Hyperdimension Neptunia Re;Birth3: V Generation - PS Vita Review

The latest Hyperdimension game for the Vita makes the most of the handheld and series

Farming Simulator 15 - PC Review

Down on the farm - again. This simulator provides plenty to do for fans of the series

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt - Xbox One Review

The latest in the Witcher series does almost everything well - a definite Game of the Year contender


This shooter gets almost everything right, throwing lots at you but making it fun

Big Pharma - PC Preview

A fun simulation game with some social commentary to share as well

Friday, January 21, 2011

Culdcept Saga - Xbox 360 review

Just got one review this weekend, but it's a long one. Also of interest to me - all 3 of the primary consoles have been voted almost the same, so I'll just keep randomly tossing out reviews for whatever system seems relevant at the time. I may even have some PC games to add shortly to the mix due to my new cpu (once again - thanks hon!)

One of my recent revie4ws was for Magic: The Gathering for the Xbox Live. I have long been a fan of collectible card games, and though Culdcept Saga has been around for quite some time (it was on older gen systems apparently - did not know that until recently, and it has been out on the 360 for about 3 years) - I only somewhat recently happened upon it. I had played the demo on Xbox Live in the past, but it's one of those titles I just have not come across at Gamestop or other stores.

Well, one of my best friends got it awhile back, and told me I needed to pick it up because he figured I would really like it. I broke down, found it on Amazon for a bit more than I'd have liked, but decided to finally give this title a good going over. Before I get into the scores, I figure I'll touch on what the game is itself.

When my oldest daughter asked me to sum the game up, I said: It's sort of a mix between Magic: The Gathering and Monopoly.

The game takes place on a board of squares. At first, the squares are pretty simple - they come in one of four colors. Each one represents an element, and seems to fit a 'theme'. There are also neutral cards that are colorless. Cards come in a few varieties: creature, spell, enchantment, item and so on. You collect magic through certain spells and by meeting other criteria, and this magic is in turn both a goal and a currency. Your total magic value is what determines if you eventually win, and it serves as a pool of resources to draw on for casting your various cards. This is the Magic: The Gathering side of the coin.

On the flip side, you have the squares themselves. If your creature occupies a square, and someone else lands on it, one of two things happens. You either a) collect a toll or b) the person who landed on it can summon a creature and the two creatures duke it out. If the invader wins, the defending creature is destroyed and the invader takes over the land as theirs. If the land is successfully defended, then the attacking creature is destroyed and the person landing on the square still has to pay the toll. Land also comes in 'levels'. They all start at level 1, but you can invest in them to level them up a handful of times - much like buying houses or hotels in Monopoly increase the value. This can have two effects. The first is that the toll cost goes up. The second effect is that if the defending creature is the same color as the land they are on, they get a hit point boost when defending against attackers. Also, the more of a color you possess, the higher 'chain' you create - which basically increases their toll value (like having Boardwalk and Park Place increases the value of the territories).

That is not where the Monopoly comparison ends. The boards eventually wind up being somewhat circular in the end, as you have to touch 'towers' along the way. This helps you gain more magic to use, and once you have touched every tower (their locations and number vary from one map to the next) you then head back to the beginning castle to complete a 'lap' that helps restore creature health and give you a magic boost. You then proceed to begin another lap. Your progress along the map is propelled by generating a random number between 1 and 10. There are often branching paths and even changing routes in later maps to add some more strategy as you progress.

Sound complicated? It certainly can be. As there are more maps, there are newer kinds of squares introduced as you play through the game: like four color ones that do not count toward chains, neutral squares that have no color, empty squares that adopt to the color of the first creature to land on them, ones that cause the map layouts to change and more. And some of the creatures are very straight forward - like the Bunyip (a water dinosaur creature) that does 50 damage, and has 40 hit points and is blue. By contrast, I had vine like creature (I can't think of his name - maybe Unameable?) that had all sorts of effects: 40 damage, 10 hit points, always attacks last, has a 70% chance of instantly killing its opponent and any opponent creatures it destroys are pulled from the opponent's deck.

