Gitaroo Man Lives! (PSP) Review

Note: I am unsure if I finished this review or not.  It now serves as a little blurb about just the port of the game from PS2 to PSP, and not that much of an analysis.  Generally, it was worth playing.

Developer/Publisher: Koei || Overall: 8.5/10

The transfer of Gitaroo Man from PlayStation 2 to PlayStation Portable is quite impressive.  The visuals have taken little noticeable hit in terms of actual quality and the visuals are akin to how they are expected to be on a home console. The only downside to this, however, is that it takes a good ten to fifteen seconds before each song to load, which is quite a wait by any standards. Fortunately, if you fail at a song, the song can reset without any loading whatsoever, so you can get right back into it.  I’d gladly take an initial hit in loading rather than it having to be done repeatedly through the course of new attempts. The controls on the PSP, as opposed to the PS2 version can be a little bit more challenging, especially since the buttons are smaller and the analog nub is simply not as forgiving as a Dual Shock’s analog stick would be.

Gitaroo Man Lives! is an enjoyable game, just like its PlayStation 2 counterpart. While you’ll definitely have to keep an open mind for the types of songs that you’ll be playing, fantastic sound quality and an interesting way to play a music/rhythm game allows for a unique package that can’t easily be found elsewhere. The availability of Gitaroo Man Lives! will make it a good buy if you want to see what Gitaroo Man is all about.

 

Star and the Crescent, The (PC) Review

Developer: ProSIM Company | Publisher: Shrapnel Games || Overall: 2.5/10

Some guy in some movie with guns and really handsome actors pretending to be ordinary soldiers once said “war is hell.” Which, as I’ve been told, is pretty accurate. I mean, sure, it looks good when Matt Damon shoots some guy in the face, but any soldier who has been there will tell you that war is long stretches of boredom broken up by brief moments of sheer terror. Kinda like spending Thanksgiving with your girlfriend’s family: you can’t really remember why you signed up to be there, the person next to you won’t stop yelling, and some morbid part of your brain hopes that a lunatic in a fighter jet will drop napalm on your location and end your misery.

But I digress.

The Star and The Crescent is ProSIM Company’s newest tactical simulation for the die-hard war-game aficionado. Published by Shrapnel Games, it comes with the brazen proclamation that the realism of their game is such that both a helmet and flak jacket ought to be included in the package – fortunately for my local postal carrier, there’s just the manual and the installation CD. It zeros its sights, compensates for windage and bullet drop, leads it target, and shoots for realism: is The Star and The Crescent a hit?

Set in the Middle East, The Star and The Crescent offers players the chance to step into the boots of an officer in the Israeli army, commanding platoons, companies, and brigades of tanks and infantry in epic battles against a variety of foes. When you first start the game, you can begin one of the four campaigns ranging from the historic (like the Yom Kippur War) to the future (now try to imagine that there might be a war in the Middle East sometime this century). In keeping with the other Armored Task Force-engine games, when you’ve completed all the missions the game comes with, you can import new scenarios and continue the carnage; similarly, the included mission builder gives the game virtually unlimited re-playability.

The actual game boasts unparalleled realism. Before you even move your tanks, you have the option to set no fewer than eleven different formations, nine different ammunition types, and commit each of your units to ten different varieties of fire mission from “company attack to breach” to “platoon breach.” Your troops are arranged quite authentically in heirarchies denoted with real military abbreviation like “2/3 Bde / 11th Ugda,” and instead of graphics for any of the tanks or jeeps or soldiers, the actual N.A.T.O. symbols are used.

Cartographically speaking, you get your choice between a topographical or geographical map. You have your pick of eight different Standard Operation Procedures, governing how your units react to enemy contact. You can control each platoon separately, plotting out assigned paths down to the individual tank if you choose, or create custom hierarchies among your companies with brigades of units hand-picked to compliment one another, taking into consideration seemingly obscure factors like the reverse speed of a T72 Main Battle Tank, or the turning radius of a jeep when affixed with a 104mm rocket launcher.

Now, this next part is important. I have absolutely no idea what I said in those last two paragraphs. None. I spent hours trying to decipher the manual enough to follow along with the tutorial, but there’s a certain level of knowledge that is presupposed by the game designers. For instance, I had no idea which was bigger, a platoon or a company. The manual doesn’t bring it up at all. Further, that whole military abbreviation stuff, like “2/2 Bde / 12th Ugda” – I haven’t a clue what any of those numbers mean. I’m pretty sure that Bde stands for “brigade,” but the rest of it’s a mystery.

And while Wikipedia can be of some use for simple questions like whether a platoon is made of companies or vice versa, and while I don’t mind a game that’s going to teach me new things about stuff I’m not knowledgeable about (hello Gran Turismo), there’s only so much you can excuse from being absent in the manual. In a game that touts the ability to devise your own companies out of platoons and units from other companies, please, guys: don’t skimp on the explanation. Some of us didn’t go through boot camp. Now it’s not like these are all arcane concepts that are beyond comprehension: no military designs a command structure to be incomprehensible to those within it. The manual is, to put it bluntly, woefully inadequate.

If you’ve ever played one of ProSIM’s games on the ATF engine, you’ll be pretty well-prepared. For one, you may have already called your local armed forces recruiting office for some much needed explication. Or, if you’re halfway through a furious email to me, explaining the difference between an all-out enfilade and an entrenched defilade, you’re probably sleeping with a loaded AK-47 under your pillow more than ready to play this game. And hell, the manual isn’t completely useless – like the Rosetta Stone, someone of a keener intellect and sharper wit than myself could probably make use of it. But a game of this magnitude and complexity absolutely needs to have a much better helping hand for new players.

But really, you don’t play a game with your nose in the manual forever, so let’s move on to the other travesties of The Star and The Crescent. The next sentence is one that all the die-hard fans and the designers and the publishers and my grandmother who can’t even turn on a computer will see coming. The graphics are horrible. Now, I spent the better part of my afternoon today playing Final Fantasy for the original NES. I prefer the original X-COM to any other title in the series. I prefer an obscure and graphically sub-par boxing game to any Fight Night on any console. My last review was a glowing endorsement of a 2D side-scroller without a polygon in sight. I am not a 16x AA/AS diva, nor do I thump my chest and cry for HDR and the omnipresent Bloom in today’s titles. My point is that I firmly believe in gameplay superseding graphics. But oh. My. God. These graphics are horrible.

