Thursday, November 18, 2004

Review: Quick & Dirty Reviews 11/18/04
Posted by Shocker :: 9:52 AM

In order to catch up with some of the games that have come out this year, especially during a month like this, in anticipation of our End-Of-The-Year-Awards stuff, and because I feel like it, I am going to review some games in a slightly shorter format. Since I feel like I'd be cheating you if I just quickly review one game, I'm going to try and jam more than a couple games in each time I do this. Think of them as gaming haikus.

Review: Otogi 2: Immortal Warriors (XBox)

About a year ago, I rented Otogi: Myth of Demons because I was jealous of Devil May Cry, was slightly more of an XBox fanboy than I am now, and even though I had a PS2 at the time, I wanted to see the XBox kick the PS2's ass... and since everyone and their mama said that Otogi was "The XBox's answer to DMC" I was all ready for some hack-and-shooting action. Well. No. I never felt like Otogi: MOD ever played like Devil May Cry (which I eventually did end up playing). Otogi was a far, far trippier experience.

Otogi and Otogi 2 were both developed by From Software and published by Sega, and in a sense, they are very similar to Panzer Dragoon - games that are technically and visually brilliant, but just don't seem to get the respect they should probably command. In fact, given the tepid reaction to Otogi, I was surprised to see a sequel sitting innocently on the shelves of my local Blockbuster. Of course, having played the first, I grabbed it immediately.

Otogi is a weird, weird, weird game. It's like a psychotropic trip through Japanese mythology: subdued Japanese music, ethereal voiceovers, soft, beautiful lighting effects and eclectic demons. The main character of both Otogi 1 and 2 is Raikoh, a demonslayer who is reminiscent of Ryo of Wildfire from the Ronin Warriors. Raikoh is ressurected in a ceremony where 5 noble warriors sacrificed themselves to bring him back from the dead. After this, they become playable characters who each have varying abilities. Each stage (this game is non-linear) presents a challenge: Defeat these demons or protect this artifact, for instance, and gives suggested aptitude for each character for each mission. The missions are completed by defeating the enemies in a very straightforward manner, and you are graded on completeness, speed and damage done to buildings. Paradoxically, though you are supposed to be helping the people of Japan, you earn more points by completely destroying their villages. While Otogi 1 had the option to upgrade Raikoh, this game takes it a lot further, offering you many more weapons and armor features to upgrade the group.

So where does it fail? Well, for all the upgrades, the game feels exactly like Otogi 1, and the reason why Otogi 1 didn't do so well, despite being perhaps the best looking game on the XBox was that it was even more mindless than DMC. Hack, hack, hack, target new enemy, dash towards them, hack, hack, hack. Racking up combos is nice, but it's a little hollow when it's the bulk of tha game and it isn't very varied. Although you have 6 combattants to choose from, they basically play the same because they are all tied to the core engine. Don't get me wrong, I like the game... Playing Otogi 2 reminded me of all of the weirdass experiences I had playing Otogi: Myth of Demons that I really couldn't remember where they came from (Playing an entire boss level while dodging on Japanese-rooftops, avoiding demons and the boss's energy beams as his laughter echoed through the entire, cavernous valley). But ultimately, I can't see it being much more than a rental, or a purchase if/when it finds its way into the bargain bin.

Review: Kingdom Under Fire: The Crusaders (Xbox)

Read about this in EGM. It got pretty good reviews, so I decided to pick it up. This one will be pretty brief:

Kingdom Under Fire is a European-ized version of Dynasty Warriors, with a couple of twists. Firstly, instead of just being in battle, like in DW, you lead an army (and armies), arranged like a phalanx down the field until you encounter another army. There is a slight amount of strategy in this, as, for instance, arranging this phalanx in a tight formation slows them down, but renders them much less vulnerable to ranged attacks. Likewise, arranging them in a loose formation allows them to move faster, but subjects them to ranged fire. However, once your army encounters another army, the game turns into a hack-and-slasher akin to Dynasty Warriors. As your main character fights, you gain points that can be spent like mana to call in assistance from one of your partners (kind of like legendary warriors from Warcraft 3) or to use a special move yourself.

The problem here is that the gameplay is, aside from the army-control actions, completely derivative of Dynasty Warriors. However, it has the design flaw that by killing the leader of the opposing army, you automatically "discourage" the remaining troops and win the battle. So, if you can search out the leader in the mayhem, which at times is not particularly easy, you can run him or her through and move onto the next battle.

