Saturday, February 11, 2012

Review: Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning

There are a million RPG games to choose from these days, and unless you are as obsessed passionate about them as I am, you're probably gonna stick to the big boys(Skyrim, Fallout, etc)  But to pass up on Kingdoms of Amalur, you'd not only be missing out on one of the best RPG's I think I've ever played, but one unlike any you've played before.

The Big Idea:  Kingdoms of Amalur is a fantasy powerhouse from the ridiculous mind of R.A. Salvatore; New York Times best selling author!!(or so I'm told)  You play [insert character name here] the first and only successful resurrection of the "well of souls" From this point you become the decider of your own fate (of course while still being pressured to do favors and fetch quests for everyone).  This game is all about fate, everyone and everything has one, except you.

How's It Look?:  Amalur is gorgeous.  The world is immaculately designed and its obvious that a lot of attention went into its creation.  At first glance the game closely resembles RPG regulars like World of Warcraft. As it should, its a big shiny fantasy world.  The character models are perhaps the least impressive part of the presentation (not to say that they are bad in the least bit),  but after meeting two or three NPC's you won't find much contrast between them.  Although not as pristine as say a game like Skyrim, Reckoning makes up for it by having a FAR superior frame rate. Which is a must with the kind of gameplay Reckoning delivers.  There are a few screen hiccups and some landscapes might appear out of no where, but no graphical glitches or bugs will interrupt your play.

How's it Sound?:  Reckoning sounds great. A soundtrack you would expect to find in any quality RPG.  It somewhat fades into the background as you play.  Reckoning definitely would have benefited from a more substantial powerhouse soundtrack that drew you into the game, such as you get with games like Shadow of the Colossus or Mass Effect.  All characters in the game have been supplied with a voice (except you of course) and the voice over work is great.  Characters all have a lot to say even after supplying the main plot points, and each conversation does seem personal.  

How's it Play?: Here is where Reckoning really shines.  Remember when I said its like something you haven't played before? well ok, yes its a lot like Fable on the surface, but honestly Fable doesn't even come close to the gameplay they've achieved here.  In classic WRPG (western role playing game) style, the battles are completely real time.  You may have equipped; a primary weapon, a secondary weapon, and 4 magic spell shortcuts.  The battles are fast paced, strategic, and a lot of fun.  Here is where character class comes into play.  You'll find yourself whipping out hardcore combos based on your class and the remarkable frame rate keeps everything running smoothly no matter how many baddies are on screen.  The game allows you to change your class, weapons, and fighting style at absolutely any moment, giving a great number of combinations to keep battles interesting.  Gamers more familiar with the WRPG style might want to raise the difficulty all the way up though.  Reckoning does well at making you feel like a badass but except in certain boss battles you never really get the feeling you could lose.

How's the System?: As you level you acquire skill points for general skills like alchemy, or lockpicking, but you also acquire talent skills for your talent tree.  This is my favorite part of Reckoning. You are not locked into just one talent tree after making an initial selection.  The Might (Warrior), Finesse (Thief), and Sorcery (Mage) trees are completely open to modify to your liking and you are encouraged to pick and choose between two or three.  Based on how you distribute your points determines your class.  For instance, you can put 50 points into Finesse and become a ranger, or you can put 25 in Finesse and 25 in Sorcery to become a Warlock, which awards you with an extra blink teleport ability.  At any point in the game you can find a fateweaver and "unbind your destiny" resetting all your skill and talent points (for a manageable fee) allowing you to try multiple destinies with just one character. This is a neat perk, but it takes a lot of the interest away from making multiple characters. 

What's the Catch?: There's hardly one.(notice I say hardly) For as fun as Reckoning is, it's one major downfall would have to be its story.  The world of Amalur is amazing yes, but it seems to me that R.A. Salvatore might have just phoned this one in.  None of the characters are particularly memorable and eventually I kinda stopped caring about them, and about why I was doing a certain quest, I just did it.  Like your character, you are thrown into this world in the middle of the story and its just too damn much to try and catch up on whats happened so far, while keeping up with what's happening right now.  It's a real bummer because besides a few graphical jumps and difficulty spikes(lack there of) Kingdoms of Amalur is a really amazing game.

