Wednesday, November 24, 2010

A Look to the Past: Games of the Years 2006 - The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion


The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind was a mess. It was a grand, sprawling mess of amazingness, but it was a mess. Embarrassing animation, glitchy terrain, cheap-sounding spell effects, horrible AI... the list goes on. It was epic in scope and did what it set out to do, but there were plenty of bumps along the way. Its successor, Oblivion, fixed pretty much everything and expanded the Elder Scrolls series in magnificent ways. It sacrificed some player freedom and Morrowind's unique identity along the way, but it ultimately became for a far more polished and playable experience. The massive fantasy world of Cyrodiil held mysteries to solve, pirates to duel, books to read, mansions to rob, magic to learn, horses to ride, arenas in which to do battle, and a lot more... and I'm still talking about the capitol city. Yes, Oblivion was huge, and it provided one of the most convincing worlds ever conceived in a video game. Every AI-controlled NPC had his or her own schedule, from the moment they got up until they went to bed, as the world moved along in real-time. Farmers tilled the fields until the orange dusk descended, lords and ladies allowed visitors to their great halls before retiring to their personal quarters, and shop owners kept their stores locked up tight when at home. Meanwhile, you could go virtually anywhere you liked and do virtually anything you wanted to do. The combat was fun and satisfying and the quests were interesting, despite the fact that there were a staggering amount of ways to fight and places to go. And forget the main (and, might I add, optional) quest; wandering from town to town and fighting off bandits kept me occupied for hours. Of course, that was the beauty of Morrowind, too. But in Oblivion, things actually looked good!

The Road goes ever on and on, down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone, and you must follow, if you can.

Picturesque countrysides, rolling hills, quiet townships, and flourishing forests made Cyrodiil a beautiful place that was worth spending time in. I still can't get over how remarkable it was to stand in the middle of the wilderness with nothing but dozens of trees, bright flowers, and thick bushes in all directions. Very few games capture that sense of depth and realism. The dank places under the earth were appropriately creepy, and I swear you could cut the tension in those caves with a knife. In fact, all of Oblivion's atmosphere was fantastic, the first-person perspective adding to the immersion. Also a vast improvement over its predecessor, Oblivion featured a physics system, which was a little on the iffy side, but far better than nothing. The soundtrack was quite simply some of the most beautiful music I've had the pleasure of hearing and refused to get old no matter how many days of play. But no part of Oblivion-- not even the music-- makes it what it is. The subtle, expansive world truly was the sum of its many parts, which made it a near-endless adventure in which you wrote the story. It's true that very few things in Oblivion were perfect (usually far from), but the astounding amount of cohesive, eye-opening dungeons, towns, and events that scattered Cyrodiil more than made up for the flaws. It doesn't matter if you compare similar games such as Okami, The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess or Rayman Raving Rabbids against it; Oblivion is just too big to ignore.

Sonic Colors

7.5 - [Great]

Gameplay: 7
Visuals: 9
Music: 8
Sound: 7
Value: 7

Publisher: Sega
Developer: Sonic Team
Multiplayer: Co-op
Console(s): Wii, DS
Reviewed on: DS
ESRB rating: E (Cartoon Violence)
BMR rating: E (Cartoon Violence)

Good points:

Wild sense of speed - Improved controls - Rad soundtrack - Colorful visuals - Humorous writing - Highly replayable - Exciting level design

Not so good points:

Kind of lame theme song - Broken ranking system - Power-ups can grow tiring

Sonic Colors is a game that caught me by surprise. While the general public's collective eyes were trained on the long-awaited Sonic 4, this inconspicuous title sneaked its way onto the Wii without much fuss. The fact that it acts as a successor of sorts to the generally disliked Sonic Unleashed didn't bolster hopes. It is surprising and altogether heartening, then, that Sonic Colors is a big surprise in a very good way. To use a less-than-clever but still relevant analogy, it's as if Sonic Team took the pallete from their past efforts, picking only the best colors and brushes to paint a vivid picture that acts as a glowing example of the series done right. That's not to say Sonic Colors is without fault, however, for it sports a small collection of irritations and a large, stupid oversight that hurts replayabilty. But despite these superficial smudges, the image remains intact and highly entertaining. In fact, this is the purest 3D Sonic game since... well... ever.

