Got my coffee and games calender...

Just got a rather nice surprise tonight. I had entered a contest on one of the blogs I follow:

Coffee With Games

Fun site - mostly focused on Wii games, but also posts about topics like the 3DS, PS3 games, deals at One of the few blogs I hit pretty much daily. He had a contest recently with names drawn out of a coffee container (fitting, no?) and I won a free Club Nintendo calender I'll be fighting to keep from my son, and some instant coffee that I've already had to hide from my oldest daughter. A very nice surprise after a long day at work.

My son and I were both just looking through the calender - I particularly dug October - Metroid: Other M - which is the Wii game I spent most of the weekend playing. April was Kirby's Epic Yarn, which my youngest is currently playing - very cool. :) Thanks again!

Ninja Gaiden - Retro Reflections

Now, I plan to keep most of these pretty light, but for my first Retro Reflections, I was inspired by my News & Notes post on Wednesday. Unfortunately, what starts off as 'light' usually turns into something more for me. So... I have some images mashed together, with a video I made of the arcade game and the intros from the 3 NES games. For the purposes of this post, I figured I would try both the video uploader that Blogger provides and an online embedding option I have, and see which I like better. This is all pretty rough, even if I did spent a bit more time on it than I planned/wanted to, so feedback's certainly welcome on the technical side of things. I'll likely mix things up for awhile as I try to find what I like and don't like.

I found an IGN article talking about the upcoming Ninja Gaiden 3, and this is a series I loved when I was younger, but sort of fell out of love with when I played the Xbox 360 versions. I first played the arcade game when I was pretty young, but I loved it at the time (then again, I enjoyed a lot of beat 'em up games like Double Dragon back then too). It's a pretty basic game with some cheap bosses - it was designed as a quarter muncher, and from that standpoint it did its job well.

Ninja Gaiden for the NES was one of the first games I can recall that used cut scenes to help advance the storyline of a game. I recall several things about this game in particular. I remember at the time thinking that the graphics were very cool - but also that the game was very hard. In fact, I did not beat it after first getting it. I actually did not get through the last area until a year or two later when I picked it up again. I remember thinking the jumping summersault slash special attack was the best boss-killer ever. I remember hating the wall climb system - how you had to jump, press away, press back to inch up a small distance, and that doing this repeatedly was often necessary to advance. The intro is worth mentioning again though - I remember thinking that ninja duel at the beginning was amazingly cool.

Ninja Gaiden 2 was actually my favorite of the series. I think it was probably the easiest of the three NES games, but I enjoyed the story a lot. Something about it really appealed to me as a kid and I know I beat that game dozens of times. The wall scaling mechanic was replaced with a much easier method of just climbing up and down vertically. You still had to do the same trick to get up on top of things if you didn't have an opposite wall to leap off of, but I recall thinking that it just felt so much cooler than the method used in part 1. I included the full intro to this game in my video I pieced together - I was surprised at how I still remembered the music near the end; I recall it like it was yesterday.

Ninja Gaiden 3. This is an odd one for me, because I remember beating it - but it was my least favorite of the 3 games. On a technical level, it was the most advanced of the games in terms of graphics, powers and music. But the story never resonated with me the same way as the prior two games and never made quite the same overall impression. I could recall things I really liked (and disliked) about the first two right away when I played them again yesterday. There were a few things in part 3 where I was like: "Oh, yeah - I remember that." - but it never brought up the same feelings of nostalgia that the first two did.

Now, I made a video up but I have no idea how these will fit, how the embedded one will attack my bandwidth where I have it hosted, how the formats work with Blogger - so this is pretty experimental right now.

