Saturday, October 17, 2009

QuickBlog: Republic Commando

8.0 - [Excellent]

Gameplay: 8
Visuals: 8
Music: 9
Sound: 9
Value: 6

Publisher: LucasArts
Developer: LucasArts
Multiplayer: Offline versus, online versus (online is PC only, if it's still up and running)
Console(s): Xbox, PC
Reviewed on: Xbox
ESRB rating: T (Blood and Gore, Violence)
BMR rating: T (Blood and Gore, Violence, Mild Language)

Good Points:

Excellent voice acting - Memorable characters - Exciting action - Atmospheric sound and visual design - Awesome music - Intelligent AI - Easy-to-use and effective squad commands - Fun weapons

Not So Good Points:

Short campaign - Lame multiplayer - Occasional bugs and glitches - Really needs a sequel (I'm not sure if this one can count, but it's true)

When a game takes on a license, be it a popular movie, book, or epic poem (the latter of which is not unheard of, albeit less common), the first thing to go is usually the quality. Whether it's because of a tight deadline or a publisher in it to make some easy cash, even the most competent products can feel generic and uninspired. This is not the case with LucasArts' Star Wars-themed first-person shooter, which is easily one of the finest Star Wars games to date. You play as Delta Three-Eight (also known as "Boss"), the leader of an elite squad of clone troopers called Delta Squad. Three fellow members of the team will accompany you throughout the game, each with their own unique and memorable personality. First up is Scorch, the wise-cracking comic relief figure of the crew who happens to be extremely good at rigging explosives and watching them blow up. Sev, the gravelly-voiced sniper with a grim sense of humor, can always be counted on to make the shot that counts. Lastly, there's Fixer, the most clone-like of the squad due to his sensible and loyal nature, who can naturally slice or repair anything mechanical. All the characters are voice acted excellently. In fact, Temuera Morrison (the voice of the Jango Fett and the clones from the Star Wars movies) plays the role of the Boss, which adds some wonderful authenticity. You'll get to know and love each member, which is surely a highlight of the game.

Battles require thought, skill, and a whole lot of adrenaline.

The storyline takes place between Episodes II and III from the Star Wars saga and weaves an interesting though fairly straightforward tale. The action is intense and very satisfying, with cool enemy design, smart AI, and a number of weapons and tactics available for you to use. Perhaps the greatest weapon in the game is this super-awesome blade that shoots out from your wrist at a moment's notice. Knifing the heads off battle droids never gets old. You can command your teammates to perform certain maneuvers as you navigate the dangerous levels, which is vital for keeping Delta Squad alive and the bad guys dead. The game takes an obvious cue from Halo, complete with a shield-based health system, a haunting chorus as a major musical theme, and other similar elements. However, Republic Commando doesn't come off as a copycat with no fresh ideas; it really feels like its own experience. The blend of John Williams' traditional Star Wars music strikes a perfect balance with Republic Commando's own score, and stays that way with the character design and sound effects. Even though it's based on Star Wars, the liberties they took with the troopers and the gritty, darker artistic style sets it apart in a very, very good way. The game is moody, thrilling, and filled with fascinating details that take advantage of the Xbox's hardware. It's too bad that the multiplayer is rather unexciting and that the game is so short. Of course, the whole package isn't glitch-free, but it's a blast the first way through and still a really good time to replay. If you're looking for a Star Wars fix, or just a great first-person shooter, look no further than Republic Commando.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Sonic the Hedgehog

3.5 - [Bad]

Gameplay: 3
Visuals: 4
Music: 8
Sound: 5
Value: 7

Publisher: Sega
Developer: Sonic Team
Multiplayer: Local co-op, local versus
Console(s): Xbox 360, PS3
Reviewed on: Xbox 360
ESRB rating: E10+ (Fantasy Violence)
BMR rating: E10+ (Fantasy Violence)

Good Points:

Varied and great soundtrack - Lots to do - Good multiplayer

Not So Good Points:

Oh boy, here we go - Confusing story with way too many characters involved - Quantity and not quality in terms of gameplay - Busted graphics along with poor frame rate - Bland voice acting - Horrendous loading times - Uncooperative camera - Frustrating blend of technical problems - Mostly pointless town stages

Let's get this out of the way first. This game may be called Sonic the Hedgehog, but it has little to do with the original Genesis classic, and that's a real shame. For simplicity's sake, we'll just call it Sonic 06, for it was released in November of 2006. This game for the Xbox 360 and PS3 is broken, fundamentally broken, and makes enough mistakes to dig its own grave three times over. Does that mean there's no fun to bad had anywhere? Not exactly; if you dig deep you can find some genuinely entertaining moments, and plenty of good ideas that just happened to go terribly, terribly wrong. But despite its best intentions, the game's glitchy nature always drags it back down, which we will soon explore in all its unfortunate glory.

But first, let's take a look at what has Sonic running about this time around. As it turns out, the beautiful city of Soleanna is having its Festival of the Sun, and the strangely realistic-looking human Princess Elise is there to celebrate with her people. However, the diabolical Dr. Eggman crashes the party and pulls a Bowser by kidnapping the princess. That means it's up to the Blue Blur to stop the mad doctor, and the chase is on! The story gets a lot more complex than this, though, including Shadow the Hedgehog's intense discovery of his purpose in life (again), the newcomer Silver's world-warping adventures, and a complicated time-traveling plot. It's all rather hard to follow and tends to break its own rules, especially since Sonic Team managed to cram in every Sonic character out there this side of Big the Cat. The game was obviously aiming for a sprawling, epic plot, but it'll most likely leave you scratching your head with a blank expression on your face. Nevertheless, the story has its moments, and can be rather interesting for Sonic fans who are wondering what will happen next to their favorite characters.

Far worse than the muddled story is the gameplay, which is generally frustrating and fun-free. There are three basic level designs: Sonic levels, Shadow levels, and Silver levels. Sonic levels play like the previous 3D Sonic platformers, except for the fact that these are terrible. The familiar homing attack is back, and you'll find yourself running, jumping, and bashing robots in spades. The levels have a nice variety to them, including activities such as snowboarding, running away from a giant whale a la Sonic Adventure, and even carrying Princess Elise out of harm's way. The problem is that each and every one of these activities contains terrible controls and an abundance of glitches. The animations are choppy and unsatisfying, and you'll constantly find yourself wrestling with the camera and falling off ledges. If any previous games in the series gave you these problems, be prepared to find that this one really takes the cake for poor gampelay and can't even be compared to any of the older and far better games (except, possibly, for Shadow the Hedgehog, but let's not go there). Ironically, the worst stages in a game called Sonic the Hedgehog belong to the speedy hero himself.

Shadow's stages are thankfully devoid of handheld armaments (very unlike his previously mentioned game), but do boast quite the supply of hard-hitting vehicles. You can fly in a high-tech jet, swoop around in a hovercraft, zoom along in a motorcycle and (my personal favorite) shoot things up with a heavily-armed buggy. Some of these are decent while others are are terrible, and the levels ranges from open-ended icy tundras to fast-paced train chases. When not sitting moodily behind a steering wheel, Shadow is moodily using his Chaos powers to combat his foes with hand-to-hand combat techniques. It can be entertaining to rapidly karate chop a flaming monster in the head for a while, but I still think driving around in a buggy is better. When all's said and done, Shadow fares better than his good-natured counterpart despite the over-the-top baditude, but that doesn't mean he avoids all of the same shortcomings.

It's much, much less fun than it looks. Trust me.

Surprisingly, Silver is the best of the bunch. His stages essentially play like a clunky, buggy version of The Force Unleashed, and I will admit to the sadness of that being one of the best compliments I've given out thus far. The creatively-named silver hedgehog has telekinetic powers that allow him to grab objects with his mind and then hurl them at his opponents. He can also create bridges and walkways out of the terrain, which is contrived but mildly cool. The fact that you can move around objects such as crates and boulders opens up the opportunity to build your own ways through the levels, which can actually be rather creative and fun. As with the other characters, the controls will drive you nuts, but I've had some good times playing as Silver.