The game launches you right into the thick of a crazy level without any exposition whatsoever. Those hoping for a break from the questionable stories seen in previous games might be disappointed to find that Sonic Colors does, after some initial high-paced running to set the mood, include a narrative. Upon completing the stage, it is revealed that Dr. Eggman has reportedly reformed and is the owner and creator of a massive interstellar amusement park for the good of all. Sonic, of course, doesn't for a moment fall for this bunch of shenanigans and convinces his buddy Tails that the mad doctor has to go down. Predictably, the seasoned hedgehog was right: Eggman is using an innocent alien race known as the Wisps to power his newest contraption of evil and malice. That's the entire plot and cast, aside from a couple goofy robots and an effectively mute Wisp, which proves to be the perfect size for a story that works as a compliment to the gameplay rather than a hindrance. The new voice cast does a great job at livening up the cutscenes with fitting voices, and the writing is surprisingly fun and amusing. A few self-acknowledging jabs at the series and some legitimately funny jokes make this a Sonic tale that doesn't take itself too seriously. It's cheesy, yes; but it's cheesy in a way that works.

It's a good thing that Baldy McNosehair (as Sonic and Tails have coined the diabolical doctor) put so much effort into designing his villainous theme park, because it did wonders for level design. Six vibrant worlds think outside the box to deliver some exhilarating speed and clever platforming. You won't find the average Green Hill equivalent, ice world with a snowboarding sequence, or gear-obsessed metal fortress here: Sonic Colors does a good job at bringing the hedgehog to lands unexplored. You'll visit towering mountains of delicious food that provide some sweet loop-de-loops through donuts, a brilliantly-lit fleet of neon-colored ships as they travel through hyperspace, and a submerged Japanese temple with schools of fish swimming between the pillars just to name a few. Stage selects reminiscent of Super Mario Bros. 3's map screen highlights the generous scoop of levels each world contains, displaying helpful information pertaining to ranks, scores, and objects collected for each one. Some are short and almost mini-game-like challenges, others focus on a particular gameplay element, and others still mix everything together for full-length levels. This wholesome amount of variety is a welcome addition, but still presents plenty of the core Sonic action that everyone's here for.

So that's where he gets all that caffeine! 

The game plays very similarly to Sonic Unleashed: both behind-the-back sequences with full 3D control and traditional 2D controls fluidly meld together to create the best of both worlds. Everything feels much tighter this time around, making it a ton of fun to blast through the levels at top speed. The 3D parts require a decent amount of finesse to keep from ramming into objects or flying off a ledge altogether, but the responsive quick steps will stop you from losing control during the blindingly fast and extra dangerous sections. Some areas will have you sliding around tight turns and others give you more direct control, but it all boils down to the same gameplay elements. At times slippery, there are certainly moments of mild frustration that lead to a lost lfie, but nothing that a little overcorrection can't fix. The 2D portions usually deal with more platforming-related trials and offer a classic sidescrolling bent to the action; they're often employed when complex, multi-layered stages take charge. Both are enjoyable and necessary parts of a whole, and the two styles of play often blur together so seamlessly that it's hard to even notice the change.

Despite their perspective differences, both modes share the same essence. Sonic can now double jump, which takes some getting used to but ultimately does a lot for precision. The sliding move and homing attack also return, both of which assist in chaining together combos and resisting gravity and friction alike. Maintaining your boost meter by grabbing capsules of friendly aliens will go a long way to keeping you zipping straight up walls and flying down rails at an impressive velocity, and it's undeniably thrilling to keep moving without skipping a beat. Sonic is a ridiculously speedy rodent and the stages take full advantage of this fact. Ramps and enemies are placed in just the right manner to allow a skilled player to blow through a stage by taking all the best tricks and shortcuts. The first way through can be a bumpy ride, for level memorization is key to success, but it's the practice and results of said practice that make it so rewarding to finally nail a stage start to finish. Sonic Colors knows when to slow things down, though; mindlessly pushing forward won't do you any favors. Spikes and pits will trip you up if you're not looking where you're going, and it's oftentimes advantageous to stop and examine your surroundings to find a better route for your next run. This installment in the series boasts commendable pacing and great controls, which is an impressive feat considering the delicate balance between slowing Sonic down too much and, alternatively, letting him blindly dash in a straight line to victory. A Wii remote and nunchuck combo, a single remote, a classic controller, and a GameCube controller can all be used to play the game, and they all work fine (though I wasn't able to personally test the classic controller setup). I found myself gravitating to the nunchuck setting since it's easier to boost and jump simultaneously, but it's surprisingly playable with the other controllers.

