Axiom Verge - PC Review

This homage to Metroid does not just respect the formula - it improves it

Order of Battle: Pacific - PC Review

Surprise - but this is one of the best strategy games of 2015 so far

Gratuitous Space Battles II - PC Review

Get ready for lots of strategic space combat - your time will be well spent

MLB 15: The Show - PS4 Review

It is still the best game of baseball on the market, though the improvements from last year are minimal

Sayonara UmiharaKawase + - PS Vita Review

A challenging platforming title that gets an update for the Vita - but has it aged well?

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Record of Agarest War - Xbox 360 game review

Record of Agarest War is one of the few turn-based strategy games I’ve played in quite some time. I used to love this particular genre. I first got hooked on them back during Shining Force and Warsong (Or Langrisser as it was known overseas). I love turn-based strategy games – I recently picked up Sonic’s Genesis Collection for my 360 – mainly for the Shining Force and Phantasy Star games.

Record of Agarest War tries to do something a bit different as well though, mixing in something of a ‘dating sim’ aspect. Your lead character winds up in a potential relationship with one of three female characters. The layout is an overworld map that you can traverse where you have towns, battles, quests and events occur. The events are usually cut scenes that help to advance the storyline along, and it’s during these cut scenes where you sometimes have to make decisions . Sometimes it is just a matter of answering someone’s question, other times you make decisions on a path to take. These choices can affect things such as available routes, the affections of the three women you can romance and affect a light/dark gauge.

Let’s break the game down a bit and see how it all plays out.

Graphics – 6:

The artwork of the characters during scenes is nice, and the maps themselves have a nice, painted look to them. Until you realize that they are completely static and that there is not much variety in them. The quest modes have a nice feel to them as well, again continuing with this hand-drawn look, but sometimes there is a lack of clarity as to where you need to go. In the first cavern you visit, for example, the far left upper edge is black and that leads to more of the cavern. This could have been larger or perhaps had more attention drawn to it in some way, because it really did not look much different than the rest of the cave, so I found myself running around in circles for awhile before ‘bumping’ into that spot and being whisked off to the next section. The sprite-based combatants during combat are okay – kind of fuzzy and they feel like they would be right at home on a DS, but they feel a bit underwhelming on the much more powerful Xbox 360. The biggest problem for me is just the lack of variety. Even some sort of parallax background, lighting effects or smoke/fog effects to add some visual interest to the combat fields would have helped a lot.

Music & Sound – 4:

I really liked a handful of the tunes, like on the overworld map and when you start the game. Some of the quest exploration tunes are at least catchy if nothing special. So why the low score? I generally hate most of the battle music. The overworld map has such a full, orchestral sound to it and then you get into the battle maps and it’s less Lord of the Rings and more garage electric guitar. It’s quieter, and it completely feels out of place with the rest of the game’s theme. Additionally, there is a fair amount of voice to be heard during combat – but it’s all in Japanese. They never localized the speaking parts to English, which is a bit grating at times. The sounds are repetitive enough, but the inability to know what they are saying just adds to the frustration. Half the time I played this, I had music playing on my computer instead.

Gameplay – 8:

It seems like there is a lack of explanation at times as you play through the game. There’s just small things that are not explained real clearly or at all. That said, once you have the hang of it, the game is pretty easy to control, the menus are fairly easy to navigate (though would it have killed them to make a ‘page up/page down’ using bumper buttons when going through long lists of items like Titles or Shop Inventories?). There’s a nice fast-forward feature for cut scenes you don’t want to sit through (especially if you’re on a part that has a lengthy dialog before a big fight you have to do over again), but the option to hit ‘start’ and skip those ones that don’t require you make choices would have been quite nice (or a start that takes you to your first choice).

The strategy aspects are pretty good, but not perfect. There is an emphasis on what direction you are facing, because there are blocks that can ‘link’ you to another player – allowing for combined attacks. You don’t get this fundamental early on, but it is really helpful later. However, there is no flanking or backstab damage, so the impact of unit direction is somewhat minimalized. Also, all of the combat takes place on these painted backdrops with flat ground. As far back as there have been strategy games, there have been things impacted by terrain such as damage/defense and range, but there is none of that here. This coupled with the lack of terrain/graphical movement make the maps feel small and somewhat lifeless.

