Battleground Europe: World War II Online (PC) Hands-On Preview

Developer: Cornered Rat Software Studios | Publisher: Matrix Games

Where else is there to go with the first person shooter? EA’s Battlefield series touched upon the Massively Multiplayer Online direction that first person shooters could go in; cooperative teamwork is a major part of winning. World War II Online takes the idea of the MMOFPS further by introducing a world where a constant war wages on – at all times of the day. Everyday you can check the home page of the World War II Online website, and a new article will be displayed about the progress of the Allies or Axis, and other somewhat historical events that happened in the game world.

Although it’s still in beta, Battleground Europe boasts hordes of different vehicles and occupations to take on and help the cause of your team. With so many different objects, cities, and towns, plus the ability to travel pretty much anywhere you want around the world (which spans over 354,000 square miles), Battleground Europe seems like it could be the best MMOFPS ever created. Though right now it certainly seems that it could achieve that title, the game is still in beta, and is far from complete.

While the game seems to be coming along according to plan, the graphics are very skimpy; textures barely represent what they’re really supposed to look like. There are also aspects of the gameplay that sorely need to be improved by the time the final product comes out. First of all, the swaying action of the arms and guns really need to be toned down. Subtle motions, even if they’re unrealistic, are generally better and less distracting to the eye. Currently it seems exaggerated rather than realistic.

When it comes to vehicles, it’s hard to understand how to really even use them. You can’t just push forward; you have to switch gears or something along those lines. I couldn’t figure it out, however, because there are no help files or instructions that I could find. I see it as needlessly complicated. You also can’t get out of the vehicle you are assigned to without despawning and respawning as whatever you want; you basically are who you spawn as and nothing more.

You have to rely on others to commandeer vehicles and weaponry on the vehicles to go to the different parts of the battle, otherwise you’ll be running for quite some time without seeing any action. I also couldn’t figure out how to look at the vehicle in third person, which would make driving a lot easier.

What Battleground Europe aims to accomplish is quite possibly its strong point. If the end product ends up being as good as it seems like it could be, Battleground Europe could quite possibly be the best FPS (based in World War II at least) to come out for quite some time, moving the genre into new regions. The game could definitely appeal to those that can’t get enough of FPS games, and have an interest in how MMOGs work.

 

Absolute Blue (PC) Review

Developer/Publisher: Intermedia Ware || Overall: 5.5/10

Absolute Blue, seemingly a part of a recent movement by independent developers to bring back the side-scrolling space shooters, is just that: a side-scrolling space shooter made by an independent developer. Even though the game looks pretty, that doesn’t save it from the deplorable aspects of game play and absent improvements on the genre itself. While not touting the title of being a horrible game, Absolute Blue is just plain not good. Especially when there are superior space shooter-type games, like Jets’n’Guns, which is also made by an independent developer, Absolute Blue pales in comparison to the feats accomplished by such games.

For being an independent game, Absolute Blue looks excellent. However, while the screenshots for the game may give a false first impression about how good the game’s “fun factor” might be, what makes the game ultimately very frustrating and very tedious (and ultimately not very fun) is the game play and the basic controls. Maybe I was spoiled by the amazing game play and almost-flawless controls of Jets’n’Guns, but Absolute Blue really is a snore-fest to me. For the most part, there is nothing imaginative or “innovative” about the game to even consider it being anything more than an average game. The game is ridiculously linear, and in the fashion of the older games of this type from the 80s, once you die you start all over. While there is a save game function, you’re only allowed to save once you clear a full area (which contains separate levels within it), if you even get that far. Needless to say, if you have a hard time getting past the first area, you’re going to become very frustrated, as you will most likely die many-a-time, and then be forced to replay through the areas you had just gone through so that you can get to the point you had just died at before to try it again. Hopefully you won’t forget what you were supposed to do or die again, being forced to start the whole area yet again. When it gets really frustrating is if you keep dying in the first area; it seems like no progress has been done at all, as you basically restart the whole game constantly.

There’s no story. The game plops you in the middle of space, and off you go. There isn’t even any acknowledgement about what you’re supposed to do, collect, kill, or save. But, as always, it’s probably something to do with saving the universe from an evil alien race and you being the last hope. Why is it always up to us to save the universe? That’s a heavy burden to undertake if you think about it. And there are never any other aliens to help out, now that I think about it. I guess the goal of the whole game is to obtain enough parts of crystals to add up to three crystals, all done by visiting all these areas and blowing stuff up in the process (but its ridiculously easy to just not shoot everything and still get pretty far in a level). And then you use the crystals to save the universe. Maybe.

There are four areas to the game, each with their own set of levels. While you’re not able to select any of the levels to play that each area has (or even see how many there are), you must complete the levels in a linear fashion to get to the progressively harder levels, ultimately beating an area to go to another area. Only one area is available at the start, which is not necessarily bad, but it’s not good either. The selection of levels come in the form of a deep space/asteroid place, a weird black log (what I can only assume to be a spaceship), a brown planet, and one white planet. That sure is a scenic tour, considering the aliens who are attacking are attacking the whole universe. Of course, you can see the reason behind the aliens’ interest in each of the areas you fight them in, especially the deep space void that has a bunch of random spiked walls and floors randomly floating around or a big black log in the middle of space. Yes, I know it’s not supposed to be realistic, but I can’t help not thinking about it.

As I said before, the graphics are nice. However, the enemies you encounter aren’t very imaginative or interesting. The enemy’s projectiles, most being small red balls, can also be too hard to see since they are usually very small and blend in with the background too much. Even your enemies are hard to see because they blend in too well with the background.

The Dearth of Good Things

So, what else besides the graphics are actually good about this game? Well, they do get some things right when it comes to the game.

There are the usual things, such as a health bar, lives, and the purpose of the game being to obtain points. While you get points for just destroying an enemy, more often than not, they will release a floating orb with a number on it that, when collected, gives you extra points. There are obstacles in the game that utilize timing and the scrolling of the screen, or what I like to call “screen crunchers.” As levels progress, the scrolling speeds up, forcing you to think fast, or slows down, allowing you to deal with an obstacle/problem.

On the ship enhancement side of things, there are your standard power ups and speed ups. There are also power down and speed downs, so there are certain decisions you have to make (whether or not it’s worth it) to try and get a power up or if you should sacrifice one of your power levels to get through an area easier. There are also satellites that have different kinds of firing characteristics that can be found through levels so that you can kick ass easier. When holding down the firing command for the satellites, you can’t use your ship’s regular weaponry because they’re only used once for every fire key press. Unless you press the fire key a lot, you’re basically using one or the other, depending on the type of satellite, however.

The soundtrack is also a good part of the game, as it is very electronica-oriented, and goes well with the space setting, as well as the levels you’re in. Though there are crappy-sounding voices used in the game at random times, they sort of fit with the songs, almost sounding as if they are part of the song that is playing since they have a little bit of a European accent to them.

A nice part about the game is that it gives you the freedom of using a keyboard, a mouse, a joystick, or even a joystick with force feedback. But these good control preference choices quickly turn into bad things.

The Abundance of Bad Things

Let’s start at the beginning. When you boot up the game, there’s a long start-up time. You’ll be sitting there for a while watching the load bar slowly fill up. There’s a lot of “decrunching,” whatever that means. Besides that, once you start up the game you’re not able to adjust volume while you’re in the game or it will crash. If your speakers have a volume adjustment, you can do it from there with no problem, but if you’re doing it from your keyboard and not in the options for the game, then it will most certainly crash. But, it could just be a problem that arises from the kind of computer I have and not necessarily so for others. The fact of the matter is that it happens, and that’s not good. Another slight annoyance is that there isn’t a quick exit from the game. The only way to exit is if you go to the title screen and select exit game. It can take up to around a minute to get to depending on what screen you’re at in the game. They also disabled the use of Alt-F4 for the sake of forcing you to go to the title screen to exit. How convenient is that? You can always go to the Ctrl-Alt-Delete box and end the program if it really comes down to it, I suppose. Aside from all of those issues, is the fact that the frame rate drops when a lot of explosions or actions happen on the screen.

First and foremost, however, the control issues drag this game down from being as good as it could (and should) be. Even on easy mode, the game can be challenging, mostly due to the control issues, not because of the difficulty of the game. Though you are given a wide array of options to chose to control your ship with, those of us without a joystick are left with either the keyboard or mouse control options. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. The keyboard is harder to use than the mouse for shooting because of the simple fact that each time you push down the fire key, one shot comes out. That means you’ll be hitting your space bar or ctrl key a lot. However, switching the control preference over to your mouse brings up another problem, as it becomes very hard to move your ship fast enough and far enough to really warrant its use. This mostly happens because there is no mouse sensitivity gauge in the options. Unfortunately, there are no keyboard/mouse hybrid controls either, so you’re either stuck with one or the other, which will most likely be the keyboard because moving is a very important part of the game. This also leaves another problem, because even the keyboard isn’t perfect when it comes to controlling your ship, as one millisecond longer of holding the key could mean certain death for your ship. Even if you have full health, if you accidentally miscalculate and graze the floor or a spiked wall, your ship will blow up instantly, only adding to the frustration of the game, since there are many times where they have “screen cruncher” obstacles that will result in your instant death.

I also found it interesting that as you progressively got higher levels of weaponry, your back fire weapons seem to have more power than the front ones. The front weaponry itself isn’t very strong (unless you have a satellite with you, but that’s not very often) because the lasers shoot in almost all the directions you can think of except for what’s most useful: forward. Most of your shots will hit a wall rather than an enemy, making power ups not really as valuable as how fast you can hit the fire key. It leaves to the imagination why someone would make a ship that fired stronger, more concentrated blasts behind instead of through the front. It also left to the imagination why the programmers thought that was a good enough idea to put in the game.

Absolute Blue has no real redeeming qualities to it, and with a similarly priced game, which outclasses it in every way already out there (namely Jets’n’Guns), you shouldn’t waste your time with Absolute Blue, unless you’re really up for a frustrating challenge.

 

.hack//G.U. Vol. 1: Rebirth (PS2) Preview

If you’re one of the many fans of the .hack series that was released in four parts (Infection, Mutation, Outbreak, and Quarantine), you’ll be pleased to know that there is a new .hack game being developed for a 2006 release. Named .hack//G.U. (the G.U. standing for “Grown Up,” and also having 12 different meanings in the game itself), you can instantly see from the trailer on CyberConnect2’s web site that the game has a more mature look, feel, and mood. What is instantly noticeable is that the game takes on a truer anime style than its predecessors.

For those who haven’t played the aforementioned games in the .hack series, the .hack games revolved around a popular MMORPG called The World, and the weird occurrences happening within and outside as a direct result of what happens inside the game. By creating a fake online world, the .hack games capture the feel of an MMORPG, while blending it with storyline often utilized in single player RPGs. The experience is very unique, to say the least.

Announced at E3, .hack//G.U. takes place in 2017 (seven years after the previous four-part series). Being inserted into an all-new story where The World becomes a place where Player Killers (known as PK’ers) and warring guilds are constantly causing disruption in The World creates an interestingly new atmosphere to play in. The game of The World has been upgraded to have new areas, monsters, and jobs; however, with the constant pandemonium of players fighting each other, it causes The World to be a lawless virtual reality that the system administrators can’t control.