The primary new feature of Sonic Colors is the power-up mechanic. Excluding the previously mentioned white Wisps that fill the boost meter, there are seven different colored Wisps that each possess their own special properties. Yellow turns Sonic into an earth-digging drill, cyan bounces him off walls and through robots as a laser, pink morphs him into a spinning blade of spikes that can latch onto walls, blue turns special tokens into platforms of cubes (and vice versa), green floats him through the air to reach high places and nab rings, orange sends him high into the air as a rocket, and purple transforms him into a raging beast that devours everything in sight. These power-ups can be used to access secret passages, blow through large groups of enemies, and generally interact with the world however you see fit. As you unlock more of the powers you'll be able to revisit old levels and put them to good use where previously nothing could be done. I sometimes found myself wishing that I could just keep moving instead of fiddling around with a spiky pink bowling ball (especially since the controls can be a mite finicky every now and then), but they're a nice addition to break up the action and add a bit of depth to the familiar running and jumping. It's a shame that shaking the Wii remote is required to activate them (that is, if you're using one of the Wii remote control schemes), though. It's a functional mechanic, if somewhat pointless and unresponsive, but the game could have done without any motion controls whatsoever. Yet the seemingly innocent alien pals contribute a far more irritating error to the game, and much as the drill power delves deep into the earth, it digs the replay an unfortunate grave.

Grab those rings, hit the springs, get to the end of the stage... you know the drill. PUN!

That might have been a tad on the dramatic side of things, but the designers seem to have overlooked an import aspect of their ranking system. As is custom in recent Sonic games, a grade is handed out for each level's performance, ranging from the unbearably lousy E to the coveted S. Three elements factor into the rank: the time it took you to complete the stage, the number of rings you obtained and finished with, and the overall score from beating up robots, grinding, and general things like that. The problem lies within the power-ups, as simply remaining in one of the forms continuously racks up score. This might not be a problem if some of the Wisp capsules didn't respawn, but that isn't the case. Therefore it becomes all too easy to spam the heck out of the power-ups, resulting in an S rank for turning around in circles and wasting time. There's a cap for score and time, which does help to an extent, but some stages are hurt by this cheap exploitation. Naturally this doesn't effect actual level design, but completionists or those looking for a challenge will be disappointed in a system that doesn't care too much about how skillful you are at charging through a given level. Luckily there are plenty of other things to do in Baldy McNosehair's wonderful world of impractically built amusement park rides, leaving behind the poor ranking system to contemplate its mistakes.

Five red coins are hidden in each level, and using wit and Wisps to find them is a simple concept that does a remarkable amount for replayability. It's also a good excuse to further scour each stage for the very best paths, which makes speed runs all the more satisfying. A challenge mode tasks you with completing the entire game, level after level, in one go. Your total time and score will be uploaded to the leaderboards for all to see, which isn't a bad option if you feel like sinking a lot of time into the game at once. Dr. Eggman has a game of his own cooked up for those yearning for even more to do in the form of an arcade-style Sonic Simulator, putting the player in control of a robot version of Sonic. Your custom Mii's head can replace Sonic's if you so desire, but honestly, that looks really weird. Collecting special rings from stages unlocks more levels in the simulator, and beating those earns you Chaos Emeralds. Can you guess what happens when you manage to gather all seven of the fabled jewels? If not, you probably haven't played a Sonic game before. A friend can join the fun in the form of a second Sonic-bot (or a disturbing, disgruntled, one-eyed Mii, in my case), but doing so isn't especially exciting, and the fellow player usually ends up getting in the way. The surreal, digital landscapes of the simulator are comprised of boxy platforms and sparse runways, creating an uncomplicated obstacle course. The whole atmosphere is kind of neat, including touches like arcade-cabinet-style artwork for the menu and MIDI versions of all the regular level songs. All things considered, it's a fun distraction, if not a little dull here and there.

The visuals that light up Eggman's fun-filled fair, however, are anything but dull. The game lives up to its name by presenting a colorful display of artistically and technically proficient graphics. Sonic and the other characters are animated well, and the speedy hedgehog's eyes are admirably reflective. But it's hard to pay attention to the blue blur when magnificent, otherworldly scenery is whizzing by, which tends to happen a lot in Sonic Colors. The rate of speed can be intense at times, but the frame rate stubbornly refuses to dip against all but the most hectic scenarios. Huge vistas full of detail and bright colors grace the first stage's surroundings, drawing attention to the spinning ferris wheels, flying cars, burning tiki torches, and absolutely enormous outer-space view of planet Earth. To continue the interstellar trend, at one point during the previously mentioned space fleet level the camera continues to pull back until Sonic is nothing more than a tiny dot on the screen, kicking up rainbow-colored sparks from the hull of a ginormous spaceship, all the while slipping in and out of a warp gate. It would be a lie to say that the game consistently manages to look this awesome, and an HD TV will reveal a certain amount of jagged lines here and there, but Sonic Colors is definitely one of the more impressive-looking Wii games out there.

