Monday, March 21, 2011

Mortal Kombat (PS3, 360)

Warner Bros. and NetherRealm Studios were on hand at this year's GDC showing off an updated version of Mortal Kombat in a hotel suite just a stone's throw from the convention center floor. The work-in-progress versions of the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 games offered a broader sampling of content than what we saw earlier in the week and included additional playable characters and a taste of the new Challenge Tower mode. We're happy to report that the game is shaping up to be a fun, unrepentantly M-rated experience.

The first stop in our demo was the game's new Challenge Tower, which is a series of 300 challenges that scale up from tutorial-style fights that teach you a fighter's moves or other game fundamentals, to progressively more difficult tasks that will have you working up a sweat. Fans of the series will also be pleased to see a good dose of dark, zany humor tossed into the mix, because the fights will include little touches such as limbless fighters among other randomly goofy stuff.
The first 20 challenges were on display in the version we played and offered a sampling of what to expect. There were battles that ran us through Sonia Blade's and Jax's special moves, fatalities, and new x-ray attacks; pitted us against waves of Tarkatans (Baraka's toothy, blade-wielding nomadic mutants); had us managing a dispute between Johnny Cage and his director; and had us dealing with Reptile. The fast-paced matches were challenging but fun, which kept us coming back for more if we failed them. We were especially pleased to see the return of the familiar "test your might" and "test your sight" minigames that popped up in the sampling of challenges. One thing to note is that as you play through the game you'll earn coins that you'll be able to use to bypass challenges if you're getting stomped.
Once we got a feel for the Challenge Tower, we hopped into some matches to try out the new playable characters. The version we saw had 16 playable characters, with what looked to be about 10 empty slots at the lower half of the select screen, although we were told not to read too much into the character layout. Most of the gang handled as you'd expect them to, especially the ninjas, but some characters have seen some interesting tweaks. Sonya Blade, who used to be one of the more accessible characters in the roster, has had some changes to her moves that make her a little more challenging to use. The payoff, from what we can tell, is that she has become a much more versatile character when it comes to controlling a match and dealing out punishment. Kitana has also seen some tweaks that have brought her closer to the accessibility Sonya used to have. Jax has seen some streamlining and move tweaking that have broadened the options you will have with him, which seems to have upped his jerk factor considerably in the juggling department.

All of the above tweaks wouldn't matter much if the game's control weren't set up to give you the opportunity to explore all the face-stomping possibilities, but Mortal Kombat's control is. The franchise has always had a specific feel to it that has seemed a little stiff in recent entries. This latest entry loosens things up considerably with a combination of responsive control and animation that helps improve the overall feel of combat. We'll want to spend more time digging into the systems in the game, but we're definitely liking the direction in which things are going. The ability to string together your own combos works very well and brings a retro feel to the game that we appreciate.
The visuals are looking fantastic, making Mortal Kombat the most stunning entry in the series to date. The character models and environments feature a rich level of detail packed with little touches that you'll notice if you spend some time scrutinizing everything. Admittedly you're better off getting your art appreciation on while watching someone else play a match, because the game's speedy pace, helped along by a smooth frame rate and smooth animation, doesn't let you do much artistic contemplation before being kicked in the face. That said, when you do get the chance, we expect you'll be impressed by what you see. Characters have moving bits of clothing and accessories, and environments have a wide range of animating elements (along with buckets of blood) that all contribute to the game's sexy looks. Of course, the showstoppers in the game are the x-ray attacks and fatalities, which feature some of the most brutal and cringe-inducing beatdowns we've seen in the series.
There is most definitely a creative, gleeful vibe that runs through the moves we saw, which will make fans smile and possibly wonder if the NetherRealm gang doesn't have some stabbing issues to work through. We also have to give a special call-out to the stage fatalities we saw, which took a "kitchen sink" approach we can get behind. For example, why just mash your opponent's head in the side of a moving subway train when you can throw him in front of a moving northbound train after? Mortal Kombat's compelling reason for it is clearly, "because you can." While the over-the-top violence isn't for everyone, it's nice to see the game embracing the franchise's calling card with style and dark humor. The visuals get an extra kick on the PlayStation 3 thanks to stereoscopic 3D support, which will make everything pop a bit more for those with the setup for it. The feature is implemented well and doesn't distract from gameplay, although it will make the action look that much more painful.