Rounds can vary in several ways. As mentioned before, the maps are all set up differently from one another. You can also wind up fighting one other person, two other people, or be part of a two against two team. Also the goal totals sometimes change. When you first start the game the winner only needs like 5,000 total magic/gold, and by the end you needed 15,000 to win the final map. Also, at the end of every match, you win some new cards. You win more for winning a given map, but you still get some even for a losing effort.

Graphics - 2:

Really hard to give it a better score than this. The art on the cards is decent in most instances, but there is no animation to them at all. Combat consists of showing two cards on screen side-by-side. There is then an animated 'attack'. For example if you use a knight, an oversized sword crosses the screen and slashes the opposing card, leaving a cut mark on it. If he was fighting a dragon, it may retaliate with a blast of fire that chars the card. If the charred card loses all of its hit points, the card is destroyed and turns to ash. The animations on the boards themselves are very simple. Colors represent squares and characters and monsters have stiff two step animations. The cut scenes are not completely awful, but they're nowhere near good. Even my son mocked how stiffly they walked, and how while ascending stairs their boots would clip through them. There was sometimes some adequate movement behind the boards themselves, with some sort of graphical backdrop that at least helped from a variety standpoint, but did little else.

Sound and Music - 2:

The voice acting for the cut scenes is pretty bad. My son kept making fun of the lead character's girl-like voice, though clearly a boy. The music was very repetitive and just seems to loop over and over again. There just is not much in the way of variety - and none of the tunes were particularly memorable - it's just that you hear them so often that they sort of burn into your mind. Sound effects are pretty basic, and do the job, but don't really add much to the experience. The voices that talk throughout the actual game play are super repetitive as well, as you'll hear the same things said several dozen times over the course of a single map.

Gameplay - 8:

The game holds up a lot better here. The menus are easy to navigate, and while there are a ton of rules to learn, they do a good job of explaining new elements each map they're introduced. One control quirk I had was that sometimes I would press to go in a direction, and it did not switch before I hit the button, causing me to head down the wrong path. Also, there are a ton of effects and powers that come from spells and are built into certain creatures. Some of them are pretty easy to figure out, others require you to look them up in the help files, which are easy to sort through and pretty helpful. Still, I found it pretty telling that I was on my last map and still having to look some effects up, just because I had not seen it for several maps and had forgotten exactly what they did. Sometimes it was tough to tell exactly what an effect would do, as well. You might be in a fight with a cloak that adds damage and health based on which round it is - but have no idea what the round is and no way of checking at that point. Another was an annoying card that might say: strength = number of green cards in play. It would have been really nice if they could calculate and display those values on the cards so you don't have to guess what you're values will be.

Thankfully they included a suspend game state, because some of these maps can take 2-4 hrs to complete. Also, the one-on-one and two-on-two maps were a lot more fun than the 3 person, every-man-for-himself ones, where it often felt like the computer was ganging up on me unfairly.

Speaking of 'unfairly', probably the biggest complaint I have seen online, including from some of the professional game review sites, is that there is this feeling that the computer cheats. I have to admit that I find a level of truth to that, though how much is hard to say. Obviously in a game like this, random luck is a huge part of the game, like almost any board game. That said, I did some testing and would work off of some of my save states. Some of my findings:

The random number generator does not reset, so if you save, play through a string of sequences, and then reload the match, and do the exact same string of events, the numbers play out the exact same, as do the computer decisions. I tested this several times, often to a depth of at least 6 or 7 turns. Now, varying up just one of your choices in there does change the string of events, but I found it a bit odd.

One of the biggest elements in the game is that you can use item or support cards on your monster. If you were playing against a person, you would not know if an item or spell was going to be used - the idea is you and your opponent are 'blind' to what the other one will do until after you have made your choice. And while that is true of a human player, the computer definitely knows when you are going to do this. I had several save states where I would fight, and use a sword object for example, and the computer would use an item to steal or destroy or counter it. I would reload the save state, and fight sans sword, and the computer would not counter it. I would reload the save state again, and once more use the sword, and the computer would again counter it.