In .hack//G.U., you play as Haseo, a gray-haired male known as the Terror of Death. Wielding an awesome weapon which seems to be a Sword and Chainsaw hybrid, Haseo earned his nickname by hunting down PK’ers. Other characters that were named in the trailer were: Atoli/The Mirage of Deceit, Kuhn/The Propagation, Yata/The Prophet, Sakubo/The Machinator, Endrance/The Temptress, Pai/The Avenger, Ovan/The Rebirth, and what seems to be Kite (supposedly being named as Tri-Edge), except he has a seemingly zombified expression on his face coupled with amazing powers and abilities.

While not many actual story elements were revealed from the trailer, you can tell that something happens that involves places and possibly some characters from .hack parts 1-4. Kite, the main character of the first four parts of .hack, is a given, as there is a one minute fight scene between Kite and Haseo. It’s left to the imagination whether or not others will take a place in the story, and it’d actually be surprising if they weren’t mentioned.

Fans of the series won’t have to wait as long as 2006 to re-enter the .hack universe with .hack//G.U., as there is another .hack game in the works and is being released before .hack//G.U. Even less information is known about it, but from browsing CyberConnect2’s web site, it seems to be named .hack//Another Birth. Whether or not .hack//Another Birth is going to be Part 5, or a kind of extra game to link the first four parts to G.U. remains to be seen at this point.

 

Stella Deus: Gate of Eternity (PS2) Review

Developer: Pinegrow / Publisher: Atlus || Overall: 7.8/10

Stella Deus: Gate of Eternity is Atlus’ new strategy RPG for the PlayStation 2. Taking place in a world where all the regular enemies you see fall into around 15 different classes (each class having only one sprite model so you’ll know what they are), you’re in for many long hours of strategy “fun.” Well, not really “fun.” Between instances of unfulfilling storyline full of bad voice acting, you’ll find yourself having to level up for about an hour, which definitely becomes a chore at times.

I’m not going to lie; I really thought the setup of the world and story in Stella Deus: Gate of Eternity was actually very interesting. Unfortunately, the game didn’t live up to my expectations. Maybe it was the bad voice acting or the excessive use of dialogue devices that annoyed me (including, but not limited to, just saying a name and having to guess what they mean by just saying someone’s name or trailing off in their speech and not completing it). It seemed like at times the story was written in a way that I had to read the storyteller’s mind to understand what they were trying to imply in the context of the events. However, the main fault of the story is that it took too many predictable turns, making the game seem more run-of-the-mill than it really should have been.

The graphical style used in the game more closely resembles Japanese anime than cel-shading found in most games that try to achieve a “drawn” look to them. While I didn’t have any real complaints about how the game looked like in this regard, my roommate gave his generous opinion and basically said it looked like crap, as if “some kid finger-painted that ****.” I can see how the art style might not appeal to everyone, but I personally think that the graphics are more or less nice to look at; however, you can tell the colors are kind of bland, and nothing really jumps out at you. Dedicated story scenes are most of the time delivered in still shots of characters with backdrops behind them. There are different pictures depicting interesting interpretations of emotions as well, for example, bugging out of the eyes when mad/disgusted. The character art is fairly well drawn, but you will never see more than one (if there is one displayed) character in a story scene at the same time, as the pictures will jump back and forth between the conversing parties. Not that this is necessarily bad — it just leaves out certain characters’ appearances through parts of the story and you’ll begin to wonder if they’re even there. Sometimes they’ll leave a character out of a whole conversation and then insert a part where that character pops in and has “…….” as what they say, just to give you the feeling that they are there and listening, I suppose. Sometimes you’ll see story delivered in in-game animations. There are practically no Full Motion Videos (FMVs), either.

When it comes to actual game play, Stella Deus doesn’t get much more generic. All the basic principles of strategy RPGs are there and not much more to build upon. Typically, you gain Exp and SP after each action you make in battle. Depending on your level and whatever formula the game has, you’ll gain a number amount anywhere from one or more Exp/SP for each action. Exp is used to increase levels and SP is used to increase abilities or gain skills. To achieve the next level for a character, one needs to gain 100 Exp, and it doesn’t matter what level you are. The amount of Exp you gain correlates with what level you are, meaning an action you gained ten Exp for at level five only gets you one Exp at level 10. A fault (or maybe it was on purpose) of the Exp system becomes apparent when you get closer to the 100-Exp-threshold. For example, if a character has 98 Exp and you defeat an enemy, gaining 62 Exp for doing so, you’ll in effect lose 60 Exp points, because once you get to 100 or more, you start at zero instead of having the Exp rollover and start at 60 exp. This is annoying to say the least. SP is gained in a similar fashion, but instead of the problem you have with Exp, you never have enough SP, making it a potential chore to have to battle a bunch of times, outside the course of the main story, to get enough SP to do whatever you wanted. SP is used to learn new skills, and to gain more base stats (if you ever wanted to waste them like that).

There are a couple of unique things that Stella Deus: Gate of Eternity brings to the table, however. The most unique, dare I say innovative, aspect of the game is how you are able to control your characters during battle. You have two choices in the options menu, one is “Command” and the other is “Direct” for your controlling preference. Command is the usual menu-based control scheme in strategy games that list all the possible things you can do (like Move, Attack, Item, etc.). The control scheme known as Direct takes these commands and assigns them to particular buttons on your controller, allowing you to conveniently accelerate the pace of the battle. Cutting down the time of each turn you have your characters take makes the game less boring, in a way. Other interesting aspects of the game are Team Attacks and Zone Skills. Team Attacks allow you to combine forces with another character in your party to deal some serious damage on your enemies. The game almost forces you to take advantage of Team Attacks, because the levels get progressively harder faster than your characters develop (without practicing in battles a lot). Depending on who is in the Team Attack (which seems like it could be up to five at a time), they do different types of attacks. Zone Skills are also an interesting part of the game, as you can affect the status of your characters or the status of your enemies depending on the skill you use. Possible skills include Healing (for your characters) or a chance of inflicting the status of Fear on your enemies, and as long as either is in your character’s “zone” they may take effect.

There are also some side-quests available in the town portion of the game. Seemingly, each town you go to is an exact copy of all the other towns in the world you visit, and every person looks the same, too. Actually, the “town” is just the same “town” you go to each time you go to the “town,” meaning there are no unique towns in the game. The side-quests break up the linearity of the story, and gives you something else to do than go to the Catacombs (where you practice your battling to gain Exp and SP, going to increasingly deeper levels with harder battles). You’ll find different quests that simply make you go somewhere with an item, have a battle somewhere, or do something that’s pretty much stupid. You can acquire interesting items and new party members (although they stem from the enemy sprite pool, but at least you’ll only get one character for each class of enemy) for doing the mini side-quests, and since they really don’t take that long, it may be worth your trouble.

When it comes to sound, it’s not the game’s strong point. While the music is OK to listen to, it can get kind of monotonous, especially when you constantly have to listen to the same song during battles, and you’re in battle 90% of the game; basically, not much to choose from. The sound effects are average at best. All of your enemies use the same set of voice-overs for their cheesy quips they say before and after an attack, and all the unique characters in the game (who don’t share the same character model as one of your enemies) have their own voice-overs that are equally as cheese-filled. When it comes to regular story voice-overs, the voice-overs are bad. There are a couple of main characters that have moderate or even good voice-overs, like the characters of Viper and Grey. It gets to the point where you can tell which characters have the same person doing the voice-over because they sound almost the same, or you can tell by their abilities as a voice-over actor/actress. While they do get the job done, it leaves a bad taste in the mouth sometimes. It also doesn’t help that a line of speech randomly has lower volume than the other lines being spoken. Though it doesn’t happen often, it happens enough to mention.

To veterans of RPGs and strategy RPGs, Stella Deus: Gate of Eternity may be an underwhelming experience, but it doesn’t go as far as to completely disappoint. Most of the elements that have made strategy games good in the past are present, and if you’re looking for a game to feed your strategy RPG yearning, Stella Deus: Gate of Eternity wouldn’t be a bad choice. The game can get rather involving to a point, and could spark interest as to where the game’s story will lead, but all in all, you’re not going to find anything else that is very different from most other strategy RPGs.

 

Battlefield 2: Modern Combat (PC) Hands-On Preview

Developer: DICE | Publisher: Electronic Arts ||

The Battlefield franchise is coming around for a new shot at the market with EA’s Battlefield 2, developed by DICE. Battlefield 2 supplies those who yearn for a modern combat Battlefield game (since the other games were based on WWII, and Vietnam), by making all the stuff in the game, well, modern. There are tanks, jeeps, helicopters, and guns just like those that are being used in combat nowadays.

The traditional Battlefield formula has been preserved well in the demo I played at E3 for Battlefield 2. While the only mode that was allowed was multiplayer, there were eight people playing at the same time. Needless to say, once you got used to playing the game on a PS2 controller rather than a PC set-up, the game becomes fairly involving. As with the other Battlefield games, the game revolves around taking over and controlling all the spawn points as dictated by the map you play on. While you can have some very hard times making it to the point where you control all the flags in the game so that there is no spawn point for the other team (thus winning once all the remaining enemies are left on the map are killed, unless they take another flag over), you can win by killing members of the other team until all their tickets run out. Usually killing the other team for all their tickets would take a very long time (since you start out with a couple hundred usually), so it becomes the priority to take over all the spawn points.

The multiplayer-only demo I played for Battlefield 2: Modern Combat captured the same feeling as the other games in the series. Being able to chose one of five different positions in your respective team, you can be equipped with a special ops gun, an M16 with a grenade launcher, a sniper rifle, a rocket launcher, a shotgun and other secondary weaponry to help you in your conquest of the map. This allows for flexibility in what kind of gun you like to use, and you don’t mess around with picking up your gun off the floor.

The demo’s sound was excellent for being in such an early stage of development. Almost all parts of the gameplay were very good as well, but there were a couple of issues I did notice. A minor issue is when you move (with the left analog stick) and then let go of it, your player keeps moving afterwards, and it feels almost as if they are sliding. The other issue which is more annoying is the lack of precision using the right analog stick in aiming with your weapon. Hopefully these issues will be solved before it hits retail.

Though there was only one map available for play, it looked fairly nice. A lot of the objects and textures were sort of bland, but most likely the graphical look of the game will be improved as well.

Playing Battlefield 2 for about an hour, I can say that the development of the game is going well, and the game can only get better from what it is now.

 

 

Close Combat: First to Fight (PC) Review

Developer: Destineer / Publisher: 2K Games || Overall: 6.8/10

With the current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, there has recently been quite an upsurge of FPS’s that take place in the Middle East. Close Combat: First to Fight takes its place among the many recent FPS titles that allow you to shoot at radical Arabs. In this striving-to-be-realistic shooter, you take on the role of a Marine lance corporal (put simply, the leader) in a four person squad of America’s few and proud. The game is based on imagined “occurrences” taking place in Lebanon, in the distant year of 2006. You will play an important part in resolving the problems between Lebanese radicals and the Syrians who help them.

First to Fight will take you through building after building and street after street, gunning down these stereotypically radical Arabs with turbans and beards, who shoot at you with AK-47 bootlegs called AK-74s, all while yelling in Arabic, or rather what they try to pass off as Arabic; it’s mostly just incoherent yelling. With the help of forty U.S. Marines fresh out of battle from Iraq, First to Fight claims to be so realistic that the Marines use it as a training tool. Given this logic, however, one could say that Pac-Man could also be used as a training tool for the Marines. Fact of the matter is, I doubt very seriously that First to Fight is actually used for training; while it tries to be realistic, it’s really not. It even says on the box it’s not approved, endorsed or authorized by the Marine Corps or any other component of the Department of Defense, which isn’t surprising, because First to Fight is not realistic enough that it could be used as a “training tool,” despite it’s claims.

