August 2009

Trials HD

August 28, 2009

Don’t let the motorcycle fool you – Trials HD is a puzzle game, and a darn difficult one at that. Sure you’ll breeze through easy on your minibike and earn a few gold medals, but eventually you will find your way to hard and realize that you only have one level left – King of the Hill. That level will teach you patience, proper leaning, and mandatory use of the brakes like no other. But you won’t get frustrated. Instant restart and a generous restart ensure that whenever you want to try that last segment again you can do so without waiting through 45 seconds of loading screen (ahem…Stuntman).

Controls are simple, but the courses you’ll be traversing are not. Armed with only the two triggers and the left analog stick you will find your way over ramps, massive jumps, controlled falls, 360 degree flips, and even a hidden bowling game. RT is gas, LT is brake, and the left analog controls your motorcyclists lean. RedLynx takes its level groupings seriously. Hard is, well, hard. The last track I completed took over 100 restarts. I’m by no stretch of the imagination an expert at this, but the lion’s share of those restarts were a single incline section where I just could not convince my motorcycle to hop in a very specific way. Pulling off those fancy maneuvers though, feels great and is one of the driving forces that keeps me coming back to the game.

It is possible to unlock every track by simply getting a bronze on the previous track. Bronze requirements are low: complete the track. Silver are harder introducing fall limits and time limits, and gold medals are the hardest of all. If you haven’t mastered a track then you won’t be bringing home the gold. And you’ll want gold medals because obtaining them is what unlocks new tournaments and skill games. Trials HD definitely pushes you to try just one more time with its unlocks for good performance and integrated leader board. There aren’t ghosts or anything, but along the top of the screen you’ll see your progress as compared to the next best racer on your friends list. I love leader board integration like this, and on a couple tracks that was what really pushed me to learn the route.

Also of note is the track editor. And this isn’t some pared-down “you can put a ramp here and a ring of fire there” affair – it’s the same editor that the devs used to create all of the in-game tracks, giving would-be designers very little limits to what they can do.

Finally, Trials HD is beautiful. If you’ve played Trials or Trials 2 as Flash games then you’re in for a treat graphically. Everything is crisp and detailed, boxes fall apart after you land on them, glass breaks when you drive through it, and everything in the game is a physics object. Run into that plank to knock it down, clear that railing or risk flipping your bike over, avoid the TNT crates if you don’t want your poor little rider to get blown across the screen, and press Y at just the right time to become a human bowling ball and knock down all the pins in the Jolly Jumper level to net yourself an achievement and a gamer pic.

Trials HD is addictive, difficult, and most of all, fun. I find myself suffering from “just one more try” syndrome every time I play it, and so far it is my favorite entry in the 2009 edition of Microsoft’s Summer of Arcade promotion.

Pros: Difficult but fair, gorgeous visuals, full-featured track editor
Cons: Can be frustrating
Plays Like: Stuntman, Excitebike
ESRB: T for teen

Velvet Assassin is an attempt to bring back the old school style of stealth games some people may remember, before Splinter Cell and Metal Gear Solid took the genre by storm. And while it does manage to keep the basic gameplay from an earlier time intact, it does nothing to improve upon it. The gameplay is something that some fans of the genre may enjoy, but it’s hard to deny that it feels less like a current generation title and more like an old relic from two console generations past.

The story is “loosely”  based on the life of British secret agent Violette Szabo. But by loosely, I mean it does not have any historical accuracy with either Violette as a person, or her life. The only connect that can be made is that it all takes place during World War II, and the main character, Violette Summer, is a British secret agent. But aside from those key points, it’s a completely fictionalized version of both her life, and that time in history. 

Violette tells the story of the game as she is lying in bed, and the entire game is narrated from her own perspective. But she tends to narrate everything, even basic things you could just learn from a tutorial. Saying things like “lockers tend to have useful items inside” just removes any credibility the narration has, and at times makes it almost laughable. The voice actress who portrays Violette isn’t necessarily convincing either, as a lot of her lines seem to be simply read from a script without emotion or care, not acted.

The game does have a surprisingly original look to it, with an art style that is dark, brooding, and sometimes a bit creepy. It definitely takes a lot away from whatever realism the game is going for, but it also adds a lot to the experience. But sometimes, it can be too dark, to the point where you have to rely on your flashlight way too often. And of course, getting to a new area with your flashlight still on will lead to trouble, because the enemies will no doubt find you in a second. Darkness is a necessary part of a stealth game, yes, but it also becomes an obstacle you need to overcome. 