Enjoy the view. In the actual game, you'll be halfway across the space station in the blink of an eye.

The sound design doesn't disappoint either. A smattering of well-known dings and boings from the Library of Old Sonic Sound Effects are at work here, but the new ones do the job, too. The voice acting and writing is a step up (or perhaps several very large steps up) from the past performances, with Eggman stealing the show as usual. Baldy McNosehair will occasionally make unexpectedly hilarious announcements over the park's PA system ("Remember, this ride is not safe for children twelve and under or over thirteen. This ride is also not safe for thirteen-year-olds."), but it's a pity that the volume is often too low to hear them properly. The music is joyous, fast-paced, and all around rad. Energetic guitar riffs and blissful synths can often be heard, but the tunes also venture into calming map screens and Sonic-Adventure-esque rock. The carefree powerpop theme song doesn't capture the excellence of the rest of the music (despite its admittedly endearing qualities), but the orchestrated version has appropriate grandeur and awesomeness. It's comes as no surprise that yet another Sonic game boasts an amazing soundtrack, but that doesn't take away the fact that Sonic Colors sounds as good as it looks.

And so this roller-coaster of a review finally comes to a close. There were plenty of ups and a few downs (the ranking system was especially terrifying), but nobody died and I certainly enjoyed myself. I'm also pleased to say that this Sonic game is fun, fast, funny, sharp, well-designed, and beautiful. It is delightfully devoid of anti-hero hedgehog clones with guns, stupid-big casts of unneeded characters, and glitches that haunt the souls of those who encounter them. It's not the very best platformer you'll find on the Wii (Super Mario Galaxy posing the main competition), but it's close to the top of the list. This is how Sonic the Hedgehog is meant to be played, so let's cross our fingers and hope that Sega continues to launch the beloved mascot into a future brighter than the extraterrestrial power-ups themselves.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

A Look to the Past: Games of the Years 2005 - Shadow of the Colossus


 Shadow of the Colossus (PS2)

"Here are beauties that pierce like swords and burn like cold iron."
-C.S. Lewis

When you start an entry with a quote like that, you know you're talking about a very special Game of the Year. You know you're talking about a game that transcends what, by all logic, a game should be. Indeed, without a doubt, you know you're talking about WWE Smackdown! vs. Raw. And it's a good thing this isn't a vlog, because I couldn't even type that with a straight face. Of course we're actually talking about Shadow of the Colossus, one of the most emotional and incredible games ever created. If somebody were to come up to me and say, "Emblem 180, video games are not art. You are silly to think that video games are art," I would hand him a copy of Shadow of the Colossus. If the cover art didn't win him over, I'd give him a PS2 and tell him to play the game. The words "epic" and "awesome" get thrown a lot these days ("Dude, that awesome can of Pepsi tasted EPIC!"), but Shadow of the Colossus earns the true meanings. You (the player) are tasked with defeating all sixteen Colossi in order to save a presumably dead girl dressed in white. The scale is earth-shaking yet the story is understated; I've never been more touched or awed by a game before. You travel the beautiful, desolate Forbidden Land with your loyal horse, slaying magnificent beast after beast, never quite assured that your actions are right. It's an unforgettable experience, laced with the smallest details and the largest vistas. There just aren't any other games like this (unless you count Team Ico's previous game); it forwent any tradition of genres and norms to craft its own truly unique adventure.

Nothing from 2005 stuck in my mind more than moments like these.

Luckily, Shadow of the Colossus isn't just an interactive art exhibit. The gameplay is excellent and filled with action-packed moments of battling colossal beasts and galloping across arid deserts. Some games tend to make the player feel like a near-invincible force to be reckoned with (like Halo) or a helpless and vulnerable victim (like Silent Hill), but Shadow of the Colossus manages to do both. One minute you're tripping over your own feet in an effort to escape your impending doom and the next second you're king of the world and slayer of giants. Tranquil and bombastic moments alike were memorable in their own ways; honestly, everything in Shadow of the Colossus was fantastic. Read my awesome review for all the epic details. I must admit to having never played some of the top games of 2005, such as Resident Evil 4 and God of War (have you picked up on the fact that I dislike large quantities of blood?), but even against the rest of the year's competition, Shadow of the Colossus looms over all. It's a shame that the top sellers from 2005 were largely dominated by sports games and titles with "Star Wars" on the box, but you know what? That's kind of good. Maybe it's for the best that Shadow of the Colossus stays out of pop culture's limelight and remains in the safe corridors of video gaming where it can be appreciated for its true worth. Sometimes a treasure is more valuable when nobody knows you have it.