ProSIM has always focused their effort on creating sophisticated AI (more on this later), a ridiculously robust damage modeling system, and simply the deepest military sim I’ve ever seen. It was a monumental task, and all Armored Task Force-engine games bear the proud heritage of the process. But the graphics are unbelievably dated and present a further challenge in surmounting the already steep learning curve that poor documentation creates.

Blue boxes are the good guys, and red boxes are the bad guys. Got it. How do I tell all my blue guys apart? Some of them have ovals, some of them have ovals with dots, or ovals with a slash, or ovals with two slashes. Some other ones have three dots above the box, which probably means they’re captains or corporals or commanders or something. I dunno. To add to the realism, and so that the player may further appreciate the skill of the commanders in the actual historical battles represented in The Star and The Crescent, the icons you’ll use are the real N.A.T.O. symbols. This means they don’t make any sense.

Eventually, I got it down, but I’m a gamer. Call me a prima donna, but ever since 1988 or so, I’ve been spoiled by software that tries to represent an object’s function with its appearance. The Star and The Crescent thumbs its nose at this convention, and the learning curve suffers for it. That’s okay, right? Just remember that you’re the blue guys and you want the red guys to die, right? Sadly, no. Because the unit/formation icons, as unwieldy as they are, actually look good compared to interface. Graphically, the interface is a series of all but unintelligible 16x16px buttons lined up in a single bar that grows and shrinks when you press certain buttons. Confused? Wait till you actually try using it.

Firstly, as I said, the buttons are too small. The minimum requirements for this game are a 700 Mhz processor, 64 MB of RAM, and Windows 95. On a computer that old, the screen resolution would be adequate for 16x16px buttons. But on a computer built in this millennium, you’ll want to turn down your resolution while playing so you can actually see the buttons. Of course, you’d probably do about as well squinting like Great Aunt Gertrude doing needlepoint at the buttons: they suffer from the same sort of graphical malaise that your unit icons do. When you can see them, however, the buttons do a good job of representing functions for the most part. And really, I can’t blame ProSIM for not knowing how to express “defilade” in 256 pixels. Hell, I didn’t even know what it means, so even if they could represent it in a tiny little icon, it’d be lost on me.

This brings me to the least excusable facet of The Star and The Crescent yet: the interface. Say for the sake of argument, that you actually figure out which blue boxes are which, and you’re the world’s greatest tactical genius, who could actually pull off a land war in Asia. None of that matters, because the interface to this game feels like an afterthought. It’s a brilliant piece of work, really: there’s a whole hell of a lot going on behind the scenes, and I’d love to take a peak at the source code and see what this tactical orchestra of precision calculation is doing while it’s busy destroying my tanks over and over. But when you play this game, you get the sense that all the programmers signed up to design the game engine, and afterwards, they realized that one of them might actually have to design and interface and they all drew straws to determine the unlucky sod.

Simply put, I have never played a game with more than sixteen colors that has a less intuitive interface, full stop. At some point, it’s probably true that I’ve played a game with an even more incomprehensible means of controlling the action, but I find it hard to believe it was in either of the last two decades. Here we are in the year 2006, I have 104 keys on my keyboard, I have 8 buttons on my mouse, and I have almost two million pixels of screen real estate at your disposal, gentlemen. Please, please, please spend more than an afternoon designing and implementing an interface.

I love the idea of being able to custom-craft missions for my units, and the ability to copy-paste unit paths amongst all your units is mercifully well thought-out, but the actual implementation feels like a cold, uncaring spouse that has slowly grown apart from you over the years; she no longer cares about what you want, because fifteen years ago you forgot to call before you were going to be late coming home from the office, and now she’s convinced you’ve been cheating on her, so she goes out of her way to “forget” that you asked her for whole milk, and not this skim milk bullshit every week for the last decade.

If it seems like I’m harboring a grudge, I am. The interface is beyond counter-intuitive, the manual was crafted in an alien tongue, and the graphics looked bad when I was still in puberty. If you’ve been paying attention, all of these are not problems for real generals experienced players. But if you’re new, by now the learning “curve” is about as curvy as Lindsay Lohan on a coke binge running the Boston Marathon (i.e. not), and you’re banging your head against your monitor, screaming “Why?! Why didn’t you shoot? Why did you just drive up to them? Oh god the agony!” And the game has one last brick through your living room window for you.

The A.I. is vicious. While you’re trying to learn how to actually play (not how to win, how to actually play), the computer is going to make the strongest possible case that you should never be drafted and put in command of anything more complex than a dishwasher. And a damn fine case it is. Remember that “land war in Asia” crack? I think the computer could do just fine where Napoleon and Hitler failed: there is an absolutely savage beatdown that it’ll place on your units. Get ready to write thousands of letters home to some very distraught ladies, and tell them why Little Johnny is coming home in a box, because this game is hard. Having defeated poor gameplay design, lackadaisical (at best) graphics, a manual that’s little more help than a solar-powered umbrella, and the toughest A.I. this side of Deep Blue, the satisfaction you get from beating even the tutorial is unparalleled.

The bottom line? This game is not for you unless you have never played a strategy game worthy of your clearly superhuman tactical forebrain. This game is not for you if you’ve ever put down a strategy game for having too many damage tables to remember. This game is not for you if you do not seriously entertain notions of enlisting for the armed forces and studying four hundred years of tactical theory and practice. But if you’ve played ProSIM’s games before, and you know what you’re getting into, this is more of the same (unpolished) gem that you know and love, with an authentic historical vibe that can’t be beat. Of course, if this is your first foray into the world of ruthless military sims by ProSIM, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

 

Metal Saga (PS2) Review

Developer: Createch / Publisher: Atlus || Overall: 7.5/10

Createch’s Metal Saga, brought over to North America by Atlus, is an interesting RPG. While breaking the mold of traditional RPG storytelling, it’s more akin to the traditional RPG, in terms of gameplay, than most nowadays. Metal Saga is as “choose-your-own-adventure” as an RPG can be without any sort of adventure to actually be told. Put simply, you can venture through the world with little-to-no restriction; the only boundary is the level your characters currently are. Bosses are dispersed throughout the world, and can be taken down at one’s leisure, contrary to any regular RPG.