The first video is an MOV I am uploading using Blogger:

And here's the mp4 embedded from another site - same video, just a different delivery:


Spectromancer - PC game review

Honestly - I did not set out to review nothing but card based video games this month. Then again, it does give me a chance to compare and contrast them while they are all fresh in my mind. For Christmas I got a new computer, and with it a newfound ability to play games on it (the old computer was in really, really sad shape. I was happy to retire the hamster that was powering it). I discovered the Steam network, and they happened to be having a ton of good game deals on their site over the holidays. I spent way more than I should have there, but picked up a bunch of their games at significant discount. One of those games was Spectromancer, which I got at a really good prices (I got the game and expansion, which usually run around $15 I believe, as part of a 'fantasy pack' I got for $5 total)

I read that Spectromancer was designed by some of the people responsible for Magic: The Gathering. It shares a few fundamentals with that game, but it is a much simpler game overall. You have magic or mana types/pools - and they generally increase by 1 each, every turn (there are other spells and creatures that can alter these values). Cards are randomly chosen from your 'deck' of cards at the start of a match, and they each have a cost value. Once you have enough magic in that pool type, you can cast it. At most you can only cast 1 card per turn. There are two types of cards - spells and creature.

You have a series of slots/spaces in front of you and in front of your opponent. Any creature summoned gets placed in one of those slots. Every round, your creatures will all attack. If there is a creature in your opponent's slot directly across from your monster, then it will automatically block it and take the damage instead of the actual controller. Each controller starts with a specific life value, and spells and unblocked creatures lower it. The premise is pretty simple, and with the 'attack every turn' twist, you don't have to worry about turtling. Sometimes in a game of Magic, a person can play very defensively, and it is a valid way to win - sometimes it is the only way to win. But in Magic you're not limited to the number of creatures you summon, and you generally don't have to attack every round.

These conditions make Spectromancer a much faster game, and I think that is a benefit. You can get through an entire single player campaign in a night or two, but there are a quite a few different classes - and that helps the replay value. All classes have the same basic mana pools of fire, water, wind and earth. But each one has a custom pool as well, and it comes with cards unique to that pool. That gives the different classes a slightly different feel, without making them confusing or feeling unbalanced. You pick a new opponent every round, and each one comes with a new card or ite4m you can win (like a Titan card, which can be a game-changing card to have in your deck, or boosts to your starting life or magic). It all lends itself to a nice sense of progression, while none of the fights ever seem to last more than about five minutes or so, giving it a nice, lightweight feel.

Let's dig down into the game itself and break down the different categories.

Graphics - 4:

Nothing here too revolutionary. Cards are very static, though the artwork on them is generally nice. The only motion you get in the game is when a card 'slides forward' to attack, or some simple spell effects represented on the screen. You can choose from a bunch of different portraits for your character's representations and they are all nicely drawn. There is a simple overhead map that you slowly displays more and more terrain as you 'travel' to beat more opponents on it. It is all very functional and easy on the eyes, but completely unimpressive as well. There are no real cut scenes, just small text boxes that explain the story as you progress.

Sound and music - 4:

The music is nice and fits, but there is not a ton of it and after a few hours it starts to cycle. The sound effects are also functional, if unspectacular. There is no voice acting, no cut scenes - the presentation is very minimal, and while this is by design, it is hard to give a good score as a result.

Gameplay - 10:

The game scores well here for me. The rules are simple, yet there are so many different ways to beat an opponent that matches seldom felt repetitive to me - and I have played through the game 4 times already. There are several different difficulty levels, and while the higher ones were certainly tougher to beat, they felt smarter, not cheaper. There is also a decent little online community playing the game, and I had a very easy time signing up for it and finding matches. It's a pretty simple click and point interface laying out cards and casting spells - I never had any control opens. Also, it has a built-in auto save, which is awesome. I can just close out the window without actually looking for a save command, and then open it back up and I'm right where I left off. It's a small thing, but I really appreciated it. Perhaps my biggest gripe here? You don't get to customize your deck like a person would expect in a collectible card game - but oddly it bugged me a lot less here. I think in part because the matches are so much quicker, there's less pressure to have a great game and not waste 30 minutes or a couple of hours like Magic: The Gathering and Culdcept Saga ask of you when you lose.

Also in campaign mode, they add in a fair amount of variety. You face a fairly diverse set of opponents, and the battle conditions change frequently. Sometimes it is a matter of just taking all their life before your own hits zero. Other times, you have to do it within so many turns. Sometimes you or your opponent will start with cards in play that are not normally part of the game - like an alter that you can summon creatures to in order to gain double their casting cost in magic, or stones that slide around the creature 'slots' every turn, shuffling up which monsters are directly across from whom. This plus the spoils of war you get for winning matches really help to keep the experience from getting repetitive.