The main goal of First to Fight was to be a realistic representation of how real-life U.S. Marines operate in battle. With a few squad-based commands, you’ll go around shooting your 3-shot-burst rifle, raiding rooms, killing enemies using truck-mounted machine guns (realistically, with no recoil), all while being jealous at the fact the other member in your squad gets the cool gun. This is hardly a realistic representation. While the settings they put you in look fairly “realistic,” they also look like they could be the slums of a poor European city, especially after a few buildings were bombed out. If the Arabs were replaced with Nazis, it wouldn’t be too hard to believe this were a World War II game.

As mentioned before, First to Fight utilizes squad-based tactics as you make your way through the urban landscape. While it’s not purely command-based in the way you can utilize your squad SOCOM, in how you can send your team members to location points and all sorts of different advanced commands to complete the mission, you can give your Marines a few commands mainly consisting of Suppress, Cover, Take Down, and Frag Take Down. Suppress is usually used when you want to travel across a hot zone full of gunfire. When you enable this command, your Saw gunner (the guy with the really good gun) will start shooting in no particular direction, clearing the way for you to move across to another part of the area in conflict to get a better shot at the radicals. Cover is another tactic used to help you reposition yourself, but instead of firing in random directions, all of your squad members will stay in the place they are and make sure you make it across safely. Take Down and Frag Take Downs are used when you’re in a building, and is used very often when you want to clear a room you’re about to go in. In a regular Take Down, your marines will storm in and shoot everything they can. In a Frag Take Down, they’ll toss a grenade into the room, letting it explode and then charge in with guns-a-blazing. Using these four commands will be the only times you really have to control your marines. The rest of the time, the marvelous AI will take control of your marines, helping you shoot down those crazy radicals, most of the time taking more of the kills than you do. In the end, First to Fight tries to give off the impression that it is more complex than normal FPS games by having seemingly complicated explanations as to how your units work, but you learn within your first hour of playing that it doesn’t really matter you have a squad with you.

Starting a new campaign game will take you through “training levels” of sort in which tutorial videos are played to teach you about a particular aspect of the game. While there’s only a couple of these, the first one is fairly long, clocking in at about five minutes. The intro-tutorial video teaches you all about how the Marine squad operates, naming all the positions of the different people in the squad, and how they are automatically programmed to do things like Marines do (such as go down the sides of streets instead of down the middle). The tutorial video also makes it clear that your squad members are smarter than you when it comes to playing the game, so you really don’t have to help them every step of the way through your mission. While your squad-members do help out a lot, you tend to feel like a babysitter, healing your members when they need it, and always making sure they’re near you so you don’t risk losing two and failing the mission.

There is the option to request help from other Marine forces in the area, as you’re given a limited amount of times in which you can call in for an air strike or a sniper to help you out with a situation (as if they’ll only give you the favor a limited amount of times, not because they want you to finish the mission or anything).

The story is delivered through “news broadcasts” by the International News Network (which seems to be run by the British). This gives the feeling that you are playing the game on a “global” level rather than an individual level, while keeping up with the developments of what happens in the fictitious divergence. Consequently, you don’t actually have a story with the marines you impersonate. There is no drastic turn of plot events like the Marines disobeying orders and going into a dangerous part of town that hasn’t been secured yet in a valiant effort to be proclaimed as heroes, or anything that may have made an interesting story. Basically, all you do in the game is receive orders to go somewhere. After you get there, you shoot some guys to “secure” the area, then rinse and repeat. If you get a kick out of shooting people who pop out of doorways or from behind objects like a jack-in-the-box screaming fake Arabic, then get ready to have the time of your life, because that’s all this game is.

Even the most basic game play mechanics aren’t flawless. Too often when I walk around I feel like I’m tripping over something. The regular movement is very slow consequently, and if you decide to “sprint” there is an over-exaggerated swaying of the camera from left to right, making it difficult to really see where you’re going. You’re usually stuck with hobbling around with a floating gun. Although it is nice that they added it, melee attacks have no use at all. Using a melee attack grants no particularly advantage to its use, as you have plenty of ammo already to give out to the needy, and there are plenty of AK-74s lying around to pick up and use for yourself. There are also too many different commands on the keyboard for you to remember, probably more than what should have been necessary.

Keeping true to the games “realistic” approach, it doesn’t take too many hits for you to be killed. Also keeping true to this aspect, your enemies will randomly disappear! I wouldn’t have mentioned the enemies disappearing had it not happened more than four times (that I noticed) while I was shooting in their general direction, only to find that I had somehow vaporized them with my rifle bullets. I didn’t think the American military was THAT advanced. But the AI itself isn’t all that great to begin with. While the AI provides a fair challenge, (mostly due to the fact they look exactly like they’re surroundings) and because it doesn’t take much to kill you to begin with, you may run into some situations where you become careless, die and restart at the last checkpoint you passed. Quite often, the AI will stare at you for nearly a minute before deciding to do anything, making them very easy targets.

Despite all that I’ve said already, the presentation of the game isn’t bad. I found the music to be well-composed, lending a good feeling to the “modern-combat.” Even though this is a Middle Eastern-themed game, there is no Middle Eastern-sounding music in the background. Instead, it focuses on the triumphant “we’re-going-to-kill-you” feeling you should get from a FPS. The graphics also aren’t half-bad. While they definitely aren’t the greatest I’ve seen, they’re above average for a PC game. When you crank up the settings to their most advanced, you will have some nice visuals to look at. The settings show quite a bit of detail, and really make you feel as if you’re in a war-forlorn area. A downside to this; the minimum requirements to run First to Fight are quite demanding. With the requirements of a 1.3Ghz Pentium III, 256 mb RAM, 32 mb video card, broadband for multiplayer and 2.8 gb of hard drive space, your computer will have to be nearly top of the line to play without any slowdown with all the settings cranked up. On a side note, loading takes about an average amount of time, but most of the time it’s fairly quick.

I’m not sure how big of an importance multiplayer takes with First to Fight (even though it is an important aspect of all FPSes). Being squad-based, it doesn’t seem to me like it’d be realistic for people to follow all the rules your AI squad-members would adhere to. With two multiplayer modes, Four Man Co-Op and Head-to-Head, Four Man Co-Op seems to provide the only good mode to play this game online. If you like the single player missions included in the game, you’ll get through them about four times faster since there’ll be four guys running around the game shooting all the crazy Arabs they can find. If you wanted to play Head-to-Head, the urban settings found in the game could provide for some fun.

Oddly, I found the shooting of endless hordes of zombies in Deadhunt much more fun than playing this game. While First to Fight has a few good points about it, it does not live up to what it claims it is, and is “realistically” only a less than average FPS. Possibly the greatest fault of the game is the price tag it totes: an MSRP of $39.99. If the game were priced for a budget release, maybe half of what it is currently, this game could be worth a look to the FPS enthusiast.

 

Hellgate: London (PC) E3 2005 Preview

Developer: Flagship Studios | Publisher: Bandai Namco Entertainment

I had the pleasure of being invited to an appointment to check out Namco’s new PC games today at E3. The games I had seen were Mage Knight Apocalypse, and Warhammer, and Hellgate: London. Namco’s goal in their expansion to the PC market is to create new franchises that aren’t featured on consoles, to give the made-for-PC attitude in their upcoming PC games. Mage Knight Apocalypse was available in a playable form, but Warhammer was just shown as a trailer. The only game I had actually gotten hands on with was Hellgate: London.

The version of Hellgate: London that is on the E3 floor was still in development, but it had a lot of elements already added in the game for playing. The actual story for Hellgate: London is fairly simple. Being set 20 years in the future, demons come from Hell and you have to stop them as part of the last surviving humans on the Earth. Similar to adventure games with RPG elements, Hellgate: London stresses character development and increasing the abilities of your character and his weaponry. In this respect, the game becomes very unique when it integrates its weaponry choices. There are many different kinds of guns and melee weapons, that you can create different combinations of in both of your hands. The only melee weapons currently in the game are swords, but a representative of the development team said that they will be including different kinds of weapons, such as a cricket bat, so that you can kill things in a style that you want. From what I’ve seen, there are rifles and pistols that have futuristic kinds of ammo/uses, some in an almost magical way. The rifle that I saw (almost similar to how a shotgun works) unleashes white balls of light that spread out among the area and create a lot of damage, though not very accurate. The rifle works really well when there’s a large group of zombies, demonic creatures, or other enemies. The pistols aren’t anything too out of the ordinary from what I saw, but the kinds of ammo they have are unique. You can upgrade your weaponry as you collect more weapons, and also equip more items to your body, changing your character’s appearance.

Hellgate: London is not a pure first person shooter; rather it uses a combination of first and third person views. It is useful in some cases to use the first person view, and also switch out of it to the third person view to get a look more at what’s around you. The first person view can only be used when you have only guns (meaning no combination of a gun in one hand a melee weapon in the other), because using melee weapons in first person is hard to use, and wasn’t included. I had asked the member of the developer team (who was the art director) whether or not that would be included. He said it might not be, because it was undecided whether or not they would put that in. Through my experience with playing a game called Thief, which used first person melee attacks, it was hard to function. In this regard, the ability to switch between perspectives is a very much welcomed aspect. He also mentioned that Shops would take a big part in the game, though they haven’t been included yet. Shops would be used to sell the items you gather and save your game when you visit. Some sort of a quest-structure is to also be included in the game, so that the game can move along when playing single player. The RPG elements, the concept of modding weaponry, and the beat-em-and-shoot-em-up feeling you get from the game can appeal to a broad audience of PC gamers, as it reaches a middle-ground between FPS and a game like Everquest.

While the game takes place in London, there are two parts to the game: above ground and underground. All the maps are generated randomly, so you’ll never go into the same area again, as the main purpose of the game is just to develop your character in classic RPG style. Upon the question of whether or not there would be multiplayer included in the game, the art director said they haven’t included it in the game, but they do want to put it in. If there are the standard types of competitive online game modes we’ve seen with most first person shooters and having some sort of a quest mode be played co-operatively.

The actual version that I had played was quite impressive. For being Flagship Studios’ first game and a part of Namco’s first wave of PC titles, I was very impressed by how good the graphics looked; the game was very fluid for being in an early stage of development. The development team did an amazing job in creating the settings and areas. The ruined look of a city ravaged by demons, gave the actual feeling that if a demon invasion happened in the real world, it would look just like they had portrayed it. The art director told me that as you progress through the game, enemies get tougher, weapons get better and more improvements are available for your character.

I have no doubt that Hellgate: London will not disappoint. I came out of E3 today looking forward to being able to play more of the game and to see how it turns out more than any other game I had looked at while I was there, mostly because of how well the development was going in such an early stage. The release date for Hellgate: London is to be determined, so whether or not it will be released this year or next year is left to question.

 

Stronghold 2 (PC) Review

Developer: Firefly Studios / Publisher: 2K Games || Overall: 6.0/10

Nowadays, it’s debatably hard to find a real time strategy (RTS) game that can compare to the classics. Games like StarCraft, Age of Empires II, the Command & Conquer series, and the Krush Kill n’ Destroy series (one of my personal favorites) really set the standard for me to judge other games in the genre against. Firefly Studios’ Stronghold 2 pales in comparison to the aforementioned, outright. While Stronghold 2 does have some interesting aspects to it, they are not executed as greatly as they could have been. While it can create a minute interest for the long-time RTS PC gamer, Stronghold 2 falls devastatingly short of being what it strives to be: a good RTS game.