How Metal Saga starts out is with a choice: to become a Hunter or a Mechanic. Your dad is making a living as a Hunter and your mom is a Mechanic. Your mom tells you about your dad, and hopes for you to become a Mechanic, as it’s dangerous to be a Hunter. Chosing the Hunter class means you will be able to explore the world and make money by collecting bounties and killing enemies. Being a Hunter is obviously what the game is about, as there are many different “endings” that are available through the game – of which choosing to become a Mechanic will show you. The different endings available throughout stress the open-ended aspect, allowing you to pretty much are able to finish the game at any time — sometimes unexpectedly. For instance, marrying someone will produce a few “story” scenes, but after those finish the credits roll. If you play your cards right you may actually be able to play this game as long as a regular RPG. The world of Metal Saga is post-apocalyptic – once a very high-tech world, a catastrophe occurred that created a low-tech society with high-tech items here and there. While the foundation of the game is based in its lack of story, there are times when I felt myself calling out for there to be a compelling story to be coupled with the things you could do in the world.

Your job as a (bounty) Hunter is to make money by defeating wanted criminals and improve your vehicles, which you find throughout the world. By equipping your vehicles with stronger weapons, modifying them to hold heavier loads, and by diversifying their offensive capabilities, you’ll make your way as a Hunter who is feared by all who cross your path. Unfortunately, battling is very boring. It can’t get much more ordinary than Metal Saga when it comes to a battle-system; very rarely will you really need to pay careful attention to what is happening in a battle, as you can “fast forward” through all the battle animations. This creates a fast-paced feeling while fighting through any enemies that you encounter. The only time you really need to focus on a battle is when you are facing off against a boss, or if you’re collecting a bounty – but even then you could skip through the battling animations to make everything go faster.

Through your travels you’ll acquire a few unique party members. You’ll be able to choose a mechanic to have by your side, but you can only choose one of two possible choices; later on you will even be able to pick a dog (out of a possible four) to travel along with your party. Having a dog with a bazooka strapped onto its back is quite silly considering you’re occupying a tank right next to it. Magic and abilities are not acquired through normal leveling up – rather, they are bought by visiting “masters,” who will train you in whichever art they are equipped with. Instead of using any sort of “magic points,” your abilities will deplete a certain amount of value from your funds as a price for using the ability. The game allows you to go back to where you selected your party members and trade them with another if you feel so inclined as to do so.

The audio-visual experience isn’t exactly top notch – the graphics look like they could fit in with PS2 games from a couple of years ago, so the game definitely isn’t trying to push your PS2 to heights not seen before. The most noticeable lack from the sound category is the lack of any voice acting whatsoever (not to mention the main character is a silent hero). While it could be seen as a throwback to a time when RPGs didn’t have any voicework, it’s just unfortunate to not have anything except for a few yells during battle. Otherwise, the sound effects in the game aren’t bad, but they can get annoying during battle, especially when one considers how often you have to fight. The soundtrack isn’t exactly large and diverse, but what is there is pretty nice. It really doesn’t make much of an impression, however, which could be seen as a negative – RPGs usually have some of the best soundtrack work.

What I personally didn’t like is that the game can get quite monotonous at times, especially when there’s an area of the world you want to go to, but can’t yet because you have to go through a hundred more battles to get to the appropriate level to get through the area alive. The required amount of experience can be very disconcerting given the repetition. The lack of story also causes the game to come across as unfocused. It’s not a good sign when you don’t feel compelled to go in any one direction or are at a loss for a general place to head towards. Events that you take part in as you play also create too limited an impact on the world around you, so it’s less rewarding than it should be to do much of anything. There are plenty of mini-games to be occupied with, however, so occasionally there is some difference in the gameplay. The humor that is written into the game is pretty cool as well, and can leave you chuckling or even laughing out loud, which is very welcomed.

Metal Saga takes traditional RPG gameplay to the point where the game itself could be classified as retro, despite its year of release. The game almost exclusively appeals to hardcore RPG gamers who want a throwback into the way RPGs were back in the day. Metal Saga delivers a unique experience though it is one of the most traditional games to be released in the genre for quite a while.

 

Defcon (PC) Hands-On Preview

Developer/Publisher: Introversion Software ||

Defcon is the newest game from UK developer Introversion Software. Introversion has already established a great reputation with Darwinia making Defcon a game to look forward to. Defcon is nuclear war on a global scale – you pick your country and your alliance with the intent of defeating those who aren’t aligned with you.

Defcon takes place on the world stage. While the game is real-time, it looks like it also integrates some aspects of traditional turn-based games to give the game a different flavor. The thing that instantaneously sets this game apart from other strategy games is the unique graphical style. Anyone who has played Darwinia, will instantly see the relation between the two games’ visual styles – which look like enhanced “retro” graphics.

The game itself takes place in a time where the world’s super powers are entrenched in all-out thermonuclear war. For those who have seen the movie WarGames with Matthew Broderick, this game is basically based off of the idea in the movie in which Broderick’s character hacks into a military computer and initiates a “war game” simulation. When I saw that movie for the first time, I thought the prospect of being able to actually play a game that looks like what happened in WarGames would be an exciting experience – an experience that has become a reality with Defcon. Multiplayer gaming is pretty much the key to the game, though you can play the game against bots. A tutorial mode is included as well. The game promises to be easy to learn yet hard to win.

One of the main aspects of the game is that it is very minimal by nature. Your units, countries, missile silos and all other components of the game are represented by simple shapes. There are barely any real sound effects except for slight rumblings when nuclear bombs go off, all taking place while ambient music plays. The game feels like its quiet when it actually isn’t.

Defcon is currently scheduled to release in September 2006.