As I said earlier, the basic stealth gameplay is intact and it does work rather well. It pretty much involves you entering a new area, figuring out the pattern of the enemies, and finding a way to take them all out (or just sneak past them) to get to the next area. If you are a hardcore stealth fan, you may appreciate this game’s attempt to revitalize the old school stealth genre. It definitely is an acquired taste, but it works for what it is trying to accomplish.

However, there are many other problems that hold the game back from being an enjoyable stealth game. The A.I. is a big one, and when you have a game that is practically dependent on the enemy A.I., you can’t afford to mess it up. The enemies can be both too stupid at times, allowing you to walk right past them when it is clear they should notice you. But they can also do some odd things, like being able to detect you through a doorway. Sometimes when you open a door, you get a very brief loading screen and then you are in a new area. There were times when the enemies would someone detect me the second I walked through that door, and I had no chance to do anything to protect myself or get away. 

You can upgrade Violette, but it is generally useless as the majority of the game involves you trying to avoid danger as opposed to finding it. The increase in health can be handy, but more often than not, when you get caught in some later levels, you might not even get a chance to escape. And then you get upgrades for guns, or at least Violette’s ability to use them. They are more of a problem than a helpful tool, since the aiming is absolutely awful. You can also pick up morphine, which when used makes you invisible to the enemies for a short period of time. It can be helpful when you need to get out of a tight spot, but again, takes away from any realism in the game. 

Another problem is the game’s checkpoint system. You do get checkpoints during missions, yes, but they are way too few and far between. During one mission, you get one checkpoint right at the beginning, and that was it. The mission should take most players from that point on another ten or fifteen minutes, but since you can be killed so easily, you’ll find that time increase by another twenty to thirty minutes. It is old school, but it definitely is not fun.  

Velvet Assassin is a rather ambitious stealth game that tries to blend realism with a unique and original art style, but it falls flat on its face too many times to make the game worth any price. You might get some enjoyment out of this title if you’re a huge fan of the genre, but players are guaranteed to be persistently annoyed by its problems, no matter how patient they are. 

ESRB: M for Mature; contains plenty of blood, violence, and strong language.

Pros: Basic, old school stealth gameplay is intact; the art style of the game is interesting and original

Cons: Various A.I. problems can sometimes make the game more frustrating; the game is often too dark; the aiming/shooting mechanics are awful; the game’s lack of checkpoints can lead to frustration; narration is unintentionally hilarious at times


August 20, 2009

There have been a glut of superhero games that have come out in the past few years, so for any game to stand out from the crowd it needs to either have a really great license, such as X-Men and Spiderman, or needs to do something in a way that no other game has successfully done. Prototype is one of the latter.

Prototype lets you loose in an open-world sandbox, located on Manhatten Island.  This in itself is not very unique, as many superhero games have been open-world.  However, you’ll learn in the opening moments of the game that this will not be just any superhero game.  You are Alex Mercer, a nearly unstoppable menace to society, the cause of a massive plague that has consumed the entirety of New York City, and able to kill off entire platoons of infantry with wanton abandon.

Of course, this is just the prologue, and you quickly go to the beginning of the story, where you no longer have all the massively destructive powers you had at first, but you are still a force to be reckoned with. Once you get past the prologue, you find out that your character has amnesia. Now he must find out who turned him into the monster that he is, and exact revenge on them in any way he can. This lays the basis for all the decisions Alex will make as more of the story is revealed, and shows exactly why Alex is a complete antihero. Yes, he has superpowers. No, he is not a bad person, but he is driven by revenge, and, as you’ll see throughout the game, doesn’t really care what happens to nearly anyone else in New York, as long as he gets his revenge in the end. There are two aspects of finding out what happened and who is responsible: going through the story-line missions and killing specific individuals throughout the game world. When you kill a person who is marked as an important person, you actually see the story through that person’s eyes for a few moments. Killing a person will reveal to you other people related to what has happened, thus enabling a web of connections and memories that will lead you to the ultimate truth.

Probably the most well-made aspects of Prototype are the combat system, and the controls in general. The combat system is very slick, with a lock-on to concentrate on a specific enemy in mass melees, or to use any of the large variety of long distance attacks or throws you have access to. Aside from that, the combat is just fun.  Its highly enjoyable to wade through dozens upon dozens of troops, citizens, and assorted other bodies, all the while gaining experience points and health for each person you kill. The experience points you get can be spent upgrading your various abilities and purchasing new ones. The controls also feel very responsive, with combos being very easy to do, and the many special moves that require multile button presses responding better than I can recall in almost any other game I’ve played. Controlling Alex feels effortless right from the beginning, and greatly contributes to the feel of the game.