The biggest thing about any RTS game is the actual strategy you use to thwart your enemies. There are two ways to play, either militaristically or economically. If you chose the military route, your castle will concentrate more on creating units to fight against your enemies. While you still have to keep your economy up, the main point of it is to fight. If you chose the economical route, you’re in for a more or less long game. You’ll focus on making your castle a bustling center of economic activity, creating enough food to feed your people with, as well as gathering resources to build up an army to attack or defend against invaders.

The kind of style you pick will affect the kind of game you play, whether it is in Campaign or Free Build. Campaign will take you through objectified missions where you will complete a mission given to you by your superior. How you get to that point is up to you, but the purpose of it is to get to that point. Unlike most RTS games, once you complete a mission, the next mission you undertake will use the same map and base you had just built, still being able to use what was created. During campaigns, you will always be able to see the whole map screen, being able to keep an eye on neighboring estates and castles. In the Free Build mode, you’re able to just create your castle and watch it bloom. Or you can undertake the task of going head-to-head with a computer player. There is also a Multiplayer mode and the ability to play user-created maps made by the in-game map editor.

Castle towns in Stronghold 2 revolve around three important buildings: the Stockpile, the Granary, and the Lord’s Kitchen. The Stockpile holds all the materials your peasants gather from the surrounding environment, and bring it into the storehouse until it is used. There are many types of resources that can be gathered, such as wood, pitch, stone, iron, etc. The most vital resources you will use (mainly to build buildings and castle parts) will be wood and stone. Other resources are used to create weaponry or other different objects. The Granary stores all the food that your peasants will harvest, including apples, meat, dairy, and wheat. Your granary can hold an infinite amount of food, and will also control how much food you distribute to your people. The Lord’s Kitchen is the storage house for the finer foods of back in the day, such as pigs, eel, geese, wine/grapes, and vegetables. Using the Lord’s Kitchen, you can hold feasts in your name, thus increasing your honor. To gather all the different types of resources, you have to build different buildings to which your peasants will automatically go work in as soon as you build them. Whenever you run out of jobless peasants, you can build more housing space (called a Hovel) for more people to live in and wait for new jobs to be undertaken.

How well your town does depends on the two important factors of Popularity and Honor. Popularity is basically how much your peasants like you, and if there are any displeasing or pleasing things happening in the way you’re keeping your town going, it will be shown. To achieve more popularity, you can do things like increase rations or not tax. The maximum amount of popularity you can have is 100, so if you’re at 100 and there’s no loss of popularity, it’d be to your benefit to reduce rations to normal, so that a larger stockpile can be gathered in your Granary. Things that can damage your popularity, making people leave in eventuality, would be if you taxed them (more tax will have more popularity loss) or left piles of “gong” around without having someone clean them up. Another aspect is “honor” in which you gain a certain amount of to use mostly for military needs, and to “buy” more plots of land from your king to use for yourself and expand your ventures. A very good way to increase your honor is to hold feasts, using the food held in the Lord’s Kitchen. There are a few other ways to increase your honor, such as attending church, getting married (to a woman, if you’re wondering), holding a jousting tournament and holding medieval dances to name most of them. The “industries” that create particular types of resources may be turned off fairly easily, should the need ever arise, but there is no option to stop just one building from doing what it is doing, resorting to having to destroy the building to stop it.

Laying down this framework, just like every other RTS game, you build a mass of soldiers and spend a good deal of time trying to take over the whole map.

Experienced RTS gamers may find a few very annoying parts to the game, to say the least. Probably the most apparent thing is that you can’t control your peasants at all. They are controlled by the computer at all times, and even if they were being attacked by a wolf, you can’t tell them to run away. There’s also a non-traditional way of seeing how many resources you have. Other than the ever-present information about your Gold, Honor and Popularity, you have to click on your Stockpile to see how much of each resource you have. If that wasn’t enough already, the most important part of an RTS game, combat, is slow. Half of the problem would have been remedied if your units didn’t move equally as slow as well. So if you’ve got a wolf problem or an invading army already attacking a building of yours, chances are a few bad things are going to happen before you have a chance to do anything about them. Also, it will take some memorizing (and frequent reference to the instruction manual) to use all the buildings, as there are a lot of buildings whose names don’t clearly reference to what they actually do. It may be hard to figure out that the Fletcher’s Workshop is for making bows and arrows or the Hop Farm is used to make ale. Unless you just happened by this information in your ventures through education beforehand, it might be kind of hard for you to remember which building does what.

The graphics utilized in the game are not very pleasing overall. While I did enjoy how the environment looked like (mostly because of the trees), I came to the realization that the graphics were not that great, especially when I zoomed in closer to objects I was looking at. In the game there are buildings, humans, and animals, all of which look lackluster unless you zoom in. Though, there are many different views to look at your castle and land in full 3D. The sound is about average quality. The best part about the sound would be the music and sound effects. The voice-overs included in the game are some of the most horrible stuff I’ve ever heard. Everyone in the game sounds like an idiot, to be frank. I hate to hear the stereotypically dumb peasants who like to say “liege” when referring to you, and hear about how “the rations are not good, but they’re not bad and that’s about all there is to say about that.” But, you can learn to live with it if you try to restrain in ever clicking on your peasants to see their status.

The two big complaints I have about this game stop it from attaining a decent score. First is when you start up the game; it takes forever to load. You’ll be sitting there for what seems like ten minutes, wondering why it takes so long to load a menu screen, only to see that it’s been loading a five minute movie, which you have to press escape to not see and go to the menu screen. The other comes with the atrociously low frame rate your game will inevitably have as you build more buildings and create more living space for peasants. The low frame rate makes the game very unpleasing to play, nor is it avoidable, even if you have a computer that far outweighs the minimum (and recommended) requirements of a 2.0Ghz processor, 512mb RAM, and 64mb graphics card. The computer I use actually is the minimum and recommended settings combined, and I still had problems with the long loading and slow frame rates. Though there is an update that increases the version number to v1.1 (currently), these vital issues are not fixed.

I really wanted to like Stronghold 2, but the unfortunate result is a lackluster RTS that will be easily forgotten. If the developer is able to fix the game’s major flaws and tweak the game play (it wouldn’t hurt if the graphics were made just a little bit better) in a possible second sequel, then it would be worth another look, but in its current state, Stronghold 2 is a game any self-respecting RTS gamer should stay away from.

 

Metal Gear Acid (PSP) Review

Developer/Publisher: Konami || Overall: 8.7/10

If you’ve ever thought a Metal Gear game would fail to deliver an amazing experience, shoot yourself now. Metal Gear Ac!d takes a completely different spin on the franchise in what can be best described as a “card-based-strategy-board-game.” Similar to strategy games like Final Fantasy Tactics, the major difference between this game and the rest of the card-based genre is that Ac!d is not an RPG, as cards (and luck of the draw) dictate every part of the game. Metal Gear Ac!d delivers a truly unique experience, while still including all the major elements from the Metal Gear Solid series its fans have come to know it for, including interesting characters, and an entertaining storyline.

Like most people who heard about the game being card-based when it was first announced by Konami, it was left to question whether the game would catch on as the “normal” Solid games did. For me, it was hard to imagine what the game would actually be like, and whether or not the gameplay would measure up to the Solid series. When I finally loaded the game for the first time, I went in with lackluster hope that this game would be as good as the Solid games, but I kept an open mind about it. Recently becoming a fan of the Solid series, and just finishing Metal Gear Solid 3 about a month ago, I was ready to get into another Metal Gear game; Metal Gear Ac!d exceeded my expectations.

Taking place in the future (the year 2016 to be exact), the game starts with an airplane being hijacked. The person or persons behind the hijacking are not known, nor is their intent. The plane is filled with a muscle relaxant called vecuronium bromide that could be fatal if inhaled in excess. To make matters worse, a major presidential candidate named Senator Hach is aboard the airplane. The hijacker demanded only one thing: the prompt delivery of the mysterious project known as “Pythagoras.” This is where you (Solid Snake) enter. The stage has been set, and Snake is sent to a secret base owned by a corporation in the Moloni Republic, located on Lobito Island. It is here that Snake will try to figure out what exactly “Pythagoras” is, as well as uncover the mystery and past events which occurred on Lobito Island, in which Snake plays a big part. About a quarter of the way into the game, you’ll join up with a female agent named Teliko, who will help Snake along the way, and act as a team together. She is also a big part in the story.

The way the story is delivered, Metal Gear Ac!d seems like it shares events from the Solid games, because there are light references to them. For instance: “I’ve been in worse than this before.” All in all, the story is completely different from any other Metal Gear game, and seems like it could be the beginning of a completely new story arc for Snake, but I wouldn’t reject the idea of Ac!d being another part of the main Metal Gear storyline. However, it seems at times like they were trying to make a new Metal Gear story detached from the main timeline, so one has to wonder. Story is either shown as in-game animations or through the usage of drawn stills. While it was initially a let-down there weren’t any traditional CG cutscenes, the artistic style of the stills is fairly appealing as an alternative, and it helps in creating a different approach for Ac!d in storytelling devices when compared to it’s console brethren.

The actual gameplay itself takes a little bit of getting used to, so it’s good that the first couple stages serve as a tutorial; it helps out tremendously in learning the games basic functions. There are four different types of cards you can use through the game: Weapon, Item, Support, and Character. A card can usually be used in two ways: for the special ability grafted into it, or to move. While most cards have this basic option, there will be a few cards that only allow you only one option.

While the basic idea of how to use the cards is easy to get a hang of, they tossed in a bunch of different card characteristics and the vital feature of the game, “Cost.” Cost, as defined by the game, is the amount of time it takes to do a particular action, and is represented on the cards you can play as a big number in the right corner of the card display. Cost directly affects the order your characters and enemies take their turns in, so the more cost you accumulate during your turn, it’ll take longer for you to have your turn again. While Cost is the only aspect of a card I ever really paid attention to, each card has a characteristic called “Interference.” Interference only matters when you equip things to an equipment slot. The Interference of an equipped card can affect cards equipped next to it, such as the power of a weapon and other fairly unimportant things. I never worried myself with Interference, as I hadn’t directly noticed anything different that happened with Interference. It will take a few stages before being able to fully understand how to use the cards efficiently, but once you get used to actually using the cards, your only problem will be in what order the cards are drawn in.

Packed with nearly 200 unique cards, Metal Gear Ac!d offers lots of options for the cards in your deck. When you start out the game, you are able to place 30 cards in your “deck” (which you can compile through the “Intermission” screens between stages of the game), but as the game continues that number will rise higher and higher, allowing for a more customized deck. If you don’t want to deal with manually customizing your deck, you can have the game create the best deck you can have from the cards you currently have.

There are a couple ways to acquire cards through the game. The primary way you’ll achieve cards is by buying them in 3-card Packs from a deck that contains cards that are name after and unique to prior games in the Metal Gear series. Each pack costs a certain amount of points which are achieved after completing a stage. In total, there are four card packs to choose from, but they’re only available to buy after certain points of the game, and each new one costing more per deck than the one before it. You’re told as to when you’re able to buy packs of cards from new card decks because a commercial-like advertisement will pop in after completing a stage/viewing a story scene. You can also gather a few cards by collecting the Packs that are floating around in-game and earning them as a clear bonus.