Intangibles - 10:

High score, right? Pretty much perfect? Well, in my mind - yes. Does this title feel a bit lightweight? Sure, but it's a fraction of the cost of a full game. So while the production values may be lacking, I think it gives quite a bit for the price tag. The online was very cool - I only had 1 bad experience, and it was a guy berating me for "playing like a bitch and not like a man". Of course, he had just been on the receiving end of back to back 20-some point lighting spells that won me a match that he no doubt thought he was dominating. It was not my usual tactic, but he got off to a fast start, and I had to adjust to a fluid situation by defending his attackers while building up a big counterpunch. That was a big part of the appeal for me - while it is an easy game to pick up but there are so many different things that can happen in it. The average match takes about five minutes, maybe 10 at most. Having just played Magic: The Gathering where a match against the cpu or a person can run 10-30 minutes, or Culdcept Saga where they can run 2-4 hrs, I think Specromancy finds a great balance.

On top of that, the campaign has several classes and difficulties, as mentioned before. There's also a one on one challenge mode where you can fight a cpu opponent and try to earn 'badges' which are just like achievements in the game. You can get these through the one on ones, campaign modes and online matches. They're nothing particularly amazing, but they do give you some extra goals to aim for.

Overall 7:

I will admit I'm grading on a bit of a scale here. If this was a full fledged $60 game like Culdcept Saga would be new, then the lack of production values would hurt the score more in the graphics and sound area. Considering there is free online play, badges a one-on-one mode, and a campaign mode in here, it is a really good value if you enjoy these kinds of games. The lightweight feel of the game - the ability to save on close automatically - the ease with which you can learn to play are all major plusses. The story is nothing amazing and its presentation is fairly bland, but really for me the campaign mode was so much more than that.


Something new...

I want to try something new. The big technical reviews are fun, but they are time consuming. Also, I fear, I'll eventually run out of games to talk about if I try to keep up a pace of two per weekend (I say that as I spy a stack of games and think: I didn't have this 'problem' in college - unplayed games that is). The dilemma of adulthood: I love my games as much as ever, and I can actually afford to go out and spend on my habit - the downside is, I don't have nearly as much time on my hands to play games as I used to.

Then that got me thinking: I used to play a ton of games. I still have a ridiculous number of old game systems and games laying around the house. Why not spend a bit of time each weekend, just tossing in an old game that catches my eye for one reason or another, and just write about it? No technical scores (really, is it fair to try and rate the graphics of Double Dragon on the NES or Sonic on the Genesis when we know that modern games easily surpass those?).

The idea behind my technical scores and longer reviews is that I am talking about games people may actually be interested in purchasing for current systems. Sure, it's just an opinion, and it's only my opinion, but that is what I had in mind when I began this blog. So, instead I'd like to just talk about older games for a bit - what I remember about them, what my thoughts are now after dusting them off for a bit. It's more me reminiscing about older games, and hey - maybe you will see one of them come out on the virtual console for the Wii or release on Steam or the Playstation Network. If so, and my ramblings encourage or discourage you from buying it? Cool, and I'd love to know what I said that caught your eye.

So, I'm hoping to do one of these each weekend, just a short run of images and video from hooking the console up to my desktop and giving it a few minutes to a few hours and sharing my thoughts. Hope you peek in this weekend as I get my first one posted under Retro Reflections. This week's will be Ninja Gaiden.


Gaming News and Notes from 1-26-11

Since I led off last week with discussions about Nintendo's new upcoming portable, I thought I'd do the same for Sony this week. Here's a discussion about the Playstation Phone in IGN. And here's some news on the PSP2 as well.

For Mortal Kombat fans, there will be a series of shorts similar to the Mortal Kombat: Rebirth that found some viral popularity last year. Oh, and the new Mortal Kombat game is coming out April 19th.

Dead Space 2 has been arrived to solid critical reviews, and already some DLC has been announced for it as coming soon.

Knight's Contract is a game I've been keeping an eye on, and it is slated to release Feb 22nd this year.

There's a rumor on Gamespot citing Bioware sources as saying Star Wars: The Old Republic will be releasing in September this year, and not spring of this year as was announced before.