My last real complaint is the dating simulation. The questions can be a bit vague at times – you answer them expecting different results quite often, and that’s fine I guess. It keeps you from metagaming for the best possible results. That said, at the end of a generation, you automatically pick the woman you have the most ‘affection’ from. There is already a system in place where the stronger the bond, the stronger the next generation’s character will be. So why not let the player pick who they want to marry, for better or for worse? Still, the overall impact of this system is pretty cool, and it reminds me of the often underappreciated Phantasy Star III: Generations game I played repeatedly on my Genesis once upon a time (to the point where I had seen all possible endings). There are five generations handled in this fashion, where your relationship with who you marry affects your child not only statistically but with skills and weapon type.

The combat itself is pretty interesting with a fairly decent range of skills and spells of varying ranges. There is also an SP counter that goes up over time when you attack, are attacked or a team member dies. Enemies do have an annoying habit of teaming up on a single character and killing him or her before you can do anything about it, but this allows your chars to return the favor from a powered-up standpoint. Also characters can link together, otherwise attacking creatures that would have been outside of their range, or creating combination attacks – like two double strike attacks equal a quadruple attack that both characters perform together at the same time.

Intangibles – 8:

I already touched on the dating simulation aspect and the varied children you can have as a result. It would be cool if this was somehow more impactful on the storyline. In Phantasy Star III it actually gave you completely different views on events and storylines – in one of the instances if I recall correctly, you could even wind up with twins. The impact here is a bit less as the new character each generation is a neat mix of the two parents, but somehow feels more like a skin to an existing storyline. There are other systems though as well that really help to add to the value.

There is a monster capturing feature as well that feels like a missed opportunity. If you lower a creature’s health far enough (less than 5%) and you have a character with the capture skill, you can attempt to finish the creature off by capturing (notice I said creature – not humanoids but wolves, skeletons, mummies, etc). You can combine monsters to get new ones (sometimes), and you can trade them in for items. I usually do the latter. Their function if you don’t trade them in, is that you can add them to your group as a leveling party member – and here is where I feel like maybe it was a missed opportunity. I have not felt the urge to replace my existing party members with one of these less interesting monsters. It might have been more fun if you could summon them for a few rounds or use them as spells – something that doesn’t take away from your group configuration. Hence, why I trade them in.

Gear can be purchased, found and crafted from various components. The gear can also be enhanced using a type of combat experience exclusively for this process and it improves the stats. There are a wide variety of items, equipment and spells/skills to be created, improved and equipped and I enjoy it quite a bit. These smaller systems all help add some variety to what is a very long game, and without these systems the game could become quite a grind. I have heard a lot of people complain about the length of the game and how repetitive it was, but I guess these side items help add some value to it for me.

The leveling system is nice as well, because you gain points you get to put into different statistical areas. Not all areas are created equal for each character though – a magic user might need only 2 points to improve intelligence, but 4 points to improve vitality. So while you are certainly herded into certain directions, you are not restricted to them and it is a nice bit of customization you can apply to your characters.

All in all, there is quite a bit to do to keep you busy, and it’s capped off with a kind of new game+ for people who want to replay again. You can replay and keep your stuff, and play it again at that difficulty or less (so for example if you opt for normal difficulty (there are 3 to start) – you can do a new game+ on easy or normal – but not difficult).

Overall – 6.5:

It depends on what you want from the game. I’m willing to forgive a game like this for lower quality graphics and sound than I might be a first person shooter where the environment is a big part of the gameplay. Here it is more about tactics, storyline and loot.

I’ve sunk a ton of time into this game already. I’ll probably give it a new game+ just to try out different combinations of decisions, romances and so on. I’ve always been one of those people who can grind and grind and level up with sometimes ridiculous efficiency in both roleplaying and strategy games, and this one feeds into those interests of mine rather nicely. However, there are flaws in this game as well. The music and graphics are substandard overall, and the lack of localized voice just feels lazy. There are a vast number of subsystems, but if you find that you don’t like them or use them often, then the combat could start to feel pretty repetitive. A little variation in the landscapes both visually and strategically would have carried this game so much further and maybe helped edge it into the realm of classics like Shining Force or Final Fantasy Tactics, but instead it lags a bit behind them and it is a shame because I definitely want to see more games like this in the near future.

