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Enslaved Odyssey To The West Review (PS3)

Developer – Ninja Theory

Publisher – Namco Bandai

Release Date – October 5 2010

Ninja Theory’s follow-up to 2007’s Heavenly Sword is a loose adaptation of the classic Chinese novel Journey to the West where instead of being set in ancient China the game is set in a post apocalyptic future. People no longer inhabit the big cities which are now overgrown with vegetation, and robots are roaming the land enslaving any human they encounter. The game itself is like Ninja Theory’s past game, an action adventure game with a heavy combat focus but still fairly shallow when compared to Japanese developed action games.

The big draw of the game is the story which was written by film screenwriter Alex Garland (Sunshine, 28 Days Later) with motion capture by Andy Serkis. The game has great production values but doesn’t reach the heights of video game story telling that you would expect from such talent. Not much really goes on throughout the game and although there is an interesting ending I felt there was a lack of scope. The story succeeds more on a broader level in terms of the contrast between tech and nature.

The voice acting and motion capture however is top notch with some smart audio design decisions. The art direction is also consistently appealing giving a perfect sense of an overgrown post apocalyptic world devoid of human activity. The game starts off on a slaver ship which the two lead characters (Trip and Monkey) barely escape from. Trip was abducted from a self sufficient wind powered colony while the origins of Monkey are unknown. When they crash land Trip puts a control device on Monkey compelling him to obey Trip’s orders. When Trip dies, Monkey dies so Monkey is forced to help her return to her colony. The game play hook here is that Trip is capable of distracting enemies but is out of the way when combat occurs. Trip serves as a guide for the most part moving you along on a linear path.

The combat of the game starts of pretty basic and while it does get better there isn’t much variety and depth I have come to expect from character action games. As Monkey you have a staff which you can use for physical combat or shoot projectiles from. There are counters, charge attacks and evading but even playing on hard I just relied on blocking while waiting for an opening to attack. The platforming of the game is similar to Uncharted in that there is a lot of climbing with the same sort of cinematic style. And for a twist Monkey has a hover board (which Monkey calls a cloud in reference to the source material) which he uses later in the game to change up the platforming game play.

While this game was lamented as one of the most overlooked game releases of last year, I could see why there wasn’t much momentum behind the release. It isn’t a blockbuster game and the lack of depth in the combat let it down. It did however deserve to sell better and not fall to deep discounts a couple months after release. I still have good confidence in Ninja Theory and hope they will truly make a critical and commercial hit with their next game, a reboot of the Devil May Cry series for Capcom.

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Valkyria Chronicles Review

Developer – Sega

Publisher – Sega

Release Date – October 31 2008

Valkyria Chronicles was one of the few Japanese RPG’s in the past 5 years that actually felt new and innovative pushing forward the genre. It’s mix of turn based and real time combat with an underlying RPG component defied past conventions. Add to this an unique watercolour style art style and an involving story playing out between missions, we get a complete package for any JRPG enthusiast.

The key to the game is the fun tactical combat which feels fresh and makes you actually look forward to the combat. A problem with many RPG’s is that the combat is tedious and repetitive, this isn’t the case here with the various options you have to complete a mission. The combat starts of like a typical tactical RPG where you place down your chosen units for a mission on a 2D map and you are given a certain amount of action points that you can use to move units. But the twist is that once you choose to move a unit it switches to a 3D view and you can actively control it. You have a metre that indicates how much you can move and you get one combat or item use per turn but you are free to move anywhere or take cover.

The weapons in the games are all early 1900’s based weapons like rifles, snipers, and machine guns and the way they work is that you chose a point to aim and accuracy is determined by distance. The only thing I would add is the ability to move your weapon as you shoot like a third person shooter. The game quite often varies up the tactics so you have to make full use of your squad of scouts, shock troopers, snipers, lancers, medics and tanks. They also add new environmental elements that mix up the situation as you progress.

The first thing that quickly becomes apparent when playing this game is the amount of story, the ratio of story to gameplay is quite high but not overly different to other RPGs. I guess I’m starting to get sick of watching dialogue scenes as I get older and will often just read the text instead of waiting for the voice acting to finish (same problem in Mass Effect and Dragon Age). But I do like the animation scenes which are high quality Anime scenes and do a good job of visualising the world in greater detail. The story also doesn’t refrain from pulling any punches and deals with some more mature themes appropriate to a war setting.