Lastly, I would see the computer 'boost' one of say, four of their areas I might encounter on my next roll, and I would wind up rolling that value. That happened quite a bit and I've read a lot of people complaining about that online and I have to say it did seem to happen a fair amount.

Then again, a lot of the game is in fact luck. I seldom had to replay maps (if I did, it was always one of the 3 person ones where I sometimes felt ganged up on - and to be honest that drove me nuts more than any of the other above observations). Still, the overall combination of land ownership/Monopoly mixed with the addictive elements of card collection and deck editing/Magic: The Gathering way outweighed some of the problems I saw above.

Intangibles - 8:

I loved that I had full on deck editing. It had to be a deck of 50 cards, but otherwise you had all the flexibility you could want, unlike the Xbox Live version of Magic: The Gathering, which really restricted the player on this front. I logged at least 50 hrs of gameplay. There's plenty of maps and they have some good variety to them, offering up surprises as you go. The storyline was completely disposable, and did little to propel me forward, but getting new cards after each match was great motivation to push on. You could also save replay data if you wanted to (unless you used a save state) and you can unlock cosmetic gear for your character by doing certain things in-game, so they add a bit of depth to the proceedings as well. The game is deep and fun, though it takes some work to get all of the rules worked out in your head. There's a fantastic, detail-rich system here that works very well - but there's a lot to take in.

There is also an online mode, but I have now tried at least a dozen times and cannot find anyone to play with. To be honest, I'm not sure if it would work well as an online game - you would probably need 2-4 hrs to finish a map, and I don't know that suspend state would be an option then. For online matches like that, a simplified version of the game would probably have made more sense, but I could not find a single match to try it out with. I enjoyed making several decks, naming my 'books', choosing from various covers, but without anyone to play with or against you can't really show them off. It might have been a more robust community three years ago when the game first came out, but honestly I find it unlikely that this was one of the game's stronger points even upon release.

Overall - 5:

I don't know if the overall score is exactly how I feel about the game myself. I sunk at least 50 hours into it, and enjoyed it quite a bit. My buddy was right to recommend this one to me because he knew I would enjoy the core elements enough to overlook the other flaws. However, I don't know that this game will hold the same appeal for the average gamer who might find 3 hours too much to invest in a single map. And if you lose? You have to do it all over again. Online competition would extend the life of the game a lot, and there are a lot of online achievements for the game that I can't picture ever getting. But if you enjoy card strategy games the way I do, then this might make a good pickup - if you can find it, which can be a bit of a challenge in and of itself. Now that I've beaten it and can't find any online competition though, I suspect this game will make its way into my trade-in pile.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Gaming News and Notes from 1-19-11

So, I'm hoping to try and find some sort of a pattern here. Like at least 1 review a weekend, maybe 2, and to try and do some sort of a news and notes post on Wednesdays. We'll see if I can stick to the schedule and make it 'work', but I'm hoping it keeps things on my page a bit more updated.

So, the big news today was Nintendo and their 3DS announcements. The big talking points were: European launch is 3/25/11 and US launch is 3/27/11. In the US the unit will price for $250, and in Europe the price will be set by retailers. IGN has had a huge amount of content about the various games such as Street Fighter and Kid Icarus.

In related 3DS news, a downer for some people - but the system will be region locked.

In slightly better 3DS news, DSi downloadables will be transferable to the 3DS.

Modern Warfare is apparently experiencing some problems on the Playstation 3 system due to the security breaches. This is only for the Infinity Ward games in the series. How bad is it? In the article Community Manager Robert Bowling suggested that players who are worried about this should only play online with trusted friends. Ouch.

A slightly misleading Gears of War triple pack has been announced. The content is solid for those who don't own the games, but it's more like a double pack (Gears 1 & 2) plus some bonus content.

Bethesda and Bioware are two of my favorite companies (both make excellent RPG games, which happen to be among my favorite genres), and the Elder Scrolls series is a favorite of mine. For those anxious to hear more about the upcoming installment of the series, there is a good interview here about Skyrim's new engine.

Killzone 3 will come with SOCOM 4 beta access as well.

The fairly well-received sequel to The Conduit is coming to the Wii March 22nd.