If you are a fan of turn-based stategy games in fantasy settings, this game might be for you. If those subsystems sound like fun, then you should find plenty to do and the game definitely gives you some mileage - I've read comments from players saying they've gone well over 100 hours on it. However, if action is more your thing and none of the above premises particularly grabbed your attention, then there is not enough technical achievement to probably interest you either as graphics and music have certainly been done better elsewhere. Also, the game does come with a teen rating, so while the sprited characters are cute enough and the gameplay relatively easy for younger players to pick up, there are some alcohol references, mild fantasy violence, mild language, and suggestive themes.

My review was for the Xbox 360 - I've read that there is some additional content out there for the Playstation 3 version but I can't say as I've tried any of it so I did not weigh in on that. All things being equal, I believe that they perform equally (albeit averagely) on both system so if you have access to both, it may be worth getting it on the PS3 (my acquisition price was considerably smaller on the 360 however).

NCAA Footbal 2011 - Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 review

This is going to be my longest, most detailed review to date. I’ve only played the Xbox 360 version, but I’ve been told by friends with the PS3 version who have played the Xbox one that they are for all intents and purposes the same – so I’ll consider this a review for both systems.

There’s a major preface I need to start with – I love football. I watch more NFL than college, but all in all I’ve been watching both for years. I’ve been playing them for years as well – over several generations of video game console. It seems like each time we move up to a new generation of console, the sports games suffer the most from failed expectations and it takes them a couple of years to find their proper legs.

If you’re not a fan of football games – you probably aren’t going to like this one. If you bought last year’s game, you’ll have to decide if the $60 price tag is worth the updates. NCAA Football 2011 is my favorite so far from the series, but in the areas I care about most, I don’t feel like it’s made enough strides. The be a legend mode feels almost unchanged. In fact, I’m fairly certain that the Erin Andrews videos are reused from last year’s game. The online stuff is a lot better, but I tend not to use it as much. For whateve reason, most of my friends play Madden every year, but don’t get the NCAA games so it’s more fun for me to league up with buddies on Madden than NCAA, but there are some nice improvements on this front as well. I also felt like the Dynasty mode has finally made some nice strides – and since this is where I spend the vast majority of my time, this does tilt the review in this year’s iteration favorably. I’ve already played through 3 seasons with another about half done, and put a player about halfway through the created player mode – so I’ve definitely seen most of the good and bad that the game has to offer. Here goes:

Graphics - 8.5:

Overall, the graphics are good. Player movements are fluid, the game moves along at a crisp pace, the stadium design looks solid and I never had any trouble telling what was going on during gameplay. The crowd has some cool animations now, but they feel fairly generic – then again, I would imagine that more detail and movement would cause the framerate to stuffer more than it already does during some action heavy sequences. The replays from on-field look better than most of the other angles in my opinion. There is one graphical glitch I have gotten to occur about every 6 or 7 games. I tend to do a lot of no huddle/hurry up stuff and so I’m often pressing buttons and getting out of replays – it’s just how I play. Well, several times now I’ve gotten the game’s graphics into a goofy state where the live gameplay still looks good, but all of the replays and scenes behind the playbook menus wind up in this out of focus blur filter that seems to accidentally get applied for the rest of the game. Get out of that particular match up though, and the next one is back to normal again. It kind of reminds me of the most recent Angry Video Game Nerd video about Graphics Glitches (not appropriate for kids).

Music & Sounds – 7:

The commentary is effective enough, and I like the announcers but they are starting to get a bit stale this year. School theme songs boom nicely, fans react more loudly in appropriate situations and really help the home field advantage feeling. The hits on the field and the quarterback cadences all sound like you would expect them to. It’s not a game like Modern Warfare where stereo effects really play into the game and surround sound gives you an actual advantage. One oddity that has occurred twice to me – my sound cut out mid-game. Just… completely gone. Unlike the blur filter issue, it did not clear up the next game. I had to back out to my main Xbox dashboard and then it came back. I’ve never had that problem with any other game, and it’s only been twice, so nowhere near as problematic as the blur filter, but more annoying.