The game is around 30-40 hours depending on whether you want to  play the side or skirmish missions. I’m sorry to see the series go to the PSP with two sequels already out but I’m looking forward to what Sega do next in terms of action RPG’s as they have had a good track record with this and the Yakuza series.

Uncharted 2 Review

Developer – Naughty Dog

Publisher – Sony Computer Entertainment

Release Date – October 13 2009

Building on a promising first game in the series the talented people at Naughty Dog have done what is the norm in video games, which is to make a sequel that in every way outshines the first. The first game was well received because of the great animation, graphics and characters but it was lacking in gameplay (and some might say fun) down to the frustrating gun combat and the bullet soaking enemies. Now with the sequel they have mostly fixed this and added solid multiplayer and co-op modes to the mix in addition to even more wonderful graphics and animation. Uncharted 2 is a complete package and rightfully deserves all the accolades it received in 2009, it is an amazing game that convincingly combines everything I like about video games.

It is still rare to see a well produced story in video games that you actually care about and the key has been the likability of the characters which benefit from great voice acting and motion capture work. It’s all about the character you play Nathan Drake, although this time there is less Sully, as you follow his enthusiasm to find the mythical city of Shambhala and the lost treasure of the Cintamani Stone. Nathan Drake is just a fun character to play as and control, he’s not a buffed up super soldier, he’s just a geeky treasure hunter getting caught up with the wrong people who want to exploit his knowledge and skills.

With Uncharted 2 I can see how all Naughty Dog’s experience in the past, such as the Jak and Daxter games on the PS2, has helped them created the visual style of the game. The environments are all varied and vibrant with bright colours and a surreal high contrast look. The character models are a perfect blend between realism and the animated style although the eyes are noticeable weird as they constantly shine. The focus on excellent animation tricks the mind into engrossing you in every scene, as I was more excited watching the cut scenes than playing the game.

The gameplay, shooting and platforming, are vastly superior to the first with much more interesting environments to traverse and figure out while having access to a nice array of weaponry. I think the third person shooting is quite good and definitely deserves to be the focus in multiplayer. The puzzles and climbing are a logical evolution of what was innovated with Tomb Raider back in the day but it still could be improved. Maybe a mix between Assassin’s Creed freeform climbing and the highly specific climbing routes in Uncharted 2 could lead to more challenging puzzles.

It took me 12 hours on the hard difficulty to finish the game, although it has taken me months to actually do this. The thing that was holding me back was since the game is linear, I have no problems just finishing a chapter every now and then savouring the experience. Play the game for the experience, story and stunning graphics before the next game in the series comes out and changes up the formula. The third game is set to be released at the end of the year (around November 1st) and is probably going to be the last in the series if Naughty Dog’s past history is anything to go by.

Heavy Rain Review (PS3)

DeveloperQuantic Dream

Publisher – Sony Computer Entertainment

Release Date – 24 February 2010

Heavy Rain is ambitious project brought to us by Paris based video game development studio, Quantic Dream, who developed the cult classic Indigo Prophecy/Fahrenheit. Improving on the unique control system and gameplay from Indigo Prophecy they add motion control (via the six axis or move controller) to the mix with much improved graphics and motion capture. While it is still a game, and shares many familiar gaming elements, it is best seen as an interactive drama. You are making frequent decisions controlling and directing your experience in a way that has rarely been done in video games.

I probably had a different sort of experience playing this game than most people since I already had the main plot point revealed to me unintentionally (the identity of the killer). It was still a fun experience but I could imagine it would’ve been much more exciting if I went into it fresh, as I could clearly see the ways the developer tries to cheaply confuse and surprise the player. Despite this I still blasted through the game in two sittings, around 10 hours in total, which is something I rarely do. I was definitely drawn into the story and couldn’t put it down like a good movie or TV series.

The story itself surrounds a series of murders in the US, in the state of Philadelphia, where for the past couple years someone has drowned kids in rainwater during the notoriously rainy fall season. It is a thriller story of the kidnap and murder kind with horror elements comparable to a mix between the movies Saw and Seven. You play as a four characters a FBI agent, one of the victim’s father, a journalist and a private investigator all working to solve the case. This sort of premise fits very well for a game as you switch from scene to scene between these people not having to worry about the in betweens while getting a highly crafted experience.

