Sunday, 26 September 2010

Review: Soul Calibur 4

Sequels to fighting games are rarely a departure from the norm; usually just an updated aesthetic a couple of ‘new’ modes. When a series gets so far it succumbs to the equalising force of the fan-base: simultaneous desire for implementations of their own imaginations, and for the sequel to stay just as they like it. Soul Calibur (which was a sequel, really) and its successor, Soul Calibur 2, were good examples of pushing this dynamic forward; awesome sequels with some great new characters and nothing but good innovation with none of that meddlesome fixing-of-what-isn’t-broken. So reconciling how fighting games usually turn out once the hype has settled with Namco’s track record was tough (we’ll forget Tekken 4). The conclusion this time around, after a hell of a lot of playing, is satisfaction, but with reservation.

Soul Calibur is a series of fighting games in which you select an amnesia-stricken character and go after the legendary sword Soul Edge, slashing everyone up along the way with whatever weapon your character happens to use. I say amnesia-stricken because this game marks the fifth re-packaging of the franchise since its original inception, Soul Blade, graced our PlayStations with button-bashy goodness in the nineties. I can only assume the presence of memory problems because every other character seems to get to the end and say “Oh, whoops, it’s evil,” before walking away cheerfully. And you’d think they’d all remember the bloody castle it’s ended up in for the last four games. For that matter, how the hell are these people alive? They’ve all been struck multiple times with large, often-serrated, weapons? Oh well, sod all that; it’s a fighting game.

First of all, thank you for making a character creation system Namco, really; I can’t stand the things, but I’m sure there are many who enjoy it. What I can’t understand is why you took what should have been an optional extra for a bit of fun and turned it into a sort of RPG-knife, which then seemed to be used to stab the single-player repeatedly. Namco forces you to choose: either you play an un-fettered, balanced game with absolutely no chance of getting most of the secrets (although, to be fair, most of these extras are just more pieces of equipment, so this is a bit of a red flag for anyone who has no patience with RPG elements); or you stab the game with the RPG-knife, and never look back. Well, you can look back, but you’ll turn into a pillar of salt.

Let me explain; once you start customising your characters to make them monstrous, so do any friends you might game with. There’s a lot to be said for the difficulty of balancing a fighting game, and the RPG-haemorrhaging certainly doesn’t help; extremely imbalanced strategies become apparent, ones which the game practically forces you to employ in order to clear the challenges. So when ‘vs. Mode’ rolls around, the fact that you’ve made shiny, demonic characters, and so have your friends, compels you to choose from the ‘special’ option; it’s like another layer of competition that is a bizarre fashion show. And unless you enjoy meticulously tweaking all of the fighters to be optimal, you’re going to end up with a slim pool to select from.

Also, where the fuck is Team Battle mode? And, for that matter, the tag system that’s used throughout much of this game’s crucible, The Tower of Lost Souls, might have been nice for fighting friends, too. For some reason Namco went and removed a classic mode that, while not enormously popular, was at least a fun choice. The game also suffers by comparison with its predascessors: for those of you who played Soul Calibur 2, and then experienced the relative brokenness of its sequel, Soul Calibur 3, you’ll be dismayed to hear that they’ve only fixed it half way. Side-stepping isn’t quite as spritely and effectual as it was in Soul Calibur 2, almost to the point where horizontal attacks are redundant once the enemy is stunned. I guess this one is only really felt by those who have the benefit (or curse) of playing a great deal of the earlier titles.

In truth, the game is fun: the characters each have an impressive move pool, (though some far more impressive than others) and it stands up well to prolonged versus play. Another quality (or, again, curse, depending how you look at your games) is the difficulty: The Tower of Lost Souls is a lengthy challenge, especially if you plan on collecting all of the treasure chests. Each floor in the tower has a chest to unlock by meeting certain conditions that are hinted at with either annoyingly cryptic clues, or laughably transparent ones. Piling on top of this is the RPG-knife in your back, gently twisted with each floor you go up. Let me give you an example: on one floor the condition for the chest is to beat three competent computers without taking any damage. If you don’t actively utilise the RPG elements, such challenges become very testing.

The visuals are good, but I think Namco got a bit carried away with their fashion designing: half the outfits you compile for optimal stats look like modern fashion show rejects, and the objects on the outfits collide with each other about as naturally as a light sabre and a rabbit. I guess my only real gripe with the game is the movement speed: play Soul Calibur 2 and you’ll feel like someone took the shackles off of the characters’ legs. It wouldn’t be so frustrating if Namco were consistent with this speed reduction; so many of your actual attacks still move you across the ground at the same speed as in the earlier title. As soon as your attack-movement is over, your character is back to wading through custard. Players new to the franchise won’t have much of a problem, I imagine: it just feels comparatively restrictive.