Mortal Kombat continues to impress us every time we see it. The roster decisions, mode additions, controls, and the little touches peppered throughout the game are all setting it up to deliver on the promise we saw when it was debuted at last year's Electronic Entertainment Expo. We're especially pleased to see the balance of content for newcomers and veteran players that should make it the most accessible Mortal Kombat yet. At this point we're very excited to see the rest of the roster, dig into the story mode, see what NetherRealm has cooked up for us online, and just play. Look for more on the game in the weeks leading up to its April release on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Portal 2 Preview

We make the leap into Valve Time for a quick glimpse at their highly anticipated first-person puzzler.
What we're talking about: Portal 2, the much buzzed-about (and oft-delayed) sequel to Valve's wildly popular puzzler.
Where we saw it: At Valve’s booth on the PAX East showroom floor.
What I knew going in: Quite a bit. I loved every moment of the original Portal, and was lucky enough to spend some time with it last year at PAX Prime, where I got to glimpse at its co-op campaign in action.
PAX East: Portal 2 Preview
What you need to know:
  • While we didn't actually get to see a live demo, we were treated to a couple of lengthy clips of never-before-seen content from Portal 2's single-player campaign. Valve writer Erik Wolpaw was on hand, and told us that the game's single-player campaign will be about two and a half times longer than the original Portal.
  • First off was (roughly) the game's first six minutes. Chell wakes up from her suspended animation years after the events of Portal, and is discovered by A.I. personality Wheatley (voiced by actor Stephen Merchant), who ushers the ever-silent test subject into a tour of the ruined Aperture Science. Time has not been kind to the once pristine testing grounds, and it's alluded to that our protagonist is the last surviving test subject. "Aperture is currently in a state that's kind of like when you unplug your laptop, and it goes into hibernation and slowly runs out of power," explains Wolpaw. "The power's about to go out permanently, which is going to be catastrophic. Wheatley wakes you up so that the two of you can beat a hasty retreat and get out."
  • Valve won't say exactly how long after Portal that Portal 2 takes place. "We're not necessarily putting a number on it, but a significant amount of time has passed."
  • In the second clip, we were treated to an assortment of brand new puzzles -- or "tests" -- guided by the voice of Aperture Science founder and president Cave Johnson (voiced by actor J.K. Simmons). "He was never directly referenced in Portal," notes Wolpaw, "but some of the supporting stuff around Portal referenced him. He's kind of the proto-Glados; before there was Glados, there was Cave."
  • We got to see two new puzzle elements in action: the propulsion gel (launches Chell in the air when touched down on) and repulsion gel (shoots Chell off in a given direction). "Also, if you drench an object in the repulsion gel, that object will start bouncing around the playing field," adds Wolpaw.
  • When asked if there'd be any crossover between the single-player and multi-player campaigns: "In the sense that the stories do connect, and you'll understand how when you actually play them."
  • One of Portal 2's more player-friendly additions: Glowing outlines have been added to both the orange and blue portals that shine through the map, regardless of where Chell's looking, making them much easier to locate after they've been shot. "Keeping track of which portals you fired and where was never something people enjoyed," explains Wolpaw. "We have some bigger environments as well in Portal 2, so we want to make it easier to see so that you can concentrate on solving puzzles, not on 'portal management.'"
  • Wolpaw says that we're going to see much more of Portal's fan-favorite enemies, the turrets. "The turrets are definitely back," he notes. "You're even going to learn a bit about turret culture."
Point in development cycle: Portal 2 is a done deal. It's wrapped up, and just about ready to ship come April 19th on PC, PS3, and 360.
My take: Can't. Wait. I've cleared the first Portal more times than I'd care to count (Oh, it's free on Steam? Better download and beat it. Oh, it came pre-installed on my new laptop? There goes my afternoon.), and with a campaign that's much lengthier and even more steeped in Aperture's madcap lore, I'll be counting down the days until I get Portal 2 in my hands.

Funny Portal 2 Valentine's video:

Friday, March 18, 2011

Pokemon Black and White. (DS)

Pokémon Black and White, the start of the fifth generation of Pokémon titles, doesn't reinvent the wheel. After all, it doesn't have to because Pokémon has such a rock-solid foundation. What the new titles add is polish and freshness, the latter of which Pokémon usually lacks. It does that, chiefly, by adding in a whole new cast of more than 150 Pokémon, and for your trip through the main game, they're the only critters you can use.
Now, new Pokémon are nothing new - each new generation adds over 100 new monsters to the pot, but Black and White is nice because it's clear that there's a new design philosophy in place this time. For the most part, these Pokémon look sleeker and meaner, particularly at higher evolutions, and their type sets are not immediately obvious. The game's core mechanics are still in place, of course, but it feels like you're re-learning how to drive an old car. It's a nice feeling.