Gameplay – 7:

This is going to be a long section, but in sports games I can live with so-so graphics and sound – good gameplay is a must. I really wanted to give it a 9, but there were a few things holding this score back. I’ve had a few glitches during the gameplay. Probably the most annoying bug I’ve had yet happened only once, on a PAT. The opposing team had just scored on me, and the ball hit the upright and the PAT was no good. Odd thing happened then, the ball fell to the endzone and one of my defensive players plucked it out of the air. And then we lined up to kick and… I was lining up to kick. Somehow the game had read that since I had possession, I was to kick off? Just a weird, weird glitch in what was a very close game at the time. I’ve tried repeatedly to replicate it, but I’ve yet to have another PAT miss fall into the endzone like that.

Next up? The blocking is a lot better overall, especially the run blocking – in most instances. The Maryland formation is basically broken then. If I run a counter or power, it’s a complete crapshoot. The formation calls for three backs in the backfield, with two serving as blockers for the halfback. They just seem to bust out and up just a bit regardless of who is coming. Once in awhile they’ll latch onto the defender and block, but at least two out of three times, my blockers just barrel ahead and don’t move toward the logical blockers. At least once every 3 or 4 plays, I will do a counter out of the formation and you’ll see a linebacker run right through all three potential blockers and hit me untouched. This isn’t the linebacker racing through the middle of the offensive line after jumping the snap count, but a guy who moved laterally and then made a beeline right for my halfback without any of his blockers reacting to pick that linebacker up.

This leads me to one of my biggest football video game pet peeves ever. Offensive line pancakes just need to happen more. This was a problem for years on the Playstation 2 versions of both NCAA football and Madden football – your linemen simply would not get pancakes. At least, not at the rate of other simulated teams. I once had a center who dropped 13 points overall in Madden due to this programming oversight because he had no pancakes and gave up no sacks over a full season of starting. So the game viewed him as not having played at all. When a league leader has 125 pancakes and makes an All-American team, it’s frustrating when your 97 overall guard has 11 pancakes at season’s end. And it’s not like I don’t run the ball. My RB won the Hiesman all but one year – I run the ball a ton. Well, they fixed this during the last couple of years of the Playstation 2 generation… only to reintroduce this problem in the current generation of systems. I’ve seen people complaining about it on forums, I’ve submitted it as a bug/feature request/problem at least a dozen times over the last three years. The only way to get more is to jack up the line play for your team in the sliders menu, or lengthen the game, but all of the rest of the stats would be hugely out of alignment then. Anyway – this is still broken, much to my annoyance.

Next up – punt returns. Most punt return formations you get about 3-5 yards per return. On the hardest level of difficulty, you basically fair catch or fumble because they barrel into you so fast every time – it doesn’t matter which return formation you use – except one. I’ve had pretty good luck with punt block return – a formation that fakes like you are going to rush and try to block the ball, but you actually bring two guys back as blockers. Mostly it just makes the computer pack their punt gunners back behind the line for protection. It’s cheap – and it gets me about 12 yards each time. There’s absolutely no hope of ever taking back a punt return for a touchdown though with the blocking mechanic so badly broken at the higher difficulties.

Boy, I must really hate this game, right? Quite the contrary, these things are more exception than rule, and the things that the game does regularly, it does very, very well. Playcalling is easy. The pass blocking is pretty good most of the time. I don’t see the abundance of interceptions I used to see in older games – the db’s do more knockdowns than pickoffs. I once had a season of NCAA where my cornerback had over 75 interceptions. Now? My top one had seven and I loved it. Big hits happen, but whiffing on them can cause all sorts of problems. I used to try and level big hits with impunity – but now I have to pick and choose my spots. More than any other football game I can think of, this year’s version of NCAA feels the most authentic to date.

A couple of the big things I really like now, after all that whining before:

The blocking is improved.
Route running and endzone/sideline catches by receivers are much better. If a WR catches an out route, they stay inbounds now instead of just darting out of bounds. This new sideline awareness is amazing.
Menu navigation is solid.
The new running controls utilizing the right stick for moves and balance is cool.
Defensive moves along the line feel better to me than they did the past.

Intangibles – 9:

There’s a lot that goes on in these games. The different modes are cool, though I still get the majority of my mileage out of Dynasty mode. I like saving out the draft classes, because I know I will be importing them into Madden in a few weeks when it comes out. The Dynasty mode is deep and the recruitment process feels great. It takes up a bit of time, but not too much time. The online modes are pretty cool and the way you can access them from online away from the console is a really nice innovation that should help keep the seasons moving. My experience in the past with these is that sometimes online dynasty/franchise modes would buckle because of inactive players. The system for creating highlight videos and images works very well and the variety of angles that the videos can be created from is very cool. With so many modes, the game gets some serious replay value.