Another aspect that was completely nailed was the whole feel of being a superhero.  You feel like you are nearly invincible as you storm through crowds of infantry, all shooting at you with machine guns. You see the bullets hitting you, but you can also see that they barely hurt you at all. By no means are you invincible though, and as you get farther into the game, the crowds of infantry will grow, and they’ll start sporting rocket launchers rather than machine guns. The other enemies you face also grow tougher, giving you a constantly increasing difficulty throughout the game.

The graphics of the game are crisp, but don’t really stand out from the pack. The music is nonexistent, but the sound effects and voice acting are about equal to the majority of games out right now.

Prototype is in no way the best game out there right now, but it is one of the funnest games in a while, and is definitely worth a purchase by anyone who enjoys open-world, superhero, or action games.

Pros: Great combat, great controls, enjoyable story, really feels like being a superhero

Cons: Graphics are crisp but average, as is the audio, difficulty is sometimes rough

ESRB: Rated M for Blood and Gore, Intense Violence and Strong Language

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Reiner Knizia: famed designer of timeless games of strategy including Tigris & Euphrates, Ra, and Blue Moon City, among many others. Twilight Creations, Inc.: publishers of fun — if generally lower-quality — games that often feature a zombie theme, particularly Zombies!!! and its various expansions. Zombigeddon: the unlikely intersection of the previous two entities.

Zombiegeddon pits you and your opponent(s) in a scramble for supplies just before Armageddon. 112 “pre-bomb” disks are randomly distributed to the empty hexes on the board; these represent food, provisions, weapons, barricades, sewer entrances, and even a few “enemy” humans. Your four pawns begin at four white “pre-bomb” shelters spaced around the board and you receive four “supply tokens” to deliver to other shelters.

On your turn, you get two actions/moves. You can either move one pawn twice or two different pawns once each; alternately, you may also remove one of your pawns from the board (because it can’t move anywhere else). You can only move a pawn onto an un-occupied space containing a disk, with the exception of manholes and shelters (which can hold more than one pawn) or if you use both actions to move past an opponent’s pawn. An action can be spent to move a pawn from one manhole disk to any other manhole disk, and no pawn can move on to a barricade disk. When you move your pawn off an unoccupied (non-manhole) disk, you add it to your collection face-down, unless it is a weapon (which are kept face-up until used). You cannot move on to an “enemy” disk unless you discard a previously-earned weapon disk. Moving a pawn into one of the red “post-bomb” shelters allows you to deliver one of your supply tokens.

Eventually, it will become apparent that only one player can “claim” certain disks. Once all remaining disks can be “claimed” in this manner, the “pre-bomb” round ends and those disks are collected by their respective players with the unclaimed disks being discarded. Then the 88 “post-bomb” disks, which include a fair amount of “enemy” zombies, are distributed to the remaining empty spaces (manholes and barricades don’t leave the board), and then you place one pawn in each shelter to which you delivered a supply token (the remaining pawns are lost — plan ahead!). Round two then proceeds pretty much the same way as round one, with supply tokens delivered back to “pre-bomb” shelters earning five additional points each at the end of the game.

Once round two has ended, usually after less than an hour of play, scores are totaled. Food and enemy tokens are worth their printed value; provision tokens, which come in four different “flavors” (two pre-bomb, two post-bomb) are worth points based on how many of each type you’ve collected. The highest score wins, with no tiebreaker provided; I’ve yet to need one thus far, but my last game was literally decided by a single point.

Zombiegeddon features classic Knizia strategic gameplay; other than the distribution of the disks, there is no randomness and all information is (initially) public, creating a game of “perfect information”. However, the presentation of the game is slightly less than perfect. The artwork, while detailed, is initially confusing as the disks all look very similar at a casual glance. Representatives of Twilight Creations, Inc. have stated that if they issue a second printing of the game, they will correct this problem by “ringing” the disks to better distinguish them. Still, most players will learn which disks are which within their fist play or two, so it isn’t exactly a game-breaking problem.

What may be a game-breaking problem for some is the fact that this really isn’t much of a “zombie” game. If ever a game could be justifiably accused of having a “pasted-on theme”, Zombiegeddon is that game. While the “zombie apocalypse” theme does work within the mechanics of the game, it’s really not necessary and doesn’t actually add much as you are never in any danger from the zombies — you simply can’t enter their disks if you lack a weapon disk. But at the end of the day (or world, as the case may be), while a good theme can sometimes enhance an otherwise mediocre game, a game with rock-solid mechanics can get by with just about any theme the publishers want without being dinged too hard, and Zombiegeddon‘s mechanics are as solid as any other Knizia design. It’s an unusual title to have sitting on your shelf next to your other Eurogames, to be sure, but once it’s on the table the strategy takes over and that’s when real games shine.