Special sections will also occasionally pop up, allowing you to play as a handful of other characters. Unfortunately, these guys control even worse than the main characters, and truly feel like a last minute addition. On top of all that variety, there are town stages that task you with running around an open area and completing side-quests for the locals. But these aren't any fun either, as the minigames are simple and unremarkable. To make matters worse, the load times are abysmal and unintelligently implemented. You'll find yourself listening to a resident's plea for help, then loading for a terribly long time, then getting the details on the mission, then more loading, then playing the short mission, then some more loading... you get the idea. None of the load times from any part of the game are anything but tedious, but they're even more apparent during these situations. You can buy extra items to grant you special abilities with the rings you collect within levels (which is a fun option), but aside from this, the town stages aren't really much more than glorified level selects.

If you're tired of being frustrated and lonely, you can grab a friend and enjoy some split-screen multiplayer action. A number of levels are available to play in both a co-op and race mode, both of which work fine. And in classic Sonic fashion, you can go revisit old levels and try to get better ranks and times on them, including the boss stages. This would all be a lot of fun if the actual gameplay wasn't so shoddy. Sonic 06 has a lot in it, but that hardly makes a difference if it's not fun to play.

In terms of visual quality, the game isn't an eyesore at first glance. The character models look quite respectable, and while you won't see anything remarkable, there's a bright design to the graphics. The CG custscenes especially look impressive. No, it's the glitches and the poor animations that sink this boat. Everything seems to just barely hold together, and navigating the levels do nothing to help this area. From Silver's rushed telekinetic throwing animations to Sonic's embarrassingly stupid head-first cliff-jumping button sequences, your eyes are constantly irritated with unfinished graphics. To make matters worse, a handful of areas slow the frame rate down to a crawl, which is hardly ideal for a game supposedly about speed. It's also jarring to see the cartoony Sonic hanging around with a character more reminiscent of someone from Final Fantasy, Princess Elise, and a more realistic-looking and thinner Eggman. The fact that there's a kind of love story going on between Sonic and Elise makes things even weirder.

Speaking of awkwardness, let's cover the voice acting real quick. Very few of the actors sound invested in their characters (Sonic seems to be bored and/or sleepy the entire way through, and Rouge just isn't even trying), with a few notable exceptions such as Dr. Eggman and Silver. Eggman's performance is perfectly fine, and Silver's is really bad in an extremely good way. At one point the excitable hedgehog loudly proclaims, "I have to defeat all of the enemies in this area!" as he punctuates each syllable with robotic yet admirable force. I can't help but to like him; he tries so hard all the way to the end. The rest of the sound design does it's job well, but isn't anything special.

That's levitation, holmes!

The music is easily Sonic 06's greatest strength. Unlike the rest of the game, it doesn't feel rushed or mutilated; in fact, it's mostly very, very good. Each tune fits its scene well, and there are some really excellent tracks, including a few great guitar riffs, techno beats, and an assortment of other styles. The final boss song is particularity awesome. Not all the songs stand out, but the music as a whole does stand far above the rest of the game in every way. The character themes are kind of hit and miss, though. They're all at least a little bit lame, but can also be all too catchy. For example, Sonic's hip-hop infused theme can be ridiculous, but the guitar solo is amazing. The game disc would certainly be of more worth if you could use it as a music CD.

Sonic 06 doesn't have to be a bad game. It has great music, a plethora of gameplay types, and worthwhile reasons to keep you playing. But despite anything it has to offer, everything is simply ruined by awful gameplay. It doesn't help that the game tries to do too much at once while attempting to create an epic storyline that just doesn't work. It all points to an overambitious agenda; there even more features that got cut along the way. Given more time, Sonic 06 might have been able to pull itself together for an enjoyable experience, but that is definitely not the case. Also take note that this is coming from a huge Sonic fan-- I enjoyed all of the previous 3D Sonic games a lot, and Sonic Adventure 2 is one of my favorite game of all time-- but there's no excuse here. Even rabid fans of the series should know what they're getting into with this game. Take caution: Sonic 06 is one of the worst Sonic games ever created.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Sonic's Ultimate Genesis Collection

9.5- Incredible

[Note: Since Sonic's Ultimate Genesis Collection is a compilation with a lot of different games, it's not possible to assign ratings for the various categories. You'll just have to leave it at 9.5 and take my word for it.]