I've got a long-standing relationship with Ninja Gaiden. I played it in the arcade - loved it when I was a kid. It doesn't hold up so well now. The NES titles were tough, but I beat all 3 and enjoyed their cinematic approach to storytelling. Then I played the newer iterations on the 360 and while I could appreciate their technical excellence, I really did not enjoy them as much as I hoped I would. Now Ninja Gaiden 3 is being put together by a new team, and it promises to be a very different game than the last two.

A little info on Final Fantasy Versus XIII - with no release date given yet.

Here's one for my wife - talking about Diner Dash for Facebook.

Here's some Playstation Network news as reported on IGN. I got an email about some of this and what caught my eye was all of the half-priced games:

  • Comet Crash
  • Costume Quest
  • Deathspank: Thongs of Virtue
  • Hoard
  • Motorstorm 3D Rift
  • Peggle
  • Shatter
  • Soldner X-2: Final Prototype
  • Space Invaders: Infinity Gene
  • Swords and Soldiers
  • Top Gun
  • Tumble

There are some excellent games in that list (Peggle in particular has been a hit with me, my wife, my kids and even my dad).

And last but not least, for computer gamers, Steam has released the Sega Genesis Classics Pack 4.

Not a bad list of games, which are listed at a 2.99 price point each, or you can buy the collection of 10 for 7.50, which is a pretty good price. There's some solid games in this collection as well, including some of my all-time favorites like Shining Force, Shining Force II, Streets of Rage and Streets of Rage 2.

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.


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.


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.


Dead Space - Xbox 360 review

I have a soft spot for horror. Horror movies, horror stories and yes - horror games. Horror obviously comes in a lot of different shapes and sizes, whether it's a 'killer car' in a Stephen King novel, or a chainsaw wielding movie maniac or battling the zombie hordes in a video game. Probably my favorite horror series from the video game world was Tecmo's amazingly atmospheric Fatal Frame series. I have played plenty of other games that find ways to build tension as well - Eternal Darkness, Resident Evil, Silent Hill, Clocktower - and my recently purchased Amnesia for the computer. One that I bought some time ago and only recently played through was Dead Space. It got uniformly excellent reviews from both critics and gamers.

This is certainly more 'Aliens' horror than 'Texas Chainsaw' - you wind up as part of a spaceship crew that lands on a space station. What starts as a fairly routine maintenance run turns into a quest for survival against an unknown horror. In some ways, the backdrop sort of reminded me of Doom - the science fiction setting and sense of isolation oozes throughout the game, though instead of a hardened marine with automatic weapons, you're a repairman with a suit that helps keep you alive, and a plasma cutter that's going to do more than slice pipes.

You get separated from your crew early on, and find yourself surviving different horrors throughout this ransacked space station. There are bits of audio and video evidence everywhere, helping you to piece together what happened during the station's final hours. In some places the electrical is fine, in others you wind up moving through dark passages with just your suit's flashlight to guide the way. With part 2 coming out soon, it was past time I gave the original a play-through, and here's what I found:

Graphics - 9:

Almost a 10. I'm just stingy on 10's, and there were some moments of slowdown/stutter during a few of the more frantic moments. But so close to a 10. Where to begin - for starters, I loved the hud and overall layout. Seeing your health represented by bars on the back of your suit's spine, and your ammo on your weapon were slick design choices that kept me immersed in the game instead of looking off to the corners of my screen for other data. The lighting is fantastic throughout. In some places you're bathed in light, giving the scenery an appropriately science fiction feel, but most of the time lighting works against you, hiding enemies and making you wonder (sometimes aloud): was there something moving over there?

The antagonistic necromorphs look cool - and often gruesome. They move toward you in varied fashion, using unique attacks that are well represented (and often grotesquely so) onscreen. If you blow one's leg off (more on that in a bit), it crawls toward you along the floor. There are also some really cool scenes where you are outside of the space station that I want to take a moment to give special mention to. Several of them were strikingly beautiful, and I found myself pausing (which is something of a mistake because you're on a timer) and really appreciating the view that looked like it was pulled from a great movie.

