Friday, December 2, 2011


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Monday, November 8, 2010

Review: Medal of Honor

Say no to reality.



The Good
Journal-like structure to storytelling is unique and refreshing * A focused experience that revolves around a few key characters and a sense of continuity make it easy to keep track of who you are and what you are doing

The Bad
Actual events on which the game is based can limit its creativity and appeal * Copious amounts of scripted events and actions interrupt the gameplay too often * A hanful of technical glithces make most of the action feel sloppy * Multiplayer is a mismatch between the different styles of Battlefield and Modern Warfare 2


A successful military shooter today is as likely to readily volunteer a prescription of drama for a notional tale of world domination as it is to trust an often disarranged recollection of set-pieces to convey its proceedings. The resulting experience can be characteristically narcissistic if entirely forgivable under the intent of entertainment. Medal of Honor shares this unchanging enthusiasm to entertain audiences with a sensibly measured adaptation of a recent conflict. While the inevitable corollary of this is an experience that explores the genre in its own unique and intriguing ways, the actual events on which the game is based can, quite unfortunately, limit its creativity and appeal in several ways.

The campaign follows an elite coterie of US soldiers who are sent to seek and eradicate Taliban forces occupying encampments around Afghanistan. In many ways, this limited premise can immediately demarcate the boundary between realism and escapism as players are quickly forced to learn that it’s more practical to expect to spend significant portions of the campaign shooting enemies down mundane mud-paved corridors than preventing a posse of terrorists from tearing through a Russian airport à la Modern Warfare 2. Despite the unfortunate constrictions of the backdrop, Medal of Honor can feel categorically adept at working within the borders of reality to create reasonably interesting gameplay segments. An instance of this is the mission where you are the gunner of an Apache trying to eliminate a handful of intelligently concealed mortar positions. There’s a fair amount of variety between the missions but Medal of Honor offers little of the pizzazz that other more fictional military shooters today are able to afford and build on.

For most parts, it is easy to appreciate the fact that Medal of Honor sincerely recognises that it is portraying a real conflict and abnegates from pretending what it isn’t. The brief five hours campaign occasionally teases a hint of an overarching story but in the end, each mission feels like an unfettered heartfelt entry in the diary of the protagonist. Medal of Honor offers none of the cunning megalomaniac plotting to destroy countries, only all of the award winning film The Hurt Locker-esque experience. Despite the journal-like structure, Medal of Honor still manages to find plenty of space for bits of tragicomedy. In what could be described as one of the most contemplative moments, an ill-informed and impatient general from thousands of miles away makes the most egregious of decisions and ends up killing his own troops. Knowing that a huge mistake has been made, a soldier cheekily cuts off the live feed from the general before the later could provide his colonel with more orders.

More and more apparently, an unpretentious approach to storytelling like this allows Medal of Honor to deliver a focused experience that revolves around a few key characters. While perspectives will irrevocably shift in the interest of variety, such transitions are always managed in a way that feels logical. For instance, after being ambushed by waves of Taliban forces in a hut that is quickly falling apart, you are rescued by a helicopter. You play as the rescuers in the next mission as they receive their next objective. This revivifying sense of continuity can quickly build into a tidy and cohesive experience that easily allows you to be aware of who you are and what you are doing.

Unfortunately, much of this experience can feel, inadvertently or otherwise, manufactured. Scripted events work best when they are delivered in carefully measured portions yet the liberal, if not extravagant, use of such scripting in Medal of Honor can feel more naive than careless. There are times when your progress is deliberately halted at a cliff or door to allow your comrades to prattle on about the circumstances. You will quickly learn that enemies who are meant to be stabbed or shot by your comrades cannot be harmed by you and you cannot injure an enemy before a scripted event or before he does a scripted action. This heavy-handed brand of control can make much of the action feel regrettably clumsy. Elsewhere, a teammate gets clipped at a door and weapons on a support AC-130 gunship couldn’t reload, forcing me to restart from my last checkpoint on both occasions.

Much like the fashion these days, it’s entirely plausible that Medal of Honor is designed with an emphasis on multiplayer. DICE, the developers behind the successful multiplayer-focused Battlefield series, brings their expertise in competitive experiences to Medal of Honor yet much of the fun is lost when the developer desperately tries to combine the more methodical approach of Battlefield with the faster pace of Modern Warfare 2. Even with specific weapon unlocks and accessorial upgrades, the three classes available can feel interchangeable. On the furiously paced team deathmatch which takes place over constrained maps, such effort to infuse a slight touch of Battlefield can feel embarrassingly misplaced. Other modes like sector control, objective raid and the progressive combat mission can feel more tailored for support roles but the already diminished functionality of such classes make these modes only decent at best.

Last comments
At its best, Medal of Honor can be fascinating. The representation of a real conflict allows the game to explore storytelling in a way that feels unique and refreshing. Despite this, the game can suffer rather helplessly from working within the circumference of reality. The limited premise provides little inspiration and suffocates the game of much of its creativity. The fallacious use of scripted events also interrupts the gameplay, tearing immersion out in unsightly ways. A handful of technical glitches mean the action can feel sloppy in many parts. The multiplayer, while decent, feels like a mismatch between the disparate styles of Battlefield and Modern Warfare 2. Medal of Honor is a short lived experience because the five hours campaign is one of the shortest in a full-fledged game and the multiplayer is only entertaining enough to steal a glance from players invested in bigger and better multiplayer adventures elsewhere. But that’s probably for the best.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Review: Spider-Man - Shattered Dimensions

A handful of careless flaws in level design won't put you away from playing one of the most unforgettable Spider-Man games.