Now don't get me wrong, the gameplay is pretty well integrated into the missions. As you encounter armies and are playing with several armies at once, you will be rushing across battlefields to give aid or backup to other armies or to protect certain areas. These are nice aspects, and something that you can't exactly do in Dynasty Warriors, but the gameplay once you manage to catch up with the enemy is still more of the same hack-and-slash as the last battle you were in.

The story follows from a little known 2001 PC game, Kingdom Under Fire: A War of Heroes, which set in motion a story about evil orcs who are taking over a holy land and the Crusaders are going to over take it and yadda yadda yadda. The story's a complete yawn, is not something you've never heard before and shares striking and perhaps alarming similarities between the actual Crusades (erm, if you replace the evil orcs with Muslims) and the current Israeli/Palestinian situation (erm, if you replace the evil orcs with Muslims).

Special mention must go to the graphics and sound departments: The graphics look great, and are very well detailed. At times, there are a lot of characters on the screen in the heat of battle, and there is no slowdown or draw-in that I noticed. The sound, however, is another matter. Poor voiceacting and a very cheesy metal soundtrack stand out here for all the wrong reasons.

I give props to KUF: TC for having an XBL mode, where you can download missions, maps and such, and potentially play against others. But given that Halo 2 is out now, and a lot of games better suited to XBL play, I don't think there'll be a huge following for it. As it is, the gameplay aspects of the game are only slighty better than average. Everything else balances out in the wash. Give it a rental.

Review: Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga (GBA)

After I played Paper Mario, I decided I wanted to track down the so-called rightful successor to Super Mario RPG, which game out on the Gameboy Advance last year. Superstar Saga is definitely a great game in that same mold.

Just like Paper Mario (N64, NGC) and Super Mario RPG (SNES), Superstar Saga utilizes interaction during turn based combat to keep the player interested, and avoids the rote button jamming that even the best in the RPG genre can slip into. I did cover these aspects in the Paper Mario review I did, so I won't rehash them here... What I will say is that the platforming elements in Superstar Saga are reminiscent of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, and that is a link that many people would consider favorable indeed. The story is also somewhat similar to every other Mario game: Save the Princess. The great thing about Mario RPG games is that they'll make fun of themselves constantly. The game follows Mario, Luigi and Bowser's quest to recover Princess Peach's voice from the dastardly witch Cackletta from the Beanbean kingdom.

The gameplay innovation used here is that Mario and Luigi are controlled independently in all actions in the game... Oh, okay, they walk together like Matt Damon and Greg Kinnear toward a bad Farrelly Bros. script, but all actions you'll do in the game regarding Luigi are done with the A button, and all actions regarding Mario are done with B. So, when you're hopping around the game world, you're pressing A and B to get them both around the map. In battle, the same rules as in Paper Mario apply, except instead of special moves, Mario and Luigi have "Bros Moves", which are combination attacks that do damage depending on how precise your button presses are. In fact, much of the game plays out in an interplay between pressing the A or B button at the proper time. In order for Mario or Luigi to counter or dodge attacks, he must jump, with his corresponding jump button, at the right time. In fact, since I'm not particularly good at this, it led to Mario jumping in vain as enemies smashed the crud out of poor Luigi. This also leads to some interesting minigames where your skills are tested, such as when two guards at the Beanbean kingdom demand that you pass their sacred test... a game of jumprope...

Oh yeah, the game's totally silly, even funnier than Paper Mario. The game, of course, makes no attempt to hide this, and in fact, revels in it. Luigi is brought along against his will, characters will taunt you in broken Engrish, and RPG and even Mario conventions will be challenged and made fun of. The only place where it falls off is in the level design. In the beginning, you'll get a couple of powers that you'll have to use over and over and over again. Additionally, some of the layouts are a bit oblique. Not that they have to be obvious, but it'd be nice not to circle the same areas a hundred times before you finally figure out where you were supposed to go.

All in all, this is a great time, a definite buy, and will cause lots of people to stare at you as you laugh your ass off on the bus.

Review: Tony Hawk's Underground 2 (PS2/XBox/Gamecube)

Matt was surprised to find out I play Tony Hawk... DAN PLAYS EVERYTHING. (Even Tony Hawk?) DAN PLAYS EVERYTHING! I'm an old school Tony Hawk vet, since THPS1 on the Dreamcast. But here's the thing, I'm starting to think that the first iteration had it right.