The speed drop was likely to combat the effectiveness of side-stepping in past games but, lucky us, Namco saw the imminent rise in blocking coming and made something to stop those horrible people. It’s called a Critical Finish, and I’ve never read it explained in a way that someone who hasn’t played the game would understand. Okay, so basically, your character has a Soul Gauge at the end of their health bar (it’s actually more like a glowing gem). This changes colour the more you block their attacks or the more they block yours: red to blue, respectively. Once your opponent blocks your attacks enough, and their orb-gauge-thing is red, their life bar will start to flash red. If a few more attacks are blocked by the opponent, without turning his gauge around (by keeping up a good assault on you), then his guard will be broken with a peachy-pink coloured lightning-mist: this is called Soul Crush. As soon as that happens if you press LB, or L1 (depending on what you’re playing it on, and if the controls are set to default) you will perform a Critical Finish. This cuts to a mini-cut-scene-thing, where your character KOs the opponent in some super-stylised way.

Broken? Well, Critical Finishes are an irritating aspect when combined with the RPG-knife, but I don’t believe they’re particularly game-breaking. In truth, you can set the Soul Gauge strength to be as high or low as you like, but “choice” isn’t an indestructible shield to hide behind. The fact is, it’s not difficult to do, and is a direct result of too much blocking and not enough retaliation. The only problem is the soul gauge’s tendency to stay low into the next round: it can completely swing a matching, making you more offensive and less likely to block. Not a particularly good effect, considering different rounds are different rounds for a reason.

The game passes, though: compared to most other popular fighters this game is definitely more approachable. Soul Calibur has always (and continues) to assert more of a free-flowing system of combat, where you string small combos together, experimenting, much of the time, for the best effect. It beats memorising painstaking button-inputs, and comes much more intuitively. Check it out if you like fighters that are fast, relatively light on button-inputs and seem to have a minimum one-second delay on Xbox Live.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Review: Mario Galaxy 2

It’s difficult to know where to start with Mario Galaxy 2. It’s just like Mario Galaxy 1, which is just like Mario Sunshine. Which is just like Mario 64. As the games enhance there are few steps backward; the controls sharpen, the visuals are enhanced, and new abilities are added. Sure, Sunshine wasn’t a massive step forward like 64 was, but it looked ten times better and was generally sharper with smoother animations and controls. Combine that with pretty much the exact same gameplay elements, and you have nothing but improvement. And Mario Galaxy doesn’t even have a goofy water-spraying machine to get in the way of this view.

The reason I began like this is because, for anyone who’s reading and thinking either “It can’t be as good as Mario 64!” or “I didn’t like Mario 64, I certainly won’t like this!” Just... No. To the former, stop being slaves to nostalgia and learn to look upon improvements as improvements and not some mutated step backwards in conjunction with the passage of time. And to the latter; this game is better than Mario 64 in just about every conceivable way. If what you didn’t like was Mario’s tendency to jump from one platform to another and, indeed, to be compelled to do so from a level-to-level basis, though, well, then you’re fucked.

This might be a good time to say, for the sake of those who haven’t played a Mario game before, or at least not one that delves into the third D, that these games involve a lot of jumping. In the third person. The basic story, if you care, is that Princess Peach has been kidnapped by Bowser, and you must go through a series of different levels in order to earn stars to progress towards a final encounter with Bowser, and rescue Peach. New and exciting! But who cares; here’s yet another game series where the conventional story line is almost completely irrelevant, and everything adheres far more to a kind of thematic consistency. Like most Nintendo ventures and, indeed, most games that aren’t attempting to tell a stoic narrative.

With regards to the level progression, it was a welcome relief to not have to wander around a central hub (Re: Peach’s Castle, Delfino Plaza) in order to travel to levels. Instead, the stages are distributed across seven worlds, which you progress through in a linear fashion. It’s super straight forward in style, which is why it makes me laugh that the naming system is utterly perplexing. A stage is usually named as a kind of galaxy, galaxies are also the places which contain each stage, but are designated as ‘Worlds’ upon being unlocked. And due to the gravity-manipulation mechanics, most of these stages contain actual worlds! So, to recap, you go to galaxies, which are worlds, in order to go to stages, which are galaxies, at which point it is common-place to travel across multiple tiny planets, or, worlds. I don’t know if it’s bad translation or what, but there is something compelling about its complete lack of sense.