The Good
Each universe explores recognizable villains in surprisingly different ways * Game conveys the abilities of Spider-Man very well * Free to choose which level to undertake first * Noir levels stand out for its very different brand of gameplay * Different artistic directions for each dimension produce unique and fascinating results * Sandman level is especially enjoyable

The Bad
The challenge-based system could be better implemented * Camera becomes uncooperative when climbing sides of buildings and ceilings * Not always clear when you can't webswing in the Noir levels * Deadpool level is incredibly terrible


Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions draws upon the rich history of the titular web-slinging superhero to create an experience that spans across multiple universes of Spider-Man, namely Amazing, Ultimate, 2099 and Noir. For most parts, the game does an elegant work of maintaining a consistently fresh experience as you rotate among the different versions of Spider-Man between chapters but a number of careless inconsistencies in level design mean Shattered Dimensions isn’t as enjoyable as it could be. Fortunately, wise decisions in the game’s artistic direction often produce unique and fascinating results. The remarkable sense of style which permeates every level cements Shattered Dimensions’ place as one of the most unforgettable Spider-Man games in recent memory.

The driving force behind this new adventure is the search for shards of a broken magical tablet that can be used for nefarious purposes in the wrong hands. These lost pieces, however, are scattered across various dimensions and each universe’s Spider-Man must now help recover the said pieces. As you traverse the different dimensions, you will encounter an eclectic band of familiar villains pulled from various corners of Spider-Man’s history. Other than the proverbial Amazing dimension, each universe explores recognizable villains in surprisingly different ways. Doctor Octopus in 2099 is actually a female villain while the Green Goblin in Noir runs a circus and relies on his henchmen and brute strength to terrorize the innocent instead of those little gadgets that the conventional Green Goblin is known for. In the end, each villain feels sufficiently updated with the right creative details without compromising the much established level of familiarity that fans have come to expect.

As Spider-Man, you start with a fairly basic repertory of moves. You can launch into a furious chain of quick swipes and hits or you can punish enemies with a slower but more energetic swing of your web. Or you can jump into the air and drop to tease your foes with a kick before grabbing the nearest barrels and crates to throw at them. As you progress through the game, you can gradually unlock more combos and counters. You do this by spending spider essence which can be had by collecting the many spider emblems scattered around each level and defeating enemies. This currency can be used to purchase bonus costumes and improved attributes as well. As you near the end of the game, you will find that Spider-Man is very much invincible, occasionally propelling himself into the air to pick up enemies with his web and swing them around like ragdolls, webzipping from body to body without spending a moment on the ground and riveting himself to the pivot of a web tornado that crushes enemies unfortunate enough to be in its range. For most parts, the game conveys the abilities of Spider-Man very well and you feel that you can dispatch foes with the agility and finesse of the superhero.

The satisfaction that can be derived from this exhilarating brand of combat, however, can be limited by the number of challenges you complete. In addition to spending spider essence, all content can only be unlocked when you complete a specific number of challenges. Fortunately, most of the challenges are reasonable and don’t really force you to deviate from the main game so you will inadvertently accomplish the majority. For the typical player, some of the more impressive moves and bonus costumes are definitely within reach but for the perfectionist who wants to attain everything, the game is less helpful. While there are several opportunities to achieve some of the more tricky level specific challenges, the game doesn’t provide any hint on when you could possibly have a chance to complete them. To really be aware of what’s happening, you need to pause the game, bring up what the game calls the Web of Destiny and access the available challenges in a particular level. Such constant need for reminders of what can be done in a level can really break the momentum of gameplay in a game that emphasizes a smooth flow of action.

Collecting spider essence, completing challenges and unlocking more content apply to all versions of Spider-Man but there are meaningful differences, major or otherwise, that separate each incarnation of Spider-Man. As you progress through the campaign, levels will unlock in batches of four, one for each dimension of Spider-Man. This means you can choose which level you would like to undertake first, opening up opportunities for favoritism. Personally, I prefer playing the Amazing and Noir levels over the Ultimate and 2099 levels so this kind of freedom really works to my benefit. Make no mistake. It’s not that I didn’t like the Ultimate and 2099 levels but how much I like to delight myself with a pair of experiences that feel so different from each other. In the end, it just demonstrates the diversity of the entire package and the cohesion of four distinctively different experiences.

As it stands, Noir offers an experience that is almost independent of all the other dimensions, conveniently eschewing a vehement display of spider prowess for a more cunning approach of stealth gameplay. The implementation isn’t always beautiful but the intentions are noble and while portions of the Noir levels can be marred by blemishes, they always feel like fresh and unique material you could confidently chew on without feeling guilty. It helps that there’s a tremendous amount of attention and effort dedicated to the construction of Noir’s stellar landscape. Sprawling spaces are exchanged for the mundane and uncluttered dark alleys and tunnels which really help convey the tone of the Great Depression coherently for a Spider-Man of the 1930s. There are hardly enough lamps to bathe the streets and decrepit warehouses in clarity but such dimmed environments are exactly the type of cover Spider-Man Noir requires.