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is one of the best RPG's I've ever played and absolutely deserves your time and attention. With highly addicting gameplay and moderate re playability(on one character) Reckoning is a game that I won't soon put down. (Cause the gameplay is that good)



The age old question: Are Video Games Art?  I will answer with a resounding YES as I always do, but I feel that it's about time I backed up my reasoning with examples and such.

There are certain major topics that I consider when looking at a game as a piece of art, only some being: presentation, character development, graphics, music, all the usuals blah blah blah.  But there are certain games that just really stick out to me and have actually had an effect on me physically and mentally as I play them, instead of one big 25 paragraph ramble I just want to list my best of the best.(in no particular order)

Shadow of the Colossus: This one is obvious I think, when has this game not been on a best of the best list?  Shadow of the Colossus is one of those games that I'd always heard about but never played till much later, I knew it was gonna be good, I just didn't realize how good till I first played it.  It's a masterpiece.  The first thing that I noticed that really struck me was the absence of an onscreen HUD during the majority of the gameplay.  When you are fighting you merely have your grip bar, health bar, and weapon selection.  Very simple, yet very effective.  Being thrown into a world with no prior knowledge of your situation or the characters is tough enough but then being told you have to kill every member of an innocent race of colossi so that you MIGHT save this random woman is even worse.  With every boss beaten I felt like I died a little more inside.  These colossi were doing nothing but taking naps in the sun then this random wanderer comes up and shoves a sword in their heads.  Every part of the game becomes you, you are enveloped by the music, the graphics, the characters, the monsters, that eventually you forget you are playing a game.  Although different games, I found very similar instances in the recent release LIMBO.  A wonderful puzzle game that kept me on my toes and fearing what would come next.  It's amazing how something so simple as LIMBO can really get to you. ANYWAY I would definitely put colossus on my list for everything it gives to you the player(and after every time you kill a colossus another creepy ass shadow creature starts staring at you. CREEPY!)

The Neverhood:  This game is not as well known. Released in 1996 by Dreamworks Studios, this is the only game I've ever played where the graphics for the cinematics were exactly the same as the gameplay graphics, and whats more they were amazing!  The Neverhood was made entirely out of clay, with the protagonist the so aptly named Klaymen, having no voice of his own, would express his thoughts and emotions (and pain) through the shifting and working of the clay environment.   The Neverhood is without a doubt one of the hardest games I have played to date, as well as one of the most trying.  I almost gave up as I was walking down that never ending hallway for 10 minutes when I finally reached the end, only to realize that I now had to walk back.  But The Neverhood is to this day my favorite puzzle game of all time and probably the most beautiful.  With live voices for the music (no synthesizer crap) playing weird tunes comprised of a serious of DUH DUH DUH DUH's The Neverhood was art BEFORE it was a video game.  oh and a great story to boot. "Kaymen! Up here!"

The Dig by LucasArts:  Originally conceived as a movie by Steven Spielberg, The Dig is a Sci-Fi puzzle adventure game released in 1995.  With some famous names for the voices such as Robert Patrick (Terminator) and Steven Blum, this game was already off to an amazing start.  The Dig contains the best story I have ever seen used in a video game.  It's portrayal of three humans trying to comprehend this new alien world, and trying to find a way home is simply fantastic as well as highly realistic.  The characters address this magical yet terrifying world with such a natural emotion that we really don't see in video games.  Of course the gameplay itself is also fantastic.  The puzzles are satisfyingly challenging and every little thing you do right is always rewarded to a grand effect.  One thing the game definitely does well is story structure.  The characters never learn more than you do leading you to think that maybe you missed some grand explanation of how something on this alien world works and you'll spend some decent time thinking on your own "what is this place" and "what happened here?"  It is also one of the first games I've played that uses a multiple ending feature based on 1 or 2 actions during gameplay, now of course the ending change is not drastic enough to warrant a 2nd or 3rd or 4th gameplay, the game itself makes you want to do that.  It truly is a remarkable experience and I recommend it to ALL people who consider themselves gamers.
The_Dig_artwork.jpg image by dragonchi