Sound and Music - 10:

Going with a 10 here. Bits of music compliment the scenes beautifully. There is also a lot of voice acting that's very well done and helps to advance the story, both through audio files or interactions with other characters. The story is good, but this really goes the extra mile in helping to sell it. The sound effects however, are the best part of the overall presentation. This game delivered a lot of genuine scares, and while the lighting and the unique monsters certainly did their part, it was the sound effects that had me nearly jumping off of the couch (who am I kidding? There were times I did startle quite a bit physically). Whether it's electric buzzing, monsters scraping along nearby, conversations cut short by an attack - the atmosphere was incredible and the sound track was one of the primary reasons for this.

Gameplay - 8:

Aiming works well, the puzzles in the game work well within the context of the story and environment. Combat feels a bit unique because in most games - you're looking for the headshot. Here? Sure, that's going to work on some creatures - but the fact that you can blow off limbs to alter their movement and attacks as well as maybe finding other more vulnerable spots on them than the head, really adds a nice layer of depth to the combat mechanics. There were some mini games that added variety to the gameplay, but they never felt quite as polished as the primary game. Puzzles work well within the context of the game. There's also a currency system, which is cool for purchasing ammo, weapons and suit upgrades. Beyond that, you can modify equipment and armor at work benches, using nodes to customize it a bit - do you want more power, higher ammo capacity, better rate of fire? Up to you. There is a lot of fetch quests and backtracking, which works within the storyline but does sometimes feel a bit repetitive. There are a couple of neat environmental situations built into the primary objects as well as you find yourself walking outside of the airlocks to reach sections of the station maybe not otherwise accessible. You have limited oxygen and there's a neat sort of vacuum of sound while you do so. It also exposes you to some beautiful space backdrops in the game Anti-gravity sections provided some nice change of pace, but felt a bit clumsy at times and the objectives were not always obvious to me in there as my perspective would prone to change based on which surface I was walking on. I was not a big fan of those sections, and felt like they could have been more fun.

Intangibles - 8:

Great game. Very spooky. It was really well-made. I've heard a lot of mixed opinions about multiplayer, and I'm on the fence there. I think it's great when a game offers online multiplayer, because once you have done everything you can with a solo campaign, there's not much more reason to hold onto the game if you can't go online and play it with friends in some way. I've heard that's a big part of what EA is doing with part 2. Then again, a bit part of what makes Dead Space so effective is that sense of isolation. I get the feeling that multiplayer may be fun, it just won't feel like 'Dead Space'. Either way, this game doesn't have it, and while you can play through a few times, and look for things you may have missed initially, the game does not change a great deal on subsequent playthroughs. You get carry over of currency and enhancements, and this access to new gear is cool, though I didn't find the next playthrough nearly as intense. Maybe because I was overpowered from the new game plus, or just because I knew my way through the levels, but I blew through my second round pretty fast compared to the first.

Overall - 8.75:

Simply put - this game was amazing. I remember reading about it in Game Informer well before it was released, and there were things that caught my eye, but I was far from sold. If you enjoy third person action games, science fiction storylines or strong horror elements, this game is definitely worth a look. Especially since it can be found fairly cheaply now. I'm glad I tried it out, and am now very anxiously awaiting the release of Dead Space 2.


Tomb Raider: Underworld - Playstation 3 review

Lara Croft has been a gaming icon for years now - sometimes for the right reasons (puzzling, adventure-filled gameplay) and the wrong ones (perhaps a bit too much attention on her physique and not enough on making some of the sequels actually worth playing). Thankfully she's seen some progress over her last few releases, making the Tomb Raider game playable again - but are they worth playing? Probably once, but I'm not sure about replaying. Luckily I got my hands on this game while it was relatively inexpensive and gave it a shot, and here's what I found:

Graphics - 8:

This is sort of a mixed bag. Lara animates much better than ever, with some convincing acrobatics to compliment all of the climbing and gunplay. There are some nicely varied vistas in the game now too, from being in impressively dusty old tombs, to underwater sequences and lush jungles. It is not a perfect score though, due to some peculiar clipping issues. On several occasions I wound up being able to see through solid walls I was pressed right up against. The camera is also built in such a way that it tries to lend a dramatic, sweeping view of your surroundings. It works more often than not, but there were plenty of times the camera was driving me nuts as well, giving me a great view of my landscape and a horrible view of what I was trying to do with Lara. Cutscenes looked really sharp, it should be noted.