Spider-Man Noir hides silently in the shadows but when an unaware enemy gets close enough, he emerges from his patience to shoot a web to pull the enemy under the discomfort of the shadows, give him a few punches before wrapping him up in a web cocoon. Unfortunately, enemies can be perched on challenging rooftops and balconies at times so Spider-Man Noir needs to crawl near his foes before taking them down. If discovered, alarms are raised and within a magazine of bullets, Spider-Man Noir would be down. Such fragility encourages an exclusively stealth approach to gameplay but the tools to effectively execute such a style of gameplay aren’t always readily available in the game. The camera, for instance, can become uncooperative when you start climbing onto sides of buildings and ceilings. This unfortunate characteristic can be blamed on the camera’s lack of intelligence in understanding that it is more important to articulate both the position of Spider-Man Noir and the enemies below than to focus solely on our superhero. Struggling to fit both subjects into perspective consumes time and breaks the flow of gameplay, very much detracting you from the immersive experience that the Noir levels are supposed to sell.

The heavy emphasis on stealth means movement in the Noir levels is mainly done on quiet feet and crawling around the circumference of lit areas but when you want to get to a location quickly, you can always webswing like the other versions of Spider-Man but the Noir level design doesn't always allow this and it’s not always clear when this restriction is in place. Often times, you'll feel that you could actually webswing to reach certain areas swiftly and safely because you have taken out all the enemies but you'll quickly realize that you cannot. Occasionally, Noir levels would break away from this emphasis and corner you into a room with more than a handful of enemies. These segments build into a more traditional type of Spider-Man gameplay where defeating enemies is all about bringing together a string of combos. In levels where your fragility is thoroughly exposed and surviving is all about executing single-hit takedowns, such moments of fast paced combat and power could really help contribute variety and prevent the sense of monotony from creeping in.

2099, on the other hand, offers quite the obverse end of the package, trading dark and austere corridors in an old English town for a futuristic metropolis littered with remarkable skyscrapers and saturated with overwhelming amounts of neon lighting. The city is populated with various kinds of imaginative machineries of tomorrow that roam the wide spaces between buildings. For this reason, it’s easy to excuse the game from plunging Spider-Man into a number of arcadey free-fall sections that see our superhero dodging hovering robot, pulverizing lasers and random floating debris. The Ultimate world tones down this huge feed of details to make possible environments that look distinctively clean and simple. As the sunshine gleams off the basic color palette painting the environments, it gives the feeling that even the most utilitarian design can be attractive. The slightly sarcastic dialogue and humorous enemy designs help to add a tinge of flavor that really balances the Ultimate world.

The most surprising find yet comes in the form of the Amazing world which I suspect would appeal to anyone who is a fan of Spider-Man comics or anyone who has read a Spider-Man comic. Visually, the Amazing world is the least realistic but that isn’t saying much. The trick really is to pull the panels out from the comics and lay them as a foundation for the environments in the Amazing world. Just about everything in Amazing have a distinctive black outline which really helps to communicate the comic feel.

Among 2099, Ultimate and Amazing, there aren’t many differences in gameplay though variations in their weapons of choice help make each Spider-Man feel unique. Spider-Man 2099 delivers painful blows with his knuckles while Ultimate Spider-Man unleashes fierce tentacle attacks and exploding spikes and Amazing Spider-Man launches into brutal combos with his web hammers and fists. Both 2099 and Ultimate Spider-Man have an enhanced combat mode. The later is able to draw energy from his rage meter to enter rage mode where his attacks become significantly more powerful and quicker. The former’s accelerated vision, with its ability to slow down time, makes it easier for our superhero to dodge target-seeking missiles and mislead them into enemies.

When it comes down to comparison, there are definitely some noteworthy levels. The Sandman level from the Amazing dimension, for instance, features sand monsters which must be doused with water before they can be harmed. The boss battle with Sandman may be less than creative but it takes place in a multi-platform arena with a continuous sandstorm that sends barrels and crates flying through the air. It’s one of the more demanding boss battles and certainly feels more epic than the other boss battles. On the other hand, the Deadpool level from the Ultimate dimension doesn’t offer anything more than a humdrum task of destroying one television camera after another. Even if the constant destruction of television cameras is supposed to be an idea of humor modeled after the less than serious Deadpool, it’s a very poor concept to build a level around. The perpetual need to frequently backtrack to search for new television cameras which pop up in places you have already visited also makes the Deadpool level feel incredibly repetitive. At the very least, none of the other 12 levels play like the terrible Deadpool mission. And when all is said and done, you would have just played Shattered Dimensions for 10 hours.

Final comments
Spider-Man: Shattered Dimension does what no other Spider-Man game has before by offering four playable versions of our superhero in one neat package. And for that, Shattered Dimensions deserves credit. The different impressive environments help give each dimension a unique identity and because each Spider-Man features their own subtle quirks and employs varying styles of combat, there’s a substantial amount of variety to be had here. The Noir levels definitely stand out and though its execution can be less than perfect, its intentions are realized beautifully. There are a few misses when it comes to level design but really, Shattered Dimensions is one of the most uniquely crafted games you would ever played. It’s hard to complain.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Review: Batman - The Brave and the Bold

Fun while it lasts (very shortly).