.hack//Infection (series):  The .hack infection series is one of favorite and in my opinion one of the most re-playable game series ever.  Comprised of 4 games(infection, mutation, outbreak, quarantine) The .hack series introduced the idea of the game within the game using the MMORPG "The World" as the setting.  For me, the one simple subject of .hack that makes is so great is the control you are given.  Starting as the character "Kite" in "The World" you immediately feel the emotion of this game when your best friend Orca gets "Data Drained" and the guy behind Orca, your real life friend Yasuhiko goes into a coma and no one knows why.  Even so you go back into "The World" to find the reason behind Orca's coma-stasis.  You are to say the least a complete and total noob, no friends, no weapons, no items, nothing but a simple overview of the game that Orca gave you before he "went away".  None the less of course Kite becomes the hero everyone needs making friends, saving lives, yadda yadda yadda. The main thing behind .hack is the idea that you are indeed still just playing a game. Yes you are Kite the twin blade, but when that little notification flashes on your screen, you log out of the world and go to check your email.  The outside controller has no name presented, leading the idea that it is indeed you behind the mask. You receive emails from your in game friends as you learn about their real lives, news reports from the real world, and you can check board postings on "the worlds" main website.  Besides the whole people going into comas thing, .hack is probably the most realistic game I've ever played just for the fact that you are "playing a computer game" it's all possible because it's all just coding of 1's and 0's! Your job is to find out what is going wrong with the code that gives you these strange powers and is hurting real life people

Those are the few that really just come to my mind when I am asked this question. I know there are quite a lot more and I'd love to talk about them all, but just for now here are some honorable mentions of mine.

The Monkey Island Series: What series made fun of numerous cultural references better than Monkey Island? I'd go back and play it again just to hear everything Guybrush had to say.  Plus insult sword fighting and Murray the demonic evil skull are the greatest inventions to game kind.

 Psychonauts: M.C. Escher's brain in a video game, seriously folks.

Kingdom Hearts: Touching stories, emotional characters, and the disney edge that hits the little kid inside all of us.

Half Life 2: Headcrabs

Mass Effect Series: You control the fate of your teammates, that is all needs said.
Bioshock Series: Cold, wet, alone....who is Atlas?
Again this is not all of them of course.

Review: Braid

Yes, I have discovered Braid and oh my god I have been missing out.  Actually first of all, I have been completely ignoring my Steam account as of late which is ludicrous because of all the free demos and stuff steam has ANYWAY! Braid is fucking unbelievable, of course the first thing I thought of was PoP (prince o persia) when i played the demo, but Braid is so much more.
We've all seen lots of games that tie time control into the flow of the gameplay, but none as so perfectly as Braid.  When the time control becomes absolutely necessary to finish the level rather than stock piled extra life mode.

One feature that Braid encompasses that really pleasantly surprised me was the time forward ability.  When you enter a level, you could complete half the level and not realize till close to the end that you forgot a crucial step in the beginning, Braid gives you time travel, BUT you dont just have the ability to go back a few seconds, you can literally rewind to when you first entered the level.  You can literally traverse backward 10 minutes of gameplay.  Braid makes this method of play more strategic by also giving you to ability to fast forward back to a place you were before in the course of that activated time control.  So you can pinpoint pretty much down to the exact second; where you want to end up.  You might spend 20 minutes figuring out how to get a key out of a tunnel, only to rewind the entire process with the key still in your hand.

It will appeal to the modern gaming completionist as well.  Through the levels you must find literal puzzle pieces to literally solve puzzles.  Braid incorporates those puzzle pieces in more ways than one and it will absolutely astound you how.