Using some “special” cards activates a special cut-scene from the game of the deck was based on. For instance, when you use the Cyborg Ninja card, you will see a cutscene from Metal Gear Solid. During the beginning of the game, you will only see characters from the original Metal Gear Solid (the PSOne version). Not until later in the game do you actually see cutscenes from the PlayStation 2 Metal Gear Solid games. It’s impressive that the PSP can replicate the graphics of the PlayStation 2 so well.

The Metal Gear games have always been know for their unique, over-the-top bosses who are usually require doing things that are out of the ordinary to beat. While there wasn’t a whole group of bosses to fight in Ac!d like in the Solid games, Ac!d only had two bosses to really speak of (excluding the final boss), and only one of them actually stands out from regular gameplay, requiring you to do something completely different. To say the least, the amount of bosses worked into the story is not fulfilling, as much of the game is taken up by regular game play. It would have been nice to see more boss stages where they used the aspect of the cards to create a unique situation. This isn’t the only annoyance either. There are instances early in the game where Snake will stop in the middle of his move in order to show some story. This can leave you screwed without any cards to use so that you can move. Fortunately, the occurrence of these situations stop around one third of the way into the game.

As noted above, there are a few cutscenes of characters from the Solid games, as well as a few from the original Metal Gear games on the NES. However graphically, the game isn’t too shabby, especially for a launch game. Ac!d sports graphics that could be best described as “a smoothed out PSOne game.” When one considers the graphics are coming from a handheld, they’re pretty amazing. As I said before, there are no animated cutscenes, so the only movies you’re going to be seeing are the ones from the character cards. I also mentioned that most of the games story scenes are told through in-game animations and still-drawn pictures. I personally liked the still pictures, but they do give off a feeling that the game was rushed to meet the PSP’s launch date, as there isn’t a lot of variety in the pictures you actually see.

The musical score is nothing less than what should be expected in a Metal Gear game; in other words: great. The music accompanies what is taking place on screen, carrying the mood of the game and the specific events that are unfolding, whether they be on Lobito Island or in the airplane. While the music is great, the fact that there are mostly no voice-overs detracts from the experience. As a whole, there is very little actual voice-work at all. The only time you’re going to hear someone talking is during the “commercials” for the new decks that come out, and one word that a boss says before an attack. David Hayter-enthusiasts (the voice actor who plays Snake) might be disappointed at this fact. Once you get used to having no voice-overs in the game, it won’t be that big of a deal, but again, the game feels more rushed because of it.

Metal Gear Ac!d is an excellent extension of the series, and provides an exciting, new way to play the Metal Gear series. The somewhat experimental use of cards in the game can be make it hard for players to get into right off the bat, if you stick with the game, a rewarding experience will develop, as will a new storyline. Metal Gear Solid enthusiasts will definitely enjoy the game, but may find it hard to adapt; it isn’t part of the normal stealth-action genre Metal Gear Solid helped to define. Hardcore fans of the series will find more differences between Solid and Ac!d, but in the end will likely find the game to be worthwhile.

 

Deadhunt (PC) Review

Developer/Publisher: REL Games || Overall: 8.6/10

Usually when you play a first person shooter (FPS), you play through elaborate levels full of enemies trying to complete a particular objective. However, Deadhunt takes a completely different approach to the FPS genre, in this crazy and all-around hectic game with an arcade flavor. Some may see similarities between Deadhunt and Serious Sam, but what makes Deadhunt great is the fact it challenges your FPS skills with each progressing level in their campaign mode. However, Deadhunt has nothing in it that can be claimed as innovative. For this reason, I see the game as more of a “training platform” for other FPS games, and little more than that, as Deadhunt is a fairly simple FPS, that goes back to the basics, while executing it very well. In Deadhunt, you kill zombies 90% of the time. The hordes of zombies you will encounter carry varying types of weapons and armor, at times making them more difficult to kill, and more dangerous. Other enemies you’ll encounter consist of skeletons and various types of spiders (ranging from big to small), but what you’ll mainly come upon in the game are zombies.

Deadhunt offers a number of game play modes that will keep players entertained for a lengthy amount of time. Tutorial isn’t hard at all, and if you’re completely new to the genre, it’d be a good idea to go through here and learn how to play, as Deadhunt plays exactly like every other FPS you’ve come across except for a few particular things (but we’ll get to that later.). Greed, just like the name implies, will put you into the game shooting zombies to get as many points as you can before you die, but before you die, you have to kill one particular zombie. Survival mode, even though you get to pick what weapons and power-ups you get, is very hard, and you just try to kill as many zombies as you can before you die. Survival is sort of like Greed, except Greed has a little bit of strategy in it. Campaign is the best part of Deadhunt, hands down. With three difficulty levels, Campaign will eat up most of the time you play Deadhunt.

Deadhunt is quite different from most other first-person shooters. Every time you start a new game, you’re assigned one weapon that they chose, and that’s basically it. There’s no changing weapons (except for when you get a “power-up” that changes your weapon for a limited amount of shots) at all. There are also no melee attacks, so if you’re in the middle of reloading and there’s a zombie about to hit you, you’re not going to be able to hit him with the butt of your rifle. However, what “covers the bases” when it comes to these facts is that you have an unlimited amount of ammo to use. Some may say “well that makes it easier,” but Deadhunt is hard enough that even with unlimited ammo, you’ll be having a tough time regardless. There are a wide-array of guns to be assigned with, such as a Desert-Eagle powered Pistol, an Uzi, an Assault Rifle, a Shotgun, an Auto Shotgun, a huge Machine Gun, and a Gauss Rifle (which is pretty much a sniper, but there’s no zooming in), so it does make it interesting when you play through with particular weapons, because (based on the weapon) it will tell you how many monsters will come at you and how hard they will be. You’ll also have to be good at running while shooting, because that’s what you’ll be doing — a lot. Most of the time you’ll be shooting the horde of zombies behind you, so you have to run backwards and shoot, while trying not to get hit by zombies running at you from the front. Once you eliminate all the zombies that spawn throughout the level, you basically win that level.

During Campaign mode, there are a few interesting challenges given as you play. While the ultimate objective is to kill all the zombies that spawn throughout the level, depending on the level (usually you can guess the challenge by the name of level after you played through it or if they explain it in-game, but sometimes they don’t), there will be different challenges along the way for particular levels. A few examples would be: the more you kill zombies the slower you run, rate of fire is down, every zombie you kill hurts you, and different kinds of challenges that will make the particular level

harder for you. Once you complete a level, you’re allowed to go on to a new level, which may or may not have a new challenge for you. Once in a while you’ll come across a level that doesn’t have any challenge to it other than killing all the zombies that spawn.

While Deadhunt can get pretty addicting, there are only two maps to play on, and they’re big, wide, open areas for the most part. One map is a green area with a Stonehenge-like structure in the middle of the map, and dead bushes and trees to get in the way of you’re backwards running. The other is a dark valley area in the middle of mountain with a big altar on one of the sides of the map. While these maps are good, they become very worn out, because these are the only maps you will see in the entire game. If there were more than two arenas in the game to play on, Deadhunt would have been a lot more interesting to play.

Deadhunt requires a good computer to be played on without crashing/slowing down, especially because of the graphics and sheer amount of zombies at one time they put into the game. The graphics, considering the game’s price of roughly $20, are actually fairly good. You can change the settings for how detailed they are in the options, so you can avoid some problems by doing so. While the graphics aren’t the absolute best ever seen (the gun animations are sweet, though), they will need a considerable amount of computing power, and a good video card. Not that it’s a problem, but when you’re up close to a zombie and you shoot them with your gun, instead of making a “bullet hole,” a big dark spot appears at the place where they got shot, making it somewhat obvious that you shot them in that spot, but also unrealistic (as much as the game is to start out with, it shouldn’t be a surprise). The music in the game is also pretty good, but I can recall only about one song for the menu, and one for each of the different maps. You won’t be paying too much attention to the music because you’ll be blasting away at the zombies with your guns almost nonstop. Speaking of sound effects, they couldn’t have been much better. Each gun sounds exactly as it should, and even have a little bit of an echo (to make it more believable that you’re firing away in a large open area).

Deadhunt is well-worth the investment of $20. If you’ve never been good at FPS games, Deadhunt will help you with your reflexes as well as aiming. Deadhunt is an addicting, arcade-like game, and if you just want to kill hordes and hordes of un-dead creatures, this is the game for you.

 

Untold Legends: Brotherhood of the Blade (PSP) Review

Developer/Publisher: Sony Online Entertainment || Overall: 8.2/10

Untold Legends: Brotherhood of the Blade is one in the batch of launch games for Sony’s new handheld. If the PSP were a piece of bread, Untold Legends is like the butter spread on top of it. Being a purely hack and slash RPG developed by Sony Online Entertainment, you can tell right off the game is like their other series Champions of Norrath and Everquest, but still has some imperfections. However, the formula of being assigned a quest and going to a dungeon to defeat a bunch of monsters transitions almost perfectly for handheld gaming, as many of the quests can be completed fairly quickly. Since handheld gaming usually consists of short bursts of playing (unlike console/PC gaming), this formula works out very well. Untold Legends serves up an enjoyable experience for many new PSP owners.

When you first insert the game, there is a little bit of loading before you see a Prologue scroll on the screen, telling a little bit of the background of the city of Aven and the character that you will play as. The story in Untold Legends is fairly simple, as it is obvious that the game was not to be played for the story. However, while the story isn’t that great, it does spark a little interest in where they do lead you with it as you play through the game, dungeon after dungeon, thus making the game more enjoyable. Most of the quests that you get through the game boil down to a few categories with different variations, such as get-that-item, kill-that-guy, or save-that-person. While it isn’t all that creative, the particular situations are unique enough (and the story interesting enough) for you to complete the quest and see what happens afterwards.

When you actually start the game, you’re given the choice to play as one of four different races: Knight, Berserker, Druid, and Alchemists. When you first create your character, you’re given some customization (such as hair type, that kind of thing) as to how your character looks like, but it’s not really anything special. Each have different abilities that can be used during the game, and are fairly unique in terms of how you will play the game, and most of all, battling. The shining star of all the parts of Untold Legends: Brotherhood of the Blade is definitely the battle system. The game’s battle system is surprisingly very fun, as there are many different enemies to kill, with hundreds of weapons, armor and accessories to gather and improve your character with and use during your hacking and slashing. The many types of items you can gather makes a big difference when you play the game, because, depending on the type of character you chose in the beginning of the game, as some items you pick up can only be used by a particular race, and also dictate particular battle abilities. You’re also only able to hold a certain amount of “weight” of items, as each of the items have their own unique weight, and you can only hold as much as the weight allows you, so you’re going to want to go in with a light pack when you enter a new dungeon.

Taking your journey through caves, tombs, underground tunnels and the like will be a challenge, as there are many different types of enemies to stop you along the way. You won’t have too much of a tough time as long as you have good enough equipment, but what you should be prepared for is the boss you will ultimately encounter at the end of each level. I recall only a few boss battles that were “out of the ordinary” in terms of what you actually do. For most of the bosses, all you have to do is smack them enough times with your main weapon to kill them. It isn’t too often you see a boss that you have to do something unique (or semi-unique) to defeat them. An example of one boss that doesn’t require you just hitting your “X” button as fast as you can is when you go against a giant spider that climbs up and attacks you for a few seconds, then climbs back down. There is a little bit of strategy involved in it (with timing, mostly) to make the boss a little bit more challenging, but for the most part you won’t run into too many of those. One thing you can be thankful for is that when you defeat a boss deep inside a dungeon, you can easily return to the city of Aven by selecting the command from the Start menu. If they hadn’t added this to the game, it would have made quests twice as long, as you’d have to backtrack through the whole dungeon you had just gone through, but fortunately don’t have to. When you return to Aven, you basically have to talk to the people who sent you on the quest to get some rewards for completing it, and then continue in looking for another quest to go on. If you’re ever not sure about what to do for a particular quest, a helpful quest journal is in the status screen that helps you remember or direct you where to go.