Kirby's Epic Yarn

7.5 - [Great]

Gameplay: 7
Visuals: 9
Music: 8
Sound: 7
Value: 7

Publisher: Nintendo
Developer: Good-Feel
Multiplayer: Co-op
Console(s): Wii
Reviwed on: Wii
ESRB rating: E (Mild Cartoon Violence)
BMR rating: E (Mild Cartoon Violence)

Good points:

Fantastic and unique artistic style - Solid platforming - Smooth, well-implemented co-op - Creative levels with plenty of variety - Absolutely, positively impossible not to fall in love with

Not so good points:

A bit on the easy side - Extra content and collectables could be more interesting

The Kirby platformers have always been light, simple affairs with dreamlike worlds and cuddly characters. The pink puffball of a mascot hops along fluffy clouds, rides atop magic stars, and flutters through the air with his tiny arms. How could this series conceivably become even more adorable? If your answer was "Make everything out of yarn," then you're entirely correct. Kirby's Epic Yarn, as the title goes, takes you on a trip to Patch Land that is so lovable you won't be able to resist smiling the whole way through. Of course, Kirby begins his journey in familiar Dream Land where everything is going perfectly well. The peaceful day shatters, however, when Kirby swallows a seemingly innocent tomato that transports him to another world, courtesy of the diabolical magician Yin-Yarn. But that's more or less the extent of Kirby's trademark eating abilities, for the world of Patch Land is created solely from yarn and other patchwork material, including Kirby himself. It's terribly difficult to eat things when you have no stomach to speak of. Therefore he must resort to using a few new tricks to find his way back to Dream Land and topple Yin-Yarn's evil scheme. Luckily for the plucky hero, a fellow circle of yarn named Prince Fluff is willing to help take down the vile villain, which opens up space on the couch for another player. This doubles the fun to be had, and believe me, there's plenty of it to go around.

Epic Yarn's presentation is its greatest strength. The tale is unraveled in a storybook format by a narrator who does a great job at sounding like he really is reading a picture book to a small audience, complete with different voices for all the characters. The aww-inspiring cutscenes move the story along and provide a few chuckles along the way, making good use of the motif. Even more impressive is the consistent and utterly adorable art style that strings the plot together. Kirby and Fluff use their lasso-like bits of string to swing across buttons suspended in the air and splash into lakes that create the illusion of water with a single, rippling line of blue yarn. Backgrounds appear as images sewn together with all sorts of colorful fabrics, portraying locations like a wintry town tucked away in the quiet dusk, a lively beach with a bright cobalt sky, and a land of toys stocked with teddy bears and building blocks. Imaginative level design includes zippers that can be pulled to open new portions of the stage and holes in the wall that let the protagonists slip behind the backdrop and run to and fro, making spherical imprints beneath the fabric. Everything is bursting with life and emphasized by the silky smooth frame rate and amazing animations. Kirby and Fluff move about in an extremely endearing way, the former of who smiles happily through the entire adventure (unlike the oddly disgruntled Prince Fluff). All of this is complimented perfectly with a fantastic soundtrack featuring new and old songs alike. Some levels will employ a single piano, tapping out the melodies with an uncomplicated beauty, and others are highlighted with the gentle nostalgia of a music box. The remix of Green Greens from past Kirby games, on the other hand, utilizes not only a piano, but a recorder, a bell, a bass, and a harmonica to joyous effects. A whole range of other musical styles exist to liven up any level with a wonderful tune, many of them cheery and almost all of them excellent. Epic Yarn somehow manages to have umbrella-bearing Waddle Dees float through rainbows without talking down to the player; the game isn't sickeningly cute and its visuals can be enjoyed by anyone with an open mind and a toleration for yarn.

Admit it. You want to hug this screenshot.