Braid is one of the best puzzle platformers I've ever had the pleasure to play.  It's unique gameplay, absolutely GORGEOUS art style, simple yet compelling story, eerie but beautiful soundtrack, kept me wanting more and more.  The one major point I will warn about; Braid is hard, I did find myself looking up walkthroughs to reach that just out of hand puzzle piece, but even then, grabbing the piece never felt so satisfying.
The trailer gives you a little peek at the soundtrack as well

BRAID: 8 out of 10 Thumbs

Friday, February 10, 2012

Lasting Appeal; The True Test of Time

As none of you know, I spent this past  semester studying abroad in London.  Don't worry, I'm not going to bore you with my travel adventures although I know you would ALL like to hear them.
Anyway my gaming was somewhat lacking of due to my time restraints and my lack of good internet.  God I missed my xbox.  I spent a lot of time on steam. But when I lost internet I withdrew back into my emulators.
I started playing Diddy Kong Racing, Banjo Kazooie, and Jet Force Gemini, Iggy's Reckin Balls, etc etc.  I started looking up the reviews for these games and wondered "are these particular game reviews still valid today?"  So in a method that answers that question and boosts my own ego at the same time, I analyzed them again.

Diddy Kong Racing

Original Score: 8.4
My New Score: 8
Diddy Kong Racing was the first game that I owned for my N64 and was considered one of the best games for N64 in 97'
Diddy Kong Racing is your average 90's cartoony nintendo racing game.  Very much like Mario Kart but with a tiny animal makeover.  All playable characters were represented by animals, a few of which spawned their own games.(Banjo, Conkur)  DKR has some beautiful animations. The tracks are all very well designed and are all very unique.   But does it still hold up today?  Overall yes it does.  As aged as DKR may be (the original review praises their use of polygons) it retains it's childish, nintendoesque humor that we all love.  Under the campy tunes, and ridiculously hokey characters lies a good racing game.  The challenge is still there, as racing against the 5 bosses still manages to frustrate and the rewards are still very satisfying.  The few shortcomings that DKR has are not enough to drag it down, but might be enough to make some people retreat back into Blur.  The AI is of course rather under developed and seem to either let you win, or give you very little chance.  DKR was one of the first games that I can think of that offered multiple vehicle choices, unfortunately not all of the vehicles were not as well developed as one would help.  The plane and the hovercraft could definitely used some work, especially for those characters that already had terrible speed and control ratios, the difficulty of managing a hovercraft did not help

Jet Force Gemini

Original Score: 8.1
My New Score: 9
Jet Force Gemini was my personal first experience with any kind of shooter. Not so much FPS but TPS.  Jet Force Gemini was an N64 game not to be missed, and in my opinion one of Rare's finest.

Jet Force Gemini puts you in the arms of Juno, Vela and Lupus. Three space bounty hunters on a mission, to defeat the evil Mizer and rescue the peaceful Tribals.  JFG is is not your usual campy nintendo game.  JFG is HARD.  Most levels consist of your single character fighting hundreds upon hundreds of alien drones. You are supplied with a ready arsenal of space age weapons to assist you and none of them fail to impress.  Weapons like the Tri-Rocket launcher allow for maximum damage to the bigger baddies while regulars like the Machine Gun help you take out many enemies at once.  Some weapons do seem to be more for show than anything, the plasma rifle looses its luster in the later levels when the enemies get smarter.  The weapons get the most use in multiplayer.  Mutliplayer takes the form of a deathmatch between 2-4 characters.  You have a selection of using light, medium, or heavy weapons and just go at it till someone gets bored.  Places where JFG shine are most obvious during the single player mode.  Doors are opened by finding keys, and killing all the drones.  Certain areas present you with the challenge of hitting enemies that are either flying high above you or specifically trying to avoid you. JFG gives you the ability to transfer from a third person view to more of a first person. Your character becomes transparent and the camera zooms in making it easier to specifically target hard to reach baddies.  One thing Rare tried very hard to do when making JFG was put as much replay value into it as possible.  This works in terms of revisiting levels with other characters to access before unreachable areas, but they might have taken it a bit too far with completion.  One of your goals in the game (which is actually mandatory) is to rescue the cute fuzzy bears known as Tribals.  The problem? you need to collect all of them, the bigger problem? If you miss one you have to go back and collect them ALL again to make that one you missed count.  Yea it's a bitch.  This does not however take away from the game so much to warrant only one playthrough.  Jet Force Gemini is an amazing game that has not aged with time.  The graphics hold their own on the N64 with only minor frame rate problems.  The gameplay is extremely satisfying with completely epic boss fights.  Squashing bugs was never this hard.  In my opinion Jet Force Gemini was and still is one of the greatest N64 games ever made and is completely playable today.  (and a great soundtrack to boot)