The Good
Underlying sense of humor * Striking visual style * Puzzles and platforming segments in each level make use of each partner superhero's abilities in creative and interesting ways * Game deviates from typical level design once in a while to keep things fresh * Many gadgets unlock and many upgrades to buy for Batman * Can choose which mission to undertake first

The Bad
Batman is more powerful than each of his partner superheroes, making combat feel a little imbalanced * Game is very short at 2.5 hours


You may not have seen the program but it’s really easy to appreciate the game. By fortune or otherwise, Batman: The Brave and the Bold is a product that greatly benefits from its source material. Based on the Cartoon Network series of the same name, Batman: The Brave and the Bold brings the Caped Crusader together with a unique cast of lesser known DC superheroes to save the world from an equally uncelebrated assemblage of villains. It may not sound entirely enticing but the unorthodox premise quickly becomes the promise of an underlying sense of humor and a striking visual style.

This attractive presentation carries its appeal across each of the 8 single-player levels. In each level, Batman forms a partnership with a new superhero to fight against a different villain. Unlike the Wii edition, this portable rendition of Batman: The Brave and the Bold doesn’t feature co-op so you’ll constantly need to switch between Batman and his partner to tackle the challenges unique to each level. You may recognize Green Lantern but others like Plastic Man, Aquaman and Red Tornado may have difficulties eliciting a memory. Each level plays to the distinct abilities of its specific superhero, creating puzzles and platforming segments that work around the use of the superhero’s powers in creative and interesting ways. For instance, Red Tornado is capable of turning lava into rock so he can easily harden pillars of spewing lava for Batman to wall jump onto higher grounds. These puzzles are simple but there are definitely a few tough platforming segments that would take some practice to get through.

For most parts, the limited combat maneuvers of your partner superheroes means that you won’t exactly be using them to dish out damage to the waves of minions who come your way. So it’s welcoming to see the game deviate from the typical level design once in a while to give our partner superheroes more time on the screen. Take, for example, Batman gets zapped into a gorilla in one level and his partner has to ride on him while in another mission, a mid-level boss can only be hurt using the abilities of Green Lantern. The former may be entirely motivated by humor but the later is a nice little challenge that compels you to realize the powers of Green Lantern. Outside of these fun moments, however, it would probably be safer to keep Batman on the screen.

That isn’t necessarily true at the start of the game. Batman starts with a small repertoire of moves and has only the batarang for slightly more reach in attack. As you progress through the game, however, Batman’s arsenal gradually grows to include more of those little toys like the grenade, flash grenade, smoke pipe, a sword and force field. These gadgets unlock automatically after every mission but you can use the coins you have gathered to purchase even more upgrades for your abilities. These range from the more practical ones like regenerating health and stronger armor to more combat orientated rewards like the electrified batarang, more punching power and a cape that reflects shots. Batman already starts to be more capable than his partner soon into the game and it really feels like there’s a certain imbalance to the combat. Fortunately, Batman’s a blast to control and play as.

There’s a sense of flexibility that’s very evident in Batman: The Brave and the Bold. Unlike many games of its kind, there’s no particular order in which the levels proceed. In other words, the decision to undertake whichever mission first is entirely up to you. The fact that each level is a self-contained story helps in making this feature plausible. Each level has a distinctive theme so the game consistently feels fresh. Likewise, each level only takes around 15 to 20 minutes to complete. Granted, it isn’t terribly long but you can take heart in the fact that the game knows when to pull you out of a level after it has achieved all the possible tricks which a particular level allows. By the time 2.5 hours is up, you’d have already finished the game and besides unlocked no-Batman, only-your-partner challenges and a boss rush mode, there aren’t ample reasons to return to the game.

Final comments
It’s fun while it lasts. For a retail game, Batman: The Brave and the Bold is far too short but despite this shortcoming, it’s incredibly hard not to like the game. The presentation here is first-rate but what really makes this game fun is the gameplay. Missions that feature different partner superheroes and levels which are designed around a specific superhero’s abilities keep repetition from sinking in. Variety really starts to come in when you notice the nice little deviations in level design and the number of gadgets which progressively unlock. If you have money to spare, by all means, give this game a go – though it might be a tad too short to recommend to those who don’t really care about The Dark Knight.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Review: Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light

Lara Croft stars in one of the best, if not the best, Xbox Live Arcade game.



The Good
Fixed isometric camera angle allows players to perceive a bigger and better picture of the environment, making puzzle-solving more intuitive * Many significantly different ways to play the game * Interesting and satisfying gunplay * Puzzles make use of weapons in creative ways * 2 player co-op play makes puzzles more fun *  Incredibly value for money

The Bad
Minor inconsistencies in single-player puzzle design * Lack of online co-op at launch

The downloadable nature of Lara Croft’s latest adventure may mean that it has the misfortune of inheriting the suggestion of a lesser Tomb Raider game but that impression is quickly dispelled when you realize that Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light is the result of one of the greatest reinvigorations the established franchise has seen in recent years. Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light takes the successful series in a new and interesting direction yet perhaps counter-intuitively, manages to remain enticingly familiar to anyone who has played prior Tomb Raider games with the series’ unique brand of puzzle-solving, exploration and gunplay. By the time you wrap up the last treasure from this archeological hike, you’ll feel that you’ve just played one of the most, if not the most, impressive game Xbox Live Arcade has to offer.

Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light treads many new grounds but none more prevalent than the fixed isometric camera angle on which the entire foundation of the gameplay is laid upon. Such close resemblance to a typical downloadable title may elicit more than a few gasps from those who are used to the conventional third-person view adopted by previous games in the series but this bold new take on gameplay really is about bringing a host of benefits which revivify the franchise in their own exciting ways. Perhaps one of the more significant ways in which the game has profited from this new isometric perspective is how the drawn-backed view gives players a bigger and better picture of each environment from the get-go, making puzzle-solving more intuitive than previously possible. This works neatly to the advantage of the whole package as this new Tomb Raider really is about building up a comfortable momentum by seamlessly transiting between one gameplay moment and the next.

Primarily, Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light is about racking up as many points as possible so that you can post your high score on the online leaderboards but there’re so many significantly different ways to play the game. Those familiar with arcade offerings will like the score boosting gems and chaining score multipliers by consistently killing demons without getting hit. On the other hand, those struck with nostalgia may prefer the traditional Tomb Raider approach and explore the self-contained tombs to figure out ways to overcome the dangerous traps and challenging puzzles for their elusive rewards. Likewise, those who relish greater incentives may undertake the many demanding tasks present in each chapter. For the curious minds, the lush environments beckon them to go on the off-beaten track to discover alternative paths and hidden treasures. Achieving a speed run and high score, and spending time to think about how you could best navigate a trap to get a reward are very different ways to play the game. Even if each level takes no longer than an hour to complete, there’re varying categories of objectives to return to, each accompanied with a substantial prize.

One aspect of the game which greatly benefits from this kind of replayability is the combat. Lara’s basic tools of trade like the pistol, rifle, shotgun, sub-machine gun, chaingun, grenade launcher and RPG are unlocked progressively but since advanced editions of the aforesaid weapons can only be had by completing challenges, the only way to enjoy a more fully realized gunplay experience would be to replay levels and try to achieve the more difficult objectives to land the bigger guns. Besides unlocking weapons, completing challenges would also net you artifacts and relics. Artifacts can be equipped to slightly boost Lara’s attributes but since only a pair of which can only be equipped, there’s a need to strategically choose from the wide array of defensive and offensive orientated artifacts to tailor your style of play. When Lara deals damage and doesn’t sustain any damage herself, a meter builds up and eventually becomes full. Depending on the equipped relic, Lara is granted a power-up that lasts as long as the meter stays full. The power-ups range from regenerating health and ammo to a wider damage radius from Lara’s weapons to an increase in Lara’s movement speed. Experimenting with the varying combinations and finding the most effective load-out of artifacts and relic is interesting and satisfying. 

Perhaps one of the greater highlights of Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light is the puzzle-solving. Those who have played previous games in the series would find themselves right at home here as this new entry in the franchise brings about a similar mix of platforming, trap navigation and puzzles which permeate just about every moment of the entire game. The puzzles start with simple boulder pushes to switch flicking but soon evolves into multistage challenges and puzzles which require agility, precision and timing to execute. It's welcoming to see that developer Crystal Dynamics has designed a gradually increasing difficulty so it’s easier for players new to the series to get into the game. I also like how some of the puzzles use your weapons like the remote-detonated bombs and spear in creative ways.

As a single-player game, Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light serves as a very engaging piece of entertainment but like many games these days, Lara’s newest adventure sports 2 player co-op play. While many games may have included this increasingly popular feature for the sake of keeping up with the times, the seamless blend of puzzle-solving, exploration and gunplay here actually places the game at a very attractive position to take advantage of what 2 player co-op play could possibly achieve. With some slight alterations to the single-player puzzles, Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light shows that there’re a few clever tricks that can be enjoyed when a buddy joins you in your adventure. Here, your buddy gets to play as the Guardian of Light, Totec. In co-op play, Totec repossesses the spear from Lara and carries a shield. Both Lara and Totec complement each other’s abilities: Totec can throw the spear but only Lara can climb onto the spear to reach higher grounds while Lara can use her grappling hook to form a walking line over huge gaps for Totec to cross over. Additionally, Totec’s shield can function as a platform for Lara. When going co-op, both players are reliant on each other to continue so it’s a relatively different brand of play from the single-player game. There’re some puzzles which are easier or harder to solve in the single-player game and there are some puzzles which are clearly designed to be played in co-op but such inconsistencies experienced during the otherwise brilliant single-player game can only be minor gripes.

Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light can be completed in 7 hours but with such high replayability value, the game could last you quite a while even after you have arrived at the credits the first time around. At 1200 Microsoft Points, or US$15, Lara’s newest adventure offers incredible value considering that it’s one of the longest games on Xbox Live Arcade. It’s supported by visuals and a soundtrack which share an impeccable attention to details, as well as beautifully produced cut-scenes which punctuate the game at every chapter. The co-op play is icing on the cake.