Sound and Music - 9:

Lots of sound effects to be had here, and they worked well with my surround system. Bullets flying by don't ring quite as true as those found in more action-intense games like Modern Warfare, but they do the job nicely. Drips of water can be heard in some passages, and it should be mentioned that there was plenty of good voice work too. The music was particularly good in my opinion. It fit the set pieces, added necessary tension. All in all, I thought this was probably the strongest aspect of the game.

Gameplay - 7:

The combat and movement works well - this is probably the mot fluid Lara Croft I've played to date. The menus took me a bit of getting used to, but they were effective once I was used to how they worked. As much as I liked the idea of the underwater sequences, I found them to be a bit annoying at times. In particular the first one had me feeling lost until I got the feel for the game. The puzzles were solid more often than not, but there were still some odd control issues when trying to control Lara within the context of her environment. The camera, as mentioned before in graphics, was also a bit of a chore. I found it to be perhaps my most challenging opponent at times. That said, I liked that I did not have to go back very far most of the times I died.

Intangibles - 6:

There's hidden stuff to find throughout the game - treasures if you will. There's some customization you can do along the way as well that helps add some variety should you play it through again. Neither one was motivation for me to not trade it in. There is also some downloadable content that can be purchased for it, though it's nearly as expensive as buying the game used itself. The story's alright if a bit predictable. The voice acting and cut scenes make it a bit more entertaining, but it doesn't do much more than move the action along - I never got particularly invested in it.

Overall - 7.5

All in all - it's a Tomb Raider game, right down to the exploration, Lara Croft, buggy camera and decent if clipping visuals. I enjoy Lara and her games enough that I recently picked up the Xbox Live Lara Croft game, and I'm curious about this prequel of sorts that is on the way in the coming year. Maybe they will breath some new life into this series that while solid, is starting to feel a bit like one of those relics Lara is always in search of.


Magic: The Gathering - Duels of the Planeswalkers Xbox Live review

I've been a big fan of collectible card games since late high school. It was right about the same time I got into tabletop Dungeons & Dragons - but some friends introduced me to a few different collectible card games: Marvel Overpower, Legend of the Five Rings and Magic: The Gathering. Now, I mostly watched others play at first, I did not start buying actual packs and decks until right around the release of Ice Age. I was immediately hooked. For starters, I've always been a bit of a completionist, whether it was getting characters to level 99 in Final Fantasy (3 I believe - I spent a lot of time walking around this forest island fighting dinosaurs as I recall...), collecting sports cards and comics (I had some early Shaq, Magic Johnson and Barkley cards that I rather miss now) or my need to read entire book series in order, and in a short period of time - the idea begin collecting cards you could use in a game really struck a positive note in me. And I spent a lot of money on those cards in college (who needs beer and pizza money?).

There was a lot to like about Magic: The Gathering, if you were not put off by the need to purchase cards or by the somewhat 'nerdy' source material. Theme decks a specific way (angel or vampire decks anyone?), or try to come up with that perfect combo of cards that would make someone just pause and say 'wow', or just really like certain types of cards (my one buddy Brian worked almost all of his decks around the fast damage of Red spells) - there were nearly unlimited possibilities. Some decks worked better than others, but overall it was a lot of fun for people like me who really dove into strategy type games.

Games like this don't work by yourself though. You can count your cards, set up specific mana-to-critter-to-spell ratio all day and night, but without people to play against, it's all for naught. Without a variety of people to play against, it can get repetitive as well. I played several of the older Magic: The Gathering video games in the past, and had fun with it, so when I saw Magic: The Gathering - Duels of the Planewalkers come out on the Xbox Live, I picked it up and played it pretty heavily for about a week. I then did not touch it again until recently when a couple of other card-based games like this came my way. I wanted to give it a second chance and see how I felt about it again.

Graphics - 4:

The artwork of the cards is well-represented. They added some basic effects to events during combat. But that's pretty much it. What's there looks perfectly nice, and some of the backdrops look pretty - but they're static cards. There's no animation within the cards, and while I did not really expect anything amazing, it doesn't hurt to be surprised. If you are playing the game in person, obviously the cards don't hop up and attack one another either, but it is a video game nonetheless - it might have been nice to see a bit more animation taking place in the video part of the game.