 

Metal Gear Solid Digital Graphic Novel (PSP) Review

Developer/Publisher: Konami || Overall: 9.0/10

Metal Gear Solid Digital Graphic Novel (MGS DGN) from Kojima Productions and Konami, is a very unique product for the PSP. Not exactly a game per se, the MGS DGN is a very interesting addition to the Metal Gear Solid library and for PSP owners, a unique way to experience Metal Gear Solid.

In the same vein of The Silent Hill Experience, the MGS DGN’s main feature is the comic adaptation of the Metal Gear Solid story. While there isn’t any voice acting, the comic captures the awesome feeling of Metal Gear Solid’s story perfectly. Practically every event and detail has been included in the adaptation, save the gameplay portions, which are improvised into semi-action scenes with sound effects and action being drawn. The story is changed ever so slightly so that the adapted parts of Metal Gear Solid’s gameplay make sense. The end of the story is also changed from the game, creating a combination of the two possible endings from the original.

The art is absolutely spectacular. It’s very stylistic, and is true to its graphic novel calling card. What’s different about the MGS DGN from The Silent Hill Experience is that it’s interactive. Unfortunately, it’s not exactly that easy to pause the action going on so that you have more time to read the speech bubbles, but an extra mode that is included makes use of the interactivity in the regular story mode. With a press of the Square button at any time, you can stop the comic from playing and “search” the pictures with a set of crosshairs. Once you find something that is highlighted, a “Memory Element” is added to your collection for later use. Memory Elements could be anything from a person to a gun to a scrap of paper in someone’s hand. Anything is fair game for being a Memory Element.

Memory Elements are used in the slightly more complicated “Memory Building Simulation Mode.” The purpose of this mode is to fully understand all the elements of the Metal Gear Solid story and all the connections between characters, events, and things of that sort through the whole series. If you want to get a full understanding of the story, this is the mode to spend most of your time with. To unlock all the connections, however, you’ll have to watch the story mode very closely and make sure you get all the different Memory Elements so that you can use them. Memory connections are made by directing a line coming out of a box towards another box floating in 3D space. It’s a little hard to direct the lines to the next connection, but the whole concept of the mode isn’t hard to make sense of.

The reason I personally liked this title so much is because of the way the graphic novel is presented. I appreciate the way the art looks and how the music and sound effects make me feel and remember the experiences I had when playing Metal Gear Solid. The collecting of Memory Elements allows for more player interaction and gives me a more thorough understanding of the series if I had missed something.

The Metal Gear Solid Digital Graphic Novel is a very cool item to have in the PSP’s library. It might not be a traditional Metal Gear Solid game, but Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops should help out in that department. I found the whole product to be very well worth it. The Metal Gear Solid story is a very enthralling experience in comic form, and it would be great to see the other games have the same treatment as the first did.

 

Field Commander (PSP) Review

Developer/Publisher: Sony Online Entertainment || Overall: 9.3/10

The PSP has proven to be my favorite way to play strategy games. With games like Metal Gear Acid, Metal Gear Acid 2, and now Field Commander, it’s shown me that playing turn-based strategy games on a handheld can be a lot more enjoyable than on a home console. What sets Field Commander apart from the other strategy games I’ve mentioned is that it’s more of a regular strategy game, which prides itself on its gameplay rather than its story. Containing a challenging campaign mode along with online multiplayer play and a random battle mode, Field Commander is the strategy game to have on the PSP.

Field Commander is a very full featured game with a roughly thirty-mission campaign mode that will train you from being a green CO (Commanding Officer) to the savior of the world. The campaign mode’s story starts out with a terrorist organization called Shadow Nation, and through the skirmishes you undertake against their multiple COs, you’ll slowly learn about their fanatical plan that they aim to put in place to destroy the world. The campaign is cleverly designed but overall is not that hard for seasoned strategy gamers. There are a couple of annoying missions sprinkled throughout the game, but they can easily be completed once you figure out what needs to be done.

The game is played with all types of units. Ground, sea, and air units allow for all kinds of strategy to take place. To give you an idea of what units there actually are, there are snipers, tanks, helicopters, stealth fighters, submarines, and battleships to name a few.

Each unit has a weakness and a strength that if you utilize effectively will make you a formidable force on the battlefield. Stealth units are also a major strategic advantage (and disadvantage if used against you). The units that can go into a “stealth mode” are the snipers, concealed tanks, stealth fighters, and submarines. For the snipers and concealed tanks, their range of fire is increased greatly, which allows for major damage of an enemy unit with no counterattack. For stealth fighters and submarines, they are able to creep up on enemy units that normally would be able to destroy them if they weren’t in stealth mode. The major disadvantage for stealth units are their movement speeds – they can only move one square at a time, which not only results in them moving slow but uses up a lot of their fuel.

Fuel and ammo are a very important part of a unit’s upkeep – if they run out of fuel, the unit literally blows up and dies. Without ammo, the unit becomes practically useless. Units can re-supply at towns or if supply trucks are nearby, they can get a more local servicing. Every unit in the game has a maximum of ten HP. If a unit is damaged, they must either go back to a town and heal for a few turns or join with another damaged unit of the same type so the HP can be added on top of whatever unit is being joined. Other times, it might be beneficial to destroy a unit and reacquire a percentage of the funds you spent on creating it and use it on building a new unit at a Factory, Airport, or Seaport.

As you play through missions, you will unlock new COs, divisions, maps, and units to use as you progress through the campaign as well as in the other modes the game has to offer. Which CO you choose doesn’t matter as much as which division you chose. There are a huge amount of unique divisions to choose through, and each have two of their own Division Powers. Division Powers vary but basically fall into three different kinds of categories: unit spawning, attack/defense increase, or damaging an enemy unit. Every time you activate a division’s special power a description will pop up allowing you to understand how to use it effectively.

The battle system for the game is almost perfect. Its fun to play, easy to get a hang of, and doesn’t have horrible load times either. The only bad parts about the game are the times when the enemy takes anywhere from ten to twenty seconds to think about what it should do. Though it doesn’t happen all that often, its still a problem since you’ll just be sitting there looking at a bar constantly fill up and empty to show that the computer is “thinking” about its next moves. Occasionally, you do hit a small load time when you put your cursor over a unit or even when you press the start button, but once it loads the first time, it doesn’t usually require another “loading” pause. Unfortunately the game does have some freezing issues as well. I encountered two freezes later on in the campaign mode, on the more advanced levels, which aren’t particularly that easy, especially when you have to do it again due to the game freezing. The game does offer the ability to save a battle (as long as it’s your turn) so that you can go back to it later, which not only allows you to (hopefully) circumvent any huge damage resulting from a possible freeze but allows you to come back later and play the game from where you left off without having to put the PSP in sleep mode.