Final comments
Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light hardly appears convincing at first glance with a fixed isometric camera angle that seems to suggest a smaller, perhaps more casual Tomb Raider game. Hardly. This new iteration in the established franchise is a surprisingly fresh take on the conventional Tomb Raider formula, making itself highly accessible on multiple fronts. The different categories of objectives provide different ways from which you can approach the gameplay and are good reasons for you to return to the game even after you have completed it the first time around. The combat is interesting and satisfying but the puzzles are equally so. The later is a valid reason for getting 2 player co-op play in but it’s unfortunate that online co-op could only be available from September 28. The whole package is wrapped up in high production values. All things said, Lara’s new adventure will be the best Xbox Live Arcade game for a while.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Review: Monday Night Combat

One of the most original and creative games has been beset with the tragedy of having ridiculously few maps.



The Good
Fun and challenging to strategically manage funds in the midst of an intense battle * Crossfire is an exciting game of myraid defensive and offensive possibilities * 6 diverse character classes lend depth to gameplay * Each class can call in a specific bot * Unlockable Call of Duty: Modern Warfare-style tags and custom classes

The Bad
Tutorial could be more helpful * Appeal is limited by the very few arenas offered


What makes Monday Night Combat so endearing is how it feels immediately recognizable yet surprisingly fresh as it sails towards uncharted waters almost instantaneously thereafter. Those who have played Valve’s popular Team Fortress 2 before may find Monday Night Combat strikingly familiar with the later offering near carbon copies of the former’s widely exaggerated cartoonish character models, distinctive color-saturated arenas and heavily specialized character classes. It’s precisely this reason why I had no qualms about picking up Monday Night Combat almost instantly after its release. For the same reason, I suspect that anyone who picks up this game might go into the experience with expectations of a Team Fortress 2-style gameplay. You wouldn’t be wrong. Monday Night Combat is an impressive class and team-based online multiplayer shooter offered as a small and affordable Xbox Live Arcade download.

With Team Fortress 2 functioning as a heavy influence on Monday Night Combat, it's almost certain that this game will be fun. But that is only part of the equation. Within minutes into Monday Night Combat, there’s an inescapable feeling that you’ve been invited to a far more complex experience than what Team Fortress 2 could possibly offer. Conceptually, Monday Night Combat is a bigger and better game than Team Fortress 2. This is owed to the fact that the class and team-based online multiplayer mayhem is only a wrapper around the core Monday Night Combat experience: tower defense. In a stroke of ingenuity, upstart development house Uber Entertainment has effectively married Team Fortress 2 with the tried-and-tested tower defense formula. The result is one of the most original, creative and enjoyable games you would ever play. In terms of multiplayer-only shooters, Monday Night Combat has set the new standard.

It’s unfortunate that Monday Night Combat doesn’t really provide a good first impression. With only a pair of available multiplayer modes, the game may seem like a considerably thin package at first glance. The lack of the ubiquitous deathmatch and team deathmatch, or even capture the flag and point control offers much worry initially but the fact is that these modes would detract from an otherwise focused experience which Uber Entertainment is trying to deliver with Blitz and Crossfire.

Blitz is a co-op mode which can be played with up to 3 other players via Xbox Live, system link or split-screen. For the lack of a better world, Blitz is pure tower defense. Your only objective is to prevent what the game calls a money ball from being destroyed by waves of robotic hostiles, otherwise known as bots in the game. When the rounds start, you would be assailed by a wide variety of bots like cloaked assassins, hopping gorillas, mortar spiders and kamikaze bees. Bringing down these bots would reap you cash which can be funneled into raising turrets at designated spots, activating different environmental hazards and upgrading your soldier’s skills. There’s a guilty amount of fun and challenge to be had from strategically managing your funds in the midst of an intense battle. Do you invest in new turrets and their upgrades to bolster the overall defense of your base or conserve money for the activation of the ejection pad should the bots escape your defenses or perhaps go the selfish, albeit aggressive way of upgrading your skills so that you can be a more competent soldier on the battlefield? There’s an array of defensive and offensive options to consider and you’re constantly trying to strike a balance between both.

On the other hand, Crossfire is a competitive mode which pits 2 teams of 6 players against each other. As the meat of Monday Night Combat, Crossfire builds upon the fundamentals of Blitz, drastically expanding the scope of the game. The basic rules of Blitz remain: You’re still constantly repelling waves of bots, erecting turrets and upgrading them, activating environmental hazards and spending on expensive skill upgrades for your soldier. But with the introduction of an opposing team, you must now contend with players who will accompany their bots to assualt your team’s money ball and the opposition’s money ball. This essentially means you will not only need to defend your team’s money ball against increased levels of threats but also be compelled to tread further into enemy territory to bring down the opposing team’s money ball. This translates into a very exciting game of myriad defensive and offensive possibilities, with both teams attempting to push its offense line forward despite being embroiled in a defensive struggle.