Most level-galaxy-stages have about three stars to get out of them, which is also a welcome change from having to get six to seven stars out of a level. The acquisition of each always seemed to grow more tangential and/or contrived with every star in the older titles, to the point where I found myself almost completely disinterested with the weathered surroundings, as I shook down levels in an attempt to wring a hundred coins out of each one. Luckily that’s not the case here; the structuring behind the acquisition of stars is far more diverse than past titles. It was always a safe bet that there was going to be stars that require you to collect a number of coins (with or without a time limit), but, thankfully, this is implemented sparingly, with only a few stages having the challenge, and it not taking place at all with coins of the golden variety. There are a number of tedious main-stays from the past titles that have been reduced to small throwbacks; at only one point do you need to catch the stupid rabbit, for instance!

What else is there to say? There’s fire levels, ice levels (Mario can ice skate in just his shoes!) and levels where you’re a bee. The Fire Flower is featured a-plenty, and it’s a lot more of a power-house item than it ever was back in the day. It’s sadly also limited to, I think, twenty seconds, rendering it as something that only applies to the small areas where the developers want it to. Which kind of sucks. The Cloud-hat is something that I had a lot more fun with; once you’ve made a leap you simply flick the remote and a cloud appears beneath you. You can do this three times before having to ‘top-up’ your cloud charges, as it were. This was a lot of fun to use, and was implemented lots, though it does make things kind of easy when combined with the long jump.

Something I didn’t much appreciate was the levels in which you are forced to use the Wii remote’s motion sensitivity; they’re not necessarily bad, but they do force the player into an uncomfortable control scheme that isn’t quite ‘Mario’, whilst not offering the choice of analogue in-puts. There are two levels in which you need to tilt the remote to guide a gliding bird, and though this often seems to handle like there’s a two-second difference between your in-puts and the game’s reactions, it is still the minor offender. The levels where you guide a rolling ball with Mario or Luigi atop (you can change to Luigi for some levels early in the game; later on you can choose to be Luigi whenever you want) were unpleasant to clear. These quips should be taken with a pinch of salt, though; the levels where these control-schemes are thrust upon you are few. And they do not over-shadow the fact that this is a fantastically tight game that deserves to be played.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Review: Starcraft 2

For those unaware, ‘Starcraft 2’ is a sci-fi real-time strategy game. If you haven’t heard the name before now and you’re a fan of the genre, then, well, you probably don’t exist. There’s a certain degree of synonymy that comes to a game when it can stand up to more than a decade of professional gamers. And Blizzard has gone to lengths to maintain the simplicity and diversity that made the original dynamic so popular. There are three races; the Terran, the Protoss and the Zerg. Unlike ‘Dawn of War’, these races are not pathetically similar in their unit selection; I’ve found myself bogged down in many a conversation that extolled the wonderful fact of 40K’s many races, but it compels me to use the tired cliché that quality is better than quantity. And uniqueness is a quality in of itself. When you make a unit in ‘Dawn of War’ you can rest assured that a unit very much like it exists in pretty much every other race. Sure, there is variation, but when I play those differences off against ‘Starcraft 2’ in my head, they seem negligible. As someone might point out, what’s so weird about every race having a unit to fulfil specific functions of the game, like infantry, siege, artillery, or a giant robot? But the issue isn’t to do with functionality so much as it is to do with how much diversity can be applied to it.

This game had a massive amount of time put into its design. This isn’t a fact that necessarily guarantees a good game, as any who followed the production of ‘Daikatana’ will attest; it’s just a fact. This is something that I was well aware of when all that was known about ‘Starcraft 2’ was what Blizzard employees would gleefully share in the official podcasts. To clarify, this was almost two years ago, yet it seemed all they had left to discuss was the tweaking of balance issues. So when it was finally released it came as no surprise that playing the campaign imparted a feeling very reminiscent to that of ‘Half-life 2’s single-player. They both present a sequence of distinct areas, the ‘stencil’ of which had been carefully prodded and pruned to ensure an optimum experience, as well as a tight narrative. In the case of ‘Starcraft 2’, this progression is spread across several sub-plots that run concurrently, constantly offering you a choice between continuing one chain of missions, and starting some other. At several points you are also given choices that play a large role in the conclusions of these sub-plots. I would imagine a lot of campaign-content was sacrificed for the sake of concision, in both cases, and the gamer in me, who likes to see the form shine at telling stories, admires this.