Sleeker can also apply towards the game's design as a whole. Game Freak has made grand strides to just give the game better pacing. Most long routes and caves have a character that will heal your Pokémon, thus limiting the amount of times you need to go back to the Pokémon Center, which also contains the Pokémart this time around. EAs usual, xperience points are scaled, meaning that if you have a lowlevel Pokémon, he'll gain more experience than a higher level Pokémon fighting the same foe. I had instances where I'd be training a new Pokémon and he'd grow multiple levels at once. It truly speeds up the pace of what is still a slow-paced game.
Some of the slow pace this time around comes from the fact that you don't really know the new Pokémon. I'm constantly swapping Pokémon in and out of my team because I want to see who is worthwhile and who is dead weight. The scaled experience, plus the new hold item - Lucky Egg, is a godsend in this regard. Game Freak didn't put as much effort into the menu system, however, which has needed an overhaul for a long time. In fact, they made it a little worse: the lower screen, by default, shows persistent online functionality (more on this later). You have to press X to get to the menu, and the items in the menu still don't automatically organize themselves within their larger categories.

What is new and nice, though, is that you can assign multiple items to the Y button, and then when you press Y, you can select the one you want.
Neal: I didn't have much issue with the menus, it was nice to always have your Pokémon listed on the bottom screen in Heart Gold and Soul Silver, but the persistent online that resides on the bottom screen is interesting.
It's split up into three sections: IR, Online, and Wireless. The Online, currently, doesn't work. The Pokémon Global Link, as it's called, will launch on March 30. We'll tell you all about it then. The IR is filled with a hodgepodge of ideas. There's the Feeling Check, modeled after Nintendo's Love Tester, that forces you to press your fingers on the touch screen and tap out rhythms to see how compatible you are with the person you're playing with. You can also trade, battle, and exchange friend codes.
The Wireless makes use of Entralink, which is another weird addition. You can use it in the post-game to collect older Pokémon, but during the main game, you can go into friend's worlds to complete quests that do things such as give you double experience for a half hour and make shops have sales. Like the case with most of the multiplayer, it is fun only for a little while unless you're really into world of Pokémon.

It's pretty clear that Game Freak is being progressive about Pokémon online, which is refreshing. Maybe by the time we get to Pokémon 3DS, we'll get that long-awaited Pokémon MMORPG. Neal and I tried to play online, but kept getting the same firewall-or-specific-router-ports error codes. I'm betting that's why Game Freak bulked up the local multiplayer features, which is appreciated, but it still sucks that Nintendo's half-broken DS connectivity problems hold the game down.
The graphics are a new aspect to the game. They'rebeautiful. The overworld is more detailed than ever before, there are lots of rotation effects, and the games feature not just a day/night cycle, but seasons actually change in-game every month. Seasonality will affect what Pokémon you find, what routes you can take, and even what some Pokémon look like (think Arctic hares or foxes). It's crazy!
The graphics are really stunning at times. There's one moment early on that was disturbingly epic and awe-inspiring for a Pokémon game. All of the little particle effects and visual tricks that are present courtesy of the 3D upgrade to the environments are wonderful. The music features a lot of the same tunes from previous games, but the towns have new songs that are rather excellent.
In general, Pokémon Black and White feel more like a regular RPG than ever before. The story moves briskly, and it seems like you're bouncing around from story event to story event more than ever. There are even some minor twists and turns along the way.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Assassin's Creed Brotherhood