Another great part about the game is the amazing visuals and sound, albeit because of the PSP’s own abilities. Untold Legends: Brotherhood of the Blade displays more or less smoothed out PlayStation-quality graphics, and amazing stereo surround sound (with the headphones). Adding onto the visual aspect of the game, the 16:9 LCD screen of the PSP makes the game look better than it actually is. Considering this kind of visual experience is coming from a handheld, it makes it all the more better and really one of the forerunners in graphical abilities for the platform. There isn’t much to complain about the graphics, as they are beautiful and very detailed, but an annoyance that I’ve found through playing the game comes when you zoom into the character. The annoyance is not because the game doesn’t look good – it’s because when you are zoomed in, you are at a weird angle, and not able to actually see any enemies coming at you. Though it is nice they have the option for you to zoom into your character and feel as if you’re right in the action as you slay monsters one after the other, being at the weird angle puts you at too much of a disability in playing the game to really warrant its use. As for the sound, the game has good sound effects and a nice soundtrack. While the soundtrack pretty much sounds the same, and there isn’t much change in the mood as you go from area to area, it’s still a good accompaniment to the journey you’re on. Unfortunately, the sound is not actually implemented in the game all that well. I’ve noticed through playing that once a song ends, it will take a while for it to actually go back and loop the song, leaving you in silence and listening to the sound effects. This problem is more overtly seen (or heard, rather) when you’re walking through the forests outside of the city of Aven (and where most of the dungeons of the beginning part of the game are). Another nice aspect of the sound is that it’s in surround. When you come closer to an enemy, you can hear its noisemaking in the general direction of where it is, as well as listening to environmental factors in the general direction they come from as well. Yet again, the surround sound does not get pulled off seamlessly. While in dungeons, you will hear a lot of environmental sounds, which sound fine at first, as you can hear it in both ears, and it slowly fading in one ear faster than another as you get away from it, but too often does the sound cut off abruptly, making it fairly annoying, as most dungeons are full of these environmental sound effects. And if you were wondering, there are no voice-overs for characters as they talk.

If there was one thing that I’d pick out to be the biggest displeasure of the game, it would be the loading times. There’s quite a bit of loading as you jump from dungeon to dungeon and back to the city, about twenty or thirty seconds worth as you travel to a new area. As you’re traveling through the world, you will run into a loading screen a little more often than one would like, but it is sort of tolerable, considering that Untold Legends: Brotherhood of the Blade is an earlier title and they haven’t yet perfected the art of loading on the PSP yet. There is also a little bit of character concept art that you can look at while there is loading. I usually take that time to give my fingers a rest from using the buttons and analog stick. You also confront some loading time when you go to your menu screen to look at the items you have. The control scheme of the game is fairly straightforward, and is quite easy to learn. You’ll basically be hacking and slashing within a few minutes. Movement in the game is dedicated to using the PSP’s analog stick. While the stick isn’t as great as the PlayStation 2’s analog stick, it does take some getting used to before you won’t give the fact a second thought. Personally, I think it is really cool that they included an analog stick on the PSP for controlling movement, and gets the job done very well.

While the game has its advantages and disadvantages, for a launch game, it is a very well executed one. While you’re able to play by yourself, there is a way to “hook up” with your friends through a Wireless LAN connection (known as Ad Hoc) to allow interaction in the game with up to four other friends (who have a PSP and a copy of the game) to play with each other in the same world. If there’s one thing to say about Untold Legends as a whole, it’s an extremely good time waster. If you’ve got an hour or two to burn once in a while, this game is really for you, as you will be sucked into the game play and not even notice how fast time goes by. For a launch game, I am very impressed with the outcome, and as a part of a grip of other launch games debuted for the PSP, Untold Legends: Brotherhood of the Blade is a definite candidate for your first game as a PSP owner.

 

Hearts of Iron II (PC) Review

Developer/Publisher: Paradox Interactive || Overall: 8.2/10

Hearts of Iron II, like all World War II games, aim to be realistic and mirror some aspect of the time period. While Battlefield 1942 places you physically on the battlefield and Axis and Allies focuses you on particular battles, Hearts of Iron II aims to represent the war as a whole, on a worldwide-scale grander than either of the aforementioned games could accomplish. Hearts of Iron II places you in the dictator’s seat, looking down at the whole world as more than 2,700 land and sea provinces ready for you to conquer with imperialistic greed, or to stop those who aim to do so.

When you first start the game there are three modes to chose from, Tutorial, Single Player, and Multiplayer. Simple enough. That is, until you actually start to play. If you hadn’t played the first Hearts of Iron, and not really knowing what to expect when playing the game, like I had been, you will be overwhelmed within your first thirty seconds of play. There is so much information given to you right off the bat, that when they just toss you into the scenario, you won’t be able to keep up with what’s happening in the game at all. The sheer magnitude of what hits you is daunting. Until you actually build up enough courage to brave the overwhelming feeling that Hearts of Iron II gives you right off the bat, will you find a very fun and very realistic representation of World War II that you don’t see pulled off too often.

The main view looks like one of the tactical maps that you see in a war documentary, showing an army’s movements in general, without the specifics. Depending on which country you chose to play as, you will basically declare war on countries and take them over. What happened in history has no real bearing on what you can do in the game, such as actually being able to successfully invade the Soviet Union with German troops or take over the United States with the Japanese armed forces. However, when you’re on your imperialistic rampage, you have to constantly look out for all of your borders, as you may not have enough troops to occupy each province you annex into your country. Because of this, you have to deal with constant annoyance of having occupied territories taken over by your enemies and having to retake them over. The process repeats itself over and over, and you can’t get ahead too easily when it comes down to it. To make things somewhat harder, time progresses in an accelerated real-time (which can be slowed down or sped up according to your preferences), so not only do ten things happen at the same time, but you have to decide what to do with a relatively quick fashion, definitely keeping you on your toes. However, if the game gets too far ahead of you, you’re able to pause the game and deal with what had just happened. With a ton of provinces to take over, you’ll definitely be busy trying to advance your troops, conduct trade agreements, protect your borders, fend off pesky airplanes, produce more units, advance your technology, keep an eye on your supplies to make sure you don’t run out, tell your provinces what to build, and keep up with the ever-changing situations that arise, that you’ll constantly be checking on certain things while forgetting about others. It really takes a lot of initial practice to understand how the game works basically, before you can really understand how to play the game efficiently. For those who have a hard time getting into the game, the developers graciously put in a Tutorial mode. For those who try to jump into the game and see how it works, but just come out of the experience confused and on the brink of depression, the Tutorial is definitely for you. The Tutorial is broken up into smaller chunks, and if you want to concentrate on warfare (which IS the main aspect of a war game, after all), you can, and come back to find out about the other parts of the game later. Using the Tutorial to learn the basic mechanics of the game will definitely help you understand.

Being purely a strategy game, you do not really see your units actually fighting with your enemies. There are animations for your armies to show that they’re currently in a battle, but for the most part you just have to know that you are attacking. An annoyance that happens with the game when you’re controlling your units is that not all your units are actually displayed on the screen at all times. When units like airplanes or naval craft are in their respective ports, you have to click on the port itself to even be able to take control of them, instead of just dragging your mouse over it like you would with other units. This becomes annoying because it becomes hard to actually know how many units you have on the map. The map also has different views to it as well, allowing you to see different characteristics such as terrain, wealth, political boundaries and much more. I tend to use political boundaries the most, because it’s the most direct as to who owns what and what you have to take over.

Being able to take the head of nearly any country in the world and rule it how you see fit during this time allows for some very interesting information you otherwise probably wouldn’t have known about. I personally never thought about what Afghanistan, India or some other pretty much insignificant country was doing during this time. The only countries you really even hear about fighting in World War II were Germany, Italy, France, UK, Japan, the Soviet Union, and the USA, though they were the major players. This gives the chance for you to read up on the very in-depth information about the world and the different countries. Each country has their own technologies to develop, and loads of information down to the finest detail. Very historically accurate events do occur during the game, but can be changed drastically by how you control the game.

When it comes to the artistic points of the game, the game delivers a satisfying experience. There’s an excellent musical score that goes well with the game and what is happening (a world war), so it seems fit that there’s orchestrated music playing that feels, for the most part, empowering. The graphics, however, are not that great. The provinces throughout the world are nothing special, as they’re usual just solid colors, and don’t actually show any “real” terrain on it. Everything is color-coded, thus making it fairly simple to look at. There are also many black and white pictures from history of authentic tanks, people, technologies, and the like, which adds some more educational value to the game, seeing as you may not have known what a particular model of a tank looked like back then. When it comes to how units look on the map however, it gets very bland as the unit animations are nothing special, to say the least. You don’t see any action, per say, except you see the units looping their animation over and over to just show that they’re under attack or attacking something. It can get fairly boring, but like I had said before, you’re preoccupied with so many different things, like planning ANOTHER attack on a different front that you will kind of not even care that you don’t see any explosions.

Another part about the game is that things may not happen for a while, because in actual history, things took days or even weeks to happen. This is reflected by the gaps of nothing happening during your play time that can occur if you’re not constantly attacking someone, or waiting for a certain unit to be built, in which it’ll take a month or so for it to actually be built. Regardless of the accelerated time, a month is a long time to wait, so you definitely have to plan ahead whether or not you’re going to need a bunch of infantry troops all of a sudden, or if you’re going to need a particular technology researched in enough time to help you out. On a side note, from what I’ve seen, you’re not able to commit genocides or stick a whole race in a concentration camp (like the Germans did to the Jewish and the Americans did to the Japanese). I guess you just kind of have to assume its happening, as the main aspect of the game really relies on military and political difficulties.

Being a PC game, the game’s recommended requirements say that you should ideally have 512+ mb of RAM, a Pentium III, and an 8 MB video card or better. So if the only computer you have is the old hand-me-down you got from your great-aunt whom just passed away, you’re probably going to have to invest in a little better of a computer to play Hearts of Iron II. With the sheer vastness, complexity, and consistent evolution of certain events that occur during the game, it makes sense. The minimum requirements are less demanding, but in all honesty, you probably won’t have as good of a gaming experience when it comes to Hearts of Iron II, or many of the more demanding games being released.

Boasting the capability for 32 people to link up in multiplayer, one can only imagine the crazy games that can unfold. Hearts of Iron II itself reminds me of the User-made World War II scenario maps for StarCraft multiplayer games. If you’ve ever played the World War II map for StarCraft, the basic fundamentals of this game can be seen. However, those multiplayer maps could never accomplish the complexity (or even display historically accurate units) that Hearts of Iron II has done. During multiplayer, when you deal with another country diplomatically you’re going to have to take into account you’re playing with a human, and the chances that they know what they’re doing better than you know what you’re doing is probably going to be higher, unless you become a seasoned veteran through many many sleepless nights.