Publisher: Sega
Developer: Backbone
Multiplayer: Offline co-op, offline versus
Console(s): Xbox 360, Playstation 3
Reviewed on: Xbox 360
ESRB rating: E10+ (Animated Blood, Violence)
BMR rating: I can't say, since I haven't played all of the games yet

Good Points:

49 games included, many of them excellent classics - Nice extras - Incredible bang for your buck - Well-designed save system - "Wise from your gwave!"

Not So Good Points

Some games aren't so fun - If you wanted online play, you're out of luck - It's not quite a complete collection, but it's pretty darn close

Sonic's Ultimate Genesis Collection is pure gold. With 40 classic Genesis games and an additional 9 arcade ports, this compilation is essentially a giant treasure chest brimming with nostalgic Sega goodness. All four of the Sonic sidescrollers are here, along with Golden Axe I-III, Phantasy Star II-IV, Streets of Rage 1-3, and a ton of other games. Not all of the titles are top-notch-- for example, Columns puts me to sleep and Alex Kidd in the Enchanted Castle is just bizarre-- but you're bound to find a bunch that you really enjoy, and the vast majority are at the very least passable. Some favorites of mine that I have not yet mentioned include Shinobi III, Bonanza Bros., and Dr. Robotnik's Mean Bean Machine, all of which are a blast to play. The games are emulated well and ready for the HDTV. They can be switched to a wide-screen view as opposed to the original aspect ratio if that's your choice, and, if you wish, graphically modified using a smoothing feature. I find it more satisfying to rough it out with the good old-fashioned pixels of yesteryear, but the smoothing is an interesting little addition if not altogether helpful. Each game features a healthy number of save slots, which is nice if you'd rather not rough it out in terms of old school difficulty.

The whole aesthetic design has a neat retro feel to it since the menu makes it appear as if you're looking at actual Genesis cartridges. You can sort your catalog of games alphabetically, by release date, by genre, or by rating (which is a five star grading system that allows you to pick favorites), all of which help to get a handle on the long list of games. You can also unlock interviews with the creative minds behind the games and check out each game's trivia facts, story information, and cover art. The art gallery really lets you zoom in too, which allowed me to move the camera so far into Dr. Robotnik's nose that I could only see one solid block of reddish color. It took a while to do it, but at least I spent my time in a constructive manner. So needless to say, you'll have plenty to do in Sonic's Ultimate Genesis Collection, whether you want to play some RPGs, enjoy some ninja action, read up on your gaming history, or get a closer look at Dr. Robotnik's strange nose.

Ah, memories. And there's more where this came from! 48 more, in fact.

Are there any faults to Sonic's Ultimate Genesis Collection? Technically, yes, but nothing major. It's kind of unnecessary to put Sonic's name in the title, and there's no online multiplayer for starters. The Xbox 360 doesn't exactly have the best D-pad in existence, but it's hardly a problem, and you can always buy the PS3 version instead. It would have been nice if Backbone had managed to include a few notable missing aspects, such as the lock-on technology for the Sonic games and the cult classic Toe Jam & Earl, but it's easily forgivable considering what incredible value the game offers. Just to add some perspective, a Genesis game off the Wii's Virtual Console costs $8. That means that to purchase the 40 games included (and that's not even counting the 9 arcade titles), it would come out to about $320. You can currently pick up Sonic's Ultimate Genesis Collection for as low as $10.

Buying Sonic's Ultimate Genesis Collection is a no-brainier for almost any gamer. If you own, like, every Genesis game in the world, this is still a great way to have them (or at least a lot of them) all in one place. If you never got a chance to play the classics of the Genesis age, then this is fantastic place to see what it's all about. Unless you hate Genesis games or video games in general, definitely give this game a shot. The hours of fun you'll spend with the gems of a bygone era will be well worth the money.