The online capabilities for the game are enticing for those who want more after beating the campaign mode. You can check your leaderboard status and see how you compare to other people who play online, in single and multiplayer. Also, you can download a ton of custom missions made by other people on your PC and download them to your PSP. If you’re done with the campaign mode and want to play some more missions, hop onto the Field Commander site and check out all the extra content there is to play.

Field Commander is an awesome PSP game. Though the campaign is a bit short, the alternative modes allow for more game time to be put in. The game packs a lot of value for a portable game, and is well worth a look for any strategy game fan.

 

Rush for Berlin (PC) Review

Developer: Stormregion / Publisher: Paradox Interactive || Overall: 7.0/10

It’s not often we see a World War II game that is something other than a first person shooter. Rush for Berlin, developed by Stormregion, is a real-time-strategy game that strives to be a historically accurate and realistic rendition of World War II. Unfortunately for Rush for Berlin, it falls short of being totally enjoyable. Rush for Berlin will not be a game that makes waves through the genre; the game fails to be worthwhile, not only because of the extremely weak gameplay in the single player mode, but the absolutely non-existent multiplayer community. It’s incredibly important for a real-time-strategy game to have these basic values in place, even before any kind of innovation is attempted.

The thoroughly unimpressive single player mode in Rush for Berlin struggles to prove any kind of worth whatsoever. Unfortunately for the actual real-time-strategy elements of the game, they are not utilized properly to show the strengths of what the gameplay actually has to offer. The single player mode is based on World War II, obviously, but there is absolutely no revolving story to connect any of the missions you go on. After a cheesy cutscene to set up a certain scenario, you’ll begin your mission with a set amount of units and go on your way doing what needs to be done. What needs to be done usually consists of killing your enemies until there are none left, or capturing certain points of interest. Each mission is like a snapshot of history, and you jump around from time period to time period.

What brings down the experience of the single player mode the most is that there is little to no traditional base vs. base gameplay. Most of the missions are what I like to call “limited force” missions – you’re given a set amount of units and you’re on your way. Occasionally you are able to capture a factory to create more units, but you’re not going to be building factories or barracks like in traditional RTS games. Any and all buildings or structures you own have to be captured and can be recaptured by the enemy if you let your guard down.

The multiplayer mode is by far the biggest disappointment in Rush for Berlin. I was disenchanted when I found absolutely no one on the servers. Since the game used Gamespy, it was very easy to log in, but that was where the pleasant experience stopped. To give you an idea of how desolate the multiplayer community is, there are more people playing the demo of the game than the full game. And since you have to have the same version as who you’re playing against, it doesn’t even let you play with the two or three people that just happen to be online, if you’re able to catch them on at the same time as you are. I almost downloaded the demo just so I could play against someone. This is a serious devaluation of the game, especially since the single player mode is less than fantastic. If you’re turned off by the single player mode you will have nowhere to go when it comes to playing Rush for Berlin, unless you know someone personally to play against.

As for the actual gameplay, it is particularly solid. The game itself puts more value into each of the units you have, as they are not usually available in huge quantities – you can’t just build any anytime you want, and when you can, it takes a long time to build a unit. It can take especially long sometimes since there is absolutely no resource gathering, you’ll have to wait even longer for the resource counter to get to the point you want it to get to before the unit begins to build.

Needless to say, base politics play a very small role in the game, and it comes down to actually managing your units and being strategic in how you use them. Because the game puts more stress on the units, you’ll actually be aware of when you lose a unit, as it could make or break your push through enemy territory. The flexibility of the gameplay is also shown by being able to take over enemy vehicles (provided their occupants are no more) and use them for your purposes. Many of the blown out buildings in the game can also be used for your tactical advantage by making your infantry go inside them so they are able to shoot at whoever comes by.

By far the most impressive aspect of Rush for Berlin are the graphics. The maps themselves are enormously detailed – urban areas really show the best of what Rush for Berlin has to offer in this aspect. All the units look about as realistic as they can be –vehicles more so than humans. Everything looks incredibly akin to what it would have looked like in World War II, which should be applauded. There is also a 3D camera, so you can get all sides of the action. Unfortunately, they assigned the scroll wheel click to changing the camera rather than the right click, which can make it difficult to be as precise as you might want to be.

Sound effects and music are another couple strong points, but the voice acting is awful. The sound effects are cool, and they really help in making you feel like you’re in the middle of a battlefield. The music is empowering as well, and usually has a “march to war” feeling attached – possibly offering motivation to do what you need to do. Voice acting, however, is on the completely different side of the spectrum. The actors sound like Europeans trying to imitate an American accent, which end up sounding like they’re a bunch of pricks at the gym with surly voices – it doesn’t really cut it for what the game is trying to accomplish.

Rush for Berlin ends up being just another lackluster World War II game. Perhaps if the same gameplay mechanics were exploited better, and there were a multiplayer community to interact with, Rush for Berlin would have been a solid game, but unfortunately that was not what came to fruition.

 

Warhawk (PS3) E3 2006 Preview

Developer: Incognito Entertainment/SCE Santa Monica | Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment

Warhawk has created a tremendous buzz at this E3, especially since it was the only game on the floor to use Sony’s newest feature in the PS3 controller — the motion sensitivity. Regardless of what preconceptions you might have about Warhawk and the motion sensing, it ends up being a mixed bag when it comes to its actual execution.

The game itself looks pretty spectacular. I was impressed with the visuals at their current stage, especially seeing it on a full 1080p HDTV. There weren’t very many “jaggies” at all. Basically the whole demo encompassed you destroying tons of planes and a couple of cruisers allowing you to see how the game basically worked.