Assassin's Creed II is definitely one of my favourite games of the last 12 months. It was a meaty gaming meal that took several steps towards fulfilling the promise of the original, with new mechanics, more variety in gameplay, and an alluring new setting: renaissance Italy. It was a big leap, in other words: a worthy sequel in all regards.
Brotherhood, on the other hand, will have a slightly harder time proving its worth. Rather than moving to a new time period, it continues directly on from the events of Assassin's Creed II, only with the action shifting almost entirely to Rome. Like previous titles, there's also a modern-day component. The game is once again framed by the on-going battle between the Templars and Assassins, and players are actually assuming the role of Desmond, who lives in the present day and is able to experience the memories of his ancestor Ezio using a device called the animus. The game cuts between the two time periods but the bulk of the gameplay occurs in renaissance Rome.
Ubisoft Montreal has stressed that Brotherhood has a number of innovations and evolutions designed to keep the experience fresh, and we can certainly tell you that there's easily as much content here as in Assassin's Creed II, but will it be enough to really help this title distinguish itself from last year's stellar outing? Let's find out.
After confronting Rodrigo Borgia and having his mind blown far beneath the Vatican at the end of Assassin's Creed II (and no, that's not a euphemism), the story picks up with Ezio ready for some well-earned R&R. It's not to be. Cesare Borgia – Rodrigo Borgia's son – is ticked off, and mounts a full scale attack on the assassins. The villa in Monteriggioni is destroyed and Ezio loses everything. Yes, after 20+ hours working towards all that bad-ass armour and weaponry, it's lost in a moment and players must begin again. Such is the fickle nature of videogames.
In any case, Ezio travels to Rome determined to take his revenge against Cesare. The city is divided into 12 districts, each of which is overseen by a Borgia tower, representing the Borgia's control of the area. As long as the tower stands, soldiers are out in force, shops remain closed and the people oppressed. Assassinate the tower's Captain and burn it to the ground, however, and the area will open up for business. Ezio is then able to renovate blacksmiths, banks, stables and more, and these all add to his income, in much the same way renovating Monteriggioni did in the last game. The more shops that are open, the more items will be available and perks Ezio will get. For instance, the more tailors you have, the more pouches for carrying knives and other items will be available, whereas the more banks are open the more money Ezio can store before his account is full. Each defeated tower also opens up an assassin apprentice slot, but more on that later.
Rome is impressively varied, from bustling city streets to citadels, ancient ruins and landmarks like the Coliseum.
It's important to note that while the Borgia towers are a key element of the game's structure, they're not actually central to taking down Cesare. You can actually finish Brotherhood without destroying all the towers. Instead, they're about earning income, unlocking items, gaining apprentice assassins and reducing the presence of Borgia guards across the city. By destroying a tower, players can make missions in that region easier for themselves by ensuring there'll be less guards around. How to get to each Captain? Well, that's up to you. Each tower is surrounded by a compound where the guards are on high alert, so it's up to players to work out the best path to the Captain. Easier compounds allow astute players to clinically execute the Captain with little-to-no danger, while more difficult ones will inevitably result in a huge confrontation, or have a more difficult path to the end goal.
As fans of open-world games would expect, a lot of the player's time will be occupied with missions and activities that don't necessarily advance the plot. It's easy to get sidetracked for hours finding treasure chests, taking on assassination contracts, doing missions for the various guilds or trying to level up your relationship with them, exploring the world or climbing landmarks like the Coliseum. Subterranean environments return too, in the guise of Sons of Romulus missions. These make for a nice change of pace, as the focus is very much on movement puzzles over combat.
Leonardo da Vinci is back as an ally too, and once again provides weapons for Ezio. Turns out he's also been pressured into creating war machines for Cesare, so it's up to Ezio to destroy the plans and prototypes. These see you wielding a chain gun mounted to a horse and cart, piloting a boat with a naval cannon, gliding about in Leo's paraglider – modified to fire bombs, and manning a renaissance-era tank. They're not actually that exciting, but at least inject a little variety into the gameplay.
And honestly? That's something Brotherhood needs. The gameplay on offer here is solid, but by and large the bulk of the missions are pretty similar in nature to those we've already experienced in depth in Assassin's Creed II. It really feels like treading the same old ground, without great improvements. The missions where Ezio must tail a target are still frustrating, for instance, thanks to the small sweet spot at which the player must stay away in order to follow - but not alert – his target.
You know Ezio means business - he has a goatee now.
There are three major changes that try to switch things up: the assassins' guild, the tweaks to combat and the ability to ride your horse anywhere. Recruiting assassins who can be called upon with the press of a button is obviously the big one, and it works very much as advertised. With each Borgia tower destroyed a new slot opens up, allowing Ezio to rescue and recruit an ordinary citizen of Rome. Calling on an assassin is as simple as targeting an enemy and hitting L1/Left trigger on PS3/360 respectively. Depending on the location and the level of your assassin, he or she might run or ride up to the target, or drop down from above. It's cool to watch, and once you have six assassins you have three groups that can be called, with a cool-down time of a few minutes for each.
Assassins gain experience through combat, but they can also be sent off to complete contracts around Europe. The greater the difficulty of a mission, the higher the XP and cash reward, and players prepared to gamble can quickly level up their assassins by assigning them difficult contracts with a lower chance of success. These missions only take five to ten minutes each and the interface is easy to use. With each level gained, you can boost either armour or weaponry, and as assassins rise through the ranks, they'll also unlock more advanced options, such as the ability to use smoke bombs. As a side note, your assassin recruitscan die, but you'll likely only lose a couple in the entirety of the game.

New Blog!

This is my new blog, it will contain video game review and will have new content added 2+ times a week.

I am looking forward to making reviews! :)