Overall – 8:

Your mileage may vary of course. You have to like football. It helps to like college football. It helps if you don’t own last year’s version, because while there are obvious improvements over last year’s model of the game, there are some areas where the strides taken were not so great. However, this game usually drops in price in a few months once it’s been out for a bit and Madden has steamrolled onto the store shelves, so it can be had at a lower price if that is a point of contention for you. All games have bugs – the fuzzy filter and audio cutting out can be forgiven. For me, the blocking/return game stuff is a bit tougher to swallow, but I’ve had a chance to acclimate to it over the years and I’ve learned it’s part of the package and to deal with it. It’s just disappointing that such obvious problems still have not been fixed after all this time. My goal is to have at least 7 or 8 seasons under my belt before I pick up Madden. Inevitably I wind up playing Madden in favor of NCAA and I like having those classes to import. The game is a lot of fun if you can live with its shortcomings, which I certainly have and can.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Gaming News and Notes from 7-26-10

Yup, I’m alive. All… 4 of you… (maybe?) hopefully noticed. And missed me. Moving on – it’s been due to a large number of video games that have recently come into my possession (thank you Gamestop, giftcards and generous friends). I’ve got a handful of reviews cooking up and almost ready to publish. I should be able to fire one off tonight even. But first, I thought I’d gather up some gaming news from around the web and toss it out there for general consumption.

There’s another new firmware update going in for PS3 owners tonight. Sounds pretty small, with the only thing IGN even bothered to note about was that there is going to be a ‘you might like’ recommendations center for downloads. Not as big as the last one that had a handful of cool features – perhaps my favorite of which is the energy saver automatic shutoff for when my wife dozes off watching movies on it late at night. J

Apparently there was a slightly over-ambitious script running on Valve as they accidently banned over 12,000 Modern Warfare 2 accounts over the last 2 weeks. Those accounts are all back and those affected were given copies of Left for Dead 2 plus another to give to a friend. Pretty big mistake that affected a lot of people, but I for one find the compensation to be a classy move. Nice going Valve.

DC Universe finally cleared up a pair of questions for people interested in the MMO. First – the cost: Roughly $15/mo. Additionally, it was being made for PC and PS3 and there’s long been talk that maybe there would be interconnected play between platforms, but that rumor has in fact been put to rest.

Are you a Blu-ray owner? My two PS3’s would make that a yes for me, even though my collection is only around 30 at this time. That said, Sony has begun work on the eventually successor to that format. It’s interesting stuff to read about here, but it sounds like a good ways off – which is actually good for those of us who enjoy the current format and don’t want to push into something new and even more expensive any time soon.

If you are a fan of football and Madden games, no doubt you’re starting to latch onto every bit of football goodness out there. Today’s IGN tidbit? A trio of teams getting to show what happens if you win the Super Bowl – which was kind of cool since one was using my oft-beleaguered Lions. Anyway, it’s nice to see they put a bit more detail into winning the game, which in the past usually amounted to fairly short, ordinary screens with a confetti overlay.

There was a recently announced Street Fighter x Tekken game (think Marvel vs. Capcom). It’s actually being pronounced Street Fighter “cross” Tekken currently. As probably my two favorite one-on-one fighting franchises – this should be very cool. Namco and Capcom are working together on this, so there’s no doubt loads of talent behind the wheel here – but it should be interesting to see if they favor one game’s style over another. They’re usually quite different in how they play. Oh – but don’t hold your breath while waiting for the release. Looks like it’s going to be about 2 years off.

Last but not least, joy for Demon’s Souls players. One of the coolest (and most difficult) RPG games to come along in quite some time just got an extension. The North American Demon’s Souls online servers are going to stay up until March now, and the server tendencies were all pushed to pure white in celebration. It’s awesome seeing them bump the servers and keep some interaction going with what is still a very active fanbase. The online aspect of this game is very cool – to me the experience just would not be the same without it so if you’ve been contemplating this game, I’ve seen that it dropped in price new recently and I snagged a copy at Gamestop used for $26.