But there is a part of me that enjoys huge swaths of content to get through. A part that’s clearly self-destructive, since the quality of the twenty-six missions, and of the story they hold together, is determinedly high. The story doesn’t out-stay its welcome, and the abundance of achievements provide a satisfying challenge for those who enjoy clearing everything, and rarely do the harder objectives to these challenges represent significant deviations from the main objective of the mission. I’m not sure if I could say all this were there an abundance of unnecessary missions.

There have been many attempts at innovation in the genre brought on by more recent titles—customisable squads, cover, morale systems—and yet these implementations mean little without a sound basis. Moreover, I would imagine such features have a way of restricting players to behave within tighter pre-designated parameters, limiting the over-all expansion of strategies. If developers want to make RTS games more ‘real’ with the implementation of layers of systems, then they’re in the wrong business. I believe ‘Starcraft 2’ has the firmest of foundations in this regard, since its races neatly fit the story’s continuity, while not catering to any un-needed sense of realism. The three races are, and I believe this isn’t an overstatement, as different as balance could allow. Almost to the point where I begin to question why, in the ‘Starcraft’ continuity, none of the units are more similar across the races, simply by chance. Almost. The only worrying outcome of this minimalist approach to game design is that newer features in the genre are not present. Neither is anything as ground-breaking as the use of ‘Heroes’ in ‘Warcraft 3’. I won't deny that an evil part of me would have rejoiced at seeing similar RPG-elements to that of 'Warcraft 3' here. But the fact remains that ‘Starcraft’, over more than a decade, has proven the strength of that original approach. There's no denying that Blizzard has certainly accrued the finances to take risks in their game design, but I think they made the right choice in staying so close to the original. In doing so they’ve introduced a solid game to a new audience, and while gameplay mechanics can be timeless, graphics however, are not.

I wonder at what this game could have been, though; a sequel that completely diverged from Starcraft’s design, as ‘Warcraft 3’ was considerably different to its predacessor. But it bears reminding that ‘Warcraft 2’ did not achieve anywhere near the staying power of ‘Starcraft’. As much as I enjoy gaming experiences that present themselves as innovative or unique, it feels like such a shameful idea for Blizzard; to disregard such a mightily established approach. Whether the theoretical ‘divergent sequel’ found its own success, or found inadequacy when measured up to its predecessor, it wouldn't matter. Players would go back to the original. With the game we have, though, it seems extremely unlikely that players will end up returning. Such is the devotion to accurately recapturing the dynamic of the original ‘Starcraft’.

I should mention that the single-player entails only one race’s missions: the Terran (although there are four missions where you play as the Protoss). Shortly after the announcement of the sequel, Blizzard stated that the other two campaigns would be expansions. At thirty-five pounds, though, I feel that they’re selling more than enough. Especially compared to some of the crap that goes up on store shelves. Sure, in terms of value for money it’s no ‘Orange Box’, few games are, but if there was a Protoss and Zerg equivalent to the Terran campaign here, well. I would have been astonished. It would be like buying one above average thing and getting another two for free. I know, not a great analogy, but I can understand the misgivings of the community as, conventionally, RTS games are self-contained entities that don't require expansions for full completion. But when you consider each campaign as a full story, and the multiplayer as a whole other entity altogether, it feels like by the time the expansions are released, ‘Starcraft 2’ will be a very full title. If the same care has gone into the Zerg and the Protoss campaigns as went into the Terran, then they will make worthy expansions.

The singe-player setting endears itself quickly with a simple central hub: the Hyperion, Jim Raynor’s command ship and home. You can go to a number of sections of the ship between missions, with each serving a mechanical purpose as well as additional dialogue. This setting is really what grounds the story in the characters; ‘Warcraft 3’ had the benefit of the main characters also being constantly around to fight, and in doing so, though the audience was able to have an excellent idea of just who those leaders were, they were invariably just that: leaders and lieutenants. This setting was a good idea, and goes a long way in avoiding the risk of the audience seeing the characters as disembodied voices.

