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!

Friday, October 17, 2014

Mark of the Ninja (Klei Entertainment/Microsoft Studios, 2012/2013)

Let's talk about ninjas. If you were a child in the 80s, ninjas were kind of a big deal. They were our cowboys. Movies, comics, cartoons, and TV shows constantly fed our insatiable appetites for these ultimate warriors who combined the martial arts prowess of the 70s Kung Fu star with the graphic violence of the slasher flick villain and we couldn't get enough. The problem with these passive forms of entertainment though is that you don't actually get to be the ninja yourself. Enter videogames to solve the problem. Classic ninja games such as Shinobi and Ninja Gaiden gave us access to the moves, weapons, and action of the ninja genre, but something was missing. Ninjas were history's invisible assassins, not feudal era commandos. It wasn't until decades later that the ninja genre finally combined successfully with the stealth genre with Mark of the Ninja.

Mark of the Ninja is the type of game that likes to combine elements of various established genres and make them its own. It's not as gimmicky as Evoland, and not as blatant as the Darksiders games. At its core, Mark of the Ninja is a 2D side scrolling platformer. Anyone who's been keeping up with my reviews knows that I have a definite fondness for those. To start with, your ninja is as acrobatic as would be expected, leaping around and scaling walls and ceilings in a classic Strider meets Spiderman fashion.

That sets up a good foundation, but then we add the stealth elements. As far as stealth games go, I'd say it leans more towards the Batman: Arkham series than it does the Splinter Cell style. Like the caped crusader, you'll use a variety of hidden takedown moves including grabbing people through vents, from under the floor, and while hanging upside down from a rope. These takedown moves are important, because the direct combat is a lot less effective than you might expect.

Mark of the Ninja is not a brawler, a beat'mup, or a button masher. It's a puzzle game hidden in an action game shell, even more so than with other such games such as Hotline Miami. Your greatest adversary is the level design itself. That's not to say that there aren't actual enemies, there are plenty of those, but they feel more like pieces of a larger puzzle while playing through it. It's not a pure puzzle though, as you almost always have multiple ways of approaching any situation. Sometimes it's best to crawl through an air duct and silently take out a sniper from behind before dealing with the machine gunner on the ground, but other times you're more in the mood to just grapple up above the ground troops and hit the sniper with a well timed dagger before he can respond.

Adding to the challenge of the levels is a line of sight mechanics that obscures any part of the area that your ninja wouldn't be able to see. This means that not only can you hide from the enemy, but the enemy can also hide from you. Visual clues illustrate where on the screen sounds are coming from, so sometimes you can tell that somebody is walking across a room, but not who it is until you take a peak.

If the levels themselves aren't pushing your skills quite enough, Mark of the Ninja also provides a number of optional Challenge Rooms hidden throughout the map. These rooms are much more difficult than the game's usual pace, and take various elements such as laser traps and turrets and turn them into a frustrating series of mechanical death that I found incredibly satisfying to work through.

It's not all monotonous repetition though. Throughout the game you collect honor (XP points) that can be spent on upgrades which unlock new moves or improve your stats. There are bonuses for not being detected, or taking down all of the enemies in an area, giving you an incentive to replay levels either to be a completionist, or just to get more upgrades if you're having trouble in later levels. It never gets into RPG levels of depth, but it definitely meets the standards of most modern action games.

So, what exactly is Mark of the Ninja about? It's a story of betrayal, conspiracy, revenge, and a descent into insanity. You play as an unnamed member of a ninja clan who has just received what basically amounts to a magic tattoo. As the chemicals from the ink seep into your system, they enhance your abilities, but also drive you insane. It's a story of plot twists and ambiguous choices as you uncover the mystery of who betrayed the clan, and stop a resulting plot involving an army of armed mercenaries. As the insanity kicks in, you begin to question your reality Total Recall style. It doesn't dive as deep into the subject as Alice: Madness Returns, but it still handles it well.

Much of this is portrayed through in game dialog which helps you feel as if you're actually part of the story, but the real magic is in the game's cutscenes. These between level cinematics are beautifully animated and give life to the world. Oddly though, as prevalent as anime influence is in videogames, this story which takes place in Japan by a Japanese protagonist has a distinctly American animation style.

In an age of endless retro graphics pixel art releases, it's refreshing to see quality 2D visuals. Everything is well drawn and shaded to create a stunning dark moody atmosphere. Lighting effects allow for strong shadows to hide in, and the muted blurring used by the line of sight system mentioned earlier gives Mark of the Ninja a unique and impressive look. It's no slouch on the audio side either with a combination of composed score and atmospheric background drones setting the tone under the game's organic sound effects that make everything feel just a bit more solid.

I've been rambling on about how much I enjoyed this game, and it is a great game, but it's not perfect. As some other reviewers have mentioned, you do spend way more time dodging laser traps than a contemporary ninja story possibly should, and a few of the rooms felt unbalanced as if they just tossed in as many guys as they could rather than creating memorable obstacles. The game is also a bit on the short side which could be a plus or a minus depending on how big your Steam backlog has gotten. Overall, I had a great time with Mark of the Ninja, and if you're at all into stealth, platforming, or ninjas, you probably will too.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

[GUEST REVIEW] Clash of Clans (Supercell, 2012)

I'm going to do something a little different with this post. My wife has been playing a lot of Clash of Clans lately and posted a review for it in the Google Play store. Since I happen to have a game review blog, I figure I'd share it on here as well. Enjoy!

I was afraid to start playing this game, and for good reason - it is addicting! There's always something to be done: upgrading your gold mines and elixir collectors, training troops, pillaging neighboring villages, you name it! I started playing the game on a day off and was up to level 10 by night's end. A great exercise in managing your resources and stealing others' ;)