One aspect of the game that people should know, and I don’t remember being talked much about around release, are the survival horror elements of the game. If you can’t handle these sort of situations in movies you will definitely not be able to handle it in the game as you actually have to do the actions directly via button presses. While you aren’t going to see anything too gruesome the implied pain and suffering can be hard to handle. One example is the clichéd how far can you go situation where your faith is tested by having to chop off a finger. While you can choose to not do most of these trials there are some you are forced to do.

Like I said before the game play is unconventional with the way you move your character the hardest thing to get a grip on. To move you have to hold down R2 and move the left stick which gives you a larger than normal turning radius but the game is designed to not need pixel perfect movement. Left stick by itself controls your head and the right stick is used for interacting with objects. For example to open a door you do a half circle with the right stick or flick in a direction to turn on a light. When it comes to conversations you’ll see floating words above you with a corresponding button press and there are some cool effects when you have to make a quick decision. For action scenes you have to follow the on-screen prompts but don’t have to hit it correctly to continue as it adapts on the fly. I liked the way all this is handled giving me a unique experience expanding on the QTE element that is present in so many games. I didn’t find myself wanting to have more direct control as it was so expertly crafted keeping me trigger ready and engaged as the plot unfolds.

The only downside of the game is the English voice acting which is very poor and has been infamously ridiculed since them. But don’t let that deter you from the game as I find it part of the charm reminding me it is a French perspective on American culture. It is also strange (but deliberate) in the look of the world including items ranging from typewriters, a crazy sci-fi device used for investigations by the FBI agent mixed with mundane normal objects.

I finished the game with everyone alive and some scenes missed out because of the decisions I made. To see ever scene and ending you would have to play through the game multiple times which is probably why it was suggested, by lead designer David Cage, that you play the game just once. But if you are curious you can go back to each chapter and see how situations might play out differently. This is the type of game you have to experience and have in your collection as it is so unique in vision successfully melding video games and film. Why bother playing another shooter when you have the chance to play a game that expands the medium and serve as an example for the capabilities of story telling in video games.

Stacking Review (XBLA, PSN)

Developer – Double Fine Productions

Publisher – THQ

Release Date – February 8 2011

Double Fine Productions, developer of the critically acclaimed Psychonauts, after their last full retail game Brutal Legend announced their next four games would be smaller downloadable titles. Their first was Costume Quest a cute halloween themed adventure/RPG game helmed not but studio founder Tim Schafer but lead animator Tasha Harris. The second is Stacking an adventure/puzzle game by lead animator Lee Petty who has created a unique take on the adventure game genre.

The draw of the game is that the puzzles are done but utilising different stacking dolls where each one has a special ability such as clearing a path, seducing men, passing wind or punching the lights out of other dolls. You start off as the smallest of dolls and you can stack into others which are one size larger. The game is divided into separated open environments with dolls all over the place minding their own business. The puzzles all have multiple solutions which range from the obvious to obscure but the doll you need for at least one of the solutions will be nearby so it is fairly easy to figure at least one solution out. The cool thing about this game is that it encourages imaginative thinking with the various solutions and keeps track of everything you do. It is perfect for completionists as it tracks everything, it will tell you how many different solutions there are and even give you the option of hints if you are stumped. It also keeps track of dialogue, unique dolls and something called hijinks which are cheeky things you can do to other dolls for you to find out.

Like other Double Fine games it is humorous but the best way to describe the game is that it has a lot of charm. The humour is with the different dolls and abilities with the charm coming from the silent film style music and art style. The story is about a baron who has enslaved a family of dolls except for the smallest who then goes on a journey to rescue his family. It is a simple story which has a lengthy and unskippable (unbearable for some people) initial setup which in my eyes only turns away players (especially when it is free for Playstation Plus members). The rest of the game is pure adventure game fun with the only other flaws being the strange camera and depth of field which keeps things far away blurry. This gave me headaches if I played for long periods (rarely happens for me in games).

It’s out now on XBLA and the PSN network, I subscribed for a 3 month membership to Playstation Plus (for AUD$20) to get it free along with a bunch of other games (get the excellent Shatter if you haven’t as well). I think this is the best way to get it if you have a PS3 as you almost get the full value of the subscription with just this game. It is important to note that access to the PS+ free games disappear if you don’t resubscribe but shouldn’t be a problem if you finish the game before the 3 months is up.