Iggy's Reckin Balls

Original Score: 6.9 (hehe)
My New Score: 5

Iggy's Reckin Balls is a weird fucking game.  You are Iggy (or one of his eclectic playable friends) a group of animate wrecking balls with a fetish for racing.  At it's core thats what Iggy is, a racing game.  You jump, roll, and swing your way across the usually circular 3D, colorful tracks while picking up items to help you along the way by speeding you up or by dispatching your enemy.  Iggy is fun, Iggy is funny, Iggy is repetitive, Iggy isn't for a solo gamer.  Iggy really shines in it's multiplayer.  Battle mode with four people is Iggy at it's best.  The main reason for my lower score is that unless you happen to still have an N64, and unless you happen to find a copy of Iggy's Reckin balls sittin around, and unless you feel like actually paying money for it, this game is only really worth a few minutes of cheap camp filled N64 thrills. Anyone playing Iggy on an emulator isn't going to get the experience out of it that the game deserves.


Original Score: 9.6
My New Score: 9.5
Banjo-Kazooie remains to this day my favorite N64 game and the only really great spin off to come from Diddy Kong Racing.  Banjo-Kazooie is an incredibly imaginative adventure game that follows Banjo a honey bear and his eccentric friend Kazooie, a witty bird with attitude.  Banjo's sister Tooty is kidnapped by the evil Gruntilda so that she may transfer Tooty's beauty to herself using her "pretty girl, ugly witch beauty switching machine"  The game follows the pattern of the rest of the N64 adventures, making Banjo traverse 9 unique and deadly worlds to find puzzle pieces (Jiggy's).  Finding enough jiggy's in one world opens up the next.  Jiggy's are collecting ala mario 64 style, complete quests in each world which can involve races, battles, fetch quests, secret locations, collectables, etc.  The worlds are very well designed and a joy to explore.  Throughout the game you will learn new attacks and techniques that will allow you to access places unreachable before in the previous worlds.  Banjo's strongest point is probably it's personality. The game is chock full of wonderfully fun characters to interact with that help you on your quest.  Pretty much everything in Banjo-Kazooie is alive.  Mumbo Jumbo is a shaman who after collecting enough jumbo skulls will turn banjo into something based on the world you are in, a walrus, a pumpkin, a bee, and my personal favorite, a washing machine.  Brentilda, Gruntilda's sister who gives you personal (Sometimes too personal) information about Gruntilda that comes in handy toward the end of the game, and Bottles, an almost blind mole who teaches Banjo new moves and has an ongoing feud with Kazooie. Banjo-Kazooie is ultimately one of the most replayable games I've ever experienced. The only thing keeping Banjo from a perfect 10 is it's accessibility.  Banjo is definitely more fun when you've got a controller in your hands, and more specifically an N64 controller.  It is very hard to perfect on an emulator due to the lack of a control stick and the complications of using the C-buttons.  Banjo Kazooie is however still available on the Xbox Live Arcade, although I will admit the XBLA one feels to me like it's a somewhat diluted version, edited to make the game easier.