Final Fantasy XIII-2 is coming to Japan this year. And IGN has some info on the release. Final Fantasy XIII was one of the more divisive releases in the series, and was a title that I myself played and enjoyed, but also had quite a few problems with. It'll be interesting to see how much of the original engine remains in tact for the sequel.

Last but not least, Valve has announced that their Portal 2 release will have cross platform play, and if you buy it for the PS3, you can get it for free on the computer via the Steam service.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Mario Party 8 - Nintendo Wii review

Mario Party was a great game when it first came out. It has all of the trimmings of a great kid-oriented game, and it certainly appeals to that audience too. But I remember our neighbor and one of our other friends, back when I was in college and in my 20's, coming over to play until all hours when my wife and I were exhausted too. There were times Heather and I would go to bed and others would stay up playing it. The idea behind a video game that operated like a board game made for quick set up and tear down time, easy save options so you didn't have to worry about trying to put a board in a safe spot until later, and introduced minigames that made the experience more interactive and skillful than say, a game of Monopoly.

There have been a lot of different Mario Party games over the years - and we picked up number 8 not too long ago for our Wii. Our kids have always enjoyed the series, and while we haven't gotten every iteration of it, we've owned several. And let's be honest, the big kids (my wife and I), enjoy them too.

Graphics - 4:

Going to have to be brutal here. The Mario skin over top of it is cute in its own right, but the graphics themselves are underwhelming. Recently I reviewed a game called Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn and complained about how the combat textures and graphics overall looked like they would be right at home on a Gamecube. Well, this game fails to even meet that standard. At least some of the art in Fire Emblem had some nice art, but really here everything feels a bit 'chunky' - almost like it was designed for the Gamecube and not a higher end system (and let's be honest, of the current gen systems, Wii is the weakling of the group, so when a game doesn't even live up to those standards? It's a problem). Another oddity is the game doesn't push widescreen - you get black bars along the left and right sides. The bright colors and familiar Mario themes help save this game from taking a dive to an even lower score, but all in all, a pretty disappointing effort here.

Sounds and music - 4:

The melodies are not so bad I guess, but the music quality seems really low-end. It just feels like the music should be a lot better than this. Another problem - the sound effects. They are really, really repetitive. The board ones are a bit worse than the mini game ones, but they are pretty underwhelming to begin with, and when you mix them up so seldom, they grate just a bit more.

Gameplay - 6:

There's a wide variety of minigames, but the control schemes are actually quite a bit more limited. This is actually not a bad thing, it helps keep the games from getting too confusing, and they generally make good use of the Wii control's movement support. You'll be waggling away on a lot of them, though there's several games where you hold it like a regular controller and use the directional pad and the 1/2 buttons (usually the more combat oriented mini games). I did not have many problems with the controls, but I play more games than any of my other family members. Even my wife commented on several occasions that she felt like the controls were not responding very well. Menus navigate easily enough and the boards have some interesting variety to them not found in older versions of the game, so that helps. Some people whine that there's too much luck involved, but it's supposed to emulate a board game, and those often rely on little more than luck. So, with that in mind, the minigames provide a level of skill to the proceedings that negate the 'too much random luck' argument, in my mind.

Intangibles - 8:

Pretty much the one thing the got right. The game has a nice, solid Mario theme going on. That's always a good place to start. There are a ton of minigames, and they do a good job (most of the time) of integrating the Wii motion controls. There's quite a few modes and you can customize your game settings a fair amount. Also, as a multiplayer game, it works so much better than a single player game in my opinion. It would benefit from some online play, but honestly I doubt that there are that many people who are online and playing this game anyway, so the option (or lack thereof) might be a relatively moot point.

Overall - 5.5:

Now, a lot of points are lost on the technical side of things. There's a good chance that the audience won't mind - so that makes a huge difference here. I've got 3 kids. Every time I've proposed we sit down and play the game as a family activity, at least 2 and my wife quickly volunteer. Of course, that's when you notice things like questionable controls or the odd graphics. It's a flawed game with a great premise and the potential to charm an audience like my household provides. This of course helps, but it does not completely mask the shortcomings of the game itself. It's almost more of a teaser of what could have been, than what was.