There’s little more to say without spilling into unnecessary fine-details; if you enjoy the RTS genre, then this is a game you should try. Hell, even if you haven’t experienced the genre all that much I would suggest giving the game attention, simply on the grounds of a polish that resembles a mirror-surface. The real sell, though, is whether you can appreciate the multiplayer component. I’ve known people to play through the entire campaign of ‘Warcraft 3’ without ever giving online play a second thought, and still having nothing but good words for the game. I believe the same could be true here, but you would only be enjoying half the game.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Mo' genres mo' problems

The tough thing about really going at the fundamental components of gaming is that there are so many. Text is just one of the possible components, and it alone can be manifold with synergy. I fear, though, that as these many components coalesce, so, too does cynicism regarding any meaningful discourse on the form. It makes a certain amount of sense: younger forms are steeped in components; variables that make dissecting them a tall order. A visual image is a visual image, music is music, and text is text; they can each be negotiated with on their own terms. Forms like comics and gaming have struggled to be taken seriously since their inception, yet have more than proven their potential as forms that combine forms. A book can be written with simplicity (or accessibility) in mind; music, too. This doesn’t diminish the capability of the forms they occupy, and commercial viability has influenced many of our greatest writers over the years (like Dickens’s works penned for periodicals, or Shakespeare’s focus on pleasing a wide audience). You can see what I’m getting at.

But the problem remains; where do you start taking apart something that has so many layers, with no set sequence for interpretation? Genre has a role to play here, but as with every other form, this role can’t be over-stepped; just as any two pieces can belong to the same genre but vary spectacularly in content, so, too, do the two pieces share elements that denote their shared genre-space. This is important: if you’re ever tempted to make more boxes (see: genres) to put your stuff in, then remember that there’s plenty of room in the ones we already have. Nothing quite leaves a harsh idea in my head like hearing someone rattle off fifty sub-genres of, say, metal music; five-minutes looking into these ‘genres’ reveals the extent to which they overlap and contradict one another, and the end result is simply diminished faith in the ability of people to define genre. The genre classifications are revealed as nothing more than an excuse for people to minimalise the pool from which they will make their selection. Basically, it harms communication. A conversation about just ‘metal’ can go all over the place, but when you start finding smaller, indefinable boxes to put things in, you lessen the over-all experience of that kind of art.

Warcraft 3 and Starcraft 2 are both RTS games. I could split them up further; Warcraft is Fantasy, Starcraft Sci-fi. And once more; Warcraft houses RPG elements, focuses on inventory-augmentation, and small numbers of units; Starcraft aims for diversity, decisiveness, and high numbers of units. But I don’t want to go into a game shop and find them under different genre sections. They are still fundamentally of the same genre, and to try to sum up those fascinating differences with a couple of words on a label would be ignorant. Or, rather, would spread ignorance. You can tell just as much from knowing a game is a First-Person Shooter as from knowing a book is Fantasy; the finer distinctions needn’t be made apparent on a label.

Pinning down genre without succumbing to the possibility of innumerable sub-genres is made more difficult in gaming by the cut-off between design philosophy and thematic content. Both Castlevania and Megaman are side-scrollers; Half-life and Modern Warfare (CoD) are FPSs. But the elements that are brought together under those initially-similar bases vary wildly; a fan of one series isn’t necessarily a fan of the other, even though they occupy similar territory and, by rights, the same genre. But this is true of every form; just because you enjoy one Fantasy novel doesn’t mean that you would be likely to enjoy most of them. This is the way it needs to be, since it challenges people to look into the finer differences between individual pieces and authors, rather than succumbing to the idea that genre sections are there for you to simply know what you will like.

It bears reminding that some of the finest pieces of art are firmly stationed in a given genre. These works, though, are often removed from such labels, as they may be seen to be damaging in their inadequacy. Make no doubt though: Jane Eyre is Romance, Frankenstein Horror, though they both sit on the ‘literary’ shelf. In some ways, this approach is just as damaging as too many genres, but for precisely the opposite reason. The ‘literary’ are placed on an unattainable mantle, for which the sectioned, genre fiction must suffer the indignity of being presumed less from the out-set, simply for their use of a genre as a platform. This fact quietly ignores what I said earlier; that many classics do occupy a genre. And that it is in that genre that they achieve something spectacular.

I believe that genre is vital from the out-set in all forms; before you have the first bar of a song, the name of your first character in a novel, or a single concept for a game, you need to decide what the genre is, what kind of piece. When this comes to creation, an idea might not seem to occupy a single genre; it might handle themes not conventionally associated with a single kind, or even borrow elements from stories of multiple other genres. The end product, no matter how distinct in its composition, is likely to denote a single genre. And if genre is responsible for a wide array of demographic reception, it makes sense that reviews should initially focus on that aspect of the piece. After all, everything implemented depends upon the genre’s capabilities, nigh-limitless in their variations, and of the expectations that have been built up over the years in the audiences. And beyond this is design philosophy, which can harbour bizarre ideas on what a genre could/should be, and is maybe the juiciest of aspects to the individual piece.