The most intelligent twist to Crossfire yet comes in the form of heavily specialized character classes. The 6 diverse character classes lend a welcomed layer of depth to Crossfire, making teamwork as much of a winning factor as sound management of money and strategy are. In addition to 2 different weapons, each class has a smattering of skills which can be gradually upgraded. The Assualt is the necessary all-rounder while the Support combines both the Engineer and Medic from Team Fortress 2 to produce a formidable soldier who can build turrets on undesignated surfaces, call in airstrikes and heal teammates. The Assassin is blessed with excessive amounts of speed, can cloak and send dangerously ricocheting shurikens into bodies. The Sniper, on the other hand, can lay traps and with upgraded skills, shoot bullets which penetrate more than one body. The Tank and Gunner represent the heavy classes of Monday Night Combat, with both of them only being diversified by the distinctively different weapons they wield. The Tank, armed with slightly altered flamethrower and rail gun, is a close combat specialist, while the Gunner, equipped with a minigun and grenade launcher, fares better from afar. Both have the rather powerful ability to turn into a living turret which makes them as defensive as they are offensive. One thing I really like about the different character classes is how their specialties go beyond weapons and skills. With enough cash, each class can consistently call in a specific type of bot to complement the waves of normal bots which the computer inserts into the arenas.

With such a wide variety of character classes, each handling very much differently from each other, it shouldn’t be a surprise that there’s a considerable learning curve here. Fortunately, there’s a basic tutorial and pages of detailed notes about each character class in the how to play section. The tutorial, however, isn’t as helpful as it could be. Teaching you the know-how of playing as an Assualt is appreciated but it’s less useful when it doesn’t allow you to experiment with other classes in the empty arena.

Despite the general brilliance of Monday Night Combat, one major gripe I have about the game is how its appeal quickly becomes limited when you realize that there’s only one arena offered for Blitz and 3 for Crossfire. The selection of maps is less than generous and I suspect that most players save the most avid Monday Night Combat fans may put the game down after continuously exchanging bullets for a couple of weeks. However, the game does offer unlockable content in the form of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare-style tags and custom classes which allow you to tweak the attribute bonuses of your soldier.

Final comments
When you combine Team Fortress 2 and a tower defense formula, you get Monday Night Combat. In other words, it’s a class and team-based multiplayer shooter on a tower defense template. Have we seen this before? No. Well, Monday Night Combat is a new experience. And that matters quite a bit in today’s market because this is one of the rare instances where you get a game which is almost entirely, if not entirely, original. Monday Night Combat gathers the best of both worlds in creative and interesting ways and the result is one the most enjoyable games you would ever play. It’s a tragedy that its appeal is severely limited by the stingy number of maps.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Review: Hero of Sparta 2

Serious control issues and a very cheap checkpoint system hamper this otherwise excellent game.



The Good
Balanced and cohesive combination of combat, trap-puzzles and platforming sections * Multifunctional weapons * Able to ride on and control bigger beasts after you focus kill them * Upgrade orbs gained from Arena mode (survivor mode) can be used in campaign mode * Game lasts a massive 8 hours which is twice as long as the first game

The Bad
Unresponsive controls * Use button shares the same space with block button; block button fails to switch to use button on time during difficult platforming sections * Checkpoints are placed increasingly further apart in the later half of game * Checkpoints are placed right before inescapable cut-scenes * Unethical practice of placing platforms which aren't actually platforms you can land on (only late in the game) * Dated graphics


You slice the head of the beast away and quickly turn around to plunge your blood soaked sword into the heart of another before racing off to dismember your remaining foes. The game hastily pushes you to the next arena and you repeat the process. There’s an almost morbid pleasure in playing the original Hero of Sparta. Certainly, it’s a wildly addictive and satisfying, albeit unoriginal focus to build a game around. For the iPhone gamer, Hero of Sparta was as close to a God of War experience as there could be. Hero of Sparta 2 brings the killing spree back into the palms of a bloodthirsty gamer like me, with new elements and tweaks permeating just about every aspect of the game. Unfortunately, despite the good intentions, not every change turned out to be as impressive as each other.

Don’t get me wrong. Hero of Sparta 2 is a massive 8 hour adventure which means it’s twice as long as its predecessor. But the amount of content can only be an ill-considered measure of the quality of a game. Luckily, wrapped within these 8 hours is an ingenious conglomeration of concepts which stretches well beyond what the first Hero of Sparta could possibly offer. This sequel features the same fluid bone crushing combat but you get the sense there isn’t as much emphasis on the slaughter here as there was in the first Hero of Sparta. Rather, Hero of Sparta 2 seems to come off as a more fully realized vision of what the first game was supposed to be. Different puzzles and traps have been worked into this sequel and challenging platforming sections and on-rail segments have been integrated as well. Hero of Sparta 2 constantly shifts your focus from one combat scenario to the next intelligent trap which requires a bit of puzzle work before pulling you over to platforming sections which necessitate the need for precision and quick reflexes. A pair of on-rail segments only serves to add more variety. At every point of time, I felt that I was doing something new in the game. Granted, trap-puzzles and platforming sections aren’t new to Hero of Sparta, but these components have come to be more prominent in this sequel, with most of them being major, considerably complex self-contained portions of a level rather than bridges between one combat scenario to the next. When you string all the components together, Hero of Sparta 2 quickly starts to feel like a very balanced and cohesive combination of combat, trap-puzzles and platforming sections.

The game gives you all the necessary tools of destruction to facilitate this type of gameplay. You get the idea that the weapons you’re entrusted with are there not only to set your killing spree in motion but also to make all the trap navigation and platforming segments possible. The golden wings, for instance, are multifunctional, allowing you to slash out at the beasts as well as glide in the air while a pair of tethered gloves not only extends your radius of your assault but also gives you the opportunity to swing around like Spider-Man, navigating over large gaps.