If you’re looking for the most historically accurate representation of World War II, Hearts of Iron II is your game. Hearts of Iron II is a history lesson in itself, and you can really learn a lot of the abstract, mostly unimportant facts you don’t come across too often without really looking for it. World War II history buffs and the like will absolutely love the game for the sheer amount of historical value included in the game. Being able to go through World War II from day one to the last day of the war is an arduous task that only a fanatic would probably want to undertake.

 

Ys: The Ark of Napishtim (PS2) Review

Developer/Publisher: Konami || Overall: 7.6/10

The scene opens up with a tavern. A man with a patch over his eye and a pony tail walks into the noisy building from the cold night with a shorter companion by his side. The companion, shrouded in a cloak and with her face hidden simply follows the man. Across the way from the entrance of the tavern, a red-haired adventurer, named Adol, is sitting down with a friend of his. The man with the patch over his eye goes over to Adol, and asks him to accompany him on an exploration around the world. Just then, two soldiers come in, looking for the “red-haired Adol” wanting to arrest him! I don’t want to give away the crappiness of the introduction of the story to Ys: Ark of the Napishtim, so I’ll fast forward to my summary of the opening part of the story; the beginning of the story of Ys: Ark of the Napishtim is trash.

It’s not often that I exclaim obscenities when trying to understand what is trying to be conveyed, but it seems like the beginning of the story was tossed together as an afterthought. The beginning movie is pretty much the only movie the game has for the most part, and it’s badly voice acted. Though there were some very nice graphics exhibited, I counted about three instances of fan service, in which the underwear of the annoying-peppy-blonde-girl character that has some sort of crush (I’m guessing) on Adol is shown. They really know how to pack that kind of thing in. Had I rented the game, the beginning movie alone would make me seriously contemplate whether or not I should return it sooner than I had intended. However, what really saves this game from getting a horrible score is the game-play, and the story later on in the game actually helps it, as well (but after being in the gutter from the beginning, there’s nowhere to go but up, and the bad taste of a poorly set up story always lingers).

I would have to say what the main point of the game would be that it tries to pull off an “old-school” approach to gaming. Ys: The Ark of Napishtim seeks to accomplish this by having relatively simple controls, as well as old-style (but not completely crappy-looking) graphics, a silent main character, and the story itself just being set in a fantasy world (more specifically, the world of Ys, where all the games in the series has taken place). However, because of this “old-school” approach encased in the game, there are many enhancements over the games from back in the day. In Ys: The Ark of Napishtim, every single word displayed as dialogue from a character has a voice-over and rightly so. Every character, even the unimportant characters in a town you find in a back alley will have a voiced dialogue. The voice acting isn’t half bad, and everyone talks except for Adol himself. You’re just supposed to assume what he says by the one-sided conversations people have with him. However, there are a few instances (I think about ten times) where it says Adol “explains to (character) everything that has happened so far.” So, you’ll just have to assume that Adol tells them every single little part of the journey you had just been on, down to how many slime creatures you killed on the way over to see them. The only downfall with the voice acting is that there are a couple of very annoying characters (such as Professor Raba who talks in an over-exaggeratingly old-man’s voice), and that you can tell that there were only a few voice actors doing the voices for all the different characters.

At various times throughout the story you will meet characters (like Professor Raba) whom have met Adol in the past or have known him through his “legend” or whatever it is. I don’t even know what it is, because it made no sense to me when they talked about “when we were at the Tower of Whatshisface” or “you may not recognize me now since I’ve grown into a beautiful woman” and many other instances of back-story that are never actually explained. It was only until I researched the game a little bit online that I found out that this is the sixth game in the series. So it makes some sense as to why it came up repeatedly about people, places and events that seem to be completely random after knowing this fact. Even though it isn’t very important to the story of THIS game, it would have been nice to actually understand what they were talking about.

Story faults aside, the actual game that is inside Ys: The Ark of Napishtim is interesting to say the least. The main feature of the battle system is that there are three different elemental swords (wind, fire, and electricity). It’s up to you to use the swords to your liking, constantly “upgrading” them by collecting enough stones called “Emelas” (or Emel) so that you can use each sword’s special ability more often, or acquire the unique skill attached to the sword. Even though having three elemental swords implies (to me, at least) that there would be enemies that are immune to one sword but not another (forcing you to use the right sword to kill them), you will find this to not be the case for the most part. For how much the game relies on these three swords, it comes out to being which sword you fancy using the most. There are times where you can notice an increase in damage from one sword over another for a particular enemy, but all-in-all the swords were not used to create much of a type of strategy for playing the game. If it weren’t for the story actually requiring there be three swords, it would have been better to just have one sword with a bunch of different abilities. Other kinds of items in the backend system add to the game-play as well.

Unlike most RPGs, there aren’t hundreds of things to collect, rather just a few accessories, pieces of armor, items, event tools, and other such things that are somewhat rare. It gets to the point that it almost influences you to really look for as many items as you can and buy all the items you can. There are a lot of unique accessories to collect throughout the game that will make a big impact on the game itself, such as an accessory that will increase your HP by 50% or another that will increase your attack and defense a little bit. There are also EXP, Emel, and money enhancers so that you can milk out the highest amount of things from every enemy you beat. While you only start out with one accessory holder, you can find more throughout the dungeons, up to a total of five slots for accessories.

Like I said earlier, the whole game itself is very simple and the learning curve isn’t that long at all, and you’ll be able to master the fighting aspect of the game in no time, since the only button you really press is “Square.” Sometimes you press the “Circle” button to use a magic attack associated with the sword you’re using, but this is basically all that you do to fight. The “Square” button is also used to talk to townspeople and investigate treasure chests.

Although the game is pretty easy to learn and get into (playing-wise), there are a couple of annoyances here and there. A minor annoyance is that when you’re in the field or a dungeon, there is no on-screen map to help you find where you are in reference to the place you actually are at currently. So if you’re in a dark cave that is pretty much a maze, you might end up going in a circle or not remember how to get back to a particular part of the dungeon you had been to before but died in. However, the most annoying thing about the game is the bosses.

In all my years of playing video games, I have never seen such cheap, stupid bosses that literally make me throw my hands into the air and say “how do I beat this stupid freakin’ boss?” I understand that boss battles are an important part of any game, but these bosses are, for the most part, so out of place and so over the top in terms of what they can do to kill you that it’s practically amazing that I even beat some of them. Just to tell you what kinds of bosses you have to deal with, you fight a wall. You fight a wall with big, long, skinny, rock arms and a face that can launch flowers that blow up and shoot a large energy beam from its mouth, while swinging around the arms and slamming them on the ground so that rocks can fall from the sky to fall on top of you. If that’s not crazy enough for you, how about a big frog that can roll up into a bowling ball, crap out slime that makes you slide around, as well as use its tongue as a spiked-ball mace? Oh wait, I forgot to tell you that the frog has STEALTH CAMOUFLAGE – it can seemingly disappear! Even if you have the greatest skills in the world at playing this game, you will not beat any boss if you’re not at the right level. A general rule about boss battles is if you haven’t beat a boss after fifteen tries, level up at least five or ten levels, and you’ll see that the boss is all of a sudden a lot easier than they had been before. However, regardless of whether you’re even at the right level, it may take a couple of deaths to get a hang of what the boss actually does. You really can’t expect the things they pull out of the air when it comes to the boss’s abilities. Just when you think you figure out a boss, it surprises you with a new ability it hadn’t used the first time you faced it.

Regardless of all that has been said about the game, Ys: The Ark of Napishtim is a game that really grows on you. One may be displeased by the out-of-the-ordinary old-style graphics incorporated in the game or even the weird set-up for an underwhelming story full of references to past games in the series, but for those who suck it up and go on to actually try and complete the game, you’ll find the game to actually be fun, and actually get caught up in the story a bit. Being a title that is priced less than a “premium” title definitely may influence some people to pick up the game, especially if they are fans of the series (whom haven’t had a Ys game brought to North America since the Super Nintendo days). Even though the game doesn’t take very long to finish, you may end up spending around 20-25 hours on the game as a whole. For those that actually venture far enough as to beat the game, there are a few extras included in the game, which affect game play, audio, visuals, and other things that can be activated by entering the cheat code before playing a new game. In the end, however, Ys: The Ark of Napishtim may only appeal to fans of the series.

 

Star Ocean: Till The End of Time (PS2) Review

Developer: Tri-Ace / Publisher: Square Enix || Overall: 8.8/10

As a trend, there only seems to be one Star Ocean game made every generation. The first Star Ocean was released on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES), and the second Star Ocean was released on the original PlayStation (PSOne). Through its unique battle system, interesting storyline, and immense item system, the Star Ocean series has gained quite a following. Originally an Enix-published game, the Star Ocean series’ third installment shows nothing but improvement after the merging of Squaresoft and Enix, largely due to the fact that Tri-Ace develops the game. The series has been revamped and improved to above and beyond what its predecessors had even dreamed to accomplish.

What really sets the Star Ocean games apart from all of its competitors are, instead of the turn-based system, real-time battles in a 3-D setting while mixing in traditional RPG elements. What also sets the Star Ocean series apart from others is that its storyline is science-fiction, one you rarely see in the RPG genre. No game in the Star Ocean series pulls off what Star Ocean is known for better than Star Ocean: Till the End of Time. Amazingly fun real-time battles, an overwhelming yet very fascinating story, and unique characters makes Star Ocean: Till the End of Time an amazing game and an unforgettable experience all at the same time.

Taking place in space itself, and on many different planets, Star Ocean: Till the End of Time creates a grandiose experience as you delve into the story visiting vastly different places that could only be experienced in a science fiction story. For at least half of the game, however, you will spend all of your time on one particular “primitive” planet that is in a state of war. Even though this major detour from the overall story may seem as something that the game could have done without, certain elements of the game are progressively introduced while on the planet, allowing the player to also get used to the battle system, learn a little bit more about the overall story and actually build an interest in whether or not the main characters of the story will make a difference in the escalating war. The “sub-story” on the planet ends up taking an important place in the overall story, so it doesn’t seem like it’s a total waste of time.

Included within the game is extra information that allows the player to further involve themselves in the universe of the Star Ocean: Till the End of Time, in a dictionary that adds words automatically whenever you run across information. The dictionary adds a lot of depth to the game and you begin to create an overall picture of the kind of universe Star Ocean: Till the End of Time is like. To fully understand the dictionary though, you may have to take a course in Physics, as many scientific terms are used, and even though they are explained in the game itself, you would still have a better understanding if you took a class. Something you can really appreciate with the game is that much of the information is actually believable as to how things work, and you can tell that the game developers did their homework when it came to the specifics of Astronomy and Physics in their dictionary terms, and in-game references to the topics. The extra effort of Tri-Ace adds to the believability and possibility for the events in the game as they unfold.

The actual story starts out when a teenage boy named Fayt is vacationing with his parents and a childhood friend named Sophia. While on the planet, the current state of the universe that is known about is explained, as well as just starting to learn how to use the battle system. You also learn of Fayt’s personal life a little bit and who he knows and holds dear to his heart, most namely his father, mother, and Sophia. This is all fine and dandy to begin with, because no conflict is actually introduced except for the fact that the Earth-founded Pangalactic Federation (which is more or less an alliance of many planets with many species) is in a seemingly everlasting war against another superpower named the Aldian Empire. When the planet Fayt is on is attacked by a third party, named the Vendeeni, this is where the true conflict in the game really begins. For a long time you will be kept in the dark about why the Vendeeni came to attack the planet Fayt was vacationing on, but when you’re finally told why they did it, the story begins to get even more interesting. As the story progresses, it gets better and better.