Sure, I can go into THUG2 immediately bust off a 20 trick combo and grind and trick all over the damn place. I'm not so much complaining about that... But I haven't played a Tony Hawk game since THUG about a year ago... My point being everything I was pulling off was straight from memory, and is stuff I've been doing for 5 years now with this franchise. What's new here? When you get special, you can enter a bullet-time mode called "Focus Mode", which, actually, is rather cool. When you fall off your board, you can throw a tantrum... Um, you can slap stickers on the wall, as opposed to wallplanting... Um, you can graffiti... Um....

So yeah. Returning modes include the Story, Create-A-Park, Create-A-Goal, Create-A-Skater, PS2 Online and "Put Your Ugly Mug Into The Game On The PS2 With An EyeToy" modes. New modes include Create-A-Graphic (which is for the graffiti), and the return of Classic Mode. Classic Mode is a welcome return to the THPS series, where you are limited to 2 minutes in a game world to run around and skate to collect items, complete objectives and rack up points. New to the Classic mode is the C-O-M-B-O objective, where you collect those letters in a single, strung together combo to complete the objective. Very nice.

Story mode is very fun here, as well. It plays out as Tony Hawk's team vs. Bam Margera's team as they travel around the world, skating in an underground competition to rack up points against one another. The loser pays for the trip. It's hilarious the way it plays out, and is voiced very well. As your character skates around, he or she gains experience points in the moves you use the most. The game actually tells you what you need to accomplish in order to level up a particular skill if you're dead-set on doing so. Objectives in the story mode vary from things like "Get launched out of a cannon" to "grind over this" to "deliver this kid to see Tony Hawk". Some of them play out like really weird minigames that control a lot like the driving missions in Tony Hawk Underground (read: not very well). The graphics get an over (or under?)haul here too. Rather than the more realistic-looking THUG, these models look slightly more cartoonish and fun. Each level also has some weird celebrity involvement, like Steve-O from Jackass riding a mechanical bull (you control him and skate around with him on this mechanical bull). It's very, very quirky.

My problem was that I just couldn't get around the gameplay. I like it, it's interesting and fun, and for a newbie to the series, you're gonna be impressed once you get about half-way through the game with how much better you are than when you started. But for me, the fact that jumping right in it felt like more of the same was an immediate turnoff. I respect the accomplishment, and applaud the hilarious story mode, but I'd rather see the series take a turn for the more simplistic next time out (remove the Revert, make the grinding a bit more difficult to balance... something). It's just not really all that fun anymore for this grizzled vet. New players to the series will definitely want to pick this up, so I'll rate it for them.

Review: Star Wars: Battlefront (PS2/XBox)

Star Wars: Battlefront is a giant battle sim similar to games like Battlefield 1942 and even Dynasty Warriors in a roundabout way. It stars YOU as Random McSchlub in a giant battle between 399 of your closest friends and enemies, fighting on the most historic battlefields of Star Wars history: Fighting the Gungans on in the Battle of Naboo, or fighting against the Empire on Hoth.

Every army has 5 player types (think: Team Fortress Classic, and every other derivative game), a Warrior, Sniper, Special Unit, Pilot and Heavy Artillery. Each army has their own special player type. The Empire gets a jetpacked fighter with a heavy gun, and the Droid Army has those Droidekas introduced in the Phantom Menace. There are tons of vehicles here, as well. X-Wings, Speeders, Y-Wings, Snow Speeders, and TIE fighters. Any class and player can utilize them, but pilots fare best.

As I said up above, though, the heart of the game is this 200 on 200 battle that you'll go through in each mission. While the various modes are nice, such as a singleplayer campaign that has you win 2 out of 3 matches on various worlds to capture them, they all boil down to this fight between two matched armies. As you are just a random soldier, you'll die plenty, and as you are ressurected, you dwindle your numbers. As you fight, you attempt to claim certain key points on each map. As you win these locales, you can respawn from them and advance your numbers. Most of the maps are actually tremendous. The urban warfare of the Naboo map sticks out in my mind best, as I prefer bright, open levels, but it is typical of the beautiful layouts and graphics in the game. Sure, the character models aren't the best looking, and the frame rate suffers a bit, but it still gets the point across: giant, chaotic battlefields.

Although most reviews I read didn't find the single player all that engrossing (the AI is dumb), I actually did like it. The Galactic Conquest mode, which I mentioned briefly above, was interesting and huge in the amount of scenarios you could play out. But the bulk of the game plays out in multiplayer online, where the game's ambitions are pretty obvious. Huge battles, lots of people, how can you go wrong?

Aside from some immersion issues (I never really felt like I was drawn into the game very well... I know, I know, I'm a picky ass bastard), I liked this game just fine. Very good, worthy of a rental or a buy, if you're into Star Wars.

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