Of course, the biggest focus in this game at the show was how well it utilized the motion sensing. There were rumblings online about how the developers at Incognito only had about two weeks to integrate the motion sensing use and only used two of the axis’ – even so the motion sensing was very intuitive. Some people say there was a lag between your hand moving and the plane, but I felt like it was pretty much how it should have been. You can’t expect a huge metal plane to maneuver as fast as two hands with a plastic controller – there should be some sort of realism, right?

The demo offered either Hover Mode or Flight Mode and used the motion sensing to fly around and target enemies – pressing Square to shoot at them. The targeting was alright, but it was the weak point of the demo. Hopefully it will be improved by the final version, but it was definitely playable as it was. To do a barrel roll, you would press one of the shoulder buttons and tip the controller all the way to that direction. Otherwise you’ll just make a very sharp turn if you don’t press the button.

I had fun with the Warhawk demo, and it was definitely a great way to show off the motion controlling even though it wasn’t perfect and needed to be tweaked a little bit more. This resurrected franchise from the PSOne days should definitely come to be an excellent revival.

 

 

Motorstorm (PS3) E3 2006 Preview

Developer: Evolution Studios | Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment

To my surprise, Motorstorm was on the show floor at Sony’s booth. The problem was it was sort of hidden, which is a shame because it was awesome. Can’t-possibly-be-legal dirt battle racing doesn’t get much better than Motorstorm. Racing to the finish is the obvious goal of the game, but how you get there is different from anything I’ve ever seen or experienced. As you race through the course, you leave tracks in the dirt, degrading its quality and making it that much slippier – more than it may already be. Coupled with some amazing A.I., Motorstorm is quite literally a blast.

Each vehicle has its own strengths when it comes to the kind of track and what route you decide to take. In the demo, I played as the buggy and its strength was leaned towards dry land racing as opposed to wet terrain or mud. Unfortunately for me, I didn’t know that until after and ended up losing pretty badly. The opponent A.I. is very impressive as well, as they will try everything in their power to exploit your weakness — nothing short of ramming into you or making you slam into a wall or a huge rock. As you make your way through the track, your car becomes dirtier and dirtier, and you even see the mud fly out from beneath the wheels. Attention to detail like this made Motorstorm look really cool. As for the motion blur, it’s integrated nicely, even though it might be happening at speeds that shouldn’t really have it. The blur increases as you go faster. When you crash, your vehicle might break apart, allowing you to watch the parts fly off in slow motion. These effects add to the immersion and make the game more fun; especially on the huge HDTV they had it hooked up on.

I had the opportunity to ask the producer how he thought they might be able to use the recently added motion sensing capabilities in the PS3 controller to the game, and he said they might make it so if you flick the controller in a certain direction, your driver would lash out at a vehicle next to you, which sounds pretty cool, but as of E3 it wasn’t in the game. I am personally excited for Motorstorm. I think it’ll turn out to be a great game when all is said and done.

 

Full Auto 2: Battlelines (PS3) E3 2006 Preview

Developer: Pseudo Interactive | Publisher: SEGA ||

Virtua Fighter 5 isn’t the only Sega game to get excited about for the PS3. Full Auto 2 is coming exclusively to the PS3. Strap on your excitement helmet and get ready for some good old fashioned cars-retrofitted-with-machine-guns-and-rockets action! With potentially fantastic elements, Full Auto 2 look like it’ll end up being quite fun. The game has interactive environments and super glossy (not to mention expensive) civilian-type cars with weaponry, so it’s up to you to be Mr. Full Auto and kill everyone and everything you can.

The E3 demo was just the multiplayer battle mode, so after you died, you respawned, and proceeded to rack up as many points as you can by blowing up your opponents. It was pretty fun; I ended up playing a few games in about half an hour, completely oblivious to the Virtua Fighter 5 action going on in the same booth. I had the opportunity to ask one of the level designers about what they might use the motion control for. He said he wasn’t sure about it being used for steering (since people would lay down while playing sometimes) but rather for aiming with the weaponry. As it was right now, the aiming requires you to move the car because the crosshairs are right in the middle of the screen.

Regardless, Full Auto 2 is a pretty fun multiplayer game as it stands now, and should be better by the time the game is ready to ship.

 

SingStar (PS2) E3 2006 Preview

Developer: SCE London Studio | Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment

While at E3 this year, I was able to try out Sony’s Singstar for the PS2. At first I was a little hesitant to pick up the surprisingly well-made microphone, and just stood by watching other people sing. But when nobody was playing anymore, I decided to give it a try. While I played, one of the representatives from Sony that was demonstrating the game played with me the whole time. SingStar has been a very popular game in Europe, so its surprising that it took so long for the game to come over – it was instantly apparent to me why it’s so popular as soon as I started playing.

The most impressive thing about the game is the user interface. It’s very clean and very intuitive, and I actually like shuffling through album covers while looking for songs to sing. There is a very generous mix of rock and pop music, and it was interesting to see Nirvana, The Darkness, and Franz Ferdinand (to name a few) in the song list. Just as Guitar Hero helps you better appreciate what a guitarist can do, SingStar will make you appreciate how well someone can sing or perform certain lyrics. The “do do do” and “lucky lucky” interludes Franz Ferdinand’s “Do You Want To” come to mind as being very tricky to get the words right. The high notes in “I Believe In a Thing Called Love” by the Darkness also come to mind as being incredibly challenging.

The game shows you the music video while you sing. This gives players something to watch during solos and other non-singing parts, so you’re not completely bored. When you are supposed to sing, the lyrics show up at the bottom of the screen with the word you’re singing highlighted. Depending on how close you are to getting the correct note/pitch, you get points. Playing alone probably won’t be as fun as it would be playing with someone else, just because it’s fun being able to compete and see who sings better. Lines show up on the screen corresponding to how the actual song is sung. As you sing into the microphone, another line will appear, graphically depicting if you are higher or lower than the note you should be at. The closer you are to the song’s own line, the more points you get. If you hit notes correctly at certain points of a song’s line that are sparkling, you’ll get a “Golden Note” which counts for bonus points. It’s a very simple game – one that can teach you how to sing your favorite songs.