But fear not, Epic Yarn does indeed have gameplay! It's a departure from Kirby's past expeditions, but that doesn't take away from the breezy, collection-based platforming fun found here. Still two dimensional and still relatively easy, this new installment robs Kirby of his flying and scarfing talents. Yes, chowing down on an enemy won't grant a special power, and a single hop (along with a floating option via a second button press) is all you'll get for air movement. But that doesn't mean Kirby won't be transforming: double tapping a direction will change him into a speedy automobile, which is useful for quick dashes and long jumps. The aforementioned floating move turns him into a parachute, which also comes in handy for tricky situations, and slamming to the ground by morphing into a weight rounds out his new move set. Special sequences will see the perky puffball changing into a variety of wild transformations, but let's not get ahead of ourselves here. Most of the time playing will be spent as regular old Kirby and his new friend Prince Fluff, which is where the co-op comes in. Although the game can be played with only one person, it's far more entertaining to leap around the always entertaining levels with a friend. The surprisingly versatile lassos can be used to do just about anything, from taking out enemies to activating switches to swinging across chasms. Foes can be unraveled and thus defeated outright or picked up to be throw at blocks or other enemies. Both Kirby and Fluff can also be used as projectiles, opening up a whole new world of teamwork and revenge. Aside from reaching the stage's end, collecting dozens upon dozens of beads will be your main concern. These shiny objects don't only determine your rank for a particular level, but can be used to purchase items from the local shop. Death isn't a problem-- in fact, it's apparently nonexistent in Patch Land. Instead, taking a blow from an aggressive minion or a sharp spike simply causes your chosen character to lose a mess of beads in a similar fashion to the recent Lego games. It's not particularly challenging, but this style of play fits like a glove for the carefree quest. That's not to say you can get lazy, though: if you don't watch your step you'll miss out on the best scores and gold medals, which in turn presents an enticing reason to revisit past levels.

Of course, glittering medals aren't the sole reason to replay Epic Yarn's well-designed stages. An expert amount of creativity and variety has been poured into each and every location, and it's a joy to explore the unreservedly charming landscapes. The core gameplay generally remains the same throughout each world, but you'll always be doing something different depending on the circumstance. Topsy-turvy gravity and musical instruments that react to every footfall are just a couple of the scenarios you'll run across, and the transformation scenes add even more spice to the experience. Kirby and Fluff will morph into UFOs, dolphins, tanks, and more, each providing its own control scheme and play style. It's great fun to discover how each of these forms tick, and they do wonders in giving the game a diverse mixture of things to do. Speaking of things to do, the hub world known as Quilty Square gives you some nice motivation to take a break from beating level after level. An apartment building comes stocked with empty rooms, one of which Kirby claims for his own. You can find objects within levels to place in the humble abode, and a nearby shop soon opens up for you to spend your beads on. Honestly, this whole setup is little more than a glorified sticker book, allowing you to put up wallpaper, lay out carpets, and stamp couches, fountains, coffee mugs, and a load of other items in the quaint room. Trying to collect all the collectables is a good extra bit of challenge, but there's nothing very enthralling about arranging the earned prizes. The other apartments will eventually become occupied if you can hunt down the necessary items to attract tenants, and doing so will open up mini-games from Kirby's new pals. These tasks occupy your time with hide-and-go-seek matches, races to collect enough beads in the time limit, and other such activities. While they make fine distractions, there isn't much meat to the side quests and they certainly don't hold the appeal of the main course. For even more collectathon goodness, soundtracks are hidden inside levels for the curious hunter to find, which can be listened to at your leisure. Taken as whole, the numerous activities in an already solid game add to the inherent value and make for a fuller product overall.

Kirby's hanging from that dinosaur by a thread! LITERALLY! BAAA HA HA HA HA!!!

Seven worlds, fifty levels, and a plethora of extras ensure that you'll have more than enough platformer goodness to tide you over until Nintendo's next home-run. Epic Yarn may be held back a little by its simplicity, both in difficulty and in features, but its shining quality and sheer dedication to fun more than makes up for the drawbacks. Good-Feel certainly created a game that lives up to their name, and in doing so brought a beloved character back to home consoles with resounding success. If you're looking for a platforming experience less demanding than something like Super Meat Boy and Limbo (especially if you have a second player along for the ride), Epic Yarn is wholeheartedly recommended. Playing it will put a smile on your face and make your spirits rise, all the while sweeping you through an amusing adventure of lighthearted delight. It's true that money can't buy happiness, but it most definitely can secure you a copy Kirby's Epic Yarn, which is close enough.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Trials HD

7.0 - [Great]

Gameplay: 7
Visuals: 8
Music: 5
Sound: 6
Value: 8

Good Points:

Radical, speedy tricks are a blast - Excellent visuals - Topping friends' and your own top scores keeps you playing - Comprehensive level creator - Extremely challenging

Not So Good Points:

A lack of friends means a lack of replay - Sharing custom tracks is only possible with said friends - Challenging to the point of wild frustration

Trials HD is sort of like a giant, elaborate, violent version of Excitebike. Just like the classic NES title, the player is given a motorbike and a bunch of courses on 2D planes with ramps and jumps. Controls are simple, mostly centering around tilting left and right to land tricky stunts without bailing out. This game, however, is insane. With increasingly difficult stages filled with deadly traps and delicate contraptions, it's no wonder how Trials HD earned its name. Simply staying on two wheels is enough to pose a decent challenge, but with entertainingly painful crashes, race times and leaderboards to top, creative mini-games, and a well-crafted stage creator, Trials HD offers much more than first meets the eye. But seriously, I'm not kidding: it's super, super hard.