Gran Turismo 5 Review (PS3)

Developer – Polyphony Digital

Publisher – Sony Computer Entertainment

Release Date – November 24 2010

First off there are a few things you should know about my experience with racing games. I’m not a sim racing fan, I’ve only played a few hours of Forza 2 and GT4, but I have played a lot of other racers like the Burnout series, Motorstorm, kart racers (Mario Kart and Mod Nation Racers) and occasionally the NFS series. So based on this I should hate GT5, but I don’t.

The big difference with GT5 is I bought it with a steering wheel (a crappy one, but I have tried the Logitech G27 and it makes it even better). The steering wheel is essential to an ideal game play experience with GT5 and finally made me understand what this specific genre is all about. It’s about the amazing depth and attention to detail of the cars and emulation of the racing experience on real world tracks. Cars actually feel drastically different unlike most other racing games I’ve played and whether it is a rear/front or all wheel drive requires a different approach to how you handle the car. You can also tweak all aspects of the cars which I’m not going to pretend I know anything about such as brakes, suspension etc.

I also really enjoyed the GT mode which you start off from scratch racing with small slow cars and build your way up to the exotic super cars. There are license tests, special challenges (kart, dirt, nascar, top gear track etc.) and a B spec mode which is you managing a driver through races. You earn credits from racers to buy new or used cars to fill up your garage.

There have been a lot of complaints about the outdated aspect of the GT5 when compared to western developed racers, most of it is justified such as the long load times and damage (which only unlocks later). But things like progression where you don’t stand a chance unless you upgrade your car (or over upgrade and blaze through) is fine with me as I’m not very good at the game. Once you get to the higher classes above professional this doesn’t really matter as you need a fully upgraded car plus get through the race close to perfect to even place in a race.

Another thing I don’t care about is how long it took to come out, as other reviewers have griped about. It’s not like I was waiting for it to come out, there were plenty of other racing games out there to tide my appetite. Stop complaining about games taking so long to be completed and being delayed, just enjoy the overwhelming amount of other games that are released in the meantime.

Recommendation: Only if you are willing to spend the money on a racing wheel and if you have some patience (the loading times are frustrating). If not pick up Forza 3 for the XBOX 360.

Splinter Cell Conviction Review (XBOX 360)

Developer – Ubisoft Montreal

Publisher – Ubisoft

Release Date – 13th April 2010

Stealth Action Masterpiece

Splinter Cell Conviction is a supremely impressive game that seems to be forgotten in the mass of games released in 2010. It is a complete game filled with content all done with excellent production value. The most impressive feature of the game is Ubisoft’s approach to story telling where they try to make it as seamless as possible and do things that work well in video games. Ubisoft really tried to innovate how you can convey a plot and they should definitely be commended for doing it successfully. The way the game does this is through projecting videos and objectives on the environment. This makes the story unobtrusive and as interactive as possible which is in sharp contrast to the other big stealth action game Metal Gear Solid 4 or every other RPG game which still rely on dialogue and cutscenes. Ubisoft should also be commended for making a game that is most of the time black and white as this is the way they decided to show that you were hidden in the shadows. It was a bold move graphically and really makes this game unique.

Underneath all the gloss of story and graphics is the polished game play making me forget how complicated previous Splinter Cell games have been in comparison. Fundamentally it is a stealth game but the shooter mechanics are good enough that the game could also be considered a shooter. It has also taken cue from shooters with the adoption of context sensitive actions which greatly simplify the game and lets you focus on avoiding or taking out the enemies. The great thing about stealth gameplay is that it provides variety and choice in how you approach the game even though the game may be linear. It’s a challenge to try and sneak around but it is not frustrating because if you are spotted you have plenty of offensive options to take care of yourself. My way of playing was to take out every enemy quietly either with a silenced pistol or a sneak takedown attack. I enjoyed coming up with a strategy in how I approached each new area as the game gives you multiple options such as going above via pipes or outside via windows & ledges or drawing attention by shooting out lights.

Now that it is the end of the year and all these end of years awards are starting to pop up on websites I found it strange that very few are mentioning Splinter Cell Conviction. I had to double check that it was even released this year. It certainly wasn’t a low key release, Ubisoft went to great lengths to make sure they put out a game they were happy with. The only reasons I could think of would be the sheer amount of other good games that came out this year. Splinter Cell Conviction is a well though out package with lots to do in single player, co-op missions, challenges (which give you points to upgrade weapons) and different single/multi player modes. Its lack of recognition may be due to the critic not having the time to get into all the game modes which is just as lengthy as the core single player missions. Splinter Cell Conviction should be up there as game of the year along with Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood, Red Dead Redemption, Mass Effect 2, Halo Reach and COD Black Ops.