I had fun playing SingStar on PS2. A version is coming to the PS3 that will allow players to download songs, but the multiple PS2 versions will be pre-chosen packages. Even though the PS3 version was on the floor, I wasn’t able to try that one out because there were a lot more people packed into the PS3 section cracking jokes about “600 dollars” than I would have cared to show off my singing abilities to.

 

 

Guitar Hero II (PS2) E3 2006 Preview

Developer: Harmonix Music Studios | Publisher: RedOctane

Guitar Hero II, you say? New songs, you say? Sold! Guitar Hero II is basically Guitar Hero with different songs. So far the game seems better, but how? Well, the multiplayer mode has become more worthwhile – much more worthwhile. The single player mode’s highlights are basically being able to play the new songs, so multiplayer is a different kind of special.

As opposed to the first Guitar Hero, songs in the sequel are recorded with two “tracks” – one for the lead guitar and one for rhythm guitar. If there is only one guitar, bass will be used for the second track. Needless to say this an improvement over the first game since it made you share the same track. However, that doesn’t mean they removed the previous mode — both the new and the old style of play are here. There is nothing gameplay-wise that was in the first game that isn’t in Guitar Hero II.

I played the game at E3, and was able to experience a new song first hand. For some reason I wasn’t doing all that good, maybe because I was really close to the screen or maybe because my timing was off that day. There looked to be new venues and new characters, which is good if only just to show more of a change between the two Guitar Hero games, but the main addition will be new songs that are going to be included.

As it is, Guitar Hero is a great game and getting a new set of songs to play is exciting to wait for. There’s nothing new about the guitar for Guitar Hero II, so you’ll be able to use your guitar controller already. Fifty songs or so are said to be in the new Guitar Hero, so it’ll be exciting to see more of the songs revealed as the game comes closer to shipping.

The list of songs that have been revealed so far is as follows:

Drist – Arterial Black (original track)
Primus – John The Fisherman (original track)
The Reverend Horton Heat – Psychobilly Freakout
KISS – Strutter
Black Sabbath – War Pigs
The Butthole Surfers – Who Was in My Room Last Night
The Kinks, as performed by Van Halen – You Really Got Me
Rush – YYZ

 

PlayStation 3 Controller Preview

The Playstation 3 controller has changed quite a bit from its Dual Shock and Dual Shock 2 relatives. Whether or not its going to be called Dual Shockless (because of the lack of rumble) or end up being called the Dual Shock 3 (if by some miracle Sony puts rumble back into it), its got a few other changes to point out that are relatively for the better.

The form factor is quite literally the same as the Dual Shock 2, maybe changed a little to fit the palms easier, but all in all the same. It’s lighter, but still feels durable – maybe not as much as the Dual Shock 2, but that’s because of the weight that has been dropped between the two controllers. But this loss of rumble motor weight should help while using the motion sensing and battery life. Speaking of battery life, its supposed to last for about 24 hours on a single charge. The battery will be integrated into the controller, so that it won’t compromise the shape of the Dual Shock, though it probably would be a good idea to make it user replaceable.

All the controllers at E3 were wired, so they obviously were not the final controllers since very controller is to be wireless by Bluetooth. There are four lights on the top part of the controller to indicate which controller is which. As of now, seven controllers are still supposed to be used, but the lack of three extra lights on the controller might be worrisome to a few people. It’s possible to show controllers over four by displaying two lights at the same time, for a total of seven combinations of lights up to two lights on at the same time. There is also a USB port on the top of the controller for the final version which will allow for charging, and who knows, maybe even attachments.
The analog sticks became more sensitive, increasing from 8 bit to 10 bit in resolution. The game that really showed off the enhancement to me was Mobile Suit Gundam, during the aiming of its machine gun. The analog sticks seem like they will be more apologetic towards FPS games than any other PlayStation controller before it, so some people will be happy about that. A “Home” or “Guide” button has been added to the middle with the PS logo on it. The “Analog” button is gone now, so you can always assume that analog is on. Though it was nice to know your controller was working by having that light, the new indicator lights will replace that use, I’m sure.

As far as I could tell, pressure sensitivity is still there in the buttons, as well as the L3 and R3 (clicking sticks) buttons. The only buttons that have really changed are the L2 and R2 buttons. They’re more like true analog triggers, while still keeping their traditional button feel. Some people say they feel a little “spongey,” but I didn’t get that feeling at all. It’ll just take a little getting used to how they work as opposed to the L2/R2 buttons on a Dual Shock 2.

Motion sensing is obviously the biggest new feature in the PS3 controller, and is supposedly responsible for the removal of the rumble feature. The only game to use the motion sensing was Warhawk, and it definitely seems that the motion sensing will be a worthwhile function. It will not get as huge of a focus as the Wii’s motion sensing will get (most likely), but the way I look at it, it shouldn’t be. It will probably only be used for small improvements/functionality not otherwise possible before. The motion sensing itself in Warhawk at E3 felt like a fully spherical analog stick – instead of just using the top part of the sphere that regular analog sticks sit on top of. The motion sensing will probably see its biggest functionality be that of a substitute or third analog stick than anything else. Small flicks and the like might be all that’d happen otherwise, but developers should be able to surprise us down the line.

Though no one had a chance to use the “boomerang” PS3 controller, going with the Dual Shock design again is a good and bad thing. It’s good because we know how it works and how it feels, but it’s also bad because it doesn’t really try to improve too much of the ergonomics of how it feels. Maybe the PS4 will see another design.

 

Steambot Chronicles (PS2) Review

Developer: Irem / Publisher: Atlus || Overall: 7.5/10

Atlus is known for delivering niche Japanese-developed titles and Steambot Chronicles is no exception. Developed by Irem, Steambot Chronicles is not really any one type of game that you can pinpoint directly – it is one part sandbox, one part mech game, one part music game, and one part RPG all mixed into each other. Combined with its certain type of charm and fantasy, Steambot Chronicles is a great little game that is hampered by control problems, graphical inconsistencies, and a weak story to boot.

The story starts out with the main character losing his memory, as he awakens on a beach. This prompts the main character, Vanilla, to find out whom he is, and what happened. Even though there is a huge ship that has crashed against the shore and smoking because of a fire, there is little to no acknowledgement of it by you or the person who found you, named Connie, which is a little weird to say the least. Given that the story is very simplistic in nature to begin with, its immediately apparent that Steambot Chronicles is really not about its story as you get into some real gameplay with little to no delay.