Sure, things start out easy enough. A few little bumps and inclines might cause a newcomer to lose his balance, but it's mostly smooth sailing. There's a good sense of speed to the game, and landing a high-flying trick after a back-flip or two is supremely satisfying. Even when gravity does prevail, watching the helpless biker spring out of his seat, nail his head on a metal wall, bounce awkwardly off a wooden plank, and tumble into a pit of fire like a sack of potatoes is even more satisfying. These demonstration of unfortunate landings could barely be called failures, for they always play out differently and rarely disappoint. All the same, the game rewards you with bronze, silver, and gold medals for a good performance, recording your best time and letting you know what must be done to earn the next medal on the list. Seeing your friends' scores is an incentive just as tempting, and shaving off seconds to set the new record becomes the primary goal once the prizes have all been collected. This game of perfecting routines and zooming along momentum-heavy tracks gradually forces you to slow down and learn the all-important physics of the vehicles, and through the level sets of Beginner and Easy, this isn't much of a problem. Medium begins to pose more straining dilemma as it throws platforms and beams that take skills and precision to overcome. It soon becomes apparent that holding down the acceleration trigger and hoping for the best just won't cut it, but handful of attempts will usually yield victory, even if the liberal amount of checkpoints must be used a considerable number of times. And then... there's Hard.

Watch your head, there.

At this point the easy going days of Beginner have been long forgotten, replaced with devious stages that include horribly rocky terrain, unwieldy spheres that must be balanced upon, and even light puzzle solving. It's a good thing that checkpoints offer a quick, easy way of restarting after an accident. Pressing the back button will restart the entire course and tapping B will send you back to the most recent checkpoint (although the clock will keep ticking for the latter), both of which help immensely. Expect to do this many, many times as you fall down chasms, struggle up hills of junk, and generally wipe out a lot. The game very much becomes an uphill climb as the difficulty continues to rise, finally peaking with five Extreme levels that take the utmost concentration, skill, and mastery of all game mechanics to defeat. Nearly vertical walls and huge blocks that were clearly designed for anything but motorcycles taunt the poor biker as he flings himself time and time again against the immovable obstacles. The game kindly racks up the number of restarts on a given level; I believe my highest was somewhere around one-hundred-thirty. Trying to merely finish the levels becomes a maddening exercise in frustration and not everyone will appreciate such a daunting challenge. Nevertheless, Trials HD offers plenty to do whether one successfully masters all the difficulty levels or not.

There are a bunch of short challenges with goals such as flying through flaming hoops with a rocket-powered bike, staying upright inside a moving ball, and (my personal favorite) launching the rider off a cliff in order to break as many of his bones as possible. Like most the game, the fun in these sub-missions comes from trying to outdo friends and earn shiny medals, and the challenges are surprisingly diverse and enjoyable. There are also tournaments that string stages together for an ultimate high score contribute something else to do, basic as they are. But of much greater substance is the level creator, which comes in two flavors: simple and advanced. Hopping into the simple mode offers an uncomplicated experience of placing ramps and platforms all over the place, allowing someone with a casual interest in making his own track to throw something cool together. The advanced mode is far more... well... advanced, as it were. Imagine that. Triggers, extra modes, scenery, special effects, and a ton of other stuff can be tweaked and tampered with to create a complicated masterpiece. If the proper time was put into the level creator, some really rad things could come out of it; whether or not players have the patience to do so is up to them. The whole option is a solid, value-boosting addition, but sadly misses the boat on its true potential. For whatever reason, there's no way to let the world try out your creations since the game only allows you to share levels with friends. It's better than nothing, but unless you have a large team of talented pals who love Trials HD, you won't be downloading any tracks for yourself.

Yup. You have to climb that. On a small vehicle with two wheels. Without falling over. And that's one of the easy parts.

Regardless of your chosen activity, Trials HD is an excellent-looking game. Usually taking place inside a giant warehouse of some kind, it sports an industrial style with plenty of metal barrels, blazing fires, and wooden planks. The lighting is especially impressive, taking the visual spotlight when the motorbike's headlights illuminate dark passages and bounce around with the out-of-control vehicle. Even in the face of high speeds and large-scale explosions the frame-rate remains smooth, and the ragdoll effect that usually follows such explosions is amusingly limp. The random splashes of blood look jarring and unnatural, often occurring in situations that couldn't possibly contain bloodletting, but such a minor detail hardly impacts the overall presentation. The music won't blow you away with its repetitive guitar riffs and heavy-handed rock sound, but it fits the mood well enough. The yells, screams, and whimpers that the biker utters during an especially wild stunt or cringe-worthy landing are both annoying and comical at the same time, but the game is otherwise devoid of any voice acting or narrative.

