute to the opening of the original Half-Life, the game that launched Valve's success in the first place. This unique setting allows you to visit the remains of areas from the first Portal, as well as explore more of the massive structure's area.

Throughout the game, Aperture's complete backstory is uncovered as test chambers from decades past are explored and conquered, providing a satisfying glimpse into how this unique company came to be. Cave Johnson, the founder of Aperture, becomes a major character in the game, despite never actually appearing, instead being portrayed only through a series of images and audio recordings as you roam through the offices and testing facilities of the company's forgotten areas. The vintage areas of the 1950s with wooden crate companion cubes made me smile, and the 1980s area filled me with a personal sense of nostalgia.

In my review of the first Portal, I mentioned that the overall theme was in not always doing what you are told as those telling you what to do might be more interested in their own well being than yours. It was a unique idea, but not one that could work a second time. Instead, Portal 2 focuses on themes of trust, loyalty, and forgiveness. It's not always clear who is your ally or enemy. Those who are your enemies might be victims themselves, and may need to be rescued rather than defeated. It's a change of pace from the standard black and white tales of good versus evil we are often given. It's also a rare story in that the NPCs are dynamic characters with story arcs of their own as they travel a path of self discovery. Not bad considering it's all machines.

It's not just the same game with a new story though, Portal 2 has plenty of new tricks up its sleeve. In addition to the standard weighted cube, there are reflective cubes that can redirect lasers. There are hard light bridges that can be routed through your portals to get you across various areas. Then, there are the tractor beams that can move you or other objects through the air. Those alone would be enough of an update to merit a sequel, but then there are the gels.

Three separate gels can be found throughout the game, and must be applied to your environment to make the puzzles solvable. There's the always fun blue bouncy gel that transforms any surface into a trampoline, the orange speed gel that lets you run in credibly fast, and jump much farther than otherwise possible, and then a white gel that lets any surface host portals. You can imagine how useful those can be, even if it takes some careful planning to get portals in place to apply each gel where you need them. Water spouts can also be used to remove any gel if you change your mind.

Lately, Valve has been pushing hard into making multiplayer gaming the definitive future of gaming. They even declared that Portal 2 would be their last release to feature single player content. This pretty much sucks for anybody hoping to ever play a new Portal or Half Life game. As part of this push, Portal 2 features a multiplayer mode as well. As interesting as a Portal themed MMO might be, this is simply a two player cooperative mode campaign with trickier puzzles requiring both players working together to solve. Honestly, I didn't play this mode. Part of the fun of this game is immersing myself in a new world, and having to talk everything out with somebody else would spoil that illusion. Still, it's there if that's your thing.

Portal 2 is a game that was highly recommended to me, and in my opinion the hype is well deserved. While the first Portal was a short single serving of a puzzle, the sequel is a sprawling adventure that makes me glad to be a gamer. Hopefully, Valve will at some point ease up on their multiplayer only stance and grace us with a third, but until then, at least we have this one. So, if you own a computer, and you've never played either game, log onto Steam, wait for the next ridiculous holiday blowout sale, and do yourself a favor!