Sound and Music - 4:

The sound effects are nothing special. They get the job done, but they are as basic as the animations found in the game itself. The music was actually nice - but there was not a ton of variety in it. It fits the overall theme and sets a nice mood, but with so little other activity on the screen, I found myself realizing I had heard the same tune over and over again, so the repetition got to me just a bit more than it does in other games.

Gameplay - 8:

The menus are pretty easy to navigate, the controls are intuitive for what it is. We are not talking about tight turns in a racing game here or trying to nail the perfect headshot, but I have played games before where you repeatedly make the wrong move because of a poorly laid out option or menu item - and that never happened to me here. There is a lot of strategy to be had here. For those uninitiated to the concept - you start with 20 life points, and you have cards in a deck. You draw cards, and there are land cards that come in 5 basic types. Spells and creatures in your hand correspond to these basic types and you can cast them when you have the right kinds and enough lands at your disposal. It's a wonderful system that finds a spectacular balance between luck, deck building and the ability to respond to in-game elements and adjust accordingly. There is also a fun little 'challenges' section where you are working within specific sets of conditions to take your opponent out in a specific way. I really liked these, and will admit to having set some sample ones up myself in similar fashion back when I used to play, just to see what was possible in odd situations.

Intangibles - 4:

The good is this - it is Magic: The Gathering. If you're a fan of the game and mechanics, then you get that exact gameplay here. They also added online play, which is huge because I grew a bit bored of walloping on the computer controlled characters pretty quickly. I ran the entire list through in a day. Luckily given the random nature of the card draws, there is definitely some variety to be had here.

Now for the bad - and in my mind there was quite a bit of it. The online play really aggravated me. Not because it was not fun, but because I got tired of pulling the plug. I would guess I was winning more than half my matches - yet I don't have a single win to my credit technically. That is because there was no penalty (I admit - I did not try this part again recently, but I tried it several months ago at least 2 or 3 dozen times. I guess it's possible they patched it, but I could not bring myself to try again) for dropping out of a match. As a result every-single-match I was about to win, they dropped. I even did some larger group matches - and both times they dropped out as well. One of the guys who dropped out took the time to send me a message apologizing that his 360 kicked him offline - but I'll be honest when I say I didn't believe him. I haven't had the urge to hop online and play again.

The next fatal flaw - you choose a basic deck type to play. Then, you can win several more cards to supplement that deck, and some of those cards are pretty cool. You don't have to use them, but you can. The thing is - they're pre-made decks. The deck building was arguably my favorite part of Magic: The Gathering, and it was not available to me. I tried to justify it by saying there were plenty of good cards and I did not need deck building... but I was fooling myself. I'd see a new card and immediately think how nicely it would work with some other card from another color type and... then realize there was no chance I would ever see this idea realized on the game.

Last but not least? The game itself is short. I beat the entire campaign mode on a day off of work. I knocked off the challenges the next morning. That was it. I was left then to play against the computer controlled opponents or hop online and play, which leads me back to a couple paragraphs ago. Since then, they have released some expansions which add some new cards and opponents. When I picked it up again recently, I thought about picking one or two of the expansions up, but I decided against it. They would add some length to what I was doing, but they really were not going to change those core things I had problems with before, and as such I decided against it.

Overall - 5:

I understand why they did the limited decks. Giving you a full deck editing option would have been a ton of work. It would require more cards be added so it felt like you had a robust set of options, and there would have to be all sorts of validation and checking to make sure you had a legal deck (no more than 4 of a kind, meeting minimum requirements, etc). It could potentially lead to imbalance online I suppose too, if one person had earned/won/lucked into substantially better cards - but you know what? I've seen that in real life plenty of times. Sometimes I was the one with the superior cards, sometimes I wasn't. It was still fun - especially if I was the underdog and I won. In the end, it feels like this is a good introduction to Magic: The Gathering for people who have not played it before, but I don't know that it's enough for a veteran fan of the series to stay invested in it. I love the idea behind it - my friends have moved away, I don't have to spend money on actual packs, and having a computer controlled opponent are all great aspects of the game, but it left me wishing for just a bit more than it delivered.


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