The girl who finds you on the beach, Connie, is a cute brown-haired girl who sings for a very famous band called the Garland Globetrotters., and if you play your cards right a nice relationship can evolve from knowing her. Constantly throughout the game, you are given choices for what Vanilla says or does, and the outcome of certain events will be influenced by such. You can be a bastard or a big softy – it’s really up to you. The very weak story of Steambot Chronicles basically encompasses Vanilla’s search for who he is while going on tour with Connie’s band. Other than that it really isn’t compelling – the world doesn’t have to be saved, there is no impending evil; you get the point. Along the way you’ll meet up with many people and discover new things to do in the world. The game itself is very non-linear and you don’t even have to follow through with the story at all except for a few key parts. An interesting way that the game influences you to try and talk to everyone in towns and cities is that their picture is added to a photo album in the start menu. This is very unique, to say the least, and gives you a feeling of “talk to all the generic characters I can find!” Pictures will be updated as you talk to more and more people, and important characters will get their own picture.

The main form of transportation and gameplay is something called a trotmobile. Think of a car with arms and legs and you have a trotmobile. Anyone who has played through Front Mission 3 or 4 will instantly grasp how to manage it in the backend system. Basically, a trotmobile’s body/legs can hold a certain amount of wight which will contribute to what kind of arms and “backpack” you can equip. Arms are mainly used for combat while the back attachment is more for the extra stuff you can do in the world. Possible types of arms include Sword Arms, Spiked Ball Arms, Cannon Arms and back attachments include a carriage for bussing people around and a flatbed for carrying stuff. This is all fine and dandy except for two very disappointing aspects of the game.

The controls for the trotmobile are very counter-intuitive because they use “Katamari” controls. Both analog sticks are required to move effectively which quite frankly blows because it doesn’t give you a free camera (you’re locked behind your trotmobile at all times) to use. This is very annoying when battling, obviously. Not to mention that movement would have been done just as effectively, if not more, with one stick. The other glaring problem is that there just isn’t that much actual combat to spend time on. Without any random battles, you’re forced to fight the same enemies over and over – they’ll pop out at you from the same place as you travel between towns.

Trotmobiles are also very slow, so you’ll be walking through fields, beating two enemies between each town (effortlessly, I might add) without getting much use of the effort you put into improving your trotmobile to begin with.

Boss battles happen every once in a while and are very fun, but they only last for maybe a minute or two before you’re given a load time to celebrate your win. Each town has their own “Arena” in which you can fight tough trotmobiles 1 on 1, but even these battles go by quickly. There’s almost as much loading as there is playtime (sometimes more if you’re good) during these Arena battles. Other things in the world to do include playing an assortment of instruments for different songs, bussing people from one town to the next, fighting in arenas and dungeons, digging up fossils to fill up a museum, and stuff like that. You’re allowed to do almost anything you please in the world that has been created. You’ll also have to maintain your character by eating whenever he gets hungry, and that’s just plain annoying.

As for sound and graphics, they are about average. The voice actors are alright but they can be annoying at times. General sound effect usage is good, and battle sounds aren’t very irritating even though you hear them over and over. The most bothersome sound effect would be the trotmobile’s walking noise. Music is very cheerful, and goes along with the mood of the game, but isn’t all that memorable. As for the graphics, the game has a cel-shaded look to it which promotes a cartoonish feel to the game – but maintains a more realistic look than most cel-shaded games. There isn’t anything special but nothing is particularly ugly except a few things that stick out like character animation. Load times also avert some of the pleasure that is delivered, which is unfortunate.

What I favored about this game was the open-endedness of it all. The game doesn’t tell you where to go; you tell the game where to go. It shows that GTA-style games don’t always have to be about 100% action or even have a strong storyline; it provides the person playing the game with many things to do at their own leisure with practically no bounds. By giving you choices in what to say or do throughout the game, it can also influence you to replay the game and see how it would be being mean the whole way through or being nice all the time.

Steambot Chronicles is a fun game that rides on you being interested enough to take part in the activities the world offers through its non-linearity. Besides the flawed controls and graphical discrepancies here and there, Steambot Chronicles is a light-hearted adventure game that isn’t hard to get into.

 

Mobile Suit Gundam: Crossfire (PS3) E3 2006 Preview

Developer/Publisher: Bandai Namco Entertainment

Mobile Suit Gundam made its way to Sony’s show floor in a barebones sort of way. This game in particular allowed for more than just testing the short demo itself, but seeing what parts of the controller had been improved. As you may or may not know, the controller’s regular two analog sticks’ resolution had been increased from 8 bit to 10 bit. Basically, meaning they are more sensitive — the extra sensitivity helped out tremendously in the demo.

Mobile Suit Gundam’s camera is placed in an over-the-shoulder view. Though the Gundam takes up a little bit more of the screen than it probably should (about half), the Gundam model looks very nice. Even the enemy Mobile Suits looked cool; the only thing that really sucked about the game in terms of graphics was everything else. They plop you down in a desolate mountain desert and let you blow up six enemy Leos and a couple of guard towers. Hoorayyyy… however, I did enjoy the little bit that was offered. Regular movement was a bit slower than it probably should have been, and made it harder to actually put your laser sword to any good use.

The main weapons I used were the machine gun and the head Vulcans (machine guns in the head). It didn’t take too long to defeat enemies. If you happen to actually get damaged enough during the demo (aka you suck at games and probably life) body parts will start to fall off, disallowing use of certain weaponry or abilities. I hadn’t figured it out until my last play-through of the demo, but you can boost while on the ground, allowing you to move a lot faster and not rely solely on sprinting on foot towards your enemies. The boost also allows you to jump to get to higher places but when you land it takes a second or two for your Gundam to recover.

To me, it was weird to see such a barebones demo for Mobile Suit Gundam out on the show floor when there was the Xbox 360 counterpart Mobile Ops: One Year War practically finished already. For what its worth, though, the PS3 version did look noticeably better.