Star Ocean: Till the End of Time has a fun and involving real-time battle system, and this is where the game really shines. The real-time battle system is one of the most fun battle-systems ever created. Instead of a strict turn-based game, you take full control of your character, and, along with your other allies, beat the crap out of your enemies as fast and as hard as you can without taking too much of a toll on your characters.

Your character’s stats in battle rely on three different types of gauges: HP (Hit Points), MP (Mental Points), and Fury (a percentage that dictates how many moves you’re able to conduct before recharging. Some attacks take up more Fury than others). To succeed in the battles of the game, it would be wise to keep your HP and MP as high as you can, and conserve Fury enough so that you’re able to use your attacks effectively. Unlike most games, when your MP gauge is completely depleted, the character becomes knocked out. This adds to the strategy of your moves and being able to use the time you have to keep yourself and your allies from knocking out.

As your characters level up you can learn new abilities that will have to be used if you even want to have a chance at defeating some of the later enemies in the game, and learn how to use them effectively. When you use special abilities (depending on the kind of ability) it will take away HP, MP, or both. The amount use is usually not very significant, but when used without moderation, it can create difficulties for future battles. During battle, every attack used takes away a percentage from the Fury gauge, dictating how many times you’re able to conduct attacks in a string or other moves without recharging for a bit. The consideration of conserving Fury when you can during fast-paced battles becomes a part of the game’s challenge. Simply being able to mash the buttons on your controller won’t get you too far, as you will really have to know what you’re doing to progress in the game. The real-time battling also creates the challenge of keeping an eye on your allies, as well as trying to defeat the enemies you’re facing. How you actually play becomes paramount to winning battles, rather than just simply leveling up.

The faults of Star Ocean: Till the End of Time comes in how the story is formulated in certain aspects as well as how it’s delivered. Too often do you see unneeded parts of story that just seem like its fluff and not really even that interesting or important to the overall story. Most of the “fluff” stems off from playing as a character that comes off as fairly flat and not very well characterized. The “fluff” seems more like a failed attempt to truly characterize the main character. The same sort of feeling rubs off on some other characters, but the main character Fayt suffers the most from this sort of characterization flaw. There are other very unique characters in the game however, most notably being Cliff, Nel, Albel and even the little kid Roger (who seems to just be a comic relief character). There are other recurring characters that are not playable, and still take an important impact on the game’s storyline that are somewhat more interesting than Fayt. Adding to the “flatness” of Fayt’s character is really the voice acting for the character. It seemed to me, at least, that the voice actor had something to be desired in the acting, and really the dialogue in certain cases across different parts of the game needed some improvement. However, for the most part, the voice acting is a very good part about the game. At times, the music or sound effects in the background shrouds the dialogue being spoken, or take away from the concentration of listening to what characters are saying. On a side note, fans of the sci-fi RPG Xenosaga Episode I will also notice familiar voices in Star Ocean: Till the End of Time that were in Xenosaga Episode I. Quite a few of the voice actors who were in Xenosaga Episode I also worked as voice actors in Star Ocean: Till the End of Time. This may or may not be a good thing, but I don’t feel it matters to the overall quality of the game at all. Another fault of how the story was formulated is that through the first disc of the game there wasn’t enough space-oriented things, and you spent the vast majority of the time on a primitive planet fighting with swords and dealing with dragons and things that had to do with the planet you were on, and didn’t really have a whole lot to do with the main overall story other than the fact that Fayt is there and things happen there because he was.

On how the game actually looks and sounds like, Star Ocean: Till the End of Time is not the absolute best you’re going to find nowadays, but all the graphics are definitely smooth, and during the movies, very polished and very nice. There are a lot of space ship battle scenes that are shown throughout the game as well, and if you’re interested in the whole sci-fi scene you’ll appreciate the kinds of ships and action sequences concerning them. Music takes a weird place in the game, because even though a lot of music actually goes with the mood of the game, there are instances where there’s all of a sudden a rock song that doesn’t mix in with anything about the game. I have to say that this is the first RPG where I have seen flat out rock music with guitars and drums playing during the “exploring” parts of the game (though its not too bad in itself). It seems so out of place to me, considering that the battle music, background music during dialogue and all the other kinds of music used do not have the same kind of genre of music at all. It also depends on what planet you’re on, as the music arrangement changes for the most part, and there is different music being played during “exploring” parts later on in the game.

Another part about the game is the Invention System. This is more overly an optional part of the game you don’t have to participate in, but you are given the ability to create items to be sold in shops by patenting them. Items created by you or items created by other inventors will help you out on your quest by being able to buy better weapons and items that are better than the ones you usually used beforehand. Just the sheer amount of items that can be created is astounding, and actually fairly overwhelming. The part some people may like about it though is that because there are so many items to create, you’ll always be trying to create a new item that hasn’t been patented yet, if you so dared to actually care enough about it. Creating your own inventions is entirely optional, and you really don’t even have to make any inventions at all, but it is an extra part of the game that utilizes the massive amount of items that have always been included in the Star Ocean games.

Star Ocean: Till the End of Time displays a very good mix of all the elements an RPG should have, and taking a different approach at the whole genre by its use of real-time battles as its battle system. The amazingly fast-paced and challenging battles are something to be reveled, especially when it comes to how much the game has improved upon its predecessor. Star Ocean: Till the End of Time is definitely an excellent game to have, if you enjoy RPGs or enjoy Action games, as it is a unique experience all-around.

 

Civilization III Complete (PC) Review

Developer: Firaxis Games / Publisher: Atari Inc. || Overall: 9/10

Sid Meier’s Civilization III: Complete is the latest installment of the Civilization franchise. Cvilization III: Complete is the complete set of Civilization III and its two expansions, Play the World and Conquests. Civilization III: Complete places you in a randomized world (after selecting which race of people you’d like to be) with up to seven other races to trade, negotiate and have wars with. The game includes ancient civilizations such as the Rome, Egypt, and Babylon, as well as those in the modern world, such as Americans, Russians, and the British. The ultimate goal of Civ3 is to progress your race of people and complete at least one of pre-set winning objectives that are set before the game starts. A unique characteristic of Civ3 is that each time you play the game from the start, you’ll encounter a scenario that is completely different from the last time. Events in the game never occur in the same order, and some seen previously may not be encountered at all a second time through. Every new game you start will be a new experience, with events happening in different orders or not even at all. You play a whole new game every time you start one.

Major enhancements to Civ3 from Civ2 are everywhere. Almost every part of the game has been revamped and updated from Civ2, from upgrading the graphics to adding more game play options that make Civ3 have more realism and variety than Civ2. Civ3 has more types of governments, units, unique resources, improvements, difficulty levels and much more that make this the best Civilization game in the series, still holding true to what the series has come to be known as. At first glance, the game is exactly the same as the other Civilization games, which is good, but once you start playing the game more, you begin to notice all the enhancements and improvements that really make for a better all-around experience when playing than any of the other Civilization games.

When you want to start a new game, you get many options to customize the kind of game you want to play. You can choose if the world you live in has small or huge oceans, a Pangaea, how many races (players) are in the game, winning conditions, difficulty and other slight adjustments that make for a wide variety of unique games and styles. You can tune the game to your own abilities, if you’re just starting out, to make the game play at its easiest level, and choose a lesser amount of races to be in the world. If you don’t want to mess around with all the options of making a new game, however, there is a “quick start” option on the menu screen that puts you right into a new world, randomizing everything and playing in a world that is randomly selected/created by your computer.

The vast customization allows for even the newest player to slowly get into the game and learn all of its inner workings through immense trial and error. Throughout the whole game, you can always refer to the “Civilopedia,” so if you don’t understand what a particular thing does; you can read a tutorial-like in-game supplement that helps you learn about whatever you may have questions for. The “Civilopedia” included in the game is very useful, as the learning curve on this game is huge, if you’re just starting out with the series. You will be spending a lot of time trying to figure out everything that makes the game work.

Civ3, being a turn-based game, allows for you to move all your units and take as much time as you like to plan out your moves. The downfall of this, however, is that later in the game when you have many units and cities on the map that you have to command/watch move, the relatively short turns that are seen in the beginning are virtually non-existent. You could sit at your computer for five whole minutes watching units move and not even be able to do anything. So, you could go grab a snack, or have tea with your neighbors while you’re waiting for the excruciatingly long times for your turns to take place. Another thing is, is that you can’t press escape or do anything AT ALL while you’re waiting for your turn to go by. So, it may be hard to remember that you have to fix a city’s problem, or if you need to save and quit the game because you have to go somewhere, as you’re going to have to wait until a unit is waiting for you to tell it what to do or if the turn ends. All in all, this is the most annoying part of the game, and literally will plague all games inevitably (especially in longer games), unless you go into the preferences and change it so you don’t see the full length of all your turns, but then you won’t be able to keep track of what all your units are doing and you may not want a unit to still be doing something. Even though I’m glad that they have a preference allowing you to change the length of time you have to wait for your turn to be over, you are then at the disadvantage of not knowing what things had actually taken place.

When you are first placed into a new world, you’re usually given three “advancements” for your society based on what race you picked. Each race has pre-determined characteristics that have been dictated by the developer’s who look at each race independently and see what profiles fit them best. A race could be scientific, commercial, militaristic, etc. There are usually two or three characteristics for each race, and different advancements are usually given to races depending on actual historical records/observations. Every race is given the abilities of agriculture and road building, so that the society can develop. Because there are so many little parts to the game, it would take an absorbent amount of space to actually describe all the technical things that you do, but you should just keep in mind that what you do is basically further your particular civilization by creating more and more cities and building improvements within and around those cities.

You also have to protect your cities with armed units against barbarians or other computer players that have been placed on the map. As you research more and more, you are able to build more things within each city, including buildings and units, and advance your society through different “ages,” them being Acient Times, Industrial Ages and Modern Ages. To achieve a new societal “upgrade,” as it were, you need to research all the particular things needed to research before going on to the next “age.” This is a huge premise of the game, as vital things that have impacted the growth of our own societies also take place in the game. Throughout the game, you will be negotiating with your foes, acquiring and securing resources, and getting as much land and population as you can so that you can win in the end, while using the important societal upgrades to your advantage.

Single games can take a very long time, depending on how many races and maximum turns there are, which makes the actual length of a game vary. It can get boring however, doing the same basic thing over and over. But, thanks to the inclusion of many different types of play, Civ3 will keep any world history enthusiast (or Civilization-enthusiast) busy for long hours, such as “situational” maps (like the Rise of Rome, or fighting World War II, as well as being on any side you want) and online multiplayer, there is really an
endless amount of playing to be had. A problem that I have seen with the “situational” maps is that they try to play like an RTS (Real Time Strategy) game, when it is a turn-based game, with a large amount of units needing to be moved in the same general direction, and having to tell each of them where to move/attack independently (for the most part). This tends to make it a lot more boring than it actually should be, even though it’s historically accurate.

Civilization III: Complete is a game that’s definitely not for everyone, however. Civ3 is not the most exciting game, nor is it a really fun game, but what makes it so good is how it is a very high-quality and interesting representation of how real life civilizations began and progress today. Not to say you won’t have fun playing this kind of game (depending on what genres you prefer), but Civ3 is really for those who understand enough about history and take an interest in workings of society and ancient/modern civilization.