Bayonetta Review (Xbox 360)

Developer: Team Little Angel (Platinum Games)

Publisher: Sega

Release Date: 5 January 2010

When Capcom shut down Clover Studio Hideki Kamiya (DMC, Viewtiful Joe and Okami), Shinji Mikami (Resident Evil Series, Godhand), and Atsushi Inaba (Former CEO and producer at Clover) started up Platinum Games. Platinum Games have released 3 games so far: A DS game called Infinite Space, Madworld for the Wii and Bayonetta for PS3 & Xbox 360. With Platinum’s next game Mikami is working on pushing forward the 3rd person shooter genre with Vanquish. With Bayonetta Hideki Kamiya returned to the character action genre he pushed forward with the 2001 PS1 classic Devil May Cry.

The character action genre is still one of the main game genres that Japanese developers are still considered the best in the world at. The Japanese focus on designing theses games to offer challenging deep fighting systems with hundreds of moves along with awesome action scenes. As you progress through the game your skills improve and this incentivises you to play on harder difficulties. The genre is very much like a mix between 2D fighters and brawlers of the past where the more you play and practice the better you get. You will need to continually learn moves and combo’s to improve you skills as these games are typically very hard even on the default difficulty. Unlike its western counterparts (God of War and Dante’s Inferno) the Japanese are better at designing games full of variety and customisation providing plenty of replay ability.

What Bayonetta does to reinvigorate the genre is to create a unique experience with ridiculous over the top action combined with including almost every good aspect of past games in the genre. It mixes gun and mêlée action seamlessly as well as including pickups of enemy weapons. Special abilities such a version of bullet time called witch time triggers if you dodge at the right moment. You have the abilities to transform into a crow for flight, leopard for speed, bat to evade and a butterfly for the double jump and these are very well-integrated in the battle system as well as out of the battles for the platforming sections. There are finisher moves called torture attacks which are enemy specific and look awesome as they are super violent and creative. There are different types of weapons that change the way you play and are all worth using, there really wasn’t a default set of weapons I stuck to.

The game is simple in terms of controls with a button for a quick punch/slash, powerful kick, evade, and to fire your gun. The simplicity comes with the moves mostly being button press combinations and not complicated analog stick movements. The item alchemy system is also simple but it’s inclusion is mostly token as most players won’t find a need for items other than health refills. Customisation also comes with other items that add abilities such as different methods to dodge (before the enemy attacks, the moment you are hit or a counter) and costumes.

The action in this game is on par with the best in any medium. For a while now in Japan a lot of talent and money has moved away from the anime industry into the video game industry, in particular CG for video games. The cut scenes in the game are amazing with spectacular fight scenes that are creative with a unique art style. The style and presentation of the game is a mix of everything, modern-day, 60’s, renaissance, cathedrals, ancient ruins and representations of heaven and hell. A lot of the cool action CG scenes in the game were done by U’den Flame Works who do movie and video game stunt choreography. U’den’s past works have been in Devil May Cry, Metal Gear Solid 4 and Resident Evil 4. They have a great pedigree and did a fantastic job for Bayonetta.

The story is typically Japanese in that it has an indecipherable plot with weird characters. It is basically about a war between witches and sages who each have one half of an artefact called the eyes of the world, when they are joined it reunites the three parallel worlds Paradiso, Purgatorio, and Inferno. The only time only time I felt I couldn’t stand the story was the last chapter, where the longest cut scene in the game is. Other than that the other seemingly terrible parts of the game are definitely there on purpose such as the terrible voice acting (i.e Bayonetta has a fake sounding british accent) full of ridiculous one liners as well as the cheesy over the top feats (such as surfing an enemy while escaping lava, and the dance sequences). The story was written by Kamiya and it is clear that he put his heart and soul into the game. It was also cool to see that it was translated into English by one guy (or at least credited that way) which was probably why it kept the wacky charm.

This is the type of game anyone should pick up if they genuinely want to experience something different in action games. I will guarantee that you will at least enjoy the action scenes in the game whether or not you can handle the tough but rewarding game play.

Completion Statistics

First play through 30 hrs (involved replaying levels multiple times, probably a 15 hour game straight through)

Completed all levels on normal.

Beat all Alfheim portals (challenge rooms), collected all witch tombs and crows.