Friday, March 18, 2011
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 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.
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.