It's an unforgiving package without a doubt. Mastering the later stages or advanced level creator isn't easy, and it doesn't help that the inherent frustrations of controller-tossing difficulty and the inability to share and receive levels with the general population puts a few bumps in the road of victory. But the core gameplay is dependable and fun, making it worthwhile regardless of these hurdles. When it comes down to it, your fortitude will determine your enjoyment with Trials HD, as playing the easy courses and laughing uproariously at your unlucky rider will only last so long. If you don't have any friends who own the game and you're not the type to invest lots of practice in order to triumph over mountains of flaming tires, you might want to think twice about purchasing this rigorous downloadable title. If you still aren't deterred, then by all means, buckle up, brace yourself, and submit yourself to the raucously entertaining torment of Trials HD.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

A Look to the Past: Games of the Years 2004 - World of Warcraft


World of Wacraft (PC)

Forget Game of the Year. Forget Game of the Decade. Forget... whatever would logically come next. World of Warcraft is Game of the Ever. When it comes to MMOs, I'm used to giving out unintended backhanded compliments:

"These are amazing graphics... for an MMO."
"This sound design is excellent... for an MMO."
"What a fantastic interface... for an MMO."

World of Warcraft simply had amazing graphics, excellent sound design, and a fantastic interface... yet was still an MMO. Breaking out of the contrived rut, this game threw away all the old junk from the genre while simultaneously keeping all the good bits. Just as impressive was the gold standard it set in the process, majorly influencing virtually every MMO to come after it. The brilliant quest feature kept players moving from activity to activity, always having something fun to do. Crafting allowed for harvesting, creating, selling, trading, and using items, which alone offered hours of enjoyment. Dungeons required teamwork to plunder and defeat, PvP pitted players against each other in war, and a wealth of other options were ready to be explored. Animal Crossing had too many features to reasonably list, and World of Warcraft had a hundredfold that amount. Whether you like to grind, role-play, join guilds, engage in PvP, or a little bit of everything, you'll find something fun to do in World of Warcraft. The really amazing thing is that all the previously mentioned elements were well-made and bursting with quality; there was a solid game supporting the many features. Combat was an exciting mix of tactical depth and action-oriented gameplay, making it a necessity to think ahead while leaping away from foes and dealing out damage. Your chosen class and race would have serious consequences in the heat of battle, of course, for a human mage would have a vastly difference experience than would a tauren hunter. This variety of combinations made an already enthralling game even more interesting, tempting the player to go back to level one and try out something completely different. This mentality of exploration was one of World of Warcraft's crowning achievements: it showed how a realm populated with hundreds of players at once could be engaging, beautiful, and filled with lore and personality.

One false step and that tauren will be flatter than a McDonald's hamburger.

Never before had a world felt so imaginative and inviting, drawing players into the land of Azeroth time and time again. It felt like a true extension of Warcraft III, as if the old RTS camera wouldn't stop zooming until it put you in the shoes of the hero. The icy slopes of Dun Morogh had a quiet, lonely chill; one could practically feel the hazy heat of the Barrens; the cozy human inns were comfortable and cheery. World of Warcraft's ambiance was phenomenal, and the fantastical art style made it all the better. The scale of mighty castles and soaring mountains was truly a sight to behold, and the rolling landscapes could be seen from atop a flying gryphon for a spectacular bird's eye view. From the dusty barrels of an undead town to trees towering high above in the elven forests, a dedicated art team made Azeroth a believable, magical place. The stylized detail ensures that World of Warcraft's visuals shine even now, because art never gets old. Musical themes that perfectly fit the varied races complemented each area with a subtle touch, and a well-established culture matched each race a unique mood. Whether you're walking the decaying halls of Lordaeron or fishing off the coast of Auberdine, It's amazingly easy to get lost in Blizzard's world and, admittedly, it's sometimes hard to come back out. Keep in mind that this is coming from someone who had never played nor cared about any Warcraft game in the past; I also disliked every one of the numerous MMOs I had sampled. Yet in a matter hours upon playing World of Wacraft I decided that I would put the money down for a subscription. Put simply, it's a brilliant game that basically does everything right, and there are very, very few games that can match such a feat. 2004 brought us Halo 2 (the game that virtually invented online multiplayer for consoles) and Burnout 3: Takedown (arguably the perfection of the Burnout series). However, despite these games and other accomplished titles, they just don't hold a candle to World of Warcraft (and in true Azerothian fashion, "You no take candle!")