Unfortunately, unlike the first Hero of Sparta, there’s little chance that you’ll get to upgrade more than one weapon to its maximum level. This is due in part to the reduced emphasis on combat as opposed to the first game. Despite that, the combat is still rooted in very much the same way it was left in the first game. Those who have played God of War before would feel right at home here as slaying monsters rewards you with various orbs. Purple orbs allow you to upgrade weapons while green and blue orbs allow you to replenish your health and mana repsecitively. When a foe is near death, players would be able to go into focus kill mode where successive quick time button presses will not only put the foe to rest instantaneously but also reap more orbs. The keener eyed player would however find that Hero of Sparta 2 no longer rewards you with as many health orbs as compared to its predecessor so this sequel is slightly more challenging. One thing new to Hero of Sparta 2 is the ability to ride on and control bigger beasts when you enter into focus kill mode. It makes for some enjoyable moments and it’s certainly an admirable effort to differentiate itself from God of War.

With combat feeling so familiar, it’s surprising that the way that the moves are executed has been changed. Gameloft has designed a work-around to button cluster and came up only a single button for combat. The remarkable thing about this single button is that it can be twitched left, right, up or down. Twitching it left or right translates into left and right slashes on-screen while nudging it up swings the foe upwards for an aerial combo. Directing the button down initiates a strong attack which breaks shields with ease. It could have been an impressive solution to button cluster but the poor responsiveness left little to desire. This isn’t helped by the close proximity of the jump and block button. There were many occasions where I couldn’t execute the move I really wanted to do because the button failed to respond to my twitches and I discovered that constantly tapping the button for the slash attack proved to be more convenient and useful in the long run. I suspect many players may not derive as much fun from the combat as the developers may have hoped to provide.

Another odd design choice is the decision to allow the use button to be same button as the block button. The block button is permanently featured but when something which can be used pops out, the block button changes to a use button. This could have been workable had the game been more aware of the circumstance you’re in. Waiting awhile for the use button to appear for you to activate an object may be forgivable but when you’re in mid-air and waiting for the block button to turn into a use button for you to be able to grapple onto the next hook, the results can be devastating. There were several times when I fell cheaply to my death because the use button didn’t appear on time. When you’re forced to restart such segments again and again, the frustration can mount.

None of the control issues hamper the enjoyment of the game as much as the flawed checkpoint system. You won’t encounter any weird design choices for the first half of the game but it may seem that the developers deliberately cranked up the difficulty of the game after the midpoint. Checkpoints are increasingly further apart and there’re no checkpoints at the most difficult platforming sections so if you fall (which you’re going to because of the problematic use button), you have to start right at the beginning or some point far away from the progress you have made. At other times, a checkpoint is placed right before an inescapable cut-scene so if you die from a fall several times, you have to rewatch the same cut-scene the same number of times. And there’s also the unethical practice of placing a platform that isn’t er, a platform, meaning you’ll fall right through the platform if you land on it. It’s maddening and the sudden spike in checkpoint difficulty and cheap deaths near the end of the game couldn’t make the developers’ unethical decision more obvious.

The whole package is wrapped in very dated graphics even by iPhone standards. There’s a noticeable improvement in the visuals from the first Hero of Sparta but textures are still unacceptably muddled and character models ugly. There’s effort made to support the iPhone 4’s high-resolution Retina display but it only helps in getting the muddled textures to be more obvious. When put into comparison with other recent releases from Gameloft like Splinter Cell Conviction, Prince of Persia: Warrior Within, Zombie Infection and even older titles like N.O.V.A. and Modern Combat: Sandstorm, Hero of Sparta 2 doesn’t stand the test of time.

One noteworthy feature I would like to point out before the end of this review is the inclusion of an all-new Arena mode – essentially the game’s survivor mode. One nice touch is that you can enter Arena mode at specific points in the campaign and the upgrade orbs you earn in the mode transfer over to the campaign so you can supplement your campaign upgrade orbs to further increase the levels of your various weapons. It’s a great solution to the limited number of upgrade orbs earned from the lesser emphasis on combat in the campaign. The Arena mode is also unlocked after you have completed the campaign so you can drop in for a quick slash if you have time to kill.

Final comments
When striped down to its very core, Hero of Sparta 2 can be an excellent game. It’s a balanced and cohesive combination of combat, trap-puzzles and platforming sections. The weapons are multifunctional and you can ride on and control bigger beasts after you focus kill them. But the controls are unresponsive, greatly hampering the enjoyment of the game. The use button can also be a huge problem for platforming sections requiring precision. The checkpoint system becomes really cheap in the later half of the game and there’s the unethical practice of placing surfaces which aren’t really platforms you can land on. The visuals can be an eyesore as well. The whole game lasts a neat 8 hours and a survivor mode is unlocked as a reward. Without the accidental flaws (the control issues) and deliberate errors (the very cheap checkpoint system), this game could have been an easy 9.0. This game is really good but because the control issues and flawed checkpoint system are so serious, it’s hard to recommend this game outright. For those with a high tolerance level, Hero of Sparta 2 is a must-buy but for others, stay away.